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Wilderness Daddy by Kara Kelley – Sample

Chapter One


I gulp my scotch and scowl around the room. The party is nothing like the usual Steed affair. I can’t decide if it’s the stiffness of the Takahashi family or the melancholy of the Steed employees. Or maybe it’s just me projecting. It’s only the first day of an all weekend retreat and I’ve never liked events like these but I despise this one.

The possible merger is the brainchild of my father. I have my own ideas for bringing Steed Wilderness Outpost back on top, but it seems my opinion doesn’t matter because my father has obviously made up his mind.

John Steed, third generation president and CEO of Steed Wilderness Outpost, has his arm around the back of Mr. Takahashi as they pose for a photo. I grit my teeth.

Takahashi Sporting Goods is nothing like Steed Wilderness Outpost and that’s not just because they’re originally from the east, although that doesn’t help. They’re an Ontario-based company catering to people who play sports. We provide equipment for hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, and survivalists. My vision for Steed Wilderness Outpost is ruined by this ridiculous merger.

I raise a hand to the bartender and she nods at me before ignoring the waiting line of patrons and immediately filling a glass with scotch for me. I wink as she puts it on a server’s tray and sends it to me.

“Landon, dude, have you seen all the hot ass around here? One of these ladies is coming back to my cabin tonight.” My younger brother, Grant, swivels his head to watch a group of ladies walking by. “Maybe more than one,” he says, shooting me a half grin. I shake my head.

Grant empties his whiskey glass in one gulp and sets it on the server’s tray as I grab my scotch. With glassy eyes and a lecherous look, he motions his chin at another group of women on the other side of the room. I gather a slow breath. In my current mood I can’t be bothered with women in general let alone stuffy Takahashi employees who think they’re better than everyone else. Just like their boss.

“I’ve got my eye on that tall one.” He nudges me with an elbow and I look skyward a moment. Grant may not want to admit it but I know he’s sweet on a short curvy brunette already and she’s not in this room. “That little one has been checking you out, bro. She looks like a tiny porcelain doll, but she won’t break on top.” His eyes slide to mine, his mouth curving in an even filthier grin as his lascivious chuckle assaults my ears. “I bet she’d climb you like a mountain.”

I drink from my glass to cover my distaste over his comment—his attitude. Who cares about the women in this room. We’re about to lose our company’s autonomy. The girl my brother refers to stands back with the others and yet still apart from them. She’s been quietly brooding all evening and more than a few times her ire’s been directed at me.

I can’t decide if her gloomy demeanor heightens or hinders her beauty. Not that I’m interested. It’s more of a general fascination. She’s not my type. My eyes sweep the room. None of the women here are. I like cute girls with sturdy figures that fill out their jeans and tees. Fun girls with saucy smiles, spicy wit, and sweet giggles. And girls that like getting messy outdoors and drinking out of a beer bottle. Not a girl that likes dressing up like a Barbie doll and prancing around shopping boutiques. And definitely not a delicately featured girl with large, brooding eyes that pull my attention just by glancing in my direction like some sort of siren.

Even though the woman isn’t lacking male attention, she pays them no mind. Melancholy weighs her down except when she looks to me, and then she’s irritated, maybe even downright pissed off. And once again, as her head turns to me the gloominess is replaced with a fire.

I narrow my eyes on her, assessing, taking another sip of my drink. Her beautiful but delicate features look oddly twisted in agitation. With her fists clenched at her sides and her pretty mouth taut in a tight scowl the only thing that shows sadness rather than fury are those large, dark onyx eyes. I wonder if I’m putting off the same vibe and that’s why we keep catching each other’s stare.

Mr. Takahashi sidles up next to the group and puts his arm at the little doll’s back. My father, there too, speaks to the girl. She bows to him and Dad gives Takahashi his megawatt smile. Disgust burns in me at my father’s woo-ery. That’s what his charm is, some sort of sorcery and when he turns it on someone, there’s no hope.

Kiss his ass, Father. Kiss his ass. Since it’s my father pursuing the Takahashis they have all the control and it irritates the hell out of me. Steed Wilderness Outpost is better on its own. I turn away before anyone can see my scowl deepen.

The doll with Takahashi sticks in my thoughts though so I swallow a liberal gulp of my drink. Why was my father so pleased to meet her? And why does she keep shooting me angry glares? And why the hell does she appear innocent and shy with others but then shows me a fierceness that belies that?

