Colt determined that my hands were acceptable for the evening. They were still raw and the blisters were still open and tender, but they had dried out and were clean enough.
I settled myself back into the armchair and cracked the spine of my book in the middle so that it stayed open easily in one hand. Colt went back to uploading music onto my computer and continued playing songs with increasing randomness on the stereo system. One minute we were listening to a classy jazz number and the next, there was some outlaw country song twanging something about getting drunk and Mississippi.
I was absorbed somewhere around page eighty in my novel when the front door flew open. You know that knee-jerk reaction you get when you’re abruptly scared silly? Well, the back of my chair faced the doorway and the crashing bang that resulted when the front door hit the metal locker sent me scurrying into Colt. I spun and backpedaled so fast that I tripped over his outstretched legs and ended up sitting on his thighs.
Jace and Matt Bishop waltzed into the living room and their two shockingly similar faces split into identical grins.
“Well…” Matt drawled, “we didn’t mean to interrupt or anything.”
I felt my face flame. The reaction was made worse when I tried to jump from Colt’s lap and instead, he wrapped his forearms around my waist and tugged me properly into his lap.
He whispered into my hair, “Relax. Trust me, you’ll catch a lot less grief this way.”
I turned back to face the two other boys, hoping like hell my face wasn’t as red as it felt. Again I was struck by how gorgeous the Bishop boys were. Between Colt, Jace, and Matt, I felt like the ugly duckling in the room—definitely the shortest duckling if nothing else. One cabin really wasn’t enough space to hold all of them as each was over six-foot. Then I noticed the jug of amber liquid swinging from Jace’s hand.
“Pendleton!” Jace said, pumping his fist holding the bottle in the air. “Eighty-proof of the finest Canadian whiskey available! There wasn’t a party in a hundred miles to be found tonight so we figured we’d bring the celebration to you.”
“What are we celebrating?” Colt asked. The heat of his skin was palpable through two layers of denim and one of his palms rested lightly on my hip. I found myself hoping very much that he wasn’t about to throw both Bishops back out. Then again, my self control with Colt alone was teetering on the brink of being on par with my self control affected by alcohol.
“Being young,” said Matt matter-of-factly. “And it’s Saturday night so we’ll have something to repent for in the morning.”
“Where’s Drew?” I asked, remembering the nice and talkative cousin from the round party.
“Trying to get laid,” said his brother Matt. “So what do you think?”
Colt shifted beneath me so he could see my face. He looked at me questioning with both eyebrows raised.
“What do you think, bunny?”
I felt no hesitation, “Oh hell yeah.”
* * * * *
I can tell when I’ve had too much to drink when my lips go numb. All the blood rushes to my face and I swear, I can literally feel my IQ drop. Actually, that’s how I ended up with my lip pierced for a week. A couple of my girlfriends and I got hammered and I had one of them put a needle through it. I actually thought about keeping it until my father offered to help me remove it with pliers. We had been drinking vodka that night, and it came nowhere near the euphoric burn that whiskey inspires.
“Why are you with him, D?” Jace slurred right as the clock ticked over to eleven. Matt had gone to relieve himself in Colt’s bathroom and Colt in turn had stepped out the back door to do the same. He could have used mine and didn’t, but I was feeling way too buzzed myself to care.
“Jace, seriously, again?” I asked. This was the second time he’s brought it up tonight.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m just saying if he treats you bad, I’ll whoop his ass for you, ok?” He was beginning to have trouble standing up straight and I giggled, nearly choking on the last of my drink in the process. The twelve pack of soda we found in one of the cabinets hard run out pretty quickly so we’d swapped to drinking the Pendleton on its own over ice. The bottle lay forgotten and empty in the sink now.
Jace continued, “You change your mind ever and I’ll treat you right. Like a lady, ok?”
“Thanks, Jace,” I said. He really was a nice guy but he’d tried to get pretty touchy-feely after the sixth drink of so. Colt had probably been right about my life being easier if he ‘claimed’ me.
Colt and Matt wandered back in at about the same time. Honestly Matt did a little more in the way of crashing back in, pin-balling off the hallway. Colt was probably in the best shape of all of us even though he’d had at least twice as much as me. Actually all three boys had at least twice as much as me, but Bucks was still walking in a straight line and only revealed himself with a five-minute bout of hiccups.
