Master of the Mountain by Cherise Sinclair

The dog stopped, although Rebecca could see it wanted to bite her.

  “He can tell you're scared, and he's going to play the bully.” The man stepped closer until she had to look up at him—his dog wasn't the only bully in the place—but when his gaze met hers, somehow she knew he wouldn't let her be hurt.

  Putting a hand on her lower back, he herded her toward the door.

  Pretty little thing, Logan thought, with the biggest green eyes he'd seen in a long time. Ones that showed every emotion coursing through her—mostly fear, right now. What had brought a timid mouse into this herd of kinky yuppies?

  He heard the click of the dog's toenails on the floor and turned. “Thor. Stay here.”

  After a long pause and a surely-you're-not-serious look, Thor walked slowly back to the desk and dropped down with a long-suffering sigh.

  The oversize mutt could be a real drama queen. Logan grinned, then followed the mouse named Rebecca out the door.

  Wasn't it interesting how her timidity disappeared the minute she realized Thor had stayed behind? Her posture straightened; her head came up. Now she actually looked like the professional woman the French-braided hair and deep blue suit proclaimed. Obviously a successful woman, for only that kind of expensive tailoring could manage to hide all a woman's best attributes. A shame, really. She had a lush body that screamed for highlighting, not hiding. And well made-up or not, she couldn't conceal the freckles dancing across her nose and cheeks.

  As they waited for Matt to break loose of the two club members he'd joined, Logan leaned against a porch post. Damn, he was tired, right down to the bone. The two nightmares last night hadn't left him much sleep, especially the final one. He scrubbed his face with his hands. Bullets, rockets… Those weren't so bad. But the dreams of IED explosions and his teammates being blown to bits… Fucking A, he hated those.

  When Matt joined them, Logan steered the couple toward the string of cabins left of the lodge. The ones on the right had filled up earlier. Serenity wasn't very big, although when all the cabins were rented, the place kept him and his brother running.

  As they entered the end cabin, Logan flipped on the light switch and saw the young lady take in the accommodations. The king-size bed boasted a blue and gold quilt in a Texas-star pattern if he remembered correctly. Two nightstands and a dresser. A tiny woodstove in the corner. Two overstuffed armchairs with lamps. A small round table under the back window. A blue and green rag rug crocheted by Aunt Marg. Small bathroom in the back. Seriously rustic. He glanced at the city girl.

  She looked a bit taken aback, then walked over to the bed and ran a hand down the quilt. “That's amazing how the colors shouldn't blend, but they do. Whoever made this has quite an eye.”

  “I'll tell my aunt Laverne you said so.”

  Matt sauntered in and dropped his suitcase beside the door before joining Rebecca. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and nuzzled her neck. “Come hang out, babe.”

  She stiffened slightly and glanced at Logan, as if uncomfortable with public affection.

  He smothered a grin. She was definitely hanging with the wrong crowd.

  She stepped out of Matt's grasp. “I'm pretty beat.”

  Matt hesitated, his gaze going from Rebecca, then to the door, as if pulled by a magnet. “If you're sure…”

  “I'm sure.”

  “Okay.” He took a step toward the door and stopped. “Oh, the woodstove…”

  “I'll show her,” Logan said. He set her suitcase beside the other.

  “Thanks, Logan. I'll be back soon, babe.” Matt hurried out of the cabin as if afraid someone would stop him.

  Somebody wanted to start swinging tonight, didn't he? With a cynical smile, Logan motioned the abandoned innocent over to the iron stove and knelt to put in kindling and logs from the adjacent bin. She stood close enough that her hip brushed against his shoulder. A soft, round hip. As he lit the fire and adjusted the vent, her fragrance wrapped around him. Her light soap smelled nice enough, but the underlying scent of sheer female made him want to strip her down and see if she tasted as sweet. He cleared his throat and shifted away. “Is all that clear?”

  She frowned at the stove, studying it as if it were some esoteric puzzle he'd be quizzing her on later, then nodded. “I think I've got it. Thank you.” To his relief and regret, she walked over to the tiny bookcase near the bed. As he rose to his feet, she pulled out a book with a happy cry. “Little Women! I haven't read this since grade school.”

