Mapping the Forest by [Witt, Brandon]
Mapping The Forest
By: Brandon Witt
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Length:  80, 308 words
Reviewed by: Grace
Price:  $6.99
Happily ever after has no map, but sometimes fate sends a guiding light.

Gabe Rice, a seasonal ranger at the Rocky Mountain National Park, can’t seem to get his life on the right trail. He loves the rugged beauty of the land, and there is no place he would rather live than the mountain community of Estes Park. But after six years, Gabe is beginning to wonder if he’ll ever get a full-time position or find love. When Gabe sees Luis—and hears his gorgeous singing—he’s compelled to meet him.

Luis Martinez, the new owner of a hotel and steak ride business in Estes, left California and a career as a therapist for a fresh start in Colorado. But even the beauty of the mountains can’t help him forget the past or move forward. Unprepared for his strong attraction to Gabe, Luis is ready to run and hide from emotions he never thought he’d have again.

Suddenly the path ahead opens to a future that looks brighter for both of them, if they can find the courage to walk forward—together.
I’ll be the first to admit, I was excited to review this book.  Brandon Witt hasn’t written a book yet that I didn’t like and this one is no exception.  
Gabe and Luis meet under strained circumstances which include the search for a missing child, at night, in the mountains.  Gabe has been struggling with a one sided crush on his best friend and a job that isn’t going anywhere thanks to a jerk boss.  Luis is still held hostage by his own grief from a loss so great he truly never expects to recover.  
The beginnings of their courtship include Luis’ first forays into dating/hook up apps and shared dinners at all the wrong places.  I found myself continuously laughing then crying, even sometimes simultaneously, watching Gabe and Luis dance around each other.  Watching Luis struggle with his loss and guilt was crushing and I found myself rooting for him as he started to gain ground and make peace with his loss.  Rather than being irritated when he took two steps backward, the author made me want to hold Luis and tell him everything would be ok.  
Gabe has his own issues to work through and does so while continuously trying to lift Luis up, even before he understands exactly what Luis is working through. One of his greatest strengths is his perseverance to make it through whatever is thrown at him.  After being consistently passed over, along with his best friend, for a full time position and having to work other seasonal jobs to make ends meet, he is finally trying to decide if the dream he has is still attainable or if it is time to change his goals.  Finding Luis helps him find out how strong he really is and what he really wants to get out of his life.  
I love the supporting characters in this book.  Jordan and Rosalind, the truly amazing GBCD boys and of course, Alastair, are all a part of a larger world that I can’t wait to hear more about.  I am hooked on the Rocky Mountain Boys and look forward to the next story!  
**Trigger warning-there is a thwarted sexual assault late in the book that could cause issues for some.
A 5 Dos Gardenias Rating, because, sometimes, it’s easier to say, and hear, I love you first with a song.
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In the distance, the sound of a dinner chime rang.
My stomach growled. “Perfect. I’m starving. A mountain view and steak. What more could a guy ask for?” I snagged my jeans as I climbed back over the barbwire fence.
 BY THE time we got to the structure, the line for food was nearly thirty people long.
Jordan leaned close to whisper, “We should have kept exploring. We had time.”
I just nodded and craned my neck to see around the line. Hmmm…. I narrowed my eyes. “I think I see a bear.”
Jordan’s voice arched with excitement as she glanced around. “Where?”
I turned to Jordan with a laugh. “Not that kind of bear. Look at the guy up there, the one behind the long grill.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. I should’ve known you were scoping out guys.” She laughed and attempted to peer over the line as well, then gave me a glare. “You always forget not everyone is as tall as you. And unless you’re talking about the guy with a bald spot about three people up, then I can’t see this magical bear you’ve spotted.”
The woman directly in front of us turned around with a lifted brow.
I gave an apologetic grin, waited until the woman returned to minding her own business, and then stifled a laugh as I looked at Jordan. “Could you announce that any louder?”
She blushed. “Well, it’s your fault for being so tall.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. That’s the problem.”
The line moved exceptionally fast, with almost military precision, which was good, as the smells from the grill were causing my stomach to growl. Each person grabbed silverware and a metal plate at the beginning of the line and then walked through cafeteria-style, while three men scooped food onto their plates. The first dished coleslaw and a roll. The next was the flirting tour guide. He kept his eyes on Jordan as he plopped a tin-foil-wrapped baked potato onto my plate, then retrieved one for her. “For you, my gorgeous ranger.”
