A Mail-Order Hope

By: Janelle Daniels

“What’s that song?”

She jumped a little at his voice. He’d moved right behind her, looking over her shoulder, and she hadn’t even realized it. How long had he been there watching her?

“Oh”—she cleared her throat—“just a song my mother used to sing.”

“It’s nice.”

She glanced over her shoulder as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“My mom used to sing that to me too.”

“Really?” Food forgotten, she turned to him. It was something, just a small snippet from his past, but she was fascinated. “Tell me about her. Is she still alive?”

“Yes. My parents live in Virginia.”

“Do you miss them?” She scolded herself when his face fell. “Of course you do. I know I miss mine.” She turned her attention back to the food, making sure not to burn his breakfast. That would only start things off poorly.

“I do miss them. I haven’t seen them in a long time.”

She wanted to ask why, but she held her tongue. “Plates?”

He handed her two.

“Thank you.”

He raised a brow when she gave him most of the food.

“I ate before coming here, but it’s never fun to eat alone,” she explained

He took both plates and placed them on the table. The thoughtful gesture touched her.

“Thank you.”

They seated themselves, and he dug into the meal with gusto. When his eyes closed halfway, and a soft noise sounded in his throat, she had to hide her smile by taking a sip of water.

“This is amazing,” he finally said after a few more forkfuls. “Are you a witch?”

“A witch? As if I would sprinkle magic in my food. Those are legitimate spices. Besides, I wouldn’t have you accusing me of cheating. My cooking is just that good.”

“And here I thought I would get blackened eggs and charred bacon.”

Her eyes narrowed playfully, and he shoved a piece of bacon between his lips.

“I stand corrected,” he said with satisfaction.

When he ate the last bite and looked longingly at his plate, she chuckled. “I can make more if you’re still hungry?”

“Don’t tempt me. If I eat any more, we won’t be hiking.”

“Guess I’d just have to come back tomorrow then,” she said a bit too sweetly, “and lull you with more food.”

“Not on your life. Come on.”

His words didn’t carry a hint of sharpness and she was encouraged. She was breaking down his walls already.

Belle stumbled on a root, but righted herself before Asher had the chance to reach out and steady her. He curled his fingers into fists, forcing them closed to keep from touching her.

“How far are we going?” she asked.

Her breath was husky from the hike, and her words did things to him he wasn’t ready to deal with. “Not much farther. There’s another clearing up ahead.”

Training her in a few survival basics wasn’t difficult. In fact, he could’ve stayed by the cabin and taught her what she needed to know. But he wanted to give her the best and really train her on what she needed to know to survive.

His home was easy. Up here, away from all human habitation, was harder. That’s what he wanted her to learn—how to survive, even when it was hard.

Belle sighed in appreciation as she circled the meadow they’d entered. “This is unreal,” she said quietly.

He knew exactly what she was talking about. Looking around, the beauty and the majesty still hit him like it had all those years ago. This place was peace. It’d helped him heal after Lily.

“Where do we start?” She turned to him with a huge smile on her lips, oblivious to the turmoil within him.

He’d never let another woman die out here alone. Ever. “Close your eyes.”

Her smile slowly faded, and he cursed his surly tone. But this was serious, and the sooner she realized that, the sooner they’d finish.

She didn’t argue, but did as he asked. He took her hand and jumped at the contact. Her sharp breath told him she’d felt it too—a tingling of nerves skittering along their skin. Something unexplainable that happened when two pieces fit together.

But he didn’t belong with her, he reminded himself. It was just one of those things, physical attraction, and there was nothing he could do about it. He intended to teach her what she needed to know, then was getting out of there. Far away from Isabelle Sweeney and any physical chemistry they might have.

He led her around the meadow, circling her several times, before letting go of her hand. “Open your eyes.”

She obeyed and his stomach clenched at the hazy look in her eyes. He jerked his gaze away from it, refusing to acknowledge anything between them. “The first thing you need to know is how to navigate. A person could get lost in the forest like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Now, where’s home?”

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