THE FOREVER INSTINCT (Chapter 1)
SHE RECOGNIZED HIM INSTANTLY. His face was the same, if more mature, with tiny time lines etched into his brow and at the corners of his eyes. Flecks of silver whispered through his thick sable hair. Though thinner than he’d been when she’d seen him last, he was every bit as tall and broad of shoulder. And his intensity hadn’t lessened.
“Jordanna Kirkland,” he stated, dredging her name from the depths of the past as he soberly stared at the woman whose arrival at the campground had coincided nearly perfectly with his own.
Letting her frame pack slide the length of her leg until it stood on the ground, she struggled to contain her shock and its attendant rush of memories. “Lance.”
“It’s Patrick now. Patrick Clayes.” Dragging his eyes from hers, he extended a hand to each of the other four members of the group in turn. “I’ll be your guide.”
“Larry Earls,” said the first, a slim, pale man.
“Donald Scheuer,” was the response of his taller, more heavyset companion.
“John Kalajian,” the third said with a nod, an attractive professorial type.
“Bill Wennett,” declared the last, the hint of arrogance in his voice echoing his cocksure stance.
All looked to be in their early forties and, from the similarity of their dress and gear, friends. It wasn’t quite what Jordanna had expected when Craig Talesehad so gallantly offered her his place on the trek.
Scrupulously avoiding Patrick’s gaze, she looked from one man to the next. She had their undivided attention. “How many others will be joining us?” she asked quietly, assuming the women to be lagging somewhere behind. The names Scheuer and Wennett were ones Craig had mentioned; she was with the right group.
John looked at Larry; Donald’s gaze met Bill’s. Then all four looked with dawning dismay at Patrick, who finally spoke. “I was told there would be five of you. I guess this is it.”
“There were supposed to be five of us. Who’s she?” Bill demanded, turning an imperious eye on Jordanna.
She raised her chin a fraction of an inch. She’d learned to deal with high-handed men long ago. “Patrick had my name right. It’s Jordanna Kirkland.”
“Where’s Craig?” Larry asked.
“He got an emergency call from San Diego. His daughter is ill. He flew out last night.”
“So he called you?” Donald barked in disbelief.
“Yesterday,” she stated.
“And you decided to join a group of men for five days in the wilds?” This from Bill again, with unmitigated disdain.
She stiffened her spine. “I had no idea I was joining a group of men. That must have been Craig’s idea of a little joke.” It fitted. Though as her accountant he was second to none, he was forever ribbing her about what he called her “male instinct” in the world of business.
“It’s a lousy joke,” Larry muttered. To Jordanna he seemed more threatened than angry at her presence.
Not so Donald. Anger punctuated his every word,though his attention jumped from one to the other of his friends in search of support. “More than that. It’s impossible! This was supposed to be a fun week with the guys. Totally uninhibited. There’s no way we can have that with her along.”
Jordanna’s lips quirked at the corners. “Don’t let me stop you. You can be as uninhibited as you want. I’ve seen a lot in my time. You won’t shock me.”
Donald ignored her. “What in the hell did Craig have in mind?”
For the first time since announcing his name, John spoke up. His voice was quiet, his manner philosophical. “Maybe he wanted to knock a hole in the last bastion of male chauvinism. You know how he’s always after us.” His pensive gaze slid to Jordanna. “Jordanna Kirkland … as in Willow Enterprises?”
Time reversed itself. It was as though she were once more standing before the skeptical bank board that would decide whether to grant her that crucial loan to bolster her fledgling business. As she’d done then, she now donned her most serene and confident expression. “That’s right.”
“You’re its president?” John queried.
“And founder,” she added, her pride present if understated.
Donald cursed, but he had the grace to do it softly. There his civility ended. “So she’s the one he’s been raving about all this time?” When John nodded, he scowled. “Then the joke’s on us. Man, how could he do this?”
“Must be his warped sense of humor,” Bill countered, looking as disgusted as his friend.
“Kind of funny, when you think of it,” John mused, only to draw three irate glances. He shrugged and held up a hand in self-defense. “Just kidding, guys. Just kidding.”
“But what are we going to do about it?” Larry asked.
“She can’t come, that’s all there is to it,” Donald barked.
Bill seconded the motion.
