Jareth curled his hands around the white-speckled blue metal mug. Heat from the coffee inside soothed the chill of his fingers. He’d ditched the muddy gloves as soon as they’d finished the cattle drive. His breath puffed and mixed with the steam curling from his cup.
His cousins circled around the fire, starting to his left. A gap between him and his oldest cousin, Nate, gave the shape a more horse-shoe contour than a circle.
Heavy clouds had been shifting and looming all day, threatening the region with more snow and damning winds.
Shifting on the log they used as a makeshift bench, Jareth stared into the flickering fire. The long days and weeks working the ranch blended together. He yawned. He couldn’t remember being anything but bone-tired.
“Dinner’s almost ready.” The ranch foreman bellowed from the open flaps of the main tent. The scent of chili and cornbread rode the wind to where they sat, huddled in their dusters with rolled up collars and cowboy hat brims tilted for more protection from the cold.
“Finally.” Jareth muttered, climbing to his feet. His stomach better stop revolting. He swayed as if the wind tugged at him.
Reaching out, Nate caught his elbow, tilting his head as he inspected Jareth. He leaned over Jareth’s mug and sniffed. “You sure that’s only coffee in there, Jay?”
Jareth rolled his eyes and scoffed. “Of course, I’m sure.” He couldn’t warm up with just coffee. He couldn’t warm up ever. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish there was something more colorful in here, but you heard ol’ Riggins. No liquor on the job.” He’d already gotten in trouble for drinking and messing around at the last ranch. Caught a lot of flak from the rest of the gang about it, too.
Sorry bunch of control freaks – the lot of ‘em.
“Hey, Nate! I’m surprised you haven’t rushed home to Emma.” Kyle, Jareth’s brother, wiggled his eyebrows.
“I’m heading that way after we get paid in the morning.” Nate released Jareth and grabbed Kyle around the shoulders, half-wrestling him as their feet scuffled across the snowy dirt clearing.
Not Jareth. He wasn’t heading home. Not for a while. He’d send the majority of his money home with Kyle, but he didn’t want to deal with his parents yet. “Do you mind, if I come with you for a few days?” Hopefully, his tone wasn’t too plaintive, too desperate to get away from his overly grateful parents and down-on-his-luck dad.
“Of course not. I’m leaving first thing though.” Nate’s home was always open, especially since he and Emma had gotten married. The two were more like parents to the cousins than anyone else, even though they were almost the same age.
Relief warmed Jareth’s insides. He had a place to go until their next job. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to wait too long.
Night had fallen a few hours before, which was normal in the Montana hills when winter wanted to storm the gates. It’d be dark long past the time they would leave for their homes in the morning. For Jareth, the time was far overdue. He wanted to take a shower and tease his cousins.
Damon, the blond cousin all the girls swooned over, waved a folded newspaper above his head. The edges fluttered and he reclaimed it closer to his body. “Did you guys see this? Our ad’s in the paper!”
A spark of interest burned beneath Jareth’s fatigue. He crowded with the other guys around the paper Damon straightened. Tilted to the side to catch the light from the fire, Damon read the article out loud. “If you’re looking for a gang of hard workers with an amiable attitude, the Montana Trail cousins are the men to watch.” He glanced at the circle, his smile broad. “That’s cool!”
“Wait, what? Trail? We aren’t the Montana Trails. We’re the Montana Trials!” Kyle stomped back from the group, his jaw clenching and unclenching. Shaking his fist in the general direction of the fire and then the paper, he paced. “I specifically told them trial when I placed that thing. I’m going to demand my money back.” His face grew ruddier and his generally high temper flared higher as he worked himself up.
Nate’s laugh echoed off the trees and tents. “Kyle, it’s too late now. We’re the Montana Trails – typo or not. You’ll never be able to fix that.” He shook his head, motioning toward the tent. “Come on, guys. Let’s eat. Hopefully that ad will get us more work.”
Jareth didn’t care what they were called. He stepped into line behind brothers, Damon and Ryland Johnson. Winter months were hard to find work. They’d just finished a cattle drive from Bozeman to Missoula. Thanksgiving was in a month. Many ranchers had their workers for the season and didn’t like changing things up until the spring months.
Nate was desperate to get back home. He never wanted to be gone for long, but not the rest of the cousins. They all wanted to be out doing and seeing the wilds of Montana. Some had even expressed interest in traveling south to Wyoming. No job calls from that area meant it wasn’t pursued, but the interest was there.
With the oldest cousin so interested in settling down and starting his own ranch, the Montana Trails hoped it would work out and that he could hire them to work for him. That’d be the kicker, to work for family.
Would Jareth ever want to settle down? Probably not. Settling down meant a mortgage, bills, fighting, and being tied to a job with little to no change.
Jareth didn’t have plans for his future, but one thing he could promise his older self – he wouldn’t do anything to cause himself misery.
