Time for a little light romance fiction by aspiring author, Dana Reeves, in this first installment of “The Wilderness Between Us.” Enjoy!
It hadn’t been one of her better decisions. In fact, when she looked back over her life, contemplating all of the decision-making she had done thus far in her twenty-nine years, this one teetered on insanity. Or, perhaps that was doing it a disservice. Completely irrational, utterly insane, and most likely going to leave her with scars seemed to suit it better.
And yet, here she was, staring that terrible decision in the face.
“Sit down,” he said with a commanding voice. “It’s going to swell if you don’t.”
She didn’t want to comply. In fact, with everything in her, she wanted to defy him. It irked her that he had been right. And it irked her even more that she suddenly needed him.
Obediently, she hobbled over to the make-shift bench, which was nothing more than an overturned log he had drug over to the campsite, and dropped onto it with a heavy thud. Wincing as the pain seared down her left ankle, she let the foot that was draped in a homemade bandage stick out in front of her. Because she had been ridiculous and planned this all on a whim, because she had simply forgotten to pack a first-aid kit of any sort, things had resorted to this: her swollen ankle wrapped in a t-shirt that smelled, well, of him.
She could feel his searing gaze on her. He was watching her again. He had been doing that ever since their first meeting. In fact, if he hadn’t been some chivalrous gallant, she might have mistaken his staring for something more sinister. But that wasn’t him. At least she didn’t think so. But what could you know about a person you just met?
It had been her hair-brained idea to take on this trail alone. It will be fine, she assured herself. People do it all the time. Women backpacked the Pacific Coast constantly. Why would it be any different for her? She was smart. She was active. She was careful. Most of the time.
And, really, what was a girl to do with three months of time on her hands anyway? She hadn’t exactly anticipated the furlough. She had a great job at her local university. She loved her job. But then budget cuts got the best of things. Apparently, librarian assistants weren’t a major asset. The university had made that clear when they told her she would get three months off from work, for the betterment of the school, of course.
So when she had finished crying in self-pity in her apartment, completely alone, having devoured the last remnants of her beloved mint chocolate chip ice cream, she decided something had to give. If they were going to give her three months off from work, she would need to do something to make the time pass. She thought about going back home, about hanging out with the parents for the summer, but that idea made her even more ill. If she had saved her money better instead of buying those adorable Tory Burch sandals she absolutely didn’t need, she might have been able to afford a nice vacation. But she was kind of broke. And going to gain a good 20 pounds if she continued eating away her sorrows by the ice cream scoop.
Sitting in her misery, with puffy eyes and a belly full of dairy, she began scrolling her Instagram feed. That was where one always felt better. Sure. Watch the lives of others through the lens of social media. In fact, now completely frustrated with how pathetic her life seemed, she almost chucked the phone across the room. But then, something caught her eye. The picture stirred something within her. The beauty of the mountains and the lake reflecting the same scene filled her with something that made the tears stop abruptly.
So, on a whim, and with the last of her sad savings account spent on a pair of cheap hiking boots and bright pink hiking backpack, Samantha Wray set off for the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.
The flight had been cheap. And, other than figuring out how to pitch a tent and prepare a campsite completely solo, it hadn’t been too bad of a decision.
Until it had.
The first night alone had been the most terrifying experience of her life. It had been quiet. Too quiet. If her imagination could have killed her that night, it would have in the form of a maddened grizzly bear coming to maul her in the night. Fortunately, she made it through the night unscathed and with no bear sightings.
Camping wasn’t all that bad. Of course, cell service was down for the count. She had lost that the minute she entered the National Park. For most of her journey, she spent it alone. At first, she thought she would like the solitude. But, if she was completely honest with herself, she secretly wished for a hiking partner.
However, she never once anticipated that partner would come in the form of a man with bright green eyes and broad shoulders. But had it not been for those broad shoulders, she might still be face-first in the ravine in which she found herself now.
She wasn’t sure how the fall happened. Samantha had been walking along the narrow path, taking in the scenery just like she had for days. She felt her left foot slide a little on the terrain. It wasn’t exactly the sturdiest place to walk but she kept her balance. And then, in an instant, the world was flying by her in a million different directions. One shocked scream and failed attempt at gaining her balance sent her flying backward. Down. Down… Down.
When she opened her eyes, she couldn’t tell where she was, nor for how long she had been out. All she noticed was the pair of concerned green eyes that belonged to a lightly-bearded man with tanned skin and dark hair.