Jordan didn’t reply.
The third man tonged over a burnt-looking steak from the crude grill, but I didn’t give the food more than a cursory glance—the guy held all my attention.
Older than me, maybe forties. Hispanic or Italian—I couldn’t tell. Shorter than me, probably less than six feet. Hot. Solid body, firm belly just slightly straining his T-shirt. Thick dark hair, longer on top and cut close on the sides, matching his trimmed beard. Full lips. He kept running the back of his forearm over his glasses as the steam from the grill fogged them up. The motion was unconscious and completely ineffective. And rather charming.
I froze when the man glanced up, dark brown gaze looking at me through smeared glasses. “Well-done okay?” He lifted a steak and let out a warm, soft laugh. “Not that there’s any other kind.”
“Yep. Just the way I like it.”
The man looked away and transferred one of the steaks from the grill to my plate.
I waited, wanting to see his eyes again.
Name. I have a name. I should tell the man my name.
Jordan hissed and kicked the back of my heel. “Move it, lover boy. You’re holding up the line.”
“Huh?” I glanced over at her, taking a second to remember what we were doing. “Oh, right.”
I waved an apology to the person behind us and gave another glance at the man. He didn’t notice and was already slapping a steak on Jordan’s plate.
“Here, you take these, and I’ll get us drinks. There’s two spots over there, closest to the fire.” Jordan shoved her plate into my hand and motioned toward one of the tables with her chin. “And suddenly you’ve changed from liking your steaks rare to well-done? Interesting timing.” She winked. “Amazing what a good-looking man can do.”
After taking the plate, I followed her directions and snagged the last two spots on the front row. I spared a glance toward the picturesque view and looked back once more at the man. Strange. Actually the guy wasn’t super gorgeous. Handsome to be sure, but more in a normal hot dad kind of way. I sighed. That was exactly what the man probably was. A dad. A wife at home with several kids. All with thick chestnut hair and warm brown eyes.
I bet the guy had a hairy chest too. I just knew it.
Insult to injury.
“For goodness’ sake, Gabe, there’s kids all around us. You think you can stop mentally undressing the poor guy before you start giving an impromptu sex lesson?” Jordan placed her cup by her plate and slid the other over to me before turning to look back at the food line, not even trying to hide her actions. “Didn’t know you had a thing for guys in glasses.”
“Jordan, turn back around. You don’t have to announce it to the entire place.”
She snorted. “Oh, honey, trust me. I’m not the one who announced anything.” She met my gaze. “He is handsome. I’m kinda surprised, though. Most of the time when you get caught up in a guy, they look like Todd. Steak Man doesn’t at all.”
Oh. Right. Todd.
I let out a long breath. “Thanks. I needed that.”
Jordan squeezed my hand. “That wasn’t a criticism. You know I think it’s high time you let the whole Todd thing go. I’m all for you going gaga over Steak Man, but he doesn’t look gay to me. Although… I did see several beers back there. We could get him a few and find out, just to be sure.”
To my shame, I considered that idea. But Todd’s face crowding into my mind shoved the notion away more so than the thought of getting a guy buzzed to find out his exact number on the Kinsey scale. “No. We can’t do that.”
“Well, no joke, Sherlock. That’s a bit rapey.”
“Geez, Jordan. Crass, much?”
She just shrugged.
“And Steak Man, really? That’s the best you can come up with for that guy?”
“What? He’s a man, and he gave us steak. Seems pretty accurate to me. Plus, you like steak, and you like men. And I know you like man steak, so….”
I groaned and shot a glance around, checking to see if we’d been overheard. “Good Lord, woman. You were the one just saying there were kids around.”
She ignored me and tapped her steak with her knife. “Hmmm. Maybe Steak Man isn’t quite right. Maybe Rock Man or Piece of Coal Man.”

 AS HOPED, the clouds parted, and the cliff opened out onto a stunning nighttime expanse. The silhouette of the mountains framed the darkness of the land. Shadows gave way to city lights sparkling like stars over the earth, followed by more patches of black, then other twinkling cities in the distance.
Propping my elbows on the wooden tabletop, I let out a contented sigh. It felt like home. Like I was a kid again, safe with my grandfather on one of our countless camping trips. The smell of the night air, the crackling of the fire. My belly full of s’mores.
It was a warm, safe sensation. The type that made me become a park ranger. One that forced me to fight for my seasonal position at the coveted Rocky Mountain National Park.