No one wanted that.
Jareth pinched his shoulders back and straightened his neck. He hadn’t wanted to come home. Why was he here? Hadn’t he learned the last few times he’d returned that he didn’t want to be here?
His mom offered a tired smile as she spread the legs of a large turkey in a roasting pan. She shoved a handful of soggy dressing into the cavity. “Well, I’m glad you came home for Thanksgiving. We missed you last year.” A faded paisley apron with white flour smears covered her purple sweater. She’d pulled her hair back, as usual, and wore little makeup.
He offered a noncommittal “oh, yeah,” and shrugged the strap of his pack up higher. Looking around the small kitchen and dining area, Jareth searched for his wayward brother. “Is Kyle home yet?”
Mom glanced out the window above the sink, craning for a better view. “He’s outside chopping wood. Your father’s out there somewhere, too.” She smiled distractedly, grabbing more of the stuffing and filling the bird.
Jareth did not envy the trussed animal – dead or alive. “I’ll drop my stuff and help Kyle.” He didn’t feel like being around his brother for a little while. He really needed a break, but he’d rather work with Kyle than stand there and idly chit-chat with his mother. Even when she didn’t try to be, she was cloying with her gratitude, as if she owed her boys something for them helping with the family.
“Sounds good.” She stilled, lifting her eyes and smiling softly. “Thank you again, Jareth, for what you and Kyle do for us. It’s helped a lot.” There she went again. It wasn’t her fault Dad hadn’t found a job that he liked – never stuck with anything longer than six months. In the small town they lived in, that didn’t leave many options. Dad had run through all the places of potential employment in just a few years.
Nodding shortly, Jareth turned down the hall to the large room he’d shared with his brother for years. They’d bunk there together, this time too.
He closed the door behind him and slumped onto the lower mattress, his shoulders slouching. The callused skin of his palms scratched his cheeks when he rubbed his face. Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday or it had been when he’d gone to Nate and Emma’s place the year before.
But he couldn’t this year because Nate was with Emma at her family’s place in Seattle and Nate’s sisters, Stefanie and Hannah, had gone to stay with the Johnson cousins for the holiday. Jareth didn’t have anywhere else to go but his own home.
“Can you pass the potatoes, Kyle?” Jareth waited for the large bowl to make its way to him. The table was otherwise quiet as the four Darby family members ate the feast before them.
His mouth full, Kyle passed the potatoes and the antique gravy boat their mom demanded they treat carefully. Jareth didn’t dare tell her they’d broken it years ago, when they’d had their little plastic Army men use it as a submarine. Superglue went far when you needed it to.
“So, Jareth, there’s a girl in town you might be interested in.” Mom lifted her glass and sipped at the water. She had changed from her apron into nicer clothing for the meal and dropped her hair to frame her face. She tried so hard to fit a picture in her head. Jareth didn’t know whether to encourage her or pity her.
Their dad ignored everyone and continued eating, shoveling food into his mouth and staring at the centerpiece of pine cones mixed with autumn leaves.
Kyle chortled, slapping his empty hand on the edge of the table. “Yeah, Jareth, isn’t it time you settled down already?” He wiggled his eyebrows and poked a piece of turkey in the air. “I’m sure you could buy a place here in town.”
Town. A home. The two things that just didn’t sit well with Jareth. Not yet. He cleared his throat. “Oh, yeah, that’s, well, thanks Mom, but I’m good. I’m not really into dating.” Not steady which was what he’d have to do with a girl from town – especially the town his mother lived in. No thanks – involving his parents in his affairs wasn’t a smart move.
His father straightened, glaring at Jareth. “You’re not interested in girls, Jareth Darby? What is this about?” A fleck of mashed potatoes clung to his gray and auburn beard to the side of his mouth and his eyes flashed.
Lifting his hands, Jareth spoke quickly. “It’s not that I’m not interested in girls, Dad.”
“Yeah, Dad, Jareth likes girls just fine. He doesn’t like any one in particular. He likes a lot of them all at once.” Kyle snickered at the rising heat on Jareth’s face. A lock of Kyle’s hair fell to his forehead and he pushed it back.
Their father’s chest puffed out. “Well, that’s alright then. Gotta sow them oats.” He went back to eating and staring at the pine cones.
Jareth restrained his mounting irritation.
“You two should be in college. Do something with your lives. Find one girl,” Mom shot Jareth and Kyle both a pointed look and continued, “and settle down. There’s not much to be said for the life of a ranch hand.”
The hypocritical comment threw Jareth off and he lowered his fork to rest beside the table. He blinked at his parents. “There’s not much to be said, except it pays the bills and feeds us.”
Inhaling sharply, his mom pressed her hand to her chest. “Oh, my word, Jareth, I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. That’s not what I meant at all. I just want more for you guys than to have to support your father and me. It’s not natural. We’ll figure something out. Especially, if you two want to do something else with your lives. You’re still so young.” Tears sparkled in her eyes and she sniffed.
