Bursting With Love

By: Melissa Foster

Jack turned to address the group. The sun illuminated his wide shoulders, and the way the land fell away behind him, his six-four frame looked larger than life.

Why do you have to be such an ass? She gritted her teeth, wondering if she’d be the only Braden unable to find love. Men suck. Not that I’m looking. She was done with them, but it would be reassuring to know that nice men still existed.

Jack’s deep voice boomed through the campsite. “Grab your canteens, and if you want to wash up for the night, bring your towels. We’re only going down to the stream once tonight.” Jack’s eyes darted all over the damn campsite except within ten feet of her.

She fell in step beside Elizabeth, wishing she’d worn her hiking books. Back home, she could walk for days in her cowgirl boots, but this mountain was a whole different story. What was I thinking?

“How’s Aiden holding up?” she asked.

“He’s got more energy than me and Lou put together. He’s doing great, but he’s completely enamored with Jack.” She nodded to the two, walking up ahead side by side. Aiden’s head was cocked to the side as he looked up at Jack. He was rattling off questions in rapid succession. Jack answered each one as he led them to the stream. Savannah noticed the softer tone he used with Aiden and that every so often—usually when he looked at Aiden—he rubbed a long white scar on the back of his left arm.

“He’s not exactly the nicest guy, is he?” Savannah said.

Elizabeth leaned in closer to Savannah and brought her hand up and shielded her mouth, like she was sharing a secret. “You know about his wife, right?”

“Wife?” She had noticed his lack of a wedding ring.

Elizabeth lowered her voice, and her brown eyes filled with empathy. “She died, and that’s why he moved to the mountains. From what I’ve heard, he was devastated. Couldn’t function. Came out here to…I don’t know what…but his instincts took over and he’s never really gone back, except for holidays with his family and an occasional night at the house he and his wife shared.”

“That’s terrible.” She looked at Jack and her heart ached for him. No wonder he was so full of venom. “I thought he was in the military.”

“He was. He finished his tour the year she died. I think he was planning on reupping, but…instead he kind of left the real world behind,” Elizabeth said.

They walked in silence while Savannah chewed on this new and startling information. It explained so much and yet at the same time explained nothing at all. She thought of her father, Hal Braden, and how after her mother died, he’d carried on without faltering. Of course, he’d had to. He was left with six children to raise. To this day, he still claimed to speak with her from beyond the grave. She knew he would never let the memory of her mother go, and she wondered if Jack would be haunted by his wife forever, too. She watched him descend the steep hill, wondering if that was where his anger stemmed from or if he was a mean-spirited person by nature.

The wide body of water looked nothing like a stream, but rather like a slow-moving river. At the bottom of the hill, Jack bent down and ran his fingers in the water.

Savannah unscrewed the top of her canteen, walked to the water’s edge, and crouched to fill her canteen. Jack grabbed her arm before she could dip it beneath the surface.

“What?” she snapped. She looked at the water, expecting to see a snake or some other danger lurking beneath the surface. Instead, she saw fresh running water. She shot a look at Jack, whose massive hand was still wrapped around her forearm.

“Whoa, city girl. This isn’t a faucet. We don’t fill our canteens from the stream,” he said in a harsh tone. “What was rule number one that I said back at the plane?” He paused, waiting for an answer.

Aiden’s hand shot up in the air.

“You don’t need to raise your hand, buddy,” he said.

He spoke to her angrily, then softened every time he spoke to Aiden. How do you do that?

“Don’t put anything in your mouth without clearing it with me first,” Aiden repeated verbatim.

Savannah tried to wrench her arm free, but Jack held firm.

“Right, and why is that?” Jack asked.

“Bacteria,” Josie answered.

He turned and glared at Savannah. She wasn’t sure if it was the intensity of his stare or the fact that she now knew his sad history, but instead of seeing anger or determination in his eyes, she saw agony, raw and exposed.

“Aiden, tell Miss Braden what we need to do next.”

Jack held her stare, and damn if she didn’t feel a familiar stirring in her belly. She looked at his hand, wrapped so tightly around her arm, then back at his eyes, which weren’t black at all, but midnight blue. A sexy shade of midnight blue.

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