Bad Company

Bad Company: Gage and Nova Book 1

Chapter 1: Devil’s Coming

Gage:

My condo looked like it belonged in a spread in Architectural Digest Magazine, or some other shelter mag. I’d had it professionally decorated because, you know, A-list movie star. We were expected to have luxe surroundings.

Not that I really gave a shit, but hell I had the money, so why not?

The bedroom had slate-gray walls and a platform bed made of some kind of exotic black wood, everything understated, ultra-modern, masculine. It cost me a fucking fortune, but whatever. It looked good. I looked good. That was all that mattered in this town.

At the moment, it was dark, chilly with air-conditioning. My hair, still wet from a shower at the gym, made my scalp cold in the breeze coming from the A.C.. The air smelled flat, but at least it didn’t reek with exhaust fumes like so much of the outdoors around here.

Through the windows, the lights of L.A. twinkled at me, pretending to beauty that daylight would prove totally fake and winking at their own joke. So much of this town was like that. Fakery and illusion. Including me.

I sauntered across all the open floor space toward my walk-in closet. The bedroom, huge as it was, had almost no furniture. Just the bed, a long black dresser, a sling chair, two crazy nightstand table things with all these freaky angles. My designer loved the damn things.

The lamps by the bedside were wall-mounted, tubular light-dildoes. Again, the designer loved them. I didn’t care as long as they allowed me to see what the hell I was doing. Not that I did much in here. Sleep and fuck basically summed it up.

And I never let a woman spend the night or do more than doze for a few. I didn’t do girlfriends and I didn’t do overnights. Maybe that sounds like typical young male posturing, especially from a movie star of my status. But the thing is I wasn’t good for anything more than a couple of encounters.

The most important thing to know about me is this: when I was ten years old, my mom made a deal with the devil.

Seriously. I shit you not.

Right in the living room of our cheap-ass apartment. You’ve heard those stories about people calling up Old Nick at some lonely country crossroads, right? But my mom didn’t bother with that. She summoned him at an altar set up on our entertainment center, right next to our dying TV.

My dad, in case you’re wondering, had nothing to do with it. He took off when I was three and I haven’t seen him since. I don’t even remember him.

Nowadays, I didn’t live in that shithole anymore. We’d come up in the world since. That deal had propelled me into the movie business.

My career had moved slowly at first but I’d worked steadily, made a name for myself as a kid actor, then transitioned to adult roles, something a lot of child actors never manage. And for a variety of reasons, I strongly suspected The Deal had protected me from some nasty, child-molesting fuckheads who used their positions of power in the business to get what they wanted from vulnerable kids.

Some of my friends hadn’t been so lucky. If you can call a deal with the devil luck.

Now I lived in a two-story luxury condo with an ocean view. My mom had her own place bought with my money, from a career I hadn’t earned and didn’t deserve.

I hadn’t seen the old apartment with its cardboard walls in fifteen years.

Still, when my mom called me five minutes before I had to leave for an important Hollywood party, I knew the devil was on her mind again.

I hauled the phone out of my jeans pocket as I went to my walk-in closet — roughly the size of your average airport concourse, with shiny black woodwork — to find something to wear. My thumb hovered over the talk button as I weighed whether or not to answer. She’d already left seven messages on my voicemail, all of them about him. And although I couldn’t do anything about the problem, I also knew she wouldn’t stop pestering me and leaving those nagging messages until I picked up and talked to her.

Shit. Maybe I could make this conversation quick. I hit the talk button.

“Yeah?” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice. She drove me nuts, but she was still my mom.

“Gage? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, Mom, of course I’m okay. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You didn’t answer my messages.”

I walked across my half-empty closet and started flipping through my shirts. “I’ve been busy.”

“I want you to be extra careful, okay?” Her voice sounded kind of slurred, like she’d been drinking.

“Why? What’s up?” I chose a charcoal-gray silk. That was as formal as I got. No suit jackets, but a silk shirt I could do.

“You know,” my mom whispered. “It’s him.”

“Who?” I knew, but I wanted to make her say it.

“You know. About The Deal. I’m worried about it.”

I’d showered earlier, after a hard gym session, so all I needed was a change of clothes. Tucking the phone between my chin and my shoulder, I stripped my T-shirt off with my free hand. “Isn’t it a little late to worry now?”

“It’s never too late.”

Huh. You could’ve fooled me. It seemed to me it was way too late to do anything about The Deal, like say not making the goddamn thing in the first place.

“Gage? Are you still there?”

I breathed in deeply through my nose. Patience. I needed patience. If I argued with her, we could be here all night, or until I hung up on her. “I’m here.”

“He’s going to come for you. Soon. I want you to be super careful.”

“Mom, you’ve been drinking,” I said, as calmly as I could. “Call me back when you’re sober.”

“How can you tell? Anyway, I’ve only had a few. I know what I’m talking about.”

“Sure you do.”

“That’s no way to talk to your own mother.” She was trying for parental dignity, but it was too late for that as well. Also hard to pull off when she was drunk.

I pictured her sitting at her kitchen table with a bottle of vodka and a cigarette, her hair messy and her makeup smeared. It was probably yesterday’s makeup.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said. “I’m already late.”

“Everyone’s late to those parties. Gage, I feel like you’re not listening to me.”

That’s because I wasn’t. I practically knew this lecture by heart. She could’ve just texted me with something like “devil lecture”, and we wouldn’t have had to talk at all.

“Your friend Jeremy,” she said. “He’s been in a lot of trouble lately.”

I frowned as I skinned out of my jeans. “Yeah, but what does that have to do with the deal?”

Jeremy was my closest friend, a former child actor like me. Also like me, he played guitar and fooled around with the drums and we occasionally played together. He’d struggled with heroin addiction for years. His family and I had done interventions and nothing had stuck so far. He’d do okay for a while, then slip up and start using again. I was hoping this time would be the charm, the one that saved him.

She made an impatient noise. “Haven’t you ever wondered if it’s because of him? Maybe he’s influencing Jeremy.”

“Yeah, I’m sure he is.”

“This isn’t funny! He told me…” She started whispering again. “He told me you had to die before he could take your soul, and if he couldn’t get to you then he’d go after the people around you. Maybe he’s targeting Jeremy.”

Most people would probably decide my mom was playing with only a partial deck at this point. I mean, nobody believes in this stuff anymore, right? Except a few snake-handler types, that is.

But I’d been there. When she called up Old Scratch, I’d been huddled in a corner of the living room between the couch and the side wall. Hunkered down, terrified, peering out from beneath the ratty blue throw blanket I’d dragged over my head as the only protection I could think of, my arms around the stuffed-toy rabbit I thought I’d grown out of.

He’d materialized right in our living room, looking just as real as any regular human being except for the way his eyes glowed red. My mom hadn’t even flinched. She’d presented The Deal like she was a master Devil-negotiator, like she worked these contracts all the time. Probably because it hadn’t been her soul on the line.

I’d seen him. I knew he was real.

“Jeremy just got out of rehab, Mom. He’s doing much better than he has in years.” I hoped. “I’m pretty sure the devil isn’t after him.”

“You don’t know that.” In the background, glass clinked and liquid gurgled. She was pouring herself another fucking drink. “He’s tricky. And if he can’t get you, he’ll take out each of the people close to you. He could come after me.”

Now we got to the point. This was what really terrified her. The loss of her own skin. Although I had to wonder why the devil would take Jeremy or my mother? Why not just go straight to me, if I was who he wanted? That was the part of this whole scenario that I didn’t get.

“Would you like me to kill myself so you don’t have to worry anymore?” My voice was dry as the desert.

“No! Of course not!” She actually sounded like I’d offended her. Maybe she was the one who should’ve gone into the acting trade. “I would never want you to hurt yourself. How can you even ask that?”

“You traded my soul for success.”

There was a long pause. I took advantage of her silence to put on a fresh pair of black jeans. She stayed quiet so long I got my shirt tucked in and the jeans zipped and buttoned before she opened her mouth again.

“What else was I going to use?” she said in a small voice.

“You could have left the whole thing alone.” Hell, she could have thought to ask me if I even wanted what she was after. It was my potential career, but she’d never even tried to find out if I wanted to be a star. Let alone if I thought selling my immortal soul for success would be a good trade.

“You’re the most successful young actor in Hollywood,” she said. “The whole world loves you.”

“And none of it came to me naturally. It doesn’t really belong to me. It’s all because of your precious Deal.”

“That isn’t true. You’re incredibly talented, Gage. You were always so good-looking and talented. Gifted.”

I shoved my feet into black leather boots. “So why make The Deal at all then? The way you’re talking, we didn’t need it.”

“Because success in Hollywood isn’t just about looks and talent; it’s about who you know. We didn’t know anyone. We needed an advantage.”

“Right. An advantage. Listen, Mom, I really have to go. I’m picking up Jer for the party.”

She heaved a theatrical sigh. “Okay. But promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Sure, Mom.”

I hung up with relief. Conversation done. It had gone on a bit longer than I’d wanted, but a victory nonetheless. Now I could go out, have a good time without her nagging voice in my ear.

The be-careful shit was ridiculous. There was nothing to be careful about because nothing had changed about The Deal. My life was exactly the same as it had been yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that.

The hair on the back of my neck prickled and I rubbed at it in irritation. It felt hot in here, like the AC needed to be turned up. A skinny worm of unease wriggled its way up my spine.

I rubbed my neck again. This was bullshit. My mom and her drunken worries were just messing with my head. Tonight I had work to do, and fun to enjoy afterward, and I was going to make the most of both.

 

Chapter 2: The Cabin

Nova:

The sky visible through the gorgeous green canopy of big-leaf maple and Douglas fir was a hot, bright cerulean blue to match the heat of the summer day outside the car. Inside, air conditioning blasted an arctic chill through the air. The radio played a tired old country song, the kind where the singer just keeps on havin’ kids and the trailer roof is about to fall off and there’s no food in the cupboard. It was the only channel that came through clearly in this tiny mountain town.

My mom’s silver sedan grumbled up the steep country drive that led to our cabin, the low chassis scraping over the bumps, grooves, and epic potholes in the gravel road. Vine maple, chinquapin, and Oregon grape scratched against the sides of the car, dragging twiggy fingers over the surface like they were trying to hold back the invading vehicle, keep it from reaching the cabin. I winced at the thought of what that was probably doing to my mother’s formerly pristine paint job.

Maybe I should have waited to get my old truck back from the mechanic’s shop before I made my escape, but I’d been too impatient. My folks were going to deliver it to me in a couple of weeks.

Nothing of the cabin could be seen yet beyond the twists of the drive and the thickly overgrown forest underbrush. I rolled down my window, letting the heady scent of an Oregon mountain summer into the car, along with a healthy dose of hot summer air. It was even hotter in the valley I’d left behind.

I could smell my own sweat in spite of the air conditioning. Had I forgotten to put on antiperspirant this morning? Oops. Well, it didn’t much matter since I’d be alone up here.

Nobody cares what a hermit smells like, right?

My mom tilted her head to the side and gave me one of those Mom Looks. You know the kind. The ones that say, without words, that you’re making a mistake and if you were a reasonable human being you’d listen to her wise motherly advice, but she knows you’re going to do what you want regardless and she’s trying to be patient with you.

That look used to work on me. I’d cave and do whatever it was she wanted of me just to get her to quit staring at me.

She’d been giving me the look off and on the whole way from Portland. Hours of it. Wonderful, fun-filled hours of mom-induced guilt. Now we were finally here and she was apparently launching a last-ditch campaign to get me to change my mind about my plans for my near-future.

Nope. Her scheming wasn’t going to work. All I had to do was hold out in the face of the guilt-shame cocktail she was trying to serve me until she got tired and went home by herself.

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, my gaze fixed on the front door of our family cabin. The log walls looked golden in the afternoon sun, the steeply pitched green metal roof blending in with the thick growth of Douglas firs that surrounded it. My mood lifted just looking at it, remembering all the happy summer vacations spent here during my childhood.

“We’re here,” I said, completely unnecessarily.

“I noticed.”

“I’m going in.”

She put her hand on my forearm. “Honey, are you sure you want to do this? You’re going to be up here all alone.”

“I’m sure, Mom,” I said, with what I hoped was a confident smile.

She sighed and shook her head, a slow single shake. That was another of her heavy-hitters. The sigh. Accompanied by that sad, I’m worried and disappointed look, it used to floor me every time.

Honestly, I didn’t know if this cabin thing would work out for me. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it. Maybe I’d change my mind in a few days or weeks and come home again with my tail between my legs. But I wouldn’t find out if I didn’t try, and I wanted to know if I could manage by myself.

Plus it was quiet up here. No-one I knew lived in the tiny nearby town of Subalpine and my ex-fiancé disliked what he called “redneck country” intensely. There would be no awkward run-ins here.

I opened my door. “Are you coming?”

“Nova—”

“Mom, I’ll be fine. I’m a big girl.” The air outside the car smelled sweet, the resinous scent of evergreens mixed with ripe berries and a hint of woodsmoke, like summer picnics and Christmas rolled into one. I got out, just to forestall more argument.

But my mom was tougher than that. She popped out of the passenger side of the car, ready for battle. “You’ve never lived on your own. I don’t think camping out up here is a good way to start.”

Good grief, the cabin had running water and electricity. It’s not like I’d be living in a tent.

“Camping out? Come on, we’ve got one of the best cabins in the area.” I grinned at her and dangled the cabin keys from my fingers. “It’ll be great. Lots of fresh air.”

“But what will you do up here all by yourself? You’ll be lonely. And you’re going to fall behind on your studies. You don’t want to do that to yourself, do you?”

I wasn’t going to be lonely. I liked solitude and I’d brought some art supplies so I could work, do some landscape sketches and nature studies. We’d already discussed this, about five hundred times. Why she felt the need to drag me over the coals again was beyond me. I guess she just couldn’t believe I wouldn’t fold, like I had all those other times.

“It’s not too late to change your mind,” she said hopefully. “We can drive back home right now. Or we can stay the night and go home in the morning. Your dad won’t mind, and the girls will be thrilled.”

My little sisters hadn’t wanted me to do this either. Nobody did, except me. But nobody else had gone through what I had, either, and it wasn’t their decision to make. Nobody else in the family was re-evaluating their whole life and reason for being. Not that I’m over-dramatic or anything.

“It’s not like I’m moving to Mars,” I said, going around to the trunk for my bags. “I have a phone. You guys can come up some weekends. I’ll be home for holidays. It’ll be fine.”

My mom just shook her head. “I know you had a bad spring term, but that’s no reason to hide out here like a hermit. There’s no reason to jeopardize your future just because your boyfriend was a jerk.”

Hauling my big, black suitcase out of the trunk, I turned toward the cabin. “I’ve made up my mind and I’m not going to argue with you about it. So unless you’re not going to let me stay here after all, I’m going in.”

They’d offered me the cabin when I’d proposed moving across the country. Apparently they’d rather have me in the family cabin, even if it was tucked away in the Cascade Mountains, than working my way across the country taking random waitressing jobs here and there and then moving on. That had been my first choice.

I wasn’t very outgoing, so I don’t know if the waitressing idea was really workable. But I’d had to get away. From everything.

When I’d walked in on my fiance Barry and my so-called best friend Skylar doing the nasty in the living room of the apartment I shared with her, my world had turned inside-out in one second flat. Just the time it took me to comprehend what I was seeing. That moment changed everything. Made me question everything.

Was it me? Was I not enough woman for him? Was I too ugly, too fat, too thin, too shy, too brainy? What? Or was he just a weak-willed, cheating shit?

And Skylar — my best friend. How could she do it to me? It’s not like she couldn’t get her own guy; she had them following her around, dates every weekend. She had more guys than she knew what to do with and could have loaned out a few to her single friends. But no — she had to go after my fiancé.

I’d thought I knew them, that I knew myself. But I hadn’t. And now I wasn’t sure of anything, except that I had to get away. I’d turned into a total misanthropist, a hater of humankind. The only places that appealed to me were on top of mountains or maybe at the bottom of the ocean. Yeah. The ocean floor would be nice and quiet.

