For Ages
12 to 99

Two total opposites. One race through the Great Outdoors. In this grumpy-sunshine teen romance from the author of Love from Scratch and Not Here to Stay Friends, the trail to true love doesn't always come with a map.

Natalie Hart has always been loud, unfiltered, and unapologetically herself. But then comes her freshman year of college, when she loses her merit scholarship and gains one pesky little anxiety diagnosis.

Hesitant to take out more student loans, Natalie decides to shoot her shot and applies to Wild Adventures, a popular outdoorsy reality show. Sure, Natalie prefers her twelve-step skincare routine to roughing it on the Appalachian Trail while competing in challenges against other college kids, but that scholarship prize money is calling her name. High risk, high reward, right?

Enter Finn Markum, her randomly assigned, capital-O Outdoorsy teammate whose growl could rival a black bear. These partners have more friction than a pair of new hiking boots. Or is it flirtation? Turns out falling in love might be the wildest adventure of all...

An Excerpt fromWild About You

Chapter One

My face is melting.

Okay, so not my actual face, but the layers of primer, concealer, foundation, bronzer, blush, and highlighter I spent the morning tediously applying, blending, and contouring, all so that I could look my best for my first day on camera. That backfired harder than my dad’s ancient Ford pickup.

It’s not even that hot out here, at least not for a sunny June day. Tennessee summers aren’t exactly temperate--I remember as much from visiting my grandma in Pigeon Forge most of my childhood--but up at this altitude, with thick tree cover overhead, I’m in a mild, green, wildflower-dotted oasis. An oasis that’s been the backdrop of a uniquely intense, high-pressure workout, as I’ve hauled my clueless ass around for the better part of an hour. That’s my best guess at how long it’s been since the Wild Adventures crew sent me off from the little mountain town where we’d first met with a GoPro camera, emergency satellite phone, hand-drawn map, and their best wishes. I quickly sought out the least threatening, most grandma-like local available and asked her to point me toward the Appalachian Trail.

Fifteen minutes later, Ethel finally let me leave the street corner with not only some overly complex directions to the trailhead, but also the life stories of all three of her grandchildren, and a plastic bag of strawberry hard candies from her purse. Between the exertion and the anxiety as I’ve tried to make up for time lost to that sweet, four-foot-eleven roadblock, I’m starting to move past “glistening” into “sweating like an overly made-up pig.”

Reese tried to warn me about this, I think with a grimace as I step around a fallen tree branch. My best friend and I spent our freshman year at different schools--me at Oliver College in Boston, her at UW in Seattle--but as soon as I knew I’d been cast for this season of the popular reality show Wild Adventures, and that filming would take place along a stretch of the Appalachian Trail just a couple hours from our hometown in Kentucky, I sent out the distress signal. She made sure she was home for summer break in time to help get me ready and see me off.

She’d had all kinds of questions since hearing that I’d applied for this show in the first place, starting with “Huh?” and “Why?” The questions have only gotten more pointed over time, ranging from “You haven’t even been camping before, have you?” to “You know filming a reality show is going to be pretty different from doing live theater, right?”

As if she’s never taken some extremely out-of-character leaps and landed somewhere amazing. But that’s a whole other story.

When she and I road-tripped down to Tennessee yesterday, we stopped at REI in Knoxville for a few last-minute outdoor apparel and accessory purchases. This only reinforced how woefully underprepared I was for this experience.

“Are you sure you need a new makeup bag? Let alone one that big?” Reese asked, eyeing my selection with skepticism. “It’ll take up, like, half your backpack. And you probably won’t want to deal with the upkeep while you’re out in the wild.”

“I’ve made bigger sacrifices in the name of beauty,” I assured her with unfounded confidence.

If she could see me now, she’d sigh out the most exasperated “Lordhavemercy” recorded in human history.

Reese could see me now, it occurs to me. Or see a recording of current me a few weeks from now, or whenever episodes start going up on UltiMedia, the streaming service that airs Wild Adventures. Panting, I come to a stop and rest my perspiring backside against a tree while I pull the GoPro out of its holster that the crew affixed to my small day pack--the only luggage I was allowed to bring to filming. It contains a few changes of clothes, toiletries, and a hefty cosmetics supply for which I’m already side-eyeing myself. As my one allotted “secret weapon,” aka nonessential item, I have my e-reader, loaded with plenty of my usual romance novel fare, but also a couple AT info books. Per the rules of the show, I didn’t bring any other gear or equipment for this outdoorsy expedition--not that I own any of that stuff, anyway.

