Wild Thing



          Toni Russo stood on the porch of the Sawtooth Inn ignoring the mountains cutting the bright blue sky, concentrating instead on Hunter Kincaid’s very confused, very green eyes. She recognized him from the photos on the River Runners’ website. They didn’t do him justice, probably because there was no way to transmit the pheromones rolling off the man onto an image.

          Hunter stared at her the whole way from his old Land Cruiser to the porch. He stopped, tipped his baseball cap back, and then put his hands on his hips. “You’re not who I expected to see.”

          Well, no shit. “Yeah, I guess you’ll have to learn to live with the disappointment. I know I have.”

          “Toni?” A look of relief flashed across his face then a smile ticked up the right side of his mouth as he made a slow perusal of her from head to feet and back again.

          She waited, knowing it would take awhile. Ever since she’d landed in Boise, she’d experienced the same thing. No one quite knew what to make of her. Holding her clipboard to her chest, she wondered if it would have been better to have spent her time in Boise shopping for less interesting clothes. She mentally shook her head and knew it would never have worked. You could put her in a sack, and she’d do something to stand out. She’d long since given up trying to rein herself in. As Catherine Aird said, “If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” So far, it had worked for her. 

          Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, Toni looked down at her outfit. The short, red plaid kilt wasn’t too offensive. She pulled her clipboard away to see she had on her Stay Away T-shirt. Maybe he had something against the collage of pistols, brass knuckles, knives, and bullets. But really, he didn’t look like a pacifist, not that she wasn’t—it was a T-shirt for goodness sake, not a personal manifesto. The kitty-face Mary Janes and red skull-and-crossbones knee-socks were a bit busy. Okay, Hunter’s thirty seconds were up. She fingered the D-ring on the studded collar around her neck and cleared her throat. “Do you mind?”

          Hunter took a sip of whatever was in the travel cup he held. “Not at all—just wondering if you were going for that naughty-schoolgirl-fantasy look.”

          “No, I was going for my not-quite-sure-what-to-wear-for-a-meeting-with-Davy-Crocket look. How’s it working for you?” 

          Hunter’s mouth worked its way into a full smile. Great teeth. She had a thing for nice teeth, and yeah, his mouth was full of them. 

          “Really well, thanks. Over the phone, it sounded as if you wouldn’t be caught dead out here. When Bianca came to scout for photo shoot locations, she said something about you having a phobia. What changed your mind?”

          Toni took in the rustic porch wrapping around the log cabin lodge and decided to sit on a rocking chair. There was nothing else to sit on except the steps, and they needed a good sweeping. “You asked Bianca about me?”

          Hunter leaned against the rough-hewn post holding up the corner of the porch. “I didn’t know it was a federal offense.”

          “Bianca was involved in negotiating a big deal so she sent me.” Toni placed her clipboard on her lap and clicked her pen a few times in rapid succession. “I had no choice.”

          Hunter’s big hiking boots filled her line of sight. Her gaze wandered up to where neatly rolled, rag-wool socks met hard, tanned calf muscle with just the right splattering of leg hair—not so much you’d be tempted to take a brush to it, and not so little you’d wonder if he routinely waxed. He wore khaki shorts low around the hips, his green River Runners T-shirt pulled tight against his chest and abs. She’d seen him without a shirt thanks to the picture on the website, so she knew if she poked him it would feel like poking a brick wall. She’d bet dollars to doughnuts he didn’t get that hard body in a gym.

          When her eyes hit his stubbled chin, she encountered another full-toothed grin. Damn, she hadn’t meant to be so obvious.

          The slap of an old-fashioned screen door broke the tension. “Sorry.” James, Bianca’s right-hand man, appeared with two cups of coffee. He handed Toni hers. “That’s decaf. Maybe you’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

          Not likely. The woods seemed to inch closer and closer to the lodge. God only knew what roamed out there. She took a sip of bad coffee as James, an ex-model and now her partner in managing the series of shoots, shook Hunter’s offered hand. James’s dark hair glittered with silver at the temples, his bright blue eyes were full of intelligence and humor, and his build was still trim and muscular, but not like Hunter’s. Hunter’s muscles were brought about by his life’s work, James’s by a trainer, weight machines, and a strict diet.

          “James, this is Hunter Kincaid. Hunter, James Ness.”

          “Hunter, good to see you again. Do you want coffee?”

          “No, thanks, I brought my own.” Hunter’s handshake turned into a guy hug, which was weird considering James’s sexual preference was in direct opposition to the one Hunter oozed.

          Toni caught James’s eye with a raised brow. A quick shake of his head confirmed Hunter was, in fact, straight. She’d forgotten James had accompanied Bianca on the scouting trip. The guys had obviously bonded.

          Hunter set his travel cup on the table and sat. She finally saw what was written on the side of the cup: “The Way to a Fisherman’s Heart is Through His Fly” along with a picture of what looked like an insect with a hook up its butt. Nice.

          “I was surprised to find Toni here,” Hunter said as he eased back on the chair.

          James let out a laugh that grated on her nerves. “No more than she, I presume. Bianca didn’t give her much notice. Or should I call it warning? Still, Toni can run the show with one hand cuffed behind her back. We won’t have a problem.”

