tagRomanceLost in the Woods

Lost in the Woods

byPennLady©

Author's note: Hi everyone. Hope you enjoy, and votes and feedback are appreciated. Happy Spring. It is spring now, right?

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© 2011 All Rights Reserved

"Hey, everybody! I want to tell you about a volunteer opportunity before we get started."

Willow Oakton gave a mental roll of the eyes before turning her attention to the speaker. Holly Stone was hosting the book club this month, and so she had the floor. Whenever Holly had a "volunteer opportunity" to discuss, it tended to result in everyone else volunteering while Holly supervised.

"What is it this time, Holly?" This was from Ivy Blackwood. She slid a knowing wink to Willow. "I'm not taking abandoned dogs for walks again. Ruined my shoes."

Willow covered her mouth to hide a grin and saw a few others doing the same. A few women gave Ivy looks of mild disapproval.

"Okay." Holly sat with back straight, knees together and legs angled to one side, hands in her lap. Her blonde hair was twisted up and back so that not a strand escaped, the style emphasizing her high cheek bones. Willow was reminded of a prim teacher ready to lecture her students. "So you know it's Earth Day in a couple of weeks, right?" There nods around the room. "My brother's friend is a park ranger and they're looking for people to help clean up the park."

"Sounds good so far," Ivy said, and there were approving murmurs from the other book club members.

"What's the catch?" Willow almost jumped in her seat; she hadn't meant to say it out loud, but she'd learned to be cautious of Holly and these types of plans. Willow's green eyes darted around the room and she saw a few people waiting on Holly to answer.

"There's no catch, Willow." Holly gave her a baleful look before continuing. "There will be eight park rangers and they'll divide everyone into four groups. They'll take us to different areas of the park where we'll pick up litter and things like that. It'll be a two-night camping trip—an outdoor slumber party!" Holly beamed at the end of her little speech.

That generated a buzz of excitement and curiosity. Holly went on to explain how in addition to giving basic tips on keeping the park clean, the rangers would instruct everyone on camping, from how to set up tents and fires, to how to cook and properly clean up the site when finished.

"I'll pass around a form later, so put your name down if you're interested," Holly said when the voices died down. "Now, let's get to the book!"

Willow pondered the volunteer effort while they moved on to discuss the book club selection. She hadn't been interested in it—it was some depressing family story that she'd had to force herself to finish—and so didn't mind letting everyone else talk about it. She chimed in when asked a direct question, to say that although the book was well-written, it had been a relentless downer and wasn't for her. She saw Holly sniff in disdain.

Should have been more tactful since she picked the book, I guess. Willow gave a mental shrug; she hadn't liked it and didn't feel like searching for those ambiguous comments that might lead a person to think she did.

After the book discussion, Holly passed around a paper and Willow joined some others in adding her name, cell phone and email address to the list. Camping wasn't her usual idea of a weekend trip, but it could be fun to do something new, she decided. She said her good-byes, grabbed her jacket and waited for Ivy by the door.

"God, am I glad that's over." Ivy shook her curly brown hair back from her face as she got in the car. "That book was the most boring thing I'd ever read."

Willow laughed. "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought so."

"The Earth Day thing sounds fun, though. I used to go camping a lot when I was younger. Mom and Dad would pile us all in the camper and off we'd go." Ivy grinned at the memories.

"Not me." Willow shook her head. "My mom's idea of roughing it is a hotel with less than four stars, and my dad can't light a match, much less a campfire." They both chuckled. "Still," Willow continued, "I figure what the hell? It's just two nights, and it could be fun." She ran a hand through wavy dark-blonde hair. "I mean, I know I'm leery about going new places, but I can't avoid it forever. I need to try new things."

"Me, too, and if one of those new things is one of the park rangers—Yum!" Ivy flashed a grin.

"Ivy, you're incorrigible."

"No, I'm insatiable."

"Okay, you can stop right there." Willow shook her head with a smile.

"Oh, come on, Willow, you think so too."

"I do?"

"Don't you know who Holly's friend is?"

"Should I?"

Ivy gave an exaggerated roll of her eyes. "Remember Clay Wilder?"

"Clay Wilder?" Willow frowned. The name was familiar but she was having a hard time matching a face to it. "I'm not sure."

"You must remember him." Ivy's voice was full of disbelief. "Come on, at the Fourth of July party Holly had last year? The guy in the blue trunks?"