When my breathing is marginally less wheezy, I swipe my arm across my forehead in a half-hearted attempt at shine control while I have the camera pointed at the ground. I’m still inwardly cursing the fact that I can’t see what I look like right now, but I give a big smile anyway as I lift the GoPro to capture my first close-up.

“Hey, Wild Adventures fam! Natalie here.” The show’s team sent out an orientation package to contestants a couple weeks ago, including all the paperwork we needed to fill out and waivers to sign, along with a series of videos on best practices for filming my own close-ups. They also recorded my intro, where I gave a more formal “I’m Natalie Hart, I’m nineteen years old and a theater major at Oliver College” spiel for audiences. Hopefully it’s okay to just operate on a first name basis now. “I think I’m making progress toward the first checkpoint, but I have to admit it’s a little hard to tell with this map. Like, is that blob supposed to be some kind of landmark? Or did the mapmaker spill their coffee? How am I supposed to know when I’ve walked ‘four hundred yards northwest’? Cardinal directions are not my strong suit--I only remember the sun rises in the east by singing the Beauty and the Beast song in my head, Mrs. Potts voice and all.” Okay, too much of Real Natalie coming out from the jump. Let’s dial back the rambling. “So, yeah, they totally didn’t exaggerate on the ‘adventure’ part of this whole thing. But I’m trusting Mother Nature and the UltiMedia producers not to let me meet my untimely end on day one. Stay tuned to see if that trust is misplaced!”

Who says my theater background didn’t prepare me for this? I’m crushing it in the role of Girl Who Isn’t Kind of Lost Or More Than Kind of Concerned. I wedge the camera back into its holster so it can continue recording my progress, satisfied I’ve made enough of a face-forward update for this leg of the journey. Hell, if I don’t get to the first checkpoint soon, there won’t be a journey for me to continue on.

Per usual on a season of Wild Adventures, they dropped each contestant off in a separate location with a camera to film themself and a map to guide them to a checkpoint where the whole group will meet up to kick off the competition. The last contestant to arrive gets eliminated before things even truly get started.

I can’t let that be me.

I’ve watched a few seasons of Wild Adventures over the years, and it’s always fun. Each season, they plop down a bunch of people with varying levels of outdoorsiness in a different scenic locale and have them race to different checkpoints with their partners, competing in challenges along the way. Some of the challenges require more survival skills, while others are random location-themed activities. A camera crew does some of the filming, catching up with teams at all points in the challenges and spotlighting one or two pairs per episode, but most of the footage is captured by team members themselves using GoPros. Normally, there are competitors at all stages of adulthood who apply for the show with a friend, family member, or significant other. It’s always seemed to me like a great opportunity to test a relationship--if you can get through Wild Adventures together, you can get through anything. If the challenges only open your eyes to your boyfriend’s assholeishness, on the other hand, you’ll have plenty of chances to knee him in the groin and make it look like an accident.

But this season is a little different. All competitors are college students, and we’ll each be partnered with a stranger. And rather than the standard $100,000 cash prize, we’ll be competing for $100,000 in scholarship money for each partner. They’re calling it Wild Co-EdVentures.


When I saw the information about the open applications in my school’s e-newsletter, it sounded like some kind of old-school, sexist, Girls Gone Wild mess and I was side-eyeing Oliver College for advertising it--until I saw the picture of a bearded mountain man type, hunched over as he tried to start a fire with sticks. Curiosity piqued. And when I read up on the details of the season, and that prize, well . . . there are worse ways to try to get money for school. And lord knows I need it, after the freshman year I had.

I shake my head to try and banish all thoughts of my hellish first two college semesters, refocusing on the soft give of the dirt beneath my feet, the swish of leaves against my exposed arms as I walk through a bunch of plants I hope to Dolly Parton aren’t poisonous. The school year and all its failures are behind me now, hundreds of miles away. My parents are back in Kentucky, where I can’t see the judgy eyes they’re always glaring with. And somehow, miracle of miracles, I got picked for this opportunity here, high up in these ancient mountains. I would’ve enjoyed getting to do this somewhere farther from home--past Wild Adventures seasons have been set anywhere from the Australian outback to Patagonia--but somewhat literal beggars can’t be choosers. Nowhere to go but forward, into this vast, green unknown, toward my fresh start.

If I don’t die in a bear attack trying.

