Authors: Jessica Jarman
Tags: #Multiple Partner Erotic Romance, #dystopian
Regardless, she could extend the offer to stay. For as long as they’d like. She’d take what time she could with them before being left on her own. Again.
“Hey,” Ethan grabbed Noah’s arm. “Let’s let Grace catch up.”
With a nod, Noah stopped and unclipped his water bottle, tipping it to his lips to drink.
“She’s been quiet,” Ethan said softly as they watched her make her way to where they stood. “Something’s off.”
“You think she’s upset? About last night?” Noah asked.
Ethan lifted a shoulder. “Don’t know. Hope not.”
“You don’t have to slow down because of me,” Grace said as she approached. “As long as I can see you, I’m good.”
“Eh, a quick rest is never a bad thing,” Noah said cheerfully.
“Are you okay?” Ethan blurted, anxious to figure out what was wrong with her.
She frowned. “Of course I am.”
“You’ve been quiet since we started,” he pointed out.
“Oh,” she drew the syllable out. “It’s nothing. I’m just been thinking that’s all.”
“About last night?” Noah prodded.
“I wish.” She laughed. “That would be much more entertaining and enjoyable.”
“So you don’t have regrets?” Ethan asked.
“No! Is that what you thought? Last night was amazing,” she assured them. “And I don’t regret a single moment.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
She glanced between him and Noah then sighed. “Can we walk and talk?”
“Sure,” Noah agreed before Ethan could protest. “Let’s go.”
“I haven’t been a hundred percent honest with you guys,” she said as they began walking. “To be fair, I didn’t tell you everything when I first met you because…Well, you could have been anybody. I was looking out for myself.”
“Of course you were.” Noah nodded.
Ethan remained silent and waited for her to continue.
“Not that long ago, my dad started talking about prepping. Preparing and stockpiling supplies for when, not if, things went to shit. People thought he was crazy. His friends teased him. My brother and sister laughed at him.”
“But not you,” Ethan murmured.
“I actually took the time to listen to what he was saying. Preparing for a disaster made sense. I wasn’t going to go to the extent he did, but I wasn’t going to treat him like a crazy person. Of course, the ones that laughed, called him crazy? They were the first ones on his doorstep after the solar flare. And Dad was prepared. He had enough water, food, supplies. Guess he was actually the smartest of us all.” She smiled. “But the supplies at home weren’t all he’d taken care of. Actually, it’s a drop in the bucket of what he put together.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out.
“Take your time, Gracie.” Noah patted her arm.
“My family is all dead. Gone,” she said flatly.
“We know,” Ethan reminded her. “You told us about them”
“No, what I mean is, there isn’t anyone else. I’m not on my way to any family.” She ran a hand through her loose hair, pushing it back from her face. “I didn’t want two strange men to know there was no one expecting me. When I first headed out—right before I got out of the city—I crossed paths with a stranger who had ideas about a woman off on her own.”
Ethan’s stomach knotted and bile rose in his throat as he remembered his initial suspicions about the kind of trouble Grace had run into.
“Did he—” Noah broke off and shot Ethan a horrified look.
“No, he tried but…”
“But what?” Ethan grabbed her arm and made her stop walking.
Green eyes glassy, she met his gaze. “He caught me by surprise and pushed me to the ground, tried get on top of me. I kneed him in the balls, got to my rifle,” she held up the firearm she held, “and told him to move on. He didn’t. He tried to rush me, and I shot him.”
“You shot him?” Noah repeated slowly.
“I don’t feel guilty about it,” she said. “I gave him a chance to walk away, but he was a sick bastard. I’d do it again. And I’m not telling you this because I want you to feel sorry for me. I wasn’t hurt.”
Bullshit, Ethan thought. The son of a bitch might not have raped her, but he hurt her.
“I’m trying to explain why I was so guarded when we first met. Why I’d lie to you.”
“That’s why you relaxed a bit when you found out we were together.” Noah nodded.
“Yeah, I thought since you were gay, you wouldn’t be interested in trying to take advantage of me like that. Of course I didn’t know then that you were just ‘mostly gay’,” she teased.
