The Catch, River’s Sigh B & B Book 8, by Ev Bishop
***COMING NOVEMBER 2019***
Mother Nature was as busy as everyone else at River’s Sigh B & B, busily revamping the grounds for a new season. Everywhere Aisha looked, the earth, a dingy gray-brown days earlier, was a lush kelly green, decorated here and there with cheery bursts of purple, white and yellow from crocuses, narcissuses, and snowdrops. The sun, high and bright, had shed its wintery reserve and finally carried some heat again. Its friendly kiss had every branch and bush around the property showing buds.
It was a time of year Aisha usually loved, but today it kindled nostalgia and a strange longing, though for what exactly she couldn’t say. (More like, won’t admit, her inner self snarked.)
She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the invigorating air. It should’ve smelled of everything that was the essence of home to her—cozy wood smoke (nights, spring or not, were still cold!), fertile earth, and the sharp sap of new growth. Instead, her eyes teared.
Each vivid, ripe detail tore like thorns in a blackberry patch, catching her painfully, snagging and refusing to be ignored. How could she seriously be considering leaving River’s Sigh B & B? Was she really willing to forsake tiny Minnow cabin, which had been her and baby Mo’s refuge for all these impossibly sweet years? Then again, if someone else had beaten her to the punch, was opening the business she wanted to run, didn’t she have to move? There wasn’t room for two such similar shops in their small town.
Tromping beside her, Mo, Aisha’s “baby,” twirled through a pile of leaves, singing under her breath in the crystalline soprano of a little girl. A little girl. And that, in a nutshell, was why it was time to go. As beloved as this place was and as much of a sanctuary as it had been for them, her “baby” was a girl now. And she, a kid when she’d birthed Mo, was a woman. River’s Sigh was always supposed to be a temporary stay. A rock to rest on in the unexpected stream she’d found herself in. A safe place to balance until she was ready to leap into the place she was actually supposed to be.
Four years ago, Aisha had been seventeen and facing an unplanned pregnancy under ugly circumstances, trying to decide if she should keep her baby or put her up for adoption like she herself had been, all while grieving her the loss of her beloved mom, who’d died cruelly and way too young. She never would’ve imagined that at twenty-one, she might feel just as confused as she had then.
She’d always considered twenty-anything, adult-adult, the age and stage of knowing . . . stuff. Now she was hopeful that thirty would have more answers. It was a while to wait, of course, but it was good to have something to look forward to.
She’d expressed similar sentiments to her aunt the other day but hadn’t exactly had them validated. Understatement. Jo was too kind to overtly squash her ideas about thirty, but Aisha caught a flash of suppressed laughter in her eyes. Knowing her luck, it meant Jo knew something she didn’t—that she was fooling herself. Maybe you didn’t know more at thirty than at twenty. Maybe all you learned, the older you got, was how much you still didn’t know.
Mo’s tiny hand clasped Aisha’s. “Mom.”
But Mo’s word wasn’t a question. It was declarative. Like she wanted to inform Aisha, to remind her—or possibly to claim her, lest there was someone lurking around with any doubts—that Aisha was her mom. Or maybe she just wanted her cold little paws warmed up. Either way, it made Aisha smile, and she nodded down at Mo. “Daughter.”
Mo beamed and skipped along beside her, still holding her hand tightly.
As they continued down the trail, Aisha turned her thoughts to dinner. Something hearty and nourishing. Beef stew with roasted root vegetables, maybe? Mo especially loved turnips. Or Butternut squash lasagna? So creamy and good. As she’d learned so well from Jo, a home-cooked meal went a long way to soothing worries about the past—and toward putting the future in perspective, too.
Mo’s hand in hers. Food to help her grow. A warm, snuggly bed. Clothes on her back. No matter how Aisha tended to obsess about things, what she had right now, in this moment, was all she really needed to know and focus on—and would be for years and years. She was a mom. A mother. It was a sacred gift and a calling, and she would live up to it.
She was grateful to Jo and Callum for letting them stay here, for enabling her to build up a nest egg, for creating a sense of family and belonging. But Jo had hacked and coughed all last month—and though it really was just a bad cold and she was mended now, and though Aisha was self-aware enough to realize the only reason it freaked her out was because ever since her mother died so young she always saw worst case scenarios unfold in her imagination—it was a much-needed reminder and kick in the butt.
