Chapter One – Found Someone
“Aren’t you kinda scaring away the deer?” a snarky female voice called up to Emanuel Cohen, perched ten feet up the trunk of a tree on the platform of his hunting blind.
As if to prove her wrong, a doe that had been feeding in the fallow corn field nearby raised her head, stilled for a moment, terror in her eyes, then darted into the woods to the north.
Manny hadn’t even bothered to lift his top-end Hoyt Turbo compound bow, while watching her eat the past ten minutes because he knew the doe’s fawn was resting nearby. Besides, he was holding out for the buck he’d seen two weeks ago on his trail cam. The majestic creature sported an eight-point rack that would hang beautifully in his personal study. His favorite room in their stately home built on the outermost wing overlooking the Thunder Bay State Forest.
“My singing doesn’t usually bother anyone this far away from the middle of nowhere,” Manny called down to her.
“Yeah, well, I’m lost, and I was hoping to find someone who could lead me back to Alpena.”
“Found someone, you did,” he said in his best Yoda impression, collecting his belongings and preparing to descend the makeshift ladder made of two-by-fours nailed into the side of the giant red oak.
“Thank you, Jedi Master.” Her sarcasm was even more adorable knowing she’d understood the reference.
“Ooh, she’s calling me Master and I don’t even know her name yet.” Manny hopped off the last rung and onto the soft ground, his Danner Pronghorn waterproof boots sinking slightly in the marshy soil. He clipped his bow onto its shoulder sling and started toward the road.
Even from twenty feet away he could see her shiver. Her lightweight blouse may have been perfect for the afternoon sun, but the evening was cooling off.
“Don’t you have a jacket or sweatshirt?” he asked.
“I wasn’t planning on being away from the boat this long,” she said. “I just wanted to escape my parent’s eagle eyes for a few hours and took one wrong turn after another on the way back until I wound up here, in the middle of a forest.” She spread her arms wide, the shimmering fabric floating down like butterfly wings.
“Quite literally in the middle of a forest,” Manny said. He removed his hunting vest and sling, carefully resting his compound bow—his most prized possession—in the tall grasses beside the gravel road, and unzipped his parka. Slipping it off his shoulders, he tsked and shook his head. “I hate to do this because you look beautiful—probably too old for me—but still.”
He draped the lightweight camo jacket over her shoulders as she scoffed. “I’m only twenty. I’m hardly too old. Suenas como mi Papa..”
“Wow, in all my nineteen years I’ve never had a hot older woman compare me to her father. I’m thoroughly insulted.”
“What’s insulting is that you keep calling me old.” She snuggled into his parka and breathed what could only be called a sigh of relief. Then she did something unexpected. She lifted the collar and inhaled a long breath. “Hueles muy bien.”
“I have never wanted to be a jacket so badly in my entire life,” Manny said.
“All nineteen years of it?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Never mind.” She stuck out her hand, pulling the too-long sleeve up over her wrist. “I’m Aloise.”
He took her hand in his and didn’t let go. “Your hands are freezing, Aloise.” Manny lifted her other hand and rubbed them between his, moving a step closer. She didn’t resist. “Isn’t the heater in your car working?”
“I ran out of gas.” Her shoulders slumped.
“This is the luckiest day of my life.” Manny finally looked more closely at her face, drinking in the deep brown eyes and olive toned skin. “What are the odds that the not-so-old woman of my dreams would just happen to run out of gas a few feet from my hunting blind in the middle of a forest?”
“And what are the odds that the best smelling nineteen-year-old guy would just happen to be a few feet off the beaten path right at the spot where my car would run out of gas, singing loud enough for me to hear him from the road in the middle of a forest in—what state am I stuck in?”
“Michigan.” Manny’s word was almost a breath.
“Michigan’s beautiful,” Aloise whispered.
“You flatter me,” —she stopped and creased her brow. “What’s your name?”
“I’m lost, Manny,” Aloise whispered.
“I would love to help you find yourself.”
Chapter Two – We’ve Got to Be Related
“See that trail to my right?” Manny nodded his head in that direction and Aloise looked over his shoulder. “At the other end of that trail is my father’s home. If you go with me, I will change into something that may or may not smell as good as my camo, but will be far more appropriate to drive you into town, and we will purchase a can of gas for your car.”
“You want me to follow you down a dark trail into the woods?” She raised her eyebrows.
“It’s not far, I promise,” Manny told her. “Do you have a better idea?”
Her shoulders slumped. “No.”
“Don’t worry, I have my bow.” Manny held up his compound. “I can fend off all the scary bucks and does. But you gotta watch out for those fawns. They’re vicious.”
“Very funny,” she said. “I was more worried about following a guy I don’t know into the woods when no one in the world has a clue where I’m located, and my cell phone gets zero reception out here en medio de la nada.”
“You are not in the middle of nowhere,” Manny said. “You are surrounded by the Thunder Bay State Forest to the south, my neighbor’s prime hunting ground to the east, and my father owns pretty much everything else.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you.” She cringed.
“You’re fine.” He indicated she should follow. “It’s easier to keep a low profile this way.” She didn’t ask what he meant by that and he didn’t offer. She’d find out soon enough when they emerged into the clearing and his father’s home came into view.
She followed close enough behind him to grip the back of his vest as she tripped along the uneven path. The trek took less than ten minutes, but she wasn’t wearing hiking boots. She stumbled along in elegant sandals that probably cost a fortune.
“What are you doing here, anyway? You mentioned a boat.”
“My Papa owns a sailing yacht and he thought it would be fun to sail up through the Great Lakes. Since he controls everything I have, including my unlimited credit limit, I am compelled to come along. Besides, I really like my mamá, even though she refuses to let me marry until my older sister finds a husband first.”
“Well, we must provide for her a suitable selection,” Manny said. “How old is she? I’ll see if I have any friends her age.”
“Twenty-two,” Aloise said. “Practically an old maid in our culture.”
“What is your culture?”
“We are of Middle-Eastern descent but our most recent generation hails from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and Guatemala,” she said.
Manny stopped in his tracks, turning and looking into Aloise’s eyes, deep brown in the dimming twilight of the forest. “We have got to be related.”
“Por qué?” She almost ran into him and he steadied himself by resting his hands on her hips.
“Because that’s exactly the same way my dad describes our heritage. Almost word for word.”
“What’s your last name?”
“Ashish,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. Mis parientes son malos.” She pushed on ahead of Manny, grumbling as she did. “It’s like they wanted me to stand out even more than I already do.”
“I mean, ya know, it’s a really pretty name.” Manny hurried to catch up.
“Oh my gosh.” Aloise stopped short, having come into the clearing and seeing her first glimpse of his house. “Your family must be almost as rich as mine.”
“Probably more so,” he stated matter-of-factly. “I think we’re the only billionaires in this region of Michigan.”
“Whatever,” she huffed. “My family is so rich we sail around the world on a yacht.”
“My father used to own a company that built yachts,” Manny said, a chill running through him. He tried to blame the evening temperature.
“My father owned stock in a yacht company,” Aloise said, her eyes growing animated. “They sold all their shares when my Papá’s business partner fought with his brothers.”
“This cannot be a coincidence,” he said.
“Come on.” Manny took Aloise’s hand and pulled her gently in the direction of the house. “You need to meet my dad.”