Ethan Hunter braced his feet against the edge of the wooden platform, glanced down at the ground some forty feet below, and pushed off. With a yank from the harness, he was flying. The wind whistling in his ears, combined with the scream of the hand trolley over steel cable, silenced his thoughts for the first time all morning.
He let out a whoop, an adrenaline-fueled war cry, as he soared between trees and over a small ravine. The zip-line carried him about eight hundred feet, ending on a wooden platform similar to the one he’d kicked off from minutes earlier.
Here he unclipped from the line, unfastened his harness, and took off his helmet to check the Go-Pro camera he’d attached. He thumbed through its menu, searching for the video he’d just recorded. It wasn’t there.
He swore under his breath. Somehow he hadn’t recorded a single moment of his trip down the zip-line. And he had to get this video sent off tonight to the college student he’d hired to design the website. He’d have to hike back and take the whole course again. His empty stomach grumbled in protest.
Ignoring it, Ethan climbed down the ladder and headed for the trail that would take him back to the top. This was the end of the line, the fifth and last leg of the series of zip-lines he’d built, taking him from the main building deep into the forest behind. For now, the zip-lines were his, a place for him and his buddies to get their thrills without putting anyone’s lives at risk.
But soon, when Off-the-Grid Adventures opened, this would be the start of a business venture that could set him, as well as his friends Mark Dalton and Ryan Blake, on the way to fulfilling a dream. A way to put their dare-deviling ways to good use, cementing themselves as upstanding citizens and making some money while they were at it.
And as of last night, bringing this dream to fruition had taken on a new urgency. His grandmother’s words haunted him like an unwelcome ghost, flitting in and out of his vision and making his chest feel too tight.
“An aneurysm,” she’d told him over supper. “I saw it myself on the scan. Because of the location, it’s inoperable. The doctor said it could stay like that indefinitely, but he thinks chances are high that it will rupture sometime in the next few weeks or months.”
Dixie Hunter was the strongest woman he knew. She’d endured more in her lifetime than anyone ought to, had raised him since he was twelve with a firm hand and a smile on her face, and at seventy years old, she still walked a mile into town each morning to have breakfast at The Sunny Side Up Café because, as she said, she had two perfectly good legs and needed the exercise. And now he was to believe that a bulging blood vessel in her brain was going to take her life sometime in the next few months? She’d taken his hand across the table, tears shimmering in her eyes. “I need to see you settled before I go, Ethan. I need to know you’ve got something or someone to keep you out of trouble when I’m not here to nudge you back into line.”
A hawk called overhead, drawing his gaze toward the blue sky peeking through the swaying treetops above. Settled for him would never include a family, but this place would keep him out of trouble. He just needed to make sure Off-the-Grid Adventures opened in time for Gram to see it.
He picked his way across the stream, taking a shortcut back to the start of the course. One more ride on the zip-line, and this time the damned camera had better work. He absolutely could not afford a delay.
Up ahead, a woman sat on a large, flat rock by the stream, her back to him, arms crossed over her knees. Ethan stopped in his tracks. He owned this property, but it bordered the public forest so it wasn’t unheard of to find a hiker wandering through his neck of the woods.
What was unusual was that he didn’t recognize her. The population of Haven, North Carolina, numbered somewhere in the vicinity of seven hundred, and he could say with some confidence that he was acquainted with all the female residents in his age range.
The woman before him had light brown hair hanging almost to her waist in long, loose waves. She wore a white tank top that hugged her slender frame, accentuating the curves at her waist, and a billowy blue skirt that swirled around her ankles. Intriguing. Different. And without seeing her face, he knew he had never seen her before.
“Hi there,” he called out.
She scrambled off her perch with a startled squeak, almost pitching face-first into the creek. With one hand on the rock for balance, she turned to face him.
