Slamming the truck door closed, Joy waved at Ernie when he drove away from the campground. Mike's neighbor had been coming out this way to hunt, and he graciously offered to drop her off at the campground near Muncho Lake before he drove south further into the Provincial Park. This was a popular spot because it was one of the last places to park before going in. Most of the Park was protected land and you weren't allowed to drive vehicles in certain parts.
Sighing, she tried to ignore the fact that she still had a long hike into the forest before she reached their family's cabin because of that little rule. She wasn't looking forward to this, but it had to be done. Joy and hiking didn't really mix. She couldn't wait to see Aaron though, so it would be worth whatever bug bites she picked up.
Dogs were setting up a racket somewhere close by. That meant there were either a few hunters hanging out here before traveling into the Park, or some family was vacationing nearby. The campground got all sorts of people for different reasons.
Joy turned at the call, spying Zachary Miles walking out of the main building. His beer gut looked bigger than the last time she'd seen him. His hat was pulled low, shadowing his face and what she was positive would be a leer. The man was a lech of the worst kind.
He proved exactly how pervy he was when he pulled her into a backbreaking hug, rubbing his chest against hers. Stiffening, Joy patted him on his arm, pulling out of the embrace. Typical Zach.
"Zach, haven't seen you in ages. How've you been?"
"Not bad, not bad. You hiking in to the cabin?"
"Yeah, Mike and Darren are out there. Seems..." She paused, something telling her not to give him too much information. She didn't quite like the intent look on his face. "Seems they wanted to have a little family get together."
"Must be tough, what with Aaron missing and all."
Lowering her gaze, Joy nodded. She couldn't lie to the man, not right to his face. It was probably better just to remain silent.
What was wrong with her? She should be shouting Aaron's appearance to the heavens, but something was holding her back. Maybe she needed to see his face before she'd believe it. Mike certainly knew he'd been found, and yet he hadn't made a huge monumental announcement about it. Didn't they have to call the RCMP and let them know? Lord, this was confusing. What was Mike thinking?
A pitiful meow interrupted the silence.
"Who've you got there?"
"This is Spotty. She's keeping me company."
"You brought a cat out to the woods?" Zach shook his head, turning and spitting to the side. "Women. Hunter, you ever hear of anyone bringing a cat out to the woods before?"
Joy paused, trying to figure out who he was talking to. A shadow detached itself from under the stand of trees next to the main building. The man who walked forward was tall and lanky, unquestionably cute, light years different in appearance from his brother.
"Hunter Miles? I swear, I haven't seen you in years. Look at you, all grown up." Joy grinned, checking the young man out. Not that he was all that much younger than her, but at nineteen he was definitely too young to do anything more than ogle. Didn't stop her from looking, though. He was a pretty little thing.
"Hi, Joy." His voice was quiet, soft. He glanced back at the cabin nervously, twisting his fingers.
Joy followed his gaze, grimacing when she spied the two cougars strung up outside. She couldn't believe she'd missed seeing them when she'd first got here.
Spotty hissed, letting out a rumbling yowl.
"Say, you haven't heard anything about Aaron, have you?"
Joy shook her head, not answering Zach's question.
"Too bad, what happened to him. I was part of the Search and Rescue Team that was called in, you know. Went out with a few dogs to see if we could find him, but never found a trace. Weirdest thing, that. I'm real sorry for your loss."
"People get lost in the wilderness all the time. This isn't the most accessible of areas. Doesn't mean he's dead." She bit her lip, not meeting his gaze.
"True, true. Just strange, is all. Him being from the city and everything. Not sure why he'd come up here on vacation. Always thought that boy was too sissified to come up here and rough it." He tossed a glance to Hunter, rolling his eyes. "I've been telling this one that's what happens when you decide to play patty cake with another man."
Joy curled her lip. "Excuse me?" She couldn't believe he'd just said that.
"Well, doesn't matter much anyway. You'd better be on your way before it gets too dark to see."
Completely ignoring her indignant glare, Zach walked away, scratching his belly.
"Your brother is a real winner, Hunter. Is he always like that?"
"Most days." Hunter shrugged.
"Yeah, it's true. He doesn't much care for it, but I won't hide the fact that I prefer men."
"There's nothing wrong with it, you know. If you need someone to talk to, I can get my cousin, Darren, to call you. He knows better than most how it feels when some people don't like the choices you make."
"Yeah, I should ... you think I should?"
Joy smiled gently. "It might help to talk to him. He's a nice guy, honest."
"Yeah, I may do that, then. It's--"
A loud chuffing roar sounded, the scream of a wounded animal. Joy started, jumping in place and just about dropping her cloth case with its precious cat cargo.
"What the hell was that?"
Hunter had gone white, his face blanched. When he glanced back at her, she could clearly see the fear in his gaze. "That ... uh ... t-that's j-just a ... Zach caught a-a cougar. It's injured..."
"It's still alive! What the hell is wrong with you guys? That's completely inhumane to leave it in that kind of pain. Why wouldn't he just kill it like the other two? Never mind that. Why haven't you contacted one of the big game vets to come look at it if it's injured?"
"It was caught in one of our traps. Zach ... Zach wanted to ... hell, I've given up trying to second guess my brother. I don't know what he's doing. It's just--"
"Hunter, you get your ass in here and stop flirting with Joy. If I thought it'd amount to anything I'd leave you out there, but we all know you're not man enough."
Hunter blushed, his shoulders slumping.
He nodded. Glancing back at the main building, he seemed to come to some sort of decision. Straightening his shoulders, he whispered, "Can I give you my number? Maybe Darren can call me. It's important. Tonight, can he call me tonight? Maybe in three hours? I can get away then. Zach won't be watching."
Frowning, Joy studied the younger man. "Is Zach threatening you? Are you okay here?"
He nodded jerkily. "Fine. Just ... I don't know who else to call. Please, it's important."