Why in holy hell couldn’t people be dogs? Dogs were just better in every way. Loyal. Trainable. Incapable of conversation.
“Puck, sit.” Shep gave the gentle command to his golden retriever, careful not to communicate the agitation crawling through him like a kicked-over pile of fire ants. Obediently, Puck plopped down his haunches on the ground, but he whined up at Shep.
He knew. Puck always knew when Shep was starting to lose his cool. When he was edging toward overload.
Shep hunkered down in front of his dog, the prickle of mountain grass under his knees, and Puck settled his chin on his shoulder. The feel of his warm breath, his steady heartbeat, provided much-needed grounding.
Shep stared up at the wooden support tower above them silhouetted against the mountains of western North Carolina. His boss, the owner of Prime Climb Tours, had summoned him out here to the zip line course, yanking him away from his weekly check of the rock-climbing equipment. He often did that, pulled Shep from one task and assigned him another.
How many times had Shep tried to explain to Dan that such requests—okay, demands—degraded the quality of his work?
Shep took several chest-expanding breaths. It was okay. He would get back to the equipment. Back to the order of his day. As his brother Cash would say, this wasn’t nothin’ for a stepper. Shep didn’t always understand idioms, but he’d learned this one meant that he could stomp his way through whatever pile of shit he was facing.
Puck touched his nose to Shep’s neck, indicating he could feel the overload receding.
“What would I do without you?” He gave Puck a stroke down his back and stood. His dog would wait here until Shep returned.
He climbed seven staircases up the zip line tower to find the group of middle schoolers had already zipped across, leaving Dan “The Man” Cargill alone on the platform. He was just clipping his harness into the trolley—the metal housing of wheels that slid along the cable—with two carabiners, one that would actually carry his weight and another gimmicky one that he carried everywhere. Shep told him, “Dan, I can’t pick up this group. I’m in the middle of—”
“That’s not why I asked you out here.” Strangely, Dan’s voice was full of excitement instead of the frustration it usually held when he was talking to Shep. “You’re never gonna believe this. I got a call from some muckety-mucks out in California. They’re filming Do or Die right here in North Carolina, and they want Prime Climb to supply the local guide.”
“Okay.” What that had to do with him, he hadn’t a single clue.
“Apparently, their other setup got canceled, so we’re second choice, but who the hell cares?”
“Congratulations.” He was fairly certain that was an appropriate response to Dan’s enthusiasm. “Have a great time with that.”
“Uh…” Dan cleared his throat. “They had a couple of special requests. After studying the Prime Climb website, they requested you as their guide.”
“No thank you,” Shep said and turned to climb back down the tower.
Dan caught him by the shirt. Dammit, he knew Shep hated that. Knew Shep didn’t like to be randomly touched.
“I wasn’t asking, Kingston.” A tight smile stretched across Dan’s moon-pie face. “You will guide the group from Do or Die.”
“Why?” Unable to look at Dan’s lopsided face a second longer, Shep averted his gaze, hoping the view of the mountains would soothe him as it usually did. Shortleaf and pitch pines spiked toward the sky and hardy oaks hugged the hills. They seemed to guard and protect the Nantahala National Forest and the Great Smoky Mountains. That was where Shep wanted to be right now, not standing here talking to his boss.
“Because they asked for you.”
“Why did they ask for me?”
Dan mumbled something.
“What did you say?”
His boss’s lip curled, and he released his grip on Shep’s shirt. “Apparently, they looked at your picture on the Prime Climb website, and you have the so-called image they’re looking for in a local guide. I offered to lead the group, but they said something about wanting a guide in his prime. Whatever the hell that means. This is what prime looks like.” He raised his arms and flexed his biceps, apparently ignoring the quarter inch of fat that had developed around the muscles.
“Why do they need someone local?” Dread was sweeping over Shep, the way it did when he was being backed into any kind of corner. He shoved his hand into the pocket of his climbing shorts and fingered the length of paracord he was never without. “Don’t they have that survivalist guy? Tiger or Bear or something?”
He knew damn well the TV show host’s name was Buffalo Moody.
“They contract with a local guide on every trip.”
“It’s not like they’re climbing K2 or something.” He tied a quick slip knot with the cord inside the pocket, but that didn’t soothe him one damn bit. A bowline didn’t make him feel much better.
“You know better than anyone, Kingston, that a bunch of urban softies have no business stumbling around in the mountains by themselves. They’d get themselves killed for sure. Besides it’s only four days, and the competitors are celebrities. Who wouldn’t want to rub elbows with famous people?”
Shep wouldn’t. Four days babysitting a group of snotty celebrities sounded like a level of hell even Dante never imagined. “It’s a stupid show.” Something like Survivor meets Bear Grylls meets Mean Girls. Three famous people competed with one another for airtime and bragging rights.
“Maybe, but it’s the hottest reality show on TV right now, and the producers have promised Prime Climb Tours a mountain of cash. And it’s like they say, you can’t buy this kind of publicity.”
“Then send Celia.” Not only was she a more than adequate guide, Celia actually liked people. She was constantly smiling at and chatting with the clients who booked tours through Prime Climb. Unlike Shep, who wished their customers were into silent retreat type adventures.
Dan gave a wait-just-a-damn-minute wave to the guide standing on the opposite platforms with ten kids who were, if the jostling and joking was any indication, getting restless. “They don’t want Celia. They want you.”
WWMD? What would Maggie—his big sister, law enforcement professional, and all-around badass—do?
She would probably stare down Dan, stating one more time in a cold voice that she would not guide a group of pansy-asses on a stupid trek in front of a TV camera. And Dan would probably shit his pants.
The right side of Shep’s mouth lifted.
But then again, Maggie was the sheriff and rarely had to do what someone else told her to do.
“Let me put it this way,” Dan said. “You guide this group and I’ll give you a bonus from the fee they pay me. You decline this opportunity, and you’ll be looking for another job.”
That brought Shep around. Rarely did he look into other people’s eyes, but right now he needed any and every clue to determine if Dan was bluffing. Was bullshitting him. “Say that again.”