John had the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
By this time Jordanna was incensed. “What do you mean, she can’t come?” she demanded. “She’s here, in case you hadn’t noticed. She’s traveled six hours to get here, not to mention the time it took to make arrangements to be out of the office for the week. She’s reimbursed Craig for the money he chipped in with you guys and she has her gear packed, and—” her eyes stopped flashing long enough to eye the foursome solemnly “—she’s probably in far better shape for this hike than any of you.”
Bill gave her the once-over, very slowly, then raised a brow and drawled, “Wouldn’t surprise me in the least.” His eyes narrowed. “But you have to wonder why a woman would want to go off into the woods with five men.”
Jordanna didn’t flinch. “You’re being offensive,” she stated quietly, then turned her head toward their guide for the first time since the fray had begun. And for the first time, she felt a true surge of anxiety. The four other men didn’t daunt her in the least. For the past ten years, she’d fought their type. Though self-centered, they were predictable; though unpleasant, relatively harmless. Lance Clayes was something else. He was the link to a past she’d just as soon forget.
The way he was staring at her didn’t help. She saw what he saw, fragments of those days of glory. And she saw something more. In the instant before he shuttered his gaze, she saw curiosity, perhaps a touch of respect, but also an undeniable flicker of heat. It unsettled her as the men’s outward hostility had not done.
Slowly Patrick straightened, his dark brown eyes now harder as they held Jordanna’s. “You’re determined to come?”
“Do you know what you’re getting in for?”
“I’ve read the trip description.”
“And you think you can keep up?”
“I know I can.”
“Have you ever backpacked before?”
Taking a calculated risk, she tipped her head toward the others. “Have they?”
The silence from the four was answer aplenty. If they’d been experienced backpackers, they would no more have hired a guide than have chosen to wear spanking new hiking boots. Not that hers were any more broken in, but they were softer, a gentle offshoot of the traditional heavy leather clods, more sneaker than boot. Indeed, part of her mission was to test their wearability; they wouldn’t hit the market for another four months.
Patrick ran his tongue around the inside of his cheek, carefully choosing his words. “I was told you were all beginners,” he said, shifting his gaze to the men.
Jordanna answered with a self-confidence none of the others could muster. “We are.” She’d learned early on that being forthright about her weaknesses enhanced her strengths. “But we’re determined.” She ignored four scathing looks. “And ready to go.” Innocently she scanned the faces of the men, then spoke with mock sweetness. “We were to be off by one, weren’t we?”
“Yeah,” Bill grumbled, turning to lift his pack.
“Hold on,” Patrick cautioned as he loped off toward the Jeep parked near the other cars on the fringe of the campground. “I’ve got the supplies here,” he called over his shoulder. “We’ll have todivvy them up.” With a minimum of effort he hauled first his own pack, then three open cartons filled with food and equipment from the back of the Jeep. “Bring your packs over. It’ll be easier.”
The five did as told, then watched him apportion supplies among six packs. It was with mild dismay that Jordanna watched the proceedings, praying that she’d have enough room in her pack for everything he gave her. She’d followed Craig’s instructions to the letter, had even rushed out and bought as many books as she could find on backpacking, several of which had included step-by-step guides for filling a frame pack. Three times she’d loaded and unloaded the nylon-duck bag that sat so innocently atop its aluminum frame; each successive time the bag had looked less innocent. How something so roomy when empty could hold so little when filled was beyond her. But she’d persevered, discarding an additional item or two of clothing with each round of packing, until she’d finally found the right combination.
Mercifully, she’d had no trouble placing numerous bags of freeze-dried food in the top of her pack, or stuffing other goodies into side pockets. There were raisins, nuts, freeze-dried coffee and Tang, each carefully packaged in plastic bags for a minimum of bulk and weight. The latter was crucial. When every compartment was securely closed, and her sleeping bag and Ensolite pad rolled and fastened at the top of the frame, she had a substantial load to challenge her fitness
For a second too long she eyed the pack. “Problems, Jordanna?” Bill goaded. “Look too heavy?”
“I can handle it,” she answered calmly.
Donald joined his friend and ally. “You’re sure?” He shook his head, his mien patronizing, to say the least. “You can change your mind now before we getgoing. Once we’re on the trail it won’t be so easy. It’d be unfair to ask one of us to walk all the way back here with you.”