“Okay, we get why you kept things from us. We can hardly blame you after what you’d been through,” Ethan said. “So if you don’t have anyone expecting you, what’s in Severton? Why there?”
“I said that Dad’s emergency supply at home was just the beginning. Well, he had a hunting camp on about twenty acres along the river, five miles outside Severton. And he spent a lot of time stocking and preparing the place. There’s a cabin and bunkhouse. Outhouse, root cellar, shed. There’s enough food to last years, along with hunting and trapping equipment and supplies to start gardens to supplement that food.”
“Sounds like you’ll be set for while,” Ethan mused.
She nodded. “I was thinking, I know you are heading west to find your own place, but I have more than I need for just myself. You guys could stay for a while. Take a break from the constant moving, even for a couple of days.” When neither man responded, she continued, “I mean don’t feel like you have to. I just wanted to put the offer out there. If nothing else, you can take some supplies with you.”
“Sweetheart, we aren’t going to drop you on your doorstep and run,” Ethan assured. “We’ll make sure you’re settled and safe. And,” he met Noah’s gaze above her head, “it’s not like we have anyone waiting for us either, so we aren’t in any hurry.”
“Okay, good,” she said quickly. “Um, I need to a minute to, uh, take care of business. Be right back.”
Ethan chuckled as she shrugged off her pack and dashed away to find some privacy.
“I don’t like it,” Noah said grimly. “We thought she had people up this way, but she’s going to be alone, on her own, in some remote cabin.”
“Don’t you dare tell me that sits okay with you,” he snapped.
“We can’t take care of everybody,” Ethan pointed out.
“I’m not talking about everybody. I’m talking about
Scrubbing his hands over his face, Ethan sighed. “I know.”
Grace covered her smile with her hand at Noah’s reaction as they arrived at her family’s camp. Both men stood, rooted to the spot, staring.
“This is not what I expected,” Noah said. “I know you described it and everything, but… Holy shit,” he repeated.
“Come on,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Let’s dump the packs inside then you can explore and snoop to your heart’s content.”
“Wait here until we check around,” Ethan commanded.
She lifted the rifle in her hands. “If there’s anyone here, between this and your gun, we’ll be fine. I can help do a sweep.”
“Humor us,” Noah said tightly. Then softer, “Please, Grace.”
With a sigh, she pulled the chain from around her neck. Dangling from it was a key. “Fine, this opens all the buildings.”
Ethan accepted the chain and dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
She waited as they went building to building, slightly irritated, but also a bit touched they were worried enough to check things out before she went inside.
“All clear,” Noah called from the small porch at the front of the cabin. She hurried across the large yard and up the wide steps to enter. The air that met her was hot and musty. Nose wrinkled, she rested her rifle against the wall and set her heavy pack beside it then walked through the cabin, opening windows to let fresh air in.
That done, Grace smiled and looked around. The main floor of the building was mostly open. To the left of the door was a living area with two sofas and two chairs placed around the stone fireplace set in the wall. The entrance itself opened up to a kitchen dining area. A large, farmhouse table and chairs sat in the middle. Cupboards lined the wall to their right.
“There’s a well,” she informed, walking to the shallow basin and resting her hand on the bright red pump beside it. “We’ll need to prime it, but it’ll mean no more running to the river every time we need water.”
“This space here,” she continued, “was the original structure. Dad added the loft later, and they built on the lower bedroom and pantry in the back about three years ago.”
“This is an amazing place,” Noah said with a shake of his head. “Definitely not what I imagined.”
“There’s the wood cook stove and a propane cook-top.” She walked over to the stove and ran her fingers over the heavy metal. “We did most of our cooking here when we came. I even managed to learn how to bake in this thing. The propane was something Dad kept around for things that needed more controlled temperatures. Like canning in the pressure cooker and stuff.”
Looking at the men, she noticed their grins and sighed. “I’m just rambling. Go on, check it all out. The hunting and trapping stuff is in the back room of the bunkhouse.” He bent down and kissed her. “Be back soon.”
She laughed. “I’ll get a fire started and find us something for dinner.”
“Thank you, Gracie,” Noah crooned, pressing his lips to hers.
