“Damn you, Melanie!” I cursed and hit the steering wheel for good measure.
I trusted my friend and she draws a crazy map, one that led me right in the middle of—nowhere! And to make things worse, there were big rain clouds hovering over my little car, a car that wasn’t anything near to being a four-by-four, which was what I needed right now.
This getaway weekend with the girls had been something I’d been dreading. Melanie always came up with these great ideas that turned into disasters. Wasn’t it enough to just book a couple of hotel rooms in the city and get together with the four of us old friends? Why did we have to go on this wilderness adventure, especially since the last time I’d done anything like that was when I went camping with my folks when I was seven.
I pulled over to the side of the road and tried to make sense of Melanie’s map again. I’d been looking for the sign that said the town of Maxin was thirty miles away. I’d been driving for hours now, and I was getting farther away from any kind of civilization. I had to admit it: I was lost.
I really did like getting together with my old college friends. But for once I wish someone would outvote Melanie and pick a more normal place for our semi-annual get-togethers. I mean, the last one had been whale-watching. I’ve got nothing against whales and I enjoy nature, but I spent every day of that trip throwing up over the edge of the boat. If there were any whales out there, I didn’t see any—and I’m sure they didn’t want to see me.
Still, the others seemed to love those trips, so I didn’t want to rain on their parade.
Speaking of rain, the skies were just now opening up. A misty, dull day was now a rainy day, and quickly becoming a torrent. I could hardly see a few feet ahead of me on the road. What now? Where was that knight on a white charger when you needed him?
Hah! My life had been totally knight-free for a year. I’d been hoping to confide in my friends and get some serious dating tips.
The thunder cracked overhead, making me jump. I hoped that wasn’t a message from above telling me how futile my search was, for both this retreat in the woods and my imaginary lover.
I crumpled the map, threw it into the backseat, and tried my cell phone, but the mountains interfered with the reception. I was on my own.
I could try to crawl ahead and maybe reach a town—if there were any nearby. The girls would be waiting for me in that wilderness retreat, a collection of cabins along a lake where people booked time away from the world. I hoped they wouldn’t worry about me, because it looked like the best I could do was to find a place off the road and sleep in the car for the night. It was getting dark.
I inched the car along until I came to a rickety wooden bridge over a fast-moving stream. It seemed to be rising faster as I watched. I parked the car and waited, though for what, I don’t know.
The tap on my window was so unexpected that I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t seen another vehicle for about an hour.
“Lady, you can’t stay here,” the man said.
He was soaked. He looked to be in his early forties and had the kind of face that always seemed to be an inch away from a big smile. I decided to trust him.
“I think I’m lost. Do you know where the Little Corners Retreat is?”
He scratched his head. “I think so. You’re way off, though. You’d have to turn back and go another hour or so.”
“I’m not going anywhere now.” I wasn’t a very good driver, and my vision wasn’t the greatest at night. “I think I’ll stay right here until the morning.”
“I don’t know about that, lady. We’re in for a ton of rain. If this bridge gives out . . .”
“Then what am I supposed to do?” I asked testily.
“Why not follow me up to our camp?”
“Your—camp?” I repeated, not really understanding.
He hesitated for a moment, then got back in his truck. I guess I was supposed to follow him.
To where? What camp? Was I better off just spending the night at the side of the road? He said “our” camp. Maybe his family’s?
He drove slowly so I could follow. His truck crossed the ancient bridge and I felt it rumble as I followed. The water had risen to an alarming height in just the time it took for us to talk.
Suddenly I could feel the whole bridge shaking. I closed my eyes and gunned the accelerator. Just as the tires hit the muddy road on the other side, I could hear something falling, crashing. Up ahead, my rescuer had stopped his truck. I stopped, too. He got out.
“You’ve got to be the luckiest woman on the face of the earth,” he said when I’d rolled down my window.
“What do you mean—oh, my God!”
I looked behind me. The old bridge was gone. I got out of the car and stared at the empty space I’d just driven over. There was nothing now but the remains of old timbers falling into the rushing water. Two seconds later and I would have been dead.
I started to shake. The man held me and hugged me tightly for a full minute.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asked finally.
“I think so. What’s your name?”