And hot damn, she was gorgeous. Her eyes were a shade darker than her hair, as wide as they were wary. She looked a little out of place here in the woods dressed like that—he didn’t know any local women who went hiking in a skirt—but most interesting were the black leather boots peeking out from under its folds. Not girly dress-up boots. These looked more like combat boots, and for some reason, paired with the blue skirt they were smokin’ hot.
“Sorry.” He held his hands out in front of him. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I—well—oh!” She swatted at something near her face. “Ouch!”
He stepped closer. “Something sting you?”
“Yes, it’s okay. I’m not allergic. Ack!” She let out a little shriek, ducking and swatting around her head.
Ethan lunged forward, spotting several yellow jackets buzzing around her head. “You must have disturbed a nest.” He put a hand on her arm and tugged her away from the rock where she’d been sitting.
With another shriek, she jumped, landing flush against him, her face pressed into his shirt. Just as quickly, she pushed past him, leaving behind the faint scent of honeysuckle and the warm impression of her body on his.
Something he’d like to explore…later. He glanced back and spotted the nest she’d accidentally trampled, now easily visible thanks to the swarm of angry wasps flying in and out. “We’ve got to get away from that nest.”
He nudged her ahead of him, swatting at yellow jackets. One of the little fuckers stung his arm, and it hurt like a son of a bitch. He smashed it beneath his palm. “You doing okay?” he asked the woman ahead of him. His arm was on fire from one sting, and she’d received several.
“There’s one in my hair. Oh God—” She clawed at her head.
“Let me.” He disentangled her fingers then combed through her hair until he found a yellow jacket busily stinging her scalp. He squashed it. “Got it.”
He inhaled the scent of honeysuckle from her hair, then winced at the angry welt already forming on her scalp.
“My skirt—” She grabbed it in her fists, shaking madly.
They’d gone up her skirt? Oh hell. Ethan wasn’t touching this one with a ten-foot pole. “Ah—”
She stomped and twirled until thankfully a yellow jacket escaped from the folds of her skirt. Ethan ground it into the dirt before it could strike again.
“Please tell me that was the last one.” Her hands flitted anxiously by her face, which had flushed a dark pink. Two red welts had risen on her left cheek, and another was visible on her forehead.
Damn. “I don’t see any more. You said you’re not allergic, right?”
“Yes. I mean, no, I’m not.” She dabbed at one of the welts on her cheek and winced.
“Either you really pissed them off or they like the smell of your shampoo. Let’s keep going to put a little more distance between us and their nest.” He led her along the path by the stream, walking briskly.
“I came from that way.” She pointed in the direction of one of the town’s hiking trails.
“I figured, but you wandered onto my property, so I’ll drive you back to wherever you’re parked.”
“Your property?” She pulled back. “I’m sorry. I—”
He shook his head. “Don’t even worry about it. I think we lost the yellow jackets. Let me have another look at you.”
She stopped short, her pretty face now alarmingly red and splotchy. “Thank you for your help, but I should really go back the way I came.”
“No way I’m letting you out of my sight right now. Hang on. I have an ice pack.” He reached into the pack he wore slung over his right shoulder. “I’m Ethan Hunter, by the way.”
“Gabrielle Winters—Gabby. An ice pack does sound great. You’re awfully well prepared.” She blew out a breath and waved her hands in front of her cheeks.
“I like living on the edge, but I always keep a basic first aid kit on hand. Then I can at least patch myself up…well, most of the time.” He winked at her.
Her lips curved in the faintest of smiles.
Ethan found her 100 percent captivating, even in her current wasp-stung condition. He cracked the ice pack to activate it, then handed it to her.
She pressed it against her forehead with a sigh of relief.
“You got a lot of stings. Sure you’re okay?”
She grimaced. The hand holding the cold pack, he noticed, was shaking. “Actually—” And then she stepped backward, tripped, and landed with a splash in the stream.