Jordan leaned against my shoulder, and I was certain she was experiencing a similar feeling. This was perfection for people like us.
Almost. The only thing better would be if we weren’t surrounded by too many people and had the mountains to ourselves. However, this wasn’t so bad. The power of the night and fire worked magic on everyone. People were calm, easy, and even the sharp voices of the children had been lulled by marshmallows, hot chocolate, and warm blankets.
Shortly after the chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers, Steak Man carried a guitar over to a stump by the fire.
“Good evening, everyone. My name is Luis. I hope you enjoyed your dinner.” It seemed he knew that was unlikely, as he rushed forward into strumming his guitar before there was a chance to reply.
And then he began to sing.
He’d been attractive before. Off-puttingly so, in a way that I couldn’t quite put a finger on. But that was nothing compared to when his low, soft voice enveloped the shoddy structure.
Some people sang along. Luis and the other staff had even passed out little folder-like songbooks, but most people didn’t sing. Or, if they did, I didn’t hear them.
As he sang, Luis went from being a hot, hopefully fuzzy bear to a beautiful man. There was something regal about him. The lift of his shoulder, the tilt of his chin. His long thick fingers moving effortlessly over the strings.
It didn’t matter that he sang songs like “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” or “On Top of Old Smoky,” or even an adjusted version of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Tour Guides.” He might as well have been on a stage and charged admission.
From my perspective, with the city lights and stars battling it out behind, the shadowy pines waving slightly in the breeze, Luis was on stage.
The fire was little more than glowing embers when Luis began to sing “Rocky Mountain High.” The song had never been one of my favorites. However, from the first line, I knew I’d never be able to listen to it the same way again.
Luis swayed slightly on the stump, in time with the music. His version of the song was slower than the original. And mournful. His voice cracked occasionally, somehow giving the song more power. There was such pain in the sound, in the timbre of his tone.
I wasn’t one to typically find beauty in sadness. But it was there. Luis was bathed in it, and it caused the man to nearly glow.
“Are you okay?”
Coming back to myself, I looked over at Jordan, almost irritated that she’d broken Luis’s spell. “What?”
“Are you okay?” She reached up and brushed her thumb across my cheek. “You’re crying.”
I was. Not full-out crying, but my eyes were definitely wet. I’d not even noticed. “Yeah. I’m fine.” I glanced back at Luis as the last chord from his guitar strummed into the night.
Luis opened his eyes, and I was certain they met mine. At least I thought. Luis looked away too quickly to be sure. Clearing his throat, he stood up, letting the guitar hang loosely by his side. “Well, that about wraps it up. I hope you all have enjoyed your evening. We have one more tradition that’s been going on up here for nearly twenty years, that we have to do before we head back down. Jack?” He lifted his chin toward the back of the enclosure, and the lights went out.
A few fearful gasps combined with sighs of wonder from the group. With no other distraction than the dying coals, both the city lights and the stars seemed to triple their intensity. It almost felt like they were underwater, staring out into the dark open ocean, glistening sea creatures as far as the eyes could see.
After a few more hypnotizing moments, Luis’s voice cut through the darkness. “Katharine Lee Bates sat on the peak of a mountain and stared out at this great state and was inspired to write this song.” He strummed a few bars, and then let the music fade away as he sang a cappella.
Though the crowd sang with him, many putting their hands over their hearts, I never lost track of Luis’s voice as he sang “America the Beautiful.” I’ve never been overly patriotic, but I couldn’t suppress a sense of pride in my country swelling in my chest. The combination of the nighttime mountain view and Luis’s voice truly was magic.
Apparently also affected, Jordan slipped an arm around my waist and rested her head on my shoulder. “Now I really wish we could stay up here all night.”
I smiled down at her. “Not just because of the drive down.”
She shook her head.
“Jack!” Luis’s voice cut through the darkness, and the lights came back on, erasing the beauty of the moment before. “All right, folks, I’ve had the boys pull the jeeps over there to the right. If you’ll get on the same one you rode before, that will make things easier and help us get you back home quicker. We sure do appreciate you spending the evening with us, and we hope you tell your friends to come visit.”
People began to move like cattle toward the jeeps, only a few quiet whispers here and there, the magic of the moment still lingering, apparently.
I peered around, trying to find Luis. It took me a moment. He wasn’t over by the fire where he’d been seconds before. He was behind the grill, already cleaning up.
