Authors: Alannah Carbonneau
There is an expression, a beautiful, and I’m realizing very true expression - that the brightest stars burn out first. The brightest stars, the stars the most wishes are made on, are the stars that burst first. They are the stars that surrender to the darkness before so many others because their light, so bright, has reached all the places it was ever meant to reach. Mike was a bright star - the brightest I had ever encountered - and it was because of his brightness that he had come to a quick end. In only a short time, his soul had completed his mission and he’d moved on to what I prayed were greater things.
Taking in a deep breath, I put one foot in front of the other until I had resumed my running pace.
My lungs burned.
My muscles loosened.
Every breath was one of complete exhilaration. I was feeling - alive.
I didn’t know what to make myself for breakfast, so I decided that as it was my first official day here at the Donnelley Ranch, I should explore. After twirling the credit card my father had given to me around in my hand, I dressed myself in a pair of beige shorts and a soft pink, nearly nude flowing tank top. Beneath my clothes, I wore a white bathing suit. I was prepared to find myself a nice body of water after I had breakfast and a coffee at the communal cafeteria.
Slipping my feet into beige flip-flop sandals, I decided to walk the fifteen minutes to breakfast rather than driving the few minutes. The sun was high in the sky and the morning was warm. There was no reason to drive when I had such a beautiful walk ahead of me.
By the time I made it to the cafeteria, I was starving and I was definitely feeling the effects of my coffee addiction. As soon as I opened the door, the smell of roasted coffee beans made my mouth water.
On my way to the short cafeteria line a feminine voice called out my name. “Hadley!”
I turned to glance in the direction of the voice and found myself staring at Reese, who was sitting beside the man who proudly held the world’s
least hospitable award
. His arm was around her waist and she was waving enthusiastically at me. Across the picnic like table from Reese and Logan, was another couple. The other couple was so decked out in hiking gear that I had a feeling their day would be spent lost somewhere in the woods.
Lifting my hand, I returned the wave politely. When she beckoned me closer to their table, I shook my head and pointed to the line, mouthing. “I need coffee.”
Reese seemed to understand me because she laughed and nodded. I turned back to face the line and prayed the large golden haired man would hurry his order along. Turning my attention to the satchel I wore, I let my hand swim through the contents as I tried to find my credit card. Finally locating it, I tugged it from the black hole of my bag and just as I pulled it free and stepped forward, it slipped through my fingers. Rolling my eyes, I knelt to reach for my card just as the large man in front of me turned and stepped forward.
My face connected with the crotch of his dark jeans and a man’s low voice sounded loud as I pushed myself back, falling right on my ass in the center of the busy communal cafeteria.
My eyes were wide as I took in the man standing in front of me with a lady-killer grin curling the corners of his lips. He was tall - at least six foot three. His muscled, tanned shoulders were broad and bared from beneath the inch thick straps of his black muscle shirt and his hair was messy, slightly wavy, and sandy blond. Green eyes were laughing down at me, focused entirely on my face, as he held a hand out to help me up.
I placed my hand in his and my breath caught at the ease with which he lifted my body from the floor.
The man had muscles galore!
“Whoa there, little lady, if you wanted to get up and personal you only had to ask.” He winked and my face burned painfully as my mouth parted and I tore my hand from his still tight grip.
“I dropped my card.” I informed matter of fact, cursing my sensitive skin and easy humiliation. “Believe me, I wasn’t trying to get up and personal with anything you’ve got.”
He raised a challenging brow and the heat in my face moved up into my scalp. “Really?”
My teeth ground behind tense lips as I glared in embarrassment at him. When I replied, my tone wasn’t in the least bit nice. Actually, it kind of sounded like I’d been taking notes from when I spoke with Logan the day before, and now was applying those notes. In no way did I sound jovial. “Really.”
The man wasn’t dissuaded by my no-nonsense tone. “That’s not what it felt like to me when I turned to find your face in my...”
“Enough!” I snapped my interruption and he grinned a grin of teasing mischief.
“What’s your name, darlin’?”
I forced steel into my face as I replied. “Excuse me. I needed a coffee before I ran into you. I’m way past need now.”
