She chugged, surprisingly thirsty, then looked around. Pine trees as far as the eye could see. “How could I?”
He pointed to the right. “See that over there?”
“Bear’s land, at least. There’s a strip of it, extending south of the lodge. It’s not enough to do much of anything with but sit on. Which is what the Baileys have been doing since, well, probably since the days of your Sorrow Crabtree.” He took back his water and drank before returning it to his pack.
She laughed—there was no other response to such unexpected news. “Then why aren’t we rich? Because it sure seems like a lot of land to me.”
“You heard the phrase land rich and cash poor?” At her nod, he said, “Welcome to my world.”
He walked on, and she followed. “What do you mean, your world?”
“Timber isn’t exactly the thing to make your fortune in the twenty-first century. My family is nothing but land rich and cash poor.”
He ducked through a thick patch of greenery, holding aside branches so she could follow. It looked like he was headed straight up.
She stared, aghast. “Are you sure this is safe?”
“I got you.” He held a hand out. “I promise, you’ll love it.”
She practically had to crawl up, clutching his hand and clawing at roots to clamber up behind him. Finally, she made it to the top, and he held her shoulders to steady her.
“Careful.” He led her along a narrow ledge. “I need you in one piece, so you can see”—he put his hands on her shoulders, angling her—“this.”
She gasped. The path led to a black hole in the wall of the hill. Rotted timber posts at the entrance told her it was more than just a natural cave. “What’s that?”
“An old gold mine,” he said, sounding as giddy as a kid. “I’ll show you.”
She grabbed his shirt to stop him. “Is it safe?”
“Sure.” He tugged her forward. “I’ve been here a bunch of times now.”
As they got closer, she caught a glimpse inside, taking in the deep hallway and timber scaffolding. “Wow, it really is a mine.” The Sierra Nevada foothills were gold country—there must’ve been half a dozen gold rush tourist spots in El Dorado County alone—but she’d never been inside an actual mine. “Holy cow. And this is on our land?”
“Yup,” he called from inside. “All yours. Too bad it’s not worth a dime.”
“I’ll say.” She followed him in, stopping to let her eyes adjust. It was dark, but not pitch-black. She sniffed, picking up a distant smell, pungent, like urine. “What is that? Is there, like, an army of homeless prospectors still down there?”
He laughed. “It’s okay. Just bats. They won’t hurt you.”
She scowled, not buying it. “I guess.”
He came back, guiding her shoulders. “I promise. It’s totally safe. I’ve been hiking here since I found it.”
Curiosity got the better of her, and she felt comfortable enough to look around. The place was in remarkably pristine condition, with regular wooden posts and tracks for a rail cart, just like in the movies. “How come not everyone knows about this?”
“I did some research down at Town Hall. The mine was a failure.”
“Yes, Bail. I did research.” He walked in farther, leaning against a railing. “The Comstock Lode hit, and folks forgot about this place.”
She went to stand next to him, then yelped and hopped back a step. He was standing at the edge of a narrow shaft. She registered the rusted pulley overhead, rotting ropes dangling from it like cobwebs. A ladder led one level down, dark enough that the floor below could easily have been just an illusion. “Creepy.”
“I thought you’d like it.” He picked up a rock and tossed it down. It landed on a platform just one story down, but the sound echoed and echoed.
“You’re such a guy,” she accused. “Don’t do anything crazy, okay?”
“Pretty safe?” She shivered, backing up another step. “I’ll take your word for it. You’re right, though. It is cool. How’d you even find it?”
“We were hunting. He scented a fox and wouldn’t let it go. He followed her to a den just outside. There was a whole litter of kits—I swear there were a dozen of the things.”
“Never fear. You know Coop wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Damien laughed. “It’s why he’s such a sucky hunting dog.”
A quiet hissing sounded outside, and she went back to the entrance, glancing out to see a drizzle starting to fall. Nothing serious—just a gentle Sierra misting—but enough that she found herself a spot between rails and slid to the ground, leaning against the side of the tunnel.
He tossed down his backpack and joined her. “Hungry?”
