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Love without a compass, p.1

Love Without a Compass, page 1

 

Love Without a Compass
 



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Love Without a Compass


  Cover Copy

  Team building takes on a whole new meaning—when work is the last thing on your mind…

  The Illinois wilderness should be a relaxing change of pace for advertising superstar Ben Stitzer. But he has one goal during this company retreat: proving to his boss how far he’ll go to succeed. Even if it means having to team up with the uber competitive, exasperatingly attractive, woman who has tried to undermine him at every turn…

  Being in the great outdoors is Avery Scottam’s biggest nightmare. And hard as she tries, she can’t even hide her fear from Ben. When one of her especially huge freak-outs gets them lost, they’ll have to rely on each other to survive wild animals, sketchy campers, and their mutual distrust. Yet somewhere between a malevolent crow and a surprising confession, they just might end up something more than friends…

  Will returning to civilization make them forget how truly wild they can be together?

  Also by Lindy Zart

  The Map to You

  Table of Contents

  Cover Copy

  Also by Lindy Zart

  Dedication

  1

  2

  3

  4

  5

  6

  7

  8

  9

  10

  11

  12

  13

  14

  15

  16

  17

  18

  19

  20

  21

  22

  23

  24

  25

  Teaser Chapter

  About the Author

  Love Without a Compass

  A Least Likely Romance

  Lindy Zart

  USA Today Bestselling Author

  LYRICAL SHINE

  Kensington Publishing Corp.

  www.kensingtonbooks.com

  Lyrical Press books are published by

  Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street New York, NY 10018

  Copyright © 2018 by Lindy Zart

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

  All Kensington titles, imprints, and distributed lines are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotion, premiums, fund-raising, and educational or institutional use.

  To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

  Special book excerpts or customized printings can also be created to fit specific needs. For details, write or phone the office of the Kensington Special Sales Manager:

  Kensington Publishing Corp.

  119 West 40th Street

  New York, NY 10018

  Attn. Special Sales Department. Phone: 1-800-221-2647.

  Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

  LYRICAL PRESS Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.

  Lyrical Press and the L logo are trademarks of Kensington Publishing Corp.

  First Electronic Edition: September 2018

  eISBN-13: 978-1-5161-0581-6

  eISBN-10: 1-5161-0581-8

  First Print Edition: September 2018

  ISBN-13: 978-1-5161-0583-0

  ISBN-10: 1-5161-0583-4

  Printed in the United States of America

  Dedication

  To Logan and Dexter:

  Remember to always be true to you, and never give up.

  1

  BEN

  Extreme Retreat’s goal for us is to reach our destination by nightfall.

  My personal goal is for us to make it there without first killing each other.

  I tell myself I can do it. I can endure Avery Scottam for the next however many hours. Haven’t I dealt with her for the last six months? Not well, I admit, but I’ve managed. There’s just something about her that—

  A tree limb whacks me in the face. My eyes snap to my coworker. Avery looks back, innocence etched into her features. I rub my stinging cheek. “What the hell, Avery?”

  “Whoops.” Avery shrugs. “I didn’t realize you were so close.”

  That. That’s the something about her. She’s a menace disguised in sensuous woman.

  I shift my jaw back and forth, tighten my grip on the straps of the backpack to keep my fingers from finding her pale, slim neck, and stride past her. Her grapefruit scent teases my senses and I breathe shallowly, fighting my reaction to the pleasant smell.

  “I’ll lead,” I announce.

  The mountain is cantankerous, full of divots and loose rocks, holes and hidden danger. Each breath of air I take is thick with heat, and the August sun is having a good old time with the back of my neck. Less than an hour ago we walked into a fortress of slanted trees and rocks that don’t appear to have an end. We’ve been marching an uneven path to perdition ever since.

  Avery appears beside me, her jaw set. The sun catches strands of her hair, causing it to shine like gold. “I’ll lead.”

  “You don’t know where we’re going.”

  “Up.” She gestures in the direction we’re heading. “We’re going up, just like the Extreme Retreat employee said to do. It’s not hard to figure out.”

  Everything is a competition with her. I misstep on a twig, and losing my balance, bump into her. It’s completely by accident that my elbow happens to shoot out at the exact moment it connects with her biceps.

  “Ow!” Scowling at me, she rubs her arm. “You did that on purpose.”

  “Whoops,” I say evenly, eyes trained forward.

  Avery hurries past, her perfectly rounded ass emphasized by her microscopic white shorts with each upward lunge of her legs. Who wears white shorts to go hiking through a national forest? Really, I want to know. Turning from the view I wish I didn’t enjoy, I look at another one. Blue skies and green trees have taken over the world. I drop my gaze to the unseen valley below, wondering how far our coworkers have gotten. I’m sure none of them are enjoying their time with their partner quite as much as I am.

  “I hate this,” Avery mutters once we crest a small hill. She sets her palms to her knees and draws air into her lungs. Her pale face is flushed, and dewy with perspiration. Avery’s hair, normally smooth and straight, is forming waves I didn’t realize it had.

