I like my salsa the same way I like my women—hot! But nothing can prepare me for Makenna. She’s stubborn, reckless, and lives for the challenge. Oh hell, she reminds me of me.
I have a feeling moving her to the more experienced group of hikers bound for the backcountry is a bad idea, but I can’t come up with a reason not to.
Not touch his salsa? I’ll prove to Nash that I can handle anything he can dish out. I admit, I didn’t expect his salsa to be habanero hot. So what do I do? I eat a little more!
Sometimes I don’t think before I act, but I will not back down from a challenge. Tell me I can’t do something and I’m all over it.
But when unexplained accidents start to happen, the small group suddenly faces challenges they hadn't expected.
Unleash the Passion
What the hell was happening? I was supposed to be going to the backcountry. Hiking, backpacking, and white water rafting. You know, the really rough shit. But no, I was in a fucking air-conditioned luxury jeep with a group I was pretty sure didn’t have the same expectations that I did. What had my cousin been thinking when he said Nash Hayes would be the perfect guide? I was going to kill him.
My cousin, that is.
Okay, maybe both.
“Look, Amy, a deer,” the woman sitting next to me said to her snotty, entitled teenage daughter, who was permanently attached to her iPhone.
“Animals stink,” Amy mumbled without looking up. Blonde hair streaked with blue and green highlights curtained most of her face.
Okay, I liked her hair color, but I could do without the attitude.
Her frazzled mother sighed deeply, then looked toward her husband, who only shrugged. I opened my mouth, then snapped it closed. No, I wouldn’t ask who was running this family—them or their child.
I glanced at my watch—again. We’d been on the road two hours. Two long, agonizing hours. Our group consisted of the couple with the surly teenager, an elderly couple who were enthralled with the journey and each other (they were kind of cute, actually), and four high school-aged girls who giggled every time our guide, Nash, looked their way before we left. And then there was their chaperone. Thank goodness Nash was meeting us at the camp rather than riding with the group, or my ears would start to ache.
Not that I could really blame the silly teenagers for giggling. Nash Hayes wasn’t hard on the eyes. He was around six feet, maybe three inches. He had black hair, dark green eyes, and a rock hard body that gave me whiplash the first time I saw him. I mean….damn! The guy had muscles on top of muscles.
Not that I was interested. Nope, men were at the bottom of my to-do list. Way at the bottom. Like whale shit on the bottom of the ocean, bottom.
I’d been wrung through the ringer during a messy divorce from a man I thought I would grow old with—at least until I caught him in bed with his assistant—like he’d had a real job and needed an assistant. Pffft. Yeah, the job thing never really happened for him, but I didn’t find out that little tidbit until later—much later.
Dammit, I’d caught them bare-assed naked. Our bedroom, in our bed, on our fucking sheets…fucking! Expensive organic, and apparently orgasmic, cotton sheets that he insisted we buy. Correction, that I bought since I had all the money.
I made the bastard chocolate chip cookies! I’d even gone all Suzy Homemaker and shit, and even wore a frilly apron. So what if the cookies had burned a little. Okay, a lot. At least I’d made the effort to be more like a homemaker. I was pretty sure burnt cookies weren’t the reason he’d had an affair, or that his assistant had only been one in a long line of women in our thirteen-month marriage. Eric had been an asshole, but I’d worn blinders. How could I have been so stupid?
No, I wouldn’t go there. I closed my eyes for a moment and counted to ten. This was why I was going on a hike into the backcountry. Hiking had a way of clearing my mind. When I opened my eyes again, I was somewhat calmer. Still angry, but under control. Eric was completely out of my life. I would move on. This trip would be my catharsis.
I frowned. Except it wasn’t.
I glanced at the other hikers. There was no way these people were experienced. But then, I’d been fooled before. Like the time there was an eighty-two year old man in my group. He’d shown us all up. The guy was really agile.
The driver turned onto another paved road. A couple of miles later, he pulled to a stop in front of what could only be described as a country resort. Before me was an expansive log building with a wide verandah, complete with wooden rocking chairs. What the hell?
