I was glad he couldn’t see the look on my face. Just because I wasn’t involved with the fire didn’t mean I didn’t have an agenda. “Taylor?” I said with the same hesitation he’d had in his voice.
“Ask me,” he said, repeating my earlier response.
“I do want to go to Eakins for a reason. I was hoping you’d take me there. I’ve been saving. I have enough for a plane ticket. I just need a place to stay.”
He took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. “I thought that might be where you were going with this.”
I winced. “It’s not what you think. I agree, it’s a coincidence. But I’m not trying to find out anything about your brother.”
I chewed on my bottom lip. “What if I prove it to you—that it’s not about your brother? Will you consider it?”
I stood up, leaving him for my bedroom. I pulled the shoebox out of my closet and returned to the sofa, pulling out an envelope and shoving it at him. “The address on your license is on this street.”
He looked at the return address, frowning. “This is next door to my dad’s house. How do you know the Olliviers?”
I breathed out a laugh, my eyes filling with tears. “Next door?”
I pulled out a photograph and offered it to him. He looked it over—a four-by-six picture of a young girl standing on a sidewalk, leaning against her brother, Austin. Her waist-length platinum-blonde hair was pinned away from her face, her enormous green eyes peering up at the camera over a shy smile. Austin hugged her to him, proud and protective, like a big brother should be.
Taylor handed it back to me. “Those are Shane and Liza’s kids. How do you know them?”
I shook my head and wiped a tear that had escaped down my cheek. “It’s not important. What is important is that you believe my reason for wanting to get to Eakins has nothing to do with your brother.”
“Falyn, it’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck again. “It’s just … Shane and Liza are neighbors and family friends. They’ve been through a lot.”
“I get it,” I said softly, trying to quell the frustration welling up inside of me. “It’s okay. I understand.”
Taylor’s face seemed to be weighed down with guilt. He started to reach out to me but didn’t. “Just … give me a second. I thought you were undercover or something, to get info on my brother. This is a lot to wrap my head around.” He hesitated. “What do you plan to do?”
“I …” I took a deep breath. “I’m not really sure. I don’t want to cause their family any more pain. I just know I want to start over, and I can’t do that unless my story with that family ends.”
Taylor blanched and then looked away. “You don’t have to say anymore. It’s all starting to make sense now—why you don’t drive, why you’ve started all over here, away from your family.”
“Whatever you think you know, you’re wrong,” I said, shaking my head. I put the envelope and picture away in the shoebox and closed the lid.
Taylor watched me and then touched my cheek. I recoiled.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling his hand back. His eyes gave away his frustration—not with me, but with himself.
“You’d be doing me a huge favor, and I’m willing to do almost anything to get to Eakins.”
He sighed, unable to hide his disappointment. “You have priorities. I can appreciate that. God knows I’ve left plenty of girls behind because of what I wanted.”
His mouth pulled to one side. “To be the hero.”
“Look, I haven’t been honest with you. I wish I had been, now that I know you.”
“Now that you know me?” he repeated.
“I know it’s in your nature, but I don’t need you to save me. I just need a little help to save myself.”
He breathed out a laugh and looked away. “Don’t we all?” He swallowed and then nodded. “Okay then.”
“After my tour here, I’m going to take you back with me.”
The skin around his eyes tightened as he thought about what he was going to say. “If you promise to be careful. I don’t want you to get hurt, and I don’t want them to be hurt either. We can’t show up and interrupt their lives.”
He stared at me and then dipped his head once, satisfied that I was telling the truth.
“Taylor”—I felt my eyes filling with tears again—“are you screwing with me? You’re really going to let me come with you?”
He scanned over my face. “I have one more condition.”
My face fell. Of course, there was a catch. This was the part where he was going to ask for sex. He’d already said he didn’t want a relationship, and that was the only thing I had to offer.
“What?” I said through my teeth.
“I wanna hike Barr Trail up Pikes Peak. None of the guys will go up with me.”
I puffed out a breath of relief. “Pikes Peak. That’s your condition?”
He shrugged. “I know you’ve hiked it before. A few times.”
“I’m probably one of the few locals who has.”
“Exactly. Will you hike it with me?”
He looked around, confused. “Is that stupid?”
I shook my head. “No.” I threw my arms around him and squeezed, pressing my cheek against his. His skin was soft, except for the stubbly parts. “It’s perfectly reasonable.”
His arms snaked around me, his muscles tense. “Not really. You don’t know how much hell my brothers are going to give me for bringing a girl home—especially a girl I’m not fucking.”
I pulled back, looking at him. “I’m the first girl you’ll be bringing home?”
“We’ll just tell them that we’re friends. No big deal.” I lay back against him, nestling into his side.
He pulled the blanket up and around me. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “I’m going to end up punching one of my brothers over this.”
“What? Like it’d be the first time?” I teased.
He poked me in the ribs, and I squealed. The sound made him cackle.
He quieted. “I’m sorry … about what happened to you. And I’m sorry about Don. I tried. I saw the look on your face. I didn’t want you to lose him.”
“He was a good Papa,” I said, leaning my head back against his shoulder.
“Nope. No more seats left on the Cog Rail,” I said, glancing down at Taylor.
He was bent at the waist, grabbing his knees.
The peaks and valleys below us were spread out for miles under a blanket of green that turned bluish farther out. We were above the clouds. We were above everything.
Taylor took a swig from his canteen and then let it fall to his hip from the thick green strap hanging from his shoulder and across his chest. He pulled the black fleece pullover over his head that he’d had tied around his waist for most of the climb, and then he returned his Oakley sunglasses back over his eyes.