Before I found the Mountain, I was a twenty-one-year-old never been touched virgin, carrying my purity around me like a shroud of loneliness. I longed for connection, for touch, to be understood. To be cherished.
I longed for love.
What I gained was all I hoped for. Twice over.
Before I found the Mountain, I was a naughty girl, not knowing the meaning of the word obedience. I was a stranger to the fierce wave of humiliation that comes with being punished at the hands of a lover. And the euphoria that follows.
I was given not one pair of hands willing to instill pain to teach me, but two.
Before I found the Mountain, I’d never called a man Daddy.
I didn’t know the freedom of shame, of being forced to form the word on my lips.
Touch me, Daddy… More, Daddy…
Please, make me come, Daddy.
I now know what it means to call two men by this forbidden name.
When I found the Mountain, I found ecstasy, heaven.
I lie in bed and dream of their hands stroking my breasts, taking my nipples tight between their fingers until I cry out. Their hot, wet mouths tasting me between my thighs.
Their fingers entering me, stretching and filling and claiming places that now belong to them.
I dream of when I displease them and they punish me, their heavy palms spank my ass until it burns. Their belt bites into my flesh as I cry out for mercy.
They make me come with the strength and power of a Mountain.
My mafia daddies.
Mama says my beauty is a gift—straight from the devil. A curse. One that will end up making me miserable. Because with beauty comes attraction from men. Who my mother swears are the spawn of the devil and nothing but trouble.
For a woman who’s never stepped foot in a church, she sure does a lot of talking about the dark prince. And for a woman who despises men so vehemently, she sure has had a lot of them. Maybe that’s the reason she hates them so much.
She says no good comes from a man’s attentions, but she seems to resent the stares I get. Her eyes watch them watching me and I get a niggling sense that she wishes they wanted her. The ogling started at fourteen when I woke up with a set of C cups and full hips. Add into the mix blonde hair and sea-green eyes—as a creepy ex of my mom’s once called them—and the curse is complete.
I’m just a pretty girl who men want to fuck. A beautiful piece of ass dotting the scenery. Something to be used, then tossed aside. They stare hard but I know once I’m out of their line of vision, I’m forgotten about.
And that’s why I’ve chosen not to give my body to any of them.
I’ve kept my virginity for myself, and won’t share it until I find a man worthy of my attentions. Sure, I’ve dated, kissed, done other things, but letting a man go there? No way.
I’m as pure as a snowflake. Meanwhile, my mama’s done just about every man in this town. I think the reason my mama’s always on about the devil is because she’s caught up in her own sins. When she was younger and full of hope, her face free from wrinkles of disappointment, she slept with a different man almost every night she bartended.
The most grievous of her sins was committed the day I was born—when she pretended she actually knew who had gotten her pregnant.
My daddy could have been anyone, but she chose Larry, a gullible car salesman to pin me on. He didn’t last long. Said my crying kept him up at night. That he wasn’t fit for fatherhood. He hightailed it off into those misty mountains.
Poor man. He didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he came across my mom.
Things only went downhill from there for Mama, a string of exes falling behind her like dominoes. Once I was old enough to start school, Mama went back to bartending nights, paying our elderly neighbor, Dorothy, to stay with me while she worked.
Dorothy smelled of vanilla and cinnamon and had a voice like an angel. Dottie, as I called her, was the person who raised me. Told me my beauty was a blessing, not a curse. Fed me, hugged me, and kept the boys at bay.
She died last year. With her went my heart. I’ve been floundering ever since.
Today, I celebrate my twenty-first birthday. I picture how the day would have gone if Dottie was alive. She’d bake me one of her famous chocolate cakes and give me a homemade gift—one of those precious needlepoints she toiled over every afternoon.
I always told her they were straining her eyes, that she ought to put them away, but she insisted on making them. I’m glad she didn’t listen to me and kept right on stitching. Those needleworks are one of the few things I have to remember her by.
I sit at the kitchen table, alone, staring at her artwork. I’ve hung them on the wall, a collection, each stitching framed by a colorful plastic circle. My favorite—the last one she made before she died—a little red ladybug, spreading her wings, preparing to fly, holds my gaze.
Maybe she was trying to send me a message with that one. Maybe she knew her time on this earth was ending.
I pretend she’s sitting in the empty chair beside me. She’d give me a big ole hug and kiss my cheek. She’d probably say something like I’m so proud of you, Junie. You’ve turned out to be a lovely young lady. A hard worker, smart and kind. Sweet when you can be and tough when you need to be.
She’d tell me that she loves me.