I sniffed. I wasn’t ready for retirement. I was only twenty-five. This was not what I’d signed up for. I wanted to scale mountains, ride the rapids, and camp in a tent under wide open skies. I felt as if I was on a ride at fucking Disney World.
Our guide came bounding down the steps to greet us. Testosterone and muscles. A deadly combination. It would clash and win against estrogen any day. Nope, Nash Hayes was definitely not hard on the eyes. The girls giggled. Even the snobby teenage girl with the blue and green hair perked up. I rolled my eyes and prayed for patience.
“I hope the ride wasn’t too hard on any of you,” he said as everyone began to exit the vehicle.
Hard? He had to be joking. Nope, he looked serious as hell. And super sexy. He wore a black t-shirt and snug-fitting blue jeans. Maybe I didn’t blame the girls for giggling.
I reminded myself that I had sworn off men. This trip was to forget how I’d fallen for Eric’s charm, not add more complications, but Nash Hayes and I were going to have a talk as soon as I caught him alone. I wanted to find out exactly what my cousin had signed me up for.
Except as the day wore on, Nash always seemed to be surrounded by people. At dinner that night, our group had their own table. I was seated on the far end. When the meal ended, he reminded everyone to bring their cameras tomorrow. The Jeep would meet us out front at eight in the morning with another guide. We would return at noon for lunch. The afternoon would be spent poolside.
Something definitely wasn’t right, but every time I tried to question him, the teens would interrupt with questions of their own, then he disappeared after the evening meal, and I lost my chance.
My stress level was practically through the roof. If I didn’t do something, I was going to absolutely lose my fucking mind! Believe me, no one wanted to see me when I got all crazy.
There was only one way to clear my head. I went to my room and changed into my dark blue shorts and white v-neck t-shirt. After I slipped on my tennis shoes, I headed downstairs and took off on the lighted path. Two miles was nothing to me, and that’s how long the loop was, but I didn’t want to keep running in circles.
Adrenaline was still fueling me. I needed a beer. Maybe alcohol would calm me down. Not that I drank that much. Maybe a few beers or mixed drinks with my friends on the weekends. I’d only gotten really plastered a few times, but when I woke up the next morning, the guy never looked as good as he had the night before. Funny how that worked. So, I swore off drinking binges.
I walked inside the dimly lit bar that was within the resort and ordered my beer. I glanced around at the rustic, but high-end décor: wooden beam rafters, stacked stone fireplace for those cold winter nights, and small intimate tables.
My gaze skidded to a halt when I spotted Nash sitting by himself at one of the tables, drinking a beer, and munching on chips and salsa. When the bartender brought my beer to the counter, I took it over to his table, sitting in the chair across from him. I didn’t care that I was sweaty, or that my pinned up blonde hair had started to tumble down.
He looked startled for a moment, then casually took a drink of his beer. “Makenna, right?”
Well at least he remembered my name. “Everyone usually calls me Mac.”
“We have an early day tomorrow,” he said.
I cocked an eyebrow. “Really? What time? Eight o’clock, isn’t it?” Yes, I knew I sounded as if I was ready to start an argument. Maybe I was.
He eyed me for a moment. “Are you upset about something?”
The guy was a fucking genius. “I did not sign up to ride around in a jeep and take pictures.”
I was a stress eater. It was a good thing I exercised a lot. I reached into his bowl of chips. I figured Nash owed me that much, then dove into the bowl of salsa.
His eyes widened. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It’s pretty hot.”
My eyes narrowed. I deliberately opened my mouth and stuck the chip inside.
Oh my God, he was right. It was freaking hot, as in liquid fire. Rather than grab my beer like I wanted and put out the flames inside my mouth, I reached for another chip, loaded it, and stuck it in my mouth. Not that it really mattered. The insides of my mouth were scorched. One more definitely wasn’t going to hurt. I refused to let him see my discomfort. “I like it hot,” I told him.
He leaned back in his chair and studied me for a moment. “What else do you like?” he drawled, his raspy voice wrapping around me.
