by Jeanette Lewis
(c)All Right Reserved
She stepped off the road and her boots broke through the thin crust of ice to send her sinking to mid-thigh into the snow. With a little squeak of protest, Mariah pushed forward, heaving herself through the drifts until she was deeper into the trees where, thankfully, the snow only came halfway up her calves. Even so, her leather boots were going to be ruined.
“Ow!” She stubbed her toe on a fallen tree lying buried in the snow and stumbled, only managing to stay upright by grabbing the limbs of a pine that towered overhead. As the branch bent, it unleashed its burden of snow and Mariah gasped loudly as it showered over her head and shoulders.
“Stupid trees!” she hissed in a whisper, glaring at the forest. She brushed as much snow off as possible, but some had already slithered down her collar. The cold penetrated her coat and seeped through her gloves. Jake’s truck was faintly visible through the trees and looked to be parked in a clearing. Shivering, Mariah stood still, considering her options.
“What are you doing?” A man’s deep voice shattered the silence.
Mariah whipped around and froze. Fear pulsed through her, making her legs shake. She hadn’t even heard the man coming up behind her, which was amazing—he was so big there was no possible way he could have moved silently. A thick green camo coat covered broad shoulders and the matching camo pants hinted at long, muscular legs, ending in sturdy black boots. His mouth turned down in a scowl and his eyes glittered menacingly beneath a black ball cap. Clutched in one hand was a large rifle, the metal barrel glinting in the pale light.
Mariah sucked in a breath of the frigid air and screamed—a loud, piercing shriek that echoed through the forest.
The man jumped back. “Geeze, lady! What’re you doing?”
“What are you doing?” Now that she’d knocked him off guard, her fear was turning to anger. Mariah drew herself up to her full height and glared at him. “Don’t you threaten me with that thing.” She pointed wildly at the rifle.
The man dropped his eyes to his rifle and then looked back at her incredulously. “I’m not threatening you. What are you doing lurking in my trees?”
“I’m not lurking,” Mariah protested. “I’m just … hiking.”
He cast a bemused look at her four-inch-heeled leather boots and the rather thin pink coat. “Uh-huh, sure.”
A door opened somewhere nearby and Jake’s voice filtered through the trees. “Riker?”
Mariah’s eyes widened. This had to be Riker Carmichael, Jake’s best friend and his soon-to-be best man. She’d heard all about him from Amy, but they hadn’t met yet. Then again, she’d only been in Snow Valley a couple of weeks.
“Riker?” Jake’s voice came again.
“Don’t tell him I’m here,” she pleaded.
Riker gave her a long, skeptical look, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. The dark whiskers covering his jaw were too long to be stubble, but were not quite to the beard stage. More of a I don’t have to go anywhere so I don’t have to shave kind of look.
He ran one hand over the not-quite-beard as he turned and called toward Jake’s voice. “Coming. One second.”
There was silence, followed by the thud of the door closing.
Riker turned back to her, his thick eyebrows raised so high they disappeared under the brim of his hat. “What’s going on?”
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