“You know what we need?” said Colt suddenly. “A good swim.”
I stared at him like he’d lost his mind and said, “It’s freezing out there.”
Matt chimed in, “Adrienne, don’t be a kill-joy!”
Fifteen minutes later we crested the last rise to Mirror lake. Matt and Jace had wanted to take ATVs, but Colt and I had overruled them. It was only a half-mile walk anyway and the cold air did a fine job pulling a bit of sobriety back into the group.
Mirror Lake spread before us like gleaming black oil.
“Seriously?” I found myself saying again.
“We should race!” said Matt. “Everyone line up here and on three strip to underwear and run. Last one in buys the next twenty-rack. Except Adrienne, she’s the baby.”
“No matter,” I said and I don’t know if the alcohol or the freedom of summer inspired the challenge, “You guys are gonna watch my white ass from behind anyway.”
All three of them burst out laughing and considering how long each of their legs were, all my speed would have to be in undressing. A half moon shone in the void of trees above the lake. The darkness was penetrating and the silhouettes of the boys seemed to dance lithely in the blackness.
“Alright get ready,” called Colt. I was on the far left directly beside Colt with Jace and Matt to his left. I felt a surge of adrenaline and though with mounting glee about the look on my mother’s face if she had seen.
“On your mark…Get set…”
Colt spun and dropped a heavy shoulder into Jace causing him to collide roughly with his cousin and they both went down in a tangle of limbs and clothing.
“GO!” yelled Colt but I was already out of my shirt. He looked at me dumbstruck and began stripping clothing as fast as he could. I ripped my second leg free of the puddle of jeans on the sandy shore and bolted down the beach in my underwear and sports bra. My hair whipped at my face as I turned my head and watched as Colt gave chase. His tanned torso flexed and twisted as muscled arms pumped speed into his stride. Somewhere behind me I heard a triumphant yell as one of the cousins literally ripped his shirt in an effort to get out of it and then came barreling down the beach in turn.
I pounded my feet even harder and came within a hair’s breadth of the water when Colt slammed into me from behind. Both of us flew forward and he barrel rolled in the air so that we both came both on our backs with me on top of him.
I surfaced, sputtering and trying to scrape my sopping hair from my eyes. The frigid watch felt like slamming into a cement wall as all the air was forced from my lungs. Bare seconds later Matt and Jace hit the water, Matt slightly in the rear.
Colt laughed hysterically as I tried to climb out of the water. He was preventing my escape by gripping the back strap of my bra. Torn between delight and the onset of hypothermia, I fought to climb onto his shoulders to escape the lake. He used my own effort to throw me over his shoulder fireman-style before launching us both into the water again. I gasped on the second time up and socked him hard in the chest.
“Ow!” he said, laughing and rubbing the spot I’d punched, “What’d you hit me for?”
“You barreled into me first, ass.” I said also grinning.
“Yes, but I hit the water first,” he said with a self-satisfied grin plastered across his face.
We had drifted deeper into the lake and I splashed him in retaliation as Matt and Jace dunked one another in my peripheral vision. Colt grabbed my wrists and when I tried to kick him playfully he drug my body roughly against his, effectively blocking my struggle. I froze as the heat of his body reached me through the water. With his eyes fixed on mine, he released my wrists and slowly locked his arms behind the arch of my back.
His pupils were dilated in the dark and just the rim of those pale blue irises were visible. My heart hammered against my chest and I tried to tell myself that the goosebumps the covered every inch of flesh was a result of the cold.
The water had resolved the last of effects of the whiskey I was feeling remarkably clear-headed.
“Dude, what the hell is that.” Jace’s voice had dropped in pitch and something about the way he said it sent a chill down my spine. Colt and I broke apart as we turned to look in the direction Jace was pointing. Over the ridge we watched as a beam of light danced erratically in the sky.
Colt rose to his full height and headed back for the bank.
“That’s coming from the stables,” he said.
“There shouldn’t be anyone out this late though,” said Matt. “Especially that far out of Powder Ridge?”
“I know,” Colt responded. “Charlie told me before we left today that he was going to visit Adam in the hospital tonight.”