"Blue—oh." Willow swallowed in a dry throat. "Oh, um. Yeah, I remember. Clay."

How could she have forgotten him? He'd been about six feet of near perfection to Willow's eyes. They'd met when Willow had tripped and knocked them both into the pool. She'd never been so embarrassed. He'd been fine, laughing about the whole thing once he'd realized it was an accident and joking that it saved him the trouble of deciding whether to go back in the water.

"I knew you would." Ivy turned onto Willow's street. "He's a hard one—ha ha—to forget."

"Mmmm." With any luck, Willow thought, Clay had forgotten all about her.

"Here you go. The flowers look great, Willow. Wish I had your touch with that. It just all says 'Spring is here! Be happy!'" Ivy looked at the trail of colorful flowers that led up to Willow's door. There were nasturtiums, petunias and hyacinths creating a bright line up to the porch. More grew in plant boxes that hung on the porch railing, and a pretty green wreath hung on the door.

"Thanks. It's fun. I can help you set some up at your place if you want, just give me a call."

"No, I have too much compassion for the flowers to subject them to me." Ivy winked. "I'll just borrow from you when I need help."

"No problem. Thanks for the ride." Willow stepped out and closed the door, then waved as Ivy pulled away.

x-x-x-x

Clay Wilder listened with forced patience as his best friend's sister, Holly, chattered on about recruiting volunteers for the Earth Day clean up.

"Okay, Holly. Yes, sounds great. Give me a final list when you can and I'll get you a list of supplies everyone should bring. Right. Say hi to your parents and Ash for me. Bye." He put down the phone and rubbed at his face.

"Hey, Wilder!"

Clay turned at the sound of his name. "What?"

Adam Fossey came into the office. "What do you want for lunch?"

"A bottle of Excedrin." Clay leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed at his temples. "My God, that woman can go on forever without taking a breath."

"Some guys would consider that an asset."

"It would be, if she didn't talk at the same time." Clay was quiet for a moment, then looked up with a grin that made Adam suspicious. "And she's been gathering volunteers for Earth Day."

"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?" Still wary, Adam put his hat down and went over to get some coffee.

"Because you'll be hiking with women in Prada shoes, wondering where they can get a good glass of wine." He flashed a grin at his friend.

Adam groaned. "Oh, come on, man. Tell me you're kidding."

"I am, mostly. I'm exaggerating. Holly never struck me as the camping type, but I could be wrong. And she and the others are volunteering, and we'll give them lots of information. They'll know what they're getting into." Clay felt slightly cheered by his reasoning.

"I don't know." Adam sat down and frowned at his coffee. "A lot of those do-gooder types like to think they're getting 'in touch with the earth,' you know? The reality check doesn't usually go well."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. A lot people back out of these things at the last minute, and I really don't think anyone worried about ruining their shoes would sign up in the first place." Clay sighed and got up for his own coffee, hoping the caffeine would chase the headache away. "I'll send out a list of supplies. That will weed out anyone who isn't serious."

"True, true." Adam ran a hand over close-cropped brown hair.

"So how is it out there? All of the campers okay so far?" Clay sat down and sipped at the coffee, wincing at the strong taste.

"Oh yeah." Adam shrugged and covered a yawn. "Not many out there, and they all seem to be old hands. People who really like to camp, you know? And they're smart about it."

"That's a relief." Clay concentrated on his coffee and hoped that Holly's friends were half as smart as the campers they had in the park now.

x-x-x-x

Willow studied the list that Holly had emailed. Nothing too exotic, she thought, or expensive. All reasonable supplies for a short camping trip. Some things she probably had around the house, others she'd have to acquire, but that was all right. She was now glad that she'd picked up the hiking boots last year; she hadn't used them much, but at least she wouldn't have to lay out for a new pair.

"Okay, let's see." Willow pulled out a piece of paper. "Sleeping bag...I can borrow my brother's. And didn't he buy a tent last year? Insect repellent I'll have to buy, and suntan lotion, too. I have a water bottle...." She muttered to herself as she compared the list on the screen to her mental list of things she had on hand.

It took three rings before she heard the phone.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Willow. It's Ivy."

"Oh, hey. How are you?"

"Good. I was just going through the supply list."

Willow laughed. "Me too. Great minds, huh?"

"Depends. Was your great mind thinking of a shopping trip?"

