Josie Barton raised her hand, shook it to try to stop the trembles, then knocked briskly at the door.
She winced. These new iron doors were gorgeous, but they sure hurt like hell to bang on. Not that that was where her focus should be. She knew she was mentally stalling for what came next.
After a long moment of silence, she glanced at her brother, who stood beside her. Hovered, more like. “He’s not here,” she hissed out of the side of her mouth.
The overcast skies were a constant grey, providing a vague drizzle which had her hair curling damply on her neck. Despite the waterproof windbreaker she wore over her t-shirt and jeans, her clothes clung uncomfortably to her skin. The only thing making this soggy day tolerable was the fresh smell of the wet pine woods prevalent in their area of Montana. She’d always loved that scent.
“He’s working in the back bedroom. Try again.” Peter didn’t bother to lower his voice. He didn’t need to. No one else would be able to hear him.
Reluctantly, she knocked again, having already confirmed that the doorbell didn’t work.
A small, selfish part of her hoped Bryce wasn’t home. Comfortable was not a word she associated with being around this man. Not because of her massive crush when they were teenagers. This new tension between them was more recent. Although, every so often, she’d catch a strangely intent look directed her way—as though he still cared if she didn’t know better.
But she did know better. She’d made it that way.
With a deep breath, Josie pushed those thoughts away. Her brother needed her help, and she couldn’t help him without Bryce.
Peter’s pale form floated through her, and a cold shiver ripped up Josie’s spine, causing instant brain freeze. “Quit that,” she mumbled with a glare.
He flashed a wicked grin, still an ass even when spectral. “When Bryce comes to the door, tell him about me—”
“I’m not telling him that.” She practically snarled the words. “And how are you so cheerful right now?”
He shrugged. “Maybe turning into a ghost disconnects your emotions?” He was guessing. Besides, she’d met plenty of ghosts who tapped into deep wells of emotion—love, regret, anger. Especially the anger. A better bet was Peter was trying to shield her from the worst of his predicament, downplaying the urgency even when his life hung on the line. Protecting her was a habit left over from childhood. The more serious the situation, the goofier he tended to get.
“I’m just saying, he’ll understand,” Peter insisted.
Josie highly doubted it. Most people wouldn’t understand, but telling Bryce Evans she could see and speak to ghosts would lead to questions from her past she didn’t want to answer. Mister Know-it-all Outdoorsman Local Hero didn’t know everything. She wanted to keep it that way. Had to. To protect him from himself.
“Tell him,” Peter urged.
She snapped her head around so hard her ponytail smacked her in the face, curls the color of wet sand damp and stinging. She aimed a glare at her brother that should’ve melted him into plasma goo on the spot. “Shut up.”
Josie froze at the sound of the deeply voiced question from the man now standing in the open doorway, then grimaced.
Peter smirked. “Now you have to tell him, or he’ll think you’re crazy.”
Bryce already did.
Slowly Josie turned to face the man who managed to make desire coil around her heart even as trepidation coiled in her belly. With effort, she tried to arrange her face in a smile. It had been a while since she’d used the expression and it went down like castor oil.
You need his help.
With a quick once-over she took in the fact that he wore a white t-shirt paired with jeans, a tool belt slung low around his hips. His dark hair was spiked as though he’d been running his hands through it repeatedly. Damn. Did drool run down her chin? How could a sweaty carpenter be so darn appealing?
“Why do I need to shut up?” he asked.
“Not you,” she murmured, trying not to look away with the guilt of a school kid caught out in a lie.
His thick brows, already lowered, smoothed and his expression turned to the cool, emotionless mask he habitually wore in her vicinity. The same expression she gave him most of the time. “Is there something you need, Josie?”
“Only your undying devotion,” Peter intoned in a high voice, batting his eyelashes.
Had he been living instead of a ghost, she would’ve punched him. Instead, she ignored him. You’d think her brother was twelve instead of twenty-five.
“Peter’s in trouble. I need your help.” She resisted the urge to clap her hand over her mouth. She hadn’t meant to blurt that out, but Peter’s juvenile antics and being near Bryce had rattled her. They’d tended to avoid each other since she’d moved back to her hometown.
Bryce eyed Josie closely, as though deciding how seriously to take her request. “Where is he?”
Only years of ignoring ghosts kept her from glancing in her brother’s direction now. “Peter decided to do the Big Creek to Bear Creek Traverse. Alone.”
Bryce crossed his arms, planting his feet wide, expression grim. “Not too smart.”
