Shep Kingston can survive a week in the woods with nothing but a pocket knife and the clothes on his back. But navigating everyday social interactions? That’s a struggle. If only people were like his dog. Loyal. Well-trained. Quiet. With Puck, Shep knows where he stands. People—especially women—are complicated. Guiding a bunch of spoiled celebrities into the North Carolina mountains is his idea of hell. Until a beautiful, off-limits rock star makes it feel more like heaven. Joss says what she means…and shows Shep exactly what she wants.
Joss Wynter plays sold-out stadiums, not insane survival games. Except she’s no longer the adored lead singer of Scarlet Glitterati. Tragedy turned fans against her and Joss into tabloid fodder. Her manager claims TV’s hottest reality competition will relaunch her image. Joss has doubts but won’t let anything distract her from winning. Not even the rugged local guide with song-inspiring sex appeal. Shep is unlike any man she’s ever met. Direct. Honest to a fault. Unexpectedly tender. As the show’s challenges intensify, so does the attraction between them.
But the cameras aren’t the only ones watching. A deadly opponent lurks in the shadows, playing a dangerous game. And all too willing to kill for a win.
The bottle slipped from the man’s grasp and hit the packed dirt serving as the tent’s floor. The glass cracked and sickly sweet-smelling scent rolled through the tent.
Shep ground his teeth at the overpowering odor. This was exactly the reason he didn’t work inside a building with other people. Overwhelming smells, too much conversation, complete lack of logic. He covered his nose with his palm and stepped away.
“Are you okay?” Joss put a light hand on his arm, a touch that would normally be uncomfortable if not downright painful to him. But with her, for some reason, it was… bearable.
“I don’t tolerate strong scent well.” Puck sneezed and shook his whole body as if confirming Shep’s intolerance to stuff that smelled chemically fake. Shep ducked out of one of the tent flaps, with Puck and Joss Wynter right behind him.
Thank goodness, it looked as if most of the crowd had become bored and left. Shep took a few gulps of fresh air. The scent of pine and the hint of cool the mountains were promising soothed him. Once his head was clear again, he glanced down at the tiny woman beside him. Blood streaked one of her legs.
She was a mess, but she didn’t smell like a perfume factory. If he had to describe her scent, he would call it clean and warm. She had her knapsack slung over one shoulder and the strap for a soft guitar case on the other.
“You shouldn’t take a musical instrument, either.”
Her mouth twisted. “I traded my extra underwear for it. Besides, it’s not that heavy, and I’m sure not leaving it with someone else.”
“We will be hiking up to fifteen miles a day. It will be slapping against your back the entire time. It is an awkward shape, and not necessary.”
“Not for you, maybe,” she said as she gazed toward the mountains humping up from the ground to the west. Although she may have been teasing the other contestant a few short minutes ago, now Shep thought she might be sad. “But this is my best friend.”
“A musical instrument can’t be a friend.”
“So says the man who’s BFFs with a dog.” She glanced up at him, but her eyelashes didn’t twitch like the other woman’s. Suddenly, he realized that Joss Wynter was pretty. With her turquoise-dyed dark hair, pink lips, and tiny stature, she looked a bit like a fairy. Maybe like Tinkerbell’s older sister. The one who probably snuck out at night and back-talked their fairy parents.
“What?” she asked. “Why are you staring at me like that?”
Shep tried to regain the thread of their conversation and flailed around inside his head for a few seconds. Guitar. Best friend. Puck. “That’s different,” he finally said. “Puck is alive.”
“Doesn’t make it any less sad.”
“Puck makes me happy.” More than that, he made Shep whole.
She lifted a hand, let it drop back to her side. “So you understand why I need my guitar.”
“I have heard your music.”
“I do not like it.”
Her laugh was a single puff of air. “Hey, why don’t you tell me what you really think?”