  When her eyes lit up like that, she lost the city stuffiness and just looked appealing. Too appealing. Those pink lips went past kissable and edged into carnal.

  “How late can I sleep in? Are there certain times for meals or some such?” she asked, holding the book like a precious treasure.

  “Your group usually rotates cooking and KP, but hot coffee and snacks are always available in the kitchen.”

  “I'll be one of those in for early coffee.” She wrinkled her nose in a way that merged the tiny freckles. “I'm a caffeine addict.”

  “I'll see you then.” Logan reached the door, stopped—pretty women were hell on a man's thinking processes—and pulled keys out of his pocket. “Here's your key. I'll give Matt his at the lodge.”

  She crossed the room. As she took the big, old-fashioned key, her dimple flashed. “Cool. You have an interesting place, Mr. Hunt.”

  “It's Logan.” He ran a finger down her cheek, finding her skin as soft as it looked. Dammit. “Welcome to Serenity.”

  Chapter Two

  Early the next day, Rebecca followed Matt down the tiny trail toward the lodge. Her steps crackled on the frost-covered ground, and her breath turned white in the frigid air. She shivered, wrapping her arms around her body. Wasn't it almost summer? When they reached the clearing, she stopped and stared. Under a deep blue sky, mountains piled higher and higher until reaching the tallest, snow-capped peak. Fog spotted the mountainsides, and a few white patches drifted lazily up into the sky, as if wakened by the sun. Aside from the murmur of voices in the lodge and the gurgle of a nearby stream, silence ruled. No roar of cars or screech of brakes, no planes, no shouting, no music. Everything seemed almost too stark, the colors too sharp, the sounds too naked.

  “C'mon, babe.” Matt stood on the porch, hand on the door. “Let's go.”

  “Right. Sorry.” She trotted up to join him. They crossed the empty main room to where the club members already filled the long table in the dining room.

  “Hold on a minute,” Matt said to her, putting his arm around her waist to stop her just inside the rough-hewn door frame. “Hey, everybody,” Matt said loudly and waited for the noise to die down. “Most of you met Rebecca last night. She's new to swinging, so give her time and introduce yourselves as we go along.”

  Under the barrage of eyes, Rebecca nodded her head politely and crossed the room with Matt. As they took seats near the middle of one long table, she tried to ignore the assessing looks from the men. But how the heck could she ignore the fact that strangers were sizing her up for sex, and in an entirely different way than in a club. Considering the purpose of this weekend, these men knew they'd get lucky, right?

  Okay, Rebecca, she told herself. Get with the program. She had a relationship to salvage and inhibitions to lose. Her stomach tightened, and she took a mental step back. For now, how about just make friends and have fun? Make friends; have fun. Piece of cake.

  As the members returned to their various conversations, she poured herself coffee. No one should be forced to be sociable before coffee. That was just cruel. Taking a sip, she looked the crowd over. Some cute guys here. One with black hair and intense brown eyes and a trim mustache. One sounded like a college professor. He might be fun to talk with. Mostly couples, although two women and one man were obviously together. Interesting.

  Taking the dishes passed to her by a black-haired woman in her thirties, Rebecca helped herself to the scrambled eggs and sausage and took a bite.

  Matt politely requested the bowl of fru
it to be passed. He glanced at Rebecca's plate and leaned closer. “Wouldn't you rather have something lighter, hon? Remember you said you wanted to watch your weight.”

  Months ago, after being lectured by Mom on the dire fate awaiting a heavy woman in a relationship, Rebecca had made that comment. He had never forgotten. As the eggs turned tasteless in her mouth, she switched to calorie-free coffee. Sure, she could tell herself that she felt comfortable with her body, but whom was she fooling? The comfort lasted only until someone—like Matt—made clear he considered her fat.

  Of course, he never said the F word. He just wanted her to improve her health: eat less, exercise more, and get as skinny as all the women at this table. But she already exercised religiously, and she didn't eat that much. Face it: her heritage was round, her body was round, and unless she went for surgery and starved constantly like her mother, she was going to stay round.

  How would he react if she told him his dick was too small?

  She pushed the plate away, her appetite gone. When she looked up, her eyes met Logan's. He leaned against the doorway to the kitchen, studying her like some specimen on a petri dish. Probably wondering what she was doing with these members of fitness anonymous.