          “I wasn’t worried.” Hunter watched her over the rim of his cup as he sipped his coffee, no decaf for him. He slept like a baby every night, no matter how late he drank coffee, but he wouldn’t mind spending a few sleepless nights with a beautiful woman.

          He’d wondered what Toni looked like since the first day she’d called River Runners in January. Her deep, husky, raspingly sexy voice brought to mind an unbidden picture of a young, blonde, long-legged Kathleen Turner. The New York accent was all wrong, but that do-me voice was right on. Man, was he ever way off base. He found himself eye-to-eye with the polar opposite of the woman he’d pictured. Toni wore her jet black, shoulder-length hair in pigtails. Instead of making her look like a schoolgirl, it made him wonder what kind of underwear she wore, if she was into bondage, or just dug the whole collar-and-cuff thing for fashion’s sake, and had him searching all exposed skin for ink. When he didn’t see any, he thought about putting himself in the position to do a full body search.

          Checking his dive watch, Hunter looked around for the models he’d promised his brothers they’d be working with when they signed on as guides. That was an ingenious idea if he did say so himself. By bringing Trapper and Fisher along, he not only got free guides and someone to distract Bianca, who, on their week-long outing, had been determined to share a sleeping bag with him, but supplied a physician and legal help if necessary. Since his brothers had plenty of vacation time racked up, they jumped at the chance to spend a week escorting ten models through the mountains and down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Recreation Area. Hunter could have gotten his brothers to pay for the privilege, but he hadn’t pushed it since Bianca Ferrari, the owner of Action Models, had paid top dollar for his services. “My guides, Trapper and Fisher, will be here any minute for the barbeque and to meet your group.”

          Toni flipped through the pages stuck in her skull-and-crossbones stenciled clipboard, which, if he wasn’t mistaken, was shaped like a coffin. The clasp was a bat forged from what looked like pewter with onyx stones for eyes. “I’ve called a 9:00 a.m. meeting tomorrow then the models can spend the rest of the day getting acclimated.”

          Hunter stopped staring at the clipboard and shrugged, trying not to envision what that bat would look like tattooed on Toni’s lower back, its wings spanning her small waist. “We can take a short rafting trip and have a picnic down by my cabin. Bianca had planned a shoot there. There’s a nice beach with plenty of space for sunbathing and a regulation sand volleyball court. It’ll be an easy trip and will give your group a chance to have a lesson on the rafts.”

          James nodded. “That sounds great. I’ll make arrangements to have a lunch packed for everyone. It’s gorgeous, Toni. You’re going to love it.”

          Toni paled, which was hard to do since the girl without makeup was pale enough to qualify for a vampire casting call. She was definitely a candidate for skin cancer. Hunter made a mental note to make sure she wore plenty of sunscreen—he’d be happy to help with the hard to reach spots.

          She shook her twin ponytails as her lips drew into a deep frown. “I’m sure you’ll have fun. I’m going to stick close to my cabin. I brought plenty of reading material.”

          Hunter crossed his arms. “You really need the lesson on the raft, and the only way to do that is to get you on the river.”

          Still shaking her head, Toni backed away. Not a good sign.

          “If you want to get out of the sun and hang out in my cabin and read, you’re more than welcome to. Put your book in a Ziploc, and bring it along.”

          Toni held her clipboard tight against her chest. “I won’t be joining you.”

          Hunter moved toward her like he would a spooked horse. “You’re not going to supervise the photo shoots?”

          “Of course I will. That’s my job.”

          It took him a moment to compute what she’d said since she’d spoken so fast. He tried his most encouraging smile. “Then you’ll want to come tomorrow. If not, you’re not going to be able to do at least two of the shoots Bianca planned.”

          Toni stared at James as if she expected him to jump in and save her.

          Hunter watched the silent argument going on between them. When no words were spoken, he cleared his throat. “It’s perfectly safe. Everyone wears PFDs and even lightweight helmets. We teach you everything you need to know in case you fall in. We show you how to get back into the raft, how to paddle, and what to do if we get stuck. We’ll be running down a lazy part of the river tomorrow. I promise there will be no class-five rapids.”

          When James did nothing more than shrug, she tossed her clipboard on the table and turned on Hunter with both hands on her hips. “What the hell is a PFD?”

          “A personal flotation device.”

          “And why would I need a helmet?”

          “The helmet protects you in the rare instance you should fall and hit your head on a rock in the river.”

          Toni blinked twice and looked as if she needed to sit down and put her head between her legs.

          “Are you okay?”

          She didn’t answer. She just stood there, wide-eyed, looking as if she wasn’t breathing. Really not good.

          The purr of Trapper’s Sequoia broke the silence. The engine died as doors opened and shut. Hunter looked for help from James who suddenly found his shoes very interesting. Great.

          When boots hit the steps, Hunter turned. “Trapper and Fisher, this is James Ness. He’s working with Toni Russo, the manager of Action Models in New York.” Hunter turned back toward Toni only to find she’d disappeared, coffin clipboard and all.


          Trapper watched Toni slip around the corner of the inn and then run down the path toward the cabins. He whispered to Fisher, “Did you remember to wear deodorant today?
I know it wasn’t something I said since I didn’t say a thing.”