“It’s fine, Mom. We like what we’re doing. We like helping out.” Leave it to Kyle to smooth things over. He glared at Jareth and kicked him under the table.
Jareth didn’t comment. Only in his parents’ house did he feel stifled.
Only in the home he paid for did he feel like he didn’t belong.
The phone rang in the kitchen.
Jumping up from his seat, Jareth ran to answer it. “Hello?”
“Jareth, it’s Nate. Sorry to call on the holiday, man, but we got a job starting Monday. It’s a full winter job. You guys interested?” Nate didn’t have to ask. They’d agreed about a year ago that where there was work, there were the Montana Trials – Trails. And thank heaven, too. “Yep, are we coming your way first?”
“Yeah, the Johnsons will be at my place by Saturday. Why don’t you guys come sometime between then and Sunday morning? We’ll load up your truck and head out that afternoon.” He laughed, the sound warm and teasing. “Unless you’re dying to stay home longer.” But Nate knew how Jareth felt about being home. The love-hate relationship he had with the place. All the cousins knew. “We came home when we got the call. So we’re here whenever.”
“You bet, sounds awesome. I’m going to tune up Betsy and we’ll meet you at Bella Acres.” The tightness eased in Jareth’s chest. Bella Acres – Nate and Emma’s home. He wasn’t staying at his parents’ place longer than he had to. He and Kyle would leave first thing Saturday morning.
Or Kyle could find his own ride.
Taylor Falls wasn’t much further. Kyle and Jareth had left early as planned and Kyle slept on the bench seat beside Jareth.
They hadn’t even waited for dawn. Jareth couldn’t. He needed to get out. He needed to go. Just go.
In the dusty pink shadows of the early morning, the road spread out before him. Driving north toward Taylor Falls, Jareth couldn’t help admiring thick snowflakes as they drifted down across the shining blacktop. He wiped his eyes, blinking hard against closing them.
Maybe they’d left a little too early.
Suddenly, the figure of a woman appeared, jumping and waving her arms in the middle of the highway about a hundred feet ahead.
Jareth slammed on the brakes, bucking the old truck’s body and skidding on the slippery road.
“What the hell?” Kyle jerked upright, hands splayed on the dash as he blinked blearily out the windows. He stared unseeing or unbelievingly at the woman’s figure, frozen like he couldn’t understand the last few seconds.
“Stay here.” Jareth stopped just a few feet from the woman who hadn’t moved far to the side of the road. He climbed from the warm cab. “What the hell was that?” He stomped around the truck, glancing behind the long brown frame of his favorite ride for more traffic headed their way.
“Don’t worry. You’re the first car I’ve seen in over an hour.” The woman’s lips quivered, the skin around them white. She held her arms tight to her chest. “Can-can you help us?”
Us? “What’s going on? Why are you clear out here?” Jareth knocked on the window of Betsy, startling the still half-sleeping Kyle. His brother never woke fast and took a few minutes to come fully alert. Jareth would probably be back on the road before Kyle even realized what had happened.
“My girlfriend and I got stuck.” She didn’t even have boots on. What person in their right mind didn’t wear boots in November in Montana? Her pink tennis shoes had sparkly laces. Her insulated flannel shirt had been buttoned up long ago but the elbows were dark with dampness.
Jareth widened his eyes but kept his mouth shut. “Okay, what can I do?” He ignored the way her eyes tilted down just a touch on the sides and the way the ear flaps on her hat covered all of her hair, framing her oval face like a picture. He shrugged out of his overcoat and held it toward her. “Here, take this. Your flannel isn’t enough for this chill.”
She took the coat slowly, watching his face like he might bite. After a moment, she drew on the jacket and seemed to melt into its warmth. “Thank you.” Turning, she led the way down the side of the shoulder into a shallow ditch about three feet across and back up. The snow covered her shoes, which meant her feet had to be wet as well.
Fool girl. What was going on?
Footsteps in the gravel showed she’d been through there before. But an hour ago? “How long have you been out here waiting?” Multiple sets of tracks suggested she might have gone back and forth a couple times.
“I’ve been stuck back here since last night, but I didn’t know how bad it was until the sun started coming up. I’m right here.” She stopped by some thick trunked trees set up in a copse style collection.
“You’re right where?” Jareth searched the area. Where was her rig? Or from the looks of her, where was her Mercedes? “Where’s your friend?”
She chewed on her lip. “Well, actually, it’s just me. I didn’t know if I could trust you to not kill me, if I wasn’t alone.” She pointed north, worry pinching above the bridge of her nose. “I sent Sherri back to the reservation last night. I thought for sure I’d be able to get out and her coat had gotten wet out by the stream when we crossed it.” She grimaced. “I honestly thought I’d beat her back.”
