The Grizzly Bear lumbered closer to the Corolla. The big, hairy beast was nearly the size of my car.
My eyes went to the thick bone-white claws padding over the cracked asphalt.
The yellow jaws shining with saliva.
The black eyes watching me behind its sniffing snout.
Smelling me, I imagined.
I couldn’t breathe.
Am I about to become a Grizzly Bear’s dinner?
That was one meal I did not want posted on Instagram.
The bear paused in front of my bumper, drool dripping on my hood…
I wanted to close my eyes, but I couldn’t look away…
The bear turned away from my car…and walked off into the woods.
I waited ten seconds, thirty seconds, what felt like a whole minute before I finally took a breath.
This will be my first and last visit to Bear Creek, I promised myself. ~Wedding or not, Mom owes me big time.~
I tapped the gas, creeping further up the road, my eyes darting around each bend for signs of my furry friend.
Then, up ahead, my headlights shone on another road sign.
Was it another warning to watch out for the bears? In my humble opinion, this stretch of highway could’ve used more of those.
As I got closer, however, I recognized it as the country equivalent of a street sign. I exhaled in relief.
I’d found Bear Creek Lane.
Thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Allah, Buddha, Beyoncé…
I slowed down. An old pickup was parked below the sign. Its headlights blazed to life as I approached. A thin, middle-aged woman hung out the window, waving frantically…
I parked next to the truck. Mom was already waiting to hug me as I stepped out of the car.
“Oh, sweetie! You made it!” she squealed.
“Barely,” I said, squeezing her back. “What’s with the truck?”
Mom used to drive a Kia. What was she doing with this rickety redneck-mobile?
She glanced behind her. “Jack wanted me to take his work truck. I don't have four-wheel drive, and you never know what you'll run into out here, especially at night…”
“You mean like the giant Grizzly that almost ate my Corolla?”
“Oh, they’re harmless,” my mom said, with a cheeky look. “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
“I’ll lead you to the cabin,” she said, climbing into Jack’s pickup. I nodded and got back inside the Corolla.
Right. The cabin.
I felt like the main character in a teen slasher movie.
Spring break at a cabin in the woods. What could possibly go wrong?
I steeled myself as Mom’s taillights started down Bear Creek Lane.
The lamest week of my life had officially begun.
I trailed behind the pickup as we snaked along Bear Creek Lane, which turned out to be a dirt road littered with rocks and potholes.
If Mom hadn’t been there, I probably would’ve never spotted it. The entrance to the turnoff was completely hidden by blackberry bushes.
At first, the surrounding woods were as dense and dark as they’d been on the highway.
Yup. This place had Friday The 13th written all over it.
But then I noticed lights among the trees. The glowing windows of houses—enormous houses—that wouldn’t look out of place in some resort town like, well…
That was an interesting development. I’d thought only hicks lived out here.
Or maybe Jack’s the only one, I thought, looking ahead at the crappy pickup.
I followed Mom down a long side road.
It was a driveway, not a side road. And the house it belonged to was gigantic—bigger than any of the others we’d passed. It looked like some sort of fancy ski lodge for corporate retreats—all wood and glass.
Is Jack the groundskeeper or something?
Mom pulled into a five-car garage in between her old Kia and a giant SUV, motioning me to one of the other free spots. After I parked, I got out of the Corolla, awed by the size of the space, which was easily three times bigger than the dorm room I shared with Emma.
Mom grinned. “Here it is! My home sweet home!”
“Does Jack, like, mow the lawn here or something?” My eyes fell on a pair of jet skis resting on a trailer on the far side of the room. Mom laughed.
“No, silly! This is his place. He built it with his bare hands.”
I was shocked.
He’d built it himself~? Shit, even that must’ve cost a fortune. Is Jack some kind of hillbilly zillionaire?~
“I thought you said he made furniture—”
“I do make furniture!” came a booming voice.
A big, hulking guy in crisp flannel suddenly scooped my mother up into his brawny arms. She shrieked with laughter.
“Helen, meet Jack!” Mom said as the man—who must’ve been Jack—put her down. He reached out his hand to shake.
“Put ’er there, Helen. So nice to finally meet you.”
I looked up into his silvery eyes and his friendly face, all creased at the temples.
Oh. My. God.
Jack was a total babe.
He had a youthful smile and a dark beard flecked with gray. His long hair was pulled back into a messy man bun, and his muscles threatened to burst out of his shirt at any moment.
Way to go, Mom.
Then again, she was no slouch in the looks department either. She was in her early fifties and still had a trim body—my curves definitely came from Dad’s side.
I never, ever, ever wanted to think about Mom in the bedroom, but anyone with eyes could see that she was a total MILF.
They were both lucky.
“Nice to meet you too,” I told Jack sincerely.
I glanced over his football-player shoulders—or tried to anyway—at Mom, giving her a subtle look of approval. She turned bright pink.
“Can we give you the grand tour?” Jack asked, offering me his arm. I took it.
“Absolutely,” I said, shooting Mom another glance.
Rich, hot, and polite?
Jack and Mom took me all around the house, which seemed even larger inside than it had from the outside. Jack had a humongous kitchen, a humongous living room, several humongous bedrooms…
Everything seemed to be built for a giant.
The happy couple joked and smiled the whole time. I couldn’t believe I’d doubted my mom’s choice of man. They were perfect together—in love and in business.
They’d met at a craft fair after all. Jack had come with his furniture, and Mom with the quilts, throws, and pillows from her Etsy site.
Now they worked together—Jack still made his furniture, but now Mom upholstered it. Apparently their collaborations were selling like hotcakes.
After the tour, Jack got ready to leave. He was going to meet his son Sam and some friends at the local bar for a boys’ night.