          Fisher did a sniff test. “Deodorant, check. I even brushed my teeth before we left, but I didn’t get close enough to breathe on her, which, when you think about it, is a real shame.”

          Hunter said something to James then chased after the hot, Goth chick.

          Trapper leaned closer to Fisher. “Looks like Hunter has dibs on Toni. That means you owe me a twenty. Didn’t I bet you that he’d go after the first model he set eyes on?”

          Fisher opened his wallet and pulled out a Jackson. “I’m not sure I actually owe you this since Toni isn’t a model. Hunter said she was the manager of the modeling agency—if the manager is that hot, just imagine what the models look like.”

          “Stop being cheap, and hand over the money.”

          Fisher did, and Trapper stuffed it in his pocket before his baby brother changed his mind. “You know what this means, right?”

          Fisher smiled wide. “We get first dibs on the rest?”


          James seemed awfully interested in Hunter and Toni. When they were out of sight, James whistled, “Brave brother you have there.”

          Trapper leaned against the porch rail. “Toni doesn’t look that scary to me.”

          James sat and curled his hand around a steaming mug of coffee. “Oh she’s not. She’s all bark and no bite, but that doesn’t mean she’s not a handful. Hunter has an uphill climb, that is, if he can talk her into ever coming out of her cabin.”


          James shook his head. “Nah, just not a fan of the great outdoors. Well, the great outdoors without paved streets, high rises, and a Starbucks on every corner.”

          Trapper tipped his straw cowboy hat back. “At least it wasn’t personal. Fisher and I were wondering.” He sat beside James, who stared at the cabin Hunter had followed Toni into. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”

          James pulled his gaze away from the cabin. “I’m not worried.”

          “Yeah, I can see that.” Trapper sat back and made himself comfortable. It could be awhile. “Hunter is great with anyone skittish, be it people or horses.”

          Fisher dragged a rocking chair over and took a seat. “Oh yeah, Hunter’s used to it in his field of work. Hell, he specializes in it. He spends a few weeks a couple of times a year running a camp for abused kids.”

          Taking off his hat, Trapper twirled it on his finger. “It’s amazing how he can reach out to kids who are afraid of their own shadows and have enough baggage to fill a freight train. After a week with Hunter, you wouldn’t recognize them.”

          Fisher nodded. “He’s a real miracle worker, my brother.”

          Trapper couldn’t agree more. “Toni should be a walk in the park compared to some of the kids he’s worked with.”

          James nodded but didn’t look convinced.

          “You’ll see. I’ll bet you the twenty I just won from Fisher that Hunter has her out of that cabin inside a half hour.”

          James smiled. “You’re on.”


          Toni knew running away in the middle of introductions was rude. Still, it was less embarrassing than hyperventilating and passing out in front of three completely gorgeous strangers. 

          She’d fought to keep the panic at bay ever since she’d climbed out of the van that had taken her and the Action Models crew through vast mountain wilderness for the three-hour trek from Boise. With each mile they’d driven deeper into the wilderness, the panic increased exponentially.

          She ran into her cabin, throwing herself on the bed before the door slammed shut behind her. Toni buried her face in a feather pillow, concentrating on taking deep, slow breaths.

          The door to her cabin opened and closed quietly. She didn’t raise her head. She thanked God James was there and that he understood. He was the closest thing to a father she had. Not that her father was dead or anything—he’d just never been interested in the job.

          “I know. I made a complete fool of myself. But believe me it was better than what would have happened if I’d stuck around. At least I didn’t pass out.”

          She focused on her breathing. Nothing was said, but nothing needed to be. It was just nice to have James close by. The creak of the cane chair next to her bedside table told her he’d sat. When she finally had her breathing under control, she rolled over and shot up in bed. “Hunter?”

          Hunter sat perusing the book she’d set on her bedside table. He Comes First: How to Find Your Perfect Man and Marry Him.

          She didn’t know which was more mortifying, her behavior, or the fact that he knew she was reading that book. “It’s not mine.”

          Hunter peered over the top of the book and raised an eyebrow. He must have practiced that look since he was a kid. It bothered her that it worked.

          “Okay, it’s mine, but I didn’t buy it. My mother sent it to me. She believes in marriage—she must since she keeps trying it, over and over and over. After number five I thought she’d give up, but apparently she hasn’t.”

          The man said nothing.

          “Some girls might find the strong, silent type attractive. I don’t.”

          He turned the page and kept reading.

          “Just so you know, I’m not looking for a husband, but I would like to have a healthy, long-term relationship. So I thought, what could it hurt? You know? It stands to reason you’d look for the same thing in a long-term relationship as you would in a spouse. I mean, really, marriage is nothing more than a long-term relationship with a license attached and a divorce in the making. Since I’m not into doing paperwork or being legally bound to anyone, I plan to forgo the whole wedding thing.”

          When he didn’t comment, she blew her hair off her face and crossed her arms. “Are you always so talkative?”

          “With you it’s hard to get a word in edgewise.” Hunter closed the book and held his finger in it as if not wanting to lose his place. He’d gotten farther into it than she had. “I thought I’d let you finish.”

          “I’m done.”

