This wasn’t some fairy tale story with a happy ending. The fact Mila was wandering these darkened woods had nothing to do with a trail to grandmother’s house, and the so-called, big bad wolf wasn’t going to be found lurking in the shadows out here.
No, that ghastly, pompous, arrogant, egotistical… you get the picture… he was the guest of honor at the Burkshire Spring Gala, the event of the year for this uppity, small, mountain town.
Everybody who was anybody was there, and they’d all bared witness to the disaster she had just endured at the hands of Rupert St. Cloud.
Okay, so she’d been out with the guy once or twice, but she would have much rather forgotten the whole thing and pretended none of it had ever happened, much like the horrendously public display she’d just left.
The sound of her phone ringing the tune of Justin Bieber singing about being the one started playing in muffled tones, so she reached into her cleavage to pull her cell from its admittedly moist hiding place. Another less-than-brilliant idea she could add to the list for the night.
“Charlie, don’t even say it. I don’t want to hear it. I already know what you’re going to say, and… just don’t.”
She heard her friend’s melodic chuckle through the phone before Charlotte Johnson, endearingly called Charlie, said, “Oh my God, Mi, you just got the proposal of the century.”
Mila’s hand went to her forehead and covered her eyes. “I told you not to say it,” she grumbled.
“Though, I have to admit, as unexpected as it was, you bolting out the door… nobody saw that coming. I think he’s about to send his posse out looking for you.”
“Oh, God, I’ve got to get out of here. And who says the word ‘posse’ anymore?” she added.
Mila looked around, trying to decide which way to go. The sun was already starting to go down, so wandering the woods all night probably wasn’t the best idea. Going back toward the Gala was out of the question, but she knew if she went south a little way, she’d come out on the main road.
“Charlie, tell my dad to send the car for me. He can find me on Red Oak Highway in about fifteen to twenty minutes. And don’t you dare tell anyone else where I am. I’m never going to live this down.”
“Suit yourself, sister,” Charlie sang before hanging up.
Mila stuffed her phone back down into the cup of her strapless bra and hefted the layers of her long, satin skirt to maneuver through the terrain. The heels of her strappy shoes sank down into the earth with each step, and the sticks, rocks, and leaves made for a trek that was anything but smooth.
What had Rupert been thinking? The dates they had been on hadn’t exactly been awe-inspiring, to say the least. Once she had gotten past his long lashes, dimples, and British accent, she’d found there just hadn’t been much to the guy.
Nothing she had found interesting, anyway, which wasn’t saying much, she supposed. She had yet to find any guy half way interesting in this town, and had it not been for Charlie, she’d have probably gone crazy with boredom by now. It was like all these townspeople were the same – walking, talking clones of each other, like they didn’t have minds of their own but one, dull, collective mind.
The sky was getting darker by the minute, and she realized it was taking longer than she’d thought to get to Red Oak Highway. She pulled her phone out again, thinking she’d better call her dad to see where he was and let him know she would be a little longer getting to the road than she had initially thought.
She rubbed the screen of her phone against the fabric of her dress at the waist, removing the moisture it had accumulated from the sweat she had worked up, pillaging through the woods in heels and a long gown. She brought the phone to life and tried to dial her father.
“Crap,” she cursed under her breath. No signal.
With her eyes on the phone screen instead of the path, she didn’t see the dip in the ground ahead as her foot stepped down, her ankle twisting at a painful and awkward angle, and it sent her toppling straight to the ground.
“Ow!” she cried, pushing herself up to sitting and reaching for her now throbbing ankle.
She sucked in a hissing breath between her clenched teeth as she tried to barely rotate her foot, but the shooting pain made her think better of it.
The panic crept up in her chest as she took a look around at the darkening forest. Nightfall was already settling upon her, and the canopy of trees overhead lent their shadow beneath, darkening her path even further.
She looked around for her phone that had plummeted to the ground at some point during her fall. It was her only hope at this point of getting anywhere, and the chances of it magically having service now when it hadn’t only a few seconds ago was undoubtedly slim – if she could even find it.
She scraped her hands along the leaves, dirt, and grass of the forest floor, feeling for any sign of the phone.
“Where are you? Where are you? Come on, don’t do this to me, not now.” She tried to widen her radius, shifting so her throbbing ankle was out of the way.
Finally, her fingers grazed over the smooth surface of the device, and she clutched it tightly in her fist, rejoicing with her victory. Her excitement, though, was short lived once she brought the phone to life, only to see it still had no signal.
She thought for a moment, taking a look around as her eyes adjusted to her darkened surroundings. She had to keep her head. If she gave up, that would be as good as Rupert St. Cloud winning, and she would be damned if she let that arrogant prick get the upper hand on her.
She would have to suck it up and find her way out. The trouble now was, she had somehow gotten herself turned around and couldn’t tell which direction was which with the sun no longer showing in the sky to indicate any semblance of a hint of which way she was going.