“You heard it the first time. Do this, and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t, and you can kiss your paycheck good-bye.”
Realistically, the check itself didn’t mean that much to Shep. He had a pretty simple life. Little cabin in the woods, a truck, and a dog.
“But you know I’m your final stop around here, Shep. No one else wants to work with you.”
Fuck Dan for being right. Shep had either worked for or been rejected by every other outdoor outfitter and adventure company in this part of the state. Those who’d hired him in the past manufactured reasons to strike him from the payroll within a few weeks. The others hadn’t bothered to hire him in the first place. They’d either heard about him through the grapevine or he’d blown the interview.
And why the hell did anyone need to sit down and interview a wilderness guide? If he or she was physically fit, exhibited appropriate skills and certifications, that was what mattered most. But no, everyone wanted their employees to say “I love people,” “I’m a people person,” or some other kumbaya crap.
Potential employers would rather hear a lie than the truth. When they asked Shep that question, he made it clear that people were something he tolerated because that was the only way he could get paid to do the things he loved. Hiking, climbing, rafting, zip-lining. He did it all.
And he did it damn well.
In huge part due to the way he was raised, a little differently from his four brothers and sisters.
When he was ten, his parents decided to take him out of public school. Other kids didn’t like him, many teachers didn’t understand him, and a so-called normal education didn’t fit him.
So he spent the rest of his childhood being what they now called free-range. Like a chicken.
His dad had called it life.
Shep had once read a book that labeled it unschooling.
It all meant the same thing—that he’d been allowed to explore the things that interested him.
Guiding for an idiotic TV show did not interest him.
But maintaining his independent lifestyle did. And if he lost his job, he wouldn’t be able to keep the news from his family. They would rally behind him, try to lift him up. Maybe even badger him into moving back in with his mom and dad.
Shep liked being able to live his life on his own. He’d discovered it was much easier than sharing a space with others, even people who claimed to love him.
“Fine,” he finally said, and even he could hear the grudging tone of his own voice. “But you better tell the TV people that we do things my way. If they have a problem with that, then they can go fuc—”
“How ’bout I handle that?” Dan cut him off. “And I’ll make it clear that you’re the expert in these mountains.”
“It will take me at least a week to check and double-check all my equipment.” On a tour like this, he would need more than just day hike basics. “So when does this damn thing start?”
Dan stepped off the platform as he said, “Tomorrow morning.”
It was drizzling in Southern California, making the trail she was running on a mini-mudslide. And because Joss was staring up at the sky, paying more attention to the rain, a magic weather unicorn, than she was to where she was going, her foot slipped, and she went down on one knee.
The fire road near her home in the Santa Monica Mountains was littered with sharp stones, and one made a painful acquaintance with her kneecap.
Before she could get her feet under her again, it began to rain harder. Maybe she’d somehow caused the skies to spit. After all, the sun had seemed dimmer ever since…
Since she’d abandoned and betrayed the people she loved most in this world.
Maybe the only three people in the world who loved her.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. Everyone loved Joss Wynter. After all, she’d filled arenas full of screaming rock fans.
But her band—Chris, Winston, and Miguel. They knew and loved the real her.
When she and the rest of Scarlet Glitterati had hit the big-time music scene nine years ago, Joss had been dissected by every industry publication, featured on every blog, and interviewed on every major media outlet.
They described her as a fusion of the best of female artists. The vulnerable songwriting of Joni Mitchell. The sexy charisma of Debbie Harry. The velvety power of Stevie Nicks. The playful cheekiness of Katy Perry.
So Joss was either one-of-a-kind or some kind of Franken-musician.
But the fearlessness of Tina Turner? That, she could no longer lay claim to.
She pushed herself up from the ground and resumed her run, trying to ignore the two men following at a respectful distance. They knew better than to offer help.
Joss didn’t want help. Didn’t deserve help.
And after Celebrity Scoop published an article about how she’d gone behind her bandmates’ backs to negotiate the terms for a solo career, the public had turned on her. The tabloids and social media had been full of so-called news about how she’d put the band on a helicopter while she’d stayed safely on the ground in a billion-dollar multimedia company’s limo.
Headlines like Superstar Singer Guilty of Band Betrayal, Joss Clinches Solo Career by Killing Off Band, and Scarlet Glitterati Blood on Wynter’s Hands were accompanied by stories of how Joss had hired the private helicopter that had crashed minutes after takeoff.
Now, people who’d once adored her made death threats.
The applause she’d once reveled in had turned to apathy at best, anger at worst.
As she approached her house, she slowed to a walk, barely registering the incredible Topanga retreat she owned. At over six thousand square feet, it had retractable glass walls that opened to a pool and breath-stealing views of the canyon. When was the last time she’d pushed back those walls?
She couldn’t remember, and she avoided them today, entering the house through the garage instead. Her home was no longer a respite. It felt like a prison of her own making.
In the past, when Joss felt alone or sad or just misunderstood, she’d reached for her guitar. Now, Fiona—her favorite old acoustic with a scarred body and abused tuning keys—sat propped in the corner of her living room.
After the accident, she’d shoved the guitar deep into the coat closet, but the next morning, Fiona was back in the great room. As if Fiona had opened the closet door and strolled out by herself just to mock Joss. The incident shook her, but when she mentioned it to Jerry, her manager had gently reminded her that she was prone to sleepwalking when she was under stress.
And she’d been suffocating under ten tons of the stuff for three months now.
She couldn’t stand to look at her much-loved guitar for another minute. The jittery feeling that constantly crawled under her skin threatened to burst out. To finally eat her up. She needed… something.
So she reached for the phone and punched speed dial to Jerry. He answered before the second ring as he always did with her.
“Hey, Jojo,” he said, his voice booming with a bit too much cheer, like he thought he could pour the emotion into her and fill her up. “I was just thinking about you.”
“I can’t stay in this house anymore. I need… I need something. I can’t breathe.” Even when she was outside, the air pressed in on her, maliciously compressing her lungs.
“I thought we agreed you would lay low for a few more weeks. Long enough for some other shit to hit the fan and for people to forget all the caca in your life.”