Jareth blinked at her, waiting for the punchline. Two women in the woods and no waterproof outerwear? No sensible coats? What was in the water where they were from? Beautiful or not, there wasn’t a label for that kind of crazy.
She shivered and shifted in his coat. “Um, anyway, that’s me, actually, right there. The four-wheeler?” She lifted her sleeve covered hand toward a spot through the trees.
Peering through the shadows, Jareth narrowed his eyes. A four-wheeler? Sure enough, the hulking mass of a large ATV hunkered at the base of two large towering red firs. He moved closer, inspecting the scene in the slowly increasing light. “You got yourself stuck between the trees? How’d you get it up so high?”
Sheared off bark was sprinkled over the soft vinyl seat and the shiny plastic fenders. The front tires were suspended off the ground by a good three feet while the back had crawled up the bark a ways. “How have you been keeping warm?” He didn’t even want to know what she was doing to get a four-wheeler stuck between trees. He couldn’t keep her out there much longer. She was lucky she was still standing. “Looks like you tried driving up the side of the pine there.”
“I didn’t see them at first. Then I thought I could just power through.” At least she had the decency to look embarrassed. She pointed again, this time under the tires. “I piled tree boughs under there and made like a cave. The engine was running for a while and it put off some heat, but not much. I started walking back and forth from the road and back to keep warm an hour or so ago. I didn’t do too badly until then.”
Her resourcefulness startled Jareth. “I’d think with the way you’re dressed, you wouldn’t know how to do all that.” He climbed on the four-wheeler and rocked and tried starting it. The fuel gauge showed empty. He shook his head, climbing back down.
She set her jaw and stared at him, defiance flashing in her blue eyes. “Because I’m a girl?”
He shook his head. As if he’d get away with a misogynist attitude with cousins like his. “Nah, sweetheart, because you’re wearing tennis shoes and a couple shirts at the end of November in northern Montana – it has nothing to do with you being a girl.”
She scrunched her nose sheepishly. “Oh, well, like I said Sherri’s coat got wet when we followed the wolf tracks through the creek, so I gave her mine. I didn’t know how far we came. Wasn’t planning on coming out so far. I just wasn’t looking where I was going.”
Kyle stomped through the snow-laden needles, looking around when he reached them. “It’s starting to really come down. We need to get going.” He glanced up and down at the damsel in distress. “Go get in the truck. We’ll figure this out.”
She blinked at him like she had no idea where he came from. After a moment, she glanced back at Jareth. Holding out her hand, she said, “I’m Cyan and you are?” She pronounced it like the color – si-ann. And it perfectly matched her eyes.
“Jareth and this is Kyle.” He shook her icy hand, engulfing her cold fingers in his. He didn’t hesitate, but reached for her other hand and shoved one toward Kyle. “Get her hands warm, Kyle.” They rubbed her hands between theirs, the friction probably painful with the chill.
She closed her eyes, biting her lip. A tear slipped down her cheek. “They hurt.”
“Yeah, go get in the truck.” Jareth motioned toward the tree on the right, the slimmer of the two. “But first Cyan, I don’t think you’re going to like this. We can’t get the four-wheeler out without some kind of a chainsaw. That’s actually a good thing at this point, because no one else will be able to steal it, if anyone was stupid enough to come this way in this weather. But you’re out of gas, too, so there’s nothing we can do until we can come back out here with gas and some tools and maybe a ramp to load up the four-wheeler.”
Her shoulders slumped. “Okay.”
“Grab everything you brought with you and let’s go. We’ll drive you home.” Jareth moved toward the ditch, out from under the protection of the pine needles above them. The snow came down heavier, the white making visibility difficult and dimming the previously brightening daylight.
She shook her head, grabbing the key from the ATV. “No, you can’t drive me home. I’m staying with my girlfriend on the reservation.”
“Is this the same girlfriend that disappeared last night and abandoned you? With no coat?” Jareth fell into step behind Cyan as she followed Kyle to the truck. He couldn’t figure out the strong anger curdling in his stomach at the thought she might not have made it, if she’d been out there much longer. Who was this friend and why hadn’t she saved the girl? Had something happened to her?
He offered her a hand as she crossed the ditch, wincing at her shoes disappearing into the deep snow again. He’d situate her directly under the heater. “We’ll check on your friend, Sherri, as soon as we get you warm, okay?”
The snow muted her answer. “Thank you.” She glanced at Jareth over her shoulder as she passed – her dark blue eyes capturing more of her smile than even her lips.
“Let’s wait ‘til a proper time to drive onto the reservation. I don’t feel like having the Blackbird squad descend upon us this early. You can come with us to Bella Acres so I can make sure you’re warm enough.” Jareth opened the door to his big brown 1979 Ford pickup and helped her in. Her fingers had lost the bite of their chill, but only enough to make them feel less like ice and more like a refrigerated item.