Jordanna simply smiled. “We’ll see who tires when,” she said softly, then turned to her pack and contemplated the simplest way to put it on. The problem was taken out of her hands when Patrick easily lifted it and held it out. Turning, she slipped her arms through the straps, then, head down, fumbled with the hip belt. When she straightened, he was before her to adjust the shoulder straps.
Given the silence among the rest of the men, she wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or annoyed. Patrick’s assistance did nothing either for her own peace of mind or for the image of competence she was trying to project. In a way it was patronizing. Yet when she met his gaze there was neither smugness nor any semblance of a leer. Rather there was a dark intensity, a hardness reminiscent of the Lance Clayes of old. A muscle jumped in his jaw. Underdog or not, he was a man of determination.
“You can manage, can’t you?” he asked quietly enough to spare her embarrassment, yet firmly enough to suggest his own doubt.
Jordanna was only marginally aware that the others had begun to don their packs. Her attention was riveted to Patrick. “Of course I can manage,” she said, wondering why her voice didn’t sound as firm as her conviction.
“The pack’s heavy.”
“We’ll be going a long way, some of it over rough terrain.”
“I’ve been running better than thirty miles a week for the past four years.”
He showed no sign of being impressed, but simply continued to stare at her, into her, through her.
“I can do it, Lance—”
“Pat. Even if his sense of humor is a little off, Craig would never have suggested I come if he hadn’t had faith in me.” She took a breath, then stated baldly, “His job’s at stake.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s my accountant.”
For several seconds longer, Patrick studied her. His expression grew strangely wary. “You’re a successful woman, Jordanna. Why are you here?”
“Can’t successful women go on backpacking trips?” she countered, trying to make light of his query and the very powerful presence behind it.
“Sure they can,” he asserted softly. “More often, though, they choose a week of leisure at one resort or another.” His gaze clouded. “It’s odd. Jordanna Kirkland. Peter’s wife—”
“Peter’s ex-wife,” she corrected in a half whisper. “We’ve been divorced for nearly ten years. Our paths rarely cross. And who I was then has no bearing whatsoever on my presence here today.”
He considered her quiet vehemence for an instant before silently turning away. Perplexed, Jordanna watched him hoist his own pack to his back. She sensed there would be far more to say about the past before the five days were done, and she wondered if she would be wise to turn back while she could. Patrick’s presence shook her; she felt oddly unbalanced. If only she had an inkling as to the thoughts running through his mind …
Then she caught herself and brought her chin up. On principle alone she was determined to see the week through. She had decided to come; she had spent the past thirty-six hours making arrangements. And neither four reluctant men nor one Patrick Clayes was going to stop her.
Standing idly, waiting for the others to adjust their packs, she surveyed the surroundings only her peripheral vision had previously absorbed. In the parking area stood just four vehicles, two for the four buddies, Patrick’s Jeep and her own rented Chevy. It seemed they’d have the woods to themselves—not surprising given the fact that it was early November. The foliage seekers had long since retreated to the warmth of their homes for the winter.
Though only partially bare, the trees wore their remaining leaves like shabby cloaks shedding threads here and there in the afternoon breeze. Beyond, the evergreens stood tall and grand in anticipation of their coming days of supremacy over those whose beauty was more ephemeral.
Two trails led into the woods from the parking area. Having studied the trip description long hours into the night, Jordanna knew they’d be taking the Basin Trail and making a large, rugged loop covering nearly twenty-two miles before returning on the Wild River Trail.
“Okay, listen a minute,” Patrick began, gathering them all around for preliminary instructions. “First off, we travel as a group. The trails are well marked and hard to miss, but I don’t want to risk losing any of you. We’ll stay on the beaten path. No bushwhacking. Zero-impact hiking is what it’s all about. When we disband Friday night, there should be no sign whatsoever that we’ve ever been here. Side trips through the brush will only destroy the natural beauty of the place. None of us want to do that,” he stated positively as he looked from one to another of his charges. To Jordanna’s relief, his gaze touched her but briefly.