  A perky blonde jumped up from her chair and clapped her hands. “All right, everyone. I'm Ashley, and today we're hiking up to Rainbow Lake. Serena and Michelle are making sandwiches for us. It's a bit of a walk, so wear good footwear, remember to bring your daypacks, and don't forget sunscreen.”

  A hike sounded like fun. San Francisco parks didn't look anything like this wilderness.

  Ashley continued, “Jenna and Brandy will handle supper tonight, with their men on cleanup duty. And then we have our meet and greet. We'll play some games to get to know each other, and then see where the evening goes.” The blonde licked her full lips and gave everyone a long, slow look, earning hoots and howls from the crowd.

  * * * * *

  Why the hell hadn't Jake returned from San Francisco? Logan wondered, grinding his teeth at the constant magpielike chattering of the people on the trail. Two more miles to Rainbow Lake. A shame he couldn't get them to jog, but maybe if he sped up some, they wouldn't have the breath to talk.

  Usually Jake handled the social crap, while Logan did repairs and maintenance. People in individual packages could be enjoyable, but crowds? He'd rather get shot in the head. He ran a finger down the scar on his face and snorted. Again.

  Stepping up on an outcropping of granite, he eyed the line of people trudging up the switchbacks. No stragglers. The group appeared in pretty good shape. Even fancy Rebecca in her designer jeans and shapeless top had kept up.

  In fact, she did more than keep up. As she walked beside her boyfriend, her green eyes sparkled with pleasure, alert to everything the forest offered. Logan had seen her spot a mule deer frozen in place, a hawk in a dive, and a tiny deer mouse. Each time her face lit with wonder. Her open enjoyment added to his, and he found himself checking the line more often than normal just to catch her reactions.

  The sun was high overhead and unseasonably hot by the time the trail descended, leaving the pines behind. He led the group across a grass- and wildflower-filled meadow to the tiny mountain lake, clear and blue and damned cold. Granite slabs poked up through the wildflowers, glimmering in the sun. With yells of delight, people dropped their backpacks and stripped.

  Logan enjoyed the show of bare asses and breasts as the swingers splashed into the water like a herd of lemmings, screaming at the cold. As he leaned on a boulder, he noticed one person still completely dressed with wide eyes and open mouth. The city girl. Considering she and Matt bunked together, Rebecca couldn't be a virgin, but from her reaction, she was pretty innocent when it came to kink.

  “C'mon, babe,” her boyfriend yelled, already buck naked in the lake. “The water's great.” Not waiting for her response, he waded out deeper, heading for a blonde who looked as if she had substituted bouncy breasts for cheerleading pom-poms.

  Rebecca glanced from the water to the trail, back to the water, where Matt wrestled with Ashley, and back to the trail again.

  Logan could see the exact moment she decided to leave. He walked over to block her way.

  “Excuse me,” she said politely.


  Red surged into her cheeks, and her eyes narrowed as she glared at him. Red-gold hair. Freckles. Big bones. Looked like she had Irish ancestry and the temper to go with it. Stepping sideways to block her again, Logan tucked his thumbs into his front pockets and waited for the explosion.

  “Listen, Mr. Hunt—”

  “It's Logan,” he interrupted and tried not to grin as her mouth compressed.

  “Whatever. I'm going back to my cabin. Please move your… Please move.”

  “Sorry, sugar, but no one hikes alone. That's one safety rule I take seriously.” He glanced at the swingers. “I can't leave them, and you can't walk alone, so you're stuck here.”

  Her eyes closed, and he saw the iron control she exerted over her emotions.

  The Dom in him wondered how quickly he could break through that control to the woman underneath. Tie her up, tease her a bit, and watch her struggle not to give in to her need and… Hell, talk about inappropriate thoughts.

  He pulled in a breath to cool off. No use. It was blistering hot, and not just from his visions of steamy sex. Nothing like global warming in the mountains. He frowned when he noted her damp face and the sweat soaking her long-sleeved, heavy shirt. Not good. The woman needed to get her temperature down.

  At the far end of the meadow, the forest would provide shade. He could send her there to sit and cool off, but she'd be out of sight, and from the obstinate set of that pretty, pink mouth, she'd head right back down the trail in spite of his orders.