He told us not to wait up, so it sounded like I’d meet Sam the next morning. If he was anything like his dad, I was sure he’d be cool.
Jack and Mom shared a sweet kiss before he took off.
“Have a good night, ladies!” he said, waving at me.
“Don’t drink too much!” Mom warned him.
He mock-frowned. “Who? Me?”
Mom rolled her eyes. Jack winked at me, whistling innocently as he went out the door.
Mom turned to me, shaking her head. “You must be tired, sweetie. We made up the guest room for you upstairs if you want to get some shut-eye.”
“Sleep? Are you kidding?” I gave her a mischievous grin. “Mom, you’re getting married tomorrow. We’re drinking!”
Twenty minutes later, I was in the kitchen mixing my Smirnoff with some Coke that Mom and Jack had had in the fridge. Mom frowned as I served her.
“Sweetie, you know I don’t drink much.”
“Exactly. It’s a special occasion.”
I raised my glass from the kitchen island.
“To Ellie and Jack,” I said.
We sipped our drinks. Mom made a face.
Sure, Coke and vodka wasn’t the classiest cocktail, but it was my favorite—I wasn’t trying to impress anyone out here in the woods.
“You really love him, Mom?” I asked, the booze immediately loosening me up after such a long day.
She nodded. “I really do. I never feel safer than when I’m wrapped up in his bear hug.” She smiled to herself.
“He’s the best thing that’s happened to me since, well…you.”
“Aww. Thanks, Mom.”
Her words warmed my heart. Mom and I had been on our own ever since my dad’s accident. With his life insurance, we’d had plenty to live on, but Mom had turned into a bit of a shut-in.
Even when she’d started her business, she’d rarely left the house unless she had to pick up sewing supplies or attend some craft fair.
She’d always been something of a loner, and sometimes I worried that she’d end up all by herself in her old age.
Meeting Jack had put those worries to rest.
“So, you like it up here?” I asked, walking out to the living room. Vintage camping gear decorated the walls—paddles and snowshoes and fishing rods. An antler chandelier hung from the high ceiling.
“It’s a big change from Boulder,” Mom answered, plopping down on a big plaid couch near the stone fireplace.
I joined her, looking out onto the massive yard through the wall of glass that made up part of the room.
“I know it seems remote,” she continued. “But I’ve enjoyed being out here in nature. Life’s a lot simpler without Wi-Fi or cell service.”
“There’s no Wi-Fi?!” I shouted, incredulous. Mom just grinned.
I sighed. “What the heck do you guys do for fun then?”
Mom shrugged. “When I moved out here this winter, we’d snowshoe and hike. Sometimes we just sit inside and read by the fireplace…”
A glazed look came over her as she stared into said fireplace.
I could imagine they’d been doing a lot more than reading a few books over the long, cold winter nights.
Eeeeeew! Get your mind of out of the gutter, Helen!
“Do you guys go out or anything?” I asked, changing the subject. The faraway expression vanished from Mom’s face.
“Oh, uh…,” she stumbled. “No, we don’t leave the house much. Jack goes into town when we need something, and I’m always so busy with work, or cooking, or housework…”
“Is he putting you to work?” I asked. I didn’t like the sound of that. I didn’t want my mother becoming a maid.
She might’ve been a homebody, but she wasn’t a homemaker.
“Nothing like that. We share chores. It’s just…” Her voice trailed off as she searched for the right words. “I really like this house.”
Well, that certainly made sense. The place was a damn palace.
“You’re really going to like Sam,” Mom said after another sip of her drink. “He lives here with us. He helps Jack build the furniture.”
“Cool,” I said. “Where did he go to college?”
“Actually, he went to work with Jack right after high school.”
“Oh. That’s um…also cool.”
He didn’t go to college? And ~he didn’t have Wi-Fi or cell service?~
Maybe Sam wouldn’t be so cool. If we didn’t have college stories or Netflix in common, what the hell would we have to talk about? Trees and rocks?
“I’m really looking forward to meeting him tomorrow,” I said, trying to be polite. Luckily Mom was already getting drunk and mistook my tone as genuine.
“He’ll be the big brother you’ve always wanted,” she said, her words slurring together.
Whatever you say, Mom.
Mom and I polished off a whole handle of Smirnoff that night. I hadn’t seen her since Christmas, and her life had been a whirlwind since then, what with the proposal and move and all.
By the end of the evening, I felt closer to her than I had in a long time.
But by morning, I was feeling closer to death.
I was hungover as balls.
Stumbling out of the guest bedroom, blinking in the morning light, I was only wearing a big, ratty Boulder State T-shirt and yesterday’s panties, but I didn’t give a shit—I needed hydration, pronto.
I staggered downstairs to the kitchen and filled up a glass at the sink. The water was so pure and refreshing—probably from some kind of Rocky Mountain glacier or something. I felt resurrected.
I filled up my glass again and leaned against the sink, noticing a sticky note on the island.
I was too stupefied to think it through. I wandered over to the fridge to see what I could scrounge up for breakfast. Hangovers always made me hungry.
Then again, what didn’t?
I hummed that Camila Cabello song, shaking my ass along with it as I dug out some eggs and bacon.
Just what the doctor ordered.
“Morning, señorita,” a deep voice snickered.
That didn’t sound like Jack.
So it had to be…
I closed the fridge door.
Leaning in the kitchen doorway was Jack—or at least, what Jack would’ve looked liked thirty years younger, half-naked, and giving me the smuggest grin I’d ever seen.
I couldn’t stop staring at those abs… That chest…
This was much worse than I’d expected.
My new stepbrother…
…Was a sex god!