Authors: Jessica Jarman
Tags: #Multiple Partner Erotic Romance, #dystopian
“Hard to when you don’t know if it’ll pan out,” he admitted.
“Exactly. I was more focused on covering as much ground as I could without passing out.” She picked a few of the blueberries from the bowl and popped them in her mouth. The tart juice exploded on her tongue. “Oh yum.”
“Lucky Noah, he always manages to find the good stuff.”
Grace couldn’t help but agree as she watched him take a bite of fish. Good stuff, indeed. She realized she didn’t get as good a look last night at him as she was now. His brown hair was short, but had enough length that it curled slightly at the ends. Long lashes framed big chocolate brown eyes. Stubble darkened his jaw, and Grace itched to touch it, just to see if it would abrade or tickle her palm. And that led to thoughts of tickling elsewhere. Dangerous territory. Delicious, but dangerous.
“So, this town you’re headed for,” Ethan said. “It’s a few days up the river?”
“Hm mmm.” She swallowed with difficulty as she nodded. “If I can keep a decent pace, I should make it in three or four days.” She pursed her lips. “Maybe five if the terrain gets rough?”
“What’s the name of the town?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “The town that if you blink you miss it? Yeah, five is more realistic. It does get a bit rough about twenty miles up. It’ll definitely add some time.”
“You’re familiar with this area?” Grace asked.
“I may have grown up in North Dakota, but I spent a lot time in Minnesota, along this river and many of the lakes. One summer, my dad and I hiked the entire length of the river. That was when he thought I liked girls, so he still liked
. Took us weeks. So, yeah, I’m a bit familiar. I remember the little restaurant in Severton. Best damn pie I’d ever had.”
He grinned, and Grace’s heart stuttered. Noah chose that moment to stroll into camp, and Grace nearly choked. His shirt was draped over one shoulder and she got one hell of a view of his muscled physique. A black tribal tattoo circled his left biceps. It was clear he’d just bathed as his close-cropped hair was wet and droplets of water skittered down his chest, over his chiseled abs. A dusting of light brown hair led her gaze downward, disappearing beneath the waistband of his jeans.
The sound of a throat clearing made her realize she was staring at the man’s crotch. Her cheeks heated, and she pulled her gaze away to find Ethan watching her, an amused smile quirking the corner of his mouth upward.
“Sleep well, Grace?” Noah asked as he set three full water bottles on the ground. Including hers, she noticed.
“Y-y-es, thank you.” Then, she remembered she was supposed to be annoyed about that. “You were supposed to wake me up!”
“I know, but when I peeked in, you looked so damned peaceful. Besides, like I said last night, you needed the rest more than we did.” He scooped some berries from the bowl. “Don’t be mad, Gracie.”
Her lips twitched at the little pout he gave her before shoveling the fruit in his mouth. It’d been too damned long since she had someone joking around with her.
“Fine,” she drawled with a playful roll of the eyes.
He grinned and plopped down on the ground next to her. “So has Ethan talked to you about the plan?”
“The plan?” She shot Ethan a look. He just shrugged and kept eating, still sneaking pieces to the dog.
“Yeah, we figured since we’d already decided on following the river for a while, we could…join forces. Travel together for a bit. Good plan, right?”
“What?” Travel together? Immediately, she thought about what waited for her and what they thought waited for her, and a knot formed in her stomach.
“It makes sense,” he continued. “No reason not to take advantage of the extra sleep you could get. We’d keep you eating more than just beans. That should seal the deal right there.”
“I… Noah, I appreciate the offer, but there’s no need to go out of your way. I can take care of myself.”
“I don’t doubt that,” he assured. “But honestly, wouldn’t it be nice to have the company? Hell, it’d be nice for us. Believe it or not, we get sick of each other sometimes.” His blue eyes danced with laughter as he dodged the pebble Ethan threw at him.
“Like he said, we plan on following the river for a while. It makes sense for the water and the food,” Ethan explained. “So we can either walk the trail together or we could argue at gunpoint every night when we want to make camp with you.”
Grace looked between the two grinning faces and sighed. “You’re impossible.”
“So I’ve been told,” Ethan drawled.
