tagRomanceBreath of Fresh Air Ch. 01

Breath of Fresh Air Ch. 01

byPanthem©

"If I'm estimating right we should still be able to make it to the campsite a few hours before sunset. That'll be perfect; we can set up our tents and gather some firewood before it gets dark." Katie looked up from the park map to see if her friend was paying attention, which she was not.

"Sarah," she said, but got no response. "Sarah!"

"What?" Sarah asked snapping out of her daze and glancing at the map quickly before focusing back on the road. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure we'll be fine whatever time we get there."

Katie rolled her eyes at that attitude. They were already two hours behind, having planned to leave town right after lunch, but of course Sarah hadn't even packed yet when Katie showed up to pick her up. She helped her friend cram her camping gear hurriedly into a bag and thanked her lucky stars that she'd taken charge of getting all their food together the night before.

Sarah had been her best friend for the last three years, but sometimes she really drove her crazy. They'd met their last year of college in a relocation program for students who were going to work in underserved communities to help pay off school loans; Sarah as an elementary school teacher and Katie as a nurse. They moved together from Knoxville to tiny Norristown and lived together for the first year before realizing they made terrible roommates.

Katie was a perfectionist and had such set-in-stone ideas about how everything should be that it drove Sarah nuts trying to keep up. And Sarah's laissez faire attitude toward life kept Katie in a constant state of anxiety; not to mention the fact that she had woken up one too many mornings to find strange men in their shower. In the end they determined that if they wanted to stay friends they could not keep living together.

Despite that they did almost everything together from grocery trips to bar hopping on the weekends. They both loved camping and used to take frequent backpacking trips together on the weekends. It had been a while since they'd gone on one of their trips, mostly because both of them were busy at work, but in part because of Sarah's new boyfriend.

Caleb was a police officer in Knoxville, about forty five minutes away, so lately any spare time Sarah had was spent with him. They'd been together for almost nine months and any day now Katie expected the oh-my-god-he proposed call. She was happy for her friend and liked Caleb well enough. The three of them had hung out quite often and she had to acknowledge that he was perfect for Sarah even if she'd never be able to put up with him.

At any rate, now that Sarah was done with school for the summer Katie was thrilled that they'd finally made time to go backpacking again. An hour later they pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead.

Katie was more than ready for a long weekend in the woods. Work at the hospital was always stressful, but it had been particularly grueling lately and she was in desperate need of this vacation. Just the thought of getting outside where she could breathe fresh air and stretch her long legs on the hills had her grinning in anticipation. She climbed out of the car and the smile died on her face as she caught sight of the Jeep at the other end of the parking lot and the two men climbing out of it.

"Oh! I meant to tell you I invited Caleb and one of his..." Sarah trailed off at the look on Katie's face.

"I can't believe you, Sarah."

"Don't be mad, Katie. You know I don't get to see him often."

"This was supposed to be a girl's weekend," Katie hissed.

"What? We never said that. I was just talking to Caleb last night and he said he was off the next few days and I told him he should come with us. He asked if he could bring his friend from work and I said yes. I didn't think it would be a big deal."

"Whatever," Katie said under her breath. The guys were approaching and she didn't want to continue this conversation where they could hear. She and Sarah both knew the real reason she was mad. It wasn't so much that Caleb was there, it was the other guy.

For the millionth time she wished Sarah wasn't so focused on her love life. As much as she loved her friend she hated that Sarah seemed to think that Katie needed a man in her life to be happy. She was perfectly fine on her own and had long ago stopped letting Sarah set her up. Unfortunately that hadn't slowed Sarah down a bit, especially since she'd started dating Caleb, who apparently had an endless supply of single cop buddies. It was a frequent source of irritation for Katie. One that she usually tried to take with good grace and even joked about, but this was just too much.

Usually Sarah tricked her into meeting guys at restaurants or the occasional bar; places where it was relatively easy to get away from them. This time Katie was going to have to spend the next three days and two nights in the woods with this strange guy who probably only came on this trip because he thought he was getting set up with an easy lay. She clenched her jaw and shot another glare at her friend for good measure, but the glare was wasted on Sarah who was all smiles as Caleb ran up.