Gabby let out a startled squeak as she landed flat on her butt in the stream. But then…oh, the cold water felt so good. Her skin was on fire, like a million stingers were never-endingly piercing every inch of her body. She lay back in the stream, splashing more water over herself.
“You okay?” Ethan leaned over her, offering a hand to pull her up.
She shook her head. The cold water felt too good. Her skin might burst into flames if she got out now. She pressed a cold, wet hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. Why did she hurt all the way to her toes when she’d only been stung on her face? Somewhere in the back of her pain-wracked brain, she was aware she was making a total fool of herself in front of Ethan Hunter.
Of course, if she had to get stung by yellow jackets after wandering onto some guy’s private property and then fall on her butt in a stream, of course said man would have to look like he belonged on the cover of GQ magazine.
With his tousled blond hair and tanned, muscular arms, Ethan Hunter looked more like a movie star than a Boy Scout. He might be the hottest guy she’d ever met. And oh God…
She moaned, watching as his cold pack floated away. Her heart was racing, and her skin…her skin felt like it was being devoured by ants.
“Gabby, you’re scaring me.”
“I’m okay,” she answered, this time letting him pull her to her feet. The pain increased tenfold as she left the cold caress of the water. She was torn between the desire to claw at herself until she bled or cover her eyes and scream.
Speaking of eyes, Ethan’s had darkened considerably. Following his gaze, she looked down to see her breasts outlined beneath her now soaking-wet white tank top, her nipples visible through the thin shell of her bra. Her skirt was also plastered to her skin, probably highlighting her panties in similar fashion. Crossing her arms over her chest, she turned away.
What a nightmare. She needed to send him on his way, pronto. This little encounter was headed from bad to worse, and if she didn’t get into a cold shower in the next ten minutes, she might spontaneously combust.
He pulled out a cell phone and held it to his ear. “Hi, Max. I’m so glad I caught you. Got a minute?” He paused. “Great. I’m with a hiker who got stung by yellow jackets, at least half a dozen stings, and most them are on her face and scalp. She says she’s not allergic, but—”
“I’m not,” she repeated, “but my skin is on fire.”
Ethan repeated this to whoever he was talking to, then looked at her. “Are you having any difficulty breathing? Any itching or swelling in your throat?”
She shook her head. “Just my skin. And my heart is really racing.”
He spoke into the phone again. Gabby knelt by the stream and scooped a fresh handful of water to splash over her face. Who cared what kind of impression she made on Ethan at this point?
“Hey.” He came up behind her. “My friend Maxine is an ER nurse. She says you’re probably just reacting to the amount of venom in your system, but we should get you checked out to be safe. I’ll drive you to the clinic. I wish I had some Benadryl to give you in the meantime.”
“Oh.” She stood, backing away. “I guess it’s probably a good idea to get checked out, but I can drive myself.”
He gave her a look that said hell no. “I have a change of clothes in my Jeep. I doubt the shorts would do anything for you, but I can at least offer you a dry T-shirt.”
“That’s really not necessary. I’ll drive myself straight to the doctor, I promise.” She yanked at a chunk of her hair, desperate to relieve the burning, crawling sensation on her scalp. She had to get away from Ethan. He was too charming, too smooth…too everything she no longer trusted. She’d come to Haven to take care of herself for a change, and that’s exactly what she intended to do.
He shook his head. “You can call someone to meet us at the road if you want, but there’s no way I’m leaving you out here by yourself.”
She shivered, biting her bottom lip to keep from screaming in pain and frustration. There was no one for her to call, and the longer they stood here talking, the more likely she was to strip naked right in front of him and jump back in the stream to sooth her wasp-bitten skin.
Ethan’s blue eyes narrowed, and he shoved his hands into the pockets of his cargo shorts. “You’re not from around here, right? I’m a strange guy you met in the woods. How can I put your mind at ease?”
She shook her head. “Forget it.”