“Our walking time this afternoon will be roughly two hours, though with stops here and there weprobably won’t reach the Blue Brook shelter until dinnertime. It’s a perfect walk for beginners. But—” he paused, a warning look on his face “—if anyone has trouble, any trouble, I want you to yell. If your pack is killing you, it might need a simple adjustment. Same with your boots. At the first sign of blisters, we stop to apply moleskin. At the first problem with a knee or an ankle, we put on an Ace bandage. Since none of you have backpacked before, there are bound to be aches and pains, but—within limits—I want you to speak up. This is a pleasure trip. We don’t need martyrs. We’re not looking for heroes. A problem dealt with early on can be easily handled. Down the road it may be a little harder. Understood?” He cast a glance from one intent face to another. When each had nodded, he eased up. “Any questions?”
Jordanna had a million questions. Where do we sleep? How do we cook? What if it rains? Will there be bears? But, like the others, she shook her head, confident that the answers would be forthcoming in time.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I’ll lead the way. John, you take up the rear. We’ll switch around once you all get the hang of it.”
Without further ado, he set off. Jordanna watched his retreating form, admiring the way his gear seemed an extension of his body, wondering how long he’d been backpacking. Judging from the spring in his step, he loved it.
John’s quiet call drew her from her momentary preoccupation. With a start she realized the others were already on the trail. Flashing him a buoyant smile that she hoped would cover for her lag, she moved quickly ahead.
Though the air was brisk, it wasn’t cold. Havingchecked the long-range forecast, Jordanna knew that there were no major storms expected. Chills she could easily withstand; the clothes she wore were designed to be lightweight and warm. Snow, though, she could do without. She was no glutton for punishment.
The path was of crushed stone leading southward past several deserted campsites before entering deeper woods. She concentrated on walking steadily and shifted her pack once to a more comfortable position. She was grateful she hadn’t skimped in selecting her gear; her shoulder straps were well padded, her hip belt substantial enough to evenly distribute the load. Amazing what she’d learned about backpacking in such little time, she mused. She only hoped her cramming would pay off further along. Going to bed at 2:00 A.M. hadn’t been the smartest thing to do, particularly since she’d awoken at six to shower and dress and head out from New York. She would be tired tonight. But then, evenings on the trail were probably going to be quiet and early ones.
Few words were spoken as the six walked on, each seeming too awed by the silent splendor of the woods to shatter its effect. They had left all civilization behind. Even the path was now of packed earth strewn with leaves. Larry, the photographer of the group, paused to take pictures from time to time. When he stopped to adjust his pack, Patrick assisted him while the others rested, occasionally sipping from canteens or flexing cramped shoulders.
On the move once more, they came to a wetter area of ground, where a plank walkway had been constructed.
“Someone was thoughtful,” Larry observed.
“We’ll run across these from time to time,” Patrick explained, tapping his booted toe against thefirst of the planks. “But they’re not first and foremost for our benefit.”
“Then whose?” Bill asked irreverently.
“The earth’s,” Patrick answered. “Walkways like these retard soil erosion. Without them, some of the trails would be impassable, not to mention devoid of vegetation.” Without awaiting further comment, he went ahead. The others followed. What had been the symphonic rustling of dead leaves underfoot became a more percussive series of thuds as they progressed.
Head down now, Jordanna studied the planks, then the soggy ground to either side as her professional instinct went to work. She wondered how her hiking shoes would hold up on wet ground. Had Patrick’s words not rung fresh in her ear, she might have been tempted to step off into the muck. But his words had hit their mark, and besides, she was hemmed in front and rear by men who would delight in any slip she made. A soggy shoe was not the most auspicious adjunct to a hike. Perhaps at the end of the trip, she decided, when no great harm could be done, she’d experiment.
On dry ground once again, they climbed steadily along what Patrick announced to be Blue Brook until they reached a footbridge. There, at his direction, they lowered their packs for a rest. At first Jordanna was startled. They’d been walking for barely an hour. Only when she set her pack on the ground and straightened did she understand his motive. Though she thought herself in the best of shape, there seemed to be tiny muscles in her back that she’d never felt before. Stretching carefully, she eased down onto a nearby rock to savor the sight of the gurgling brook below.
The men talked among themselves. She sat apart, perfectly comfortable with the distance. Solitude was a treat for her, given the number of people whorushed in and out of her working life. If the others left her to her own musings during the trek, she wouldn’t mind in the least.
She looked up to find Patrick shading her from the sun.