          He set the book on the table and slid the chair around to face her. The tall bed put them eye-to-eye. “No, you’re not.”

          Toni took a deep breath. She wasn’t known for her patience, but dug for it, since pissing him off on their first day was probably not a good idea—especially since she’d have to work with him for the next week. God help her. “I think I would know when I’m finished babbling. I usually don’t babble. I may talk to myself or mumble on occasion, but I never babble. You caught me off guard. I thought you were James. He’s the only one brave enough to come into my cabin without an invitation. This begs the question, what made you think it’s okay to waltz in uninvited?”

          Hunter threw his ankle over his knee as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “I’m not much of a waltzer. Walking usually works for me.” He cocked his head and grinned. “Though there have been times I’ve found running effective. I told James I was going after you, and he didn’t try to stop me.”

          “The charm is so not working on me. I deal with beautiful men on a daily basis. I’m immune. So since James didn’t stop you, you assumed you had permission to invade my personal space? Why?”

          The corner of his mouth quirked up. “It wasn’t as if you stopped me either.”

          “I would have had I known it was you.”

          “But you didn’t, and I’m here. Why don’t you tell me what you’re so afraid of?”

          Toni shook her head. “That’s personal.”

          “And your mother’s five marriages aren’t? Not to mention your low opinion of the institution of marriage and your interest in hooking up with someone.”

          “I’m not interested in hooking up.”

          His eyebrow rose again.

          “Not hooking up the way most people think of hooking up. I’d just like to have a normal, stable relationship with a normal, stable man.”

          She snapped her mouth shut, not sure why she was even talking to him about this, especially since it didn’t look as if he was buying it. Since it was the God’s honest truth, his cynicism ticked her off. She pulled her pillow onto her lap, hugging it to her chest. “What?”

          “Maybe our definition of normal is different. I can’t see you going out with anyone boring enough to be defined as normal.”

          She sat up a little straighter. The guy certainly knew how to get under her skin, and not in a good way. “You don’t know anything about me.”

          His low, sexy chuckle grated on her nerves. “Toni, I’ve learned more about you in the last half hour than I know about most of my best friends.”

          “You don’t know much about your friends then, do you?”

          “I know how long their skis are, how much they weigh, their favorite beer, what kind of flies they tie, and who they’re married to or dating—all the important stuff. Now why don’t you tell me what’s got you so spooked you almost passed out at the thought of taking a raft down a lazy river?”


          “Afraid of the water?”

          Damn, the man could have been a cop. All he was missing was the bare light bulb. “Not particularly.”

          “Then what is it?”

          “None of your business.”

          “That’s where you’re wrong. I own River Runners, which makes you one of my guests. Everything about you that affects the quality of your experience is my business.”

          “Nice try, but no cigar. The only thing you’re responsible for is following the schedule I emailed you last week and keeping my models safe. The rest is my business and mine alone.”

          He stood and inspected the living area of the small cabin as if he expected to see something more than the rustic couch, coffee table, chair, TV, desk, and a few lamps. He returned to the bedroom section against the far wall, peeked into the bathroom, and then opened the closet, which served as a partition separating the two spaces. “Did you get everything on the packing list?”

          “Yeah, why?”

          “Because you can’t wear a get-up like that on the raft tomorrow.” He reached into her closet and pulled out her checkerboard, slip-on, canvas Vans.

          He was going through her closet? She got off the bed and pulled her sneakers from his huge hands. “Do you always invade everyone’s personal space and property, or am I just special?”

          “These will work fine. You might want to put on a bathing suit or at least swap that skirt for a pair of shorts. Oh, and don’t forget your sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat tomorrow. I’ll be here at 9:00 a.m. sharp.” He grabbed a hoodie out of her closet. “Everyone’s meeting up by the lodge for the barbeque. You might think about changing into a pair of jeans. And I’m sure you’ll need this.” He tossed the hoodie to her; she caught it with one hand. “Once the sun ducks behind the mountains the temperature drops. I’ll wait outside for you to change.”

          “You ignored my question.”

          Hunter turned and looked her up and down again. “I didn’t ignore it. I don’t know the answer yet.”

          “You don’t know if you invade everyone’s personal space?”

          “No, I don’t know if you’re special, but I’m looking forward to finding out.”


          Hunter stepped outside. He leaned against the closest tree, pulled his sat-phone off his belt, and dialed his sister. God, this was going to kill him.


          “Great phone manners, Karma.”

          “Ha, you’re just jealous you can’t answer the same way, Mr. Businessman.”

          “Yeah, you’re probably right. I need a favor.” He could almost hear her deciding how to make him pay. “I need you to buy me a book and bring it up here tomorrow.”

          “Oooh, this is gonna cost you. What book and where?”

          “You have a pen handy?”

          “Do I need one? It’s not one of those boring treatises on history or literature you’re so fond of, is it? If it is, I’m going to charge you twenty bucks a pound to lug it all the way up there. And why the urgency?”

          “It’s a paperback, and no, it’s nothing like my usual reading material. You have to promise you’ll keep this a secret.” Man, he was going to be paying for this forever.

          “This is just getting better and better. What is it? The Joy of Sex or something?”

          “Worse. It’s called He Comes First: How to Find Your Perfect Man and Marry Him.”

