LOVE IS A JOURNEY…NOT A DESTINATION.
Katie Fulton’s steps faltered when her gaze landed on the battered pack resting next to the front door of the cabin. Her breathing quickened, and warmth blossomed in her middle. She hadn’t seen him in nearly two months and had wondered when he’d show up again. Had anxiously awaited the day he’d return.
Glancing around the room, she sighed when she realized the cabin was empty.
“He’s out checking the traps.”
Katie startled and spun around to face Grace. The older woman stood in the doorway to her bedroom, a knowing smile curving her lips upward.
“Wh-what?” she stammered, pretending she didn’t know what Grace was talking about.
“Drew.” Grace patted Katie on the shoulder as she walked by. “He showed up this morning. Brought Charlotte to check on Chloe.”
Of course he had. His sister was nearing the end of her pregnancy, and Charlotte was a midwife who lived on a farm several days walk from the cabin. Katie followed Grace to the large table but didn’t sit. She wondered if Drew would stay now. He’d been away most of the summer, as was his habit, but he always came home for the winter months. Surely he would now with Chloe so close to delivering her baby.
“You slept through breakfast,” Grace said brightly. “Would you like something now?”
“You should have woken me. There are chores and I could’ve helped—”
“We managed just fine. You were exhausted and needed the sleep.” With a frown, Grace studied her. “What would you like? Eggs? Corn cakes?”
Katie shook her head and lowered her gaze. “I’m not really hungry.”
Grace circled the table, took Katie’s chin with gentle fingers and lifted so their gazes met. “You’re not eating enough. Not sleeping enough. What’s going on with you, honey?” She shifted her hand up to feel Katie’s forehead. “Are you feeling sick?”
“No, of course not,” Katie assured, leaning away from her touch. “Nothing is going on, Grace. Promise.”
The woman who’d been more of a mother to Katie than anyone else narrowed her eyes, but after a moment, let her hand fall and stepped back. “I’m here when you’re ready to talk about it.”
“Grace,” she said desperately.
“Why don’t you go on and catch up with Drew? He didn’t leave that long ago. I know you’re dying to see him.”
Heat crept up Katie’s neck and face. It was hell being so damned obvious to those around her—well, obvious to everyone but the one who actually mattered.
“But the chores—”
“Katherine,” Grace said firmly. “The guys and I can handle it. Go. Enjoy some time with Drew.”
She was right. Even with Chloe not helping—at the insistence of everyone else—between Grace, her partners Ethan and Noah, and Chloe’s partners Jack and Isaac, there was no shortage of hands to do the work. Katie worried her bottom lip a moment then darted for the front door.
“Gun,” Grace called after her.
With a sheepish smile, Katie detoured to the gun cabinet tucked under the stairs to the loft. While there hadn’t been any trouble for quite some time, the guys still insisted anyone heading out be armed. Just in case. She selected the rifle she’d first learned to shoot with when she’d joined this mismatched family of hers all those years ago, pocketed several shells then closed the cabinet.
“Be back soon,” she called out as she left the cabin.
Crossing the yard, she glanced around—Isaac and Ethan were working in the large vegetable garden. Noah was near the shed, chopping firewood; Jack was on top of the shed, patching the roof. Each of the men paused in their work and waved to her. Katie lifted her hand in response before ducking into the woods. She didn’t have to think about which way to go. She’d checked traps enough with Drew in the past, and they always hiked the same way.
As she made her way through the trees, she thought about Grace and her concern, and immediately, guilt surged within Katie. The last thing her family needed was to be worrying about her. Not with the winter months coming and a baby on the way. And it wasn’t as if she could actually talk about what was bothering her with any of them. Not that she didn’t trust them—she did, with her life. But telling them she felt empty and just…wrong when Drew was gone? No, that wasn’t something she was going to share with anyone, let alone the ones who loved him as much as she did. She didn’t need the pitying looks from Grace and Chloe or the teasing from the guys, no matter how good-natured it would be.
Besides, she was fine. Or she would be. Once Drew settled back at home, it always got better. Hell, just seeing him would ease the ache that had taken up residence inside her. With that in mind, Katie quickened her pace. It really was pathetic, she thought, how wrapped up she was in the man. But was it any wonder? He’d been one of the most solid things in her life. Her parents… She didn’t remember much about them. They’d both died after the solar flare when the deadly flu swept through the population relentlessly. Katie had been eight, but the few memories she had of Todd and Lucy Fulton weren’t particularly warm and fuzzy. They hadn’t been abusive or anything, just distant from what she could recall. After their deaths, she was cared for by some neighbors—an older couple. She’d been damned lucky, she knew. Not many people would have taken in a child and given up a portion of what little food they had for someone not their own. They’d been kind to her, and everything had been fine. They’d lived a quiet life on a small farm while world fell apart around them. She lived almost as long with Terry and Sue as she had with her parents; then when she was fifteen, they’d gotten ill. It hadn’t been the flu, but soon, the sickness had claimed them, and Katie had found herself all alone.