I wipe a rogue tear from my cheek with the back of my hand. Today, faced with the huge milestone of turning twenty-one, I feel the vastness of my aloneness. Mama’s working. My friends are scattered about the state, having left our tiny mountain town—Taylorville—as quickly as they could.
I guess people my age like to live in towns that have shops open past eight o’clock.
I don’t know why I stayed here after high school. Scratch that. I know exactly why I stayed. Dottie. And I don’t regret a second I spent with her.
With my only real friend gone, I’ve been wondering what keeps me here now. Maybe not wanting to abandon my mom? But who am I kidding? She doesn’t need me. She’s never been overly involved in my life; I’m the one holding the thin thread of our bond together.
My eyes travel around the room. I keep the house neat, tidy, but it’s scarcely furnished and undecorated. I’ve done my best to make it homey, bringing home plants I find on clearance, filling old glass jars with wildflowers from the woods, but Dottie’s needlepoints are the only real thing of beauty in this house.
No, that’s not it. I don’t stay for my mom.
I stay because I can’t face the fear of trying something new, going somewhere unfamiliar.
The truth is I’m suffering from crushing anxiety, an invisible monster that often rears its ugly head at the worst times. Growing up a broke kid of a neglectful single mom in a small town, I often found my thoughts turning to worry.
Will my mom make enough money to keep the lights on?
Will her next boyfriend move in with us, making me uncomfortable in my home?
Are the other kids at school looking down on me for not knowing who my father is?
The turmoil grew in my head and in my heart, until I started backing out of invitations. Staying home with Dorothy when my friends went out. She helped me through the worst of the anxiety.
And when she died, my only true source of emotional support vanished with her spirit.
Now, sitting in our dimly lit house, all alone, thinking of her, I find that familiar tightening coming to my chest, my heart pounding faster against my ribs. In comes the wave of shame I feel from feeling panic when there’s no real sign of crisis.
I need to get out of here, to get some air.
Maybe I’ll head over to the Saddle Sore.
I am, after all, of legal drinking age. Why not go down and dull the anxiety with my first beer? I bounce over to the mirror, smoothing my shoulder-length platinum hair. My eyes look dull. I brighten them up with a swipe of sparkly brown shadow and a touch of mascara. Happy birthday to me. Welcome to womanhood.
Does turning twenty-one make you a full grown woman? Or do you have to have had a roll in the hay with a man for that? If so, looks like I’m going to be a little girl forever because my V-card is nice and safe in the back pocket of my jeans, where it’s going to stay…
Giving my reflection a nod of affirmation, I grab my purse and head out the door. It’s a short walk to the bar, and I need the fresh air. After a few minutes of walking, my breaths slow, the anxiety melting away. I release a deep breath. I’m okay.
The bright neon lights of the bar sign welcome me, The Saddle ore. The bulbs in the second ‘S’ are burned out tonight. Nice, real classy, Saddle Sore. I pull the heavy door back, and step inside our town’s only bar. The smell of stale beer and peanut shells surrounds me.
My mom looks up, a slow smile rising on her lips. Once a beauty, she now looks tired, the dark circles under her eyes made more pronounced by the dim fluorescent lighting. “Well, hey there, Junie Bug. You coming in for your birthday beer?”
Sliding onto the barstool, I give her a grin, throwing my purse up on the counter. “You know it. I’m one legal eagle.”
“Well, not technically till quarter till midnight, but I’ll let it slide,” she teases. She always told me I was born in three pushes, as if I was Cinderella and just had to get out of her womb before the clock struck midnight. “What’ll it be?”
“Let me think.” I scan the signs on the taps, reading the descriptions under the brand names. Dark Beer, Light Beer, Lager, Seasonal. I’ve never had a drop of alcohol, but she doesn’t know that. I’m sure she thinks while she’s been working, I’ve been out partying like she was at my age.
“Um… I’ll just take a light beer.”
“Good choice. Less calories.” She turns her slim hips, grabbing a glass. Her hair flows down her back. It’s about time for me to cut it, and she desperately needs her roots done. I watch as she pulls down on the handle and the golden liquid fills the glass, brimming to the top with thick white foam. She slides it down the glossy bar top. “Here you go, honey. This one’s on the house. Happy birthday.”
The only gift I’ll be getting from her, I’m sure.
But at least she remembered my birthday, right?
“Thanks, Mama. Cheers.” I take a long sip from the frosty glass, swallowing down the foreign liquid. I cringe. It’s strange and bitter on my tongue, not something I’d want to drink on the regular. Gross. How does anyone drink this stuff? I set my glass down on the bar. “Delicious. Ice cold just like I like it.”