          “You’re kidding, right?”

          He pulled off his hat and wiped his brow on his forearm. “Unfortunately, no.”


          “That’s not part of the deal.”

          “It is if you want to get your hands on a copy in the near future.”

          “Fine.” He held back a groan. “A woman I know is reading it. I just thought it was something I could use—”

          “To become her perfect man?”

          “No… well, maybe for a little while. I thought it could be fun to screw with her.”

          “Literally, figuratively, or both?”

          “Not your business.”

          “And what about that whole ‘men come first’ thing? I thought the woman was always supposed to come first, sexually speaking, of course. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”

          “I’m not talking to you about this. Are you going to bring me the book or not?”

           “Okay, I’ll bring it, but you owe me big. What’s her name?”

          “Why do you want to know?”

          “The usual reasons. I’m a nosy little sister, and I want to meet the woman who would incite you to call me and ask me for something you know you’ll never live down.”

          “Karma, how about this? If you don’t bring me the book, I’ll tell Trapper who backed into his brand-new Sequoia.”

          “You wouldn’t dare.”

          “Wanna bet?”

          “Fine. I’ll bring you the damn book, and I’ll find out on my own who the lucky lady is. Heck, I’ll probably know more about her than you do before I’m halfway to wherever it is you expect me to deliver your package.”


          “Which reminds me, where are you?”

          “I’m up at the Sawtooth Inn now. Tomorrow morning we’re taking a raft trip to my place. When can you come?”

          “Lucky for you, tomorrow’s my day off. I guess I can meet you at the cabin. Want me to bring anything else since I’m making the trip?”

          “Has Mom made any cookies lately?”

          “I’m sure she will if she knows you want some. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. Call me if there’s a change of plans.”

          “Will do… and Karma? Mum’s the word, okay?”

          “Sure, but it’ll cost you.”

          “Believe me, I know.” He ended the call and waited. He’d give Toni another three minutes, and then he was going in after her.

          Hunter checked his watch and called Emilio, one of the campers he worked with and wished he could have kept longer. Emilio had begun to show progress just in time to go back to the streets. “Emilio, it’s Hunter.”


          Street sounds came blaring through the phone. “What’s up?”

          “Just hangin’.”

          “Pat said you missed curfew last night. What’s up with that?”

          “Dude, I had my girl with me. I wasn’t thinkin’ ’bout no curfew.”

          “You should be thinking about your curfew, but more importantly—be safe. Real men protect themselves and their girls.”

          “I hear ya. Hey, I gotta go. Later.”

          “Emilio, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

          “Yeah, sure. Whatever.” The phone went dead.

          Hunter cursed under his breath. Emilio didn’t believe him, and why should he? He had absolutely no reason to think that Hunter would follow through on his promises. No one else in his life ever had.

          Hunter slammed the phone back onto his belt and felt like punching the tree he leaned against. Emilio was slipping away, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. It was a good thing he had another problem to concentrate on.

          Just as he turned toward the cabin, Toni stepped out wearing skintight black pants with what looked like black leather suspenders hanging from the waistband. The pants were tucked into tall, high-heeled black boots that laced up the front and had four black straps hanging from hooks and draping around the calf. Hunter swallowed hard as his gaze moved up to the black-and-white-striped top that fit her like a second skin. She wore the same wrist cuffs she’d sported earlier, but she’d changed collars; this one sported studs and rings with silver chains draped between them. Her hair was down and so straight and shiny, it looked fake. She caught her bright red bottom lip between her teeth and watched him with wide eyes. She looked like something out of a steaming hot sexual fantasy. He’d never had a sexual fantasy of the Goth variety before. He was pretty sure that was about to change.

          The shadows lengthened, and although it didn’t get dark until after ten at night in high summer, the first hint of the evening chill had settled. Hunter cleared his suddenly dry throat. “You forgot a jacket.”

          “Oh.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m not going to stay long.” Her gaze skittered to the edge of the clearing and back to him.

          “We’re having a bonfire after the barbeque. Come on, it’ll be fun.” He took her arm and walked her toward the barbeque.

          “Yeah. Fun is subjective… obviously.”

          He wasn’t sure why she was so nervous, but whatever it was, it had her wound tighter than a duck’s ass. The farther they got from her cabin, the slower she walked, and the more often she glanced back.

          Maybe she was reconsidering going back for her jacket or possibly rethinking the outfit choice. She looked fine to him. Mouth-wateringly so. But he figured Karma would probably think Toni was overdressed. He didn’t know what they wore at barbecues in New York, though if the few episodes of Sex and the City he was forced by assorted girlfriends to watch were accurate, they dressed a whole lot different for just about everything. In Idaho, shorts or jeans and T-shirts were good for every occasion except weddings and funerals.

          She stopped dead in her tracks, and Hunter almost stumbled over his own feet.

          “You know, I’m really tired. It’s been a long day, and I’m still on Eastern time.” She backed away. “I think I’ll just go back to my cabin and crash.”

          “You’re not even going to eat?”

          She shook her head and bolted.

          Since Toni looked more terrified than tired or angry, Hunter didn’t take it personally. He just wanted to know what had her so upset.