“Maybe someone just forgot something?” I suggested, but none of the boys were reacting well and the hair was starting to lift up on the back of my neck again.
“It’s probably nothing,” said Jace with a shrug that was too stiff, too forced.
A moment later a piercing scream rent the night. All four of us tore from the water and yanked clothing on. It had been muffled by the distance but the torment in the distinctly female voice was bloodcurdling.
“Matt, take Adrienne back! Jace, we’ve got to move now!” yelled Colt.
I grabbed viciously at his arm. “I’m coming too,” I nearly shrieked at him.
“Like hell,” he said shaking me off roughly.
“What if you need me!” I said. “Does a single one of you have any medical training?”
“Adrienne, look at me.” His tone was deadly serious. “You’ll never keep up through the woods and we can’t be looking for you too. Go home and wait for me to get back,” he said and then without a backward glance, he and Jace flung themselves from the path into the trees.
As both of the boys went tearing into the trees I fought to follow their retreating backs, but Matt caught hold of me. I tried to pry his fingers free but his grip was like iron.
“Adrienne, they’re right,” he said. “The trees are so thick and there’s a ravine you have to get around. You’ll never see it in the dark with how fast they’re moving. Trust me they know this strip and you’ll slow them down instead of being helpful.”
I kept struggling and only after he threatened to carry me over his shoulder, a very possible action on his part, did I finally consent to return to the cabin. Paranoia held on to me tightly, and I spent a good portion of the walk looking over my shoulder. In a thoughtful gesture, Matt finally took my hand for the last quarter mile and we walked together through the dark. The warm strength of his grip was comforting and my nerves gradually settled the closer we got to the cabin.
The front door was unlocked as we’d left it and we traipsed in single file. I went straight to the kitchen and put water on to boil for tea. I don’t know what it is about anxiety, sadness or any other emotion but while I was growing up, a hot drink was always step one of the solution. Matt called the police from Colt’s landline and after relaying the story including Jace and Colt’s dash over the ridge, he sat beside me and took his mug.
“What do you think that was?” I finally asked when the silence became to heavy.
Matt had been sitting with a hand propped under his chin, staring into space. He shook himself slightly and turned to face me forcing a crooked smile.
“Probably nothing,” he said.
“Bull shit,” I said. “The other two took off like the hell hounds were after them.”
A deep wrinkle appeared between his eyes making him look a lot older than he usually did at twenty-two. He rubbed his forehead making his eyebrows stand on end.
“Some of the girls in town last year,” he hesitated before continuing, “were finding nasty notes and getting sketchy phone calls. The problem disappeared after peak season and most of the staff went home. But the whole issue had everyone pretty on edge for a while.”
“How many people work here seasonally?”
“A least fifty I’d guess,” he said. “But the help and the tourists kind of come and go at the same time. And the locals are up and down the mountain all year too.”
My hackles rose again. I had been hoping he was about to suggest some kind of prank or even an animal attack or something. In my opinion, people were far more dangerous. I was scared for Colt and Jace.
The minutes ticked by feeling like hours and twice Matt tried to persuade me to go to sleep. I changed into sweats and found dry clothes for him in Colt’s room. I had never been in his room yet as he usually kept the door shut, but I was in and out in about a minute and didn’t snoop.
Finally, around one-thirty in the morning I heard the sound of footfalls on gravel. Matt had laid flat on his back on the couch and I had claimed my armchair, pretending to read. Both of us rushed for the door right as the handle turned. Colt’s lips were so pale that they were on the verge of turning blue, and Jace had a haunted look in his gaze that I instantly wished had never blemish his cheerful face. Both of them were shivering and still wet. I turned and put another large pot of water on as the two headed straight for Colt’s room for dry clothing. They returned just as I was scooping large spoonfuls of chocolate and powdered milk into four mugs.
Matt finally burst, “So what the hell happened?”
Colt collapsed into the arm chair where I had previously been sitting. Jace looked sharply from his cousin to me and back again, his meaning clear.
“Don’t even think about it,” I told him, putting force into my voice even as anxiety trembled down my spine. “You have to tell me.”
Jace and Colt exchanged looks before Colt said, “She’ll know eventually, everyone will.” Then he turned and began speaking, more to Matt than me.
“You know Alice, that little blond fifteen-year-old whose dad works as a guide during elk season?”