“Come on, Lan, stop pouting. So what if Dad wants this merger. Why not enjoy the freedom? More people running the show means less work, right? You work too much. You always have, even as a teenager. Time you relax, bro. Enjoy life.”

I shoot him a hard look and press my lips. My brother has always had an aversion to work. “You think Takahashi is going to respect us and our ideas? Or those sons of his?”

I’m so angry Grant rears back and raises his hands a moment in surrender. “Chill, dude, this is a party and leave me out of the business shit.” He chuckles. “I have no ideas and I don’t give a rat’s ass if they don’t respect me.” He looks around. “Tits and ass everywhere and no one’s thinking business but you, dude. Have some fun.” He shakes his head at my frown. “Or not.” He gives a passing woman his best smile. “Never mind, I’ll have enough for both of us.”

Grant doesn’t wait for a response from me but follows the woman. He reminds me of cartoon character float-following wavy scent lines of the woman’s expensive perfume.

I mull over Grant’s words as I watch the woman he’s following throw a coy look over her shoulder and wiggle her ample ass a little more.

Freedom. It’s a word I can practically taste. But my idea of freedom is much different than Grant’s. I grunt, hand my empty glass to a passing waiter, and head to the exit through the crowd.

I’m not supposed to leave but I need some air. My brother and I are forced to be a part of the family business, but as the oldest Steed son I actually need to be serious about it. It’s never been what I’ve wanted but my sense of loyalty and responsibility keep me in check. Family is everything.

The open air hits me, sweet with the aroma of spring, erasing some of my irritability. Pinehaven Lodge is a sprawling three hundred acre property on the outskirts of a small town near Yoho National Park with a purposefully rustic-looking, but well-appointed main lodge, complete with the ballroom we paid a fortune to use tonight, and cabins meant for corporate retreats—expensive corporate retreats.

The luxury of the lodge offsets the rusticity of the cabins. With the cabins, the extravagance comes in the form of the view. A mountain backdrop and beautiful, aqua-colored lake at your door. Those cabins are where a smaller group of us, mostly upper management, will stay for the week taking hikes and tours, and doing team-building exercises to get to know each other better. Although not my father or Takahashi. They’ll be working out details in the main lodge.

I walk the impeccably maintained grounds, which have been kept as natural-looking as the landscape architect would allow. It’s fresh outside, with the lingering end of a bitterly cold winter finally giving way to the crispness of spring, and the stars are bright in the cloudless night. I instantly relax, looking at the mountain backdrop. I’ve been cooped up too long with this impending merger. I’m in one of the most beautiful places on Earth and yet I want to leave. All the stunning natural wilderness that surrounds me right now is tainted by the people inside.

So close yet so unreachable.

I want to head to my mountain cabin, forget civilization for a while. Living there would make running the business a little more bearable, but my mother needs me. She’s had multiple sclerosis since I was ten, but only in the last five years has she needed more care.

I exhale hard thinking of her, the heart of our family, and all she’d done to care for us despite her pain and mobility issues during our childhood. She’d made sacrifices so we didn’t miss out and I would do the same for her. Including putting my life on hold, living in my childhood home to care for her.

Movement catches my eye and I watch someone running through the field toward the edge of the forest. As my eyes adjust I can tell it’s a woman or maybe even a child. Her hair is flying behind her. Is she in trouble? Looking around I see nothing out of place besides her but decide to follow.

I find her on the edge of the clearing near the woods that separates the lodge from the cabins. She doesn’t know I’m here yet. Her arm is wrapped around the trunk of a pine tree, her breath labored, but I’m not sure if it’s from running or if she’s crying.

“Hey, you all right?”

Her head whips around and although I can’t see well, I recognize her immediately. Maybe it’s her height or maybe it’s an awareness in my gut; I certainly can’t deny the pull I’ve been feeling all night.

It’s the little doll.

“Is someone chasing you?” I imagine her large eyes are wide and fearful since she stands frozen in place. “It’s okay,” I say, holding my hands up. “I saw you from the hotel. I was worried.”

She sniffs and brings her hand to her face. Now I know she’s been crying. “Just chased by my own demons,” she says, her voice soft and pleasing to the ear. I love her answer since my own demons have been haunting me as well tonight. I can’t see much detail in the dark, especially away from the hotel lights, but my gut says she’s even more beautiful up close.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask. I’m a sucker for tears, my biggest weakness according to Grant, so I’m fully invested.