Peaceful. Completely free of cheating boyfriends and traitorous BFFs and people who thought they knew what I wanted better than I did. Only I didn’t have access to any ocean-bottom retreats; what I did have was permission to use this old cabin.

I stuck the key in the lock and wiggled it. The knob was dusty. A thick layer of dust also lay on the nearby kitchen windowsill. Cobwebs festooned the lintel and the panes of glass in the window. Under the dirt, I could see the green paint flaking in a few places.

“Ugh,” my mom said. “It’s filthy.”

“We haven’t come up here for a long time.” I opened the door to an interior covered in more dust, a thick yet fluffy layer of grunge that coated everything. The air smelled stale. Dead flies had sprinkled their tiny corpses throughout the dust, like raisins in a disgusting sort of raisin bran.

“Nova, you’re not going to be happy here.” She curled her lip as she stared at the floor. She’d dressed to help me move in, but her idea of casual clothes was freshly pressed dark-wash jeans and glossy new ballet flats, not the ratty sweats and old running shoes I’d chosen.

I glanced at her as I carted my suitcase into the living room. “Sure I will.”

The truth was, I had no idea whether staying at the cabin would make me feel better or give me any clearer an understanding of myself. But I’d made up my mind and I wasn’t changing it. Not until I’d given being on my own a shot. “Think of it like a retreat.”

“It’s not safe for you to be out here by yourself,” she said in an ominous tone. “And you could do a retreat at a nice resort on the coast.”

“Mom, I know how to take care of myself. I’ve got my mountain woman knife and everything. Plus I’ve got the pistol Dad gave me.” And I knew how to use it. Dad and I had spent many hours at the shooting range practicing.

“That doesn’t make me feel any better,” she said, giving me the look again. “You know how I hate guns.”

Nothing I said was going to make her feel good about this. “You’re going to have to trust me. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“We’re going to visit you every weekend, you know. Otherwise we’ll worry too much.”

I set my case on the faded, brown couch and turned to make another trip to the car. “Just call first to make sure I’m here.”

With any luck, she’d get royally sick of driving up here every single weekend and give me some distance. It would probably take her a few months to reach that point, though.

She took my hand as I passed her. “You don’t have to quit school, you know. You could go closer to home.”

“Yeah, I know. But this is what I want. I need some time to think about things.” I drew away.

She trailed after me. My parents still thought I was going to graduate pre-med and go on to some prestigious medical school. They were doctors and that meant I should be one as well. Growing up, that had been my dream too, but now it was one more thing I wasn’t so sure about. Maybe it had never been my dream, just one I’d taken on out of guilt.

Art, you know, is only for flakes. Sensible people make sensible plans, like becoming a doctor. They go to prestigious, private colleges like Pioneer and when they graduate, they’ve already been accepted into a well-regarded medical school. They sure don’t hide out in an old cabin on a mountainside. They don’t need to find themselves because they already know who they are.

I was not a sensible person.

“I hope that fiasco with Barry didn’t make you doubt yourself,” she said. “You’re a bright girl and you have a great future ahead of you. Don’t let the stupid things he and Skylar did ruin your chances for your career.”

“Mom.” I heaved a sigh an awful lot like hers. “I’m not ruining anything, okay? This is temporary.”

Right. Temporary. And it wasn’t guilt or shame or even worry I felt. Nope. I had every confidence this cabin experiment would turn out well and I’d prove my parents wrong.

Chapter 3: Overdose

Gage:

Jeremy’s apartment complex had an underground parking lot and one of those inner courtyard things with a swimming pool and some decent but boring landscaping in the center. The outside of the place had a bland concrete wall around it, the green, blade-like leaves of some kind of spiky desert plant showing over the top. It looked a lot like a lot of other apartment complexes in the area. Nothing special.

I didn’t take my mother’s warning about him or Jeremy seriously. That Deal was fifteen years old already and I saw no reason to think it was coming due tonight. Why would it? There was nothing special about this evening, nothing unusual about the party we were going to or the people who’d be there. Just business as usual.

Except maybe that the party had a Bollywood theme and there were rumors they might have a Bengal tiger there. Maybe an elephant. And dancers, lots of Bollywood-style dancers. It sounded like a cross between a three-ring circus and an Indian epic movie.

But so what? Extravagant parties weren’t that remarkable in my world.

The goal for this evening was to put in an appearance, make the rounds, then go cut loose with Jer. A fairly standard night for both of us.

Yet when I pulled up in the underground parking lot of Jeremy’s place, something dark and uneasy moved through my belly. I took the stairs up to the courtyard garden, where I paused and stared up at his apartment building for a moment, trying to shake off the mood. He’d once owned a house, but his career had hit a low point with all his using, and he was renting an apartment now.

It was a nice enough place, but not even close to the luxury of the house he’d owned. The rooms were smaller and not as high-end. Jeremy didn’t seem to care. He’d trash the place just like he had the house and every other home he’d ever occupied as long as I’d known him. His home was a party pad, and that was the extent of it.

I could see his apartment windows through thick fringes of palm fronds in the landscaped courtyard. The lights were on in his place and everything looked fine. Normal. My mom had just freaked me out with all that crap she threw at me.

Straightening my shoulders, I dashed up the concrete stairs to his door on the second floor and rang the bell. No-one answered, so I rang again. Heavy metal thundered right through the walls into the outside air. Someone had to be home.

But my second ring went unanswered. I banged my fist on the door. Nothing.

Maybe he was on the toilet. Pulling out my phone, I dialed him. His phone seemed to ring forever before finally sending me to his voicemail.

Damn it. We were going together so we could do the rounds later, when we’d gotten suitably bored and needed to find a better time. He knew I was coming over to pick him up. What the fuck was he doing up there?

Knowing him, he was banging a couple of chicks and had forgotten about the time. I shook my head and tried the door handle. It was open. That was weird in itself. I tried to tell myself there was nothing ominous about it; he’d just forgotten to lock up.

“Jer?” I stuck my head in the foyer.

The music was so loud he wasn’t likely to hear me, so I shut the door and walked into his living room. Empty beer bottles littered the black leather couch, the chrome and glass coffee table, the tan plush carpet. No Jer and no girls.

That cold, heavy feeling snaked through my gut again. Even with all the noise from the music, there was something quiet about the place. Something unmoving and still. Empty.

I strode through the first floor rooms, all of them unoccupied. Take-out containers all over the place, still half full of food. The place smelled. Stank, actually. He had a cleaning lady, but apparently she hadn’t come by yet.

Taking the stairs two at a time, I charged up to his room. The door stood open; the lights were on. Dirty clothes covered the fake wood floor and the fake black-leather club chair by the window. Clean underwear and T-shirts spilled out of his dresser drawers and an empty bottle of Gray Goose lay on its side on the rumpled bed.

The room stank of old sweat and alcohol. It smelled just as bad as downstairs, although I couldn’t see any rotten food laying around.

“Jer? You here?” I called.

No answer.

The door to his bathroom stood open and the light was on inside. I could hear this steady drip-drip-drip sound, like someone hadn’t turned the tap all the way off. Drip. Drip. Drip. And for some reason I can’t explain, that sound told me everything. It told me things I didn’t want to know.

My hands felt like ice blocks hanging from the ends of my arms. I forced myself to walk into the bathroom. Part of me was hoping, almost begging Fate that my worst suspicions weren’t true as I moved with stiff legs through the open doorway.

His apartment had one of those modern sculptural tubs, a freestanding white one in an oval shape. It had always reminded me of a serving dish, the kind you fill with vegetables.

Jeremy lay in the tub. His eyes were half closed like he was going to sleep, but his face was blue. Greasy, unwashed blond hair lay flat on his scalp. The sculptural tap sticking out of the marble wall over the tub dripped water into the basin, one drop at a time. Drip. Drip. Drip.

One arm sprawled out over the edge of the tub, a piece of surgical hose still tied around his bicep. On the marble floor under his lax fingers lay a syringe. Empty. Next to it was an open bottle of expensive Scotch whiskey with half the liquor gone.

I rushed to him, as if hurrying could save him. But I already knew he was dead. I knew it before I touched his cold skin, before I felt the chill of the water, before I felt the side of his neck for a pulse.

“Jesus, Jer,” I whispered. “What the fuck did you do to yourself?”

I pressed my fingertips to his neck again, just in case he did have a pulse and I’d missed it. But there was nothing. His body felt strange and I couldn’t hear him breathing. How long had he been sitting there? It had to have been a while, considering how cold the water was. Jer wasn’t the kind to sit in a tub of cold water on purpose.

I glanced at the counter. A small, orange prescription bottle lay on its side, the cap off, a couple of little white pills spilling out onto the gray marble counter.

Memories flooded me. All the times we’d partied together. The first time I’d ever shot heroin into a vein — Jer had shown me how to do it. Long nights talking and drinking, when secrets came out, ugly secrets I sometimes wish I’d never heard.

My skin prickled all over. There was this strange, heavy feeling in the air, almost like it was thicker than normal or pressing down on me. My head seemed to tingle inside.

Someone was in the room with me. I didn’t feel alone anymore. The sense of dread I’d had before entering the bathroom intensified until it was almost unbearable. I swallowed hard and glanced reluctantly at my friend’s corpse.

Naturally, he hadn’t moved. Not at all. His cold blue eyes stared at the wall, glazed over and gone. There was nothing alive in him. Nothing at all. The sense of presence didn’t come from Jeremy’s body. It was something else.

An eerie sort of whispering came from the air, just beyond the edge of my hearing. As if someone were muttering one or two rooms over. The air seemed colder, too, as if the air conditioning had somehow dropped the temperature twenty degrees in an instant. I went back into the bedroom, but it was empty.

I needed to call someone about Jeremy. 911 or something. But not in the bathroom. Not in the bedroom, either. The atmosphere up here was growing denser and colder by the moment.

The presence seemed to watch me as I descended the stairs. I could feel its gaze on the back of my head. Was it him? Was my mother right?

Warm California air engulfed me as soon as I left the apartment, yet it brought little relief. I hate to admit it—I like to think I’m pretty much able to handle anything—but my hands shook a little and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I dragged my phone out again and called 911. Maybe my mom was right for once. Maybe he had been here.

Was this my fault, then? Was Jeremy dead because of me? Maybe if we’d never been friends, he wouldn’t have OD’d. Maybe he’d never have used at all.

He used for reasons that had nothing to do with you.

Still. If it weren’t for me — for The Deal — he might still be alive. Maybe the people who’d hurt Jer when we were kids would have hurt me instead. Maybe Jeremy would have been okay.

The thing, the presence, had followed me out into the night, yet it seemed weaker outside. I breathed easier and the hair on my neck settled.

I finished my call and stuck the phone in my pocket, glanced around, tried to get my bearings. Jeremy was dead. Dead. My best friend was dead and there seemed to be some kind of supernatural element to his death.

If my mom wasn’t crazy, then whatever had killed Jer was after me and anyone close to me.

Jesus. What about my other friends? I had to find a way to protect them.

Chapter 4: House Party

Gage:

Central Oregon is dry. I’d heard that but didn’t really believe it until I attended this house party in Sunriver and saw it for myself. Nothing but rolling red hills covered in sagebrush, rabbit brush, and juniper trees. The only grass showed up in anemic little clumps, the blades thin and wispy and barely-green.

The sky above me was a thin, pale gray but the light seemed hard and glaring in spite of the cloud cover. Maybe that was the altitude. We were up at 3,000 feet or so. Not especially high, but higher than I was used to. No pun intended.

Maybe some people thought the area was beautiful. That’s what I’d heard, anyway. To me it looked almost too familiar, the parched hills so similar to other hills all over the dried-out West. Unforgiving, unsympathetic, fuck-you hills whose only question for you is why you thought it would be a good idea to stop here in such a shitty environment.

House parties are supposed to be non-stop raucous fun, at least among those people I used to hang with. I wasn’t having any fun and I needed to decide what to do about that.

I stood in my shirtsleeves on the flagstone patio of my host’s rented vacation house and stared at the thin dusting of early November snow draped over the arid landscape. My breath made white clouds in the air in front of me. I should have been cold but I couldn’t really feel it. Too wasted.

Jer would have been proud. Here I was, getting higher than the space shuttle, hanging out with a bunch of people I didn’t even like, in classic Jeremy Lindstrom style. Party on, dude.

For somebody stoned out of his mind, I was feeling remarkably bitter. Jeremy’s death had left me like that. I couldn’t get past the fact he’d left me. I couldn’t get past the fact I hadn’t saved him. I’d let him go, let him drink and drug himself to death and if I were honest with myself I’d helped him on his way.

Blaming his death on the devil was a sad cop-out. The fact was, I was responsible.

There were times I’d loaned him some shit from my own stash when I should have withheld it. Times when I should have found something else for us to do. But I’d been too busy doing my own partying to pay enough attention to Jer’s problems.

Yeah, I had tried, along with some of his other friends, to intervene. But none of us had tried hard enough. Especially me. I was his partner in crime, so how hard was I going to push him to stop? Now he was gone and I knew it was my fault.

Maybe it was my fate to hurt anyone who got close to me. Jeremy had been the first, but that was probably because I was only now really getting established as a star. He had told my mother he would only take me — or those near me — when I was at the height of my fame.

I liked to think I had more fame, more work in me, but maybe not. Maybe this was it, and now I had to pay the price for my success. Or my friends did, at any rate. Others would probably follow Jeremy. And how was I dealing with his death-by-partying? By partying some more. Drinking and doping were the only ways I could seem to forget.

Why should innocent bystanders have to pay for my dumbshit mistake? It hadn’t even been my decision. It was my mom’s. Why should Jeremy die because she was too ambitious for her own good?

Why couldn’t I forget this shit no matter how much crap I dumped into my body?

Maybe it was because ever since Jeremy’s death, that thing had followed me around. It would turn up at odd moments, invading my sense of solitude, ruining my peace of mind. What little peace of mind I had, at any rate.

I could sense it now. Watching me.

I snorted. Whatever. It wouldn’t find anyone to kill here, as long as it was only picking on people I cared about. No-one here fit that description. Not even me.

Maybe, just maybe, that was the real reason behind all the current partying. Avoidance. These were people I didn’t care for, people who weren’t really my friends. They were safe. As long as I stayed wasted, stayed with people who didn’t matter to me, nobody would get hurt.

Behind me in the sprawling contemporary house, music thumped and people whooped with laughter. I wasn’t feeling it. I’d had all the fun at this party that I could stand.

The sliding glass door slid open and a girl tottered out on heels so high they could double as stilts. Her skirt was so short every time she bent over you could see her pussy. She wasn’t wearing any panties. I knew all this because all yesterday and last night, she’d made sure to bend over as often as she could manage, usually pointing her ass at me when she did it.

Her name was Violet something-or-other, a model and aspiring actress with five pounds of make-up and fake eyelashes that would have looked more realistic on a giraffe. She batted them at me and leaned on my arm, licking her glossy upper lip as a cloud of her perfume rose up to choke me.

“Hey, Gage. What’re you doing out here all by yourself?”

“Getting some fresh air.” Getting away from her pussy displays.

She was only one of many women who’d been throwing themselves at me ever since I’d arrived. A couple of years ago, I’d have been all over that. Now I just wanted to get the hell away.

Something in me had broken when Jeremy died. This shit wasn’t fun anymore. So what was I doing here? Why was I hanging around with a bunch of assholes I didn’t like, didn’t even really know, didn’t want to know? There had to be something better than this.

Jeremy was gone, and…fuck. The only person in my life who really meant anything to me was my mother. I didn’t have any real friends. Not these assholes, for sure. You know something is severely wrong with your life when your only friends are people you can’t stand.

It was safer for everyone if I kept away from people I could truly care about. Kept myself distant from everyone, relating only through booze and drugs. Sometimes, though, the emptiness of this shit just got to me and I couldn’t take it anymore.

All at once, the only thing I could think about was getting away. Going somewhere I could be alone — really alone. Somewhere people weren’t totally wrapped up in their next high.

“We missed you in there.” Violet pressed her abundant, possibly fake, tits against my arm.