          When he arrived at the barbeque, James was deep in conversation with Trapper.

          Trapper shook his head, dug a twenty-dollar bill out of his pocket, and handed it to James. “Little brother, I’m disappointed in you.”

          “Yeah, and why is that?”

          “I just lost a bet to James that you’d have Toni out of her cabin in under a half hour.”

          “I had her out of the cabin and halfway to the barbeque before she made up some excuse about being tired and bolted. What’s going on with her?”

          James let out a sigh. “That, my friend, is Toni’s story to tell. If she chooses to share it with you, she will. I’ll fix her a plate and make sure she’s okay.”

          Shit. Hunter had wanted to do the same thing, but then barging into Toni’s cabin uninvited twice in one day might not be the best idea. “I need to know what’s going on James. I can’t do my job if I have to be afraid of Toni freaking out and disappearing. This isn’t New York.”

          “I believe Toni is painfully aware of that. I’ll talk to her, and we’ll see you all in the morning.”

          James made his way to the buffet that had been set up and piled two plates with food before moseying off in the direction of Toni’s cabin.

          Trapper handed Hunter a cold one. “James said she’s not into the great outdoors.”

          “Yeah, that much is obvious, not to mention an understatement. She’s terrified. Why is a mystery—she’s told me everything but.”

          “Everything?” Trapper speared Hunter with the look he had that makes everyone spill his guts. Everyone but Hunter, that is.

          “Nice try, Trap, but that hasn’t worked on me since I got caught under the bleachers with Jeannie Coleman in the sixth grade.” Hunter took a draw off his beer before going to get some grub, leaving Trapper to give up on the idea of an inquisition. Hunter wasn’t about to say anything that might incriminate himself. He knew better.


          James knocked on the screen door to Toni’s cabin with his foot. “Toni, it’s James.”

          “Come on in. Everyone else does.”

          His girl sounded disappointed. She must have expected Hunter. “I can’t get the door. My hands are full.”

          The door opened a crack, and Toni looked out before opening it fully.

          “Did you think I’d bring the paparazzi?”

          “As if, I was just making sure Hunter wasn’t lurking.” She moved aside to let James in. “Hunter just walked right in here earlier as if he owned the place. I thought he was you. I was shocked when I found out who it was.”

          James handed her a plate. “Oh, so I was right. You are disappointed.”

          Poor Toni was completely flummoxed. “Now or then?”

          “Both.” But she was definitely disappointed now.

          Toni gave him a confused look, and avoiding both the table and the subject, took her meal to her bed and crawled up, sitting cross-legged in her vintage cabbage rose, blue, and white cotton pajamas. She’d taken off the collar and wristbands. With her hair down, she looked like every other pretty twenty-six-year-old woman. Unfortunately, he was the only one who ever saw the softer side of Toni. She wore her Goth clothes like armor. James understood why. He just wished she did.

          Toni took a bite of a barbecued chicken leg. “Thanks for bringing me dinner. I was getting hungry. I tried to go…” She licked her finger and then waved her hand. “I just couldn’t.”

          “You’re welcome.” James sat at the end of the bed and leaned against the footboard facing her. “I’m sure if I hadn’t thought of it first, Hunter would have brought you something. He’s a good guy, not to mention single and gorgeous.”

          “He makes me nervous. He looks at me as if he’s trying to read my mind.”

          “Maybe he can. I hear he’s great with troubled youths—he has a way with them.”

          “I’m hardly a troubled kid.”

          James gave her his “get real” look. “You used to be. Hunter’s observant—maybe too observant.” He held a chicken leg and pointed it at her. “You’re going to be working closely together. He’s smart. He’s going to figure you out on his own, so you might as well just tell him why you’re afraid and get it out in the open. It’ll save us all time and trouble.”

          The expression on Toni’s face said she wasn’t buying it—her and her damn walls.

          “I spent a week with him, Toni. Believe me, he’ll understand and help you out.”

          “James.” She nudged him with her foot. “You swore you wouldn’t say anything.”

          “And I won’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think you should. You should give him a chance.”


          “Because for some reason, he seems to have taken a shine to you.” James ignored Toni’s eye roll, moved over to sit beside her, and smiled when she leaned back against him. “He went after you, didn’t he?”

          “To my eternal embarrassment. He found me with my face buried in a pillow trying not to hyperventilate. I’m sure I made a real strong impression—just not the kind that makes a man want to peel my clothes off.”

          “I guess that depends upon just how much of your butt was showing when your head was buried in that pillow. You were wearing a really short skirt.”

          Toni laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. “Thanks so much for pointing that out. As if I didn’t have enough to be embarrassed about.”

          James threw his arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “I live to serve.”

          “Even if Hunter is understanding, how am I supposed to get the models’ respect if I’m falling apart?”

          “Exactly. The only way they’re going to respect you is if you do your job, and you can’t do your job if you don’t figure out a way to deal with your phobia. All I’m asking is to let me and Hunter help you.”

          “I’ll try, but you’re the only one I’ve ever talked to about it, I would never have bored you with my own personal nightmare if you hadn’t been with me when I found out about this trip.”

          “Yes, but I was, and there’s no way you’re going to pull the wool over Hunter’s eyes. You don’t have much choice but to accept his help. Everything he gives you beyond that will be a bonus.”