She swatted his ass as he turned and followed Ethan out the door. Letting out a deep sigh, she leaned against the stove a moment and just let the reality sink in. She’d made it. The journey was over. Deciding that was enough, and responding to her rumbling stomach, she straightened and headed to the pantry. When she pushed the door open, she was taken aback. The room hadn’t been anywhere near this full the last time she was there. Shelves lined all four walls and were filled to overflowing. Sealed containers of flours, sugars, grains. Canned goods. It would take her days to figure out what all she had.
Starting with a shelf of glass canning jars, she began to plan what to eat for dinner. Her breath hitched in her throat when she read the first label. Lifting a hand she traced her finger over the neat handwriting. Her mother’s handwriting.
Pain, hurt that she had successfully dammed up, burst within her at the sight. Her mom was gone. She’d never see her face again or hear her laugh or get after her dad for leaving his empty glass sitting in the living room.
Her vision dimmed around the edges and her legs wobbled. She stumbled to the door and grasped the frame, struggling to draw in a breath into her tight chest. A sob caught in her throat, threatened to choke her. She held on to the wall as she let herself slid to the floor. Drawing her knees to her chest, she wrapped her arms around her legs and dropped her head forward.
God, she was so alone.
Noah and Ethan walked toward the cabin. They’d spent some time going through the outer buildings and Noah had to admit he was impressed. Grace’s father had done a hell of a job setting this place up.
“I think I’ll head out later, set some traps,” Ethan said. “Some rabbit would be a nice change from fish.”
His laughter quickly faded when they entered the cabin and the sound of crying reached his ears. His gaze immediately found Grace, on the floor in the doorway at the back of the building. He ran the short distance, Ethan right with him.
He dropped to his knees and started running his hands over her, checking for injuries. “Gracie, are you hurt? What happened?”
She just shook her head, not looking up. He looked at Ethan in panic.
“Grace,” Ethan said sharply. “You need to tell us what’s wrong? Sweetheart, we can’t help if we don’t know what’s going on.”
“I…I’m alone.” She lifted her face and her tear-streaked face was white as a sheet. “They’re all gone. I just…I don’t know what to do.”
Her body shook, racked with sobs. Ethan cursed and lifted her into his arms. Cradling her against his chest, he murmured softly to her.
Noah, feeling helpless, stood and walked to the next room. Opening the door, he saw the large bed, but no linens. He turned and took the steps two at a time up to the loft. There he found an armoire filled with sheets and blankets. Grabbing some, he hurried back downstairs and made quick work of making the bed. Just as he finished, Ethan strode in. Grace had quieted, her face buried in his neck. He laid her in the center of the mattress and stretched out beside her. He met Noah’s eyes and held his hand out. Noah clasped it and lay down on Grace’s other side. He looked down at her face. Her eyes were closed, her dark lashes resting against her pale cheeks.
“Ethan? Noah?” she mumbled.
“Shhh.” Noah tucked her hair behind her ear. “We’re right here, baby.”
Ethan draped his arm around her and Noah, then kissed Grace’s temple. After a few minutes, her breathing slowed and her muscles relaxed as sleep claimed her.
The men slowly got off the bed, careful not to wake her. Noah pulled a lightweight quilt over her body and followed Ethan from the room, easing the door shut behind them.
He joined Ethan, who’d walked out onto the porch and now stood staring off into the distance. He slipped an arm around the other man’s waist.
“What in the hell happened in there?” Ethan asked, shaking his head.
“I think everything is hitting her. Think about it. When has she had the chance to grieve properly? She was sick, then taking care of her family, then focused on surviving on her own and getting here.”
“Makes sense,” Ethan admitted. “And she’s exhausted on top of it. Probably best to let her sleep a while.”
“All right then. You get the fire going, and I’ll find something for dinner.”
Noah leaned back on the sofa, staring at the flames dancing in the fireplace. They’d already eaten and cleaned up. Now, Ethan was out setting traps. Noah hadn’t joined him since neither thought it was a good idea for Grace to wake to an empty cabin.
He glanced at his watch. There was maybe another two hour of daylight left, and he was ready for bed.
At the sound of Grace’s voice, he jumped to his feet. “He’s setting some traps, hoping for some fresh meat.”