I didn’t say anything. It was around noon, I guessed, although I wasn’t sure. I’d been up since some time the day before and my sense of time was hazy. But if I left now, I should be able to make it back to the Willamette Valley before dark. Maybe.

It was worth a try, because I didn’t think I could stand spending another night with this crowd. I could hole up in a hotel for a day or two before catching a flight back to L.A.

“Come back inside. I’ll show you my room.” Violet grabbed my crotch.

“Jesus, Violet.” I shoved her hand away.

She pouted. It wasn’t attractive. “Everybody said you like to have a good time. They said you’re fun. But you’ve been totally boring all weekend.”

“I am completely and utterly boring,” I said.

“Let me show you how to have a good time.” She went for the crotch again.

“No, thanks. Maybe some other time.” I swiveled and made for the house.

Pot smoke filled the air of the huge living room. There was a cloud of it clinging to the thick wooden beams of the cathedral ceiling, and that was the mildest of the substances people were passing around. Two guys and a couple of girls were doing lines of coke laid out on the chunky stone coffee table, and someone in the corner was shooting H into his femoral artery. He had his jeans down around his knees and didn’t give a shit who was watching.

I couldn’t feel the bitterness anymore. A weird sense of detachment had come over me, like I was somewhere outside of the scene instead of in it. My body felt far away, my consciousness sort of floating over my own head.

It wasn’t just the drugs. At least, I didn’t think so. There was something else going on, some shift in my mind.

Everyone in the room, including me, looked hollow. Not because I could see inside them, but because they didn’t seem to have anything inside. They were emptier and flimsier than cracker boxes with all the crackers gone.

Most of them had known Jer, at least a little. Had they forgotten him already? Didn’t they remember how he’d died? But it didn’t matter to them. The only thing they cared about was getting their next fix.

Violet tottered after me as I walked my hollow ass through the drug-addled crowd in the living room. She was chattering about giving me the time of my life. I ignored her, heading for the bedrooms.

They’d given me my own room, but when I got there I found a guy and two girls, a blonde and a brunette, in the middle of my king-sized bed. Naked. They made a kind of erotic pretzel, all twined together.

My detachment vanished in an instant, replaced by rage.

Two naked females twined together was the kind of sight that would once have turned me on. Now it just made me fucking furious. They were in my private room, for fuck’s sake.

One of the girls lifted her bleached blond head and smiled, her eyes glazed and unfocused. She was definitely on something. “Hey, Gage. Wanna join us?”

“No. Get out of my room.”

The guy glared at me over his shoulder. “We’re in the middle of something here.”

“Get the fuck out of my room.”

He buried his head between the brunette’s thighs, making her giggle loudly. I growled and kicked the bed frame.

“What’s your fucking problem, bro?” the guy snarled.

“You’re not my bro. Now get out of my room!” I gave the bed another kick for emphasis.

“Jesus. All right. Just chill out.” He levered himself off the bed. “Come on, girls. We’ll find another room.”

I glowered at them until they’d hauled their naked asses off my bed and exited the room. Guess I could’ve packed up while they were getting each other off, but it was the principle of the thing. They had no business taking over my room for their fuck party.

I grabbed my overnight bag from the closet floor and started stuffing laundry in it. Most of my shit was still in the bag because I hadn’t bothered unpacking. It made for a nice, quick exit.

“Gage?” Violet minced over to me and got down on her knees in front of me, reaching up to stroke my dick through my jeans.

I flinched back. “Knock it off.”

“But don’t you want me to? I’d love to make you feel good.”

“Violet, do us both a favor and get away from me. I’m not in the mood for this today.”

She pouted again. Maybe she thought it looked seductive. It didn’t.

“I’m starting to think you don’t like me,” she whined, clambering awkwardly to her feet.

Bingo.

I carried my bag into the bathroom. “Just having a bad day.”

“But I could make it better.”

She could never make anything better. Not for me. There was zero chance of him taking Violet.

“Vi, I’m trying to be patient, but I’m running out. Don’t push me or you’re going to see a side of me you won’t like.” I shoveled my shaving kit stuff into my bag loose, letting the shaving cream and razor and toothbrush and all the other related junk land randomly on top of the wads of dirty clothes inside.

“Where are you going?” she said.

“Away.” I stalked past her, through the bedroom and into the hallway.

Nobody else seemed to notice when I walked out the front door. My bodyguards were probably in the kitchen, where they’d hung out for most of this party. They didn’t see me leave and I wasn’t about to tell them I was going. I wanted to be alone.

I’d rented a red Porsche. It was sitting off to the side of the driveway at the end so I wouldn’t get blocked in by all the other guests.

Driving high as I was could not be a good idea. Oh fucking well. I was going, high or not. I tossed my bag in the back and slid into the driver’s side. Just as I shut my door, Violet staggered out of the house.

“Jesus,” I muttered, gunning the engine.

I backed out and peeled off without acknowledging her. It was best not to encourage her. She’d probably try to invite herself into the car with me, and I didn’t think I could take several hours trapped in a sports car with Violet. One of us would end up dead.

Chapter 5: The Road

Gage:

I needed not only to get away from that crappy house party but to get somewhere I could spend the night. No way did I want to sleep all crammed into the Porsche, so I needed to make good time and get my ass into Eugene, the little Willamette Valley town which had the closest real airport.

The highway climbed rapidly into the Cascades and with the change in elevation the landscape became wetter and greener. When I crossed the pass and descended the western slopes of the range, the air went from dry enough to desiccate the inside of your nasal passages to moist and fragrant with the scent of the forest. I’d entered another world where evergreen trees so dark they were almost black pressed thickly against the edges of the road and underbrush — ferns, grass, bushes I couldn’t identify — completely hid the ground.

A gloomy forest that even the bright whiteness of the new snow couldn’t lighten. In my ugly mood, the terrain seemed ominous. Haunted.

It went right along with the haunted atmosphere inside the car. You wouldn’t think a Porsche could feel that way, would you? Well, it can. Something invisible had hitched a ride in my passenger seat. And I didn’t know how to kick it out.

I snagged the bottle of Scotch from the passenger seat — it was sitting on my invisible guest’s lap — and tipped it to my mouth. Yeah, I know. Drinking and driving. All I can say is my brain was partially off-line due to lack of sleep and all the shit I’d already put in my body.

I was making one stupid decision after another.

The booze put a warm glow back into me, a mellow haze that further distorted my thinking. I felt looser, more relaxed, not so pissed off about the party. The Porsche swooped around the curves of the road like a bright red bird, and in my mind I was flying. When I hit a patch of ice and spun sideways, I just threw back my head and laughed. The green-black forest whirled around me as my car did a one-eighty in the middle of the highway.

I was lucky there weren’t any other cars on the road that day.

I pointed the car in the right direction again and drove off, a bit more slowly. Didn’t want to end up at the bottom of a cliff, after all. Even if my haunting friend wished I would.

Fuck him. I wasn’t going to make this easy for him.

My stomach started to ache. Normally I don’t get stomach pain with alcohol unless I drink myself into oblivion, and I wasn’t that drunk. Maybe I was just hungry. There weren’t many places to stop for food on this lonely mountain road, though, and I hadn’t brought anything with me.

A few flakes whirled out of the sky and hit my windshield. Then a few more. They grew fatter, faster, closer together. The Porsche had no snow tires, but that was okay. I was a good driver and I felt fine except for the nausea building in my stomach.

I really needed to stop somewhere and get something to eat.

Up ahead and to my right was a big wooden sign directing me to Mountain Magic Lodge and Cabins. Painfully corny name, but they’d have food at a lodge, right? I swerved into the narrow drive, the car fishtailing as I headed down a steep hill.

The car slid all the way down the slope and into a smallish parking lot, where it performed a gentle one-eighty. An empty parking lot. The log-cabin style lodge, which turned out to be kind of small and run down, looked empty too, its windows dark. A handful of shabby cottages clustered around it like they were huddling in for shelter.

I cut the engine and got out of the car, swinging the Scotch bottle by its neck. A thin layer of unbroken snow, marred only by my tire tracks, covered the lot. Nobody had been here for a few days at least.

Crunching through the fresh snow, I wandered across the open lot and around the side of the lodge building with the vague idea that someone might be hanging out in the back. All I found back there was a sad little concrete patio that overlooked a gray and angry looking river. There wasn’t a lot of space between the patio and the river, which made me wonder how often it flooded in the spring.

The patio, I mean. Did the river water rise high enough to flood that postage-stamp patio?

It wasn’t flooded at the moment, though, and I had a drunken desire to get a closer look at the water. Plus my bladder was yelling at me to take a piss and I didn’t want to make yellow snow right here at the back door of the lodge. That would be in serious bad taste.

I took another slug of Scotch before wending my way through some stiff evergreen ferns to the water’s edge. Boy, that water looked cold and fast. It would probably get a lot higher before summer came.

The invisible guest watched me from some distance away. Don’t ask me how I knew this. I could feel it. He was somewhere behind me, not too close, not within reaching distance. Just watching. I would have flipped him off, but pissing seemed more important at the moment.

I started unbuttoning my jeans, but I fumbled, my fingers refusing to cooperate. For some reason, they seemed kind of stiff and uncooperative. Or maybe they were too loose. I couldn’t make up my mind.

Either way, they couldn’t seem to get a grip on my pants.

I stared down at the metal button for a moment, looking at it through the white clouds of my breath. It seemed strangely far away for the waistband button of a pair of jeans. Almost like it belonged to someone else. The ground beneath my feet seemed to waver and slide away from me, tilting unpredictably. No wonder I couldn’t get my pants open, with the ground moving like that.

Carefully I bent down and set the bottle in the snow. My vision gave this weird lurch, as if the whole world had tried to up-end itself. I straightened even more carefully, trying to keep the dizziness under control, and wrestled the button out of its hole. Good job. Now the zipper. Zippers were easy. No prob. Just a straight shot down the fly.

I shifted my weight. Something about the movement made me pitch forward. I flailed, throwing my arms out to catch myself. But the ground under my feet gave way, sliding down and forward into the water. My hand slapped against the icy trunk of a young tree and slid, scraping my palm without giving me any purchase.

Fuck.

I had only an instant to register what was happening. The water hit me like a blow, the cold stealing my breath. It closed over my head.

I bobbed up again, broke the surface, tried to get a look at the bank. All I could see was tossing gray water, spinning gray sky. I captured a lung full of air and then the water swallowed me again.

Something slammed into my skull. The shock reverberated all the way down my spine. Everything went black and I disappeared.

Chapter 6: The River

Nova:

The cabin smelled like woodsmoke. My cookstove burned wood and looked like it belonged in the nineteenth century, which I’d always thought was awesome. I was still learning to cook on the thing, but I’d made a lot of progress.

It kept the kitchen almost too hot at times. Right now, though, it felt just about right.

The mountains can be cold even in early November. Luckily, my parents’ cabin was well-built, not just sturdy with a snow-worthy roof but chinked up tight so it wasn’t drafty in the winter. With the wood-burning cookstove, I was completely cozy so far, and I had a second stove in the living room in case the weather got truly dire.

Winter was here already. I glanced out the cabin window and confirmed that — yep — it was really snowing. Most of the stuff falling from the dull gray sky was rain, but there were snowflakes sprinkled in for a bit of variety.

What did they call that stuff? Sleet, I thought. Snow mixed with rain.

We’d had some snow already, but most of it hadn’t stuck. It melted as soon as it hit the ground, or maybe lasted overnight and disappeared by noon the next day. Only an inch or so had stuck around so far. But I had a feeling this stuff was going to be here for a while. Good thing I had plenty of well-seasoned firewood to last me through the winter.

Speaking of, I needed to make a quick trip to the woodpile.

A few minutes later, I’d put on a scarf and gloves and a hat to keep the sleet out of my eyes. I didn’t have any fancy carriers for the wood, so there would be multiple trips to and from the woodpile before I’d stocked up the house.

I opened the back door. A man stood there, watching the door as if he were waiting for me. I jumped, stumbling back a step.

He was tall and skinny. He wore a flannel shirt but no jacket and no hat. His dark blond hair was long and lank, but it wasn’t stuck to his head with wet, so he couldn’t have been outside for very long.

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said, his voice pleasant and respectful. “I need your help.”

This was weird. I lived on a narrow side road that wasn’t especially easy to see from the highway. It wasn’t the kind of place people found by accident, so how had he ended up here?

I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. “What for?”

“My friend fell in the river. I need your help to pull him out.” He pointed through the trees toward the McKenzie.

“I’m not that strong,” I said. “Maybe I should call someone to help you.”

“A call would be a good idea,” he said. “But you need to go down and pull him out right now. He’s almost gone.”

I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. It could be some kind of trick designed to get me to let down my guard. Maybe draw me away from the house for whatever nefarious plan he might have. On the other hand, what if his friend really had fallen in the water? In this weather, he’d only have a few minutes before hypothermia killed him.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to the blond.

Shutting the door on him, I locked it and went for the pistol my dad had given me. From now on, I was wearing it in the waistband of my pants. Just in case. I’d carry it openly at the moment, though, so Mystery Man knew he couldn’t screw with me.

Armed, I reopened the door. The blond guy was standing right where I’d left him, like he hadn’t moved a quarter inch. He glanced at the gun in my hand, but said nothing. All he did was turn on his heel and walk toward the river.

The water was already high, even though it was early in the season, not even officially winter yet. We’d had an extremely wet fall this year. The river, sweetly refreshing in the summer, seemed resentful now as it bullied its way through stands of pussy willow, wild currant, and salmonberry that were high and dry in June.

The blond pointed toward the water. “There he is. See him?”

I peered through naked branches. There was something floating in the water, some large and bright red object that seemed to be caught on a partially submerged sapling. I wouldn’t have picked it out as a human form if this guy hadn’t told me it was his friend. From here, it looked like a vague lump that could just as easily have been a chunk of garbage someone had tossed into the current so they wouldn’t have to pay to take it to a dump.

But as I drew closer, I could see it wasn’t garbage. It was a man.

He floated face up in the gray current, his dark brown hair swirling restlessly in the restless water. His skin looked so pale it was almost blue, and that made me shiver. There was something unreal about the sight of him, like it belonged in a movie instead of my boring real life.

He wore a red jacket and blue jeans. How long had he been in the water? He might be dead already.

My guide had dropped back as I got closer to the bank. I turned to ask him how his friend had fallen in, but he was gone.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Aren’t you going to help me get him out?”

The only answer I got was the barely audible shushing sound of the increasingly thick snowfall. Where had the guy gone? I couldn’t even see his tracks in the snow, although mine were clear. My whole scalp prickled as I stared around myself in bafflement. He couldn’t have simply disappeared.

Yet that seemed to be exactly what he’d done.

I checked the safety to make sure it was on and stuck my pistol into my coat pocket. Wherever he’d gone, I still had his nearly drowned friend on my hands and no-one to help me rescue him. Taking a deep breath, I plunged into the icy water of the river.

Holy hell, it was cold. The kind of cold that stops your lungs and sends a burning ache right into your bones. I gritted my teeth and waded through the thigh-deep water toward the man.

His right sleeve had caught on a branch of that partly drowned sapling, and that was what had saved him from being drawn back out into the main current. Instead he was floating in this tiny backwater behind my cabin, looking almost peaceful, his features starkly beautiful, like those of a statue. Or maybe he just looked dead.

I swallowed heavily as I reached for him. If he was dead, it would be the first time I’d ever touched a corpse. I probably would have been a lot more scared if it weren’t for the unbelievable cold of the river and the urgent hope that I could save this guy I’d never seen before.

My hand met his face. It was almost as cold as the water. I didn’t have time to check for a pulse, so I grabbed his arm and tried to yank the sleeve free of the branch that had taken it hostage. The thin fabric of his jacket tore. His body began to drift out toward the center of the river.

“Shit! Don’t do that,” I said. As if he could hear me.

I grabbed his arm with both hands and pulled him toward the bank, leaning and using all the strength in my body to guide him against the force of the current. And praying all the while that he was still alive and I wasn’t dragging a corpse.