Just how cold she was, he wasn’t sure. Emma and Nate would help. The poor woman had to be exhausted and hungry.
And why hadn’t anyone come looking for her? There was more going on than Jareth could figure out and with Kyle shooting him questioning glances, he couldn’t ignore the gnawing worry in his gut.
Cyan couldn’t feel her toes and not in a good way. She snuggled between the two dark auburn-haired brothers with heat blasting on her feet and legs. She tried not to fall asleep, but their voices swirled around her, creating a cocoon of comforting syllables. She couldn’t quite focus on their words as her eyes drifted open and closed.
Until one of them mentioned wolves.
Then her eyes snapped open. She pushed back against the bench seat, trying to see them both at the same time from her spot.
“Kettleson’s been paying money for wolf pelts for a while, Jareth. I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.” Kyle tapped the window by his head with his knuckle, staring out into the daytime blizzard. “Man, look at it coming down. Sheesh.”
“I don’t care about hunting them. I just don’t know if it’s ethical to shoot an animal just for their hide and then to sell it. Is it even legal to hunt wolves?” Jareth turned the steering wheel, the straight slice of his nose complimenting the angle of his cheekbone from the side.
Beside the road with her body half-frozen, Cyan hadn’t been able to really see him or how attractive he was. Sitting in such close proximity with the feeling returning to her limbs and gratitude at being rescued thawing her, she was having a hard time not noticing his rugged appeal.
Dark reddish brown hair tendrils curled around the inner edge of his cowboy hat and cut neatly into short sideburns. Slight stubble caught golden and green lights from the dash and she couldn’t look away. Plus, he was sticking up for her wolves – in a roundabout way. Any degree of defense of those beautiful animals was worthy of admiration in her book. His little bit combined with rescuing her made it seem bigger. She’d take it at that point.
“Ethical or not, we’re supposed to be there tomorrow night. Do you think we’ll be expected to show up with pelts and wine?” Kyle laughed, glancing at Cyan and then at Jareth. His tone sobered. “You realize she probably has hypothermia?”
Jareth glanced at Cyan. She blinked at him, unable to look away. He smiled and looked back at the road. “Nah, she’s okay. She’s just cold. Aren’t you?” He turned the steering wheel again and then again, the movement through the blurring snow creating a dizzying effect. “We’ll fix you up, Cyan. Welcome to Bella Acres. Let’s get you inside and get you something to eat.”
Her hunger hadn’t bothered her until that moment. Growling, her stomach opted then, in the silence directly after turning off the truck, to make itself heard. Cyan pressed her fist against her stomach and cocked her jaw. She tried to pretend she hadn’t heard anything, but the next county over could’ve heard it.
The brothers didn’t react as they climbed from the cab. Jareth held out his hand to help Cyan climb from the high rig. “Come on.” His nod jerked the brim of his Stetson down and up, the snow swirling around him but not under its curled edges.
Her skin tingled when it connected with his, evidence her nerves weren’t destroyed from the long exposure to the elements. She couldn’t get warm. Even with him walking beside her. Not that she expected him to warm her insides or anything.
A tall, willowy blonde woman guarded the entrance to the two-story Craftsman-style home and wraparound deck. “Jareth, I thought you’d be here early. Come on, breakfast is on.” She glanced beside him and lifted her fingers to her chest. “Oh, you brought someone? I never thought I’d see the day.” She held out her hand, her smile beatific and welcoming. “I’m Emma Rourke.”
Jareth put his arm around Cyan and helped her up the stairs to stand in front of Emma. “Emma, this is Cyan. We found her on the side of the road – she got stuck in the woods with her quad. She’s been out there all night and needs to warm up.”
Cyan shook her hand while Jareth spoke. The strength needed to grip Emma’s palm caused a spasm in Cyan’s forearm. She winced. She didn’t remember ever being so weak. When had weakness been a symptom of hypothermia? Cyan welcomed Jareth’s aid and even leaned into his side a little after shaking Emma’s hand.
Emma gasped. “Oh, you poor thing. I’m —”
“You bring another one of your little—” A dark haired younger woman stumbled through the front door, cutting off as she caught the glare on Jareth’s face. She pressed her lips shut and offered a tight smile to Cyan then scowled at Emma. “Kyle isn’t sleeping in my room this time.”
Eyebrow arched high, Emma tilted her head. “Stefanie, this is Cyan. Jareth rescued her from the side of the road because she got stuck. Please, don’t be rude.” She sighed. “Kyle and Jareth will sleep in the living room. We’ll arrange the furniture. Would you mind if Cyan borrowed your room for a little while? I’d appreciate your hospitality.”
Stefanie glanced at Cyan, then Jareth, and then back at Emma. Her smile sugar sweet, she spoke between clenched teeth. “Of course I don’t mind. I’m going to do my chores anyway.” She nodded, brushing past Cyan, she muttered. “Nice meeting you.”