  “Hate what?”

  “This. Walking. The heat. Bugs. Outside.”

  “Outside?” I give her a sidelong look. “You hate outside?”

  “That’s what I said.”

  “That’s a pretty general statement.”

  We lock eyes, hers like smoldering fire. “Meaning?”

  “Meaning it covers a lot of areas. There’s nothing you like about outside?”

  “No. Wait. Air. I like air. Air is outside.”

  “Yes. It is,” I agree, and wait.

  Avery sighs. “You’re getting to a point, aren’t you? What is it?”

  “I find it interesting that you hate everything—besides air—that has to do with outside, since you were gushing to Duke about how excited you were to go on this wilderness team-building quest.”

  Avery’s golden eyes land on mine and skirt past.

  I gesture to her spotless pink Pumas. “I bet you bought those tennis shoes just for this, didn’t you?”

  The corners of her mouth tighten. “So?”

  “I find it interesting, that’s all.” I tell myself I will not be the first to look away, but I still blink in surprise when she does.

  Avery scowls. “Hiking in the mountains is not my idea of fun, but I always
do what is necessary.”

  “With a lying smile in place,” I murmur.

  “Can smiles really lie?” she returns with an arched eyebrow.

  “Yours do.”

  Her jaw shifts, but Avery doesn’t reply.

  After a couple minutes of walking, I ask, “Aren’t you from Montana?”

  “What’s your point?”

  “Do I have to say it?”

  She gives me a look.

  I guess I do. “How can you be from somewhere that is known for its mountains and have not a clue as to how to navigate through them?”

  “Illinois is known for its high crime rate. Does that make you a criminal?”

  Touché.

  Avery straightens, running a hand through her hair. “I might have overstated my level of enthusiasm over this.”

  “You mean you lied.”

  She scowls. “Overstated.”

  “Lied.”

  She’s been sweetness and goodness to everyone since she walked through the red door of Sanders and Sisters. She even has Duke Renner, the owner of Sanders and Sisters and a man who cannot be manipulated, captivated. She’s a fraud, and I plan on exposing her. It could be said that, so far, my attempts have backfired. Case in point: where we presently are.

  “Okay. Fine. I lied,” Avery says.

  “Was that so hard to admit?”

  Avery rolls her eyes and faces the rocky walkway. “How much farther do you think we have to go?”

  “Duke said it should take around five hours to find the flag and get back to the lodge, so, for us, it’ll probably take twenty lifetimes. Here’s to many, many years of torture,” I tell her cheerfully.

  “He said this is mandatory continuing education, whatever that means.” She complements her next statement with a pout. “What is the purpose of this, really? Other than to make us miserable.”

  “True. The same outcome could easily have been accomplished by sticking us in a room together for two minutes.”

  “You’re hilarious,” Avery replies mockingly, swatting at something that dares to try to touch her. Probably a speck of dirt.

  Twigs snap under the weight of my hiking boots. I squint at the landscape before me. In the distance, brown and gray rocks climb a path to the clouds. We both know why we’re here, and it isn’t because of any continuing education bullshit. “I wasn’t kidding.”

  A prolonged pause follows that.

  “I can’t believe he did this to me,” she finally says.

  “Well, he did. And what’s worse is that he did it to me.” I’ve been Duke Renner’s star employee for years; Avery’s been around less than seven months. It chafes. It chafes a lot.

  “At least you have something nice to look at. I just have…you,” Avery says.

  I turn around, studying the woman. “Careful, Avery. You’re starting to show your true colors.”

  Avery crosses her arms and turns her head to the side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “What’s wrong with the way I look?” I don’t know why I ask it, or why I care what she thinks. I know I’m not the best-looking guy around, but I’ve never had a problem getting dates.

  “You’re, you know…” She gestures vaguely to me.

  I stand up straighter, hands on hips, and lift an eyebrow. “What am I? Please, do tell.”

  Avery makes a face. “You’re not that tall.”

  “I’m five-ten.”

  “Exactly.”

  I decide not to point out that five-nine is the average height for a guy. Plus, she’s barely five-four herself, if she’s even that.

  “What else?” I know there’s more. That can’t be the only thing about me she sees as a negative.

  “You wear glasses.”

  I snort. “Yeah. A lot of people do, so they can, you know, see.”

  Sighing, she shakes her head and attempts to move around me. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”

  I step into her path. She has to tilt back her head to meet my gaze. I don’t point that out either. “Oh, no, let’s hear it. I’d like to know all the ways I am visually unappealing.”

  “Okay, well, your hair is, I don’t know, boring.”

  “Boring?” I narrow my eyes. “How can hair be boring?”

  “I don’t know. It just can. It lacks character.”

  “Are you serious?” I ask in a low voice.

  Ignoring my glower, she adds, “And you’re not nice.”

  My voice is unusually high as I sputter, “What the—”

  “It makes you less attractive.”