“Well, now you don’t have any choice but to go to our camp, Jill. We could sure use the company. Hey, why don’t you just leave your car here, and I’ll drive you the rest of the way? It’s kind of rough for a little car like this.”
Hansen waited while I took my small suitcase out of the trunk, which he put in the back of his truck. Strangely, I didn’t feel afraid of him. Maybe it was the way he’d comforted me after seeing the bridge collapse.
Hansen really seemed like a nice guy. He was a little too old for me, maybe in his early forties. We didn’t say much as he drove, but then he began to talk. I hardly listened. What can you say to a stranger who’d almost lost her life? I wondered if I would have tried to cross the bridge on my own. What if, what if? All I knew was that I was alive and feeling very grateful. So maybe I was stranded with this stranger. What did that matter?
Slowly I began to concentrate on what he was saying. He was mentioning quite a few men, but so far I hadn’t heard him mention even one woman.
“What kind of a camp is this, Hansen?” I asked.
“It’s kind of like a construction camp.”
“And there are . . . how many men there?”
“There’s the five of us right now. Sometimes there’s seven, but two of the lucky ones are on rotation. That means they’re home right now. Unfortunately, one of them is the cook, so we have to make do with our not-so-great cooking skills. Damn! I hope they can put up a temporary bridge. It’s been six solid months since the rest of us have been home.”
Things were slowly starting to make sense to me. I was headed for some kind of a construction camp where five men hadn’t been home in six months. Besides that, it looked like I was stranded here with them. To any of my female friends, that might have been a dream come true—but not to me. I was hungry, tired, and I’d just had the scare of my life.
Hansen was a charmer. He had a sweet, shy way about him that made me forget he was too old for me. I began to warm up to him and to accept the situation. After all, none of this was his fault. He couldn’t have predicted the bridge washing out just as I was driving on it.
I took a deep breath. It was a good thing that I was with Hansen and not trying to follow in my car. The rain was pouring down now and I couldn’t see a thing. This man must have had a sixth sense about where he was going, especially because the road had turned into a mud trail.
“How much farther?” I asked finally.
“We’re almost there. I sure hope someone put some supper together. I’m starving.”
I was surprised to find that I was, too. The last thing I’d eaten was a greasy breakfast at a diner along the highway, and that had been hours ago.
“Here we are. Home sweet home,” he said with a smile.
I looked around. All I could make out through the sheets of rain was a collection of white construction trailers.
“I’ll take you to the dining room,” he said. “That’s where we hang out. Not much to do up here after work, especially when it rains.”
Hansen got out and took my suitcase from the back. I followed him slowly. I’d gotten used to him during the drive, but I felt a little intimated about meeting four other strangers.
“Come on. They won’t bite,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Unless you ask them to.”
It took me a few moments to figure that one out. Then I remembered what he’d said about none of them being home for six months. I couldn’t imagine that any girlfriends had made it up there in the middle of nowhere, so that meant . . .
I’m walking into a camp where five men haven’t seen a woman in six months. Oh, my friends are going to love this one!
But then I walked into the “dining room,” which was just a big trailer, and came face-to-face with the others. Two guys were sitting at the big table, playing cards. A solitary man was reading in a corner, while still another was doing some kind of paperwork. When they saw me, they all stood up, as if on cue. I must have looked like a drowned rat.
I’d always been shy. Once I finished college and started my career, I was able to do all right with people. However, social situations still made me nervous. Determined, I approached the first two men and stuck out my hand.
“Hello. I’m Jill Robinson. I guess I’ll be staying for a little while, since I’m stranded.”
“Stranded?” the two asked in unison. Then they looked at Hansen.
“The bridge washed out. Jill just barely got across. We left her car near there and came up in the truck.”
“The bridge is gone? Oh, that’s great, just great!” The man who’d been doing the paperwork came over to us.
I sensed immediately that he was the boss. He looked me up and down as though I was a fly that had just crossed his path. He turned back at Hansen.
“I was just talking to the police in Stanley. The whole town is flooded. Who knows when it’ll stop, too. They have their hands full, evacuating people. We’ll be pretty low on their list of priorities right now, since we’re not in danger and are self-sufficient with food and water. So, Miss—Robinson, is it? You might be staying with us for longer than you think.”
From the sound of his voice, that was the last thing he wanted.