"For some things, sure. I think my brother may be able to lend me the rest. Do you want to try our hand at the shopping?"

"You bet." Ivy sounded determined and enthused. "And if I can get me a hunky salesman to demonstrate his, ahem, equipment, then all the better."

"Ivy!" Willow cracked up. "You're terrible."

"Insatiable," Ivy corrected. "I thought we'd covered this."

"Whatever. What say we go to Cabela's? They've got everything we could possibly need for camping. Even if we don't buy stuff there, we can probably get ideas and recommendations."

"Sounds great. I'll drive; pick you up in an hour?"

"You bet. Thanks, Ivy."

"No problem. I'll make sure to save a hunky salesman for you, too."

"Gee, thanks."

Willow shook her head but smiled as they hung up. She was glad Ivy was going; that would make the trip more fun. Her next phone call was to her brother, who did indeed have a sleeping bag and a tent that held two people, and was happy to lend them to her. He also promised to give her some tips on setting it up when she came to get it.

Pleased, Willow hung up. Maybe she and Ivy could share the tent, she thought, and then realized there was no guarantee they'd be in the same group. She wondered if there would be some sort of buddy system, and hoped so. Her one fear had nothing to do with bugs or fires or anything like that. Willow sighed as she went to get a drink.

You really should get over this, she admonished herself. You were fine. You weren't even really lost, just scared. And mom and dad found you within an hour.

Trying to push the thoughts away didn't help and her mood started to decline, so she decided to go check on her flowers before Ivy came. Working with the bright blooms always cheered her up. She forced herself to concentrate on weeding and not on how frightened she'd been when some friends had led her into the woods and left when she'd been distracted watching a family of rabbits.

By the time Ivy arrived, Willow had managed to put most of it out of her head. It was silly, she told herself. They were going to be in groups and for heaven's sake, it was an Earth Day event to clean up a park, not a survivalist weekend in the rain forest.

"I am really looking forward to this," Ivy said as she drove. "I was kind of iffy at first—you know how Holly can be with her volunteer stuff—but I checked out the park and everything and this could be great." She grimaced. "It's a little depressing, though, to read how people litter in the park and how much trash there is. I mean, God, is it so hard to take a trash bag with you?"

"I think it should be fun," Willow said. "I haven't had a chance to just get away from everything for a long time. I know it's just a short trip but I think it will be nice to be away from the noise and all."

"They did advise taking your cell phone for emergencies, but I'm with you." Ivy nodded. "Sometimes I can't believe how I go from screen to screen all the time. You know, computer at work, iPhone on break, computer at home, then television...."

"Yeah, me too," Willow agreed. "I've been trying to make myself stay off the computer for at least an hour a day. Just to make myself read a book or listen to music without so many distractions."

"Now don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to go live off the land," Ivy said as she parked the car. "But sometimes you do forget there's a lot of beautiful stuff out there."

"There is." Willow got out of the car and stretched. "And it wouldn't hurt us to make it a little prettier by picking up some trash."

"That's the spirit." Ivy came around and tossed an arm around Willow's shoulders. "Come on, let's go get an electric blanket."

Willow laughed. "Where would you plug it in?"

"Extension cord."

"Kind of defeats the purpose, Ivy."

"Hell with that, I want to be warm."

Willow laughed again as they entered the store, her worries fading. With Ivy around, the trip was sure to be fun.

x-x-x-x

"Oh, now I must need this!" Holly smiled and held the box out towards Clay, who bit back a harsh reply.

"Holly, it's for gutting fish. I don't think we're going to be fishing." He made his voice neutral, since he knew gentle was out of the question. How did I let her brother talk me into this? Ash was gong to owe him, and owe him big.

"Oh, gross!" Holly all but threw it back on the shelf.

"Why don't you let me show you the best options for what you need?" Clay tried to wrest control of the shopping expedition. He'd thought Holly would let him lead, but it appeared that when it came to shopping of any sort, Holly put herself in charge. He spoke again when she made to protest. "Holly, please. I do this for a living. You'll enjoy it much more if you have the proper equipment. I'll just make suggestions; final decision will be up to you."

"Whatever you say." Holly fluttered her eyelashes and Clay cringed. Holly was okay, but he didn't think they had a single thing in common. He wished she'd stop flirting, and wondered how to nicely tell her he wasn't interested. Not that she'd given any sign she'd considered that possibility.