Cyan swallowed against the tightness of her throat. Everything was thawing and fatigue spread through her fast. “Thank you, it’s nice to meet you, Emma. I don’t want to put anyone out. If I could just borrow your phone?”
“Of course, come in.” Emma motioned them through the door. “I’m so sorry. Making you stand out there in this. I’ll put some tea on for you, too.”
Warmth enfolded Cyan, but not just heat. There was a warm, homey feeling in the brightly colored rugs spread across hardwood flooring. A large framed family picture hung beside the stairway, drawing the eye and holding it there. A dark-haired man and Emma held each other, surrounded by a number of people. The only three there Cyan recognized were Stefanie, Jareth, and Kyle.
The smell of syrup and bacon filled the air and boots stomped down the hallway. “Emma, honey, did you happen to see my new belt? I can’t find it anywhere. I need to pack it.” The dark-haired man from the picture stepped from the stairs, glancing at Jareth. “Hey, Jay. I’m not even close to ready. Go eat something.” He looked around Jareth for Emma, his gaze landing on Cyan instead. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He glanced at Jareth then back at Cyan, lifting his eyebrows.
Jareth motioned toward Cyan as she shifted on her aching feet. “Cyan, this is Nate, Nate, this is Cyan. We rescued her.”
The introduction could do without the rescuing part. Embarrassment worked its way through her, helping with the thawing chill Cyan still couldn’t shake. What if Sherri wasn’t okay? “It’s nice to meet you.” As she thawed bit by bit, her mind sharpened and her emotions focused. Worry started to compound with relief that she was fine. But was Sherri? Where was she? Sherri would never have left Cyan there that long, not if she could help it.
Cyan really could use a phone. Where had Emma disappeared to? One minute she was there and then suddenly she was gone.
As if conjured by Cyan’s thoughts, Emma appeared by her side, her arms laden with towels. “Nate, your belt’s hanging in the closet on your belt hooks. Come on, Cyan, I’ll show you to Stefanie’s room. You can use the phone in there.” She led the way up the stairs. Cyan peered at Jareth as she followed behind Emma.
Jareth smiled, but didn’t stop her. Maybe she was safe? She didn’t know exactly how she’d gotten to be here, after that long, lonely night of freezing while waiting for Sherri to reach Rachiah on the reservation. She’d expected the Blackbird squad to show up shortly after night had fallen.
She followed Emma into an artfully decorated room with more rugs and simple shading done with accents of blue and brown amid cream tones. Cyan had never been in a more elegant bedroom in all her life.
Emma stacked the towels on the end of the bed. “Go grab a shower before the Johnson brothers get back from their hunt. The water won’t be guaranteed warm after that.” She winked, reaching out and resting her hand on Cyan’s arm. “You’re probably still frozen some. You’ll warm up faster after a shower. I’ll bring you some clothes of Hannah’s. You seem to be about her size. I’ll try to get yours clean and dry before you leave. Those jeans can’t be comfortable.” She grimaced at Cyan’s legs.
Cyan glanced down at her damp darkened pants. She’d been so cold, she hadn’t thought about the condition of her clothing. Of course, everything had gotten wet when she’d huddled on the ground under the four-wheeler. Did she stink, too? She couldn’t tell. But none of that mattered when she hadn’t heard from Sherri. She bit her lip. “Thank you. I’m really worried about my friend. She left me last night to get some help, but…”
Emma’s eyes widened and she pointed toward the night stand. “There’s the phone. Let me know what we can do. I’ll send the men out to search for her, if she’s not there. If she’s safe, just get in the shower and come down for breakfast. If she’s not there, well, let me know. We’ll take care of it. Okay?” Her take-charge attitude comforted Cyan.
“Okay, thank you again.” Normally, Cyan didn’t like being grateful to anyone, but with Emma it was so natural. She was so easy-going with her generosity. Somehow, it didn’t feel like charity.
“I’m sure she’s okay.” Emma smiled. “See you in a little bit.” She left the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Cyan settled on the edge of the bed, careful to sit on Jareth’s coat rather than place herself on the clean comforter. She picked up the hand piece and dialed one of her two best-friends’ number.
“Hello?” Rachiah Two-Claw answered, slightly breathless.
“Rach, it’s Cyan. Did Sherri make it last night?” Cyan pulled off her knit hat, rubbing at her damp hair with her free hand. She stared at the fuzzy rug beneath her feet.
“Oh my gosh, Cyan!” Rachiah pulled the phone away from her mouth. Her yell compelled Cyan to pull hers away from her ear. “Sherri! Cyan’s on the phone. Oh my gosh.”
Cyan closed her eyes in exasperation. “Are you kidding me? Sherri’s there? Where have you guys been? I’ve been waiting in the woods all this time. Freezing.” What were they thinking? Normally they were more considerate than that.