“I’ll wear a disguise. Pretend I’m covering Scarlet Glitterati songs.” She could hear the desperation in her voice even though her hands were shaking and her stomach was heaving at the thought of touching that damn guitar. “I will sit on a stool in some shithole bar out in the Valley. I’ll do anything to stop the”—Silence. Grief. Guilt. —“boredom.”
Jerry sighed. “Maybe you need more appointments with Dr. Whitmore.”
“If my therapist comes here any more often, the rags will start the rumor that I’m sleeping with her. And although I have no problem with nonbinary relationships, and she’s an attractive woman, that wouldn’t do a damn thing to help this situation.”
“Neither would you wandering around Los Angeles in the state you’re in.”
“I am dying.” She was. Just as surely as… Shut it down.
“I did have a nibble of something, but you would hate it.”
“I’ll take it.” Joss’s heart lunged against her ribs. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it. Smaller venue is fine.” In fact, that would be best. Fewer people to witness any meltdown that might attack her on stage. Because if she wasn’t out there, wasn’t in front of people singing and making them love her, then she would no longer be anyone special.
Okay, TV would be forgiving. If she flubbed up, froze on stage, forgot the lyrics, they could just edit out any mistakes.
“Tell them yes.” Maybe her lungs were tight as she said it, but she couldn’t be in this house, alone with all the ghosts, any longer. “I don’t care if it’s an award show. Hell, I’ll even do something on American Idol or The Voice.” She could be a judge like Katy or Kelly. That was even better. Safer. She would be able to win her way back into the public’s hearts without singing a note. “When do they need me?”
“You’ll have to catch a flight at—”
Her heart did something inside her chest that should’ve been anatomically impossible. “No helicopters.” She’d sit in twelve hours of LA traffic hell if she had to.
“This show doesn’t film in LA, so you’ll be on a plane.”
A plane. Maybe she could do that. She’d known she would have to fly again at some point. Surely it would be easier to keep her cool inside a big, enclosed metal tube than inside of something the size of a bumblebee. A tiny insect that could fall out of the sky so easily.
“You’ll have to hop on a red-eye to the east coast, but if you’re serious about doing something, this is our best option. You could take a sleeping pill to get through it.”
East coast. New York. “You got me a spot on Jimmy Fallon?” Doing the Tonight Show would be tough, but Jimmy was known for being kind, for having a light touch when needed.
“Not exactly, Jojo. But I promise that if you do this show, do a good job and open up a little, people will come around, stop blaming you. Heck, if you work hard enough, you might even win the whole thing.”
“Win?” She paced back along the huge glass doors, purposefully avoiding the corner where her guitar sat. “Win what?”
“I’ll text you the airline ticket as soon as my assistant can book it.”
Foreboding smothered her, and she gripped her cell so hard that her knuckles ached. Why wasn’t Jerry telling her the name of the show? “Where am I flying?”
“Direct from LA to Charlotte, North Carolina. From there, we’ll have a driver take you out to a place called Steele Ridge.”
That… that sounded like a town with a population slightly smaller than New York City’s. “And then?”
“And then you’ll woo back your fans by winning the reality show Do or Die.”
Shep stood a good fifty feet from the chattering crowd gathered near Deadman’s Creek. Unfortunately, Dan had accidentally alerted half the damn state of North Carolina that Do or Die would begin filming today. Shep’s boss had been strutting around, bragging that he was solely responsible for snagging the attention of the show’s producer, and with every minute that passed, the waiting mob became louder and more impatient.
Shep didn’t need to absorb any of their restlessness or edgy excitement. This was a job to him. All this rah-rah crap was just that.
And it looked as if it was making Maggie’s life a bitch today. She had deputies posted all along the creek banks. So far, the worst that had happened was a jostling match gone wrong when Donny Preckwinkle caught an elbow to the eye.
Shep lifted his chin in the direction of the ambulance that was serving as a first aid station. His brother Cash was over there, smiling his Don Juan smile and treating a couple of cases of late season heatstroke. Since both patients were pretty girls in their early twenties, it was more likely they were actually suffering from firefighter fever. Cash had always been a female magnet.
Those two women would be disappointed when they discovered Cash was happily locked down these days. He might smile and flirt on occasion, but he loved Emmy McKay. So much that when they were together, the ferocity of their feelings made the air quiver with something Shep didn’t really understand.
Probably because he didn’t understand how to love another person. And Shep didn’t like to think about things he didn’t understand.
Beside him, Puck sensed his unease and leaned against his leg.
Stroking a hand over the golden retriever’s silky head, he said, “I know, buddy. I’m tired of waiting, too.”
He reached into his pocket for his length of cord and tied a series of knots—a barrel hitch, a double overhand, and a fisherman’s knot—to keep his cool. The original agreement was that the Do or Die people would arrive in Steele Ridge at noon. It was now 2:08 p.m.
For some reason Shep would never understand, many NTs—neurotypicals—had no concept of time. To him, being punctual was as natural as breathing. If he said noon, he meant noon. Not 11:59 or 12:01.
If this was the way the TV crew planned to operate during filming, Shep would be having a meeting with them. The holy-come-to-Jesus kind.
“What’re you frowning about?” Maggie posted up beside him, her eyes still scanning the crowd for any signs of trouble. “You going on overload?”
Shep grunted at her mention of the term his family used when he was coming close to hitting the wall. When he became so overstimulated or anxious that he had a hard time controlling all the quirks that made him different. Well, at least the ones that tended to really freak people out. Like listing aloud all the flora and fauna native to the state, body rocking, and knocking his head against hard stuff like the sweet gum tree behind him.
“I’m okay.” For now. “But I already know the trip with these people is going to be worse than I thought.”
“Mr. Optimism strikes again.” Maggie laughed and gave him a quick hip bump. “Maybe it’ll go better than you think. After all, these are famous folks. Maybe you’ll be forced to share your tent with a pretty actress.”
“I don’t like to share my space. You know that,” Shep stated. That had been one of his ex-wife’s many gripes about him. Shep liked his space—both physically and mentally. Amber had been forever trying to crawl into places with him. And it had made Shep feel as if he’d been shoehorned into a tiny teepee with a T. Rex.
