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Wild Rugged Daddy - A Single Daddy Mountain Man Romance by Sienna Parks (1)

1

JULES

“Come on! You’ve got to be kidding me?” I swear my editor is trying to kill me.

“You’ve got to earn your dues, Jules. You knew that when I hired you.”

“Yeah, and traveling to Cabo wasn’t that hard… but Montana? I’m not an outdoor girl, Norm.” The smug grin that creeps across his weathered features tells me I’m fighting a losing battle.

“What can I say? People like all that nature bullcrap. The readers are going to eat it up.” I slump into the chair across from him.

“When do I get to write a real story? I’ve been doing this gig for two years now.”

“Soon. Now get out of here. Your flight leaves at noon.” With a snide salute, I grab my itinerary and head out the door.

When I graduated from Brown, this isn’t how I pictured my future—moving from one tabloid rag to the next writing fluff columns. With every day that passes, my dreams of becoming a respected investigative journalist seem that much further away. I sling my laptop bag over my shoulder resolved to write the best damn article this paper has ever seen… and my travel piece!

* * *

As I step onto the tarmac, the bite in the air is enough to steal my breath away, the cold fingers of winter wrapping around my chest. This trip is going to suck. I’m an LA girl—the freezing wilderness is a cute picture on a Christmas card, not a way of life. Being forced to go hiking twice a year with my father was bad enough.

The airport is the size of a postage stamp—I won’t be surprised if I’m unloading my own bags from the plane.

When I get outside, I’m accosted by an elderly woman holding a plaque with my name written in perfect cursive.

“Welcome to Cricket! You must be Juliet.” I wasn’t expecting anyone.

“I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Oh, how silly of me. I’m Babs. I own the B&B you booked for your stay.”

“Nice to meet you. You didn’t have to come get me. I was planning on getting a cab.”

“Nonsense. I like to provide an all-inclusive package for my guests. My home is your home for the duration of your stay.” She tries to take my bags, but I insist on carrying them myself. She’s at least eighty with glasses that resemble the bottom of Coke bottles. I’m a little concerned about getting in a car with her. I can just imagine my obituary.

Juliet Abrams—died age twenty-five, being driven to the middle of nowhere by a blind lady. She achieved very little and never realized her dreams of becoming an award-winning journalist. Juliet is survived by her disappointed parents and an exponentially more successful brother. R.I.P. Loser.

Before I got the travel writing gig, I wrote obituaries for the Nantucket Times. Depressing doesn’t even come close to describing that woeful six months of my life. This job seemed like a step up, but today, I’m not so sure.

The landscape is rugged but majestic as we twist and turn along the winding one-lane roads toward the mountains. The canopy of trees overhead creates a tunnel leading to a different world. My hands are like blocks of ice, the old lady next to me seemingly unaware of the arctic temperatures.

“So, what brings you to Cricket?” My heart leaps into my throat as she takes her eyes off the road to stare at my face.

“Eyes on the road, Babs!” She swerves narrowly missing the embankment.

“Sorry, dear.” Her voice has a sweetness that lulls you in.

“I’m writing a column about the trails at Bear Paw Mountain.”

“You hike?”

“Used to. I haven’t in about ten years, but it’s like riding a bike… right?”

“Hmm. I’ll get my son, Arron, to school you before you hit the trails. It’s dangerous to go out there this time of year if you don’t know what you’re doing. The weather can change on a dime. And it’s not safe with him roaming up there.”

“Him?” I assume she’s referring to some local lore beast or something equally ludicrous, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask. Her attention is diverted to the road ahead as the trees disperse, and we’re staring up at the mountains—the town sprawled in front of us a mere speck of dust by comparison.

“That’s where you’re heading. And, this is home.” I’m stunned by my surroundings. There’s one street with a grocery store, a pharmacy, and a few other storefronts that have closed signs on the door. This can’t be it—how can people live like this?

“How many people live in Cricket?”

“Three hundred and twelve at last count. Know every one of them by name. Delivered most of them. I used to be the midwife here, but I’m retired now.” Thank God! I would worry for the pregnant women of this town if she were still working. There are a few houses dotted around the landscape—blips in the vast expanse of green. Chimney smoke snakes up into the bright, blue sky—an inviting beacon of warmth within.

LA is a bustling metropolis with over four million residents. No matter what street you’re on, you’re surrounded by people. In tourist areas, there are easily larger crowds than the population of this entire town. We’ve yet to see another human being, and I’m a little concerned that I’ve been booked into the Norman Bates Motel. This is a ghost town.

Babs pulls into the driveway of a picturesque country manor.

“This is your B&B? Wow!” A proud smile lights up her face.

“This was the first house ever built in town. It’s been in my family for generations. We may be small here in Cricket, but we are mighty.” With a sly grin, she kills the engine and gestures for me to follow her inside. “Come, come.”

With my bags in hand, I step out into the ice-cold air slapping the LA comfort right out of me. I’m quick to scurry up the steps and into the grand house, the door shutting behind me. It’s even more impressive inside. Extraordinarily high ceilings, intricate crown moldings, and rustic hardwood floors. I would not have paired this quirky old lady with such elegant tastes. I love the juxtaposition.

Babs shows me to my room and gives me a brief rundown of the B&B—mealtimes, laundry service, and most shockingly for me, a curfew.