“No, Sherri just got here. She got onto the reservation about two this morning. Some of the casino security guards were out and they thought she was sneaking around so they detained her. She finally convinced them to call us a little bit ago.” Rachiah lowered her voice. “She’s been hysterical, thinking you died or something and it was all her fault. Here she comes. Calm her down, you know how she can be.”
The phone rustled as Sherri grabbed the phone. “Cyan? Oh, Cyan, oh hell. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry! I tried, but they wouldn’t believe me. I did everything and they wouldn’t wake anyone up. They said…” Sherri’s words trailed off as she succumbed to her sobs.
In a break between Sherri’s cries, Cyan interjected. “It’s okay, Sherri. I’m fine. It’s okay. You’re just tired.” She glanced at the door and lowered her voice, turning toward the window and cupping her hand around the mouthpiece. “These really nice guys saved me. I’m at their place right now.” She didn’t want to repeat everything. “Put me on speaker.”
More rustling, some knocking sounds, and then Rachiah’s voice sounded like she’d moved into a cave. “You’re on speaker and we’re in my room with the door closed.”
“Alright, listen. I’m at Bella Acres, I think? These guys saved me. When we were in the truck they said something about wolves and Kettleson. I think I got my lead, you guys.” Cyan twisted the cord of the old phone, her excitement covering her persistent chills.
“Are we coming to get you? Or are they driving you? What’s going on?” Rachiah shushed Sherri, her voice close like she leaned into the phone.
Should she attempt to get more from the guys? She’d never had problems getting what she wanted from boys – or anyone. But part of her didn’t want to take advantage of Jareth’s hospitality when he’d gone out of his way to save her and make sure she was comfortable. He’d even welcomed her into his family’s home.
Yet, another part of her wasn’t ready to leave just yet, either. If she was truly invested in the plights of the wolves, she’d do everything in her power to get them to agree to keep her around them, maybe give her a ride up north so she could get more information. Her professor at school had warned the class about moments like this, when they would be faced with a choice regarding their cause.
Cyan had to choose between furthering her plan and project for her cause, or being polite and doing what is expected.
She’d have to choose brazenness – and she’d do it for the wolves and not because the man who’d saved her had a broad chest and kind eyes. Those were just perks.
“Cyan, are you there? Do you want us to come get you?” Sherri repeated Rachiah’s question, her voice recovering from her crying.
Blinking hard against the growing fatigue, Cyan squeezed the phone tighter. “No, don’t come get me. I’m going to see what they know. Maybe they have some insights. Either way, they’re heading to Kettleson’s tomorrow. I’m going to see if I can catch a ride.” Cyan kicked off her wet tennis shoes, then peeled off her socks, which were stuck to her like a layer of plastic wrap.
“Cy, you can’t just trust random men. You don’t know them.” Rachiah’s belligerence wasn’t subtle. “I don’t think you should stay there.” Her stubborn jaw was probably stuck to the side. They’d known each other all their lives. Of course it was.
Cyan sighed, too tired to fight. They always did what she wanted in the end anyway, why did they have to pretend to fight it? “They saved me. The four-wheeler is stuck and they’re offering to go get it out and bring it back for you. They’re really nice guys.” She rubbed her eyelids, wincing as her chilly fingertips connected with the sensitive tissue.
“Sounds more like hero worship than anything. Don’t worry about the quad. I’ll have M.T. and the guys pick it up.” She paused as if she stared at Cyan, studying her. She and Sherri were probably communicating quietly. Rachiah grunted. “Fine. What do you want us to do?”
“Meet me at my parents’ place in a couple days. I think we need to do a little camping.” Cyan ignored Rachiah’s groans. Sherri would talk her into it. That girl loved camping more than she loved her tofu. Plus, her friends had promised to help Cyan with her thesis and this just happened to be part of the research. “And Rachiah? This isn’t hero worship. I would’ve been fine.” She would’ve, right?
Jareth climbed the stairs two at a time, coming to a stop outside Stefanie’s room. He paused, his hand suspended in front of the door as he listened for something, anything. After a moment, he knocked, his knuckles connecting twice with the panel, making a sharp rapping sound. He couldn’t understand his nerves at seeing her again. He quickly chalked it up to worry over her friend and her own condition after being outside so long.
A different version of Cyan opened the door, a towel wrapped around her curvy body, then tucked under toned arms. Damp shoulder-length black hair had been pushed off her flushed face. Her bright eyes and wide smile stunned Jareth. He forgot what he was going to say or even the urgency of his reason for being there.
He stared at her, taking in the blue streaks of her hair at the same time she laughed. “Are you going to just stand there forever?” She lifted up a separate, smaller towel and rubbed at the ends of her hair, watching him, not the least embarrassed he’d caught her in a state of undress.
