Authors: Stephanie James
on’t stop now. This is just getting interesting.”
The voice out of the darkness was as cool and deadly as the sound of a revolver being cocked. It has precisely the same effect on Brenna Llewellyn. She froze, one leg already swung over the sill of the window. She was trapped.
Fear-induced adrenaline surged into her bloodstream as she stared, wide-eyed, into the thick shadows of the bedroom she had been attempting to enter through the open window.
The price of a little impetuosity
, she thought with fleeting hysteria.
. Even as the words floated through her brain she was making the decision to flee. In such a situation there was little to lose. She had apparently surprised a thief or perhaps someone who had been using the deserted Lake Tahoe cabin as a hideout. Someone who would not particularly want any witnesses.
“No, I wouldn’t try it if I were you,” drawled the dangerous, darkly timbered masculine voice. “It’s too late to change your mind.”
Brenna’s fingers clenched on the windowsill, knowing he was right. She was an easy target outlined against the moonlit sky behind her. By the time she could scramble back outside, the man concealed in the bedroom’s shadows would be able to get off a shot. Assuming he was armed, of course, which was a perfectly reasonable assumption given the circumstances. Knuckles whitening under the strain, Brenna sat very still, straddling the window frame. She had to think. Panic would only hasten a disastrous ending.
“Look,” she tried in a taut but amazingly quiet tone, “I haven’t seen your face yet. There’s no way I can identify you. Just let me go back the way I came and I give you my word of honor I won’t tell a soul you’re here.”
“Your word of honor,” mused the deep voice. Brenna winced at the amused sarcasm. “An interesting concept for a cat burglar.”
There was a subtle flicker in the depths of the shadows, and Brenna caught her breath with sharp fear as her captor moved into a shaft of moonlight. “No, please…!”
It was too late. The silver beams streaming in the window behind her fell across the man who had halted her with his voice. Brenna swallowed tightly, her heart pounding with fear and the effort to control it. He was barefoot and naked above the waist, wearing only a pair of close-fitting black denim jeans. As he moved into view he lowered the weapon in his hands with a frighteningly casual motion that spoke of his utter familiarity with it. It was a bow and arrow.
Brenna, who had been preparing herself for the sight of a gun in his fist, was momentarily stunned by the unexpectedness of the primitive weapon.
“My God,” she breathed. What had she stumbled into tonight?
“You might as well come all the way inside,” the man ordered in a gentle voice that didn’t fool Brenna for an instant. “You can’t straddle that particular fence forever.”
“Please, this is all a mistake…”
“I’ll bet it is,” he murmured, coming toward her with a deliberate, gliding movement that covered the distance between them much too quickly. “Life has a nasty way of making sure we pay for our mistakes. Haven’t you learned that lesson yet in your profession of cat burglary?”
He reached out, setting aside the curving bow and the wicked-looking arrow without once taking his eyes off his victim. If she was ever going to have a chance, Brenna thought wildly, this was undoubtedly it.
With a frantic rush of tensed muscles, she twisted, trying to throw herself back out the window. But it was too late. A hand that felt like a manacle closed around her wrist and she was abruptly yanked over the sill and into the dark bedroom. Even as she stumbled and barely found her balance the man extended his free hand and flipped on the light switch.
Damn it, she wasn’t going to give up without a fight, Brenna decided fiercely as her eyes locked with a pair of unbelievably cool gray ones. Something about the icy silver in that gaze fed the instinctive response of her body as she swung her foot in an arching kick and simultaneously went for his face with her nails. The cool silver told her this man was at home with the prospect of violence.
And in the next tempestuous moments, that gave him a distinct advantage. Before she had time to assimilate what had happened, Brenna found herself flat on her back, lying on a braided rug that had done little to cushion the impact of her fall. She was anchored beneath the unrelenting weight of a lean, masculine body that held her with ease. Shutting her eyes reflexively, Brenna gasped for the breath that had been partially knocked out of her.
“Damn you,” she managed to hiss defiantly as he calmly caught her wrists in one of his fists and pinned them over her head. Then he knelt across her hips, a leg on either side of her body, and smoothly, efficiently began to run one hand over her.
Panic of another sort flared to life, and Brenna’s body went rigid beneath his touch. “I swear to God if you rape me I’ll see you hunted to the ends of the earth,” she vowed, fury battling with fear.
“Relax,” he growled. “I’m just trying to find out how lady cats are equipping themselves on the job these days.”
Brenna stared up at him, confused. Then, thorough the haze of her terror, she realized that the touch of his hand was brisk and entirely impersonal as it moved across her red cotton knit pullover and jeans. Belatedly it dawned on her that he was searching for concealed weapons.
“I’m…I’m not armed,” she managed, having to pause once in the middle of the short sentence in order to moisten her dry lips. “For God’s sake, I’m not a burglar!” Instantly she regretted that confession. If he were a criminal hiding out here in the cabin, perhaps he would be more inclined to treat her leniently if he thought she was also on the wrong side of the law.
“Could have fooled me,” he announced almost cheerfully, completing his search of her slender form and releasing her wrists. He continued to kneel astride her hips as he straightened and began to eye his captive in more detail. “Most of the people I’ve met who make a habit of crawling in through other folks’ windows in the middle of the night have what are usually termed larcenous tendencies.”
“Then you must hang out with a slightly different crowd than the one I run around with! I was not crawling through someone else’s window,” she added caustically, finding a heretofore undiscovered sense of nerve. “I was crawling through my own!”
One tawny brow lifted quellingly above one silvery eye. “I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law. And as I happen to be in possession of these premises at the moment…” He let the sentence trail off meaningfully, waiting for her reaction.