“I was just kidding. I bet they all bring their own tents. Don’t you think, Way?” Maggie asked as their brother strolled up. Way was the middle Kingston sibling. He blew in and out of town for work and on his own whims. Maybe his years in the Marines had given him a taste for freedom.
“Tents? Have you ever watched Do or Die?” Way cut Maggie a sideways glance that Shep filtered through his file of facial recognition prompts. Most kids used flash cards to learn stuff like letters and multiplication. Shep’s dad had adopted them to try to teach him how to read other people’s expressions and body language.
But they were still like Swahili to him most of the time.
He thought Way’s side-eye at Maggie meant some kind of ridicule. “Mags, I am not a hundred percent sure, but I think Way is patronizing you.”
“I think you’re right.” But rather than take a shot back at Way, Maggie just shook her head and said, “No, I haven’t seen the show. I have better things to do on Wednesday nights than watch a bunch of celebrity city slickers whine about the state of their manicures after being forced to climb all the way out of their limos.”
“Jay takes a limo sometimes,” Shep said, thinking about his sister’s pro athlete boyfriend. “Does that affect his manicure?”
Maggie dropped her forehead into her palm and laughed. “I’m sorry. I was being sarcastic. Yes, Jay does ride in a limo sometimes. One of those pro football player perks. But so far as I know, he’s not into manicures.”
“Then I don’t understand…” Shep trailed off because sometimes a topic wasn’t worth going into. Sometimes he understood that he just wasn’t going to understand. So he asked Way, “Do you watch Do or Die?”
“I’ve caught it a time or two.” Way stuffed his hands into his pockets and looked away.
“Your neck is getting red, which I think means one of two things. You are uncomfortable with admitting you watch the show. Or you are lying. Or maybe you are aroused”—he glanced down at his brother’s crotch—“okay, it’s not that.”
“Jesus, Shep.” Way rubbed at the pink skin. “So I binge-watched the last season. Maggie, you gonna arrest me for that?”
“Last time I checked, questionable taste isn’t against the law.”
“Hey, sometimes the challenges—or what they call opportunities—are interesting,” Way said.
“So that’s what interests you.” Maggie’s smirk meant she was baiting their brother.
“Fine, so there are usually hot women on the show. And sometimes by the end, they’re…” He cast a quick look at Maggie.
To prepare for guiding the group, Shep had watched every Do or Die episode last night, so for once, he knew exactly where Way’s mind was. “What Way is trying to say is that even though the women are sometimes dirty and probably smelly, they tend to lose articles of clothing. In the Maui show, some actress was down to a thong and a lacy bra by the end of the competition.”
“She won, too,” Way said.
Maggie snorted. “I wonder why.”
“Hey. She was the last woman standing. She deserved to win.”
“Actually,” Shep said, “the comedian guy in that episode would have won if the thong girl hadn’t bent over while they were crossing that rope bridge. She shifted her center of gravity, and it threw him off-balance.”
“No, Shep,” his brother said. “I think her perfect ass cheeks were what affected his balance. And speaking of perfect, I heard a rumor that one of the contestants in this episode is Joss Wynter.”
“Who told you that?” Maggie asked.
“Ran into Dan the Man at Triple B last night.” Way pointed toward where Dan was, if his wild arm movements were any indication, regaling a group of women with a tall tale. “Couple of tequila shots and his lips got loose.”
Shep grunted. He’d known these celebrities would probably be challenging, but Joss Wynter? From what Riley—his sister and a big Scarlet Glitterati fan—said, the musician made Jennifer Lopez look low maintenance. “Riley told me that Joss Wynter owns over three hundred wigs. But if there are only three natural hair colors, why would someone need that much fake hair?”
“Two words for you. Hot and Sex.” Way grinned at him. “Can you imagine going to bed with a pink-tipped blond on Monday and then having a pixie redhead go down on you the next morning?”
“If you took two women to bed at the same time, you could easily have that,” Shep said. It was just logical.
“My God, you two are pigs,” Maggie scolded. “Dad would be ashamed to hear you talking that way.”
“Oh!” Understanding dawned in Shep’s brain. “I get it. It’s like that time Mom dyed her hair really blond and Dad chased her around the dining room table. I think her hair increased his sexual appetite.”
Way laughed and clapped Shep hard on the back. “And now, my man, you know the value of three hundred wigs.”
Murmurs rippled through the crowd, and Maggie turned on full cop mode again. Eyes scanning, missing nothing. “I’ll see you two Neanderthals later. Maybe when you’ve made it to the Stone Age.”
She stalked away but had only made it about twenty feet when the schwoop-schwoop-schwoop of rotors rumbled overhead. Shep spotted a helicopter off to the west over the treetops.
The crowd went quiet.
“That’s gotta be them,” Way said. “They rappel down ropes sometimes.”
“That is flying too low for a skydive.”
“Oh, hell. That’s not a… Do they have a…” Way sputtered, and Way never did something as wishy-washy as sputtering.
But when Shep spotted what was dangling below the helicopter, he totally understood, and it was all the proof he needed that these TV people were idiots. And that they didn’t give a damn about safety. He wanted to grab Puck’s leash, get in the truck, and drive directly home.
“Do you think the contestants have any kind of harnesses on?” Way asked.
Not that Shep could see. Sure, the bulky PFDs—personal flotation devices—they were wearing would help keep the three people inside the raft from drowning when they hit the water. But what was going to keep them from breaking their necks if they fell out of the raft from that height?
From the chop of the rotor blades and the breeze coming from the south, the inflatable raft was swinging round and round like a yoyo at the end of its string. A cameraman—who was in a harness—was leaning out of the helicopter to catch the action from above.
Shep scanned, looking for more people up there, but that was it. A cameraman and three idiot contestants. Buffalo Moody and the rest of his crew must already be somewhere on the ground.
What kind of decent guide would let his group dangle in the air while he had his feet safely on the earth? “That guy’s a douche, letting them swing up there alone.”
“They won’t be swinging long,” Way said. And as he said it, the ropes tethering the raft to the helicopter began to extend. Fucking fast.
