Fable of Happiness Page 2

The guy at the gas station—who’d been intrigued instead of intimidated—had asked for my number. He’d seemed sane enough, so I’d given it to him. We’d gone out. He’d said all the right things.

I hadn’t been with anyone in years, so, feeling reckless, I invited him back to my home, and we slept together. The sex had been okay. I got more thrills from climbing a piece of sandstone, if I was honest, but it was nice to have company.

However, the next morning, he announced he and his wife had seen my channel, and he found me hot. Hot enough to cheat on his wife and turn me off men altogether.

Who would have thought that at twenty-six, the majority of single people came with such heavy baggage already? Most had a child, sometimes two. Some were still living at home with their parents. Some were embroiled in a messy divorce. Some openly sought affairs. And the majority? The majority were overweight, didn’t exercise, and their personal ambition was drinking on the weekend with their workmates.

Why are you doing this?

I rolled my eyes at my profile again.

Because I’m stupid, that’s why.

Name: Gemma Ashcroft

Age: Twenty-six

Appearance: Blonde, hazel eyes, curvy but athletic

Ethnicity: Half American, half Norwegian.

Looking for: A man who loves the outdoors. Single. Loves to travel. Doesn’t mind camping and exploring off the beaten track. Trustworthy. Kind. Passionate. Intelligent—

“Ugh.” I deleted it all. “Just give up, Gem. Get a dog that you can drag around the backcountry and accept that you’re successful in business, but in romance...you suck.”

Nodding at my wisdom, I went to close out of the site, but a rush of rebellion shot down my fingers, and I typed:

Looking for: A man who’s dominant and dangerous but not afraid of a woman who’s probably far more successful than he is. A man who knows how to grant pleasure without thinking he’s some gift to womankind. A man who knows how to cook and clean without needing a girlfriend for a maid. A man who doesn’t have fifteen exes, two kids, a beer belly, and can’t use a screwdriver. A man who...is a man. An old-fashioned man who is prickly but sweet. Who is gruff but kind. A man who will sweep me off my feet but allow me to fly free, all while he makes me come alive beneath his tongue.

“You are such an idiot.” I laughed under my breath as I deleted the entire thing, closed the window, and went to shut down my laptop. “No more daydreaming of fantastical men who don’t exist.”

A flashing notification caught my eye, alerting me to a new post in Climbers Anon. I opened my screen again. I’d stalked that online group for a few years. The group’s tagline promised virgin routes, secret boulders, and untried mountains.

In the years I’d followed them, they hadn’t posted a single adventure that I hadn’t already done or heard about.

Until now.

As I scanned the link and the hazy photo of a boulder cluster covered in weeds and debris, my heart rate picked up.

Kentucky Khaleesi

Found two days ago deep within Mammoth Cave National Park. Overgrown. Hidden in a ravine that seems impassable. I’ve marked the trail to get there with yellow ribbon. Didn’t climb down as had no gear. 4WD required, followed by steep descent on foot. Whoever gets there first can name the route. Climbing grade? I’d say fucking hard.

My heart pumped faster as I glanced at my dirty, well-used backpack where I’d tossed it by the front door. I hadn’t found an exciting climb in a few months. Regardless, I kept my bag packed with food and camping necessities, and carried around a permanent tent and bedroll in the back of my Jeep, along with all my ropes, gear, and filming equipment.

I could leave in a few minutes.

I could be the first.

I could claim it.

Enlarging the photo, I squinted at the size and shape. Fog had rolled into the valley where it was hiding, distorting the lines. Weeds made the outline of rock and plant hard to distinguish, and twilight shadows hid most of its secrets.

I couldn’t tell if it would be a worthwhile journey from just the picture. However, I could see it was big. A looming giant rock compared to the trees below. It was untouched by human hands. It was calling to me to scale.

What else do you have planned?

I had no contests for the rest of the year. No luncheons with girlfriends. No dinners with potential lovers. I didn’t even have a dog to walk. I was successful, healthy, and had ensured my future would always include financial freedom. But...I was alone, and I didn’t like the emptiness of not having a challenge to tackle.

Look at what a few days with idle hands has done to me.

I’d stooped low enough to fill out a profile for an online dating site. I didn’t care if all my ex-school friends had found their husbands and wives that way. I didn’t buy into the advertisement that online dating was safer and far more effective than trolling parks, bars, and coffee shops looking for that perfect other half.

It was time I accepted that my love affair included granite, quartz, and feldspar instead of someone with a heartbeat.

And you know what? That’s totally fine with me.

Stone couldn’t trick you or tease you. It couldn’t pretend to be interested because of your money or lie that they were single and sane.

Stone was clinical, cold, and didn’t care if you conquered it. Because if you didn’t, then it conquered you by throwing you into the dirt—broken bones and all.

I’m going.

Standing, I closed my laptop, stuffed it into its travel case, and packed the solar chargers for my phone, camera, and other tech stuff I’d take with me. Triple checking that my backpack still held enough supplies, I grabbed my personal locator beacon from the side table by the window and strode out the front door with swift steps.

After tossing my gear into the back of the Jeep, I pulled up my brother’s number.

My life might consist of taking off on whims and chasing granite playgrounds, but it didn’t mean I was stupid. If I ever got seriously injured and needed to be airlifted out, I had a location beacon. I had a GPS tracker on my car if it ever got stolen while I was up a cliff somewhere. And I religiously texted my brother where my next spontaneous adventure led me.

Me: Hey, Josh. I’m leaving. Going to Mammoth Cave National Park. I’ll have my GPS and locator. Probably won’t have reception on my phone. It’s a seven-hour drive, so I’m guessing it’ll be a few days by the time I find it, climb it, and get back to civilization. The boulder I’m hunting for is on Climbers Anon. Use my log-in to get more info if you need to. Don’t start panicking unless I go missing for five days, okay? Five days then put Operation Find Stupid Sister into play. Hope you have a great week!

He replied almost instantly.

Joshua: First, it’s midnight. Perhaps sleep first, then go driving cross-country? Second, only you would willingly go get lost in some national park and call it fun.

Me: You know I’m a night owl. If I leave now, I can be there for dawn and get some amazing light shots. There’ll be park rangers there. They’ll look after me if I need help.

Joshua: They’ll most likely shoot you if you’re covered in bracken and dirt, crawling monkey-style down a mountain. They’ll claim they finally caught Bigfoot.

Me: Ha-ha.

Joshua: Be safe! Give me access to your phone location so I can track you.

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