“Fine,” she answered quickly, her gaze darting back to a gentle cascade splashing into a pool. “It’s really beautiful.”
His eyes followed hers. “It’s just the beginning. This season is the best. Minimum people, maximum nature.”
Something in his tone said that he appreciated solitude as she did. Looking up, she studied the rugged planes of his face. He was unfairly handsome; time had served him well. “Do you—” she swallowed involuntarily and began again “—do you do this often?”
He continued to stand beside her, legs braced wide. His dark hiking pants were well worn and fitted him comfortably. She sensed pure muscle beneath. “Backpacking? Whenever I can.”
“Guiding,” she corrected, tutoring her thoughts away from his thighs. She wondered if he earned his living as an outdoorsman. Scanning her memory, she couldn’t recall having heard about him in recent years. But then, she realized, the mind did strange things. For years she’d blotted out anything and everything to do with football. She might have seen something in the paper and never taken it in.
Eyes trained upstream, he didn’t spare her a glance. “Nah. I only take groups out once or twice a year, usually in late fall or early spring. When I go myself, it’s into more remote areas, ones I’ve never seen before.”
“You’re an explorer then?”
“Mmm.” As though loath to say more, he abruptlyturned and wandered to a nearby boulder. Lithely hiking himself upon it he wrapped his arms around his knees to enjoy the scene a while longer.
Staring after him, Jordanna wondered just what path he had taken in life. His playing days were over; forty-year-old quarterbacks were not exactly in demand. If he’d turned to coaching, he’d hardly have been able to take off for a week at the height of the season. On the other hand, he might well have entered broadcasting, where his presence on the weekend would suffice. He was eloquent; his initial speech to the group had proved that. And if the private type, he was hardly shy. Yet in the old days he had avoided the press. Peter had been the one to court them with every bit of charm he could manage, and that was considerable, she remembered with a scowl.
But she didn’t want to think of Peter. Or Lance. Or the old days.
With a deep breath she lowered her gaze. Her fingers idly slid through the dried brush by her side, but the startling image in her mind’s eye was of a softer, more vibrant brush, that of the dark hair peeping through the open neck of Patrick’s shirt as she’d seen it moments before. Stunned, she frowned, then reached for a dead leaf and crushed it along with the unbidden image. Refocusing on the enchantment of the stream, she let her mind trip pleasantly until, at length, Patrick hopped down from his perch and retrieved his pack in silent example to the others. With the wave of his hand, they were off again.
Bathed in the relief of having donned her pack alone, Jordanna felt fresh of mind and decidedly confident. Eyes alert, she took in everything, from the pines swaying rhythmically above to the solid firs more stoically enduring the intrusion of humanity.The cliffs that banked the far side of the stream were granite slabs slicing neatly into the water, where, over ages, they were gentled by the crystal-clear flow.
When the path took a turn upward, her legs were tested for the first time. She welcomed the exertion, enjoying the stretch as she always did in her early morning warm-ups. She found something intrinsically refreshing in the reminder that her body was far more than a machine to be taken for granted. Being well oiled took work. She liked testing her limits and even now lengthened her stride until she clearly felt the muscles of her thighs and calves. This appreciation of the physical was but one of the ways Willow Enterprises had benefited from its founder.
As if in reminder, she touched her cheek, then reached back into a lower side pocket of her pack for a small tube of cream. Makeup was her specialty; indeed, cosmetics for the sports-minded woman had been the first order of business after Willow Enterprises’ founding. Its product line was extensive, and though it included the colorful creams and shadows desired by the fashion-conscious woman, its pride was a more practical line of moisturizing agents. The dab of cream now in her palm was one of these. She smoothed it across the backs of her hands and around her fingers, then applied the excess to her cheeks and chin in a motion that might have been a simple soothing of flesh had any of the men noticed. Five days in the wilds without benefit of other makeup would put the cream to the test, as would the sun, even weak as it was, its protective qualities.
Without missing a step, she comfortably kept her place in the casual line, breathing deeply of the scent of fall. Clusters of birches, their yellow leaves now pale and withering, had sprung up to share the forest with beeches and firs. High above, the cry of migrating geese echoed amid the breeze.
“You look more spring than fall,” John commented, startling her as he drew abreast of her.