We reached the shallow water at the bank’s edge and I walked backward onto solid ground. My body instantly felt about a hundred pounds heavier without the buoyancy of the water. How was I going to get this guy, who looked to be at least six feet tall, up the slope to the cabin?

In a desperate burst of energy, I hauled him out of the river. He lay on the muddy snow of the bank with his face up to the falling flakes, which settled on his pale skin and melted. At least they weren’t sticking. Didn’t that mean his skin still had a little warmth in it? Or maybe it was only the river water clinging to him that was melting the snow.

I pressed my fingers lightly to the side of his neck, trying to find a pulse from his carotid artery. There it was, faint and frighteningly slow, but steady. He was still alive.

On the other hand, he was soaked through with the coldest water I’d ever experienced and it was starting to snow heavily, the rain completely replaced with flakes. We were both soaked. If I couldn’t get him inside, he wouldn’t last more than a few minutes and neither would I.

I grabbed him under the armpits and pulled him backwards up the slope. But I’d already worn myself out hauling him out of the river, and he was way heavier now he didn’t have the water to hold him up. I heaved and pulled and made it about a foot and a half before I had to stop. My arms were trembling with the effort.

“Shit,” I muttered. “Now what?”

I couldn’t leave him out here to die. But he wouldn’t survive if I didn’t get him dry and warm, pronto. And how could I do that out here? In a few minutes we were both going to be covered in snow. If only I had a tent.

Wait…a tent. There was an old one in the closet of the cabin. I saw it when I cleaned up after I first moved in. It might have holes in it, but it would be better than nothing. Maybe if I could keep the snow off us, I could warm him up enough that he’d awake and walk to the cabin on his own.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to Mr. Unconscious. “Don’t go anywhere.”

He didn’t even flicker an eyelash. I staggered up the hill to the cabin and raced to the storage closet. There were piles of old junk inside, accumulated over years of family summers up here. Inflatable pool toys, long deflated; extra kerosene lanterns; a box of fishing tackle, along with a rod and reel hiding in the back corner; and at the bottom on the floor, two tattered sleeping bags and an equally disreputable tent.

Awesome. We were going to stay in deluxe accommodations.

I threw a couple of logs on the fire in my woodburning kitchen stove to keep it going while I was outside with The Guy. Then I gathered up the things, somehow holding both sleeping bags and the tent all at once, and staggered back outside. The icy winter air cut right through my wet clothes, making me shiver. It was even worse than being immersed in the river. My jeans stuck to my legs and my feet squished in my sodden shoes. I was going to turn into a Nova-shaped icicle in a minute.

The guy in the red jacket was much worse off. He hadn’t moved at all since I’d left him. He really looked dead. His lips were blue, his face and fingers so pale they also looked bluish.

For the first time since coming up here, I wished I wasn’t alone. If I’d had a companion, I could have done more for this guy and done it quicker. As it was, I had to fumble around on my own and everything seemed to take ten times longer than it should.

I set the sleeping bags under the canopy of a young spruce tree to keep them out of the snow. Then I untied the tent bundle. What unfurled wasn’t what I’d hoped for.

I didn’t have a nice, big tent with a floor and a zip-up door. What I had was a pup tent and an old blue tarp. But it was better than nothing and at least it was simple enough that I wouldn’t get confused and end up tangling us in the tent like fish in a net. I’d never been very good at pitching tents.

Spreading the tarp on the ground next to the unconscious man, I then rolled him over onto it. Now he was face down, so I heaved him onto his back. He groaned and coughed. Water spewed from his mouth.

I’d placed the tarp under the spruce tree next to the sleeping bags, figuring we could use the extra shelter the tree would provide. Now I draped the pup tent over the lowest branch, arranging the fabric so it hung down to the ground on either side of the man. Okay. So far, so good.

But I didn’t have him undressed or in the sleeping bags yet.

My shivering had turned violent and my teeth were starting to chatter. I needed to get warm and dry, too. Crawling into the tent, I crouched on my knees beside him and whipped my utility knife out of my belt. I carried that puppy everywhere, all the time out here.

I used the blade — which I kept sharp at all times — to cut his clothing off him. The stuff looked expensive, although it was a little hard to tell when it was full of water. I didn’t care if he’d paid thousands of dollars for it. The clothes were coming off.

After I’d sliced through jacket, Henley, jeans and even boxers, I tossed the scraps out of the tent. I grabbed the sleeping bags and dragged them inside. One went beneath the guy for some insulation from the cold of the ground, which was seeping right through the tarp. I spread the other one over him and tucked it in.

Now for my clothes. All this moving around was awkward in the cramped confines of a pup tent. My hat was still dry somehow, but the rest of me was soaked and my fingers were going numb. I undressed quicker than I’d ever thought possible and crawled under the sleeping bag with my anonymous friend.

Okay. Now I was buck naked and pressed up against an equally naked unconscious stranger who felt a lot like a big block of ice. Still shivering, I tucked the sleeping bag around us, trying to seal out all the cold air. The top of the bag came just over our heads. Thank goodness it was extra large, and seemed to be made of down. It might just save his life.

God, it was cold in here. The only heat available had to come from my body, and I was chilled too. But this was all we had at the moment, so it would have to do.

While I’d been undressing him, I’d been too preoccupied to pay much attention to his looks, but I had noticed with a corner of my mind that he was quite good-looking. Now there wasn’t anything left for me to do, and I could study him in detail.

There wasn’t much light in our little nest, but I could see the striking planes of his face, the hardness of his jaw beneath the dark stubble growing there, the high sculpted cheekbones, the length and thickness of his lashes. And I could feel the hard muscularity of his body beneath mine.

Boy, could I feel it.

He was like a stone statue under me, cold and hard with sculpted muscles. He must work out a lot. Like it could be his job, judging by how built he was.

His face looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Maybe he just reminded me of someone else. That happened to me a lot — I’d see someone I thought I knew and then realize they only resembled my acquaintance. That was probably what I had here.

Besides, if I’d ever met anyone half as good-looking as this guy, I’d definitely remember his name. Compared to him, Barry wasn’t even worth a second glance.

The situation was too bizarre, though, and he was too cold for me to get excited at being mashed up against his nakedness. It just didn’t feel sexy at all. My body still shook with hard tremors and I was scared that he’d never wake up.

What would I do if I couldn’t rouse him? My phone had been in my jeans pocket when I waded into the river and it was just as soaked as the rest of my stuff. I couldn’t call for help. I couldn’t leave him because he’d succumb to the cold long before I could get back. All I could do was lay here and hope my body heat was enough to bring him back.

“Look, I don’t know who you are,” I said out loud. “But you’ve got to hold on. I’m trying to get you warmed up.”

Of course he didn’t say anything.

“Don’t die on me, okay? I want you to live.”

It was like talking to a rock, but I kept babbling, telling him about the cabin and the river and how this was the first serious snow of the fall.

Was it only my imagination, or was it getting a little warmer inside the sleeping bag? I wasn’t shivering anymore, although I still felt cold. It seemed we were making progress.

Then he started to shake.

Chapter 7: Cold

Gage:

Cold. I was trapped someplace cold and dark, like a meat locker or a drawer in the morgue. All I could see or feel was cold darkness, everywhere, even inside me. Cold, hard darkness.

My mind drifted between wanting to escape that cold and wishing I could sink back into it and forget everything. At the moment, I was leaning toward the forgetting.

Someone was talking. The voice went on and on, soft and feminine, but I couldn’t understand the words. There seemed to be a heavy, clinging fog wrapped around my legs as it tried to drag me back into the icy black. Although I couldn’t understand the voice, it pulled me upward, away from the cold and the forgetfulness.

And there was noise beyond the talking. A strange clattering sound, like nothing I’d ever heard before.

My body shook uncontrollably. I tried to hold onto myself, to stop the movements, but my muscles refused to obey. All I could do was lay there and tremble.

A small hand touched my face. Her skin was hot against mine. I noticed the rest of her pressed against me, then, from chest to knees. She lay over me like a blanket. Who was she? I’d never heard that voice before.

God, she felt good. If I didn’t feel like absolute shit, I would have been aroused. Highly aroused. I knew this, but it was an abstraction, an idea. True arousal was out of my reach.

I groaned. The clattering sound paused for an instant before resuming.

The woman gasped. “Are you awake? Can you hear me?”

My mouth wouldn’t work, wouldn’t form words, so I groaned again. And once again, the clattering stopped. Then started.

My teeth. That sound was my teeth chattering.

“Can you open your eyes?” she said.

Jesus. I just wanted her to shut up so I could go back to sleep. That was what I needed. Sleep. I was so fucking tired. My body felt as heavy as if someone had replaced my blood with lead.

“Open your eyes,” she said. “Come on. Please. Open them for me.” Her small hands clutched my shoulders and shook me.

“Leave me alone,” I muttered. But it came out sounding all mashed together, like one long, unintelligible word.

“Wake up. We can’t stay here. You have to wake up.” Small hands shook me again, harder this time.

All right. Fine. I’d open my eyes for her.

Yeah. I’d get right on that.

I struggled to pry my eyelids apart. A sliver of light entered my eyes. Victory. I tried to summon some enthusiasm for my accomplishment, but it was too much trouble. The sliver disappeared.

“Come on,” she nagged. “Open your eyes. I know you can do it. We can’t stay here. We have to get inside.”

What the hell was she talking about? Inside where? I was fine where I was.

Okay, not really. But I sure wasn’t getting up and going somewhere else.

A sharp object jabbed me mercilessly in the ribs. “I know you’re in there somewhere. I’m not going to give up until you look at me.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

I put everything I had into opening my eyes.

It was dark, but not too dark to see. The light felt gray and cold, just like my body. A girl lay on top of me and neither of us wore any clothes.

I squinted up at her. She had dark hair and eyes, a pretty face with a slightly pointy chin. She reminded me of a small, naked elf. I didn’t recognize her. Shouldn’t I recognize her, given we were naked and horizontal together? We must have done something intimate to be in that condition.

But if we’d been screwing, why did I feel so bad?

I was still shaking, my teeth rattling together. The exhaustion weighed on me, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Yet I wanted to stare at her. She was more than pretty — her features were beautiful and completely free of make-up, which also puzzled me. The girls I knew wore tons of make-up at all times.

She gave me a dazzling smile. “You did it! You’re awake.”

I groaned incoherently in response.

“Now we just have to get you on your feet.”

Another groan escaped me. “Nah.”

I’d meant to say “not gonna happen” but apparently that was too much work for me at the moment.

“We have to. It’s getting colder. It’s snowing like crazy. We have to get inside where it’s warm.”

I kept squinting at her, trying to make sense of her words. We were outside? In a snowstorm. What the fuck, over?

“Come on,” she said, rolling off me.

I immediately missed her heat and the softness of her curves. But she was on a mission and there was no stopping her. She got on her knees and pulled the coverings off me. A sleeping bag. I got a flash of a voluptuous body just before she wrapped the puffy bag around herself.

“You can use the one you’re laying on,” she said.

I just lay there staring at her.

She frowned and extended a hand. “Do you need help getting up?”

In other circumstances, that remark would have made me grin wickedly. But grinning would take energy I didn’t have. Instead I continued to stare like a fool.

“Look,” she said, her voice growing sharp. “I know you feel terrible, but we can’t stay here. You’re still cold. You could die out here, and I won’t let that happen. So get up right now. The cabin is really close. I know you can walk that far.”

She was stubborn as hell.

I struggled to get myself propped up on my elbows. No idea where I was, who she was, or how and why I’d come to be here, but I decided getting into a warm cabin sounded like a fine plan.

“Clothes,” I said hoarsely.

In spite of the dim light, her blush was obvious. “Um … I had to cut them off you. But I have your shoes.” She reached outside the tent.

There was a tent?

God, my head was a mess. I’d just noticed the fact we were inside some kind of tiny tent with a steep pitch that gave just enough room for the two of us. Glancing up, I saw that the fabric was draped over the branch of an evergreen tree. Its prickly green needles were just above my head.

She handed me my shoes. They were liberally dusted with snow. She wanted me to put my feet in those?

“It’s better than going barefoot,” she said, tapping the snow out of them.

They were fucking cold when I put them on, and completely wet, like they’d been dunked in an ice bath. She helped me wrap up in the remaining sleeping bag and we crawled out of the tent, me staggering like a drunk even though I was on my hands and knees. Walking in this state was going to be lots of fun.

Sure enough, it was snowing like crazy outside. The flakes were so thick and came down so fast, so heavily, it was like trying to look through a curtain. All I could see was blurry shapes that looked like trees. A lot of trees.

A rushing sound, like a busy freeway, came from nearby.

The girl grabbed me around my ribs and hauled me to my feet. She was stronger than she looked. And I was weak as a newborn puppy, swaying and wobbling as dizziness made everything spin around me.

“It’s real close,” she said.

That was a lie.

It seemed to take years of stumbling through the freezing snowfall to get to the cabin. All my effort, all my mental focus went to putting one foot ahead of the other and staying upright. Finally, a rough brown wall reared up in front of us, along with a short flight of wooden stairs to a tiny deck.

“Just three steps,” she said.

I was so tired; I just wanted to sit down on those snow-covered steps and rest. But I had her nagging me, tugging on me, and it was easier to go along with what she wanted.

Chapter 8: Unexpected Guest

Nova:

My guest sprawled limply in one of my kitchen chairs, his head lolling to the side, supported by the rough log wall of the cabin. His eyelids remained at half-mast, his gaze unfocused and vague. Water dripped off him and pooled on the old, multi-colored vinyl floor.

He was so heavy that by the time I got him into the chair, my legs and arms were shaking. The guy was six-plus feet of muscle and bone. Mostly muscle. But he was weak from hypothermia and maybe other things, and he couldn’t walk steadily. He kept weaving and swaying like he was drunk.

Maybe he was. Maybe that was why he’d fallen into the river in the first place.

If so, he was damn lucky to be alive.

I had to get him warmed up, both the outside of him and the inside. He needed to get completely dry and he had to drink some warm liquid to get the heat inside his body. But I needed to get warm and dry, too, or I wouldn’t be able to take care of him.

I left him in the kitchen while I climbed into my loft bedroom for some dry clothes. The fire had burned down quite a bit while I was outside with him, so when I returned to the kitchen, I built it up again and put a pan of water on to heat for tea. He just sat there staring off into space, blinking every so often but mainly looking completely out of it.

“I’m going back out for your stuff,” I said, sticking my feet into my warmest boots.

He turned his head and blinked at me, his face expressionless. Damn, he was gorgeous.

How had I failed to see it before? I guess I’d been too busy trying to save him. He had high cheekbones and a squarish jaw with a dimple in his chin. I never used to like those, but on him it was charming. Sexy.

His eyes were huge, thick-lashed and bright blue, and his lips…holy hell, he had the most kissable looking lips I’d ever seen. They weren’t especially full, but they weren’t thin, either. They were perfectly sized and had this beautifully curved, sculpted shape that made me want to trace their edges with my fingertip.

Unfortunately, those gorgeous eyes of his were blank. It was like he didn’t know where he was, or maybe even who he was. The idea disturbed me. I hoped he didn’t have amnesia.

“Uh…so, like I said, I’m going to get your stuff. I’ll be right back.”

He just stared at me.

Okay, then. I dashed outside, pulling the hood of my coat up over my wet hair. The snow had deepened in the short time we’d been inside and it was starting to drag the tent down. I snatched up his half-frozen gear and dashed back to the cabin, shutting the door with a sigh of relief.

Then I remembered — oh, shit — I’d never gotten around to bringing in the firewood. But I had enough to last me another few hours, and I had to get some hot liquid into my unexpected guest first.

The kitchen felt almost hot after the miserable cold of that tent. He slumped in the chair, leaning against the log wall, his eyes closed, the damp sleeping bag still wrapped around him. I shucked my coat, draped it on one of the other chairs, and laid my hand against his forehead. His skin still felt cold to the touch.

Should I wake him up again? I wasn’t sure how to handle this situation. What would my parents do?