  I stare at her hard, long enough that my vision blurs beneath the lenses of my glasses that apparently make me unattractive.

  “You’re not my type,” Avery says, as if she thinks I want her to want me.

  The world goes unnaturally silent as my blood pressure skyrockets. I take a slow breath, keeping my eyes trained on Avery. She watches me with that fake innocent look she uses around the office. Whatever the scenario, I will not let her win. I will remain calm. I will one-up her, again and again. Because I’m too short, and wear glasses, and not her type.

  I may not be a lot of things, but I am something.

  I move closer. “Avery.”

  Avery lifts her eyebrows.

  My gaze trails from her eyes to her mouth. I watch her lips part and sweep my eyes back to hers. “I think we both know you’re not my type.”

  She gasps, her face going pink, and I turn before she catches my smirk. Satisfaction, warm and pure, flows through my limbs.

  AVERY

  I must have died sometime during the night and been sent directly here. Nothing else makes sense. I’m fairly certain, when Duke Renner set up this team-building mumbo-jumbo, he specified that it should be located in Avery Scottam’s—that’s me—least favorite kind of place: outside. Outside is gross. It’s dirty, and there are bugs, and my hair does not respond well to heat.

  To add more salt to the wound, Ben Stitzer is the last person I want to see me at anything less than completely composed, so of course Duke paired us together. It has nothing to do with the fact that I did something awful to Ben and he’s hated me ever since. Things have been tense around the office, and wherever I turn, there’s Ben, plotting his revenge. But that’s not why we’re here. Right. Nope. Not at all.

  Our boss’s words repeat in my head, bringing inner calamity and outer perspiration with them.

  Wilderness retreat.

  Improve team-building skills.

  Rely on one another.

  And the most upsetting words of all…

  Ben and Avery, you’re partners.

  I shoot a look in Ben’s direction. More likely, he chose the setting. As if sensing my eyes on him, his head turns, his eyes slicing me in two. The look lasts all of one second but has enough vexation in it to steadily burn through many, many lifetimes. There was one single night that could have been the start of something amazing, but I ruined it.

  I think we both know you’re not my type.

  The words echo through me, bringing an uncomfortable twinge with them.

  “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I reply with a sniff. “I’m sure you made up some fantasy scenario in your—”

  A bitter laugh comes from my side, cutting off my words. “Trust me, you’re not in any part of my fantasies.”

  I stop walking, my eyes shooting to my coworker’s. Ben gazes stonily back, his bespectacled brown eyes scalding me with their animosity. I sigh and face forward, absently scratching at the most recent of countless bug bites. Mountains, rocks, and trees greet me, splashing the immediate vicinity in shades of brown and gray, speckled with green. They remind me of Ben’s eyes, actually, except without the perpetual loathing in them.

  “What’s the hold up?” he demands, hands on his hips.

  “You.”

  One dark eyebrow quirks.

  I know men fantasize about me. I’m not being vain. I’d rather only one man want me over all the rest,
and it’s the one next to me, looking at me as if I’m diseased and contagious. That’s irony for you.

  “If I simply stand here all day, will I wake up and realize this has all been a really bad dream?” I ask without looking at Ben.

  “The better question is: will I?”

  I swallow a snort and take the rubber band from my wrist, twisting my hair into a sloppy bun. I don’t understand how Duke Renner could drop us off in the middle of nowhere with a gleeful wave and shouted well wishes. But then, since I started at Sanders and Sisters over six months ago, I’ve realized that the only constant with my boss is that he is unpredictable.

  Things were much simpler in Montana.

  Ignoring the sharp pain that accompanies thoughts of my life before I relocated to Illinois, I set my shoulders back and once again take on the dusty trail to an unknown destination.

  “Where do you think the others were taken?” I ask.

  Our six coworkers are somewhere within the miles-wide expanse of Shawnee National Forest, paired with the person they get along with the least, working on their own quests. I wonder how Juan Narvaez and Nate Schroeder are faring. Nate went out with Juan’s ex-girlfriend a while back and came home that night to find all the beer in his fridge reduced to empty cans strewn about the kitchen.

  To most people, that wouldn’t be a big deal, but to Nate, who loves beer, it was catastrophic. Juan showed up to work the next day with the scent of alcohol seeping from his pores and a smug expression on his face, silently naming him as the culprit. Nate was not happy.

  The wind picks up, bringing authentic country dust with it. Even though my mouth is closed, I still taste its gritty, chalky flavor on my tongue. I haven’t navigated through much of Illinois yet. I have to say, I can think of better reasons to explore the state.

  Ben’s jaw is tight as he walks beside me. “We may be partners, and yes, we are obligated to work together to get through today but talking is not a requirement. In fact, let’s not.”

  It’s supposed to be four days of this. Four days of hell spent trekking over countryside with a man who loathes me. Wonderful. Exactly how I want to spend my time, following a map and compass with checkpoints through uncivilized terrain. I kick at the ground, hurting my big toe in the process.

 
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