“I just did. It’s too loud. The guitar makes my ears hurt and your voice is screechy.” Just thinking about it, the strident sound of her screaming lyrics on stage or over his radio, prompted Shep to take two steps away from her.
“Good thing you’re an adventure guide and not a music critic.” Her voice had turned hard, harsh.
“I am sorry, though.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” She turned her back on him and started for the tent. “Different musical tastes for different people.”
“No, I’m not sorry about that.”
“I’m sorry you killed your bandmates.”
Joss locked her knees to keep them from kissing the dirt again. There was a sucker punch, and then there was an emotional knockout. One word reverberated through her head: killed, killed, killed.
Puck trotted over to her, leaned his head against her thigh, and whined up at her.
“I said something wrong, didn’t I?” his owner said.
“You… you think?” Sudden low-level nausea rocking her stomach, she shot a glare his way that should’ve twisted up his balls worse than her claw hold on Buffalo earlier.
“I am actually not sure. But when Puck makes that sound, it usually means someone is hurting. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She’d had some terrible things said to her and about her over the past months, but few people had the sheer nerve to outright accuse her of killing her band. “Then why did you say what you did?”
“Because it was a tragedy.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a long, slim length of paracord. “I might not enjoy Scarlet Glitterati’s music, but my little sister is a huge fan. I know many more people are, too.”
Joss stroked Puck’s ears, but the feel of the silky fur did little to ease the pain inside her. “You think I’m some kind of monster.”
“I didn’t say that.” With one hand, he manipulated the cord, giving it all his attention. Dammit, a person should look you in the eye when they called you a monster. “I think I stepped over some line, but I’m not sure.”
What huffed out of her wasn’t a laugh. It hurt too damn much to be that. “I get that guys can be clueless. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve dated every clueless one on the west coast. But I thought Southern men were different. You know—polite and all that. Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Let me hold the door for you, ma’am.”
He looked up from whatever he was doing with the cord, but he still didn’t meet her gaze. His darted to somewhere around her chin and back down again. “My parents did raise their children to be kind and courteous.”
“You just happened to fail charm school.”
“I didn’t go to school.” He rubbed a hand over his drying hair—now a sun-bleached light brown—making it stand up in electrified whirls. “That’s not true. I went to school until I was ten.”
“And then you just ran wild like Mowgli?”
“Mowgli did not run wild. He had two families—one wolf, one human. I only had a human family.”
“My God, you are the most literal human being I’ve ever met.”
He bent over the cord and turned his back on her. “I am not making the soup right.”
That was it. After he stood up for her, she’d thought they had some type of connection, but obviously not. He was rude, insensitive, and distracted.
Devil, yes. Divine, no.
He might look like over six feet of sexiness, but Joss could not suffer this man another minute. He was either playing the most elaborate mind-fuck she’d ever encountered, or he was psycho. And she had plenty of madness inside her own mind these days, thank you very much.
“Look,” she said. “It might be better if you and I keep our distance during the next few days. It’s obvious you don’t like me, and I don’t know how soup figures into all this, but—”
“Soup is conversation.”
Intrigued in spite of herself, she approached him again and Puck followed. “What?”
“That is the way my dad taught me to talk to people. It is like making soup. They put in one ingredient. You look at the ingredient and then add something else.” The cord dangling from his fingers, he pantomimed dropping food into a pot. “But not like radishes to their sweet potatoes.”
And there was her answer. Definitely psycho. “Oookay.”
Attractive on the outside, but awful on the inside.
The man growled. Actually made a low rumbling sound that shot through Joss’s body and made her hair rise with awareness. Apparently, she was psycho, too, because something about that sound cranked up her hormones. But even a psycho knew when to edge away from danger.
“You say one thing and then I say something back that makes sense with what you said,” he said, pacing a tight circle around her, preventing her from escaping. “Which means I have to listen. Hearing and listening are not the same thing.”
“Well, that’s self-aware. Good for you.” Keep things light and friendly.She didn’t like how intense this had suddenly become.