She goes to serve another customer, and I’m left alone. I take tiny sips from my drink since, nasty or not, it was a gift from my mama and I’m determined to finish it.
It feels nice in here, warm and familiar. When I was little, if Dottie was sick, my mama would bring me in, prop me up behind the counter and let me help pour the beers. It was fun. Men would tip me in quarters and I felt so proud, the change jingle-jangling in my pockets. Looking back, it seems a little inappropriate to have a child working in a bar, but what was single mother to do?
I want kids one day.
But I want them with a loving husband. In a warm cozy house full of clutter and laughter. And I’ll snuggle them and cuddle them as much as they will let me.
Making up for all the hugs I missed out on.
Damn, Junie, you sure know how to celebrate a birthday.
Sigh. I shove the depression, the anxiety, the gloomy cloud of my childhood away, and dive into my favorite pastime.
Strangers are fascinating. I love to watch them, making up funny names that I think suit the aura they give off. I make up stories in my mind, of how they have secret addictions to gambling, or work exciting jobs for the government, going undercover and spying in our small town.
So, yeah. I need to get a life.
The usual suspects are here tonight. The Gray Beards—my nickname for our town’s lonely bachelors, The Date Nighters—a quiet bunch, the Out to Get Drunkers—a rowdy crowd, and what looks like a low-key birthday party.
Filling the booth in the corner are two men I’ve never seen before. They are way too good-looking to be locals and they instantly pique my interest. I call them The Strangers.
The taller of the two pushes a lock of his shoulder-length dark hair back from his face, resting his elbows on the table. He’s got high cheekbones and a sexy shadow outlining his chiseled jaw. His gaze is hard, his eyes dark brown, almost black, with a thin silver scar over his right eye that makes him seem sexy and dangerous. He slowly lifts a glass and gives his friend an almost bored curl of his lips as he takes a swig. His black leather jacket and heavy boots complement his rugged good looks and aloof mannerisms. He has a panty-melting scowl that could be the cover of one of those fancy men’s magazines. I give him the nickname GQ.
The other man is just as handsome but in more of a clean-cut way, with his broad shoulders and dirty blond hair cropped close to his scalp. His face is clean-shaven; the sleeves of his crisp blue button-down are rolled to his mid-forearms. He squares his shoulders against the booth, holding his frame tighter than his friends.
GQ says something and the man’s laugh bursts from his chest. He’s hot in that Midwest all-American kind of way, like the boy next door. I’ll call him Homegrown. He lifts a glass to his lips. Is that a tattoo, Mr. Homegrown? I get the sense this one is type A, ironing his clothing and shaving daily, so I’m surprised by the black tattoo, twisting vines intersecting one another, that wraps around the entirety of what I can see of his forearm.
He’s like the boy next door, if you grew up beside a family of motorcycle gang bad-asses.
Who are these men and what are they doing in our tiny town?
Ooooh, maybe they’ve got a modeling gig set up, lounging around shirtless on the mountainside having their photos snapped. Or maybe they’re the outdoorsy type, here to get their thrills mountain biking or rock climbing, or backpacking through the wilderness.
Grabbing my beer, I stay in the shadows, inching my way over toward the empty booth across from theirs and slide in. I’ve nothing better to do than snoop, and these two are the most interesting thing I’ve seen around here in weeks.
I pull my phone out of my purse, and pretend to flip through hairstyles on Pinterest. I’m really good at doing hair, I have excellent hearing, and I’m unbelievably nosy. This night is really shaping up. Flipping through images of chocolate cake hair color, I eavesdrop.
GQ leans closer to Homegrown, his voice low. “We’ve got serious security issues at the Mountain. One breach and the entire operation could be at risk. I don’t know what the fuck they were doing before Jet and Liam showed up but it was a fucking mess.”
“A fucking mess is putting it mildly.” Homegrown lifts his glass to his lips, flashing that tattoo again. He sets it down, perfectly centered over the coaster. “Rockland knew what he was doing, bringing us out here to relieve them. With Jet and Liam taking over the shipping, we can take the security off their hands.”
“Yeah and fucking get it where it needs to be. When the Russos bring the supplies, we need to be sure we’ve got the place secure. I don’t want a repeat of what happened at the Parrish.” Seeming agitated, he runs a hand through his long dark hair.
Homegrown gives a tight shake of his head. “That won’t happen. Not on our watch.”
“Give me one more week and I’ll have every inch of the Mountain under surveillance.”
Which mountain he’s referring to, I’m unsure. We’re surrounded by the Blueridge range. I listen harder, catching the word security and threat a few times. Break-ins during off season are a problem at the resorts.
They probably work for one of the ski resorts.