They’d probably check him for concussion, for one thing. Then, of course, they’d try to get as much hot liquid into him as possible, and for that he had to be awake.

I bent over him and gently lifted an eyelid. Beautiful, beautiful eyelid fringed with lashes so long and thick they didn’t even look real. His gorgeousness was a dangerous distraction.

The pupil of that eye looked normal and so did the other one. He could still have a concussion, but at least he didn’t seem to have any severe symptoms. The confusion and wobbliness could be due to hypothermia.

I just wished I’d had the common sense to keep my phone from getting wet and ruined. A helicopter flight to the emergency room in Eugene would make me feel a lot better about his chances.

For now, I had to get him as warm and dry as possible. In the master bedroom, I found some extra blankets. I took them to the kitchen and placed them on the table. His eyes were still closed. His lips looked less blue, though, so he seemed to be improving.

I tugged at the sleeping bag, damp from the water all over his body. He lifted his lids and gazed dully at me.

“Let’s get this wet thing off you,” I said. “Stand up for a sec.”

After another moment of dull staring, he seemed to comprehend what I’d said enough to get onto his feet. I whipped the sleeping bag off him, keeping my gaze away from his nakedness.

That took all the mental strength I had, because the temptation to stare at all that male gorgeousness was overwhelming. But it was also kinda creepy, given that he was so out of it he didn’t seem to really know what I was doing.

I threw one of the extra blankets around him before he sank back into the chair. Then I wrapped a second one around his back and over his head. He looked like a disaster survivor, which I suppose he was, in a way. His own personal disaster.

I leaned down and smiled at him. “I’m Nova, by the way. What’s your name?”

His eyes narrowed, like he was struggling to remember. “Gay.”

His name was Gay? That seemed unlikely, but okay, I was going with it.

“Um…well, it’s nice to meet you, Gay,” I said, on my best polite behavior. “I’m going to get you warmed up, okay?”

He just blinked a few times and closed his eyes again.

My water was boiling. I poured some over a couple bags of decaf tea, one in each giant mug. I needed heat, too. But when I turned around, “Gay” was pulling off the blankets and dropping them on the floor, leaving his delectable body utterly bare.

“Hey,” I said, trying not to look too closely. “Don’t do that. You need them.”

“Hot,” he said.

“You’re not hot. You need the blankets.” I bent down and scooped them into my arms.

“Too hot.”

“No,” I said, draping one of the blankets around him again. Still not looking. “Your core body temperature is dangerously low. You need this.”

He batted at my hand. “Too hot. Leave.”

“You only think you’re too hot. The hypothermia is confusing you.”

He certainly looked confused, his gaze muddled. He was too big for me to successfully fight, if it came down to that. But I wrapped the second blanket around him anyway.

“It would make me really happy if you kept those on,” I said. “I don’t want you to die on me. Okay, Gay? Can you do that for me?”

“Gay?” He looked even more confused than before.

“Yeah. You told me your name is Gay.”

“No. Gage.” He drew out the second word, as if to make sure I understood.

“Gage?” I repeated.

He nodded, then winced and closed his eyes. “Fuck.”

“You have a headache?”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice so low it was hard to hear.

“Are you dizzy?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s because you got so cold. You need to warm up. I know you feel hot right now, but your brain is playing a trick on you. We still need to get you warmer.”

I wasn’t sure if he understood me or if he was even listening. But he settled down and quit trying to undress himself, so I went back to making tea. I stirred in a lot of sugar before bringing his mug to him.

“Gage, you’ve got to drink this.”

He made an incoherent noise in his throat.

“I know you don’t want to, but you have to.” I held the mug to his beautiful lips. “Come on. Just one sip.”

Finally he relented and I got a few drops into him. I took a swallow of my own tea before returning to coaxing him. We continued that way until I’d gotten the whole mug of tea down his throat.

As I made second mugs of tea, it occurred to me that I was now alone in my cabin with a large, unknown male. At the moment, he wasn’t in any shape to hurt me. But what about when he felt better? I had no idea who this guy was, and his amazing good looks didn’t mean he wasn’t some kind of psycho.

Plus, what about the other guy, the blond who’d disappeared on me? That whole episode was so weird it still gave me the creeps. And Blondie was somehow connected to the man sitting in my kitchen.

But what was I going to do? I couldn’t in good conscience toss him out into the snow to die. He hadn’t done anything…yet…to deserve that.

I still had the pistol. Wait. No, I didn’t. It was out in the snow, along with my now-frozen clothes. Well, I’d go get it soon, right before I brought in more firewood.

I set the new mugs of tea on the table. Gage opened his eyes and stared at me.

“Where am I?” he said, his voice slurred.

“You’re in my cabin.”

“Who are you?”

I frowned. He didn’t remember my name? “I’m Nova. Nova Pennyman.”

“Nova,” he said slowly. “I’m Gage.”

“Yeah, I know. You already told me.”

Straight, dark brows lowered. “I did?”

“Uh huh.” I tried to cover my worry with a friendly smile. “Have some more tea. You’re still cold inside.”

His frown deepened. “I feel hot.”

His hand came up to shove at the blankets. I reached out and grabbed his wrist and a jolt of arousal shot through me. For crying out loud, I was getting turned on by him and he couldn’t even remember my name.

“Leave them on,” I said. “You feel hot, but inside you’re cold. You need to keep on warming up.”

He muttered something under his breath.

I gave him his tea. “Drink this. Can you hold the mug?”

He glared at me. “Of course I can.”

This time I hid my smile. Maybe he was starting to feel better. At least he was well enough to argue with me.

On the other hand, he’d been uncooperative in the tent. Maybe he was like this all the time.

He reached with shaky hands for the tea mug and lifted it slowly to his mouth. Some of it sloshed over the side, but I kept my hands to myself despite my urge to rescue him. I wouldn’t want to insult his masculine pride by babying him.

“How did I get here?” he said, his words still slurred.

“You fell in the river. I pulled you out.” I didn’t think it was a good time to tell him about his disappearing friend who’d come to me for help.

“River?” he said blankly.

“Yeah. The McKenzie River. You were floating in it. You probably would have died if you’d been in any longer.”

He just stared at his mug of tea as if it would reveal the answers to him, solve the puzzle of how he’d ended up in the water.

I didn’t want to baby Gage and yet I wanted to take care of him — mainly because I felt like I’d be responsible for his death if I didn’t. I’ve always been kind of over-responsible that way. If someone is in trouble and I don’t help and something bad happens to that person, it’s partly my fault because I didn’t do everything I could. It was that kind of thinking that kept me dribbling tea and later hot soup into Gage’s mouth. It was that kind of thinking that had me supporting him as he wobbled his way into the master bedroom to lay down. It was that kind of thinking that got me up twice during the night to check on him and make sure he was still breathing.

Chapter 9: Celebrity

Nova:

When the sun rose, it brought only pale, weak light filtered through the white of the unrelenting snow. I watched the flakes swirling crazily out of the sky through a gap in my bedroom curtains. This storm was shaping up to be epic.

I was cranky from lack of sleep and sore from all the extra physical work I’d done the day before. And now I had another day of heavy work ahead of me, making sure Gage not only didn’t die but recovered fully. I crawled out of my loft and went to build up the fire. The cabin had gotten pretty cold during the night, and that wasn’t good for Gage.

Once I had the stove going and some water heating on top, I went back to the master bedroom to check on him. He was on his side, one arm pillowing his head, the covers down around his hips. He had the finest body I’d ever seen, at least in real life. It was the kind of body that a girl like me normally only saw on TV or the movies. Or maybe in an underwear ad.

It was wrong of me to stare. Especially when he was asleep and couldn’t defend himself. But that didn’t stop me from doing it. I stood in the doorway and gaped at him, admiring the heavy curves of his delts and biceps, the tightness of his waist, the narrow line of dark brown hair that trailed from his chest and down his belly to disappear under the blankets. I really wanted to know what the rest of him looked like.

Then he opened his eyes and looked at me and I felt like my body was catching fire. Not from lust. From complete mortification. He’d caught me.

Sleepy blue eyes gazed at me in obvious confusion. He rubbed his face and frowned. “Uh … good morning.”

I smiled at him. “Good morning. Feeling any better?”

The frown deepened. “Better than what?”

I cocked my head. It seemed he’d forgotten everything I’d told him yesterday. “Do you know who I am?”

His tongue emerged to moisten his lips. Oh, God. He really shouldn’t do that. It wasn’t fair to me.

“I … don’t know,” he said slowly. “Did we —”

“No!” My denial came out so quickly that I felt mortified all over again. “No, we didn’t. You’ve been sick, that’s all.”

“But…” He squinted up at me. “Where am I? Who are you? Why am I here?”

Oh, boy. “I’m Nova Pennyman.” How many times would I have to repeat this?

“Nova Pennyman,” he said after me, looking utterly mystified.

“Yeah. This is my cabin. I found you floating in the river yesterday afternoon. I pulled you out and brought you here. You were pretty far gone. I’ve been worried about you.”

“River?”

I bit back a sigh of frustration. This was getting old. “The McKenzie River. Cascade Mountains? Oregon?”

Gage merely stared at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. A really obscure one, from some wild corner of the Himalayas, perhaps.

“So you and me — we don’t know each other,” he said slowly.

“Nope. I never saw you before yesterday.”

He sat up in the bed without bothering to cover himself. The blankets pooled around his waist. I fought without success to avoid ogling his naked torso. Curly dark hair covered his broad chest — a very well-developed chest. I had the most idiotic urge to rub my face in it, to lick his skin.

He was easily the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, in pictures or real life, and I could hardly believe I had him in my cabin.

“You’re staring at me,” he said with a faint smirk.

Damn. He’d caught me, and that look on his face said he knew exactly what I’d been thinking.

Could I just die now? Please? It didn’t seem like too much to ask.

I straightened my back and tried to look cool, like I didn’t care I’d been caught with my tongue hanging out. “Just — you know — wondering who you are.”

The smirk deepened. “Seriously?”

“Um … yeah. Why? Should I know you?” Maybe we’d been introduced once and I’d forgotten him, although I could not imagine how or why I would forget someone who looked like that.

One muscular shoulder lifted, then dropped. “Lots of people do.”

That was a weird answer. “Oookay. Well, I don’t. So, um, who are you?”

He wasn’t making a whole lot of sense, if you asked me. Was he trying to say he was some kind of celebrity? Yeah, right. Nobody famous ever came around here. We had ski slopes nearby, but our little village wasn’t some kind of well-known, glamorous resort. We mostly got people from other parts of Oregon.

He sounded more coherent this morning, or at least his voice was no longer slurred. But he was behaving really strangely. Maybe there’d been some long-term damage?

“Gage Dalton,” he said, raising his brows at me.

I blinked. Then I laughed. “No way.”

Gage Dalton was a famous actor. I wasn’t really into TV and movies, not because I disliked them but because I’d never had time. My whole adolescence and college life had been dedicated to study, to getting stellar grades so I could get into a prestigious medical school. I’d enrolled in a highly regarded private college in Avery’s Crossing, rather than going to Central Willamette State or University of Oregon like so many of my classmates. Everything in my life had been dedicated to the single goal of becoming a doctor like my parents, so I was a bit clueless when it came to popular actors.

But even I had heard of Gage Dalton.

“Come on,” I said. “You’re not Gage Dalton.”

“Yeah. I am.” He sounded a little irritated.

“No, you’re not. If you’re a famous actor, then how come you were floating in the river? Where’s your entourage, or whatever you call it?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember anything from yesterday.”

“Uh huh. Right.” That was sure convenient.

He scowled at me. “Just because I don’t remember being in the river doesn’t mean I’ve got total amnesia. I’m telling you that I’m Gage Dalton.”

“Okay.” I raised my hand in mock surrender. “Whatever you say.”

He growled. “Where are my jeans?”

That brought the blush back into my cheeks. “They’re in the kitchen. But you can’t wear them. I had to cut them off you.”

“Bring them here.”

At his bossy tone, I crossed my arms over my chest. “Excuse me?”

“Bring them here. I’ll show you my I.D.”

Well, he sure had the attitude of a spoiled brat movie star, whether he was one or not. And I wasn’t in the mood to play along.

“I didn’t hear the magic word,” I said.

His mouth fell open. “The what?”

“The magic word. You know the one.”

His mouth closed with a snap as he glared at me. “You are some piece of work.”

“I am?” I glared right back. “Listen, Bud, I’m the one who pulled you out of a freezing river. I’m the only reason you’re still alive.”

We stared at each other. His jaw looked tight enough to crack walnuts. I just looked back, like I wasn’t the least bit intimidated by large naked men sitting around in my private space.

His gaze wavered and he sighed. “Okay, you’re right. Please bring my jeans in here.”

I smiled victoriously. “Sure. I’ll be right back.”

As I left the room, I heard him groan behind me. He’d been nothing but a pain in the ass since I’d first seen him in the water, but whether it was a side-effect of the hypothermia or his normal state of being I couldn’t tell.

The scraps of his jeans were laying where I’d left them on one of the kitchen chairs. They were mostly dry. I fetched them back to him and threw them on the bed.

“There you go.”

He gave me a jerky nod as he gathered the pieces onto his lap. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Gage — or whoever he really was — reached in the back pocket of the ruined pants and took out a wallet. He threw it at me. “Have a look.”

Okay, sure. I could play this game. I opened the wallet and there was his driver’s license. A California license.

Um … oops. It really did say Gage Dalton, and the address was someplace in Santa Monica. Wasn’t that where a lot of rich and famous show business people lived? I had a hazy idea that it might be. And this guy … this guy just might be the real Gage Dalton after all.

My whole body flushed with embarrassed heat. Now I had a large naked movie star sitting in my space. A gorgeous, muscular, super-famous movie star. Yeah, he’d been a movie star before I’d seen his license, but I hadn’t believed it and my skepticism had protected me from any kind of star-struck self-consciousness.

I peeked at him. That cocky smirk was back.

“Now do you believe me?” he said.

I tossed the wallet at him. “Yeah. I believe you.”

“All right.” He shook his head, then winced. “Can’t believe you thought I was lying about that.”

Whatever. How was I to know he’d been telling the truth?

His eyes were tense, his brows drawn together. He touched his temple with his fingertips, gingerly. Clearly, he still felt terrible. I didn’t want to pester him; I was pretty sure he got pestered on almost an hourly basis. I should leave him alone and let him rest.

On the other hand, he might need something. Considering his recent confusion, he might not even know he needed help.

“You still have a headache?” I said. He might be a famous actor, but he was still hurt and I was responsible for him. I wasn’t going to let nervousness get in the way of taking care of him.

His gaze turned wary. Slightly puzzled. “Yes. I do.”

“I can give you some Tylenol. Do you drink coffee?”

“Yeah.” He still looked puzzled, like I wasn’t making sense to him.

Did he expect me to fall down and worship at his feet? If so, he was going to be sadly disappointed.

“Are you okay now?” I came a few steps into the room to get a better look at him. “Do you remember who I am?”

Now his brows both raised and pinched together at the same time. “You just told me your name. Nova Pennyman.”

“Right.” I smiled. At least he was retaining information for a few minutes at a time, which was a major improvement. And he was aware enough to stare at me like I was either an idiot or crazy and he couldn’t make up his mind which one it was. “Good. There are some clothes in the dresser if you want to put something on. I’ll have breakfast ready in the kitchen in a little while.”

Chapter 10: No Fangirl

Gage:

The bedroom had log walls, round and everything. It looked like it belonged on a set. There were blue and white curtains on the window and a blue and white quilt on the bed. Everything seemed homemade.

The air was warm at least. A vague memory of freezing cold and deep darkness flashed through my mind, making me want to shiver. I controlled myself, though. No shivering or any other show of vulnerability in public.

Okay, so a cabin bedroom isn’t exactly public, but I didn’t know this Nova girl. She was public to me. Anyone not part of my inner circle represented someone who needed to be managed.

My jeans still retained some chilly dampness where the material was extra thick. They felt clammy against my thighs. The wallet she’d thrown at me sat in my hands like a brick, or maybe a bomb.

