The Mountain Man's Secret Twins(10)

By: Alexa Ross & Holly Rayner

“I’m in no position to tell anyone what kind of life they should live,” Kenzie said, laughing. “And I could never hack it. Truth be told, I came all the way up here today because I couldn’t get my fire restarted. It’s a fool’s errand, my vacationing here.” She grinned sheepishly.

“I assumed it was something like that,” he said. “But I needed the company, at least for tonight.”

They clinked their glasses, the sound ringing in Kenzie’s ears. She sipped the wine slowly, her eyes closed, trying to soak in the sensation of just being in his presence, of smelling his rugged musk.

“I don’t know anything about wine,” he said, breaking the silence again, “but this is delicious. I think it’ll go wonderfully with what I had planned for dinner for tonight.”

Kenzie tilted her head. Her stomach felt stretched and empty, as if it contained only a cold rock. “Oh?”

“I don’t suppose you’re hungry, are you?” he said, a smile stretching across his face.

“Oh, I suppose I could eat,” Kenzie said, placing her long fingers over her abdomen. “Maybe just a little something. Can I help?”

“Let me do it,” he insisted, his eyes blue and bright. “It’s been a long time since I’ve cooked for someone else. Besides, you probably had a long day on the slopes.”

“Ha. Don’t remind me,” Kenzie said, leaning back. “I feel like my ankles are going to give out just walking around.”

“I used to ski. Maybe 10 years ago, I would hit the slopes on days I didn’t need to go hunting. But it just felt meaningless after a while, all that up and down. I couldn’t figure out what it was for after a while. I would rather be alone in the woods, thinking, hunting.”

“I had similar feelings today,” Kenzie said, gazing up at him as he rose, heading toward the kitchen. As he walked, his back muscles rippled beneath his flannel. “What are you making?”

“Venison,” he said, his voice gruff. He left the kitchen for a moment, stepping out onto the back porch, where he removed some meat from a cooler. “I usually get a few deer a year. I try never to take too much from the woods. I only take what I need to survive.”

Kenzie tried not to look too hard at the venison as he prepped it, salting and peppering the meat before setting it in a skillet. As the meat began to heat, he chopped vegetables on a cutting board, whistling along with the raspy music that was still coming from the speaker. He continued to talk, clearly liking having someone to speak his thoughts to. Kenzie wondered if he often spoke to himself, alone in the cabin, his voice echoing against the wooden walls.

“I got these vegetables from the last harvest. Down the mountain, there’s a widow, Laurie Smith, who has me do odd jobs for her. She mostly pays me with vegetables from her garden. I’m nearly out. Started to freeze the last of them. Going to be a long winter up here. It always lasts till May.”

Kenzie got up from the couch and wandered over, eyeing the bright green peppers and the many layers of onions, their juices squirting with each slice. Her stomach growled. She prayed Bryce couldn’t hear it. “How long have you lived here?” she asked finally.

“Since I was 18,” Bryce said, his words firm. “So nearly 12 years now. I’ll be 30 in March.”

“Wow,” Kenzie said, unable to imagine living anywhere for 12 years, let alone somewhere so lonely. “Have you ever considered leaving? Trying anything else?”

Bryce shrugged slightly, clearly not willing to consider the question. “I found a home here. As far as I can tell, most people on this planet are always on the hunt for the place where they feel the safest, the most secure. I don’t need to search for it. It’s right here.” He gestured with his knife toward the cabin, including the small living room and a dark doorway, which she assumed led to his bedroom and bathroom. “A man like me doesn’t need much.”

Kenzie was impressed, if saddened. She stood a few feet away from him, still assessing the strength of his biceps, the way his eyes grew softer as he became more accustomed to her. “All my life, my mother told me to find a man who would take care of me, who wouldn’t allow me to feel lonely, and, most of all, who would pay for my every whim. I think I was bred with the belief that you weren’t allowed solitude.”

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