Dark Hunger

Page 10

So he typed, “lolol, yeah don’t be afraid, we could just go for a hike if you want. Oh, I think I just asked you out. Yeah I did,” and then he ended it with a question mark.

And when she typed “Yes,” he couldn’t believe it – and panicked. Now he actually had to step forward. Dylan had always gone out and found the women and had been the one to find Jill, and no matter how desperately they both missed Jill, Jill was gone and they had to accept that.

Laura was pretty much the opposite of Jill, but he could see what Dylan saw in her. That was a sweet smile. She seemed accomplished, and there was something Mike couldn’t put his finger on, a genuineness and authenticity, but he and Dylan were not exactly the most conventional package.

So he worried that maybe a business analyst at Stohlman Industries wasn’t going to make the cut – or maybe he was more worried that they wouldn’t make the cut with her. The office cubicle type wasn’t exactly eager to go out on the slopes or to even watch him at mile marker 20 during a marathon, in his experience.

But Dylan was giving it a good try and Mike had to, too. The problem was that Mike had to do it in secret. He typed in a few more words, they scheduled the hike, and then she disappeared, off to whatever corporate job she had in whatever floor of whatever giant skyscraper downtown. That world was so alien to him; he worked at a ski resort, and in fact he was missing it already.

You don’t work there anymore, a voice inside him said. You own it…

The season hadn’t started yet, but he looked forward to it. He always did every year and when he wasn’t skiing he was running. Between the two he kept his sanity somehow, for over the years he had learned that the endorphin kick that came from running and from the massive double diamond trails in the winter were what he needed most. Jill had fit in nicely with his life and with Dylan’s life, spending time running with him. Man, was she an ace on the slopes, too.

She and Dylan had an affinity for action movies, for cooking and…he let himself get nostalgic, even let his eyes well up with tears. Letting the memories flood him was dangerous, his mind tipping over from nostalgia to deep grief, a mourning he’d only recently been able to emerge from, the slam of Jill’s inheritance making him ache all over again.

His body was consumed suddenly by grief at her loss. It hadn’t been running, it hadn’t been skiing, it hadn’t been any of Dylan’s crazy antics like sky diving or parasailing that had killed Jill.

It had been one cell that mutated and mutated and mutated until finally it had taken over her body, the lymphoma wasting her away and neither of them had gotten over her death from eighteen months ago. In some ways Mike had gotten over Jill even faster than Dylan, though Dylan had been the first to go out and find somebody to sleep with. Mike hadn’t – he just hadn’t. Couldn’t.

Eighteen months, though. It had been a long dry spell and he was getting frustrated. Now he finally felt emotionally ready to at least give this a try, and he was more than physically ready. Who knew what the hike would bring? All he knew was that he had to try, and he had to try on his own. He couldn’t be the tag along with Dylan. That had complicated their relationship with Jill for far too long. And it wasn’t until it was too late that Mike realized that it actually hadn’t mattered. He had loved Jill. Jill had loved him and they both loved Dylan. And the three of them had made it work, somehow, in their own crazy way.

Now the question was, could the three of them – this time with Laura – make it work? He was getting ahead of himself. All that mattered was having one hike with the woman. He just needed to see if this could be his future – their future.

Huff, huff, huff. Laura was more out of shape then she’d ever imagined. Her idea of exercise was lifting her hand from her mouth to the bag of Doritos or lifting the spoon out of the pint of Ben & Jerry’s. No, she chided herself, that wasn’t really true. She took the stairs at work, and that wasn’t a joke, considering the fact that she worked on the 32nd floor. And she and Josie power-walked around her neighborhood (Josie jokingly called it their Mugging Prevention Program), but this kind of sustained prolonged, effort that used muscles that involved the hard work of climbing actual inclines while hiking along the trails and the woods? This she wasn’t used to.

And that was OK. Really. Mike was a sweetheart who slowed his pace down and who was absolutely, fantastically interesting. Talking about everything from books that Laura hadn’t read since college, but had always loved, to movies – who knew he had a Christopher Guest obsession, too? She couldn’t wait for a second date where they could sit and watch Best in Show, and she could enjoy having that someone finally who appreciated the humor.

She was getting ahead of herself.

And she really liked that.

“Laura, are you OK?” Mike asked, a look of concern covering his face as she wheezed slightly while rounding a bend and staring at the tall hill leading to the summit.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she lied. “Just not used to these tall hills. I’m, you know, more accustomed to doing eleven street blocks downtown. I’ll be good.”

He smiled and stared at her. “You’re a good sport, you know?”

“I have to be. I don’t think I have the oxygen to run away.”

They both laughed in unison and Laura felt a warmth spreading through her. She couldn’t quite believe the way that the past two days had gone. First, she’d had an absolutely amazing date with Dylan. She could still feel him on her skin, even though she had slunk out of his apartment doing a walk of shame like she wouldn’t believe. Then again, it wasn’t exactly her fault that he had pictures of his current girlfriend all over the place. And now here was this golden boy, smiling at her and standing there like Thor at the gates of Asgard, taking her on a hike.