I casually took a drink of my ice cold beer, forcing myself not to swish it around inside my mouth. Instead, I swallowed, then leaned forward just a little in my chair, resting my arms on the table. “I like it rough. Really rough.”
A flare of desire lit his eyes as his smoldering gaze slowly traveled over me. I could almost feel him caressing my body. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. I quickly pulled myself together.
I cleared my throat. “I feel as though I’m being handled with kid gloves. My cousin told me you were the best backcountry guide around, but apparently he was wrong. I want to get my hands dirty. I want to sweat.” It was my turn to let my gaze slowly roam over him. “But you’re not making me sweat.”
Yes, I was aware of the double entendre, but I was so frustrated I couldn’t stop myself. My bff, and business partner, always said I was bad about pushing beyond the limits. Of course, Samantha was being nice. I always thought about it as more like open mouth, insert foot.
He leaned forward in his chair. I suddenly found it hard to breathe. It was as if he filled my space, even though there was plenty of room between us. His gaze locked with mine. “I can make it rough, if that’s what you like. I’m pretty sure I can make you sweat, too. Is that what you want, Mac?”
I needed to pull it back a few degrees. I reached for a chip, thought better about it, and instead curled my hands around my beer. “I’m experienced.”
He grinned. Not just any grin. It was the kind of smile that pulled me closer, making me want something I shouldn’t be wanting. I cleared my throat and decided to clear the air as well.
“I’ve never hiked in Colorado, but I’ve hiked just just about everywhere else. My partner and I own our own outfitting company. We’re thinking about expanding to this area, but I wanted to get a feel for it first.
He frowned. “Your cousin didn’t mention any of that. I was supposed to show you a little bit of the wilderness.” He eyed me skeptically, as if trying to size me up. When his gaze met mine once again, I had a feeling I didn’t measure up.
I squared my shoulders. “I should never have left this up to him,” I said. “I’m partly to blame for the confusion. When I told him I’d contacted James Scottsdale to take me out, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He explained James would not be suitable, and said he would take care of everything. I’m sorry he failed to mention that I wasn’t a novice. If someone could take me back tomorrow morning, I would appreciate it. I’ll see if I can find another guide.”
His hesitation was brief. “If you’re serious about being experienced, I have another group going out for a few days. It will definitely be rough, and you’ll definitely sweat. It doesn’t matter where you’ve hiked or gone before, this will probably be the hardest trip you’ll ever make. It’s so difficult that I take along an extra guide just to get the ones home who can’t make it.”
I bristled. “What? Do you think I can’t do it?”
He shook his head. “What are you? Five feet, five inches, maybe? One hundred fifteen or twenty pounds? You look—soft. No, I don’t think you’ll last twenty-four hours.”
I gripped my bottle, tempted to throw it at him, but then I probably would have to look for another guide, and I’d probably have to wait for another group to head out. I didn’t really want to start all over. “Oh, I’ll last. When do we leave?”
His eyes narrowed, then he apparently came to a decision. “No, forget I said anything. I won’t have you getting hurt.”
My blood began to boil hotter than his damned salsa. “Then like I said, I’ll find another guide. Maybe Mr. Scottsdale will be more accommodating.”
He frowned. I mean a really dark kind of frown. As if he was a thundercloud about ready to let loose with a few bolts of lightning aimed right at my head. Oops, I had a feeling I’d pushed the wrong button.
“We’ll be hiking and rafting down the rapids. Are you ready for that?” he ground out.
He seemed to calm just a fraction, and expelled a tortured sigh. “I have another guide taking over this group. I’m meeting the other one tomorrow afternoon. We’ll leave at two. If you’re not ready, I’ll leave without you. If you get hurt, it’s on you, not me.”
My glare should’ve turned him into a pile of ashes, but what did he do? He had the audacity to suddenly smile. Not the kind that said we were going to be best buds on the trail, but the kind that said I’d better not fuck up, or he’d send me packing quicker than I could blink.
Knowing I would immediately regret it, but unable to stop myself, I reached for another chip. I very deliberately loaded it with the salsa before sticking it into my mouth. I only prayed I didn’t start coughing because it was so damned hot.