Her gaze traveled from left to right, desperate to recall any landmark that might give away the direction she had come from, but it was just no use. She couldn’t very well sit here on the floor of the forest all night, though, either, so she braced herself and pushed off the ground to stand.
Dusting herself off, mostly to stall walking, she made up her mind. This was the way she needed to go.
She put her lame foot in front of her and quickly stepped forward, pain lancing up through her leg until the other foot stepped down and accepted her weight again. This was not good. She would have to rally her strength and push through this. Camping had never been her thing, much less alone, knowing her dad would be waiting for her and probably already was.
One step. Ow!
Another. Then another. Each step she took felt more painful than the last, and she felt the tears begin to spill down her cheeks, not realizing she had been crying.
When the shock finally took over her, stealing her consciousness, she toppled, a dead weight, and her head hit hard on the solid root of a massive oak tree when she met the ground.
His wolf picked up an unusual scent as he passed through the darkness in pursuit of his secluded, mountain home. He’d been making his usual rounds, checking the perimeter and the boundaries of his territory, letting his animal run free, when the scent drew him near to see what it was.
Who was she, and where had she come from? These woods were no place for a woman, especially at night, and he could smell the lingering scents of fear and pain on her.
He shifted into his man form and slowly approached her in the shadows, remaining hidden.
He noted the slow, rhythmic, rise and fall of her chest and the way the air pushed from deep within her lungs that she was asleep. He moved in closer to see her better. He observed the formal dress, the heels, and the dark, silky curls that fanned out on the ground like the halo of a beautiful, sleeping angel.
Something wasn’t right. Had she been dumped here? Her clothes showed no signs of being dragged. Nothing was torn or tattered that he could see. There were no signs of struggle, other than her swollen, right ankle. He could sense its heat like a fever.
What to do with her, though? He couldn’t just leave her out here in the wild. It wasn’t safe. Taking her home would be a mistake, though. He could just see her reaction at first glance of him, but what choice did he really have?
He shifted back to wolf form. He would need the speed and grace of his animal to get her there as quickly and smoothly as possible. He nuzzled his way beneath her and lifted so she rested on his back. He waited for a moment in case she woke, but after several seconds, she remained un-moving.
He began at a slow pace to adjust to moving beneath her weight while balancing her so she didn’t slide off him, until he managed to work his way up to full speed.
Within an hour, he slowed as he came upon the stoop of his home tucked deep within the woods.
He knelt his large frame to the ground with the woman still lying across his back. He eased out from beneath her and shifted again to man form so he could carry her inside. He spared a final glance over his shoulder before he pressed his foot against the door, pushing it closed.
When she awoke, the sunlight colored the backs of her eyelids, and she squinted them tightly to keep the intrusive brightness at bay. When she thought she was ready, she opened her eyes.
A high ceiling with exposed, wooden rafters came into focus first. The next thing that registered was the smell of bacon cooking. She turned her head, looking to one side, then the other.
Where am I?
She leaned up onto her elbows. There had to be someone here, or she wouldn’t smell food. Delicious-smelling food, at that, she thought, as her stomach reacted with a growl.
“Hello?” she called, but the sound came out low and timid. No one could have heard that, not from another room.
She took a breath to try again, but instead, she was startled by the sight of a man who appeared in the doorway of the room.
He was tall, unusually so with a thick, solid frame. He wore a tee-shirt that hugged his form, and a pair of dark jeans hung low on his hips.
His arm and shoulder muscles were showcased as he gripped each side of the door frame. He had more than a few days’ worth of stubble cover his jaw, and a thick mane of unruly hair fell around his face. His eyes were hazel, an intense mixture of brown and green, and they looked severe and intimidating as he eyed her from across the room.
She recoiled, unsure of who he was or whether he could be trusted.
“Wh-who are you?” she stuttered.
His voice came out deep and growly when he replied, “Brody.”
Her eyes dared to leave him for a moment to look around. “Where am I?”
He didn’t move from the door. “You’re in my home. We’re… a few miles outside of town.”
She looked out the window and saw an incredible view of the horizon, as though they were high up somewhere.
She looked back to him, appraising him and whether he seemed like a threat.
“And how did I get here?” she asked, defensively.
He dropped his arms to the side, and she flinched. He held his hands up and waited for her to give him the okay to move closer.
When she nodded her permission, he came into the room and stood at the foot of the bed.
“I found you last night, passed out, alone in the woods.”
She looked downward to the blanket that rested over her, trying to think.
“Do you remember how you got there?” Brody asked.
She looked up at him with a near blank expression. She shook her head, no.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
“I was… I… don’t know,” she admitted.
His lips formed a straight line as his brows furrowed. “What’s your name?”
Her eyes met his and her mouth opened as if to answer. Nothing came. The words had evaded her. She tried to clear the fog from her brain, but there was no answer.
She became afraid. “Oh, God, I don’t remember my name.” She held her hands to her face as realization hit her. “I don’t know who I am.”