And someone from up there screamed. Shep was already in motion, running toward the water, with Puck keeping pace. “Don’t do what I think you are going to do, you fuckers,” he yelled up at the helicopter.
Faces peered over the side of the raft. At least they’d had the good sense God gave a turnip and had settled their asses on the bottom of that inflatable boat. The helicopter bucked, sending the raft into an even wider, wilder circle.
Noise swelled from people on the ground—gasps, shouts, and a few encouraging hoots. When the raft was about twenty feet above the water, the ropes harnessing it to the helicopter completely disengaged.
The helicopter banked right and swooped over the crowd.
The raft plummeted down, down—
The sound of rubber hitting water and screams rolled over Shep and echoed off the mountains. He shoved his way through a cluster of young pine trees and made for the creek bank. This area of Deadman’s—more river than creek—was known for being a fast run when the water was high, and Steele Ridge and the surrounding area had received a decent amount of rain at the end of the summer.
Those stupid TV fuckers had dropped the raft less than thirty feet behind a class IV rapid. Good thing the contestants in the raft—two in front and one in the guide position—were at least wearing helmets and the PFDs.
As Shep watched the boat hurtle toward the churning water, the person on the front right gingerly dipped a paddle into the water. Big mistake. It was ripped away by the current and went whirling downstream.
“Shit! Someone do something!” a man yelled from the front left spot. “Or we’re all going to die.”
Shep cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered, “Paddle right!” If they could get closer to the left bank, they’d miss the killer drop between two massive rocks well known for pinning rafts and spitting out rafters.
He had to give the person in the back credit. He or she tried like hell to steer them to the left, but the guy in front was also digging deep on the left, sending them to the right. Unexperienced rafters didn’t always understand directional commands, and paddle right meant to paddle only on the right side of the raft.
They were headed directly for the boulders.
“You in the front, stop paddling and slide to the right side of the boat!” Shep yelled at the dude screwing up their direction. “You in the back, keep paddling!”
The rafter in the back followed his commands, but in combination with the flow of water, the movement almost pulled the person out of the boat. Whoever was in the back position was short.
“Hook your feet under the thwart—the inflated cross tube—in front of you!” he yelled. “Stay in the damn raft! Don’t fall out.”
To do as instructed, the competitor had to pull the paddle partially out of the water, and the movement just wasn’t enough to change the raft’s course. It slammed nose-first into the leftmost rock and went into a wild spin.
Hell, they were about to go over the rapid sideways. Hopefully, Moody had explained what to do if they fell out of the boat. To never, ever put your feet down and try to stand up. Look for an oar. Grab on and let someone drag your ass back in the boat.
But if no one was left in the boat…
Sure enough, the raft hit the hump of the rapid and the entire left side dipped sharply. The person who’d initially lost a paddle went sliding across with the force of gravity and body checked the other rafter in front. That was all it took for both of them to go over the side and disappear under the swirling water.
The only rafter remaining in the boat used the oar to push off the rocks and navigate clumsily through the passage. Once the raft was over the rapid, two heads popped out of the water. Limbs flailed and it was obvious they were both trying to fight the current. One head went back down. Damn.
Downstream, Dan was wading into the water, angling toward the spot where the rafters had been dumped into the water. His progress was slow, though, because he was also fighting the force of the rapids.
“Puck, stay,” Shep told his dog.
Then he ran upstream and executed a shallow dive. Slick as a seal, he turned on his back and let the water navigate him toward the rocks. He’d probably only get one chance at this, so he had to make it count. A few feet from the rocks, he flipped over and kicked his way underwater.
Sure enough, one of the rafters had a foot caught between two rocks on the creek bed. And the current was keeping the person’s head under water. Dan had actually beat Shep to the rafter and was yanking the person by the underarms but making no progress freeing them.
So Shep grabbed an ankle and worked what felt like a female foot out of a Keen sandal. Freed, the woman kicked out, catching him in the solar plexus.
They both came out of the water gulping for breath, with Dan right behind them.
Shep called out to the woman, “Don’t put your feet down. Float on your back until the water is calmer.”
The other person who’d been dumped out of the raft was already a good fifty feet downstream, apparently having had the good sense to work with the current instead of against it. The raft was bobbing its way toward a bridge spanning the creek.
Shep grabbed his floater’s arm and towed her toward the bank.
“Don’t! Stop! I can’t get out here. I have to make it to the markers.”
She ripped out of his hold and pointed downstream. “If I don’t make it down there, I don’t get any points.”
For. Fuck’s. Sake.
“If you don’t get out of this water, you could drown.”
Rather than answering, she took off swimming. Away from him.
This was even worse than Shep had imagined. Maggie should call him Mr. Optimism because he’d obviously painted too rosy of a picture about this whole clusterfuck.
Dan said to him, “Let her go! It’s not your job to interfere with the game.”
Then what the hell had Dan been doing?
“And for your information,” Dan continued, “I would’ve saved her. You actually slowed me down.”
With Dan dogging him and yapping about how he’d had everything under control with the drowning chick, Shep swam toward shore and called out to Puck, “Release!”
Tongue lolling and tail wagging, Puck came loping up from where Shep had left him on the bank. His dog was a lot happier than he was right now. Happy was no longer in Shep’s vocabulary. The word should be ripped from the dictionary.
Still, Shep grabbed Puck’s leash and squished his way back toward the waiting crowd. Miraculously, all three rafters had made it to the green markers, two on their feet and one in the boat.
From this vantage point, Shep spotted turquoise hair spilling out from under the lone rafter’s helmet. Based on what Riley had told him, that rafter had to be Joss Wynter. She was smaller than he’d imagined—probably five feet if she was an inch.
But she’d fought and stayed in that raft. That would’ve been a feat for someone twice her size.
Even though the smartest course of action would be for Shep to walk away, leave these nut jobs to their own devices, he couldn’t. And only partially because of Dan’s threats about his job.
He had to get a better look at the itty-bitty woman who’d conquered that Class IV. Because right now, if he had to put money down on one of these contenders, he’d lay a solid hundred on her.