“I forgot the introductions,” Hansen said. “Jill, this is Chad Morgan, our supervisor. Mark, Alex, and Pete. Now you know everyone.”
I heard the other names, but my gaze was still locked with Chad’s. It was as though he blamed me for getting stranded there and disrupting his plans.
“I’ll try to stay out of everyone’s way,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll make sure of that,” Chad huffed.
I had the urge to kick him in the shins. Hansen gave a theatrical little cough and tried to hide a smile behind his hand, but I didn’t find his boss amusing at all. I thought he was extremely rude and thoughtless. Hadn’t he heard Hansen say that I’d almost been swept away by that flood back there?
“All right, then. Let’s get you settled in,” Chad said, picking up my luggage and walking out the door. I had to trot to keep up with him.
“Come back in a little while for supper, Jill,” Hansen called out. “We’ll be waiting for you.”
At least the others in the camp seemed happy to have a woman in their company! I followed Chad out into the soggy yard. We walked until we got to the smallest trailer, situated slightly away from the others. He pushed open the door and didn’t wait for me to follow.
It was a typical man’s environment. The hallway was littered with rope and equipment that I didn’t recognize.
“I really don’t want to be a problem,” I told him.
“Beautiful women are always a problem. Damn! Why did this have to happen right now?”
“The flood . . . or me coming here?” I was a little stunned by his comment about beautiful women. He couldn’t be talking about me, surely?
“I don’t think you want me to answer that, Miss Robinson. Here’s where you’ll be staying. The bathroom’s just down the hall. Nothing fancy.”
Chad left the trailer and I spent a few minutes getting washed up. But I was really hungry, so I made my way back to the dining room trailer.
The others were just about to sit down to eat. I looked around and was relieved to see that Chad wasn’t there.
We were having a great time, me and the four men. They had fried steaks and made garlic bread for supper. I was telling them about my college friends and some of the crazy reunion trips we’d gone on, just as Chad came back. He gave me an icy stare and walked on past us to the desk in the corner, ignoring all of us.
“I’ll fix him a plate,” Hansen said quietly as the others began to talk again. “Otherwise he won’t eat.”
It seemed that the men respected Chad, though my brief experience with him was less than favorable. Still, I was the interloper there. I’m sure I must have put his schedule off by being there, whatever it was they did in that camp in the middle of the wilderness.
After supper everyone except Alex and myself left the dining trailer. I was helping him wash the dishes when he commented that I must be special to be staying in the “Hilton”, which is what they called Chad’s little trailer.
“Yes, it’s really nice of you all to make me feel at home. I feel guilty, though, staying there all by myself, when I know the rest of you have to share.”
“Oh, you aren’t by yourself. Didn’t Chad tell you? That’s his trailer you’re staying in.”
I almost dropped the plate in my hands. Chad’s trailer? Now, why on earth would he have put me up in his own trailer, when it was obvious he could barely stand the sight of me?
Maybe he doesn’t trust me. Maybe he thinks I came here to sleep with all of his men.
I had to smile at that one. Later, when I was back in my bedroom in the trailer, I wondered what Chad would do if he arrived there and found me gone. Would he check all the men’s quarters to make sure I hadn’t slipped into someone’s bed? But he didn’t come back until early the next morning.
When I went to the dining trailer for breakfast, Pete and Alex were just leaving for the construction site and Mark was finishing his plate of eggs and bacon. Hansen was the temporary cook.
“Is there anything I can do for you today?” I asked. “I mean, I’ve got nothing to do except read a book I brought with me. How about if I make lunch?”
“Sure—thanks for the offer,” Hansen said. “If you can make any sense of where Cook puts things. He’s even got recipe books, but I don’t think he’s ever used them. We just make good, plain food up here.”
“I’ll do my best,” I promised, happy to be able to earn my keep. “Any word about the flood?”
“Not much. The water’s still rising slightly. Fortunately, it hasn’t affected the work we do here too much, but it means you’ll be stuck here a few more days.”
“No hardship on us,” Mark piped up, bringing his plate to the sink. “We’d keep you here forever if we could, Jill.”
Mark was a charmer. He was about my age, maybe a little younger. I smiled at him.
“Miss Robinson, if you’re quite finished with your breakfast, I’d like a word with you.”