  Shoulders straight, chin up, feet planted. Definitely a rebellious one, the type that brought his dominant nature to the fore. He'd love to give her an order and have her disobey, so he could enjoy the hell out of paddling that soft ass. But she wasn't his to discipline, more's the pity, since a woman like this was wasted on that pretty boy.

  And he'd gotten sidetracked.

  With a sigh, he returned to the problem at hand. She needed to stay here where he could keep an eye on her, and she needed to cool off.

  “Even if you don't strip down completely, at least take some clothes off and wade in the water,” he said. “You're getting overheated.”

  “Thank you, but I'm fine,” she said stiffly.

  “No, you're not.” When he stepped closer, he felt the warmth radiating off her body. Being from San Francisco, she wouldn't be accustomed to the dryness or the heat. “Either strip down, little rebel, or I'll toss you in with your clothes on.”

  Her mouth dropped open.

  He wouldn't, would he? Rebecca stared up at the implacable, cold eyes, seeing the man's utter self-confidence. Definitely not bluffing.

  Well, he could be as stern as he wanted. Damned if she'd take her clothing off and display her chunky, scarred legs. She shook her head, backing away. If she needed to, she'd run.

  Faster than she could blink, he grabbed her arm.

  She tugged and got nowhere. “Listen, you can't—”

  With one hand, he unbuttoned her heavy shirt, not at all hindered by her efforts to shove his hand away. After a minute, her shirt flapped open, revealing her bra and her pudgy stomach. “Damn you!”

  She glanced at the lake, hoping for Matt to rescue her, and froze. He was kissing the oh-so-perky Ashley, and not just a peck on the lips but a full clinch and deep-throating tongues. Rebecca stared as shock swept through her, followed by a wave of humiliation. He… As her breath hitched, she tore her gaze away, blinking against the welling tears. Why had she ever come here?

  “Oh, sugar, don't do that now.” Logan pulled her up against his chest, ignoring her weak protest. His arms held her against chest muscles hard as the granite outcroppings, and he turned so she couldn't see the lake. Silently, he stroked a hand down her bac
k while she tried to pull herself together.

  Matthew and Ashley would have sex. Soon. Somehow she hadn't quite understood the whole concept of swinging and what her gut-level reaction would be. But she could take it now that she realized…what would happen. After drawing in a shaky breath, she firmed her lips. Fine.

  And if Logan insisted she strip to bra and panties, that was fine too. So what if these people saw her giant thighs and ugly scars. She'd never see any of them again. Ever.

  For a second, she let herself enjoy the surprising comfort of Logan's arms. Then she pushed away.

  He let her take a step back and then grasped her upper arms, keeping her in place as he studied her face.

  She flushed and looked away. God, how embarrassing. She had melted down in front of a total stranger, showing him exactly how insecure she was. But he'd been nice, and she owed him. “Thank you for…uh…the shoulder.”

  With a finger, he turned her face back to him. “I like holding you, Rebecca. Come to me anytime you need a shoulder.” A crease appeared in his cheek. He ran his finger across the skin at the top of her lacy bra, his finger slightly rough, sending unexpected tingles through her. “You think I can talk you out of this too?”

  The thought of being braless led to her imagining his big hands touching her breasts, how all his strength could hold her in place, and… God, get a grip, Rebecca. She shook her head and stepped back hastily.

  He eyed her, and his look heated her more than the noon sun. “You will, at least, strip down to bra and briefs.” One corner of his mouth tipped up. “If you don't, I'll do it for you. And I'll enjoy every minute.”

  Her insides turned to molten lava. How could she be appalled at his threat and excited at the same time? “Fine. But I'll take my own clothes off,” she said, her mouth dry. She shrugged her shirt off.

  “I'd almost rather lose,” he murmured and tugged a lock of her hair before striding away. Closer to the water, he resumed lifeguard duty, turning his back to her. Thank God.

  Her fingers clumsy, she managed to get her boots and jeans off. After a bracing breath, dressed only in her best pink underwear, she hurried toward the water. She passed him, horribly conscious of how the bright sun revealed her body's every flaw and jiggle and scar.

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