Our eyes locked as I slowly chewed, finally getting it down, then came to my feet. “You might as well know this now, I don’t believe in giving up.” I turned on my heel and left the bar.
I opted not to take the slow-as-grass-growing elevator. One glance over my shoulder told me that I was alone. I raced up the stairs to the next floor and down the hallway. Once I was inside my room, I went to the ice bucket and grabbed a cube, sticking it in my mouth. Oh Lord, that felt better.
As I sucked on the ice, I only hoped I wouldn’t have blisters on the inside of my mouth tomorrow. Eating the salsa had been really dumb. The second and third loaded chip had been pure idiocy. What had I hoped to prove? That I wasn’t very smart? I had a feeling I’d accomplished exactly that.
I popped another ice cube into my mouth. God, would the burning ever stop?
If I was truthful, the salsa wasn’t the only thing that burned. My body was on fire. When he’d looked at me, I could almost feel his hands squeezing my breasts, tugging on my hard nipples.
I closed my eyes. “I will not have sex with Nash Hayes. I will not have sex with Nash Hayes…” Maybe if I repeated the mantra enough, I would start to believe it. He was definitely hot, but I had a feeling he would burn more than the salsa, and I was tired of the scars that men left behind.
Maybe if I just let him scorch me…
Nope, I was treading dangerous water.
Not that I was trying to be celibate or anything. After all, I was divorced. I just didn’t want to get involved with anyone right now. Samantha said I was skittish. Maybe my business partner was right, but who could blame me?
When my cell phone began to ring, I pulled it out of my pocket. Speaking of Samantha.
“Hi, Sam. Is everything okay?”
“Nothing going on here, I just thought I would check in and see how your day was shaping up. I’m surprised you have cell service. “
I grimaced. “That’s because Michael booked me in the tourist group. He failed to tell Nash that I was experienced and wanted to see the backcountry.”
“Bummer. What are you going to do?”
“I met with him tonight and got everything straightened out. Tomorrow we’re leaving the resort and meeting up with his other group. I don’t think he’s convinced that I can handle the wilderness.”
Sam chuckled. “I’m sure it won’t take long to persuade him otherwise. It’s not your fault you look soft.”
I frowned. “I do not look soft.” I bumped my fist against my thigh. It was tighter than a drum. I was definitely not soft.
“Yes you do. You’re all curves, blonde hair down to your ass, incredibly long legs, and big blue eyes. You look as if you should be wearing hoop skirts and carrying a parasol.”
“Southern belles are a lot tougher than they look, and so am I.”
“So what does he look like?” she abruptly changed the subject.
For a moment, I didn’t speak.
“That good looking, huh?”
“I was only trying to think of how to describe him.”
“So, is he cute or not?”
Sam never missed a beat. She made a good partner. “Yes, if you must know, he’s very good looking. Tall, dark hair, intense green eyes, and lots of delicious muscles. There, are you satisfied?”
Sam giggled. “And how long are you going to be alone with him?”
“Just until we get to the camp. Probably a few hours at most. I’m not sharing his tent, and I certainly am not going to jump his bones.”
“Remember, Eric isn’t a good representative of all men. He was a sleaze ball. I knew there was something about him that I didn’t like the moment I met him. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Just when I thought I had him figured out, he would go off in a different direction, and I’d be confused again. The guy knew how to manipulate people.”
“Well, he definitely manipulated me.”
“I still don’t think you should’ve given him the house or the cash settlement.”
“It was the only way he would agree to a divorce without causing a shit storm and drawing everything out. I wanted a quick end to our marriage. I never really liked the house anyway, and the money was a paltry sum. At least he didn’t have access to my inheritance, since my aunt made sure he signed a pre-nup. Not getting more money really pissed him off.”
We talked a little longer before ending our conversation. I was relaxed when I started getting ready for bed. Samantha had that effect on me. We’d become best friends in high school and stayed that way through college. It was only natural that we would go into business together.
As I crawled beneath the covers, my thoughts returned to Nash. He was definitely hot. I knew I would have to be very careful around him. I didn’t want, or need, a man in my life.