The imperative voice behind me nearly made me jump out of my skin. I whirled around and came face-to-face with Boss Man Chad. Why did I feel like a schoolgirl who’d been caught kissing a boy?
“Of course. Whenever you’re ready.” I smiled at Hansen, who was finishing with the dishes and followed Chad outside.
He watched as Mark climbed into the truck that would take the men to their construction site. Chad waited in silence as the men shouted funny farewells to me. I laughed and waved back.
“It wouldn’t be too good for you to get too friendly with any of the men, Miss Robinson.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes—call me Jill!” I said impatiently.
“Don’t change the subject. I’ve got a great team here. We work well together and we get things done. I’ve been in places where women and men were hired to work together in isolated places. In my experience, it just doesn’t work.”
“You seem to have a short memory. I’m not here by choice. The first chance I get, I’m leaving.”
“That will be fine with me,” he said stiffly.
I stomped off, back toward the dining trailer. Hansen was still there. He had told me that he was scheduled to travel to a different part of the site that day, so he couldn’t go with the others. I was glad he still hadn’t left. I needed someone to complain to.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“It’s Chad. That man is so rude! Or is he just the world’s biggest male chauvinist?”
Hansen laughed. “He’s kind of bitter since his divorce. It shows, huh?”
“He has no manners whatsoever. I mean, the rest of you guys have treated me with respect and kindness. But not him.”
“I wouldn’t be too hard on him. Chad’s a great guy, a good boss. It’s just that we’ve had some problems on this site.”
“Problems? What problems?”
He looked uncomfortable as he packed his equipment bags. He didn’t speak for a few moments, and when he did I could tell he was choosing his words carefully.
“Last week we had some environmental activists snooping around. It took awhile to convince them to leave.”
“Hansen, isn’t it time you left for the north quarter?”
That voice! It was Chad again, sneaking up on us. How much had he heard?
Hansen left quickly, after flashing me an apologetic smile. I think he sensed that I’d be the brunt of Chad’s anger.
“What is it that you do here?” I asked Chad when Hansen had left. “Why the big mystery?”
He towered over me. I hadn’t realized just how tall he was—or how big those muscles in his arms were—until now. Was he trying to intimidate me?
“Are you really who you say you are, Jill Robinson?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are you just someone who got lost on her way to a rendezvous with her old college girlfriends?”
So he had been listening to my conversation with the guys.
“Of course I am! Remember, I asked you to try to contact them for me if you could, to let them know I was all right?”
“So you did.” He seemed deep in thought. Then, suddenly, he grabbed my hand and pulled me outside.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You wanted to know what it is we do here. I’m going to show you.”
We got into a pickup truck that must have been his own, since there wasn’t a company logo on the door like the other ones.
“I—I promised to make lunch for the guys,” I told him as we took off.
“I’ll get you back long before that.”
We drove for about twenty minutes. Up ahead I could see the other men working, walking up and down the side of a steep hill. They stopped and waved at us for a moment. Chad and I waved back.
“But they’re—they’re wearing masks,” I said. “Chad, what’s going on?”
“I don’t want to take you too close. You don’t have the proper breathing equipment or suit. Besides, it’s too dangerous for an outsider.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My company is here to do an environmental cleanup, Jill.”
“So that’s the reason for all the secrecy,” I said.
“Yes. We’ve been hired to clean up the mess of an old refinery that used to be here. Then, later, it was the site of a chemical processing plant.”
“Out here? Way out in the middle of nowhere?”
“Where better to have one?” he said, laughing cynically. “Up until the seventies, companies got away with this sort of thing all the time.”
“But this must be so dangerous—to work here, I mean.”
“Yes, it is. That’s why we get paid so well to do it. It’s necessary work. Would you rather this poison was just left in the ground?”
“But the men. Is this going to damage their health?”
“You care about them, don’t you? We take all the proper precautions. I don’t spare any money when it comes to the safety of my workers.” He sounded hurt by my implication.
“I didn’t mean it that way. I mean, you’re just as much at risk as anyone.” I put my hand on his arm. “And to think that people think of this as pristine wilderness. . . . ”
“It will be that again. You’ll see. That’s my job,” he said. “I’m trusting you with this, Jill. My company needs this contract, and part of it is making sure that this information doesn’t leak to the press. I sure hope you’re not some big-city reporter in disguise.”