“I wish Puck could talk,” he said so miserably that Joss’s heart jolted. Puck fixed a concerned gaze on his owner and whined again.
“You would be a very rich man,” Joss said as she sidled away a half-step. “I have a feeling Puck is a highly intelligent dog. I bet he could teach physics if he put his mind to it.”
For the first time, she witnessed a true grin spread across the man’s face. “Or neuroscience.”
Okay, good. They’d apparently backed away from some weird precipice, so Joss nodded. “Why not? The sky is the limit for a dog like Puck.” As if he understood every word they were saying, Puck looked back and forth between them. Zip.Right eyebrow up. Zap.Left eyebrow up.
“Can we start over?” Shep asked her.
“Do I have to get back in the raft?” she joked, even though the thought of the raft and the drop made her want to vomit.
“That would not be very efficient since we are about to start our hike.”
“Of course it wouldn’t.”
He turned to her, squaring his shoulders with purpose and meeting her gaze. And oh, wow. Just wow. His eyes were green. Why hadn’t she noticed that until now?
Because…because this was the first time he’d looked at her eye to eye.
He held out his hand, and with the feeling that she was embarking on something life-changing, she put hers in his. The feel of his callused skin on her softer palm buzzed up her arm and settled in her chest.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Harris Sheppard Kingston. People call me Shep. I work as an adventure guide for Prime Climb Tours. Steele Ridge is my hometown. My parents and most of my brothers and sisters live here. I love the mountains, my family, Puck, my cabin, and homemade ketchup.”
And damn, that little autobiography charmed her. “That would make quite a Tinder profile.”
“My dad taught me to make conversation because I could never understand how to do it on my own. He told me I don’t always have to look people in the eyes, but sometimes, when something is really important, that it’s a good thing to do. Because regular people see it as a sign of truthfulness and sincerity. My family knows I don’t lie, so I don’t always have to look them in the eye.”
“You’re looking me in the eye.” And neither of them seemed inclined to drop hands.
“Because I somehow hurt your feelings, and that was not my intention. I want you to see my apology is sincere.”
Charmed? This man had gone from running a blade of burning steel through her heart to melting her into a puddle of disbelieving attraction. “Thank you. I accept your apology.”
“However, it’s likely I will do it again. Because even Puck can’t stop me from saying the wrong things.”
“You hurt people’s feelings a lot?” Made sense if he hit everyone with this type of verbal whiplash.
Shep finally dropped her hand, glanced away and swallowed. Took a bracing breath and met her stare again. “I don’t always understand things like body language, intonation, sarcasm, and subtext. I try, I really try, but sometimes I just… can’t.”
She couldn’t imagine there was anything this man couldn’t do if he put his mind to it. He was obviously smart, conscientious, well-read, and he loved his dog. “I’ve never changed a tire, I don’t understand geometry, and I don’t know how to ride a bike.”
“Really?” he said, his eyes going wide. “For the tire, the first step is to jack up the car and… Oh, soup. You don’t want me to tell you how to change a tire, do you?”
“Shep Kingston, I don’t think I’ve ever met a man like you.” And it made her wonder if she’d been missing out.
“You probably have, but you just didn’t know it. Because we’re estimated at one out of every two hundred fifty to five hundred people. About two to four times as many men as women. They don’t really know why.”
“You lost me again.”
“Backstory. Yeah, people need that sometimes,” he said. “When I was eight, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s no longer listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,but once you have a diagnosis, they don’t take it away. Now, it’s called being high on the autism spectrum. Autism Spectrum Disorder.”
What? This…this incredible man was autistic? “I…uh…wow…”
“Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “It’s not contagious or anything. It just means that my brain tends to work a little differently than most people’s.”
Yes, she was beginning to understand that. And for some reason, it made her feel not so grief-stricken and guilty. “Shep Kingston, I wasn’t sure at first, but you’re growing on me. Who knows, we might even become friends.”