"Hey baby!" Caleb shouted as he grabbed Sarah around the waist and spun her in a circle. Sarah squealed and they kissed noisily. Katie rolled her eyes and looked away, only to notice the other man watching at her.

He had a crooked grin and an amused glint in his blue eyes, as if he knew something she didn't. Katie took this as confirmation of her earlier suspicions and narrowed her eyes at him. "What?" she snapped.

His eyebrows lifted in surprise, but the amusement never left his eyes. He grinned and said, "Hi, I'm Mike. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah, I bet it is." Katie spat and spun around to start unloading the back seat of the car, pointedly ignoring his snort of amusement. She pulled out her gear and squatted down to tie her sleeping bag to the bottom of her backpack.

By the time she looked up again, Mike was back at Caleb's Jeep digging around in the back. She glanced at Caleb and Sarah just long enough to catch an eyeful of tongues and looked quickly back to the Jeep. What the hell was all that stuff in the back?

She watched Mike excavate his backpack out from under the rubble and continued to stare as he bent over to adjust the straps. His worn t-shirt pulled tight across his broad muscular back as he checked his bag over. His khaki cargo pants were cut off just below the knee showing tanned calves that hinted at legs that were used to work; hopefully that meant he was an experienced hiker. His shoulder and back muscles flexed as he tugged on a strap and Katie wondered if maybe she was being unfair. She really didn't know anything about this guy and she was treating him like she'd caught him abusing puppies or something.

Katie sighed deeply and tried mentally shift gears. She was in the mountains and they were going hiking and she wasn't going to let Sarah's little surprise ruin her weekend. She determined to have fun no matter what, to not be angry with Sarah until they got home, and to try to be nicer to mister muscles over there.

She was lost in thought and didn't immediately notice when he craned his head back around and caught her looking at him. He winked and flashed her a knowing grin and her face flushed with heat as she ducked her head and busied herself rearranging her already carefully organized pack for the next ten minutes.

"What is all this stuff for?" Katie asked hesitantly, wandering over to where Sarah and Caleb were sorting through a large pile of equipment. "Did what's-his-name bring it all?"

"No, it's all Caleb's," Sarah said, rolling her eyes and shaking her head in disapproval.

"You did know we were backpacking this weekend, right?" Katie looked skeptically at all of Caleb's 'camping gear' wondering how he could have possibly imagined being able to carry it all. His beer cooler alone would require two people to lug it up the mountain, not to mention his two camp chairs, six-person tent, propane stove and lantern, and two large duffel bags full of who knew what.

"Yeah, but I kept thinking of things I might need," Caleb replied, "I mean how can you make blueberry crepes without a stove?"

"Blueberry crepes? You can't-" she shook her head dismissively. "Look, I just- I'm wondering how we're going to hike all of it in," Katie said apologetically.

"There is no 'we.' He's the one that brought it all, he can hike it in if he wants it," Mike said wryly.

Katie tended to agree, but Caleb flipped Mike off. "Just for that you don't get any blueberry crepes, asshole."

"Look," Sarah said, "there's an access road. I bet the Jeep could make it up; we could just drive up to the first camp."

Katie's heart sank, she didn't want to keep being Debbie Downer, but the whole point of this trip for her was get out in the woods and hike. Still she'd determined that she was going to have fun no matter what so she sighed, resigned, and helped Sarah and Caleb pack all the equipment back in the Jeep.

"Looks like somebody's gonna have to hoof it," said Caleb fifteen minutes later, looking at the backseat. There was barely enough room for one person and their pack.

"I'll walk," Katie and Mike volunteered at the same time.

"You can have the seat. I'm gonna hike." Mike said, looking up at Katie as he slung his pack onto his back.

"Don't give it up on my account."

"I'm not, I happen to like to hike. Plus, I don't feel like squeezing my ass in there with all of Caleb's necessities."

"Fine. I guess we're both hiking, then," Katie said, the corners of her mouth turning up just slightly at his dig at Caleb's over-packing. They both tucked their packs into the open spot in the back seat, taking only their water bottles and a copy of the trail map.