Joss was a freezing frenzy of molecules. Everything inside her was pinging around and knocking together. The chaos would probably never stop.
Yes, the water on her skin and soaking her sneakers was cool, but they didn’t account for the gut-deep shudders radiating from the very center of her body.
They had put her, Lauren Estes, and Bradley Woodard into a flimsy rubber boat and dropped them. From the sky.
When Joss had set eyes on that helicopter, she’d turned around and walked away. Unfortunately, one of the production assistants apparently had Jerry’s phone number because Joss had found herself on the phone with her manager.
He’d promised her anything—any gig, any arena—if she would just get on that helicopter. It would be fine, he said. She’d asked for this, he said. It was time, he said.
No, it hadn’t been time. It would never be time for the insanity she’d just been a part of.
After outfitting the contestants with a helmet, a life jacket, and a paddle, the guys in the helicopter had simply cut the ropes. Adios. See ya later. Bu-bye.
And what Joss had thought would be a fluffy play at a survival game for a few days had become real damn real as that raft hurtled downward. How she’d stayed inside it without passing out, she still had no idea.
She couldn’t do this. She’d been an idiot to think she was ready. As soon as she could get off this water, she was calling Jerry and backing out. Who cared if she had to return to being a hermit inside her house?
She looked around wildly for a way to escape, to get to shore. She blinked down at the paddle in her hand. Should she be doing something with it?
Probably, but her arms were frozen.
Slowly, the buzzing in her brain began to change frequency and morphed into the shrill sound of people on the water bank yelling and clapping. They reminded her of arena crowds, fans just waiting to get their hands on her, gleefully anticipating snatching a piece of her.
Her already rapid breath shallowed even more, and little spots played ring-around-the-rosie at the periphery of her vision. The water would take her downstream. Away from these people.
Go, go, go.
If she could make it past the bridge ahead of her, she’d somehow navigate her way to shore. And run screaming all the way back to California. But before she and the raft could rush under the bridge, two shirtless muscular guys waded waist deep and caught the boat. Then Bradley and Lauren came dog-paddling down the river past her. Some other guys kneeling on the bridge snagged them under the arms and lifted them up.
Woozily, Joss looked up at the bridge to see that Buffalo Moody was standing there, smiling and waving at the throng of people. He was saying something, but the words seemed to disintegrate before her ears could catch them. Buffalo’s teeth were big and white. Made her think of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood.
Joss rubbed her hands over her face and tried to get herself under control.
Focus on what’s in front of you.
As people continued to hoot and holler, two camera operators were panning the spectacle. The Western North Carolina mini-season of Do or Die was obviously underway.
Was this what she got for failing to stream a single episode of the show? For popping a sleeping pill before stepping a foot on the airplane from LA. She thought luck was with her when she conked out and slept the entire way to Charlotte. Especially since she hadn’t suffered through the dark demon dreams that had become her constant companions lately.
Or maybe this was the true nightmare.
She opened her mouth to ask if all this was real, but the only sound that came out was a moan.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” A man with short blond hair peered down at her. A frown marred his apple-cheeked, All-American good looks. The kind of looks that could get him cast in a reboot of The Waltons. No, The Waltons on steroids.
The other man shot an alarmed look at John Boy. “Gage, I don’t think she’s okay.” This guy was tall, probably almost a foot and a half over Joss’s minuscule five feet. He too had short hair, but his was dark and looked as though it would curl if left to its own devices. Yep, coloring aside, he could play John Boy’s brother in Waltons: The Buff Years.
“Ma’am, we’re gonna get you to the first aid station. Deke, let’s tow her in,” the blond said.
But they were intercepted by another big man wading into the water straight toward them. This guy’s hair was longer. Wet, it clung to his head and neck, making it hard for Joss to tell if it was dark blond or light brown. He cut through the water with determined strides, water dripping down his golden torso. He wore a pair of low-hanging cargo shorts, giving her a glimpse of strong hip bones and perfectly formed abdominal muscles that seemed to have the singular purpose of drawing a woman’s attention to what lay behind a man’s zipper.
“Am… Am I dreaming?” she forced out.
“No, ma’am,” the blond man said. “This is as real as it gets, and Shep doesn’t look too happy about it.”
As the other man drew closer, the guitar intro to Imelda May’s “Big Bad Handsome Man” began to pound in Joss’s mind. Then she heard the lyrics join the guitar. This man was definitely tall, mad, mean, and good-lookin’.
He was Devil Divine.
Divine’s nipples were drawn tight and so was his mouth. And with the way he was bearing down on her, he was looking to take something out on her.
“Wh… Why is he mad?” All she’d done was try to make it down the river alive and with a sliver of her sanity.
With a rough jerk, Devil Divine grabbed the cord ringing the raft and said to the other men, “I have her. I don’t know how the hell they roped the two of you into this idiocy. But she is my responsibility.”
“God help you.” The blond man laughed. “And I thought my job wrangling Reid Steele was tough sometimes.”
Without saying a word, Devil Divine started to drag her raft toward shore.
No, this was not okay. She lunged toward him and grabbed his wrist.
With a quick shake, he threw off her hold. Alarm ricocheted through her, and she forced out a hoarse “Stop!”
That, at least, earned a glance from him. “Why?”
“Because I don’t know who you are or where you’re taking me.”
“I’m Harris Sheppard Kingston. Adventure guide at Prime Climb Tours. And we are getting out of the water.” As the water shallowed, the man’s saturated shorts drooped further, revealing the top curve of his ass cheeks. Joss’s chilled skin began to warm.
She couldn’t help but give his backside a quick peek, and holy guacamole. Something told her this gluteus beauteous was most likely homegrown, as were his bulging triceps and Atlas shoulders.
For the first time in a long time, Joss experienced a jolt of something besides self-loathing. It felt a lot like lust.
And if she was capable of that spark, was it possible she might be capable of competing on Do or Die?
That maybe grounded her, helped her shake off a little of the terror still trickling through her.
“Why are you pulling my raft in?”