Katie shook her head and shoved aside the maudlin thoughts. It was only weeks after that she’d met Jack and Isaac, and her life had changed completely, for the better. It made no sense to dwell on the shitty times; they invaded her dreams often enough, even now. She wasn’t going to let those memories occupy her waking hours. That was something she hadn’t allowed for years, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to start that again.
She heard low murmurs and slowed down, unable to tell if it was Drew or not. Cautiously, she made her way forward. Whoever it was wasn’t alone. Maybe Chloe had decided to walk the trap line with her brother, but that wasn’t the sound of— Katie froze and nearly dropped the rifle in her hands. It was Drew. He wasn’t alone.
And the redhead on her knees in front of him sure as hell wasn’t his sister. Katie lifted her hand and covered her mouth, unable to tear her gaze away from the sight of Drew’s thick cock disappearing past the lips of the moaning woman. Charlotte, Katie realized, vision blurring slightly.
Drew’s hands were buried in the woman’s hair, fisted tightly as he fucked her mouth. His head was thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open slightly though no sound came from him. Charlotte ran her palms up and down his taut thighs as she happily swallowed his length.
Katie gulped around the lump in her throat and blinked rapidly. It shouldn’t hurt, she told herself. She had no claim on Drew, not really. And clearly he preferred a different type. Charlotte was tall and curvy in all the right places with auburn hair falling to the middle of her back. The few times Katie had seen her, she’d exuded a quiet confidence and strength. In other words, she was everything Katie was not. Was it any wonder Drew never looked at her the way she craved?
The growled command drew Katie’s attention again. Drew was looking down at Charlotte, thrusting harder, pulling her forward onto his cock.
“Take it. Take it all,” he said through clenched teeth.
Katie, unable to watch anymore and not wanting to be discovered, backed up slowly, quietly. When she was certain she wouldn’t be seen, she turned and ran in the opposite direction. When the cabin was in sight, she skidded to a stop. Bringing her hand to her face, she felt the wetness coating her cheeks. She couldn’t face everyone, not now, not like this. No, she needed a few minutes to just pull it together. She made her way to the river and sat heavily on the grassy bank, laying the rifle beside her.
“So stupid,” she muttered, dashing the tears away with the tips of her fingers.
It shouldn’t hurt like this, she thought again. She’d fooled herself into thinking there was something between her and Drew, that he was something she needed. Pressing her palms to her middle, she bent forward and drew in breath after breath, eyes shut tight against the fresh tears. The ever-present ache expanded, overwhelmed her. Seeing Drew hadn’t eased it this time, and she wondered if it would ever go away.
Drew Collins leaned against the tree, breathing harshly as Charlotte sat back on her heels and smiled fondly up at him. He forced a smile in return and quickly tucked himself back inside his pants and straightened his clothing.
“Why so glum, sweetie?” Charlotte stood and patted him on the cheek.
Drew grimaced and stepped out of reach. “I’m not. You can either come check the other traps with me or head back to the cabin.”
“Drew,” she said softly.
“You don’t have to get upset every time we…” She gestured between them. “You had a need; I helped you with it. You don’t think I’m expecting more, do you? I thought we were past that, sweetie.”
He sighed and pulled her in for a quick hug. Charlotte was a good friend to him and didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of his piss poor mood. Hell, he didn’t even know why he was feeling like this. He was home, he’d seen his sister, his family—all but Katie, who’d been asleep—so everything should be good. He should be happy, content. But he wasn’t. Far from it.
“I’m not upset,” he said firmly. “Just tired. Promise. You coming with?”
“Of course.” She pulled back and gave him a wide grin. “Lead the way.”
The next two hours were spent in companionable silence as they walked the trap line then followed the river back to the cabin. As the roof of the cabin appeared over the bank, Drew nearly tripped when he saw Katie, sitting on the grass, knees to her chest. He couldn’t hold back his smile when she glanced over and met his gaze. Something slid into place inside him, and he was closer to that contented feeling he’d expected when he came home.
She pushed the long brown hair back from her face and rose gracefully to her feet. Drew ran his gaze over her slender body and fought not to frown. She’d lost weight since he’d last seen her, and dark circles underscored her red-rimmed eyes, a stark contrast to her pale complexion. No one had mentioned her being sick this morning; surely they would have if that had been the case.
“Hi, Drew,” she said, her eyes shifting from him to the woman beside him. “Hello, Charlotte.”
“Hello, Katie,” Charlotte answered cheerfully. She reached over and took the string of rabbits they’d collected from Drew’s grasp. “I’ll just bring these up to Grace then check in on Chloe.”
Drew held Katie’s gaze as Charlotte climbed the bank and disappeared out of sight.
“What’s going on, Katie?” he asked quietly. “Have you been ill?”
“What?” She gave a short laugh. “No, I’m fine. Absolutely wonderful.”
He narrowed his eyes at her tone—tight and brittle. She wasn’t fine, but he knew she wouldn’t tell him what was wrong. Drew would have to talk to the others, watch things. But he would find out what the hell was happening with her.