She glanced down at her outfit, a stylish, lightly padded jacket cuffed at the waist and wrists, with matching pants that tapered, then zippered at the ankles. She was lime green from collar to heel.
With a soft chuckle, she concurred. “It was a choice of this, bright yellow, soft pink or lavender. Somehow I thought the green would blend better with the woods.”
“Isn’t that a jogging suit?”
“Pretty much so, though we’re marketing it as an all-purpose sports outfit. The principles are the same. Loose and light but insulating. Actually, this jacket is warmer than a regular running shell. I’m really comfortable.” She looked far more so than any of the men, she admitted to herself with a certain amount of smugness. Their hiking jackets and pants were a sight heavier. Only Patrick with his anorak looked fully at ease.
“Not bad,” John decided, then fell back several steps once more.
Jordanna did feel comfortable, surprisingly so. She’d packed a heavy wool sweater, but she was counting on multiple layers of lighter coverings to keep her warm. Walking was one thing; despite the growing chill in the air as the afternoon wore on and the sun paled and dipped, she actually felt tiny trickles of perspiration on her back beneath her pack. When the day’s walk was done and they sat idle, ah, that would be a different matter.
“How’s it going back there?” Patrick called from the front of the line. Three other heads swiveled around with his.
“Just fine,” Jordanna assured them all with a smile.
“Blisters?” Donald suggested.
“Sore shoulders?” Bill hinted.
She shook her head. “Sorry. Of course, if you guys are tired—”
Just as abruptly as they’d looked back, all three faced forward again and moved on. Only Patrick lingered for a moment’s study of her serene expression. Then he too whipped around and was off.
The remainder of the afternoon’s trek was pleasant and promising. Tuning out the men’s chatter, Jordanna derived from the outdoors the gratification she sought. The gentle sounds of the wild, the random rustle of tiny woodland creatures, the sweet scent of spruce—all were a soothing balm against the memory of the city’s bustle.
Her body held up well; she smiled to herself when, behind her, John began to grunt as the trail climbed toward a ridge. When at last they reached the shelter where they’d be spending the night, she silently congratulated herself on a job well done.
Half an hour later she began to wonder if her congratulations had been premature. It had been one thing when they were walking, single file for the most part, and she could easily lose herself to the joy of the forest. Stationary now, idly studying the three-sided log shelter, she let herself think for the first time of the awkwardness such closeness could present for a woman among five men.
They’d all lowered their packs and were relaxing while Patrick set up the camp stove to heat water for hot drinks before dinner. A stream just north of the shelter was their water supply; he’d shown them the way before he’d set to work. Now there was little to do but relax until the business of making dinner began.
As had happened during the afternoon, the men talked among themselves, ignoring Jordanna asmuch as possible. She studied them as she sat on the ground, then reached into her pack to change into a pair of soft moccasins. She wore two pairs of socks, a thin inner pair and an outer pair of thicker wool rag. Her feet were toasty, though she still felt chilled. Digging into the pack again, she pulled out a heavy wool cap and tugged it on over her stylishly cropped thick chestnut hair.
She had settled back once more when Patrick suddenly moved from the stove to his own pack. As she watched, he shed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt. She held her breath when the shirt came off to reveal corded shoulders and a lean torso. When he bent to fish into the pack, she was held by the play of his muscles, sinewed and firm, flexing grandly as he reached forward. Then he straightened and, as though physically touched by her gaze, slowly turned his head to look at her.
Jordanna felt a strange thudding in her chest. She tried to look away, but his dark eyes were locked to hers. Then, as slowly as he’d turned his head, he began to approach, stopping only when he was within arm’s reach of her. His long-sleeved, insulated shirt hung limply from his fingers. With catlike grace, he lowered himself to his haunches.
“Anything wrong?” he asked softly.
She quickly shook her head and dropped her eyes, not altogether prudently, to the soft pelt of fur on his chest. He had to be cold, yet he looked warm and alive, making her, to her dismay, feel the same.
She swallowed hard and nodded. But her eyes clung to his flesh. Her fingers curled into her palms.
“You’ll catch a chill,” she whispered.
“Are you worried?” he returned in that same soft voice. It held a touch of silk this time, its smoothness shimmering into her.
“You’re our leader,” she managed. “It wouldn’t help us if you got sick.”
“I’ve got an iron constitution.”