She rose to her feet and retrieved her pack from the tent. “I need to clean up.” At the edge of the brush leading to the river, she paused. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all we ask,” Noah said sweetly.
Ethan’s laughter followed her as she made her way to the river. At the water’s edge, she pulled her toiletries from her bag. As she washed, Grace pondered the situation. No matter what she said, the men would go the same way she did—they’d made that much clear. Should she bother fighting them over it?
The company would be nice, she admitted. And any guilt she felt about not being completely truthful with them was ridiculous. She was simply protecting herself. They might not even find out she’d lied. It was just as likely they’d get bored after a day or two and head off on their own. She’d accept their offer and give their male egos a bit of a stroke for protecting the poor woman who was all alone.
Noah looked at the amused expression on Ethan’s face. “What?”
“You handled that perfectly. By not really giving her a choice. Because, if you’d asked, she’d have shot you down.”
“I know.” Noah pulled his shirt on. “Let’s get packed up so we can get moving.”
By the time Grace came back, everything was done and ready to go. She stopped and stared, green eyes wide.
“You didn’t have to take down my tent,” she protested even as her lips curved.
“Not a problem,” Noah insisted, handing her the rifle. “Ready?”
She glanced to where Ethan stood checking his handgun before tucking it into his pack. Noah could tell she was surprised as her eyes widened and she gave her head a slight shake.
“You were armed and didn’t pull it out when I had you at gunpoint?” she asked incredulously.
“That would have been rude,” Ethan teased. “My mom raised a gentleman.”
Noah snorted and hoisted his bag onto his back. He grabbed Grace’s and held it out to her. She shook her head again as she situated the pack, moving the long black braid that tamed her hair over her shoulder.
“Well then, let’s go, gentlemen. We’ve got a lot of miles to cover.”
Noah wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. He pulled the map from his pack, unfolded then studied it as he waited for Ethan and Grace to catch up. It was day four of their time together, and despite the shit that had put them all on this course—the flare and the virus outbreak—he was enjoying himself. Time with Ethan was always well spent but he’d learned the past days that the same could be said for Grace. She was smart as hell, had a killer sense of humor, and well, he just loved looking at her. That was the only blemish—that he couldn’t be honest about what he was feeling toward her. He had to hide his attraction for fear of freaking her out.
“Good time to stop and grab a bite and some water,” Ethan said, stopping beside Noah and resting a hand on his shoulder.
Grace nodded and, after removing her pack, moved to sit on a large rock, obviously winded. “Sounds good to me.” She gave Callie a quick rub then pulled out her bottle.
“I figure another two days. I know,” Ethan said when Grace sighed, “but we’ll get there, sweetheart.” He pointed at the map. “We’ll set up camp here. It’s about another two hours or so.”
“Two hours? We have more daylight than that,” Grace protested.
“Yeah, but it’s been a rough one; we could all use the rest. And,” he added, “there’s a little town about five miles west. I’ll make a run into it, see if I can get some supplies.”
Noah watched Grace’s forehead wrinkle as she frowned. Shit, even that was adorable as hell.
“Why don’t we all go? Seems silly for Noah and me to sit around while you’re off foraging.”
Ethan shook his head. “Too risky. I can slip in and slip out. With all of us, and the dog? If there’s anyone unfriendly hanging around… No, it’s not worth the risk.”
She looked like she wanted to argue but kept quiet. Noah shrugged off his pack and pulled out the sealed pouch of dried fruit and nuts. He ripped it open, shook out a handful, and offered it to Grace. She took some and passed it on to Ethan.
Noah studied her as she ate. She was awfully quiet today, and she hadn’t slept well the night before. He’d heard her tossing and turning and moaning in the tent. He moved to sit next to her on the boulder and nudged her with his shoulder.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “If it’s about the run into town—”
“It isn’t that. As much as I hate to admit it,” she stuck her tongue out at Ethan, “he’s right. It doesn’t make sense for all of us to go.”
“Then what is it? You’re prickly today,” Ethan stated bluntly.
“Really?” She chuckled. “Sorry.”
“No need for sorry,” Noah assured.