I laughed outright at that one. “Who? Me? I barely passed English in school.”
He smiled then. We drove back in companionable silence. I was changing my opinion of Mr. Chad Morgan. He cared about his workers, and he was starting to trust me. In turn, I felt myself softening a little toward him.
“Happy cooking,” he said as he dropped me off back at the dining trailer. I waved as he drove on out of sight, back toward the site of that chemical dump.
I was kind of disappointed when he didn’t show up for lunch. The others did, though, and they tore into my pathetic attempts at baking. I’d made biscuits with sausages and even baked a cake for dessert.
“Step aside, men. I’m going to marry this woman!” Mark said when he saw the spread on the table. He lifted me off my feet.
The others joined in, joking that they were going to keep me there forever if I was going to cook like that. I felt happy to be with them. They didn’t leave one crumb on their plates. After dinner, Pete and Alex volunteered to do the dishes.
Still, the place felt empty without Chad. Hansen had told me he hadn’t been eating properly. The stress of the environmental activists showing up, I guess.
Later in the afternoon, when I was planning supper, Chad came in. He looked exhausted.
“Sit down,” I urged him. “Have something to eat. There’s still some left over from lunch.”
I was hoping that he wasn’t regretting showing me the cleanup site. I wanted to tell him that he really could trust me.
“This is great. Where did you learn to cook like this?” he asked, surprised.
“I’m not just a pretty face,” I joked. “Who do you think does the cooking at my place? The maid?”
I sat down and had a cup of coffee while he dug into the food.
“I’m trying to think of what to make for supper,” I said.
“Listen, Jill, you don’t have to do this. You’re a guest here. We should be catering to you, instead of the other way around. Don’t spoil these guys.”
“I like spoiling them.”
A frown came over his face. We sat in silence for a few moments. “Chad, why did you put me up in your trailer?” I asked then. “The cook’s room is just off the kitchen here. I could have slept there.”
“So I could keep an eye on you,” he said quietly.
So he did think I couldn’t be trusted around the men!
“Well, that’s hardly flattering,” I said. “Did you think I was going to come on to them all?”
“I did it for your own safety. Jill, these men haven’t had leave for a long time. They haven’t been around a woman in six months.”
“Well, neither have you.”
I remembered Hansen telling me about Chad’s divorce. It must have been painful. What divorce wasn’t? I wanted to console him, but I didn’t even know him. I tried to remember what it was we’d been talking about.
“You’re staying in my trailer, and that’s final, Jill,” Chad said.
I stared at the door after he left. I would’ve given a hundred dollars right then to know what was on his mind.
I made supper that night, but again Chad wasn’t around. I put a plate of food in the fridge with a note for him. Now I was starting to feel like Hansen, looking after him.
I didn’t allow myself to fall asleep that night until I heard Chad come in. Was it my imagination, or did his footsteps linger for a moment by my door? In any case, I fell asleep right after that.
But not for long. In my dreams, I was back in my car again, crossing that bridge—only this time I didn’t make it to the other side. I felt the car falling into the raging current. I could feel the ice-cold water around my neck. I woke up in a cold sweat.
The light came on in the hallway, and I could see the figure of a man at my door. I almost screamed. Then I remembered where I was, and why.
“Are you all right, Jill? I heard you cry out.”
“A—a nightmare. I’ll be all right.”
Chad hesitated, then came into the room. He knelt down beside the bed. “What was it about?”
“The washout. Only in my dream, I wasn’t so lucky.”
Call it delayed shock or whatever, but I began to shake and couldn’t stop. I felt cold and frightened.
“Do you want me to turn on the light?” he asked.
“No, no, don’t do that. Just—just . . . I’ll be fine in a minute.”
“You’re shaking like a leaf. Something tells me that Hansen didn’t tell us exactly how close a call that was for you on that bridge.”
“I didn’t want anyone to make a big deal about it.”
“But it was a big deal. You almost drowned.”
Then he wrapped me in an embrace. I was shocked. Chad had seemed so distant and in control of his emotions. And now—this. I didn’t know how to react.
So I just relaxed against him. In a few moments he got up and left the room.