I thought about informing him that he was standing on the red line of danger, but I didn’t have a chance. Before my mind had caught up with what he was doing, the man had turned to the girl watching us with amused interest behind the cash register, then, I felt his hand on the small of my back as he pushed me gently toward the counter.
“She needs a coffee.”
The girl smiled and I read her nametag quickly as she spoke. Her name was Kayla. “What can I get for you?”
“Large coffee. Black, please.” I decided to skip out on the breakfast I had been planning on ordering because the fluttering in my belly was on overdrive. I knew from experience that belly fluttering and food didn’t mesh well together. At the thought, I irritably shrugged the man’s hand away and glared haughtily at him. “Stop touching me.”
“Awe, darlin’,” He grinned that lady-killer grin once more and I bristled. “I thought I saw fun in those blue eyes when you were on your knees.”
I snapped. “You didn’t.”
He laughed as Kayla handed me my coffee. As I moved to hand her my troublesome credit card, the man shook his head and spoke to the girl. “Put it on my tab, Kayla.”
“Sure thing.” She nodded to the man, looking a little star struck, and I realized that the little thing had a crush on this unnamed man. She couldn’t be anything more than fifteen, but the adoration in her eyes was unmistakable. I knew that look - I had seen that look in the eyes of countless girls who’d looked at my brother more times than I could count.
Before I could say anything, the man I’d already told to stop touching me settled his hand on the small of my back once again. It was warm. Before I knew it, my body was moving alongside the man. Stunned, I froze in place and scowled up at him when he paused to smirk down at me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Going to a table.” He informed.
“No, why are you leading me there?”
“When a man finds a woman on her knees before him first thing in the morning, he doesn’t just leave her there.” He smirked through his smart reply and I rolled my eyes.
A loud laugh sounded and I felt my eyes swinging to land on Logan, whose body was shaking with laughter. Beside him, Reese was trying to school her giggling features without even an ounce of success. Actually, her lack of control was astoundingly pathetic.
Logan bellowed loudly. “Now, that is one legendary meet-cute!” He laughed some more as the couple on the other side of the table tried to snuff their own snickers. Another man, a younger man who looked like a softer version of the two men sitting at the table, lowered himself beside Logan, smirking at the man next to me. My eyes were trained on the table as Logan squeezed Reese to catch her attention before announcing. “You’re right, love. Collin’s next.”
Beside me, the man stiffened and I took this chance to place a few feet of much needed space between us. I had no idea what was happening, or who Collin was, but I was beyond embarrassed and the peace and quiet of the wild land outside was calling my name, beckoning me closer.
With my eyes trained on the floor, I spoke. “Thanks for the coffee. I, uh...” I paused when I felt intense green eyes land on my face. “I have to get going.”
Without waiting for a response, I turned to flee the room, the laughter, and most of all - the man’s green eyes.
A warm breeze brushed against the bare skin of my legs as I pushed through the door of the now stifling communal hall. I don’t know what happened inside that made my heart feel heavy and panicked, but something had happened. With no explanation at all, I had felt something inside of my heart flutter to life. It was a feeling I’d last had as I watched Mike walk backward from our kitchen with my peanut butter sandwich in his hand. His smirk had been one of life and brotherly challenge, and it was that memory that had morphed the flutter in my heart to something much more difficult to accept - the suffocating, endless weight of loss.
As my feet carried me down the steps of the communal cafeteria and onto the gravel walk, I tried to ignore the gelatin in my knees. My mind replayed the humiliating act in the line for coffee before flashes of green eyes moved through my memories as though on replay. My heart was an organ of utter confusion. It didn’t know whether to be sad in response to my reminder of Mike or to be excited by the events that had played out in the cafeteria with the green eyed man.
Hell, why in the world would I be excited?
I didn’t have time to ponder my internal question as the sound of gravel crunching behind me notified me to the presence of another. Feeling my heart race, I spun around to find the green-eyed man with the lady killer grin standing only inches away from me. In my hurry to take a step back, I felt my sandal catch on the gravel and my feet stumbled.