Jareth worked his mouth. State of undress. Where was he? The 1800s? If she wasn’t embarrassed, he shouldn’t be bothered. But he was. Wait, what had she said? “I, uh, are you warmer now?” Of course she was warm, what a stupid question. Her skin had lost its pale hue and her lips were a rosy pink. He shook his head, trying to get his mind back into focus. “I mean, Emma told me you were going to find out if your friend was out there still. Did you find out if she made it back? Is she okay? What can we do? Do you need us to drive you somewhere? Is someone coming here?” He wanted to ask her to stay, especially since the creamy skin of her shoulders contrasted with the black ends of her hair. But he held his tongue.
She shrugged, turning her back and revealing a small wolf paw print tattoo on her shoulder. The shininess of its surface suggested it was fake. Why would she have a fake tattoo on her shoulder? She glanced at him and half-shrugged. “She’s okay. I talked to her on the phone. She made it to the reservation. I’m not worried, you don’t need to be.” She peeked at him over the ends of the towel as she rubbed her hair. “I’m a lot warmer now, since my shower, thanks.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Jareth cleared his throat. “Ahem, do you want to eat some breakfast?” Normally he was more suave, more of a lady’s man. But she had his tongue all tripped up and his lips didn’t want to work.
And the blue in her hair… why couldn’t he stop staring at it? He’d always been more of a green man, but the longer he spent with Cyan, the more convinced he was that blue had always been his favorite color.
He stepped further into the room. Without thinking reached out and twisted a brilliant blue lock of hair between his fingers. The damp silkiness captivated him. He slowly turned his eyes from the contrast of blue and black to her eyes. She watched his face as he stroked the shock of hair with his thumb.
Her eyes slowly widened and Jareth slowed his touch until he was just holding on to her hair. Finally realizing what he was doing, he dropped his hand and stepped back, shoving his wayward fists into his back pockets. “I’m sorry. I’ve never seen… well, your hair is different.” He glanced up, meeting her confused gaze. “I like it. It matches your eyes.”
How had he gone from talking about her friend to touching her hair like she was a mare on display at a local rodeo?
“That’s okay. It’s my favorite color, plus my name, so…” She chewed on her lip, watching him. She narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to the side, puckering her lips as if in deep thought. “I think I heard you guys talking in the truck – I can’t be sure, I was kind of tired, so correct me, if I’m wrong – but I thought I heard you say you guys are going up to the Kettleson Ranch tomorrow?” Cyan tugged her lower lip between her teeth again, the movement entrancing and more than a little distracting.
Dang, that hair. He nodded, not trusting himself to pull his hands from his pockets. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“Do you think I can catch a ride? My friends aren’t going to head that way until later and I’d really like to get to my parents’ place. I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t be stuck in Taylor Falls all that time.” She smiled, her makeup-free face fresh and appealing.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the reservation? We need to go get your quad.” Jareth wouldn’t mind a little more time with her, but at the rate he was going, he might not be the most trustworthy. He didn’t want to rescue her and then act like a dirtball to her either.
She ignored the fact that she wasn’t dressed – a fact Jareth couldn’t stop thinking about. Placing the small towel on the dresser, she said, “No, I’m not worried about it. My friend’s brother went to get it. Plus, if it’s damaged, I’ll just buy her another one. That’s why they let me borrow their stuff. They hope I’ll break it.” Her laugh tinkled like she’d never been happier.
She said the damnedest things.
He slowly smiled at her. “I don’t mind. I’m sure Emma and Nate won’t mind if you stay the night, either. Emma and Stefanie like having people here. As long as you’re sure, I mean, you don’t know me from Adam.” He didn’t care what her reasoning was. If he got to spend more time with her and she wanted it, he’d take it.
Cyan padded the short distance to stand in front of him. The scent of coconut vanilla wafted off her. She tilted her head back to stare into his eyes. Pressing her hand to his chest, she murmured, “I think after today, I can trust you, don’t you, Jareth?” Her fingers moved on his shirt, just a little.
Jareth’s throat wanted to close up. He swallowed. “Um, yeah, um…” He’d never been so stupid around a girl before. Quick, what could he say to redeem himself?
She spun, taking the warmth of her hand from his chest. “But I can’t stay in Stefanie’s room. I’ll sleep in the living room, on the floor. That’s probably more comfortable for me anyway.” She chuckled, glancing pointedly at him. “I mean, I can crawl under a four-wheeler to stay warm, right?”
Cyan had a point. He didn’t know many girls that could do that and laugh. Most would cry at just the thought of breaking off tree limbs or riding around in the snow.
He nodded in agreement until what she proposed occurred to him. “But, well, I’m sleeping in the living room.”
She turned to the side and pinned him with her gaze. A half-smile curved her lips. “Then you better keep your hands to yourself.”
Jareth had no idea what was going on, but with a girl like Cyan, he just might be in over his head.