But the hug was just what I’d needed. I turned over and slept like a baby for the rest of the night. I’m sure there was even a little smile on my face.
The next morning I noticed something strange about the men. Instead of their gentle flirting and joking, they seemed to be giving me a wide berth. Talk was about the weather and other neutral subjects. I wondered if I’d said or done something to offend them.
“What’s the matter? You guys don’t like the way I make your eggs?” I teased.
They didn’t respond; they only gave each other funny looks.
Chad came in just as they were getting ready to leave. Once the other four had left for the cleanup site, I plunked a plate of eggs and hash browns down in front of him.
“What’s going on with the guys? They treated me like Typhoid Mary just now.”
He didn’t say anything at first. I poured coffee for both of us and sat down.
“Jill, you remember I told you that it wouldn’t be in your best interest to get too friendly with the men, considering the circumstances?”
“Yes.” It was like the intimacy of the night before had never happened.
“Well, for your own protection, I’ve told them to keep their distance. You’re a guest here. It wouldn’t do to give them any ideas, especially since we don’t know how long you’ll be staying with us.”
“I get the feeling that you’re not telling me everything,” I said.
“You’re right. They weren’t convinced that you felt that way. Like I said, they haven’t been around a woman for a long time. A couple of them wanted to get to know you better—a lot better.”
My face must have turned red but my voice was calm. “So? Maybe that’s all right with me.”
“Well, that’s not all right by me, Jill, and if you were thinking, you’d agree. I have a camp to run here. I can’t have my men thinking about you day and night, maybe making some stupid mistake out there on that dangerous site . . .”
“Chad, what is it you’re trying so hard not to tell me?”
“I told them the only thing I could think of to keep them away from you: I told them that we were sleeping together.”
My fist came up to hit him. That shocked me because I’d never hit anyone in my life. I stopped just in time, but he could see what I’d been about to do. I rushed to my feet, ready for verbal battle.
“Why would you tell them something like that? They’re not raving dogs, for crying out loud. No one’s even made a pass at me.”
“What’s the matter, Jill? Are you disappointed that no one’s tried anything yet?”
I did hit him then. It was a feeble attempt to hurt him. It didn’t happen like a scene in the movies, either. Instead of a nice slap, I hit his jaw with my fist and nearly broke my fingers. Chad stepped back in shock. Then, to my surprise, he started laughing.
“Hey, not bad! Where’d you learn to punch like that?” He moved his jaw to check for damage.
I was still furious. I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him.
“All right, maybe I deserved that,” he said with a big grin on his face.
“Maybe? You damned well did deserve it!”
He stood there laughing at me and nursing his jaw. “Anyway, Jill, the damage is done. They think we’re an item. It’s perfect. No one will approach you now—and I’ll have peace in my little camp.”
The man sounded so pleased with himself that I wanted to smack him again. I would have, too, if my hand didn’t hurt so much.
As I watched him strut out of the trailer, I had a childish urge to throw something at his back. How could one male be so smug?
It burned me, and not just because I was enjoying the harmless flirting with the other men. It bothered me that Chad would take it upon himself to tell them that we were sleeping together. I wondered what they’d been thinking about me. Of course, it only added to Chad’s reputation, but it did nothing for my own. I was starting to get a little interested in Mark, the funny one of the group, and maybe Alex, the quiet one. But Chad Morgan had just put a damper on any romantic plans I might have had.
Not that I’d ever sleep with any of them under these circumstances. But it was an ideal situation to meet men. I didn’t have any competition, after all.
But Chad had gone and told them, basically, that I was his “property”. I couldn’t face the men for the rest of the day. I made up meals for them and left them in the fridge. I spent the rest of the day taking a walk and later reading my book. How was I ever going to talk to them again?
“All right, Jill. What’s the problem?” Chad asked later that evening. “Are you sick? Why haven’t you shown up for lunch or supper?”
“You know why, Mr. Boss Man. Every man in this camp thinks I’m you’re . . .”
“Would that be so bad, Jill?”
I put my book down and put up a hand to ward him off, but it was too late. Chad kissed me then. Of all the men in camp who might have kissed me, why did it have to be him? We didn’t like each other. Or did we? By the way he was concentrating on the kiss, his lips moving slowly—way too slow for me—over mine, you’d think we’d been lovers forever. And I liked the way he kissed, so slow and so delicious. This was the kiss of a lifetime.