She needed to find a place to put her own roots down, hopefully in an equally beautiful, safe place—for herself and for Mo—roots as deep and strong as those of the ancient cedars that surrounded them here. Being self-sufficient and reliant on no one had always been the goal, the plan. For the good of her child, she’d allowed herself to get waylaid, but now it was time for her to leave the cozy shelter Jo and Callum provided and forge an independent life for her and Mo, one that she was solely responsible for, one that no one else but her had the power to build or tear down, one that was safe from all outside influences.
The Greyhound ground to a halt and the bus driver’s voice crackled over the speaker, announcing the stop. Greenridge. Jase was dozing and came to alertness slowly at first—then more quickly when he realized Colton was no longer filling the seat beside him. One by one, the few people old-school enough, or broke enough, to still take a bus in this day and age filed off—but still no sign of Colton. Maybe he was in the john?
Jase unfolded his cramped limbs and lifted out of his seat, ducking his head to keep from knocking it on the overhead bins. A low voice purred behind him, “Offer still stands.”
Rats. Stephanie. Still on the bus. He’d thought he was free and clear. He turned in the narrow aisle but didn’t have to answer. Colton’s grinning face appeared over Stephanie’s shoulder, revealing where he’d disappeared to, though Jase should’ve known.
Colton spoke for Jase. “You’re wasting your breath, sweetheart. Jase here is all work, no play.”
Jase gave an apologetic one-shouldered shrug and didn’t disagree.
The Monroe above the corner of Stephanie’s heart-shaped mouth flashed in the dim overhead lights as she smiled. It was pretty if piercings were your thing, but they weren’t his. Too impractical. Snagged on stuff. Ink was better. “If you change your mind, remember I put my number in your phone.”
“Thanks.” Jase smiled amiably, but what he thought was, What kind of whack job grabs a random guy’s phone and adds her name to his contacts? Ah, well, it took all sorts to make the world go around. Friendly Stephanie had boarded a few towns back, and she’d struck up conversation at a diner during a layover between bus transfers. She was fine but liked to party in ways he didn’t. Colton, of course, had no such reservations.
Stephanie smoothed her short, sleek bright purple hair, waggled her fingers in farewell, then squeezed past him and swayed her way down the rubber-matted aisle, Colton stumbling behind her. Apparently, the party had already started.
Colton paused just long enough to say, “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow—meet you there, I mean.”
Jase grimaced. All he needed was for Colton to show up for their first day of work hungover or worse, making them both look bad. Not a lot he could do about it though. His foster brother did what he wanted and only what he wanted and always had. Jase didn’t fault him for it, but it wasn’t how he was wired, no matter how often he wished it was.
He pulled his sweatshirt’s hood up over his head, hefted his backpack, which carried the full sum and total of his earthly belongings, including his steel-toed boots and climbers laced to one strap, then followed Colton and Stephanie’s lead, hunching his shoulders to avoid hitting his head on the bus ceiling. When he stepped down onto the gravel shoulder, only a few of the other freshly debarked passengers openly stared, but all gave him a wide berth.
Stephanie and Colton climbed into a jacked up black truck sporting lots of chrome and a light bar that could probably be seen from Mars. The instant the passenger door slammed shut, the vehicle roared off in a belch of diesel fumes. Jase watched as one-by-one, everyone else happily disappeared into other waiting vehicle—then surveyed his surroundings.
The stop was only saved from pitch-blackness by the glow of the strip lighting along the bus’s side and a neon sign beaming “C-FFEE” from across the street.
Greenridge was new to Jase—well, new to both him and Colton, actually, but Colton hadn’t discovered it, hadn’t chosen it. He was just broke and decided, for practical reasons, to tagalong when Jase came across the job listing online. It was more than that for Jase. It was an active decision. He was tired of city life and the constant partying Colton could never get enough of, and he liked small towns and had always wanted to explore the northwest—though, admittedly, this small and this far north might prove a bit much. The place seemed to have come together by accident, building up bit by bit alongside the highway and railway track that ran parallel to it.