“Because I am the local guide,” he said, striding toward land and dragging her and the raft onto the bank with a scritch. “And they were stupid to drop you the way they did. Unsafe and stupid.”
Amen and hallelujah. Joss held out a hand, expecting Devil Divine to take it and help her out of the raft. But his attention was focused back on the water.
“That one.” He pointed toward Lauren, standing on the bridge beside the show’s host. Lauren had stripped out of her life jacket, giving the public a good view of her leanly muscled body, showcased in a thong bikini. Strangely, she was only wearing one sandal. Still, with chin up and chest out, she looked like the warrior princess that she played on the Netflix exclusive, Amazon Rises. “She almost drowned.”
That statement shocked a little more sanity back into Joss’s brain. “Lauren Estes?” When Joss arrived in Steele Ridge and realized she’d be competing against the actress, her competitive instincts had been sparked. Because winning—both the game and the hearts of the public—would be tough against her. Bradley Woodard, the third competitor, wasn’t as physically fit as Lauren, but people liked him because he was the son of George Woodard and Beverly Blaise—Hollywood royalty—and he gave a great deal of his family’s money to different environmental charities across the world.
“And the guy—”
“—didn’t have any idea how to steer that raft. They should have put him in the back because he’s the biggest.” He looked Joss over with a dispassionate study and clearly found her wanting. “You should have never been placed there.”
She never should’ve let the show’s producers push her onto that helicopter. But they’d reminded her that she’d signed both a whopper of a hold-harmless release and a contract of completion. If she didn’t compete in Do or Die, there would be a lawsuit, and she couldn’t withstand any more bad press at the moment.
Tell that to her stomach, still twisting itself into impossible shapes.
“You would have been a liability in front, too, because you are so little,” the man continued on about the raft. “One major rapid and you’d go flying like a projectile out of a catapult.”
A spark replaced all the gastro-gymnastics inside her. She clambered out of the raft and said, “Should I remind you that I was the only one who didn’t fall out of the raft?”
That made her want to punch him in the kidney. But his lower back looked just as impenetrable as the rest of his body. Asshat. At least he wasn’t part of the show. And realistically, anger and annoyance on her part was infinitely better than total terror.
“Puck, release,” the man called out. A gorgeous golden-red dog trotted to his left side and gazed up at the man with adoration in his brown eyes. Maybe Devil Divine had better rapport with animals than he did with people.
“He’s beautiful,” she said. “Is he a retriever?”
“Yes. A golden.”
She ran her fingers lightly over the dog’s back, but he didn’t spare her a glance. That hurt more than the man’s scorn. “Then I’m surprised he didn’t jump in the water.”
“Puck is well trained. If I tell him to sit, he stays in place until I release him.”
“Wow, I wish I had a dog like that.”
“A lot of people do. But they do not understand what it really takes to train one. They take one look at Puck and want him. They can’t have him.”
What a strange thing to say. “Of course they can’t. He’s your dog.”
“He’s my best friend.”
Her heart cracked a little at that. Yes, dogs were known as man’s best friend, but from the way Devil Divine behaved and talked, she got the impression that he might not have many friends. And it made her realize that she was following him up the bank from the water just as loyally as his dog was. She glanced back toward the bridge. Now that her pulse was slowly returning to normal, it was clear to Joss that she had no choice but to buck up and play this game. Fear or no fear. “Um… I probably need to get back to the crew.”
“They are meeting over here.” He nodded toward an open-sided canvas tent. With Do or Die banners hanging from all the metal supports, it had obviously been set up for the show.
She, Devil Divine, and Puck were almost inside the tent when someone yelled from behind them, “Joss Wynter, can I have your autograph?”
That was all it took for a crush of people to break away from the main crowd and rush toward Joss. The rumbling and noise level rose, decibel by decibel, until it seemed as if it was invading her chest and pressing against her ribs.
“You don’t want her to sign a damn thing,” a man shouted. “She’s a selfish bitch!”
“Joss, Joss, look this way!” someone else hollered.
A little girl called out, “Can I get a selfie with you?”
Joss’s ability to breathe was restricted by the panic building inside her. She should’ve demanded the show allow her to bring bodyguards. But both she and Jerry thought the mini-series would be filmed in the boonies, away from both fans and haters alike. That she would be safe.
“I… I can’t face those people,” she gasped out to the man—Harris, he’d said his name was Harris—striding half a pace in front of her, but he didn’t even spare her a glance.
Unable to shake the feeling of being threatened, she broke into a run and darted around him and the dog. Maybe if she could just make it under the tent awning, people would back down.
Why wasn’t this guy helping her? It was as if he didn’t recognize that she was in danger.
Joss lunged for the tent, tripping over a support rope. Oh, God. She was falling. Falling. Losing control. She would plunge into the crowd from high above them, and they would surround her, jump on top of her, smother her.
Joss took a headfirst slider into the dirt and tried to flip over to ward them off, but she couldn’t seem to make her muscles work.
That was when she heard the man say, “All of you, stay behind the red line. You cannot step past it. This area is only for people associated with Do or Die.”
Now? Now he decided to come to her aid? After she’d almost blacked out with panic?
Finally, Joss managed to flop to her back and saw that he was standing like a human shield, arms out and legs wide. The dog was on alert too—ears up and tail lifted like a furry sword.
A man with a dark beard and mean eyes stepped over the red spray-painted line that Joss hadn’t seen when she hurtled across it.
“You do not have an ID badge,” her now-protector said. “Step back.”
“I just want to tell her—”
“Now.” He flattened a palm on the other guy’s chest and easily pushed him away. No anger, no violence, no rush. Just put him back in his place.
That did more to calm Joss than all the Valium in her medicine cabinet back home.
While Devil Divine was holding back a mass of people who wanted to get close to her, Buffalo Moody strode through them without acknowledging anyone. The host of Do or Die had tanned skin and a face that could be described as craggy. Joss guessed his hair was supposed to look sun-bleached. But she had colored her own hair enough to recognize drugstore dye when she spotted it.
Although he looked like a big fake to Joss, female fans apparently loved him. And the Hollywood rags made it clear he’d loved plenty of them, too.