“What do you think of me now, Jill?”
“I think that maybe we should be sleeping together.”
How had that come out so wrong? He laughed.
“I think that . . . maybe we should,” he said, mimicking me.
It was a night that I wouldn’t forget for a long time. Chad was an incredible lover. He had stamina and incredible patience, and neither one of us got any sleep at all. Much later, as the first rays of dawn crept into my room, I wondered who came up with the term “sleeping together.” They just didn’t get the point at all.
Chad opened his eyes and groaned. “I’ve got to get to the site early this morning,” he said. He got out of my bed and started putting his clothes on.
He turned back to look at me, a wicked smile on his face. “I don’t think you’re thinking about food right now, are you, Jill?”
Hardly. Not when I could see that perfectly shaped male butt disappearing into his work clothes. I could hardly breathe.
Still, our relationship—if you could call it that—was too new, too fragile for much joking. I felt my face grow warm, but I didn’t say anything.
“I really do have to go. But I’ll remember you like this, waiting for me in your bed, every moment that I’m out there. And when I come back . . .”
“Just get your work done fast,” I said, surprising myself.
Chad laughed, that deep sound that turned me on.
It was hard to concentrate that day. Chad had said he wouldn’t be back for lunch. I was a bundle of nerves all day. The guys noticed it at lunch.
“Are you all right, Jill?” Hansen asked.
“I’m fine,” I said, after dropping about the tenth item that day.
“You seem a little tense.”
“No, really, I’m fine.” Then I remembered that the whole group thought I was sleeping with Chad. Well, now it was true.
I didn’t know what I was going to do about it. I mean, one night of incredible sex still wasn’t the basis of a relationship, in my opinion. It was too soon. Chad and I had gone from being at each other’s throats to being in bed together in just one day.
When the phone rang, Hansen went to check on it. He was talking to someone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Then he turned to all of us and gave a whoop of joy.
“The flooding has stopped! We should have some contact with the outside world in a day or less!”
The men cheered. It had been a long time coming for them. As soon as they could drive out, they’d be able to take a much-needed break.
“Oh, and Jill. The sheriff has someone in town who wants to talk to you,” Hansen told me.
It was Melanie. My friends had been anxiously waiting at the retreat. Chad had gotten through with the message that I was safe, but they were still beside themselves worrying about me.
If this had all happened even yesterday, I would have been thrilled to get out of this camp and away from Chad. But today I wasn’t so sure. I’d be leaving and who knew if we’d ever see each other again?
It was after supper when I went back to the trailer to read my book. Chad hadn’t shown up all day. Hansen said not to worry, that he’d spotted him just north of the cleanup site doing some work. He explained that Chad often got so caught up in his work that he forgot about eating.
Suddenly, my door burst open. Chad walked in, looking angry enough to hit something.
“Chad! What’s wrong?”
“You tell me, Jill. Yes, go ahead and tell me what you’ve been up to while all of us were up at the site.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chad.”
“I think you do!”
“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Don’t you? Then how did the media get their hands on the confidential information and reports that I keep in my room here? Now it’s all over the news that we’re doing a secret cleanup here. They have details that came from my own reports to the company. And you had access to those reports! Damn, you probably even used my own fax machine to send them!”
I could only sit there and stare at him. What was he talking about?
“And last night. Was that part of your whole package to deceive me, Jill? Sleep with the guy, really gain his trust? Or did you just do that out of guilt?”
In the movies, that would have been the ideal moment for the heroine to slap the hero. I went for his face, but he just caught my flailing arms and pulled them to my sides.
“And to think,” he said, his voice full of self-disgust, “I was starting to really feel something for a woman for the first time in years.”
He let me go and started to leave. Then he stopped at the doorway. “Get your things together, Jill. The rescue crew should be here in a few hours. I never want to see you again.”
I was left staring, trying to piece together what had just happened, and wondering how I was going to fix this newest hole in my heart.
Things happened pretty fast after that. The rescuers got through with their temporary bridge. The men in our camp were so excited about leaving for home. Melanie and my other friends were there, ready to whisk me off to the retreat that I’d missed.