She had to believe me now, after seeing my I.D. I couldn’t stop smirking at her.

My hostess, or whatever she was, turned her back on me and walked out of the room. She was going to have some kind of reaction to my real identity, and I’d have to deal with whatever excitement that knowledge caused. Whether I had the energy to deal with that kind of silliness was another thing altogether.

I waited. Maybe the truth of my identity hadn’t really sunk in yet. The screaming and hysterical laughter would probably start any minute now.

Any minute.

I heard nothing but some muffled banging from somewhere else in the house. No screams. No laughter. No fangirl bouncing up and down and begging me for an autograph.

I sighed.

This was good, actually, because I hated fangirl bouncing and screaming. Jeremy had loved it, eaten it up. But Jeremy had been an extrovert and I was not. At all. Being pawed by fans wasn’t my idea of fun.

Still, I sat on the bed and waited a few more minutes for a delayed reaction from Nova. I couldn’t think of a time when I’d met a woman close to my own age — or even an older one — who hadn’t gotten all flustered and silly when she recognized me. But I was starting to wonder if Nova might be an exception.

Maybe she didn’t like my work. Maybe she was one of those people who automatically disliked anything popular. I didn’t know whether to hate her or admire her for it.

She didn’t come back.

The banging in the kitchen continued. I got out of bed, walking on unsteady legs across a plank floor to the closet where she claimed there were clothes. Inside were a few measly stacks of ancient T-shirts and sweats. The ones on the top had a layer of dust. Not up to my usual standards, but hell, I needed clothes. Nova probably wouldn’t appreciate it if I walked around bare-assed naked. The feeling was not mutual, though. I’d love to see her with nothing on.

I had to sit on the edge of the bed to get dressed because my head was still woozy and everything hurt like hell. I pulled the T-shirt over my head, trying not to think about her story of finding me in the river. Because that was fucked up. Shouldn’t I remember something like that? But there was nothing, just a blank space where my memories should be. I wasn’t even sure why I was no longer in L.A.

Rooting around in the blankness of my mind just made my headache about ten times worse without turning up any kind of explanation as to how and why I’d gotten myself lost somewhere in Oregon. The last thing I could remember was meeting with Cindy, my personal assistant. She’d had a script someone wanted me to read.

Jesus. Would the memories ever come back? Or would I be stuck with a hole in my mind? At least I knew my name.

Wait…

I opened my wallet and took a look at my driver’s license just to make sure I hadn’t imagined the whole famous actor thing. No, there I was. The address even looked familiar.

So I knew who I was, just not how I’d gotten here. Or where here was.

I hobbled out of the room into a completely unfamiliar hallway. It was narrow, paneled with roughly planed wood of some kind. Not pine, because it didn’t have any big, ugly knots. That was all I knew about wood.

There were pictures on the wall, mostly nature drawings. They all looked like they’d been made by the same artist.

After just twelve feet or so, the hall opened into a small kitchen on one side and a living room on the other. Nova was in the kitchen, standing at a stove that looked like it had come through a time warp from the nineteenth century. It stood on fancy metal legs and had a powdery-looking black surface and no regular controls that I could see.

She was cooking scrambled eggs and had some kind of wire thing with slices of bread in it sitting on the stove top. She glanced up at me with a smile that made my heart pound faster.

She wore no make-up. Her thick, dark hair was drawn back in a ponytail. She had on black yoga pants and a gray fleece tunic that covered her butt and upper thighs. I could see the curve of her ass through the clingy fabric of the tunic, and it was a very fine ass.

“Are you up to eating?” she said.

“Yeah. Sure.”

She pulled a couple of plates out of a cupboard and plated the food. “Sit down.”

“You don’t have to wait on me.”

“I know. But I want to make sure you’re okay.”

A fragment of memory came back to me, something about her pestering me to drink hot tea. “Do you take care of a lot of people?” I took a chair at the shabby wooden table in the corner.

“Not really.” She set a plate in front of me. “But you had me worried. I couldn’t call for help. My phone got ruined when I pulled you out of the water and the land lines are down because of the storm.”

“Where are we, anyway?” I glanced out the window. Thick snow fell relentlessly, blotting out the view. All I could see was white.

“We’re in Subalpine, a little town in the Cascades. There’s not much here except for a few ski chalets, and it isn’t really ski season yet so it’s pretty deserted.”

I stuck my fork into a clump of eggs. “I’ve never even heard of it.”

“You don’t remember falling in?” she said, taking the chair opposite me.

I glanced at her, wondering if she’d be open to a little hook-up action before I left. She didn’t look like the type, but I’d never had any trouble getting women to fall in bed with me. And I wanted this one, wanted her with an intensity that surprised me.

“Gage?” she said gently.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I mean, no. I don’t remember it at all.”

“Nothing?”

“Nope. Just … you tried to get me to drink tea or something.”

She smiled, but she looked disappointed. “Yeah, I did. You didn’t want to cooperate.”

I gave her my panty-dropping wink. “I didn’t give you any trouble, did I?”

The blush that came over her cheeks was adorable. “No. Well, yeah, you did, but it was okay.”

Reaching across the table, I laid my hand over hers. She felt delicate under my paw. How had someone so slender managed to pull me out of a river?

“Thank you, Nova,” I said, making my voice soft, with maybe a hint of seduction. “I mean it. You saved my life.”

“You’re welcome.” Damn, she looked sincere. “I was glad to do it.”

“And you really didn’t know who I was?”

Her eyes clouded and she pulled her hand away. “No. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to offend you, but I’m not really current on pop culture.”

“I’m not offended,” I said casually, trying to cover the sting of her not recognizing me.

What the hell was wrong with me, anyway? I hated being recognized everywhere I went. Hated having girls and women — of all ages imaginable — throwing themselves at me like I was some kind of prize they could show off to their friends. Men, too, sometimes.

The man called Gage Dalton, the famous actor who lived his life in the public eye, was little more than a commodity. I walked through my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, someone who hadn’t earned his fame and who was merely playing a part even in his so-called private life. I didn’t even know who I was inside, who I was when I wasn’t playing the role of Gage Dalton, famous actor.

I didn’t want to be hollow anymore but it was all I knew. How did I go about being real?

It suddenly dawned on me that I’d been partying all these months since Jeremy died as a way of avoiding answering that question. Because maybe there was no answer. Maybe the famous-actor mask was all of me.

Funny. For years, I’d privately wished I could go somewhere no-one would recognize me, where I didn’t have to watch everything I said and did. And now that I had a woman who didn’t know — didn’t even seem to care — who I was, I resented it.

“I don’t watch much TV or go to many movies,” she said.

That was unusual. “How come?”

“I’m a pre-med student. I’m always studying.” She sneaked a bashful glance at me. “I’ve heard of you, of course. I just didn’t recognize you. I haven’t seen any of your movies.”

“That’s okay,” I said, feeling magnanimous. “Not everyone likes the kind of thing I do.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that. I’m just really busy, like I said.” She played with her fork, her movements sharp and nervous. “Until I moved here, I didn’t do much besides study. I’m really kind of boring.”

“I don’t think so.”

She flushed again. “It’s nice of you to say that.”

She was an innocent, that was obvious. I couldn’t even imagine her at the kind of parties I went to, mingling with the snarky, bitchy women I’d dated. At the moment, I couldn’t imagine myself with them either.

On closer inspection, Nova was clearly not the kind of girl for a casual hook-up, and after Jer’s death that was the only kind of relationship I could have with her. I didn’t want to risk a woman getting close to me, only to have him come after her. And if I couldn’t hook up with her, there was no point in sticking around longer than necessary.

“I hate to put you to even more trouble,” I said, “but since I don’t have a car, I’d really appreciate if you could drive me into town. Then I’ll be out of your hair, which I’m sure will be a relief.”

“I’d like to help you there, but I can’t.”

I frowned, noting that she hadn’t denied wanting me out of her hair. “Why not?”

“Look at the weather.” She gestured toward the window. “It’s crazy out there. Not safe at all. We could end up in a ditch or worse, and with you still not completely well … I think it’s a bad idea.”

“You could loan me your car. I’ll pay you for it.”

“No.” She met my gaze head-on. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you do that.”

I scowled as irritation began to rise in my chest. “Can’t or won’t?”

“Whatever. I’m not letting you or anyone else drive my truck in that storm. Especially not you.”

She knew who I was, had to know I was good for the price of the car, and she still wouldn’t cooperate. Had she heard about my DUI? There had only been one, and I’d been extra careful since then.

“You don’t trust me,” I said, unable to keep my annoyance out of my voice.

“It’s not that. Like I said, it’s not safe. I didn’t pull you out of the river so you could go and kill yourself on the road.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know how to drive, Nova.”

“No, you don’t.” She rolled her eyes right back at me. “You’re from California and you’ve probably never seen a snowflake in your life.”

Her smart-ass answer made me laugh a little in spite of myself. “You really won’t let me borrow your car?”

“Nope.”

“Great.” I looked out the window again. It was a crazy storm. “So I’m stuck here.”

Chapter 11: Stuck

Nova:

I glanced around the humble kitchen with its wooden counters, archaic wood-burning cookstove, handmade curtains. Some people liked rustic. Others expected everything to be slick, smoothed out, glamorous.

He made it sound so awful, being stuck in the cabin with me. Like I was his worst nightmare as a companion … and I probably was. I sure had no glamour at all and was probably one of the least trendy women he’d ever met. I mean, look at me. No make-up, hair scraped back in a ponytail, dressed in beat-up old yoga pants and a fleece top that added at least ten visual pounds to my frame. Why would he want to hang around with me?

Although a few minutes earlier, I could have sworn he was flirting with me…

It didn’t matter if he was. No amount of flirting, or money either, would make me turn my car over to him. If he died because I caved in to his pressure, I’d blame myself. Besides, I didn’t want him to die, even if he was kind of spoiled and obnoxious at times.

He was here, in my cabin, and he’d been injured. He needed my care. So no matter how irritating he was, no matter how embarrassing my attraction to him, I had to put up with it until he could safely leave.

Feeling confused and resentful, I gathered the breakfast dishes and brought them to the sink for washing. The cabin had no dishwasher.

“I guess my phone is shot, too,” Gage said.

“I’m sure.”

“Do you have a computer I can use?”

“The Internet connection here is really iffy,” I said, “but you’re welcome to try. I have a satellite connection, but when it snows like this, the snow blocks the signal.”

He raised his eyebrows. “So no TV and no Internet?”

“Pretty much.”

“What do you do for fun around here? In fact, why are you living so far from everything?”

I shrugged. “I needed to get away for a while. It’s kind of a retreat.”

“And you just sit around in here all day long by yourself?”

I didn’t like his tone and I shot him a glare. “No. I hike and work on a personal project of mine.” He didn’t need to know the project was the artwork I’d neglected for years while I put everything I had into my school studies.

“Huh.” He sounded completely confounded by my explanation.

“I guess you’re just going to have to put up with my boring company.”

When I realized the childishness of my remark, I wanted to hide my face. I wasn’t usually so snippy. This guy brought something out in me that I didn’t like.

“I’ve got to bring some firewood in,” I said, and left the kitchen.

He followed me to the back door. “Let me help.”

“No. You need to stay inside where it’s warm.” I didn’t look at him as I crammed my feet into high winter boots.

“You shouldn’t have to do all this work for me on your own.”

“I’m used to it.” I stuffed my arms into my coat sleeves. “And it isn’t just for you. I need the heat, too. Go sit down, Gage. There are some books in the living room if you feel like reading.”

He glared at me for a minute. “Fine. But I’m only agreeing because you don’t have a coat that would fit me.”

“Or boots.”

“Yeah, that too.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.” I opened the door and walked out into the snow.

Everything looked more beautiful when the snow fell thick like this. It put a white glaze on the world, like frosting, covering over imperfections and making everything look soft. I loved the sound it made, too, the almost silent shushing of millions of snowflakes hitting the ground. The river, usually so loud, was muffled by the snowfall.

I scrunched my way to the woodpile and selected an armful. The snow was inconvenient, but the quiet of it made my irritation at Gage fade a little. He was only temporary, anyhow. Soon he’d be gone and my life would go back to its normal routine. I just had to hold onto my sanity until he left.

I had to admit to myself that he made me nervous. Partly because he was just so damn gorgeous. Men like that never paid me any attention at all, and having him around muddled my head. Then there was the fame thing. I’d never spent any time with a famous person before. Hell, I’d never even met a famous person before. He made me so self-conscious that I couldn’t behave normally.

I needed to get over that. He was going to be with me for a few days at least, judging by the intensity of the snowfall.

Chapter 12: Wretched

Nova:

Stamping the snow off my boots, I maneuvered through the door with my armload of firewood. Gage was still in the kitchen, still sitting at the table, hunched over the top. His face looked kind of pinched, like he was fighting back pain. That was bad. He shouldn’t be feeling even worse than before unless something was very wrong.

I dropped the wood in the caddy next to the stove and turned to him. “What’s going on? You don’t look so good,” I said.

He winced. “My stomach hurts. But I’ll be fine. I’m sure it’s just…” His wince turned to a grimace of pain. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Down the hall. Just across from the bedroom where you slept.”

He shot out of his chair and staggered toward the bathroom. A minute later I heard him retching violently. The cabin was so small, it was impossible to hide sounds like that from other occupants.

He didn’t come out. I found him kneeling in front of the toilet, looking utterly miserable. His hair stuck to his forehead in greasy strands, like it had been a while since he’d washed it and the oil hadn’t come out even after his bath in the river.

“I don’t think that’s from the hypothermia,” I said.

He nodded slowly. “I was feeling kind of sick when I left the party.”

“Party?”

Gage looked up at me with bleary eyes. “Yeah. I just remembered. I was on my way back from a house party in Sunriver when I —” He broke off to heave into the toilet again.

I turned away, my own stomach turning.

“Jesus,” he muttered. “Sorry about that.”

“Don’t apologize,” I said with a glance over my shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”

“Yeah, well … you might want to leave. I don’t think I’m done yet.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” His voice sounded rough from the vomiting. “I don’t really like people seeing me like this.”

“Oh. Right. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”

I felt kind of guilty leaving him alone, but it was understandable that he didn’t want me to watch him being sick. Even regular people like me didn’t enjoy being watched at moments like this, and he was a Hollywood star. Constantly monitoring his image. With regret, I went back to the kitchen.

He was kind of an arrogant jerk, but I hated to see — or hear — him throwing up. Puking is one of my least favorite activities and it always makes me feel bad when other people are sick like that. Sympathy pains, I guess.

I washed the breakfast dishes and put them away. Gage came back into the kitchen just as I set the last plate back in the cupboard. His face looked just as pale as it had the afternoon before, except without the blue lips. He’d been looking better for a little while, and now he seemed to have regressed.

“I’m gonna hang out on your couch,” he said, before turning on his bare heel and taking himself into the living room.

Apparently he wanted to spend as little time with me as possible. Well, too bad. By virtue of floating up on my part of the river bank, he was now my patient and he was going to have to put up with me.

I followed him. He shook his head at me as I walked over to the couch.

“You don’t have to keep me company,” he said.

“I want to know if you have a fever.”

I hesitated an instant before laying my palm against his forehead. He was hot. My hand trembled as I touched him.

I had this bizarre sense of not-quite-being-there, like I was somehow outside my body observing what was happening. I think it was because he was Gage Dalton, for crying out loud. And I was touching his forehead, just like he was a regular person.

“I’m just a regular guy,” he said softly, as if he’d read my mind. Those beautiful, blue eyes gazed up at me. “You don’t need to be nervous.”

I laughed — nervously. “I’m not.”

“I wish I hadn’t told you who I am.”

“Why not?” I pulled my hand away.

“Because you were treating me like a normal person until you found out.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be such an idiot.”

“Hey.” He grabbed my hand. “I didn’t mean it that way. It just gets old, you know? Having people get weird around me.”

“Oh. Yeah, I can imagine.” I cleared my throat. “So, I’m pretty sure you have a fever. And I think you might have picked up a virus somewhere. Or maybe there was something in the water, although the McKenzie is pretty clean so that’s probably not it.” Okay, now I was babbling. Not attractive.