The crowd parted for him and the entourage trailing him. Lauren looked a little worse for the wear with one shoe missing, but the confident expression on her face didn’t waver, and she stopped to pen a few quick autographs. Some on paper, some on body parts.
Bradley wasn’t a sign-my-tit kind of celebrity, so he just smiled and shook a few hands. Two camera operators flanked them from behind and herded them toward the tent.
And here Joss was, lying on the ground. She was already shorter than both of her opponents by at least half a foot. She didn’t need them towering over her.
Get your ass up, sister.
She scrambled to her feet.
Red dust clung to her palms and tiny rocks were embedded in her already abused knee. She brushed at it, setting off a sting. A trickle of blood oozed down the outside of her calf.
She could handle a few scrapes and a little blood. She could handle more. She would handle more.
She hadn’t built a successful music career by letting fear get in her way.
As kids in the suburbs of Omaha, she and her sister Kellie had been allowed a long leash. They—well, mainly Joss—had roamed free, climbing trees and exploring the neighborhood. That was where she’d first learned to be tough. Then when she struck out on her own to play her music, she’d learned another type of toughness.
“There she is,” Buffalo boomed, swaggering toward her. “Joss Wynter! No one on the crew imagined you would win the first opportunity.”
Opportunity? Is that what he called being dropped from a helicopter? She called it a reason to be admitted to the psych ward.
He swung an arm around her and grinned for the camera. His fingers brushed the side of her breast—an accident or on purpose? Joss tried to ease away, but Buffalo was a strong guy and gripped her shoulder.
Another boob brush.
Yeah, that was not an accident.
Joss smiled up at him, but she put a little teeth behind it and not the friendly kind. The spectrum of wild emotions she’d run through since she left LA were coalescing into something heated. Something that could easily boil over and burn the hell out of everyone here. “So you’re telling me that I’m the Do or Die underdog?”
Buffalo laughed. Hehuhhe. Hehuhhe. “Well, you have to admit that between you, Lauren, and Bradley, you’re the most physically underwhelming.”
“And though she be but little, she is fierce,” she gritted out.
“Hey now,” Buffalo said, “no need to get your feathers rustled.”
“They’re ruffled,” Devil Divine told him as he pulled a dry T-shirt over his head, covering up that amazing body. “And she was quoting Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Interesting. Her big-bad-handsome-man knew something about literature. Hidden depths.
With a blink, Buffalo turned back to the crowd and flashed a toothy grin. “If you’ll excuse us now, it’s time for our competitors to get ready for the first leg of the show.” He nodded toward the corner of the tent and the person stationed there lowered the canvas tent flaps, casting the space into temporary darkness.
Buffalo took that opportunity to do more than skim Joss’s breast. He gave it a good cantaloupe-ripeness squeeze. No. No one was allowed to grope her like that. After that horrible night on stage, she didn’t stand for that shit anymore.
So Joss also took advantage of everyone’s blindness and grabbed the show host between the legs.
She twisted and said in a low voice, “Touch me like that again and I will take these as a souvenir.” And then bright lights flipped on suddenly, clearly illuminating her hold on Buffalo Moody’s junk.
Fabulous. The cameras were trained right on them, and this would be definitely be a clip that made it through the editing process. As if she didn’t care that she’d been caught holding Buffalo’s balls, Joss casually released him and crossed her arms.
The groping host had the audacity to wink at the camera.
“Well, well,” Lauren sneered as she saw Joss’s hand leave their host’s crotch. “If we’re going to play this game that way, then I’d better pick a partner.” She turned to Devil Divine with a predatory look. “Yum, cutie. I choose you.”
He didn’t even acknowledge that Lauren had said anything, just turned to Buffalo and said, “We’re behind schedule. If we don’t leave here within ten minutes, we won’t make it to the spot I picked to overnight.”
“Son,” Buffalo said, holding out his hand, “we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Buffalo Moody and this is my show. So you just put out the fire in your pants. I say when we leave.”
“I am Ross Kingston’s son. Not yours.” Devil Divine’s gaze seemed to land somewhere around Buffalo’s left ear.
A man at least fifteen years older than Devil Divine insinuated his way into the group and flashed a smile at Moody. “Hey, there. I’m Dan Cargill, owner of Prime Climb Tours. This guy is Shep Kingston, and he’s the local guide I helped your producer handpick—”
“No,” Shep cut in. “The producer asked for me. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Dan ignored Shep and kept his attention on Moody. “Sometimes Shep’s a little abrupt, but you’ll find he’s pretty good at what he does. Second to me, of course, but I wasn’t available so—”
“Son, if he’s second to you, then why was he the one to pull Lauren out of the drink?” Moody cut the man down with a scathing stare. “If it had been up to you, she’d have drowned.”
“I… I’m sure it was hard to see from where you were standing on the bridge, but Shep and I worked together to free Ms. Estes from a very dangerous situation. One she wouldn’t have been in if—”
Moody snapped his fingers at the guys keeping people from entering the tent. “Escort Mr. Carr outside.”
“The name is Cargill, and I—”
Two men took Cargill firmly by the upper arms and frog-marched him out of the tent. Moody swiped his hands against one another as if dusting away an annoyance. “Now, where were we?”
Devil—no, his name was Shep Kingston—said, “We were about to get moving.”
“Well, Shep. We don’t move until I give the word. And we’ve got a little business to take care of before we hit the trail.” With a careless hand, Buffalo gestured toward a group of grips, who toted forward three full-size suitcases, two Bottega Veneta satchels, a leather trunk, and Joss’s carry-on and guitar case.
“Thank God,” Lauren sighed, waving the grips toward her as she said to Buffalo, “I assume we’ll have a support van for our things.”
Buffalo’s chuckle held a cruel edge. “Not exactly.”
One of the grips passed out small knapsacks to each of the competitors.
“You can pack whatever you can fit into the backpack,” Moody said, his tone smug. “And one personal item if it doesn’t fit inside. But you and you alone will carry anything you bring along. We’re using a skeleton crew for this show. Just two cameramen, the local guide, me, and the three of you. You’ve got five minutes to choose your items.”