And there were reporters, too. They were full of questions for anyone who would talk to them. I had one last look at Chad as he tried to avoid them.
“Come on, Jill, let’s get out of here!” Melanie said.
I looked back over my shoulder, but I didn’t see him again. So this was how it would end. I didn’t really have to hold back the tears. Melanie and the others would just think that I was happy to see them and be out of there.
My old life seemed pretty dull after that. I went home and found my apartment just as I’d left it, except for a layer of dust. I tried to get back into my job and my previous social life.
But at night I would dream about the time I’d spent with Chad. How could one perfect night end so badly? We never even had a chance, the two of us.
I tried not to think of the things he’d accused me of. Now and then I watched the news reports on television focusing on the company that Chad’s company had worked for. They had to admit the near-environmental disaster. No one ever said anything about Chad or the work the men had been doing up there to fix things before it got so out of hand.
And he blamed me for all of that. I don’t know who betrayed him to the press, and at this point I didn’t really want to know. All I knew was that it wasn’t me.
Trust. Wasn’t that what a relationship had to be built on? So he never knew me well enough to trust me. I should forget all about getting lost and ending up in a camp full of men. But somehow, I couldn’t.
Chad’s face would come to mind in the strangest of places—when I was driving to work, even when I was walking in the rain. Anything and everything seemed to remind me of him.
Then, one night. I was watching the news and something caught my eye.
“This just in. Charles Vemen, the former cook at the Jace Company’s environmental cleanup camp, has just been named as the media leak of confidential details about the site . . .”
I recognized the name of the company that Chad’s company worked for. Jace. Yes, that was it. And the cook had been accused of leaking the information. So that meant—
That meant that by now, Chad would know that I wasn’t the one who’d betrayed his trust. It felt good, but not much. He’d jumped to a lot of conclusions.
At least now he had to know the truth. I had slept with him because I’d wanted to, for no other reason. I wasn’t the kind of person to betray those men, especially since they’d been so kind to me. I hoped that Chad Morgan was burning up with guilt right then.
But he probably wasn’t. He was likely on some other isolated site by now, thinking about how nice it was not to have to deal with women again.
I had him figured out, finally. He’d been divorced for a couple of years, from what Hansen had said. Since then he’d taken on these jobs that kept him away from women—until I came along and messed up his plans.
Well, now he could go back into hibernation. But it was a damned shame, really. He was the best lover I’d ever had.
One day I was just leaving my apartment to pick up a latte before work. I only got a few steps onto the sidewalk when a big man stepped in my path.
“How did you—why are you here?” I asked, stumbling over my words in my shock.
Chad just stood there a few moments, looking deep into my eyes until I could feel the heat build up under my light jacket. Lord, the man could melt me with just a stare.
“Chad, whatever you want—it’s over. It never really started, can’t you see that? You don’t trust me. I don’t think you can trust any woman. It just wouldn’t wor—”
He stopped my words with his lips. Right there, in the middle of Main Street. And that kiss felt like coming home after a long, long time. It felt like heaven.
“Don’t do this to me, Chad,” I whispered when he finally broke away.
“Don’t do this to you? Jill, do you know how much sleep I’ve gotten in the past two months since you’ve been out of my life? I need to hold you again. I’m tormented with the thought that you’re still having those nightmares . . . and if there’s someone holding you until they go away.”
I looked up into his eyes. He was jealous.
“How do you really know it wasn’t me who ratted on your operation to the media? Maybe the cook was wrongly accused,” I told him.
“No way. He confessed. He was paid by a tabloid. Then the rest of the media caught on to the story. He had plenty of time to go through my documents when we were all out on the site. As soon as he went on leave he called that newspaper. Don’t try to get my mind off you, Jill, because it just won’t work.”
“I’m sorry, Jill. I’m so sorry that I accused you of those things. Now please forgive me so we can get on with more pleasant things.”
“I love to see a man beg,” I said, laughing. “All right. You’re forgiven. Now I have to go to work.”
“No way, lady,” he said, taking my arm and steering me back towards my apartment. “I didn’t spend all this time and effort tracking you down for nothing. First, we’re going to start with some serious sex. Next, you and I are going to talk about the future. Not necessarily in that order.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I practically dragged him up the steps to my place, my heart fully mended and ready to take on the world.