I hear a faint sound and stop in my tracks, wondering if I’ve jinxed myself by thinking the B-word. I don’t have bear spray in this pack. Because I wasn’t supposed to bring “gear.” Whose idea was that, anyway? Maybe I can blind the bear with my setting spray, or hyaluronic acid serum?

The rustling grows louder and my pulse skyrockets as I crouch down, bringing my arms over my head like a weak-ass shield and wondering why I didn’t read more about bear safety before coming here. Or even virtually crack open any of those Appalachian Trail e-books. Black bears are, like, the Smoky Mountains’ mascot. Maybe I should have prioritized research before making sure my cheekbones would look nice from all angles, but no. I’m a fool. A fool unable to survive past the first hour alone in the woods, and--

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The voice is human, not bear, though it does sound pretty growly. Slowly, I lower my arms and stand up straighter, turning in the direction of the sound.

A guy, tall and lanky, fair-skinned, with sandy brown hair cropped close to his head, is standing on the trail behind me. The combination of his dry-fit T-shirt, hiking boots, and those pants that can unzip into shorts and have a bunch of pockets up and down the legs gives off the impression of capital-O Outdoorsy.

Putting a hand over my pounding heart, I do what I do best: blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. “I thought you were gonna eat me!”

There are weirder first words to say to another person, probably. I don’t know what they are, but I’m sure they exist.

“You--you what?” His tone only seems to grow more aggravated as his face scrunches up in confusion.

I throw my hands up as if he’s the one being ridiculous here. “I thought you were a bear! You still might be some kind of freaky, woodsy serial killer. Lord knows angry white men are the scariest predators out there. But I have acid in my bag and plenty of people who’d be out to avenge me if anything happened, so watch yourself.”

The guy pinches the bridge of his nose as if he might have a migraine coming on. “I’m not a serial killer, or--or an angry white man.”

“Says the white man angrily,” I retort, crossing my arms over my chest.

He sighs. “I’m . . . mildly irritated at most. And why do you have aci-- You know what? Never mind. Are you lost or something?”

It’s then when I notice it. The GoPro secured to the top of his backpack, just visible over his shoulder. It feels like the extra layer of anxiety-sweat brought on by running into a stranger in the middle of nowhere dries up immediately.

“You’re a Co-EdVenturer!” I cry.

He takes a step back at my sudden volume increase and frowns. “That name is embarrassing.”

“But you are, aren’t you? I’m one too! Oh, thank god. Now I know you’re at least able to pass a criminal background check.” I clap my hands and give a little jump. “Oh, and that means we’re going to the same place!”

He sighs again. I’m tempted to stick a balloon in front of his face, see how long it takes him to fill it up with hot air and exasperation. “Yeah, and do you know where that place is yet?”

I put a hand to my cocked hip. “If I did, would I still be standing here talking to you?”

“Guess not.” He reaches into one of his many pants pockets and pulls out a paper folded into a tiny square. He unfolds it carefully and steps closer again, holding it out toward me. “What’s your map look like?”

I slide mine out of the slim thigh pocket on my new sport leggings and try not to cringe at the dampness. Comparing the two drawings side by side, it’s clear how we both ended up here--though we were dropped off in different spots, the shape of the paths drawn out on each of our maps becomes identical as it nears the X marking the first checkpoint location. We have to be really close now.

“Okay, so if we’re right here,” I point to the place where our two paths should meet on both maps, “we should just need to go a bit farther. . . .” I spin in a slow circle to orient myself. “This way!”

His brows knit together as he studies the drawings. “Are you sure it’s not a little more”--his gaze flits up and he points a smidge to the right of where I’ve indicated, making a little clicking sound with his mouth--“this way?”

I shrug. “I haven’t been sure of anything since I filled in my brows this morning and got them juuust the same shape. But I don’t feel overly unsure about it either.”

“I have no idea what to do with that,” he mutters. He eyes me up and down slowly, but it isn’t in any kind of interested or checking-me-out way. Rather, he just continues to look put off by everything about me, from the neon pink laces in my new hiking boots, to the leggings I picked out in my favorite shade of purple, to my gray workout tank with cutouts that show glimpses of my sports bra. He doesn’t focus long on my melting face before clocking the single purple streak running through my brown hair, then returning to the forest beyond me with an eye roll so subtle I almost miss it. But I don’t. I’m about to snap something at him--I don’t know what--when he deflates and starts walking. In the direction I chose.

Under the Cover