          “James, having one mother giving me dating books is bad enough. I don’t need two. Sheesh, you’re turning into a regular yenta.”

          James watched Toni toy with her food.

          “He found the dating book my mother sent me.” She nodded toward her bedside table. “He was reading it and probably thinks I’m out to hook up with the first man I set eyes on. I was so mortified I babbled like a lunatic.”

          “No, he probably thinks you’re quirky. Guys like quirky.”

          “Somehow I doubt that—especially when the quirky girl is surrounded by beautiful models. Not that I’m even interested. Could you see me and Survivor Man? I don’t think so.”


          Hunter didn’t have much of an appetite but took his plate and sat with his brothers.
Trapper moved over to make space at the picnic table. “Thanks for striking out again. You cost me twenty bucks.”

          Hunter decided to ignore him. It was Trapper’s own fault for betting. He never seemed to learn. “Have either of you talked to Ben and Gina lately?”

          Trapper’s gaze wandered from one beautiful model to the next. “We’re surrounded by gorgeous women, and you want to talk about family?”

          Hunter shook his head and picked up a barbecued rib. “I was just wondering if that private detective found out anything more. I’ve been working twenty-four—seven all summer and haven’t had a chance to talk to the newlyweds.”

          Their cousin, Ben, his wife, Gina, and the whole family had been searching for Gina’s brother Rafael who’d been put up for private adoption when Gina was six years old. The only thing they had to go on were the memories of a terrified child, which wasn’t much.

          Fisher stopped gnawing on his corn-on-the-cob. “I think they’ve found seven possibilities. Dick Sommers is following up on them.”

          A red-headed model wearing goose bumps and an oversized bandana disguised as a dress sat next to Hunter. “Hi, I’m Yvette. You must be our fearless leader.”
          He wiped his hand on a napkin before shaking hers. “Your fearless leader is Toni. I’m just the guide—Hunter Kincaid.”

          “Nice to meet you.” Yvette didn’t let go of his hand. “I thought I’d come over and break the ice.”

          Fisher leaned in, practically knocking over Hunter’s beer to shake the woman’s hand. “I’m Fisher. I’m a guide and a doctor.”

          Hunter rolled his eyes. “We couldn’t get him to stop watching ER when he was a kid.”

          Fisher took an awful long time to let go of Yvette’s hand. “Yeah, like you weren’t glued to Grizzly Adams.”

          “It was better than those stupid law shows Trapper always watched. Remember the Susan Day poster he hung over his bed?”

          Trapper set his beer down with a thunk. “Hey, watch it. She was hot.”

          Yvette scooted closer to Hunter. “Who’s Susan Day?”

          “Never mind.” Hunter shook his head wondering what planet she was from. “You’re probably too young to remember.”

          Trapper kicked him under the table. “I’m Trapper. There’s a bonfire after the barbeque. Are you going?”

          “Of course, James said it was a meet and greet.” Yvette touched the inside of Hunter’s leg, and he jumped. “I can’t wait to get better acquainted with you.”

          Hunter removed her hand and set it on top of the table as he rose. “I can use another cold one.”

          Grinning from ear to ear, Trapper slid into Hunter’s spot. “A beer or a shower?”

          When Hunter returned with three more bottles, he made sure to sit next to Fisher. As soon as he settled, a set of twins straddled the bench, sandwiching him between them.

          “Hi.” The pair said in stereo.

          “I’m Candace, but you can call me Candy.”

          Fisher leaned forward and caught Hunter’s eye. “Sweet.”

          “And I’m Randy.”

          Trapper took a swig of his beer and grinned. “Even better.”

          Hunter cleared his throat as he looked from Candy to Randy, feeling like a piece of meat slapped between two slices of Wonder Bread—bleached with no nutritional value. Not that he had a problem with that, but at the moment, all he wanted was to have a private conversation with his brothers. “If you ladies have finished eating, you should go put on some layers. It gets really cold up here at night.”
          One of the male models strolled over, sat beside Trapper, and gave him the once-over. “Looks like the party’s here. I’m Ari.” He scooted closer to Trapper. “And who might you be?”

          Hunter enjoyed watching Trapper squirm. He wondered how PC his big brother would be if Ari ended up on his lap, which seemed to be the model’s objective.

          Trapper stood. “Trapper Kincaid, Judge Trapper Kincaid.” Taking advantage of his full six-foot-four height he looked down at Ari. “Hate to break it to you, Ari, but we don’t bat for the same team, and I’m not a pinch hitter either.”

          “A judge, huh? I always wondered what they wore under their robes.”

          Trapper sat his hat on his head and adjusted the angle. “Clothes.”

          Fisher snorted beer out of his nose, and Hunter tossed him a napkin. “Don’t mind Fisher. He’s just learning to eat in public.”

          Yvette laughed. “I gathered that.” She gestured at Fisher. “You uh… have a little corn stuck in your teeth.”

          Ari stood locking in on his second target. “I have dental floss back in my cabin if you need some. It’s Oral B.”

          Fisher laughed. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ve got some fishing line back in the truck.”

          Hunter stood and collected the plates. “It’s getting cold. I’m going to get my jacket. You might want to do the same.”