Gage leaned his head back against the arm of the couch and closed his eyes. “I feel like shit.”

“Does your stomach still hurt?”

“Yeah. I’m probably going to puke some more.”

“Jeez. I’m so sorry.”

He opened his eyes to a slit and peered up at me through his lashes. “Not your fault.”

“I know. I just hate to see someone go through this, because I know how much the stomach flu sucks.”

“What, this? I’m having a great time.”

I chuckled. “I should get you something to drink.”

“God, no. I’d just hurl again.”

“But you need liquid. You don’t want to get dehydrated.”

He peered at me again, this time with a frown. “Nova, I appreciate your concern, but I really just want to be left alone.”

I took a step back and stuffed my hands in my pockets. “Okay. I’ll leave you alone, then.”

Stupid to pout over it. Stupid to let him hurt my feelings. He was sick, and sick people tend to be cranky, plus he didn’t even know me. Why would he want me hovering over him? I know I wouldn’t like it if a stranger was hanging around watching me puke and do other embarrassing stuff.

Was he going to do other embarrassing stuff?

I could see we were in for some long days. He’d already tested my patience and we’d only gotten started. I wandered toward the kitchen, determined to ignore him as long as possible.

“Hey, Nova?” Gage called from the hallway.

I poked my head into the hall. “Yeah?”

How could anyone look so good while being so sick at the same time? Even greasy hair and the bags under his eyes couldn’t make him look plain. The universe had given him a major advantage over all other men.

He stood in front of the door to the master bedroom, staring at me, his wallet in his hands. “Where’d my money go?”

“Your money?” I said blankly.

“Yeah. I had five hundred bucks in here and it’s all gone.” His tone sounded just a little accusing for my taste.

“I have no idea. I didn’t even look at your wallet until this morning, when you gave it to me.”

He glowered suspiciously at me. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“You know, if you took it, I’ll understand. I won’t be mad or anything as long as you give it back.”

My jaw fell open. “If I took it? You think I stole from you?”

He looked uncertain. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it? You’re the only person I’ve seen since I left that party.”

“Gee, I don’t know. Maybe someone at the party stole your money. It wasn’t me.”

“Look, I’m not trying to be an asshole here, but this seems kinda suspicious.”

I glowered back at him. “Yeah? I dragged you out of the river. I saved your life. Why the hell would I steal from you?”

He just continued to stare at me, his gaze boring into me like he wanted to turn me inside out. Maybe he thought I was hiding his money in a body cavity. That thought made me want to laugh, which probably would have pissed him off even more so I bit down hard on my lip.

He opened the wallet and poked through it. “Some of my credit cards are missing, too.”

“Gage, I swear to you I didn’t take them. But if you don’t believe me, you’re welcome to search the cabin.” All he’d find was the twenty dollars in cash I currently had in my purse. I didn’t carry wads of cash around like some big spender.

He considered my offer for another minute, staring at me the whole time. Then he pressed his hand to his belly. He disappeared into the bathroom, and an instant later I heard more retching. He was in a bad way.

He didn’t know me, so part of me couldn’t blame him for suspecting me. Five hundred dollars would be a major temptation to a lot of people. But another part of me thought I should boot him out into the storm for being such an ungrateful jerk.

I don’t want to be an asshole.

Didn’t he know there was an easy solution to that? You don’t want to be an asshole … then don’t be an asshole. There were a dozen ways he could have approached me about the money loss without accusing me of being the thief.

I filled my teakettle with water and set it on the stove top. I’d gotten very little sleep, and that always made me testy and irritable. Maybe I could stay away from him until we both felt better, and then we’d be able to get along and not bite each other’s heads off.

More sounds of vomiting came from the bathroom. He was going to end up dehydrated if he didn’t replace some of the liquid he was tossing into the toilet. Dehydration was dangerous, and the worse it got the more nauseated he would get and the more resistant he’d be to taking liquid. It could become a vicious, even deadly, cycle.

I didn’t want to argue with him again about drinking something, but I wanted a dying man on my hands even less.

My feet lagged as I walked down the short hallway to the bathroom. Confronting this guy was not high on my list of fun times. But I had a responsibility to take care of him since he was my guest. Plus, I hadn’t dragged him from the river just so he could die from puking his guts out in my bathroom.

He sat on the floor, his back against the wall opposite from the toilet. His eyes were closed when I paused in the doorway. He looked awful. Beautiful, yet awful — his hair even more lank and greasy, the circles beneath his eyes a purple-black shade like two bruises, his forehead damp with sweat.

He opened his eyes and stared at me. “What do you want?” he said, his voice flat but raspy.

“You need to drink something.”

“No way.”

“You’re going to get dehydrated.”

His lids closed again. “Nova, I already told you no. It would only make me puke more.”

“If you drink it super slowly, it might stay down. I’m serious, Gage. You could die out here. There’s no way to call for help, and besides there aren’t any real medical facilities around here. I have to take care of you, even if you don’t want me to.”

“Fuck,” he muttered. His hand came up to push some hair from his eyes. He was trembling.

That scared me. He was vulnerable after his accident in the McKenzie, and whatever bug he had might make him a lot sicker than he would have been if he hadn’t fallen into the water.

I turned silently away and went to the kitchen for a glass of cold water. When I came back, Gage was still in the same position, his head against the wall, his eyes closed. He didn’t look like he was relaxed, though. It was more like he was catching his breath until the next attack of vomiting hit him.

“Here,” I said, bending down with the glass.

His eyes opened. He frowned. “Damn it, I told you no.”

“You’re going to drink this.” I held out the glass.

“No, I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

Jeez, we sounded like a couple of third-graders.

“Take that away before I throw up all over you.”

“No.” I thrust the glass into his hand and closed his fingers around it. “Drink extra slowly, super-tiny sips. Like you’re only wetting your tongue.”

His lips tightened as he glared at me. “You’re damn pushy, you know that?”

“Just drink it.” He could call me names all he wanted, but I still wasn’t letting him die on me.

“Jesus.” He lifted the glass to his lips and tilted it. “Happy now?”

“I’ll be happy when” — you’re gone —“you’ve finished the whole glass.”

His nostrils flared. Boy, he was intimidating when he looked at me like that. But it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t care if he liked me or hated me. He was going to stay hydrated, even if he despised me for it.

“Would you like to go to the bedroom to drink that, or do you want to stay on the bathroom floor?” I asked sweetly.

He scowled at me for another minute before answering. “Bedroom.”

I took the glass from him and watched him climb to his feet. He looked pretty unsteady, but I didn’t offer to help him walk. Maybe it was petty of me. Maybe I should have been nicer. Honestly, he was starting to piss me off with his attitude.

Once we’d made it to the bedroom, he sat on the edge of the bed, his movements stiff, and took the glass from me. I folded my arms over my chest as I waited for him to take another sip. Which he did, still scowling resentfully at me.

“You’re going to keep after me until I drink this whole thing, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yep.”

He shook his head, then winced. “My head is killing me.”

“Dehydration can cause a headache.”

“What are you, a doctor?”

“No,” I said. “But my parents are.”

He gave a short laugh. “I can believe it.”

“The thing is,” I continued, “dehydration makes you nauseated. And you’re already nauseated, but the dehydration will only make it worse until you truly can’t keep anything down. So we’ve got to head it off now, before it gets too much for us to handle. If it gets that bad, the only thing that will help you is an IV drip, which I don’t have on hand.”

He groaned. “Okay, fine, Dr. Nova. I’ll try to follow orders.”

“You have no idea how happy that makes me.”

One corner of his mouth curled up in a half-hearted smile. “I’m sure it thrills you.”

“Take another sip.”

It surprised me when he followed my order. I’d half expected him to refuse again, even though he’d just promised me he would drink it.

“So, is this your place?” he said as he lowered the glass.

“It belongs to my parents.”

“I’m surprised they’d let you stay out here by yourself.”

“They know I’m competent.”

He lifted the glass again in a mock toast. “Yes, you are.”

If he was trying to be nice, it wasn’t working. He just sounded like a condescending jerk. But I stayed where I was, answering questions about the area, until he’d finally gotten the whole glass of water down.

“We’ll see if you can keep it down before I give you another one,” I said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He leaned gingerly back on the pillows and closed his eyes.

“Do you want to be alone?”

Now, why had I asked him that? I should have simply left. If he really wanted me, he could ask for my company.

“Never mind,” I muttered as I left the room.

Chapter 13: November Daye

Gage:

I kept my eyes closed and listened to her soft footsteps as she left the room. The bed felt soft under my body and the air held the evocative smell of woodsmoke, but I could still taste the sourness of puke in my mouth. Even a glass of water hadn’t gotten rid of all of it.

She hated me. You’d think I wouldn’t give a shit, considering how bad I felt, but it bothered me. As crappy as my body felt, my mind was drawn to her, even though I couldn’t explain why.

She was bossy, snippy, and just plain irritating. Did she really think I was going to die on her just because I was throwing up? And would it kill her to show a little sympathy?

She acted like I was this terrible burden on her. It’s not like I expected her to hold my hand while I puked. I didn’t think I was getting in her way. Not too much, anyway.

Okay, so maybe having a puking stranger in your extra bedroom wasn’t especially pleasant. Maybe I was getting in her way. And maybe I was cramping her style, keeping her from all those killer parties she’d be at if it weren’t for me. Oh, wait. All she did was hang around this cabin and work on her mysterious project, so probably not.

The truth was, I’d never met a girl who didn’t try to throw herself at me. Except for a handful of lesbians, maybe. All the straight girls were all over me, all the time. But Nova hardly even looked at me.

I was one shallow bastard. Didn’t know what to do with a woman who wasn’t begging me to do her.

The last round of puking had settled my stomach a little, but it was starting to hurt again. I breathed slowly and deeply through my nose to try to settle it down. The cabin smelled like woodsmoke, and aside from some muffled noises from the kitchen was utterly silent.

This kind of quiet was foreign to me. I’d grown up in L.A., where there was no such thing as quiet, especially in the low-life neighborhoods where my mom and I had lived until I started making money. There was always some kind of man-made noise in my hometown.

Traffic noise, sirens, garbage trucks, car stereos, planes overhead, neighbors hollering at each other, a constant dull roar twenty-four hours a day.

Here there was nothing except the wind in the trees, and right now I couldn’t even hear that. When I glanced out the window, all I saw was a constantly falling curtain of white.

I started to shiver. I wasn’t sure if the cabin was really cold or if it was just me. Either way, I wrapped the blankets around me and tried to get warm. My efforts didn’t seem to be working.

A few minutes later, my gut cramped violently. I threw off the blankets and staggered to the bathroom, reaching it just in time. Jesus. What a thing to have when there was a beautiful stranger right in the next room. I cringed, hoping she couldn’t hear me.

Not long after I crawled back into bed, she came into my room. “How do you feel?” she said softly.

“Like crap.”

“Did you throw up the water?”

“No.” I closed my eyes, half hoping she’d go away and half hoping she’d stay. Maybe crawl into bed with me.

She came over to me, her feet making soft noises on the old throw rug that covered the simple wooden floor. Her little hand pressed gently against my forehead. She smelled good, like smoke and vanilla.

“You’re still hot,” she said.

So are you.

“Will I live, doc?” My voice sounded almost unrecognizable.

“Your prognosis is good.” She had a smile in her voice. Maybe I was getting to her. Finally.

Did I want to get to her? I’d already decided she wasn’t the usual party girl type I took to bed. She seemed like the type to get emotionally involved, and I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t drag her into the dark ugliness of my life, expose her to the same shit that had killed Jeremy.

Normally, I wouldn’t be so ethical. I mean, I didn’t even like her. Not really. I just found her weirdly fascinating and sexually attractive. So why hold back? We could have a good time for a while, after I’d gotten better. Then I’d go on my way and we’d both be happy.

But what if something bad happened to her because of me? What if he really was following me around and picking off anyone I got close to? I couldn’t repay her generosity by endangering her.

No, Dr. Nova was not for me.

“I wish I had something for you to do to pass the time,” she said.

“I’m fine.”

The light flickered and went out, leaving only the chill gray light coming through the window.

“Well, there goes the electricity.” She sounded way too cheerful about it.

“Does this happen a lot?”

“I think so. This is the first winter I’ve spent up here, but from what I hear from the locals, it’s pretty common.”

I grunted in acknowledgment. Having the electricity go out would suck. Or would it? On further thought I realized I didn’t much care about it. I felt too shitty to want to do anything but lay here anyway. She had that wood-burning cook stove, so we wouldn’t be cold.

“I could read to you.”

I pried my eyes open and found her smiling at me. “Are you serious?”

“Not really. But I would if you wanted me to.”

“Uh … no, thanks.” Most people had no idea how to read something aloud and make it sound interesting, and that made their awkward performances painful to endure.

“Okay. Well, if you need anything, just holler.” She got up.

I did need something. I needed her lips on mine. She wouldn’t want to give me that, and I couldn’t think of anything else that would make me feel as good, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Do you think you could get another glass of water down?” she said, pausing in the doorway.

“Maybe.”

“Then I’ll be right back.”

She was persistent for sure. I couldn’t blame her for not wanting a dead body on her hands, and I didn’t want to die anyway, so I’d cooperate. For now.

If I let myself die, my mom would probably be relieved. She’d know the devil wasn’t coming after her, since he’d already gotten what he wanted. Maybe I should just let myself go. Let’s face it — the world didn’t need me. All I did was entertain people, just another pretty face on the big screen. Who would miss me?

And maybe it really should have been me instead of Jeremy. I’d always thought he’d turned to drugs because of some of the crazy shit that went down in our world, shit that had bypassed me because of The Deal. I’d had an unfair advantage.

Problem was, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to go, even if I’d be doing everyone else a favor if I did.

Nova reappeared carrying another glass of water. I couldn’t do it to her, even if I had the power to let myself die. She didn’t deserve to be stuck with my corpse.

Grudgingly, I levered myself into a sitting position. She sat on the edge of the bed next to me and handed me the glass with a shy smile. A smile! I felt like I’d won a prize.

I smiled back at her. “Listen, I’m sorry I’ve been so grouchy. I’m not usually like this.”

She waved a hand negligently. “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ve been really rude to you and you don’t deserve that. I’m grateful to you for getting me out of the river and everything.”

She gave me a sidelong glance full of meaning that I couldn’t decipher. “Okay. I appreciate you telling me that.”

I took one of her tiny sips of water. “I’m really lucky you came along when you did, huh?”

“Yeah, you are. I don’t think you would have lived much longer in the river.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over us. I watched her as I drank a little more water. Her thick, dark hair hung halfway down her back in a ponytail. Just like the day before, she had no make-up and her nails were plain. She hadn’t gone to any trouble over me, hadn’t tried to make herself look more glamorous because I was here. Her manner had changed, too. She didn’t seem so nervous anymore.

Bossing me around must have made her feel a whole lot better. I fought back a smirk as I considered the possibilities of her continuing to boss me around, maybe while naked … but, no. I’d already decided to leave her alone.

“I’ve never met anyone named Nova before,” I said. “Were you named after the car?”

“No.” She laughed. “It’s short for November.”

“November. Never met anyone named that, either.”

“My birthday is this month and I guess my mom was feeling creative when she named me,” she said, blushing a little. She was cute when she blushed. The color stained her high cheekbones and almost climbed the bridge of her straight little nose.

“What’s your full name?” I said.

She glanced at me again, looking slightly embarrassed. “November Daye Pennyman.”

“November Daye.” I grinned. “That’s different.”

“Yes, it is.” She paused, plucking nervously at the comforter. “I’ve never met anyone named Gage either.”

“It’s not my real name.” Shit. Why had I said that? I never told anyone about the name change. Even Jer hadn’t known.

“It’s not?” Her brows raised. “What is your real name, then?”

“Robert.” I shrugged. “My mom claims that was my dad’s choice, although I’ve always wondered because he didn’t stick around very long. When I got into show business, she decided a trendier name would be better for my image.”

Okay. My mouth seemed to have its own agenda today.