Jase wondered if the town once had a bus depot that had recently closed down, a sign of changing times, or if the town was so small it had never had an official one. Either way, being let off on the side of the highway in the middle of the night didn’t do much to create a feeling welcome.
“You’re not here to be welcomed,” he scoffed under his breath, since there was hardly anyone left to hear him. “You’re here to make bank and take care of your responsibilities.”
Tonight, however, alone in the dropping temperature, watching stranger after stranger take off with smiling friends and loved ones, Jase didn’t feel as pragmatic as he tried to convince himself he was. He and Colton were only twenty-five, but he, at least, was starting to feel old—or like their lifestyle was.
Jase frowned. What was this bullshit crowding his mind? He loved his nomadic life. Or found it the most comfortable way to live, anyway. If you’re not attached to anything, you can’t lose it and it can’t be taken away. He frowned deeper still.
He wasn’t fooled by all the heartwarming greetings and tearful hugs of hello he’d just witnessed. For every happy reunion, somewhere nearby there was a huge fight brewing and a quick departure in the wings. For every mom or dad coming “home,” there was another one leaving never to be seen again. And for every smiling lover, someone else was screaming and throwing things.
The universe wouldn’t let him have this grouchy comfort, however.
There were only two people left waiting now, a woman about his age with a small girl with pretty black braids. A beige Honda pulled up, slammed to a stop, and a man rushed out. “I’m so sorry I’m late, you guys.”
“Daddy!” the little girl exploded and leaped into his arms. “I missed you!”
The adults laughed and as the guy hugged his daughter, the woman stepped into his embrace too.
The little scene was fresh salt in an old wound, reminding Jase that recounting all the miseries some folks faced was no true consolation. Of course, there were genuinely happy reunions and truly close-knit families. What would it be like to have a home to come back to? To have people who missed you when you went away, who celebrated when you returned? Jase had no idea. Never had.
As if shoved into motion by Jase’s thoughts, the bus groaned and grumbled its way back onto the road again, swinging wide into the empty lane and rolling on into the night. Jase watched the hostile red-rimmed eyes of its taillights until they disappeared. Then he checked both ways and crossed the highway. Small as it was, at least Greenridge had a 24-hour coffee shop.
As he walked, Jase patted the chest pocket of the jean jacket he wore over his hoodie, feeling for the reassuring fold of paper on the inside pocket. He’d read the ad so many times, he had it memorized. River’s Sigh B & B—a pretty name to go with what would hopefully prove to be a nice place to bunk down for a while. And he’d already touched base. They were expecting him and Colton. And sure, it had been a while since either of them had fallen a tree—but it was a bed and breakfast. How wild of terrain could it be? They were looking for glorified landscapers and with their letters of reference, they were in. He just hoped Colton would rein in his wild ways and not ruin this opportunity for them.
Aisha walked along the trail from Silver cabin, carefully carrying the grungy bucket of mop water that she still needed to dump, her mind wandering.
There’d been a slew of pre-arranged late checkouts today, so her cleaning schedule had been pushed back, but now, finally, each cabin was sparkling clean, perfectly restocked and prettily arranged again, ready for whoever its next guest might be.
She wasn’t feeling the satisfaction she usually did at the end of a cleaning shift, however. The glow she got from a job well done had been dulled by time spent training two college students who were going to work for them April through August. The two girls were all right, she guessed, but they acted like every chore was drudgery or somehow beneath them—an attitude Aisha would never understand. No job was beneath her.
It wasn’t that she didn’t feel frustration or annoyance when clients were slobs—and thankfully, most of their guests were awesome, so messes like today’s were rare. It was that it was her job to clean it up and she took zealous pride in doing just that. Aisha had expected similar enthusiasm, or at least similar diligence, in the new hires and was disappointed. If they didn’t like scrubbing, didn’t get a tiny thrill over a gleaming toilet bowl, didn’t derive a mild sense of superiority from putting things awry aright again, why did they even apply for housekeeping work? The north was booming again. There were plenty of other places hiring.
Then again, they were young. The thought triggered a wry smile because they were, no doubt, at least her age if not older. Nevertheless, she’d take it as a personal challenge to inspire them to be inspired in their work. And she’d try to stop taking it personally that Jo and Callum were adding staff. It wasn’t a sign they felt Aisha couldn’t handle everything. It was that River’s Sigh B & B was growing. It was exciting—and an honor that she was in charge of new staff. She should be celebrating.