“But that’s the first time you’ve laughed all day,” Ethan pointed out. “So what’s up? You obviously didn’t sleep well last night. Nightmares? Are you crabby because you’re tired? Or because—”
“If you could shut up a minute, I’d tell you.” She shook her head. “It’s a hard day, that’s all. I know it’s easy to lose count of the days out here, but I’ve been keeping track. It’s my brother’s birthday, and it’s just hitting me harder than I expected.”
Noah wrapped his arm around her in a half-hug. “I’m sorry. Of course it’s hard, so soon after losing him.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder, and he gave in to the urge to nuzzle her hair.
“That would be bad enough but it’s difficult because I’m still pissed at him. No,” she straightened, “not just pissed. I’m furious, livid…and whatever word is even more angry than that.”
Noah glanced at Ethan, who just leaned back against a tree, folded his arms across his chest and waited for her to continue.
“Jonah got sick a few days after I did. He was bad, really bad. When I came out of it, I found out my mother was already gone, Jonah’s wife and little boy too.” She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes for a moment then looked between the men. “And it looked like we’d lose Jonah, too. We’d always been really close. He was only eighteen months older than me. So the thought of him dying gutted me. But then, his fever broke. An answer to my prayers.” She smiled shakily.
“Of course as soon as I thought that, my little sister and dad got sick. Tricia didn’t last long.” Her chest jerked as she held back a sob, and Noah pulled her closer, his heart breaking. “But Dad…Dad held on. He was an amazing man.”
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” Ethan murmured, coming forward and kneeling in front of the pair. He took Grace’s hands as she began to cry. “You can stop now if it’s too much.”
“No,” she said. “I want you to know. No one else does. It’s been eating at me.”
Noah’s stomach clenched and he steeled himself to hear what she had to say. It was hell watching her hurt like this.
“I was with Dad, trying to get fluids into him when I heard it. I didn’t realize what it meant because gunshots weren’t exactly uncommon around the neighborhood since everything had gone to hell.” She wet her lips and continued. “So I continued what I was doing then went downstairs. Jonah was outside, on the ground next to where we’d burned the bodies.” She looked from Ethan to Noah then back again. “We had to do that, you know, because there wasn’t anyone to come and take them. Anyway, I couldn’t process what I was seeing. I remember thinking what on earth is he doing out there as I walked to him.”
“Oh baby.” Noah couldn’t think of anything to say, couldn’t imagine the hell she’d experienced.
“He left a note,” she said dully. “He said he couldn’t stand the thought of being alone, so this was the only way.”
“And that made you angry?” Ethan prompted.
“Yes,” she cried. “I understood he was hurting. His wife, his son…were gone, but he wasn’t
. He didn’t give a second thought to leaving
alone. They all left, left me on my own. But him? He chose to leave.”
“He abandoned you,” Noah said.
She nodded miserably. “I never told my dad. I just couldn’t.”
“Of course not.” Ethan rose up to wrap his arms around her.
Together, they held her as she cried. Murmured any words of comfort that came to mind, no matter how insignificant they seemed. After several minutes, she pulled away, sniffling.
“Thank you,” she whispered, “for listening, for being here.”
“Any time,” Noah said.
She stared at him a moment then lifted a shaking hand to his face. Her fingertips brushed his lips and she drew in a stuttered breath. Noah could feel Ethan’s eyes on them as they just waited to see what Grace would do.
Suddenly, Callie tried to nose her way in the middle of the embracing group.
“Oh!” Grace laughed and dropped her hand. “Oh, do you want hugs too, Callie girl? You jealous?”
Noah met Ethan’s gaze and swallowed hard. Spell broken by a mutt. Damn it all.
Grace wiped the tears from her face and smiled at the guys. “We should get moving.”
She hoped like hell they didn’t hear the note of desperation in her voice. What was wrong with her? Another second and she would have leaned over and kissed Noah! With his lover kneeling at her feet and holding her hand, for God’s sake. Thank goodness Callie butted in when she did.
“Are you all right?” Ethan asked, moving to his feet.
“Yes. I think it helped to talk about it.” She smiled up at him. “I’m glad someone else knows the truth. That you two know the truth. Thank you.”
Noah smoothed a hand over the braid that fell down her back before standing. She followed suit and rose.
“Come on, boys,” she said cheekily, despite the nervous jump of her stomach. “Let’s get a move on.”