She shakes her head and lowers her face. My heart constricts in my chest. She’s a stranger so I shouldn’t have so much empathy, but I do. Maybe because of my mood. Maybe because my sweet mother is on my mind.

She sucks in a breath audibly and I don’t know why but I take her arm, gently so I don’t frighten her, and pull her against me. She comes easily, fitting against me as if we were made for each other, which is odd since I am a mountain of a man and she is smaller than the average female. I doubt she’s even five feet.

She clings to me for maybe a minute, releasing hot sobs that are barely audible against my chest. The crickets chirp around us and the smell of evergreen is potent, but I’m still breathing in the scent of her hair—coconut and citrus.

I’m about to ask her what’s happened when she stiffens and starts shoving me. “Get your damn paws off me!”

First my eyes widen in surprise and then narrow on her. A flare of impatience burns in me. “I don’t know what’s upset you but there’s no need be rude.”

“I didn’t ask you to follow me! Or to console me!” She shoves me again. “Leave me alone!” Spinning away from me, she huffs and I clench my jaw.

“I was just offering comfort.”

“Just because a woman shows some vulnerability, it doesn’t mean she’s waiting for a man to soothe her, to paw her.”

Paw her? “Apparently consoling is the last thing you need right now.” There’s a growl to my voice and for a second I worry I’ll scare her, but then I think maybe she needs a little frightening to scare away her attitude.

“Really? Too bad you realized that too late. And no, the last thing I need right now is a man acting like he knows what I need. Dammit, get out of the stone ages, you archaic ass! Women are equals!”

I chuckle without humor looking down at her. “Oh, I definitely know what you need.”

A few smacks on your dainty little doll ass.

Maybe I am an archaic ass for thinking it but I have never wanted to put someone in their place more. Nothing cures a hissy fit like a good old-fashioned spanking. But the last thing I need is the complication of dealing with a brat when the company I’ve dedicated my life to is being given away.

She opens her pouty mouth to answer but I cut her off by turning away. “Good luck with whatever your issues are. Try not to get eaten by anything out here. Bears and cougars come down from the mountains occasionally this time of year. They’re hungry in the spring.”

“Wait!” I can hear a hint of panic in her voice. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be such a bitch.”

“What’s done is done,” I say with a dismissive wave and continue to walk. The grass is wet and my socks are damp above my leather shoes and that’s what I concentrate on.

“Whatever,” she shouts at my back. I cringe at the word but ignore her, heading back to the hotel.

As I enter the lodge, the heavy air weighs on me. My brother has some girl pressed against the wall in the lobby and I shake my head. It’s not even someone from the party. It’s the bartender. My brow rises as she looks at me, my brother devouring her neck. Embarrassment deepens the flush on her cheeks.

Maybe if Takahashi saw Grant’s inappropriate behavior he’d be scandalized enough to end merger talks but that would piss off my father and his relationship with Grant is already strained. Golf and brunch with the family next Sunday would be unbearable then and it’s one of the family practices my mother enjoys too much to ruin.

Once I’m back in the ballroom my eyes automatically scan the room for my father, for Takahashi, and for anyone else I want to avoid. I don’t see either man until it’s too late.

“Landon, come meet Mr. Takahashi and his son, George.” My father grabs my arm, stopping me as I pass by. Aggravation stirs in me, but I check my emotions.

“Mr. Takahashi, this is my eldest son, Landon.”

The man examines me closely before nodding. He’s practically expressionless. With my own assessment I decide he’d kill at poker, except there’s no way this man would be that frivolous with his money.

“My son, George,” he says, waving his hand toward the man beside him. “I’m sure you’ll be working closely in the future.”

I shake George’s slight hand, surprised by Mr. Takahashi’s unaccented English. George looks alert but uncomfortable and his hand feels like a dead fish in my palm. I can tell he doesn’t want this merger either and I wonder if he might be an ally. Maybe the two of us can find a way to squelch the union.

“How are you, George? Enjoying the evening?” I thought Takahashi had two sons but it’s only George there. Perhaps that will be to my advantage if I can get Grant to man up.