“Starved.” A light breeze billowed in, bringing the scent of damp pine needles. It was serene—and eerie, but in a pleasant way. She tucked into a turkey and Havarti sandwich and asked between bites, “So you really just wanted to show me this place?”
Damien gave his sandwich a critical once-over and opted for an apple instead. He took a huge bite, smiling as he chewed. “Maybe I wanted one more shot with you.”
He gave an exaggeratedly innocent shrug. “So. You sure it’s over?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” She narrowed her eyes at him “Hey, you said your intentions were innocent, bringing me here. You lied.”
“I didn’t lie,” he said, smiling to match her glare. “I didn’t.”
“Okay, okay,” he admitted. “Maybe a little white lie. Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
She tried to be mad, but couldn’t. It was just too classically Damien. Oddly, she felt a stab of affection for him because of it. Affection and, at the same time, total resolve. Damien was the same smooth-talking lady-killer he’d been in high school. But it wasn’t high school anymore, and sitting there with him, she knew more than ever how she’d found her perfect man in Billy. The revelation made her as comfortable with Damien as she’d ever been. “You just want to keep dating now that you know I’m a gold mine heiress,” she said, ribbing him.
“Dream on,” he said, ribbing right back. But then he grew thoughtful. “You really like that sheriff, huh?”
She finished the first half of her sandwich and dusted off her hands to reach for the second. “Yup. I really like that sheriff.”
“He’s a lucky man.” He nibbled around the apple core, getting every last bit. The poor guy still looked famished.
The compliment made her feel shy, so she ignored it and focused on his choice of lunch instead. “I tell you, between you and my sister…” She nodded to his uneaten sandwich. “A carb and some mayo once in a while isn’t going to kill you.”
“A guy’s gotta stay ripped.” Damien smiled the confident old smile she knew. He cocked an eyebrow. “Especially now that I’m single.”
“Hey, this was supposed to be a hurrah. I’d think, just this once, you could feed yourself something other than beef, berries, or protein shakes.”
He laughed, pulling the cookie tin close. “Then screw the sandwich. If I’m eating processed, it’s going to be sugar.”
“Alert the media,” she said gleefully, watching him shove an entire cookie into his mouth. “Damien Simmons, eating carbs. Eating sugar! Apocalypse really is nigh.”
He laughed, too, and gobbled down a second cookie for good measure. “You should try one,” he said, speaking over a mouthful.
“Very appetizing,” she said sarcastically. “Don’t worry, I will. If you can save me some.”
Damien actually grabbed a third cookie, breaking off the chocolate end and popping it down. “That sheriff better take care of you. I worry about you in that lodge.”
She stilled, her sandwich held in midair, studying him. “Why?”
“A dump? Is that what you were going to say?”
“No, of course not. It’s halfway there, though. Why do you think I’m always coming by?”
The realization hit her with a sharp pang. She hadn’t loved Damien, but for a little while she’d enjoyed his company. Had felt wanted by him. “I’d hoped it was because you were my boyfriend.”
“I was, Sorrow.” He caught her gaze and held it, speaking earnestly. “I really do care about you. A lot. Say the word, and I’m back on board, baby. Your sheriff is lucky. Any man would be thrilled to call himself yours. But, no offense, where the lodge is concerned, you seem to be flying solo. You can’t run the place alone. It’s like a demolition zone. You need someone to look out for you.”
The unexpected sentiment touched her, and for an instant, her eyes burned with unshed tears. Little did he know how much she needed actual protection. She was sure Billy would disagree, but she found herself confiding. “Billy thinks everything that’s been happening…he doesn’t think those are accidents.”
He froze, his mouth gaping. “What do you mean, not accidents?”
“Think about it.” She dropped her head in her hands, rattling it all off. “The tree branch, bear box, black ice…stuff like that can happen, sure. But a fire in the kitchen? That wasn’t my fault. Sully and I keep a spotless oven, and you know it. And then there was Laura’s hit-and-run. When she was driving my car.” When she looked back up at him, he was wearing a peculiar expression. “What?”