I thought for sure they were dangerous, or at least hunting down danger for fun. Sounds like they’re just overworked resort workers.
Losing interest in The Strangers, I find myself diving into deep shades of auburn that I’d love to re-create for my clients. There’s one with purple undertones—chocolate mauve? That’s a new one I’ve not yet tried.
The weight of a hand rests on my shoulder and I come to, tearing my gaze from my phone screen. Have the hotties come to buy a lonely birthday girl a drink?
It’s not them. It’s Darren. My shithead ex who seems to find me no matter where I go.
I try to smile, but my face feels as if it’s twisting into a grimace. “Hey, Darren. Fancy meeting you here.” And at the Food Mart last week, and the car mechanics the week before that, and the steakhouse on Sunday… the list goes on.
But I guess there’s not much else to do in this town, right? I mean look at me, eavesdropping on two dudes while I drink alone at a bar.
“Hey, Junie. This seat taken?” Without waiting for an answer, he slides into the booth, right beside me. The suede of his jacket presses against my flesh, making a wave of nausea roll through me.
Birthday party for one, so over.
I’m getting the hell out of here.
I scoot away. “Actually, I just stopped by to see my mom. I was heading out.” I grab my bag, his cue to move.
“So soon?” He doesn’t budge. He’s blocking my way, pinning me into the booth with his big, unwelcomed body.
I raise my brows, clutching my bag in my hands. “Excuse me.”
“Where you going? I’ll come with.” His brow knits, as if he’s just remembered something. “Hey. Isn’t today your birthday?”
I nod. “Yeah. But I’m not doing much to celebrate. I’ve got to work early, so I’ll probably just head home.”
Sliding his arm around my shoulder, he leans in too close. “Now that’s no way to spend your twenty-first. Let me take you out. It’s still early in the night. We can go over to Archerville. Get something to eat?”
My skin is crawling at his touch, but I’m half tempted. The city has this chic bohemian vibe and the food is ten times better than anything we have here in T-ville. I think back on what I’ve eaten today… an English muffin, nothing else. Earlier in the evening when I would normally heat up a frozen dinner, I was missing Dottie too much to eat.
My stomach growls. I have no car, a tiny budget, and nothing but cardboard-flavored frozen meals at home.
A free dinner might win over common sense.
Ah, but Junie, you really want to ride in a car alone with him all the way to Archerville? Then sit and try to make conversation with him? Is the food really good enough to make such a sacrifice?
Taking my deliberation as a good sign, Darren gives me a hopeful grin. “What do you say? We could go to that Thai place you like so much.”
The Lotus Flower. I can almost taste their Pad Thai. My mouth waters but I shake my head. “I don’t think so. I really should be heading home.” I go to stand, to push past him somehow.
His hand shoots out to my shoulder, pushing me back down. “Not so fast.”
His eyes lock on mine, the grin falling from his face. “Stay and let me buy you a drink.”
An icy shiver runs down my spine at his touch. I say nothing.
He takes my silence as enthusiasm. “Good. I’ll be right back.” He leaves me with a long, hard look. “Don’t move.”
He goes to the bar, grabbing two more beers. Of course, my mom doesn’t even look over to check on me as she fills his order. She’s probably forgotten I’m even here.
Should I dart to the exit?
Just get the hell out of here and leave him with two beers to drink?
I want to, I know I have the right to… but that creeping anxiety fills me, holding me in my seat. I don’t want to be rude or hurt his feelings, and I don’t want to start trouble.
I’m the one who broke it off and I still feel bad about it. He was a nice enough boyfriend, I just felt like there was something a little… off… about him.
Like the fact that he makes my skin crawl.
He returns with the drinks, sliding one over to me. “Here. Enjoy.”
The smell of this beer makes the alcohol from the first beer hit me all at once. Why didn’t I run for that door? I’m suddenly woozy. I need to leave. Now.
I push this glass away. “You know, I don’t really like the taste. I was only going to have the one, then head home.”
His eyes flash. Cold and hard and that little shiver runs through me again. “Don’t be like that, Junie. I bought you the beer, now drink it.”
That creepy crawly feeling inches over my skin. My breaths start coming faster, my heart racing. My hand hovers near the glass. I want to say no, to throw the drink in his face as a shout-out to girls everywhere who’ve been put in this position.
But the heat of anxiety twisted with that silly pressure to please, to not rock the boat, to do what I’m told, to not hurt feelings bubbles up to the surface, making me wrap my fingers around the glass and bring it to my lips.
He stares at me, smug satisfaction written on his face. My eyes widen as my gaze moves from him to the men approaching behind him. Without taking a sip, I put the glass down, nodding in their direction.