“It’s a nice place. You’re gracious to host us.” He is taller than his father, close to six feet and while his features are also less obviously Japanese, they’re still fine. I realize why when Takahashi introduces his tall and elegant blonde wife. George looks more like his mother, although he still has straight jet-black hair and dark eyes.

“This is my wife, Sara.” Mr. Takahashi is speaking to me. I take his wife’s hand and finish the formality quickly. My father says hello as if they’re old friends with a kiss to her cheek.

“Where’s our daughter?” Takahashi asks his wife while looking around. So the second spawn is female, I think.

“There,” Mrs. Takahashi answers and points. I only catch the stern look on Mr. Takahashi’s face when I turn to see his daughter approaching. My eyes widen.

Of course the little doll is their daughter.

Miss Takahashi bows slightly to my father and me, but despite her submissive gesture, I still see the severity in her eyes.

“This is our daughter, Akari.” Mr. Takahashi looks at her a moment before looking back at us. “She just finished her degree at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.”

My father pipes up, “Ah, University of British Columbia. Rated number one in Mclean’s magazine for business.”

“Yes, and our Akari received her degree with honors,” Mrs. Takahashi says, smiling at her daughter.

“Hello, Mr. Steed and…” Akari pauses, swallowing hard. Her tongue darts out to lick her lip. The fiery look in her eye is doused. I furrow my brow at the pine needle in her hair.

“Landon,” I say, schooling my expression and taking her hand. Her eyes shifting to her father, she gives me a small smile, but I don’t miss the slight wrinkle of her nose.

Akari, who subtly moves behind her father, is a completely different person than the one who accused me of pawing her outside. I pin her with a hard look. She turns her head, but not before I see her blink back tears. If we were alone, I’d take her chin in my hand and bring her eyes back to mine, make her explain—but we’re not, and as annoyed as I am, my gut tightens at the thought of her in distress.

Grant’s right. My biggest weakness is my heart turning to pudding at the sight of tears.

“I think we’ll retire to our rooms.” Takahashi points to the exit, as if the two women don’t know where that is, and nods at my father. “Good night. Thank you again for hosting this party for us.”

“Yes, thank you for the warm welcome, Mr. Steed,” Akari says, once again bowing to my dad. He smiles kindly at her, absolutely smitten. Mrs. Takahashi says her goodnights as well but I’m too busy watching Akari to pay any real attention. Is she mad at me for the merger? Or am I just competition now? I’d been so intrigued by Akari that I hadn’t noticed the man hovering between her and Takahashi.

Akari turns to me and bows, although significantly less than she did to my father. The man watches her and eyes me. I wonder who he is. He’s closer to Takahashi’s age than hers so unlikely a lover, but the way he looks at her gives me a chill. I narrow my eyes on him, feeling protective suddenly.

“Breakfast meeting?” my father asks Takahashi, but I don’t hear the answer because my eyes are still on the strange older man who was never introduced. As they all leave, Takahashi speaks to him.

“Mr. Hattori, please escort Akari to her cabin.”

I wonder if he’s who she was running from and my hackles rise. He takes Akari by the elbow and smiles down at her, giving her a tug in the direction of the exit.

Hattori nods at Takahashi as he passes and then looks over his shoulder at me with a small tight smile. He’s short, although still taller than Akari, pudgy and balding, so definitely not a bodyguard.

“I’m heading to my cabin as well,” I say to my father, still watching Akari.

“She’s a lovely girl, Landon. Beautiful, intelligent, and sweet. Maybe you should offer to walk her.”

I only grunt in response.

The whole family is cracked. A controlling father, with a weird little Mr. Miyagi sidekick, a daughter who seems to hate me for no reason, a brother who looks like he might faint if someone talks to him too loudly, and a mother who watches her husband as if she needs permission to breathe. I shake my head and glance back at my father.

What the hell have you gotten us into?

“Landon? It’s early. You can’t be tired yet.” His words come out like accusations.

“I’ve got a headache and I need to call and check on Mom.” That shuts him up.

As I head through the lobby, Akari and her mother are off to the side in an alcove arguing while Takahashi speaks with a bellboy. Hattori hovers. Akari’s mother is clearly upset but I’m too far away to hear what’s being said. When Akari’s eyes search the room and land on mine, she stiffens.

She looks away quickly but not before I see her eyes shining with tears. Tears fall down her flawless, flushed cheeks at the exact moment I pass, making my gut fall. I don’t know why she’s angry or hurt but I do know I want to fix it.

