Loud Mouth by Avery Flynn
Shelby Blanton was never going to sleep again.
She should have known better than to watch a double feature about possessed houses while staying alone in a rented cabin out in the middle of snowdrift-covered nowhere.
Yeah, that had definitely been mistake number one.
The other big, bad move on her part had been that after-dinner espresso. She was a green tea drinker, but the cabin came with an espresso maker and it had totally seemed fancy and fun at the time but oh my God… She could practically hear her heart beating now and her eyes were all, Blinking? It’s for the weak!
So now here she was, starfished on a king-size bed, practically vibrating from caffeine and wondering if every creak and groan of the cabin in the dark was actually a malevolent force waiting for her to fall asleep so it could steal her soul. The tick, tick had to be the huge grandfather clock—complete with antlers—in the living room. The intermittent hum was the heat kicking on and off. The shuffle of steps had to be—
Shelby jackknifed into a sitting position, one corner of the thick down comforter clutched to her chest, and told herself it wasn’t an ax murderer.
Steps? It was her imagination. Or the wind. Or the pipes. Or—
Holy fuckballs, there it is again.
The noise was coming from downstairs. All of a sudden, the back-to-nature thrill of being in a cell phone dead zone without a landline became a cold blanket of dread that covered her from her chin to the little hairs on her toes. Focus glued to the bedroom door that was open—of course—she reached over to her purse on the nightstand and fished around in it until her fingers brushed by the cool metal of her flashlight stun gun. It wasn’t a rock salt safety circle and a blowtorch, but it would at least give her a running start as long as the intruder was human and not a one-eyed ghoul with a grudge.
Okay, she knew the whole haunted thing was just in her head, but tell that to the lizard part of her brain that was doing the ultimate freak-out right now. That was it. She was never watching another scary movie again. Ever.
Slipping out of the bed, stun gun in her tight grip, she held her breath, straining to hear something over the sound of blood rushing in her ears as she tiptoed to the door. Taking up a spot just to the left of the open door, she flattened her back against the wall.
One of the stairs creaked and then another as someone who sounded very un-ghostlike let out a long sigh that under other circumstances would have sounded tired as hell, but considering it was made by a house-burglar-serial-killer, she wasn’t about to give him any sympathy.
A nervous giggle started working its way up from her belly. Gritting her teeth, Shelby tightened her abs, hoping to stave off the very inopportune timing of her most hated reflex.
This was not the time for making noise—especially not the high-pitched sound that had resulted in her having the nickname The Squeaker growing up. Okay, it hadn’t just been the giggle. She’d never gotten rid of her little-girl voice—no matter how many voice lessons she’d had. Now it was that sound that had telemarketers asking if her mommy was home when she answered the phone that was going to get her straight-up murdered.
Focus, Shelby. Be the badass your tats promise you are.
She had several, but her biggest was a detailed leaf tattoo the length of her forearm. It wasn’t exactly skull-and-crossbones-with-a-bloody-dagger tough, but getting it had hurt like a bitch and she’d survived. That meant she could live through this.
The steps got closer, and she pictured a Goliath of a guy, maybe with a little drool stuck to the corner of his mouth and wild black eyes, walking toward the open bedroom door. She adjusted her sweat-slick grip on the flashlight stun gun—thank you, nerves, for adding that to the mix. Letting out a deep breath, she put her thumb on the switch that would turn on the super-bright light and her finger on the button that would turn on the arc of electricity.
She’d gotten the device after the threats sent in to her hockey blog The Biscuit got more than the usual you’re-a-real-bitch-and-I-hope-you-get-raped variety of being female on the internet. According to the self-defense course she’d taken, the light would momentarily startle her attacker so she could get in close enough to jab the electric arc into a sensitive spot. The jolt wouldn’t be enough to knock him out, but it would incapacitate him long enough for her to run down the stairs, grab her car keys, and get the hell out of this Stephen King book in the making.
The steps got closer.
Shelby forgot how to breathe.
A man walked through the door, pausing just inside, presumably looking at the tumbled-up sheets and blankets on the empty bed.
A spike of hot adrenaline stabbed the icy panic right through the heart. Too bad, asshole, I’m not waiting for you to attack.
Shelby let out a banshee shriek—okay, squeak. The man whirled around, hands curled into fists. She flipped on the flashlight on the inhale as he reared back, and then she shoved the arcing end into his stomach. Technically, she was supposed to hold it there for three seconds. She got maybe half of one before her grip slipped and she lost contact. He stumbled back, letting out a low rumbly yowl of pain.
That’s when she was supposed to run, sprinting away from death and danger. But she didn’t, not once her flashlight’s beam landed on the man’s face and her stomach dropped down to the cabin’s wine cellar. She recognized him immediately.