"Wait, did I even introduce you guys?" Sarah spoke up suddenly, "Katie this is Mike Cooper, Mike this is my best friend Katie Nelson."

Mike turned to her with a smile and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Katie," he said, the look in his eye daring her to blow him off again. Katie hesitated for just a moment before taking the offered hand. His fingers wrapped firmly around hers and he squeezed lightly before letting go.

"Nice to meet you, too."

Mike turned to Caleb and Sarah, saying, "We'll see you at the campsite. It shouldn't take us more than an hour and a half, but that won't leave us much daylight. Can you go ahead and start gathering firewood just in case?"

Katie checked the sky to see how low the sun was and was impressed to see that he was right.

"Yeah, sure buddy." Caleb tossed over his shoulder as he climbed into the driver's seat. "See you up there." He revved the engine and pulled off up the logging road. They stood there and watched the dust cloud settle for a moment before turning toward the trail.

"Think they'll make it without killing themselves or getting lost?"

"Let's hope so. They've got all our food." Mike said turning his grin on her as he wiped his forehead with a faded blue bandana.

His smile was wide and seemed to take up his entire face, making Katie suddenly aware of how good-looking he was. She didn't usually find tall men attractive, but Mike's broad chest balanced him out and made him appear more proportionate than most guys his height. His sandy hair was just long enough that she could tell it was curly and his blue eyes twinkled with near-constant amusement. Between the scatter of light freckles across his nose and cheeks and his mischievous grin his face had an air of boyishness that was easily overlooked given his large stature. And somehow at the same time his friendly face made his size seem...non-threatening. How had she not noticed before?

She'd probably been too focused on being annoyed with Sarah. She blushed again at the thought that he might think she'd come on this trip with the sole purpose of hooking up. Her irritation with Sarah washed over her again and she must have made some kind of noise because Mike looked at her inquisitively.

"Was it something I said?" he asked, tying the folded bandana around his head.

Her mouth opened to speak, but glancing up at him she caught a sly look that made it entirely impossible to come up with anything clever to say. Her mouth closed silently.

"You realize I was making a joke, right? You know, pretending to value dinner over the lives of our respective friends. It was irony or sarcasm or...something like that."

Katie snorted in a most unladylike way and felt herself blushing again. What was wrong with her? She wasn't a blushing kind of girl. And she still hadn't said anything. She had to say something! "Yeah, I got it. It just wasn't all that funny," was the first thing that came to mind, but as soon as it left her lips she cringed at the bitchiness of it.

His laughter surprised her and she looked up at him, relieved he hadn't taken offence. People often took offence at her blunt commentary and she'd generally learned to filter herself, except when she was nervous. Like right now.

"Well I'll just have to try harder, then," he said, winking at her. All the breath left her body in a rush and she was glad he looked away, certain he'd have been able to see the sudden tingle that shot through her.

"I wouldn't want you to strain yourself." she said, this time with a smile, punctuating her comment by speeding up and stepping past him on the trail as he chuckled.

They fell into silence for a while as the trail turned upward and started zig-zagging up the side of the steep ridge. Katie let herself get lulled into the trance of the hike, breathing deep and absorbing the sounds and smells of the woods. This was the part of the hike that she loved; the mindless passage of time and miles, not having to think or plan or make any decisions. For a while she could just let go of control and follow a path that someone else had laid.

Mike was having a somewhat harder time. Not with the hike, he was barely breathing hard despite the steep terrain and quick pace Katie was setting. No, he was having trouble concentrating on anything other than the view directly ahead. He couldn't keep his eyes off the way her jeans tightened across her ass with every step, the way she'd occasionally flip one of her black braids back over her shoulder when it would fall forward, the way she'd turn and look in the direction of every bird call or rustle in the trees. He tripped over his own feet for what must have been the hundredth time and cursed himself for not paying attention to where he was stepping.

Girls didn't usually distract him like this, even really cute ones like Katie. Of course he was interested in them and had dated his share, but between school and the academy and now actually working as a cop he'd never had a lot of time to devote to them. Females were more of a recreational activity for him than anything else. But Katie was a bit of a puzzle and he'd always liked puzzles. Talk about a distraction.