Mike was about as opposite of Dylan as you could possibly get. Tall – if he was shorter than 6‘5” she’d be surprised – blonde, maybe Danish, with piercing blue eyes and the lanky body of a thirty-something guy who walked like he was seventeen and still a little awkward. Just looking at his body told her he was a true athlete, and he had told her himself he was a ski instructor, so obviously he was coordinated. She, on the other hand, felt like a giant cotton ball right now. A sweaty, huffing cotton ball. Who wanted nothing more than to relax in a hammock with a pitcher of sangrias.

And an oxygen tank.

Yet here she was, about a quarter mile from the summit of some crazy-ass hill that he wanted her to climb to the top of. She could expand her horizons. This was something new. He was sweet, quiet, kind of taciturn – but not in a bad way. Nothing was awkward. Nothing was uncomfortable. He was just was a man who didn’t talk too much. He preferred, obviously, to act, to move – to move up that damn hill. Which she now stared at as if she were looking at the top of Mount Everest.

“So, we’re really going to climb up that?” she asked, trying to keep the skepticism out of her voice.

“Yep, we really are!” he grinned. “But,” he patted the log next to him where he’d sat down, stretching out his long legs. “We can take a short break.”

“A short break?”

“OK, a long break.”

“Whew,” she said, collapsing on the log next to him, trying to suck in her belly at the same time as her hamstrings cried out in relief.

Laura suddenly felt like a complete ass. Not exactly experienced with dates like this, she’d overdressed and now, many miles into this hike, she was dripping with sweat, her hair limp and plastered against the edges of her face, her body flushed with the heat and the exertion of this long hike of this crazy tall hill. She felt about as feminine as a wet tissue and yet that kernel of woman in her did have a spark of femininity, because she was responding to Mike in ways that shocked her.

Her body should have been spent from the night with Dylan. But rather than finding herself halting or tentative, it was as if what she had done with Dylan the night before had opened her up like a flower blossoming, giving permission to show its true colors and to spread itself in full glory and right now, Laura was ready to spread herself again.

Easy, girl, she told herself as she stole another look at Mike.

What was it about these two? Dylan was incredible last night and yet she’d already crossed him off her mental list of eligible partners because the guy obviously had a girlfriend or wife. Who keeps the pictures of some gorgeous woman all over the place in their bedroom otherwise? So less than fifteen hours after sneaking out of Dylan’s house and doing the walk of shame, she found herself with yet another incredibly hopeful relationship staring her in the face.

Literally. She looked up and realized that Mike was watching her, his head cocked to the side, a little half grin making him look boyish and absolutely adorable. “What are you thinking, Laura?” he asked.

“Uh…” she stammered, completely unwilling to tell him what she was really thinking. “Oh, I was just marveling at how beautiful it is here.”

“Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it?”

“So you work here?”

“Well, yeah, in the winter, but I just thought I’d bring you up here on a hike right now, because the canyon looks so much better. Different – when it’s not covered with snow and skiers. Actually it’s kind of nice to be here when I’m not on duty and worrying about some teenager who breaks a leg or some eight year old who can’t grab the tow rope properly and gets dragged up the hill.” He chuckled and she joined him. That was the most she had heard out of his mouth in one continuous stretch since she’d met him.

He just seemed so good-natured, he didn’t talk much, was kind of quiet and she liked that. It was really different from Dylan, who was so gregarious, open and extroverted. There was a quiet depth to Mike that she found refreshing. Most guys she’d met on the dating site were either out for a piece of ass or out to just sit there on a date and talk themselves up. Nobody had ever asked her out on a hiking date and she was starting to realize that this guy was different, this guy was special, and she hoped she was special enough for him.

“Shh!” he said, grabbing her arm suddenly, the pressure of his fingers more urgent than arousing. “Look!” he hissed, pointing into the woods. She leaned into him, craning her head to see what he was pointing to. She could smell him this close and he smelled like pine and sweat and something more – a sporty musk that seemed to turn on her inner sensors, making her instantly flushed, a lump forming in her throat that told her that there was definitely a spark of chemistry here.

“What is it?” she asked.

“There – do you see it?” Two deer stood deep in the woods munching on the bark of a tree. The mother perked her head up, turned to her fawn, and looked back at Laura and Mike with a precision only animals could possess. The doe nudged her baby and the two ran off into the woods.

“Oh, wow,” Laura said. “That’s really beautiful.”

The pressure of his fingers lightened, shifting from a grab of urgency to a lingering touch that asked a question his mouth couldn’t – or wouldn’t – ask. Two seconds, Laura, she told herself, two seconds to just start to breathe before turning and looking at him.

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