He cocked his head with a smile that might have made her swoon if she wasn’t so miserable. “I could get my grandmother on the phone for you. She’ll vouch for me, and she knows everyone in town.”
“It’s okay, really. I trust you.” She shouldn’t, but she did—enough to let him drive her to the clinic anyway. And maybe he was right. Maybe she shouldn’t be alone right now in case it turned out she was allergic after all. “Thank you for caring.”
He shrugged. “Of course. I imagine you’d do the same for me if I’d been the one who stepped in a wasps’ nest.”
This was true. With a resigned sigh, she clenched her fists against the urge to claw at her flaming skin and started walking beside him, presumably in the direction of his car. Her misery was compounded by the wet clothes that clung to her with each step.
“You new in town or just visiting?” Ethan asked.
“Both.” She wiped a strand of wet hair from her face, grimacing when her fingers brushed against one of the wasp stings. “I’ve been here since April.” Two months, spent mostly holed up inside the little cabin she’d rented or wandering the woods behind it. A habit she’d modify now to make sure she stayed far the hell away from Ethan Hunter’s property. She couldn’t wait to forget today ever happened.
“But you’re not staying?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be here.”
“You have family in town?”
She shook her head. After she’d left Brad, she’d stayed with her parents for a while, but it hadn’t taken her long to realize she’d merely left one suffocating situation for another. So she’d packed up her SUV and hit the road, leaving her hometown of Charlotte behind. A quiet mountain town called Haven sounded perfect. And it had been, more or less. She’d needed a place to curl up and lick her wounds before she was ready to go back out and face the world, and she’d found it.
“Been to the spa yet?” Ethan asked.
She shook her head again, rubbing her hands up and down her arms, which only seemed to intensify the burning sensation in her skin.
“Definitely check it out. You’ve heard of the natural hot springs here, right?”
“Yes.” Not only did they sound fantastic, but they were rumored to have medicinal properties that calmed the soul. And hers could certainly use calming.
“How’re you holding up?”
She paused and pressed a hand against her heart. It raced like a runaway train, making her light-headed. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“You seem kind of quiet, and I need to keep you talking to make sure you’re okay.” He gave her an easy smile, but his eyes were sharp, watchful.
“I could use a cold shower and some Benadryl, but I’ll be okay.” She bit her lip. “In fact, I’d really rather go straight home.”
“No way. I’d never forgive myself if I sent you home and you went into anaphylactic shock or something. There’s a clinic on Weaver Street that’ll get you right in. I’ve been there more times than I care to admit. The nurse practitioner who works there is an old friend of my grandmother’s. You’ll be in good hands.”
They came out into a large grass yard behind a little white house. A red Jeep Wrangler was parked in the driveway. She’d seen this house before, driven by it many times. In fact, the cabin she was renting was just up the street. “You live here?”
“Nah. I used to, but I bought a condo downtown last year. My friends and I are turning this place into an extreme outdoor sporting facility—Off-the-Grid Adventures.”
“Extreme outdoor sports?”
“Yeah. Zip-lining, rock climbing, that kind of thing.” His eyes gleamed with pride.
“Wow, that sounds, um…exciting.”
His lips quirked. “You look horrified.”
“Sorry. I guess I’m not adventurous.”
He looked like he was about to say something, but then he shook his head. “I’ll drive you to the clinic and then take you home. Where are you parked? I can get someone to drop your car off at your place later.”
“Really? Where do you live?”
“Just up the road actually.”
His brows lifted. “Oh, you must be renting the Merryweather place.”
He opened the back of the Jeep and pulled out a light blue T-shirt that said, I’D RATHER BE GETTING HIGH, with a graphic showing someone hang gliding. “Sorry. This is all I’ve got.”
“It’s okay. I’d rather be getting high than stung by wasps.” She laughed in spite of herself. “Thanks for the shirt.”
“My pleasure.” His gaze flicked briefly to her breasts, still outlined in embarrassing detail beneath her wet tank top.