Yes, celebrating. She was not a whiny, whinging person. She didn’t bitch and moan. She changed things she was unhappy about. She would tackle—
Aisha’s mini pep talk thudded to a halt. Someone or something was splashing ferociously in the creek behind Rainbow cabin. There was a muffled grunt. Then more splashing.
Her first thought was bear. Normally there was enough action around the property—not to mention, until recently, grizzled old Hoover barking his face off at the slightest whiff of forest dwellers—that wildlife stayed clear. But the season hadn’t really started yet, and the grounds were extra quiet since poor Hoover passed away, something Aisha tried to avoid thinking about because it filled her with so much sorrow for Jo who mourned him like the closest of personal friends, which, of course, he was.
And even in Hoover’s day, barking maniac or not, it wasn’t unheard of to have bear visitors this time of year. They always spotted at least a couple black bears—and once a Kermode came through—in the spring, skinny and scrounging for easy food. She wasn’t scared exactly—no doubt it was just some hungry fella seeking dandelions and tender grass not available on the forest floor—but she wasn’t an idiot either. A bear, if surprised, interrupted or made to feel threatened in any way, was a dangerous thing.
Moving more cautiously, she continued along the trail as it rounded the cabin—then almost had a heart attack.
Two shirtless guys crowded the creek’s scanty bank. One, incredibly massive with a shorn head and a heavily tattooed back, was hunkered down, facing away from her. The other was . . . seriously hot. Wearing nothing but a well-worn pair of work jeans with suspenders dangling around his narrow hips, as if purposefully showing off his well-defined pecs and deeply cut six-pack, hell, eight-pack, of golden brown abs. Gleaming with droplets of creek water, he looked like he was modelling for some calendar, featuring working men or something—not like he actually was a working man.
Wait—working man. Working men. Right. Aisha gave herself a mental facepalm. Jo and Callum had mentioned something about hiring some guys to fall dangerous trees around the property, do some of the heavier landscaping, and maybe even cut wood for the following winter.
She slammed to a halt. The heavy mop bucket banged against her shins and sloshed over the rim, drenching her yoga pants in chemicals and stink. Awesome. She didn’t quite manage to hold back a disgusted groan. The two men visibly jolted and turned in her direction. Seeing her, the tall guy—he really was a monster height-wise—looked even more startled, not less. And she realized that Hot Guy had hotter guy competition. He looked like Jason Momoa, if Jason Momoa had a shaved head.
Hot Guy was first to recover from the surprise. He gave her a quick once over, which Aisha hated but figured was fair enough considering her own gawking. Then he grinned and winked. Ugh.
“Um, this is a work place,” she said, then winced. She’d intended to sound arch, but the comment came out like she was asking him, not telling him. Why was she having such a hard time stringing words together? Talking was her forte. And good grief. She’d seen half naked men before—even a fully naked man. Mo wasn’t an immaculate conception, of course—no matter how much Aisha wished otherwise.
Still, it had been a long while . . . or, more honestly, maybe even never since she’d seen guys—men—this good looking. She especially liked how the big guy didn’t seem as cocky as Hot Guy who was already annoying her. He seemed shy, kept his head ducked, his eyes averted. . . .
Shit! Her hormones were making her stupid, and—no. Not on her life. No. She was not that type of single mom—man-hungry and desperate. Except, who knows? Maybe she was. It had been a weird couple of months. For years now, it had been a relief to her, how totally not into guys, she’d been. It was like her brain, her body, her whole being had hung a “Closed” sign.
Then Mo turned four, and the sign flipped back to “Open.” Completely against her will, Aisha transformed into a version of herself she hardly could accept as being her. A guy-obsessed weirdo. She saw men everywhere and was hyper-conscious of their presence—especially when they were in the middle of her usually private and safe woods, apparently.
Hot Guy laughed out loud, seeming to know exactly why she was uncomfortable. He stepped forward casually, thumbs hooked in his belt loops.
Just to avoid his brazen eyes, Aisha honed in on a felt-lined denim jacket and black sweatshirt that lay stacked on top of a big backpack, near a pair of heavy boots perched on a flat rock—a pair of boots so big they had to belong to the giant, who was still kneeling by the creek.