“Glad to see you’ve come back from the dead,” he said in a drawl that matched the slow, southern speech of a rural mountain town. “For a minute, I was sure you were gone.”
Shaking away the fog in her head, Samantha slowly sat up. “My foot.”
He made a face. “Yeah, you’re lucky that was the only damage done.” He glanced down at the green shirt that was now wrapped securely around her ankle and cracked a half-smile. “I don’t think you’ll be running any races any time soon, but it’ll hold until we can get help.”
It sounded bad. And, the truth was, it hurt just as bad. “How did you find me?”
He grinned again revealing a small dimple at the corner of his mouth “All I had to do was follow the screams.”
She grimaced. “Thank you, uh…”
The moment he stuck out his hand for hers was the first time she felt it. Startled by the electricity that shot through her veins like a gale-force wind, she quickly jerked back. “I’m Samantha. But everyone calls me Sam.”
After he had gotten her to her feet and helped her put together a sorry set of what one might call crutches, she quickly realized just how much trouble she was in and just how lucky she was to have been found by him.
She hobbled for a while, pathetically slow, putting so much pressure on her other leg that it began to fatigue.
At this rate, they wouldn’t make it back to civilization for a month. “We’re going to need some help,” she finally relented.
“There’s a ranger’s station about 20 miles from here,” he told her. “If you can make it that far.”
He seemed to know the area pretty well. She didn’t ask him what he did for a living or why he was so acquainted with this part of Wyoming. Instead, she spent the remainder of the day fighting against the pain in her ankle and the strange ache in her heart every single time he looked at her.
As the first day came and went, he proved himself quite the gentleman. After setting up the tents, he made sure she was comfortable before bidding her goodnight and heading into his own tent. As she lay there, listening to his soft snoring in the tent next to hers, she smiled a little. She had wished for a partner. Never once had she imagined this.
As the next two days progressed, and they slowly made their way towards this alleged ranger’s station, her fascination with Gavin grew. His strong athletic build reflected the life of an avid sports enthusiast. His quiet demeanor – even if he was a tad bossy – and good looks certainly didn’t hurt. Twice his shirt pulled at just the right angle, giving her the perfect glimpse of muscular arms that would feel right at home wrapped around her waist. Three times, that same shirt lifted just enough to reveal a set of abs that any gym rat would die for. But mostly, it was the way he looked at her that made her heart dance. He looked at her like he knew her. He stared at her like he wanted her. And, for the first time in days, she wished for a little makeup, some good shampoo, and a fabulous blow-dryer. Instead, she resigned herself to wearing day-old clothing, bathing with baby wipes, hiding her incredibly filthy hair in a baseball cap, and regretting every moment of it.
Every night Gavin went into his tent, she secretly wished he wasn’t quite so gallant.
As their meeting turned into a full five days, her ankle had now swollen to the size of a small watermelon, and she was feeling incredibly cranky. She wasn’t sure if it had to do with her ankle or more to do with the way she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
As Samantha got herself comfortable on the make-shift bench, she returned his gaze through the firelight. In their days together he hadn’t mentioned a girlfriend nor a wife. She was pretty sure he was free for the taking if he wanted to be taken. In some moments, when she caught him watching her, she thought maybe there was something there. Then, in other moments, he acted distant, treating her like a nuisance. It was infuriating.
“I think by mid-morning tomorrow we’ll reach the ranger’s station.”
She let out a deep sigh. “I sure hope so. I’m getting a little tired of hobbling around like this.” She glared down at the ankle – or rather cankle – that had swollen up to the size of her head. “I’m sorry for slowing you down,” she finally said. “I’m sure you didn’t plan on dragging an invalid through the woods.”
He grinned at her from across the firelight. “It’s not a big deal,” He tossed a stick into the fire, sending a bright burst of flames into the night sky. “It’s what we do.”
She paused. “We?”
He shrugged. “Sorry. Old habits.”
Sam swallowed back the first tinge of uneasiness. Was this the crack she had expected since meeting him? Was her too-good-to-be-true handsome stranger actually a nut that was on the verge of snapping? As far as she could tell, no one else had come along with him. “Don’t dismiss my question,” she said, feeling the panic rise and take root. She was alone with this stranger, completely at his disposal. “Who’s we?”
He picked up another stick and absentmindedly began breaking it up into bits. Piece by piece, he tossed it into the fire. “What’s wrong?” he teased. “Worried you might be out here with a loose cannon?”Or a psychopath, she wanted to blurt out loud. For the first time in days, gone were the whimsical fantasies about finding a kindred spirit. Instead, she now had to devise a way to get out of there.