“Illegally in possession!” she reminded him, more of her courage returning as she sensed some of the danger seeping out of the situation. She didn’t know why her instincts told her things were looking more hopeful. After all, he was still pinning her to the rug, and the way he’d aimed that arrow at her earlier would probably give her nightmares for months. But there was a sort of calm
about the man that made her think she wasn’t dealing with an outright lunatic. At least he didn’t appear to be the sort who was going to panic and kill her out of hand. That last thought reinforced her budding hope.
Looking down at her, he shook his head once in mock wonderment. “Illegally in possession,” he repeated. “Imagine the world having come to the point where thieves in the night use phrases like that.”
“Are you denying it?” she charged tightly.
“Oh, yes, I’m denying it. Want to see my lease?”
Brenna’s amber eyes went very wide as she absorbed the implications of that casually dropped bombshell. “Your lease!”
“For three months beginning two weeks ago on the first of June,” he told her easily, rising lithely to his feet and reaching down to grasp her wrist.
If there is a trauma as severe as facing danger, it is the horror of having thoroughly embarrassed oneself, Brenna reflected. In a very painful silence she allowed him to pull her to her feet.
“I think,” she finally began very carefully, “there may have been some mistake.”
“As I mentioned earlier,” he drawled softly, watching her tense face, “mistakes tend to be paid for, one way or another.”
Mutely she stared up at him, yanking her chaotic thoughts back into line with an effort of will. Surely she couldn’t have clambered through the wrong window! But all the evidence was beginning to point to that, she realized grimly as she tore her gaze away from the silver-eyed man and hastily scanned the very lived-in looking bedroom.
The rumpled bed in which he had apparently been sleeping was a tumble of white sheets and patchwork quilt. The closet door stood open, revealing a collection of clothing that could only have belonged to a man. On the floor stood a pair of expensive-looking leather boots in an Italian design and a couple of pairs of casual shoes. Papers, books, and some magazines filled a small bookcase in one corner.
Brenna drew a long breath as she jerked her gaze away from the interior of the rustically designed bedroom and back to the man who was claiming possession. He was waiting, mouth smiling faintly at the corners as he watched the expressions flit across her features.
As she met his eyes once more, it struck Brenna that the faint edging of amusement around his hard mouth was enormously reassuring. This was not a man who would smile while still contemplating violence. She had the distinct impression that he could be ruthless and she’d had ample evidence that he could be dangerous when provoked, but he wasn’t a nut, in spite of that bow and arrow sitting across the room.
Her nerves began to settle down and she raked an assessing glance over the man in front of her. He was about half a foot taller than she was, which made him nearly six feet. A rough estimate of the lines of experience that bracketed his hard mouth and narrowed gray eyes made Brenna think he was somewhere in his late thirties, perhaps thirty-seven or thirty-eight.
There was a sprinkling of silver at the temples of the tawny brown hair, which confirmed her age estimate. The hair itself was thick, cut a little too short for her taste, and was, at the moment, rather rakishly tousled. Only to be expected, she thought wryly, given the fact that she had clearly just gotten him out of bed.
There was nothing particularly handsome about the strong contours of his face, but the innate self-reliance and authority stamped there were oddly compelling. The silvery eyes were edged by lashes a shade or two darker than his hair. There was a hawklike quality to the forceful nose and a rough-hewn look to the aggressive chin and the taut line of his high cheekbones.
Against her will, Brenna found herself aware of the expanse of smoothly muscled, bronzed male chest with its covering of curling tawny hairs. The low-riding black denim jeans sheathed a lean, boldly masculine frame that promised strength and grace.
For some reason she remembered how he had looked stepping into the moonlight, the bow and arrow in his strong, thoroughly competent hands. Calm, in command of himself and the situation; a true professional in the ultimate sense of the word. She had no idea what, exactly, he was professional
, but it was a cinch he would have been totally out of place at one of the college faculty meetings she was obliged to attend during the academic year.
She knew she was getting the same scrutiny in return and endured it with a sort of wry disdain. The bittersweet-chocolate-colored hair that fell to the middle of her back had come free of the clip at the nape of her neck and hung now in tangled disarray. It framed a face that had been alternately described as interesting and appealing but never beautiful. Wide, faintly slanted eyes of an amber-brown shade reflected intelligence and knew how to laugh when the occasion warranted laughter. A mouth that smiled easily was counterbalanced by the firm angles of her nose and jaw.
The red cotton knit pullover fit sleekly down over her slender body, clinging a little too closely to the small, unconfined breasts. Brenna shifted with a self-consciousness that annoyed her as she recalled the fact that she had dressed for the drive to Tahoe on the assumption that she would not be seeing anyone. Her jeans were snug and faded from numerous washings, and the moccasins on her feet were worn and comfortable.
At the age of twenty-nine, she ought to show more self-confidence in a trying situation, Brenna told herself. After all, she was now a faculty member of the philosophy department at a small but respected college. But she didn’t feel particularly self-confident tonight. It had been a trying week in general, and this evening’s fiasco was a fitting end to it.
“I’m sorry about this,” she began with an attempt at decisiveness. “I appear to have crawled in through the wrong window.” She lifted her chin at his mocking speculation. “I have a lease, too,” she pointed out coolly. “It’s the owner’s fault for having booked two of us into the same cabin for the summer!”
“The owners are friends of mine. I don’t think they would have made an error of that magnitude. May I see your lease?” He held out a hand promptingly.
“It’s in the car,” she hedged, frowning.