I head toward them, hearing Akari say ‘that’s not why I went to University’ but Sara notices me and shoots her daughter a look that quiets her.

“Hello, ladies.”

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Sara says and moves away like a ghost.

“What’s going on?”

Her mouth curves into a snarl before she shoves away from the wall and rushes away out the door, apparently not interested in waiting for the club car or her escort. Hattori rushes after her.

I wait a few minutes before heading out after them. I don’t want to be around anyone either, but I’m sure as hell keeping an eye on Akari.

As soon as this stupid retreat is over, my father and I are going to have a long chat about this. I untie my tie, breathing in the crisp night air.

I shove a hand through my hair. I can’t let this merger happen.

My cabin is farthest from the lodge and a little more private. Still next to the other cabins but further around the lake. I’m satisfied Akari is safely in her cabin when Hattori passes me on his way back to the lodge, so I walk toward the lake instead of checking on her.

Mist rises off the water and a wolf howls from somewhere in the distance. The hoot of an owl follows. All of it helps placate me for the moment.

Each cabin has its own dock but mine has a small boat tied to it. I walk up and listen as the water laps gently against the boat. I plop down beside it, nudging it away from the dock.

“Watch it!” Surprised, I lean over to look in the boat. Akari’s lying on the bottom, her hair splayed fan-like around her.

“What are you doing out here? You okay?”

“Go away. I don’t want company, especially yours.” She fairly spits the last two words, making my brow shoot up. Long gone is the submissive girl. Then again after our encounter on the grounds, I knew that was just an act.

I rise, fighting the urge to teach her some manners. Instead, I issue a warning for her own good. “This lake is glacier fed. Be careful. You don’t want to fall in. Hypothermia is serious business.”

“I plan on making your life hell,” she says in a severe whisper. In the moonlight I can see her narrowed eyes and downward curved mouth.

“What is your problem, little girl?” I get to my feet, my hands finding my hips.

“You! Obviously.” She rises from the boat so quickly it teeters. I reach out to steady her and she bats my arm away. The boat sways harder. “And I’m not a little girl!” This time I try to steady the boat with my foot. As much as she could use some cooling off, I don’t want her in the lake. I wasn’t kidding about the hypothermia.

“If you’re done with your tantrum, I can help you out of the boat. Walk you back to your cabin.” I put my foot back on the dock and hold out my hand. She looks at it as if it’s filthy. Gathering a breath, I remind myself she’s hurt and angry, and even though I don’t know why, she obviously doesn’t know how to deal with it.

“Look, I think you need to see I’m not the enemy here. I didn’t concoct this idea and I’m just as pissed off about it as you are. I’d really like to help you out now before you fall into the lake.”

“Please,” she sneers. “What do you have to be pissed about?” She pulls a pack of cigarettes out of the bodice of her dress. “Takahashi Sports is bailing you out. We’re the ones gaining dead weight.” She puts a cigarette in her mouth and lights it, making a face that clearly says it’s her first time and she’s wondering how on Earth anyone can subject themselves to the vile taste. I watch, sort of dazed. She is acting like a teenager rebelling against her parents. She looks young, but not that young!

“Give me that,” I say, snatching the cigarette from her mouth. “These’ll kill you.” She tries to snatch back the smoke from my hand. “We’re not dead weight. And I’ll happily discuss my thoughts on this merger if you’ll come out of the boat and go to your cabin.”

“Give that back.”

I move my hand farther away and the boat rocks as she leans to grab it. I steady it again with my foot.

“I’m not letting you near my cabin. You’re just trying to get me alone so you can start pawing me again.”

“Jesus!” I wave my arm out gesturing to the expanse around us. “We’re alone out here. Am I pawing you?”

“Give me my damn cigarette!” Huffing, she steps onto the dock and snatches the cigarette from my hand.

Putting the smoke in her mouth, she inhales. Once again I can see she’s never smoked a cigarette in her life. Her eyes water and she swallows a cough. Another puff and she can’t hold back. She starts coughing and gagging.

“Suddenly decide to pick up a bad habit tonight, have you?”

“No, I’ve been smoking for years. I do drugs and sleep around, too.” She sticks her dainty nose in the air and I shake my head.

“Uh huh. You’re a brat. Now go to your cabin before I put you there myself.”

She draws in more smoke and coughs again.