Ian Petrov. Hockey player. Curly-haired, bearded sex god, according to the tabloids. Also…the one person who hated her more than anyone else in the world.
“What the hell,” Ian yelled, holding a protective arm over his gut as he advanced toward her. “You better get the fuck out of here before the cops show up.”
“Did you follow me?” Brilliant question? No, but her brain was a little shell-shocked at the moment.
“Why in the hell would I do th—” The word died on his lips as recognition and something that looked a lot like disgust crossed his way-too-ruggedly-handsome face. He stopped walking and groaned, letting his head drop back as he mumbled curses at the ceiling. “You have got to be fucking kidding me. You? Here? What, are you stalking me? Haven’t you fucked up my life enough?”
Shelby winced. It had been an accident, but the result was the same. She was the reason why everyone in Harbor City now knew that Ian’s best friend and fellow Ice Knights hockey player, Alex Christensen, was actually Ian’s secret half brother.
When it came out that Alex had known the truth for years without telling Ian, the two men had stopped speaking to each other. Now the Ice Knights had been torn in two just as the playoffs were starting. It was an unmitigated mess. And all her fault.
Ian may not be a friendly neighborhood murderer, but he might just kill her—metaphorically. All the same, it still looked like he wouldn’t mind tossing her out into the snow and leaving her to freeze in the night—and part of her couldn’t even blame him.
Ian had been in some weird situations with women before.
There was the date who showed up in head-to-toe Ice Knights gear and asked if he wanted to see the tattoo of his face on her ass. He’d declined.
One woman had pledged daily blow jobs in exchange for helping her hook up with stern brunch daddy Coach Peppers. Ian still had no idea what a stern brunch daddy was, but if it was a guy who walked around the locker room drinking coffee that was more sugar and milk than caffeine, the team coach would qualify.
His favorite, though, was Clarissa, who had brought both her parents and her little sister along on their date. He’d had a blast at the amusement park with them, but a second date hadn’t been a priority for either of them.
Never—not one single time—though, had he ever been stun-gunned in his rented Airbnb by the woman who’d ruined his life with her big mouth and who’d managed not just to figure out where he was staying for the next two weeks but to get there early.
He had to admit that before he’d Googled her, he’d never pictured the woman behind Harbor City’s favorite hockey blog, The Biscuit, to have a Jessica Jones tough-chick look, but now it was made all the more jarring by the death grip she had on that stun gun of hers.
“I’m calling the cops,” he said, turning on the lamp by the bed.
“To turn yourself in?” She crossed her arms and snorted in disbelief. “Perfect.”
Shelby Blanton—yeah, he’d made it a point to find out her name after what she’d done—was deranged. Sure, she was hot, but definitely one crazy bitch if she thought showing up at his rental cabin was the way to get an exclusive interview or to make an apology for what she’d done. She was going to have to figure out how to increase her clout another way.
Standing his ground, he did a quick appraisal. Her dark hair was short and wavy, with one side of her scalp shaved down to such a short length, it would have made a marine recruit envious. She couldn’t be more than five foot six, but even in her one-piece black thermal underwear, she managed to look tough. Maybe it was the tattoos or the nose ring—wait, it was definitely the eyes, big and dark and all but shooting laser beams of fury at him.
“Why would I call the cops on myself?” Ian asked, rubbing his abs that ached from the quick jolt from her stun gun. Fuck, he was wearing a leather jacket and a thick sweater, and it still hurt like hell. If she’d actually managed to get him for longer, his ass would be down on the ground. He probably would have pissed himself just to add to the humiliation of being held at stun-gunpoint in his own rental.
“This is my cabin,” she said.
“Nice try, but I have a signed contract for this place.” Check and mate.
“Big whoop, so do I, but mine is legit.”
He reached for his phone and she leveled that mean little flashlight-on-steroids at him again.
His gut tensed, which made his stomach hurt even more, and he held up a hand. “Whoa, I’m already nursing an injury—don’t shoot me with that thing again.”
Once Shelby gave him a curt nod, he pulled his phone out and brought up the email confirmation of the booking.
“See?” He turned the phone so the screen faced his attacker.
She rolled her eyes but eventually looked at it. He doubted it was an accident that she kept her stun gun at the ready even as she stayed out of arm’s reach. If it wasn’t for the fact that she’d showed up uninvited and armed at his cabin when all he’d wanted was to be alone and drink a bottle of scotch, he might have been attracted. He wasn’t going to think about that now, though.