“Hey,” Peter protested.
Bryce, unable to hear or see him, continued. “But we’ve done that trek many times. I’m sure he’s fine. If that’s all, I’m a little busy—”
He went to close the door.
Josie choked as her lungs seized, panic kicking her adrenaline into high gear. She shot out a hand to stop him from shutting her out.
She wasn’t getting through to Bryce. She’d known he wouldn’t want to listen to her. The shaking in her hands increased—fear for her brother threatening to drag her under—and she fisted her hands to stop it. What could she say to get his help?
“Please.” Desperate, she reached out and grabbed his arm without thinking, the first time she’d voluntarily touched the man in six years.
After what had happened a little over a year ago with that ghost—the one with the blue eyes, the one who’d attacked her—she’d shut Bryce out. For his sake. After that, she’d shut everyone in her life out, too. Except her family, who knew her gift, understood. But pushing Bryce away with lies…that had been harder.
Now, the warmth of his skin under her fingertips, the rasp of his hair on her palm, penetrated the urgency driving her and produced a calming effect. Like reality and a solid human form had grounded her. Which was damn idiotic. “Something is wrong. I know it.”
Bryce stiffened at her touch and glanced down at her hand.
Josie slowly drew back.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” he repeated. “When did he leave?”
“The Traverse takes three days, so he’ll be back in two more.”
Josie bit her lip against the sting of threatening tears. The coppery taste of her own blood slid across her tongue. Crying never helped anyone. “You don’t understand. He’s in trouble.”
The vehemence in her voice wasn’t like her, and something in his eyes softened. He reached out, and she thought for a second he might cup her face. But his gaze cooled because they didn’t have that kind of relationship anymore, and he dropped his hand to his side. “Did he take a satellite phone with him?” he asked.
“Not this trip,” Peter murmured in her ear. “Forgot it.”
Josie gritted her teeth, tempted to lie, but she was never that convincing. “No.”
“Then how do you know?” Bryce asked.
This conversation headed nowhere. “I just know. Will you help me?”
Josie’s frustration grew as he stood there thinking. Not his fault that Bryce pushed many of her buttons in ways she didn’t seem to be able to shut down, and she struggled to bottle up her reaction like a shaken soda can.
Meanwhile, Bryce watched her like a scientist studying a specimen. Completely dispassionate, expression a mask, eyes a blank. “Let’s slow down here.”
“In other words, no. You won’t help me.” After her behavior, she didn’t expect him to, but it still hurt.
She narrowed her eyes at the ghostly figure of her brother. He now stood behind Bryce, waving at her frantically over his shoulder. Subtly shifting her gaze, Josie did her best not to let the flesh and blood man see her reaction—disappointment laced with pure gut-wrenching terror. How was she going to do this on her own? “Thanks anyway,” she muttered.
Josie walked away, her mind already spinning with her next steps. Peter could help her…tell her what to do and where to go.
“Why do you suddenly care?” Bryce called.
She froze at the question. Was that what Bryce really thought? That she didn’t care about her family? She didn’t turn, addressing her answer over her shoulder. “I’ve always cared.”
Bryce’s new house was still under construction. What would eventually be the driveway was currently a quagmire of mud from all the rain western Montana had received lately. Josie slogged across the unpaved yard and hopped into her four-wheel-drive. She jammed the key in the ignition when a knock sounded at her driver-side window. She jumped, glanced over and discovered Bryce outside.
She impatiently stabbed the button to lower the window. “What?”
“You’re going to wait for Peter to come back, right?”
Once upon a time, real caring would have driven that question. Not anymore, she was sure. This time she managed to smile sweetly and lie through her teeth. “Of course.”
Without another word, she cranked the engine and drove away.
“You lied to Bryce.”
Josie flinched at Peter’s accusatory tone, though she didn’t take her eyes from the road.
“Someone has to save your butt.” She tightened her hands on the wheel and pressed harder on the gas.
“But you can’t save me on your own.”
An unhelpful observation if ever there was one. “If I’d said I planned to go after you alone, he would’ve tried to stop me. You don’t have time for me to deal with the hassle.”
Peter had no argument. Even he knew Bryce had a hero complex a mile wide. “What’s the plan?”
“I assume you have extra camping gear at your house?”
She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel. “Then lead me to you. Only I’ll be smart enough to remember the satellite phone to call for help.” Josie hoped like hell none of the thousand things that could go wrong with this plan did.
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