Of course, it didn't help that he hadn't been expecting female company on this camping trip. Caleb had sprung it on him in the car on the way there, and sprung was the right word. From the second the willowy beauty had stepped out of the car he'd been adjusting himself in his pants. She was taller than most girls, tall enough that he could look her in the eye without leaning over, which was a surprising turn on. Her eyes were so dark brown they looked nearly black and were set off by clear pale skin and framed by two black braids that hung nearly to her breasts. In all, there was something about her that drew his eyes and required him to make a conscious effort not to stare.

But it was her attitude that intrigued him the most. She'd been so clearly irritated to see him; he could only guess she hadn't been told about him coming either. He could sympathize. Far from being offended by her rudeness, the way her eyes flashed when she'd snapped at him after he introduced himself made him determined to find more ways to get under her skin.

They stopped for a water break at the top of the ridge and she pulled out the trail map to check their location. Not that there was much doubt about where the path had led them, but she had a compulsive need to verify that they were still heading in the right direction. She unfolded the map and was just getting her bearings when she felt his breath on her neck. She suppressed a shiver and looked back at him.

"Are we lost yet?" he asked with mock seriousness, looking over her shoulder at the map.

"Of course we are. That's what you get for letting me lead."

Mike sighed deeply and nodded. "It's true, I should know better, you being such a weak-minded female and all." She laughed out loud at that and a thrill shot through him at the sound. Yeah, he was definitely going have to make her laugh more often.

Katie folded the map back up and pointed in the only direction the trail led. "I'm pretty sure we're supposed to go this way," she joked, "but maybe you should verify it yourself."

"Nah, I trust you. Just remember if you get us lost you'll owe me."

Katie lifted one eyebrow and gave him a skeptical look "Owe you what?" she asked cautiously.

"I don't know, but I'm sure I'd be able to come up with something good," he said with another of those spine tingling smiles. Before she could come up with a reply he turned and set off up the last leg of the trail.

Katie stared after him for a moment before she decided to ignore the warmth that spread through her body at the implications of his comment. She started hiking again, but this time found it difficult to drop back into the trance she'd been in before. Her eyes kept returning to the man in front of her; his thick hair curling on the back of his neck where it was damp with sweat, his broad back and slim hips, his worn shorts hugging what she had to admit was one of the nicest asses she'd ever had the pleasure of staring at. Those muscular calves flexing as he walked. She tripped again and shook her head to try to clear it.

"I think we'll make it before sunset after all," she said in an effort to derail her thoughts from the direction they seemed determined to go.

"Yeah, I think so, too. What do you think the chances are that those two actually gathered some firewood or made any attempt to set up camp?"

She laughed at that. "No telling, I guess it depends on how distracted they got."

"And by distracted, of course, you mean naked."

"Exactly," she said, a sudden image of a naked Mike appearing in her mind's eye, causing her mouth to go dry. So much for derailing her thoughts. Damn, she had to get a hold of herself before she did something stupid.

She changed the subject again, "I'm sorry I was rude to you, before. I thought it was going to be just Sarah and I this weekend. It was sort of a shock to see you guys."

"Don't worry about it. I just assumed you were PMSing."

"Excuse me?" she said, appalled, until he turned around to look at her and she could see his teasing grin. She smiled back and rolled her eyes.

"No really, I wasn't expecting you guys either. Well not you specifically, Caleb said we were going to meet some friends of his, but never mentioned it was his girlfriend. It's probably a good thing. I wouldn't have agreed to come if I'd known I was getting set up."

"Me either," Katie said, inexplicably relived that she hadn't been the only one surprised. "Who sets people up on a camping trip? I can't imagine anything more awkward."

"Yeah, it's weird. But it doesn't have to be awkward unless we let it. I'm glad I came, actually. It would have been a shame to miss out on this."

Katie's heart beat faster and she wondered if he meant what she thought he meant.

"It looks like it's gonna be a gorgeous weekend to be in the mountains," he said looking up at the sky through the tree tops before glancing over his shoulder at her.

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