Thirty-One and a Half Regrets Page 83

“I’m supposed to protect you.”

“Who says? Why can’t we protect each other?”

His kissed me with urgency, as though Crocker might show up at any minute and take me away from him. After we made love, we lay in each other’s arms, still warming up with the heat of the fire. I soon drifted off to sleep.

When I awoke later, Mason wasn’t next to me and the fire was a pile of glowing embers. I bolted upright, clutching the blanket to my chest.

Mason stood next to the window, his rifle slung over his shoulder. Moonlight filtered through the glass, lending a soft glow to his face. He turned to face me when he caught my movement.

“What are you doing?”

“I couldn’t sleep, so I’m keeping watch.”

I leaned forward to look up at the sky through the window. “The moon is out.”

“The storm is breaking and the moonlight is fading in and out.” He looked worried. “We didn’t get much more snow, so our footprints from the woods to the house are like a neon sign.”

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“No, but if I had to guess, I’d say around three.”

“You said they probably wouldn’t look for us in the woods at night. Let’s get another hour or two of sleep and then take off at sunrise.”

He hesitated, but I reached my hand toward him. He gave the window one last glance and then moved toward me, crawling under the blanket fully clothed. The moment he touched my skin, I squealed. “Take off your clothes! They’re cold!”

“You’re just trying to get me naked, Rose Gardner.” He laughed and pulled off his shirt. “You are a wicked woman.”

“And you like me that way.” I kissed him and reached for his zipper.

“I had no idea how wicked you could be,” he groaned, shimmying out of his jeans and kicking them off.

I pushed him on his back, straddled his hips, and gave him a saucy grin. “Let me show you.”

When I woke a couple of hours later Mason was already up, back at the window. The sun had just begun to rise as I dressed. We on the front porch and I realized Mason had been right about our tracks. While the snow hadn’t accumulated much, it was wet and heavy and our footprints were like a giant arrow pointing toward us. Mason scooped snow into our empty water bottle and put it in his bag.

“We have two choices,” he said. “We can keep trudging through the valley and hope we stumble upon a house, or head back into the trees where there’s less snow and it’s easier to hide.”

“If you don’t think they’re right behind us, let’s go through the valley. We shouldn’t be much slower than they are, so we’ll hopefully find help before they catch up to us. If they even realize we went this way.”

“Valley it is.”

We set off north, following a gravel road that led from the house. We had traveled for twenty minutes without spotting another house or even road when a gunshot rang through the air.

We both froze, our eyes wide.

“What was that?” I asked, breathless.

“It could have been hunters.”

“Is it hunting season?”

“No. Deer season isn’t for another week. But this is rural Arkansas. Some citizens like to make their own rules on private property.”

“If it was Crocker, why would they shoot?”

Mason looked back toward the woods behind us. “Maybe to alert the others if they found our footprints. I suspect their cell phones don’t work out here.”

“What do we do?”

“If it’s hunters, heading for the trees in dark clothes could get us shot. But if it’s Crocker, the last thing we want is for him to find us out in the open...” He paused. “It all boils down to instinct.”

“And what is your gut telling you?”

“That it’s Daniel Crocker.”

“Mine too,” I whispered, my chest about to explode.

“Let’s go that way.” He pointed to the tree-covered hills to the east.

I took off with Mason behind me. Once we reached the slope, we moved parallel along the side of the hill. The terrain was steep and I lost my footing several times, righting myself before I tumbled down the slope.

Voices floated through the valley. I stopped, my ears straining to pick out words.

Mason was several feet in front of me, but he turned back, watching over my shoulder. The voices grew louder and became less muffled.

“…went this way…”

“I see their footprints.”

Mason’s eyes widened. “Shit.” He grabbed my arm and started uphill. “Let’s go higher,” he panted. “Now that they’ve found our tracks, they know we’ve been heading north. There’s a chance we can throw them off if we keep heading east and find another valley to hike through.”

“Is there another valley?”

“I don’t know, but the area is all hills and trees, so it stands to reason that we’ll find a valley if we go far enough. At least we’ll be making it harder for them to find us. What do you want to do?”

My heart raced with fear. He was right. Anything that would help us elude Crocker was the best solution. “Go east.”

He grabbed my hand and helped pull me up the hill. This one was steeper than the one we’d climbed and descended the day before. When we reached the peak, we had the option to continue along the ridge or go down the other side.

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