“Doors are locked at 11:00 p.m. It’s my non-negotiable rule. I need my sleep, and I don’t want to be worrying about guests coming in at all hours.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll let you get settled in. Dinner is at 6:00 p.m.” She disappears out the door and within seconds, I hear her chatting with another guest. My room has the same quirky charm as the rest of the house—a perfect spot for a budding writer. It’s quiet and comfortable, and as I leaf through the tourist pamphlets on the bedside table, I contemplate why I’m here. Maybe inspiration will strike during this trip. There has to be something bigger out there for me.

* * *

After a hot shower and a fresh set of clothes, I’m hungry. The aroma of authentic home-cooking drifts up the stairs and into my room, a blanket cloaking me in its warm embrace. Usually, I wouldn’t be so keen on eating with a group of strangers, but tonight I’m looking forward to it. My job keeps me away from home most of the time, and I rarely get a welcome like today. The paper is all about the wham bam thank you ma’am of journalism—no personalized service of any kind.

The latest heartthrob or current Disney princesses weren’t my idols when I was growing up. I wanted to be like Woodward and Bernstein kicking political ass and taking names. Back then, investigative journalism was a skill—a talent gleaned from years of education and hard work. Now, with everything available to everyone the moment it happens, the craft I hold most dear has become more and more diluted.

As a fledgling writer, the figures are disturbing. Two-thirds of Americans get their news from social media. Half of the crap on there has zero basis in fact—an explosive headline with no substance. When it really comes down to it, a Google search is not a replacement for the media. That’s not what I do. If it was that easy, wouldn’t everyone do it? The reporters I aspire to are all pre-internet.

With a notebook tucked in my back pocket and a pencil through my messy bun, I head down for dinner.

The dining room has the endearing qualities of home with the shabby chic of a New York boutique restaurant. The other guests are laughing, joking, and praising Babs for a wonderful spread. It reminds me of Thanksgiving when I was young. A guy, around my dad’s age, stands to greet me.

“You must be our visiting journalist. I’m Babs’ son, Arron.” He holds out his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Arron. I’m Juliet.” With a warm smile, he introduces me to the rest of the table, who offer welcoming pleasantries. I take a seat and make a plate for myself.

I don’t remember the last time I had a meal this good. I’m all takeout and Ramen noodles. No time or money for a social life, and Sunday dinners at my parents’ house have become fewer and farther between in the past year.

Babs sits back and enjoys the view. She’s a feeder for sure!

“This dinner is incredible. Thanks, Babs.”

“You’re welcome, my dear. Now, why don’t you tell us all about your exciting job as a journalist?” Everyone oohs and aahs thinking I have some glamorous career—if only. The reality of having your name in print is underwhelming at best when it’s not something you’re passionate about.

“Not much to tell. I write a destination column. Just out here for a few days to see what all the fuss is about with hiking vacations.”

“So, you’re heading up to Bear Paw tomorrow? For how long?” Concerned is etched on Arron’s brow.

“Yeah. Two nights.”

“There’s a thirty percent chance that the first winter storm could hit this weekend. Are you sure you want to stay overnight?”

“It’s sort of a requirement if I want to write the piece.”

Another male guest chimes in, and it gets my hackles up. “Little thing like you shouldn’t be up there alone. Do you even have any experience hiking?”

Babs comes to my rescue.

“Women are just as capable as men. If she thinks she can handle it, then who are we to say otherwise?” But, I see the same concern in her eyes.

“Arron, your mom said you might be willing to help me get kitted out at the store?”

“Sure. I can take you in the morning. I have a great one-man tent you can take. It’ll keep most of the cold out.”

“Thanks.”

“And, I’ll give you my number in case of an emergency. You can call me, or Mom, anytime day or night.”

“You’re all very sweet to worry about me. I’ve been in much worse places than a tent in the cold.” Their trepidation gives me pause, but if I want a paycheck this month, I need to suck it up and get on with it.

I steer the conversation to lighter subjects and away from me. It’s interesting to hear what brought everyone to the B&B, but I can’t help thinking about my conversation with Babs earlier. She’s busy serving dessert, so I turn my attention back to Arron.

“Your mom was telling me about a man on the mountain today. Do you know who she was talking about?” He throws his head back and laughs. I guess I was right, but it was worth a shot.

“She’s a silly old coot sometimes. She was talking about the sasquatch.”

“The what?”

“Sasquatch. There’s a story going around to draw in tourists. Sightings on the mountain. No one lives up there. It would be impossible to survive, especially at this time of year.”

“Oh.” He misinterprets my disappointment for a story as fear.

“You have nothing to worry about. It’s just a made-up money spinner. Tourists flock to town to see if they can get a picture of the elusive sasquatch, and then they spend, spend, spend.”

Babs overhears us and stops what she’s doing.

“That beast is up there. Mark my words. It may not be what they say it is… but something lives on that mountain.” The table goes quiet. I’m not sure if they’re buying into this crap, or like me, they’re trying not to laugh. I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings, but it’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. The sasquatch is about as real as the Loch Ness Monster.

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled, Babs. If there’s a picture to be had, I’ll get it.”

“You see anything up there, you call us, and get as far away as you can. I mean it. You’re a sweet girl, and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I promise I’ll look after myself.”

“I’m going to take you to the grocery store before you go. Get you some proper food to keep your strength up.”

“Fair enough.”

The conversation takes many detours, but it keeps coming back to the mountain. Without hope for an interesting story, I decide to call it a night. It’ll be my last sleep in a warm, cozy bed for a few days.

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