Clay guided her down the aisles, pointing out what he thought would be most useful and trying to keep Holly from overspending. Holly didn't seem concerned about that, but Clay saw no point in her laying out money for a tent that would keep a person safe in Antarctica when she was only going to be out for two nights in a state park in the spring.

He managed to talk her into a two-person tent with few frills, a medium-sized back pack, and a down sleeping bag. It was spring but the nights were still cold, Clay reasoned, so that was a good investment. He had one like it.

"Okay, Holly, let's get you some hiking boots." Clay pushed the cart to his right, aiming for the shoes.

"Whatever you say." She smiled again and put her arm through his as he pushed the cart. "And here I thought I could manage with just sneakers."

"Sneakers are okay but I really think you'll be grateful for the boots." Clay counted to ten before continuing. "I'd bring sneakers, just in case, but the boots will have better traction and keep your feet warmer. Wool socks would probably be good, too," he added.

"Oh no!" Holly looked dismayed. "I'm allergic to wool!"

Of course you are. Clay nodded and kept his expression bland, although a scream of frustration fought for release. "No problem. There are lots of options; just go for something warm, and you can always layer."

She nodded and followed along. Clay asked after her parents just to make some conversation, and was distracted enough that when someone bumped into him, he stumbled before regaining his balance.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" The woman who had tripped tried to right herself, which nearly made Clay lose his balance again. On reflex, he tightened one of his hands on the shelf he'd grabbed, then the other around her waist, and she stilled.

Clay straightened but didn't let her go. She felt pretty good, he had to admit. Then he chastised himself. "Are you all right?"

"Yes...yes, thanks." She stepped aside and he released his hand with a pang of regret. She looked up and started to talk, then blushed furiously. Before Clay could ask her anything else, Holly spoke up.

"Willow? What in the world are you doing here?" Holly did not sound pleased.

Clay ignored her and turned to the other woman. "Really, are you okay? I should have been looking where I was pushing the cart."

"No, no, it's my fault." She was flustered and ran a hand through her hair. "I was carrying too much and something started to drop and then I don't know...I just tripped and...."

"It's okay," he assured her. "I'm Clay Wilder." He held out a hand.

"Oh, I'm Willow. Oakton." They shook hands and he liked the feel of hers in his.

"Clay, don't you remember? You met Willow at the party last summer," Holly said.

"I did?" Clay looked down at the woman before him and tried to place her. She had dark blonde hair and he'd caught a glimpse of green eyes and what he was sure were kissable lips. He liked the casual jeans and shirts she wore, which showed off the kinds of curves he liked. Despite all that, he couldn't quite remember if he'd seen her.

"I'm sorry," he said. "My memory must be going. You're too pretty to forget." He groaned to himself. You didn't really say that, did you?

Willow smiled and was about to speak, but Holly broke in again.

"She pushed you into the pool, Clay. You must remember that." Holly crossed her arms and gave Willow a look, then turned back to Clay with a coy smile and pressed one hand on his arm. "Come on. I need to get those boots, remember?"

"Hey, Willow, what's...oh, hi, Holly." Another woman with dark hair and a ready smile came over. She held a hand out to Clay. "Hi, I'm Ivy. Not sure if you remember, but we met at Holly's party last summer. Clay, right?"

"Yes. Hi, nice to meet you." He did remember Ivy, and wondered how he could have forgotten Willow.

"We're here getting ready for the Earth Day trip at the park. Mind if we run our stuff by you?" Ivy asked, then grinned. "Might as well get expert help while we can."

"Sure, no problem." Clay turned to Willow. "Are you coming, too?"

"Um, yeah." She cleared her throat and seemed to collect herself. "Yes, I'm looking forward to it and Ivy's right. If it's not too much trouble, could you give us a quick opinion on what we have so far?"

"Love to. Holly, why don't you head over to the shoes? Tell the salesperson what you're looking for and get two or three pairs and I'll be over in a minute to look at them, okay?"

"Fine." Holly managed a glare at Willow before turning and walking away.

"You'll have to excuse her," Clay said in apology, "she's just...."

"Being Holly," Ivy interrupted with a wink. "We know."

Clay suggested they find a place out of the way so he could help them and led them to a spot near one of the hunting displays. Clay was impressed with their choices; they had put in the thought that Holly hadn't, or wouldn't. He advised them to skip a few things he thought unnecessary for such a short trip, and gave some recommendations on items they had yet to buy.

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