Jordan started to follow the crowd but paused when she realized I wasn’t with her, and looked back. “You coming? Or are you planning on staying up here?”
I glanced over at her, back at Luis, and then to Jordan again. “I’m going to go talk to him.”
She followed my gaze. “You think he might be gay after all?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know. I just know I have to talk to him. I need to.” And I did. I couldn’t explain it. Probably would freak myself out if I tried. All I knew was I had to speak to Luis. Try to get the man to say my name in his beautiful, warm voice. Like, if he did, then I would never feel lonely again.
Jordan shooed me forward. “Well, go on, darling. Don’t let me stand in the way of you getting true love. Or laid. I’ll wait for you by the jeep.” She started to walk away, then looked back. “See if he has a brother or something. And if he’s straight and unmarried, I call dibs.”
And then she was gone, and I was standing by myself in the middle of the covered space and staring creepily at the man cleaning up, who probably wanted nothing more than to get his job done and hurry home.
Luis, surely feeling the intensity of my stare, glanced up and jumped a bit. “Oh. Hey. Can I help you with something? Anything wrong?”
I moved forward, still trying to figure out the right words. What the hell was I going to say? It needed to be brilliant. Or at least make sense. I opened my mouth, settling on hello being the correct response, but a scream cut through the air before I could make a sound.
Both of us jumped and whirled toward the darkness. Without hesitating, Luis ran, dropping the wire brush he’d been using, as he passed me. For a moment, I thought about picking it up, then shook off the notion and followed Luis.
The screaming grew louder and more panicked the closer we got, though it sounded like a woman was screaming something over and over again, not in any physical pain.
Jordan beat both of us to the woman and had already taken her firmly by the arms as Luis and I pushed through the small crowd. “Ma’am, what’s his name?”
“Braden! He’s gone!”
A man stepped up from behind her and gripped her shoulders, looking terror stricken himself. “We’ll find him, babe. Just breathe. We will find him. He can’t have gone far. He’d never leave Brody for very long.”
I noticed the young boy between them, crying. One of the twins.
Luis addressed the man, bypassing Jordan and the hysterical woman. “What’s happened?”
“Our son. Braden. He’s wandered off.” The man gestured to the jeep behind him. “The boys wanted to play on the jeep, so we let them after dinner. We just got on, and Brody was asleep and Braden was gone.”
Luis flinched. “You had them on the jeep? We lifted the stairs so that—” With a swiping motion of his arm, he cut himself off, then addressed the crew, his voice trembling in anger. “Jack, Sean, and Britt, grab the flashlights, and we’ll split into groups.”
I closed the distance to Jordan. She’d already let go of the woman, who was now on her knees holding her other son tight in her arms.
Jordan glared down at the woman and then up at me. “As if that helps anything.”
I ignored the comment, though I couldn’t disagree. “You have your flashlight in your—”
“Of course I do.”
“Split up or together?”
She didn’t pause. “Split up. There’s only two dangerous parts, really. The cliff and the woods, if that mountain lion is hanging about. I’ll take the cliff.”
I nodded. “Sounds good.”
Within moments, I was back in the trees Jordan and I had explored earlier. Over the past few summers working in the park, the two of us had done several missing person searches. Enough to know that every moment mattered.
Chances were low that anything bad would happen. True, if they had spotted a mountain lion around lately, that increased the risk. Especially for a young boy out on his own, but it would be a rare lion to have stuck around through the noise of people eating and Luis’s singing, no matter how beautiful it was. Honestly, the only real risk was the cliff—all it took was a moment, a slip on slick grass, the stumble on a rock, for a person to fall. And we wouldn’t have heard anything, not with the fire and the guitar. The thought filled me with enough fear that I nearly turned back around to help Jordan cover more ground.
I didn’t. We had a plan, and I would stick with it.
I was nearing the barbwire fence we’d come across before. If the twins had come down this far with their parents earlier, there was no doubt where a little boy would wander off to later. Why explore around a jeep when untold mysteries were just past the fence. I spared a brief contemptuous thought for the parents, then shoved it aside. I’d seen parents do a lot stupider things with their kids in the wild than leaving them unattended in a jeep. Memories of other cliffs shot through my mind, and I pushed those away as well.
I’d been so caught up by the notion of making it to the fence that it wasn’t until the others’ cries reached me that I realized I’d not been calling the boy’s name. Like I hadn’t done this countless times before.