The man’s quick reflexes saved me from falling onto the gravel and spilling my coffee as his arm weaved quickly around my waist, slamming my front against his in his quest to keep me from losing my balance.
I swear the synapses in my brain sizzled and seared as my body froze against his. I literally could not move - not an inch.
“You good?” His voice was gravelly and I noticed, that although he’d tilted his head forward an inch he didn’t move to release me.
“Um...” I swallowed, wondering when and how I’d lost the snarky inner personality I had always known. “I, yeah. I’m good.”
“You sure?” A single brow rose as he eyed me curiously through those brilliant green orbs. “Still feeling a little unstable to me.”
Pressing my free palm against the hard muscle of his chest, I pushed away from the man as I clutched my much-needed coffee in my other hand. Before replying, I took a sip and felt the hot bitter liquid sear my throat on its way down. But I didn’t mind - because I was getting my hit of caffeine and that was all that mattered. I was like the particles in an uncontrolled science experiment, and I so desperately needed to stabilize.
“I’m sure.” I announced, rocking a little on my heel all the while remaining upright. “See, still standing.”
The corner of his lip curled into a cockily amused half-grin. “Why’d you run?”
My eyes lifted to connect with his and before I knew what was happening, my skin was warm and my heart was racing. I tried to shake off this unwanted, unwarranted feeling, but I couldn’t. Actually, my failure was so unsuccessful it was almost as though I had been
“I have things to do today.”
He lifted his chin in a nod. “You enrolled in an activity?”
I frowned, “What?”
He raised a brow. “An activity? Rafting, riding, climbing or hiking?” He paused for a quick moment. “Canoeing maybe? Are you enrolled?”
It was then an image of the plastic card Gracie had given to me flashed in my mind. “No.” I shook my head. “I didn’t know I had to enroll.”
He cocked a grin. “You don’t have to enroll necessarily, but enrolling ensures you’ve got a spot.”
“What were you thinking of doing today? Maybe I can help you out.”
“Um...” I shifted, toeing the gravel that had nearly sentenced me to another bout of humiliation on my behind. I banished the thought that was bringing another flush of pink to my cheeks and asked, “Do you work here?”
“Something like that.”
“Something like that?” I questioned, momentarily bewildered. “Do you, or don’t you work here?”
“I work here.” He finally answered before moving on quickly from conversation of himself. “Why, what were you thinking you’d like to do today?”
Pulling in a deep breath for courage, I replied. “I actually wasn’t planning to enroll in anything today. I was thinking I’d spend the day alone by the river or lake - or something.”
“A woman after my own heart.” He grinned and I felt confusion twist my expression, but before I could answer, he spoke. “You like water?”
“Always have liked water.” I lifted my coffee to my lips and felt a blush sting my cheeks as the man watched. What in the world was it about this man that had my blood boiling so damn hot? I mean, seriously? I had never, ever, been a blushing beauty. Normally, I didn’t care enough to allow myself to succumb to something so girlish as blushing. “What about you?”
He chuckled and those emerald eyes of his danced, dazzling even the sun in the sky. “Yeah, I like water.”
Okay, this was getting awkward - but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I didn’t exactly want to leave this man. There was something about him, as odd as it was, that was pulling me toward him. And that pull was the very thing that encouraged me to run from him.
I took a step backward before turning to face the trail that would lead me back to the safety of my cabin, before I glanced over my shoulder with a wave.
“I’ll see you around...” My words trailed off as I realized that I hadn’t gotten his name.
The man quirked a grin, as he jogged to meet up with me once again. “The name’s Collin.”
As soon as he spoke his name, I remembered someone in the cafeteria talking about a Collin, and how he was the next in line for - something. But what in the world had they been talking about, I wondered, as I remembered the way the man beside me had stiffened abruptly.
Suddenly, he whistled loudly and the sharp sound made me jump as I looked up at him with wide, stunned eyes. Then, three dogs appeared. Three very
dogs appeared. They were all happy and slobbery as they wagged their tails and pranced ahead of Collin and I, down the path, toward my cabin.
Yes, toward my cabin!