Like Hot Guy, Giant wore only a scruffy pair of low-slung jeans, giving Aisha an interesting-if-unexpected—and unwanted, she reminded herself—eyeful of his boxers and half his muscular butt.
He lumbered to his feet, and she realized he was well-muscled too, just his height camouflaged it a bit—stretching the muscle out over bone and sinew. His nipples were dark as plums against his light brown flesh which looked as firm as a wood plank. Said nipples were hard and erect, clearly showing they felt the icy temperature of the creek water glistening on his skin, even if the rest of him didn’t. Scrolling text adorned his rib cage, but she couldn’t make out what it said from where she stood.
Unlike Hot Guy, he seemed uncomfortable at being caught washing up in the creek. His obvious discomfort made Aisha embarrassingly aware that she was staring, though she felt powerless to stop—until she caught herself following the line of fur that ran from his naval and disappeared into his waistband—
She gave herself another sharp mental slap. What was she doing?
The giant shifted uneasily and finally spoke. “I’m sorry. I, uh, was told the season hadn’t started yet, that the place was empty.”
Aisha’s brow furrowed and she arched an eyebrow. Who had told him what exactly? And even if the place was empty, how did that explain the ice-water bath?
The stranger must’ve read the confusion on her face. He shook his head. “I’m Jason—call me Jase—Scott.”
Was he kidding? His name was actually Jason? Nerves made her earlier inner comparison of him to the famous actor seem extra hilarious and she snort-giggled.
Jason—Jase—took another step back. She tried to rein herself in.
“And this is . . . my brother. Colton Hislop.” He motioned at Hot Guy with a huge hand. “We’re going to be working here? We’ve been on the road a while, and wanted to, uh, freshen up before presenting ourselves?”
So she wasn’t the only one afflicted with the awkward tendency to make phrases that should be statements into questions when nervous. The thought mollified her. “Well, too late for that. Consider yourself . . . presented.”
Jase the giant blushed—or else he was finally feeling the chill. Either way, his tan skin definitely went a bit rosy.
“Um, you’re not . . . Jo, are you?” There was a soft, shy note in Jase’s voice, as if he was pleading that she wasn’t—but Aisha was distracted by Colton. He was pulling a soft gray Henley shirt over his head with what seemed to her an unnecessary amount of stretching and pausing.
A thunder bolt of irritation crashed through Aisha, way too large for such a tiny trigger, and she knew it.
“No, I’m not Jo, thank God,” she snapped.
Jase’s body quaked in a shiver. She guessed it was nice that he didn’t want to “present” himself to Jo and Callum without cleaning up first, but what an insane place to do it. He couldn’t rent a hotel room or something?
Still struck almost mute by the view, stupidly, humiliatingly, Aisha’s face started to burn. Jase’s height and size really were jaw-dropping. To her shame, she couldn’t think of one witty line or sharp comment to mitigate her discomfort.
“Follow your brother’s example and put on some clothes,” she finally managed through gritted teeth. “This is a family establishment. Geez.”
It was absolutely no consolation that Jase looked as awkward and uncomfortable as she felt as he obediently stooped over his pack and rummaged for a towel and a clean T-shirt.
Like she hadn’t sounded dopey or bossy enough, she added, “You guys’ll catch your death of pneumonia scrubbing up in a creek that had chunks of ice in it until a week ago!”
She turned on her heel and stalked off, knowing she looked—and sounded—like a complete looney. Put on some clothes? It wasn’t like the guy was naked. And “family establishment?” True enough, sure, but what was her point, exactly? Plus, he was right. There was no one around. She was being a freak—and not in her usual good-freak sort of way. Still, it wouldn’t have been the worst exit, all said and done—except rats! She congratulated herself too soon. Normally steady as a rock, she was suddenly shaky and dropped the mop bucket, spraying herself with the rest of the gloopy mess.
Behind her came a surprised, slightly dismayed grunt—and a low whistle, followed by laughter. Aisha didn’t have to turn around to know Giant Jase was the grunter and his brother was the hyena. She resumed a forward march, without a backward glance. She might have to listen to them laugh at her, but she didn’t have to watch.
Catch the rest of THE CATCH November 2019!