It’s GQ and Homegrown.
Yes, sweet Jesus, please, y’all come on over and save me from this douche bag ex of mine. But as they near, I start to feel anxious—I don’t want to start a fight. This could be bad.
GQ stands, his arms crossed over his broad chest. He speaks to Darren but his deep brown eyes rest on me, his attention making heat rise in my face. “I think the lady made it clear she’d be happier heading home.”
Darren’s brows knit as he gives me a puzzled look before turning in the booth. “What’s it to you? Why don’t you mind your own business?”
Homegrown’s hands go to his hips, his gorgeous tattoo on display. His eyes are a bright blue and they flash as he speaks. “It is our business if you’re bothering her.”
Darren looks to me. “Do you know these guys?”
My gaze drifts from GQ to Homegrown, then back to GQ. They stare down at me, and though I get the feeling they’re here to help me, their gazes have me shrinking back.
The dudes are not ski resort security. They’re massive, dangerous, and scary as hell.
I feel shaky, hot, panicked.
Breathe, Junie. Just breathe.
I don’t want trouble. And as much as I don’t want to be around Darren, I don’t even want to think about the damage these two could do to him. He may be big, but these guys are huge.
Thanks for the backup, hottie strangers, but leave me out of your testosterone battle.
I’m getting the hell out of here.
I shake my head. “I don’t know them, but you know what? They are right. I’d like to go home. If y’all could excuse me, I think I’ll call it a night.”
Darren gives me a withering glance. I grab my bag. He stands and I push past all three of them, my hands shaking, my knees weak. Mama was right—men are nothing but trouble.
Hurrying to the door, I give a wave to my mom. She’s leaning over the bar, pushing her breasts together, smiling and talking with a man in cowboy boots and tight jeans. She doesn’t see me.
I don’t give a backwards glance as I leave the bar.
The cool night air feels good against my face, cooling my flushed skin. I heave a deep breath and shove my hands in the pockets of my jeans. It’s chilly. I should have grabbed a jacket. I walk as fast as I can toward home.
I’m rounding the corner to my street; I can see my house. I’ll be in my jammies ready to Netflix and chill in no time.
A weary feeling crawls up from the backs of my legs to my shoulders. The skin on the back of my neck prickles.
Am I being followed?
Turning my head, I scan the street. Nothing. Silly me. I heave a huge sigh of relief when I find an old stray cat, scrounging around in a garbage bin that’s been brought to the curb. Trash night. I need to remember to pull our can to the road when I get home.
No more scary movies for you, Junie.
I make it another few feet when I hear the unmistakable sound of footsteps. I am being followed. Panic blooms in my chest, making it difficult to breathe. Should I turn around, look and see if there’s a murderer behind me, or break into a run?
I do neither.
My feet freeze to the sidewalk and I stand still, an easy target. I guess the flight or fight instinct we learned about in psychology is real, but I’m in the batch of people who just play dead.
Why did I walk to the bar? Alone? At night? And why did I let those guys piss off Darren? It has to be him behind me.
He’s the one following me, I suddenly know it for a fact in the pit of my stomach. My heart hammers against my chest. Sweat pricks at my hairline.
It feels like hours have gone by in what can only have been a few seconds. Again, like the victim in one of those horrific serial killer movies, I turn in slow motion. This time I grab my house key between my index and middle finger like a weapon, and brace myself to attack.
Expecting death, I find only the cat, looking up at me with gold reflective eyes.
Girl, you have got to stop letting anxiety rule your life! I’m freaking out over a cat, for God’s sake. If I’m not careful, I’m going to have one of those soul-crushing anxiety attacks of mine.
“Scat, tomcat.” I shoo him away. Letting out a long, breathy exhale, I find my hands shaking. A manic laugh bubbles up in my throat. “June, you may be twenty-one, but you are a child. There’s no one here but your silly ass and an old cat.”
I start toward my house.
Just a few steps from home, I mentally flip through the list of shows I’ve not yet binged. Umbrella Academy, Stranger Things, Gilmore Girls. Tonight I need something from another place, another time. Something that can take me far, far away from here. How about across the ocean… England… before there were cell phones. The Crown?
I’m reaching for the door with my key and remembering the half a carton of Chunky Monkey ice cream I’ve hidden in the back of the freezer when I hear the sound of footsteps once more.
Louder. Faster. Real.
This is no cat.
I don’t bother to look, just shove the key in the lock as fast as I can.
Strong arms wrap around my stomach in a viselike grip, pushing the air from my lungs, pulling me away from the door. My key falls from my hand. A hand covers my mouth.
I can’t breathe.