          He moseyed toward the trucks with his brothers. “Finally, before we get interrupted again, tell me what Dick Sommers found out. You said he had seven possibilities?”

          Fisher took out his Swiss Army knife, pulled the toothpick from its sheath, and poked it between his teeth.

          Trapper took the last swig of his beer and tossed it in a waste barrel. “He’s checking them out.”

          “Which sucks.” Fisher ran his tongue over his teeth.

          Trapper stopped and looked over. “Why? At least we have something to go on.”

          “Sure, but what are we doing? Nothing. I thought this was a family thing.”

          Hunter nodded. “Fisher’s right. We should all be more involved. After I finish up the season, I’ll fly to New York and see what I can hunt down. We can’t let Dick Sommers have all the fun.”

          Trapper raised an eyebrow to that. “And I don’t suppose this has anything to do with Toni Russo or the models who were just plastered to you, does it?”

          Hunter just smiled at Trapper. “Jealous, older brother?”


          “Trapper, get real. I’m free from September through mid-November, and I want to help Ben and Gina find Rafael.”

          Fisher laughed. “Sure, okay. But let me just say, if I were going back to New York anytime soon, I’d sure as hell look up any number of the models at this shindig. Look at them all.”

          Trapper chucked him on the arm. “Ari would love that. I’ll make sure he gets your number.”

          “No thanks. He went after you first. I don’t like playing second fiddle.”

          “But Hunter’s throwbacks are okay?”

          “Damn straight—the operative word being straight, which, unfortunately for Ari, we both are. Right?”

          Trapper laughed. “I know I am little brother. Is there something you want to tell us?”

          Hunter opened the back of his Land Cruiser. “Are you two done yet, and do I have to remind you that these people are our clients? You can explore your sexuality later. We’ve got work to do.”

          Trapper rocked on his heels. “Lord knows we’re going to have our hands full just keeping them out of the bonfire tonight.”

          Fisher reached into the truck and pulled out a fire extinguisher. “Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.”


          The next morning Hunter was up with the birds. At a quarter to nine, after a nice breakfast at the lodge, he knocked on Toni’s cabin door. She answered wearing a big, black straw sun hat, its brim almost concealing her face, a black fishnet, see-through cover-up over a bathing suit that was… something completely unexpected.

          The black one-piece suit was right out of a 1940s pin-up calendar—plain, save for a little ruffle on the sweetheart neckline, held up by wide straps, and a small ruffle at the leg where it ended like those boy shorts his old girlfriend wore all the time. He suddenly knew why those photos stayed on the walls for years and years. Her suit barely hinted at cleavage, but was so damn sexy he had to shake his head to clear it.

          “What is it now?” She stuck her hands on her hips and spread her legs as if she was getting ready to fight. She had long, powerful legs, not the sticks some girls walk around on. Toni’s were cut without being bulky. Damn, even in those checkerboard Vans, she looked hot.

          It probably wasn’t a good idea to mention that seeing her in an old-fashioned bathing suit scrambled his brain. “One good breeze, and your hat will be history. Do you have a baseball cap?”

          “I thought we had to wear helmets.” She was cute when she was exasperated.

          “We do when we’re on the raft, but this is for the hike to the river and the time we’re off the raft. Believe me, as pale as you are, you’ll need a hat. I have one you can wear if you want.”

          She took a step back. “Hike?”

          Damn. In a tenth of a second she went from mad to scared. He preferred mad—it was kind of a turn-on. He imagined she was always sexy, but anger made her go from hot to scorching. When she was scared though—shit, he had no defenses. “We’re about a quarter of a mile from the river. It’s an easy hike.”

          “Nothing about this trip is easy.”

          “Why is that?”

          Toni shook her head and mumbled something that sounded like, “I can’t do this.”

          James, Trapper, Fisher, and a pack of models chose that particular moment to join them. No matter how many beautiful women surrounded him, Hunter couldn’t take his eyes off Toni. She had all the signs of being terrified of something; he just didn’t know what. On that subject, her mouth was shut, which seemed out of character.

          James slid beside her, threw his arm over her shoulder, and pulled her close. “How you holding up?”

          “Just peachy, thanks. I have to get my other hat.” She took off her floppy hat and gave it a wave. “Survivor Man said this one won’t cut it. Everyone go on ahead. I’ll catch up.”

          Hunter didn’t move. “I don’t mind waiting.”

          She stepped into his personal space. A tough New Yorker replaced the terrified woman. “I don’t need an escort. I’m a grown woman. I think I can find the river on my own.” Not that she was planning to. As soon as she could get back inside the cabin, he was sure she’d slam the door shut, slide the bolt home, and shove a chair under the doorknob.

          Hunter didn’t need reminding that she was a woman grown. He knew that in every fiber of his being. He had a sudden urge to make use of the collar she wore around her throat, whether to pull her closer or make sure she stayed, he was unsure. He didn’t have to be Einstein to know she was past ready to bolt. He wanted to know why. “I’m sure you can. I’m just not sure you will.”

          With a toss of her head, she had James clapping his hands. “Okay, let’s get down to the rafts everyone. Toni and Hunter, play nice, and don’t be too long.”