“The cute one?” asked Matt and then shrugged apologetically when I looked toward him.
“That one,” said Colt. “We found her locked in the tack room. Stupid girl was meeting a secret admirer or something like that.” He took a deep breath and sighed heavily with pain in his eyes. “Well whoever lured her there grabbed her from behind. That was the scream we heard and Jace and I weren’t fast enough. It probably took us ten or fifteen minutes to get over the ridge—we kept hitting deadfall and thick brush. He held her by the neck and raped her right there in the in the middle of the barn.”
Jace flinched abruptly and then scrubbed his hands over his face.
“The police got there just before we found the bolt cutters and got her out.” Colt continued, “Little thing had blood all down her legs and striped bruises on her throat. Would barely say a word so that much was all we could get out of her. The cops had a lot of questions and then one of them took her down the mountain to the hospital. Said she’ll probably go live with her mom again out-of-state after she’s cleared.”
I felt like someone had filled my mouth with acid and then glued it shut. I wasn’t much older than her, but fifteen sounded like a baby.
“That damn beast of a horse nearly kicked his stall down when we came running up too,” said Colt. “Actually all of the horses were pitching a fit. I’m surprised you guys couldn’t hear that from here.”
“And what about the guy?” Matt asked.
“Gone,” said Colt. “Alice’s dad is probably getting to the hospital now. Poor bastard didn’t even know she was gone. She must have snuck out.”
Jace and I sat in horror-stricken silence as the other two tried to force hot liquid into themselves. Finally I stood and for no logical reason walked over the where Colt sat in the big chair and climbed into his lap. I felt marginally better, safer there. He put both arms around me and I felt the barest tremor in his chest.
I ducked my head and struggled against the tears that rolled silently down my cheeks. It could have been repulsion from such violence or pity for the young girl or a touch of fear, but even as someone who rarely cries alone let alone in company, I couldn’t help it.
For several minutes we all just sat there. Jace radiated murderous hostility while Matt continued to look more confused than anything. Colt just held on to me and rocked in the chair slightly.
Eventually Jace and Matt said they needed to return to their cabin, needed to find Drew and tell all of Jace’s sisters what had happened. They left in a hurry after that and I found myself alone with Colt again.
“Will she be alright?” I asked finally.
He sighed into my hair and there was a hitch in his breathing. “He did a job on her. She was wearing a dress—he could have just hiked it up but I think he wanted her terrified and hurt. He cut the whole thing off with a knife or something, sliced her back pretty badly in the process. That’s where all the blood came from. He also broke her jaw when she started yelling. Talking must have been agony and we only found her because Jace heard her crying inside the tack room. He must have tossed her in and locked it just minutes before we got there. She was still in shock at first—lying naked on the floor and just kind of whimpering.”
I noticed then that the sweatshirt Colt had been wearing earlier was gone. I also got the impression that he kept talking to get the scene out from behind his eyes.
“The room was locked?” I asked quietly.
“The padlock is always on the door to the tack room but usually no one bothers to lock it. Charlie has never had a problem before. The guy must have just slammed it shut and ran. We found the bolt cutters in another storage space in the back.”
Colt sighed again and I could feel anger begin to roll off him in steady waves. “She’ll be alright physically, but she’s going to be broken for a long while in other ways. Alice is a sweetheart—very innocent, and very naive but I still don’t know what she was thinking agreeing to meet this guy after dark.”
Colt’s muscles were locking up and sitting with him was beginning to feel like embracing a statue. I loosened his arms and unfolded myself from his lap before going to wash the mugs in the sink. I did it for the illusion of normalcy, as a means of keeping myself busy, and the hot water felt good even though the soap still stung.
“The police will find him,” said Colt from the chair as I was drying the final cup. “Either they will or we will.” There was steel in his tone and I was again grateful not to be living alone. He was still something of a stranger to me, but I was getting to know him quickly and trusted him instinctively. I didn’t particularly like the idea of him going after someone so violent and armed.
Sleep was difficult that night when each of us finally went to bed. I found myself tossing and turning—running through all that had happened in a time span that seemed much longer than eighteen hours. Eventually I think I slept, waking several times in the night before falling into a deep sleep about an hour before dawn.