“So I see,” she said, then willed the words erased. The flush that rose to her cheeks had little to do with the brisk early-evening air.
Then she caught sight of a pale scar at his shoulder and, without thinking, reached up to touch it. Patrick’s flinch was involuntary but quickly controlled, and he held steady while her fingertip traced the mark.
He hesitated a minute. When he spoke, his silken tone held grains of sand. “Of sorts. Throwing a football for years can do great things to a man.”
He cleared his throat. “My last year. It made the decision to retire that much easier.” His voice was devoid of bitterness, indeed of all emotion, in keeping with his eyes.
She nodded dumbly, unaware that her finger remained on his skin until he grabbed her hand and pressed it to his flesh, inching it downward and around the muscled swell of his chest. His flesh was firm beneath her palm, his heartbeat much more steady than her own. When her fingertip grazed his tight nipple, her gaze shot to his.
“Have a thing for jocks?” he asked on a velvet note of mockery. When she grabbed her hand away, he readily released it.
“That was unnecessary,” she scolded unevenly.
He gave a one-shouldered shrug, then looked down and slid his arms onto the shirt. “It’d make sense. Peter … me … .”
“You’re almost as crude as Bill.”
His eyes met hers as he raised the shirt, lifted his arms and eased his head through its collar. Jordannasuspected the leisurely way he stretched into the knit was deliberate; extended, his body looked all the more powerful. His summer’s tan lingered attractively, only slightly paler beneath his arms amid the soft, dark hair that sprouted there.
“Bill doesn’t know you,” he said, his voice muffled through the shirt.
“Neither do you!” she exclaimed, indignation rising to displace all thoughts.
Without hurry, he smoothed the shirt down over his chest. “I know who you are.”
“So do I. I’m Jordanna Kirkland of Willow Enterprises. Period.”
His voice lowered and grew harder. “You’re also Peter Kirkland’s ex-wife.”
Jordanna studied him closely, her eyes growing sharp. “That bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“Why should it bother me?” he asked with a nonchalance that didn’t extend to the telltale flex of his jaw.
“Because you and Peter were rivals from the start. Because Peter bested you once too often.” Goaded by instinct, she barreled on. “Because maybe, just maybe, you find me attractive.”
His back suddenly ramrod straight, Patrick stared at her for a minute. Then, with neither admission nor denial, he rose and returned to his pack. As abruptly, Jordanna shifted to lie against her own, facing away from the rest. Throwing an arm across her eyes, she took a deep, calming breath and willed the image of a lean, sun-bronzed chest to self-destruct. When it refused to do so, she forced her mind back to New York, burying her thoughts in Willow Enterprises as she’d done now for ten long years.
She wasn’t sure if she dozed off, but when John came to offer her a cup of coffee, she opened her eyes with a start and sat up.
“Thanks,” she said, mustering a weak smile.
“A little. It’s been a long day.”
He hunkered down beside her to nurse his own hot brew. “You drove all the way from New York this morning?”
“Then you must be dead. We all came up yesterday and slept late this morning.”
She threw a cursory glance toward the others. “Have you families?”
“Three wives and seven kids among us. Bill’s a bachelor.”
“How do you know each other?”
“We were college friends.”
This time her smile was more natural. “You’re kidding! And you’ve stayed close all this time?”
“Actually, no. We went separate ways after graduation—Don to dental school, Bill to business school, Larry to work with his dad, Craig to get his CPA.”
She took a sip of her coffee, savoring its warmth as it slid down her throat. “And you?”
“I went on for a Ph.D. in math. I teach now.”
“Math,” she mused. “Interesting.” Then she frowned. “But how did you all get back together?”
“At our tenth reunion. We discovered we still had a lot in common, including an itch to get away for a week now and then.” He laughed softly. “The first time we tried it, we went as couples to the Caribbean. None of the wives got along, and Bill’s girl was an absolute pariah.”
Jordanna’s brows met in a sympathetic frown. “That’s a shame.”
“No, it was great.” When her frown deepened in confusion, he explained. “What we really wanted, the guys, I mean, was a week away from everything —wives, girlfriends and kids as well as work.So we started planning trips like these.” He rocked back on his heels and rolled his eyes toward the darkening sky. “We’ve sailed in the Bahamas, skied in the Rockies, eaten our way through a cruise, lost our share in Las Vegas.”