“It’s a god damn merger, that’s all, and for your information, I don’t want it either. You don’t need to make yourself seem less appealing to talk me out of it.”

“I…” Another cough this time more forceful, chokes her. “Yeah, if that’s all it was…” Her words come out strangled. “These are way grosser than I thought,” she adds and I watch as she tosses the cigarette over her shoulder out into the tall grass. My jaw tightens and I leave her to go retrieve it.

“You can’t just throw a lit cigarette into the grass.” I hold it up, pinching the end between my fingers, while I lecture her. “People who don’t respect nature shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy it.”

She rolls her eyes and with lightning speed grabs the cigarette from my hand. She’s about to throw it again. I reach for her but she jumps back. “Don’t touch me!”

I grit my teeth and grind out, “Do it. Throw it again, Akari. See how I touch you then.” I dare her with my eyes, impatience and annoyance growing in me. “You’re clearly acting out like a child and I’m telling you right now, I’m not afraid to treat you like one if you don’t stop.”

“You’re already lecturing me like one,” she says, her mouth quirking into a snotty grin. “So what else can you do?” Her mocking tone tells me she has no idea how serious I am.

“Do you want me to spank your bratty ass, Akari?” I ask, putting my hands on my hips. “Do I need to put you over my knee and teach you to be a good little girl? Because, God dammit, that’s exactly what you need.”

She places the butt on the flat of her hand and positions her finger and thumb ready to launch it. She looks me right in the face and then… flicks. It’s a fuck you if I ever saw one. The butt hits me square in the chest and drops. This time I don’t hesitate. I grab her wrist, yanking her to me.

“Let go, you son-of-a-bitch!” Akari lifts her leg and stomps down hard on my shoe with the heel of her pumps, but she only succeeds in doing what a pellet gun might do to a grizzly. It further antagonizes me. Propping my throbbing foot on a raised post on the dock, I yank her over my thigh. She squeals, teetering over my leg, her limbs flailing for purchase.

“I’ll call the cops,” she shrieks.

“And I’ll tell your father what a little brat you’re being.” It’s a gamble, but having met the man and seen how she behaves around him I think it’s a safe bet, so I start swatting her backside.

When her fists start pummeling my leg, I flip up her dress, continuing to spank her. Smacking her panty-clad bottom seems to make no difference at first. But no matter how hard she struggles and squirms, no matter how loud she swears, I continue, enjoying the satisfying sound of every solid smack.

“Panties are coming down next,” I warn. She freezes then and I take advantage, getting a few really good swats lower on her bottom where the skin peeks from her panties.

“Okay! Stop!” she yells, slumping over my leg.

When I pull Akari upright and see she’s still scowling and shooting daggers at me with her eyes, I don’t release her. My hand, still around her upper arm, loosens slightly as I consider whether to draw her across my knee again, but she suddenly catches me off guard, yanking her arm back.

She rips herself from my grasp.

Shit! I lunge, grappling for her with no avail. She squeaks in surprise as she falls and I grimace at the splash. With no more than a second’s pause to prepare myself for the freezing water, I jump in after her.

Between the frigid water and the sound of sputtering and flailing my anger fizzles. I don’t even know if this girl can swim. I don’t know much about her at all.

“Are you okay? Can you swim?” I ask, ignoring the way the water steals my breath, and stroke toward her. With wet, slicked-back hair shining in the light of the moon, she’s too beautiful. Even upset, with teeth chattering, she steals my breath as much as the icy water.

“This is all your fault!” she hollers on a cry. I stop swimming to test the depth. I can stand and the water isn’t even to my waist so I know she can stand too. I release a breath and it billows like smoke in between us. At least I don’t have to worry about her drowning. I offer a hand and she slaps it away, splashing me in the face.

“I hate you.”

“You can get out yourself now, little girl.” I turn, wading through the water until I’m on the rocky beach. She’s still splashing in a tantrum behind me so I walk away as if I’m leaving her. The little tyrant can scream obscenities at my back until her voice goes raw, I won’t leave her there, but she doesn’t need to know that.

“Don’t… leave me… please… My dress… is caught.”

I hear the shiver in her voice. Her appeal, so sad and pathetic with her clacking teeth, stops me in my tracks. But it’s her stubborn teary sniff that has me back in the water despite the needles of icy cold it brings.

“I got you, honey. I got you.”

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