“Oh.” Nova blinked those long-lashed, honey-colored eyes. “How old were you?”

“Ten.” I’d told my mom I just wanted to be plain old Rob, but she didn’t care and I was too young at the time to really assert myself.

Nova tilted her head, studying me. “Which one do you like better?”

“I’ve been Gage so long it feels like my real name.”

“So that’s what you want me to call you?”

“Yeah, sure.” Did it really matter? I’d only be here a few days at the most.

Chapter 14: Stay

Nova:

The master bedroom, not especially big in the first place, felt way too small after that last exchange with Gage. I couldn’t stay here with him, not right now.

He’d gotten the strangest look on his face right after he’d told me his real name. Like he wished he could take the words back. He regretted telling me.

I walked away from him, wishing I could quit getting my feelings hurt over this stuff. What did I care if he did or didn’t want to tell me his real name? It’s not like we were in a relationship.

Oh, Nova. Don’t even go there.

Shit. Was I harboring some fluffy-headed wish that he’d fall for me? That he’d look at me and see a desirable woman instead of a frumpy recluse? That the fact I’d saved his life would somehow translate into love?

I winced. Inwardly, where no-one could see me.

And then came the lecture.

Listen up, self. 1: life is not a romance novel. Hot movie stars don’t fall in love with boring nobodies they meet in the sticks. 2: you couldn’t even hold on to Barry. What makes you think a god like Gage Dalton would be interested in doing anything with you other than talking?

And he didn’t seem especially interested in talking, come to think of it.

I’d been up here on the mountain by myself too long. That was my problem. I was lonely. Yeah, there were other folks around here, but I didn’t see them too often. It was probably time to quit this self-imposed exile and get back to my real life.

A twinge of dread curled in my belly at the thought of going back to non-stop studying and I realized I had no plan for my life after the cabin. I’d spent all my time up here drawing and painting instead of thinking about my future.

If I went back now, nothing would have changed except I’d be without a boyfriend and a best friend. Was that what I wanted?

I made myself some tea and sat down at the kitchen table to drink it. The stove made this room warm, which was a pleasant change from the chilly master bedroom. I thought of Gage all alone in that room and didn’t know whether to feel sorry for him or annoyed.

He’d told me to leave, so it’s not like I’d abandoned him. My job right now was to care for him while staying distant and unattached. Hovering over him all the time would not accomplish my goal.

I got out my sketchbook and started making some abstract designs to pass the time. I wasn’t feeling it today. Having a sick movie star in my cabin was distracting … go figure.

I kinda got lost in my drawing anyway, and when I looked up the battery-powered clock hanging on the wall told me two hours had passed. What was Gage doing? He hadn’t made a sound since I’d come out here.

He didn’t want me hovering. But on the other hand, I needed to make sure he was okay. What if he’d gotten worse while I sat here making art?

Sighing, I left my art on the table and went back to the bedroom. I peeked inside, hoping to catch him naked. No, no, that’s not what I hoped. Not at all. I … hoped he was all right and not naked, because I didn’t want either of us to get embarrassed again.

Really. That’s what I wanted.

He was curled on his side, almost in a fetal position, the old, blue, hand-tied quilt my mom had made some time back in the early nineties pulled up part way over his head. He was shivering. I could see the comforter twitching as he moved underneath it.

And I know how it might seem, but it wasn’t that. He wasn’t having a moment of intimacy with himself; he was really sick.

His eyes were closed, making me think he was asleep. I crept closer, hoping I wouldn’t wake him. I just wanted to get close enough to touch him, to make sure he wasn’t as sick as he looked.

I leaned over him. His breath stuttered in and out, as if he couldn’t even work his lungs smoothly. I laid my hand on his forehead, wishing I had a thermometer. Stupid oversight, especially for a doctor’s daughter.

He still felt hot, but not dangerously hot. He probably just had chills, the kind you often get when you’ve got a nasty virus.

One blue eye opened. “Hey,” he rasped.

“Hi. You don’t look so good.”

“Feel like shit.”

I frowned. “Do you have a dry mouth?” His lips looked normal, pink and slightly moist. Kissable.

Damn it. I was doing it again.

“No dry mouth,” he said.

Probably not dangerously dehydrated, then. “The virus is probably just giving you chills. I’ll let you get some sleep.” I started to move away, when a heavy male arm snaked around my waist. My heart started pounding heavily.

“Stay,” he said.

I paused. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I’d like you to stay.”

He hadn’t used the magic word. Maybe he didn’t know it? I’d bet he didn’t have much use for it in his everyday life. People probably turned themselves into pretzels trying to please him and give him everything he wanted. I was not going to be one of those people.

But he looked so vulnerable beneath that comforter, so alone. Almost … sad.

Nah. I was just imagining things.

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he whispered. “I just —”

“Okay.” I sat on the bed next to him. God, I was easy.

His arm remained around my waist and I didn’t have the heart to tell him to remove it. Okay, that’s not really true. I just liked it there, liked the way he felt against me. My ass was snugged up next to his rib cage and the position gave me the illusion we were something more than we really were.

I wanted to savor that illusion for a few minutes, knowing it would be over way too soon.

He kept shivering. Sometimes his teeth rattled together the way they had right after I’d pulled him from the water. His eyes stayed closed, and he didn’t talk. He just lay there holding me around the waist and looking miserable.

I wanted to comfort him, make his pain go away. It was probably just my fantasies telling me this, but the hurt he was feeling seemed to come from something a lot deeper than a tummy bug. I lifted my hand and hesitantly pushed the damp hair from his forehead. His hold on my waist tightened, just enough to let me know it was a response to my touch.

“I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better,” I said.

“You are.”

I was such an idiot. I was the queen of all romantic idiots, because when he said that, a sweet warm glow came over me. Almost like he’d said that he — you know — cared for me.

He didn’t say anything after that. I sat and waited for him to fall asleep, but I couldn’t tell if he was or not. Outside, the storm raged just as heavily, making me wonder if we’d have to dig our way out.

I was so tired. Exhausted. I’d been awake most of the night, worrying about Gage, and my body was still worn out from all the work I’d done the day before. My eyes didn’t want to stay open.

I glanced down at him. He looked like he was sleeping. He probably wouldn’t mind if I just stretched out beside him, right?

Carefully, trying not to force him to shift, I lowered myself to the mattress. He pulled me closer, spooning us. With his long, hard heat behind me, my body began to warm, the place between my thighs pulsing softly. This was so wrong. I was getting turned on — again — by him, and he wasn’t even awake.

“You smell really good,” he whispered.

Okay, scratch that. He was totally awake.

“Um … thanks.” I made to get up, but he wouldn’t let me go.

“Please,” he said. “I really like having you here.”

“You do?” This didn’t come out all breathy and flirtatious. It was more disbelieving.

“Yeah. Is it okay if I hold you like this?”

“Uh … sure. I guess so.”

He didn’t answer right away, and I wondered if he’d finally fallen asleep. He probably needed it even more than I did.

I’d missed this kind of body contact. The only touch I’d gotten in months was some brief hugs from my family. Nothing like this. No holding, no snuggling since I’d broken up with Barry. Plus, Barry hadn’t been much for snuggling anyway.

Gage wouldn’t stick around. I knew that. But this experience told me I needed a lot more human contact of all kinds. I didn’t belong here, hiding out by myself. When the storm was over, I’d be leaving.

I just had to decide how I was going to tell my parents I didn’t want to be a doctor after all. They weren’t going to like hearing that.

Chapter 15: Promise

Gage:

Her body felt more comforting than anything I’d experienced in a long time, snuggled up to mine, warm and soft. She smelled good, like smoke and vanilla. I took a cautious sniff of her hair, keeping it quiet so she wouldn’t notice and think I was creeping on her.

Was I putting Nova in danger just by holding her like this? I didn’t think so. It wasn’t real; we weren’t in a real relationship, and we hadn’t made any commitments to each other. We’d only just met.

But it felt real. All I’d done was put my arm around her, yet it felt more real than anything I’d had in a long time.

Not. Real.

I was sick. I felt like shit, and I was alone in a strange place. She was beautiful and she smelled good and she’d been kind to me, even if she was too bossy. That’s all this feeling was, and that’s all it would ever be. Reminder to self: you cannot get involved emotionally with anyone.

In fact, I shouldn’t be using her for comfort like this. I should let her get up and do whatever it was she normally did all day. Laying around with a sick dude, especially one who smelled like I did at the moment, couldn’t be any woman’s idea of a good time.

I’d let her go in a few minutes. I just wanted to enjoy this warmth for a little longer.

“I was pretty high at the party,” I said in a low murmur.

Christ, what was wrong with me? I couldn’t control my mouth around her. It must be the atmosphere in this place. We were shut in together, snow falling like crazy outside, everything quiet inside. The cabin felt remote, almost otherworldly, and I guess that encouraged me to open up to her.

Nova shifted in my arms. “You were high?”

“Yeah.” I was reluctant to talk about it now, but it was too late. I’d opened my big damn mouth. “I was pretty ripped for a few days, actually.”

“You do that often?”

I tried to detect some disapproval or disappointment in her voice, but I couldn’t find any.

“Uh … yeah,” I said. “I used to anyway.”

It occurred to me that I probably wouldn’t have fallen in the water if I hadn’t been both high and drunk at the time. I could have died. Sheer, dumb luck was the only thing that had saved me. That, and Nova.

I couldn’t keep living this way, and when I got home I was going to do something about it. Get counseling. Something.

“Did you have drugs in your system when you fell in?” Nova said.

“Yeah, I did. Alcohol, too.”

“You’re lucky you survived.” She twisted in my arms until she’d rolled over to face me. “Promise me you won’t do that anymore.”

I stared at her in astonishment. Why would she care? She didn’t know me.

She blushed under my stare and her gaze fell. “I’m sorry. I had no right to say that to you.”

I lifted my hand to her cheek. Her skin was so soft. “I think it’s sweet that you care.”

Nova gave her head a tiny shake. “I’m sure a lot of people care about you.”

As a cash cow, yeah. As a person, not so much. “You’d be surprised.”

Her gaze flicked up to meet mine. She had the most beautiful eyes, big and wide and golden brown, with long curled black lashes.

“I think you’re wrong,” she said softly. “I can’t imagine people not caring about you.”

Damn, that was sweet. Did she really mean it or was she just flattering me? Nova didn’t seem like the type for empty flattery.

“I don’t have the greatest friends,” I said. It seemed like this was the day for nonstop confessions. My attempts to say distant didn’t seem to be working.

No emotional involvement.

Her face fell. “Yeah, I think I know what you mean.”

“Are you telling me you used to hang out with a rough crowd, Nova?” I teased.

“No. I’m as boring as they come. But the reason I came out here…” She bit her lip. “I caught my boyfriend cheating on me with my best friend.”

“Shit.” I had a sudden desire to strangle that asshole, and I didn’t even know his name.

She laughed a little. “You could say that.”

“You mean you actually caught them together?”

“Uh huh. They were — you know — doing it on the couch. In the apartment I shared with her.”

“I’m really hating on your best friend right now,” I said.

She smiled. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. And your ex-boyfriend must be a dumbass, in addition to being a douchecanoe for cheating on you.”

She laughed again. “Douchecanoe?”

“Definitely.”

“That’s funny. I don’t think anyone has ever called Barry that before.” She was still staring at me, smiling, her eyes all crinkled up in the corners.

“Give me his phone number and I’ll text him with it,” I said. “He deserves it for hurting you.”

“It was so weird seeing them together. I didn’t even think they liked each other.”

“So you decided to hide out for a while?”

“Yeah.” She frowned a little. “I thought I could figure things out. Figure out why it was so easy for him to cheat on me. Figure out what I wanted to do with my life.”

“He cheated on you because he’s an asshat,” I said. “It wasn’t you.”

Her gaze fell as her lips pressed together.

“No, seriously.” I cupped the side of her face with my hand. “You’re great. There’s no way you deserved what he did.”

Those golden-brown eyes of hers stared at me like she was trying to see my thoughts. I couldn’t tell if she believed me or not about her ex, but I was totally serious. Only an idiot would cheat on a girl like her, an idiot who didn’t know or appreciate what he had.

“Do you promise me?” Nova said.

“Huh?” I blinked, confused at the sudden change of subject.

“You never gave me your word. Do you promise me not to abuse drugs again?”

“Um …” I stroked her cheek with my thumb. I didn’t want to lie to her, but I didn’t want to disappoint her, either. This was new for me — normally, I couldn’t have cared less what some girl I just met thought of my partying ways. “I can’t really promise you that.”

“Why not?”

God, she looked so innocent, gazing at me with those huge, brown eyes. So trusting. And what had I done to earn that trust? Nothing.

“I don’t want to let you down,” I said. “I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.”

“But —”

I pressed my forefinger to her lips. They were as soft and warm as they looked. “I promise you I’ll get help as soon as I get back to L.A.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. Good.”

I smiled at her. “I don’t want to end up in another freezing river. You might not be there next time to pull me out.”

“That’s right.”

“Now you have to promise me something.”

She narrowed her eyes warily. “What’s that?”

“You won’t go back to the douchecanoe, even if he begs.”

Nova laughed. “I can’t see that happening. No, I’ll never go back to him.”

“Good.”

I let my hand descend along her arm, caressing lightly, savoring the feel of her under my touch. Her breath caught. Her eyes dilated and her lip trembled as her gaze rested on my lips. In that moment, I was sure she wanted me.

And I wanted her. God, how I wanted her. I leaned in a little, fascinated by her pretty mouth. It wouldn’t be right to kiss her, though. She might get the godawful bug I had.

Then she jerked backward and tumbled off the bed. I propped myself on an elbow.

“You all right?”

“Yeah.” She rose to her feet, looking abashed. “I’m fine. Um, sorry. You just kind of startled me.”

Hot color stained her cheeks. I was too tired and sick to do anything sexual anyway, but her reaction to my touch deflated me pretty sharply. I must have read her wrong.

That had never happened to me before.

“I just — um — I’d better go.” She motioned vaguely toward the hallway.

“Nova, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t. I’m not scared. I just — you know — I’ve got things to do.” She turned and left the room so fast it was like she was running away.

I collapsed onto my back and closed my eyes. What had just happened? I couldn’t figure her out. She didn’t react to me like any other woman I’d ever met and I had no idea what she’d do next.

Why did it even matter to me? I wouldn’t be here very long. I’d go back to L.A. and she’d go back to wherever she’d lived before. It dawned on me that I didn’t know where she was from. I didn’t know anything about her, really. As I’d tried to tell myself earlier, these odd feelings I was having for her weren’t real. They came out of the situation, and didn’t really have much to do with her as a person.

For some reason, that knowledge didn’t make me feel any less attracted to her.

I pulled the blue quilt over myself again. The vomiting seemed to have stopped, for now at least. But my gut was still churning and I didn’t know when I’d need to run to the bathroom again. Until then, I’d try to get some sleep.

The instant that thought was finished, my gut spazzed out again. I threw off the covers and made for the bathroom, hoping that Nova had gone temporarily deaf.

I didn’t like the general public to see — or hear — me this way. I had an image to protect, after all. I was a valuable commodity and I didn’t want to damage my brand by appearing less than perfect in a public place.

This is the opposite of public. It’s almost as private as things can get.

But Nova wasn’t a member of my inner circle. She was an unknown quantity, an outsider, who could potentially reveal embarrassing facts about me to the media. Although she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would do that, money can change people. Certain entertainment news organizations would pay a whole lot for dirt on me.

I wondered what people had made of my disappearance. I’d been gone missing long enough to cause some alarm. My mom was probably losing her mind.

If someone figured out where I was, maybe they could get me out of here. I could go back to civilization, provided they could get a vehicle up here in this storm.

I’d be out of Nova’s life. We’d most likely never see each other again, unless I brought her down to Cali for a visit. I tried to picture Nova staying in my condo, all the usual hangers-on wandering in and out, and couldn’t quite make it work.

No emotional attachment means no visits.

Right. No emotional attachment. I had a hunch that plan wasn’t going to work out at all.

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