What had the boy’s name been, again? Brody?
No, that was the brother. I paused, listening to the others’ yells. Braden. Right.
“Braden! Where are you, buddy! Everybody is looking for you.” I kept my voice calm, making sure I didn’t sound angry or even agitated. Nothing that would make the kid feel the need to hide.
I reached the fence, pushed down on the barbed wire, and stepped over. Pausing I aimed my flashlight back on the wire. I could swear it was bent more than it had been earlier. Although, maybe I’d done that in my haste to get back to dinner; it might have twisted when it had caught on my jeans.
“Everybody’s worried about you, Braden. Can you hear me?”
I kept going farther into the woods. Far enough that the lights of the jeeps and building couldn’t be seen, and not even the sound of people’s cries carried through the dense pine needles. And, man, was it dark—even most of the starlight was cut off by the overhead branches.
What little boy would wander out this far? I would have been scared shitless as a kid to be alone in the dark woods. I nearly turned back, certain either Braden hadn’t come this way or I’d missed him somehow. Or he had decided to play at the cliff.
Just a few more yards. Maybe just past the place ahead where there seemed to be a dip in the shadows. Like a beginning of a hill or something.
I reached the spot and paused. Sure enough, the land took an abrupt dive downward. Not enough to classify as a cliff or anything, but enough to make one hell of a sledding hill in winter.
I strained my ears. It didn’t make sense that the boy would be out here, but I couldn’t shake the feeling he was close. That another soul was nearby.
“Braden?” I barely let my voice be louder than a whisper. “Braden?”
Again I strained.
And I heard it. Something. Just the crackle of leaves. And maybe breathing.
Closing my eyes, I listened again.
There it was. Just off to the right, not far down the steep hill. I swung the flashlight toward the sound.
I caught the glint of eyes before anything else. I flinched, thinking I’d found the cat, but I shook it off and looked again. It wasn’t that type of glint. “Braden?”
A little sob cut through the darkness.
Keeping my flashlight trained on the spot, I carefully rushed down the slope.
Sure enough, the kid was curled up at the base of the tree, eyes huge in pain and fear. “Am I in trouble?”
Relief flooded me, quickly followed by irritation again. Part of me wanted to tell the kid that yes, he was most definitely in trouble. “No, buddy. Are you okay?”
Another sob. He looked like he was trying to decide if I was safe or not. “I hurt my leg. I slipped and fell on something.”
I sighed. “It’s all right. I’ll carry you back.” I bent, transferred the flashlight to my mouth and bit down, then swooped the boy up into my arms.

 BY THE time I got back to the others, my irritation had spiked once more after carrying the boy for so long. Who doesn’t bother to answer when lost and hurting?
I’d done the job long enough to know that it wasn’t as uncommon as it would seem. Also long enough to feel irritated by it all. That probably wasn’t a good sign.
Jordan saw me first and rushed over. She smiled, patted me on the shoulder, then swiped at a lock of the boy’s hair. “Thank goodness. Nice job, Gabe.”
At that moment, the mother swooped in, pulling Braden from my arms and crumpled to the ground sobbing and wailing. The boy let out a cry of pain in her shuffle.
Stepping away, I smacked into another body. “Oh, sorry. I….” My words trailed off as I looked down into Luis’s face. “Oh.”
Luis stretched out a hand. “I seriously cannot thank you enough. Truly.”
I stared at Luis’s hand a moment too long before shaking it. “Oh, no problem. Part of the gig. Just glad it worked out okay.”
Luis let go of my hand, his mouth moved without words for a moment before his voice seemed to come back to him. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I feel like I should—”
I didn’t hear what Luis thought he should do as the wailing mother crashed into me and began covering my face in wet, snotty kisses. “Oh, thank you for finding my baby! You are so wonderful. I just—”
Her meaning was cut off as well as her husband joined in on the gushing.
From over their shoulders, I noticed Jordan smirking in our direction.
The ride down the mountain was even rougher and more jarring than the way up. However, whether the starlight, cool night breeze, or the crash from the adrenaline spike was to blame, I found the trip oddly soothing. Enough that I almost caught myself dozing off. It wasn’t just me, though; Jordan was curled up against my side, not screaming. Across the jeep, both of the twins were fast asleep, and their mother kept her eyes trained on me in absolute adoration.

That part was a bit uncomfortable.


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