Nor would he be dwelling on his asshole dad with a wandering dick and his former best friend who’d spent years lying to him. Or contemplating how several of his teammates didn’t see what the big deal was. Or bemoaning the fact that he was off the ice for two weeks because he’d fallen over his own damn feet at a team dinner, gone down like a klutz without any athletic ability, and had messed up his thumb enough to need surgery. Or stewing over the seemingly never-ending media coverage of the shoving match he and Christensen had gotten into and the fact that things were hostile in the locker room, to say the least. Basically, he had a lot of things that he would not be thinking about while getting blasted in the cabin Lucy had rented for him to lay low while the Harbor City sports press found other things to cover.
“This is bullshit,” the woman declared, but she lowered her stun gun. “I have the same confirmation.” She stomped past him to the nightstand and picked up her phone. A quick scroll later, she shoved it in his face. “See?”
A fast scan confirmed it was an exact copy of his confirmation from the rental management company for the cabin. “How’d you get this?”
“A sort-of friend arranged it for me.” She tossed her phone onto the bed but held on to the stun gun even though it was loose in her grip. “Who pranked you with this confirmation?”
“One, it’s not a prank.” The only person he knew who would find this kind of joke hilarious was Christensen, and they might share half their DNA but that was it. They weren’t friends anymore, let alone the kind who would set up something like this. “Two, it was our team PR person, Lucy—”
“Kavanagh,” she finished for him.
No. Lucy wouldn’t. Okay, she might have helped set up his teammate Stuckey and his now-live-in girlfriend, Zara, plus Ice Knight right winger Phillips and Tess had met and hooked up at Lucy’s wedding, but she wouldn’t do something like this—not with him, not now, and definitely not with Shelby Blanton. It had to be a mistake.
“Just look at this.” She grabbed her phone off the bed and brought up the email that had accompanied her confirmation, and there it was in black and white.
I know just the place. Peaceful with gorgeous views. It’s already booked. Plenty of space because the cabin is huge so you can have as much “me time” as you need without being totally alone, which you really don’t want to do, considering the threats. It’s just what you need. This is actually perfect.
So much for not messing with a man when he was down. “She did this on purpose.”
Shelby paled. “Why would she do that?”
“Have you met Lucy?” He shook his head, trying to wrap his brain around this mess. “She’s all about controlling the situation and the spin. No doubt she thinks this will fix things.”
“I can’t stay here.” Shelby backpedaled a few steps, clutching her phone and the stun gun to her chest.
Ian didn’t need to look at his phone to confirm that it was way too late for that. When he’d pulled off the highway and onto the mile-long dirt road to the cabin with the only landmark letting him know he was on the right road being a beat-up wooden marker with the number six on it, the guy on the local radio had just announced it was ten o’clock and warned everyone to get home before the snow got any worse. Anyway, the cabin was miles away from anything even slightly resembling a town.
“Yeah, good luck with that. It’s already snowing sideways out there,” he said, because he had enough shit to deal with without worrying about her stuck in a snowbank because he’d kicked her out. “You can have this room. We’ll figure it out in the morning.”
Shelby screwed up her mouth and glared at him as if he controlled the weather or the Ice Knights’ PR queen, Lucy Kavanagh. Finally, she let out a very unhappy huff. “Fine.”
Okay, one battle won. He’d take it. God knew he needed it.
He started toward the door, giving her—and her stun gun—a wide birth. “Hope you don’t talk in your sleep. I’d hate for you to go spilling any more life-ruining secrets.”
He could have sworn he heard her mumble something along the lines of “fuck you, asshole, it was an accident” as she slammed the door shut in his face. He definitely heard the lock being turned. He couldn’t blame her. The whole situation was a mess. First thing tomorrow, he’d find another cabin to sit and drink scotch in and growl at anyone who dared to cross his path. Hell, he’d rather go find a frozen hedge maze to wander until he turned into an icicle than to stay here with her.
Glancing at the window, he saw the snow piling up fast on the drive. As long as it stopped by dawn, he’d be out of here before breakfast.
It was a great plan, and when he woke up the next morning to bright sunshine spilling in through the huge window looking out onto the front drive, he let out a contented sigh. This was what he’d wanted, fucking serenity. Then he made the mistake of getting up from bed, walking over to the window, and glancing out.
There wasn’t a driveway anymore.
The road back down the mountain to the highway was gone. Everything was covered in enough snow to obliterate any hope of an escape.
The unmistakable pitch of Shelby’s voice forced its way past his closed door. “Have you seen all the stupid snow? Neither of us is going anywhere.”
The sound jabbed him right in the eardrum and he winced.
His life was so fucked right now that he couldn’t even manage to be alone so he could contemplate the dark pit of his existence while nursing a scotch and his misery. Instead, he was trapped here—with the woman who’d turned his life into a hellscape.
Things couldn’t possibly get any worse.