“But never backpacked before.”
“Nope. Never that.”
“How did you get hold of Patrick?”
“We didn’t. Larry’s travel agent did. She knew that he took groups out from time to time and gave him a call. That was last spring.”
“You booked him that early? You must all be football freaks.” Though she couldn’t quite hide the scorn in her voice, John attributed it to a typical female disdain for the sport. His response was indulgent.
“As a matter of fact, one of our trips did combine four days in L.A. with the Super Bowl.”
Her moan was not at all feigned. “Oh, God, then I’ll have to listen to shoptalk all week?”
“No. That was a stipulation of Patrick’s before he’d be our guide.”
“What do you mean?”
“He won’t discuss football. Apparently it’s a standard rule of his.” John grew more thoughtful. “I guess he’d had it by the time he retired.” He shook his head wistfully. “Man, he was some player.”
She scowled. “They didn’t call him Lance for nothing.”
“Mmm. He really shot that football down the field.” As though suddenly realizing that Jordanna knew more than she let on, John eyed her curiously. “You knew him. You know football.” When he paused, Jordanna held her breath. “Kirkland. You can’t be related to …?”
There seemed no point in prevarication. Patrick had said it twice now; it was simply a matter of time until the others overheard. “Peter. I was married tohim for three years. We’ve been divorced for ten.”
“No kidding?” A broad smile split his face. “Hey, that’s great! Not the divorce part, I mean. But the marriage. You must have been with him during the best of his playing years! That’s exciting!”
“Not really,” she stated. “As a matter of fact, it was pretty boring.”
“You couldn’t have thought so if you married him.”
She sighed and looked down. “You’re right. I didn’t at first. But I learned pretty quick how … ach, it’s not important.” She raised her eyes to focus on Patrick, who seemed busy around the stove. “We should give him a hand,” she mumbled, pushing herself to her feet. She had the fleeting image of jumping from the frying pan into the fire, but only knew that she had to let John know there were some things she wouldn’t discuss.
Patrick looked up at her approach, his expression blank. It was a help.
“What can I do?” she asked, rubbing her cold hands together.
“You can dig the beef stew out of your pack. This water’s nearly boiling.”
By the time she returned with the packets, the other men had gathered round to watch the proceedings.
“You mean those little things are gonna fill us?” Donald asked, eyeing Jordanna’s booty with dismay.
The small nearby lantern illumined Patrick’s smirk. “You’ll be filled. Believe me. I’ve allowed two portions for every man.”
“Then we can divide up Jordanna’s extra?” Bill asked, grinning at what he thought to be irresistible cleverness.
“Not on your life,” Jordanna responded. “I’m eating.”
“You’ll get fat,” Larry cautioned.
“Working as hard as you guys? No way.”
Bill turned to Donald. “I think she should do the cooking. Woman’s work and all.”
“No wonder you’re not married, Bill,” Jordanna scoffed. “No woman in this day and age will have you.”
Larry gave half a guffaw, then gulped when Bill scowled at him.
Patrick held up a hand. “Children. Please. Let’s try to restrain ourselves. Everyone chips in when it comes to cooking. John and Donald, go on up to the stream and fill the extra pots with water. We’ll put them on to heat while we’re eating so we’ll have something to clean up with later. Bill, I think the pudding’s in your pack. I’ll need it in a minute. Larry, you’ve got the plates and utensils. Jordanna, come over here and make the stew.” He frowned. “And don’t look at me like I’m the devil incarnate. You cook tonight and you’re done for the week. Fair?”
The rebellion that was on the tip of her tongue instants before simply vanished. “Just tonight … then I’m done for the week?” she asked with a bargaining half smile.
“Uh-oh,” Donald groaned, “she’s a bra burner. The executive woman. She hates to cook.”
Donning her most beatific smile, Jordanna knelt beside Patrick. “You instruct. I’ll cook.”
That was precisely what she did. Dinner was surprisingly good and decidedly filling. Patrick was patient, if all business, which pleased her to no end. She’d begun to imagine that being near him for the week might be an ordeal above and beyond those memories she fought, but, during dinner at least, he treated her like one of the guys.
Later that night, well, that was something else.
THE FOREVER INSTINCT. Copyright © 1985 by Barbara Delinsky.