Read Courting Carolina Online

Authors: Janet Chapman

Courting Carolina (4 page)

BOOK: Courting Carolina
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Alec arrived back at the lean-to to find Jane sitting up with the sleeping bag tucked around her legs, wearing one of his flannel shirts over his T-shirt, stuffing her mouth with trail mix as fast as she could chew and swallow. Her dark hair was more dry than wet now, hanging in wild knots to her waist…in places. In other places the odd hairstyle reached only halfway down her back. The welt on her cheek definitely looked like a handprint, the bump on her forehead had darkened, and her expressive green eyes instantly brightened when he dropped her two heavy bags beside her.

She immediately set down the tin of trail mix and started digging through the smaller satchel—only to stop and glare up at him. “You went through my belongings.”

Alec arched a brow as he pointedly looked at the mess she’d made rifling through
his
stuff. “I was trying to decide if I wanted to harbor a criminal for the next few days,” he drawled, walking to the rear wall to hang his pack on a peg.

“I’m not a criminal,” she said, her voice muted as she dug through her satchel.

Oh, yes she was; the woman was criminally beautiful, even or maybe especially minus all the makeup he’d seen in her arsenal. “Did you know the men who were chasing you?” he asked as he started picking up the mess she’d made. He looked up when she didn’t answer. “Or were you simply a victim of opportunity?”

Her chin lifted. “I’m not a victim, either. Where’s Kitty?”

He grinned. “Hunting squirrels for our supper.”

She reached in the tin of trail mix, grabbed a fistful and shoved it in her mouth, then started working the knots out of her hair with the silver brush.

“Ye know,” he continued, “it’s been my experience that when I’m wanting a favor from someone, it helps to be nice to them. And cooperative.”

“What’s your name?”

“Alec.”

“Alec what?”

“Smith.”

She dropped her gaze to her fistful of hair as her cheeks turned a dull pink, and went back to working out the tangles. “Where are the men?” she asked softly.

“Dead.”

She snapped her head up. “You
killed
them?”

He arched a brow. “Didn’t you ask me to?”

“But I didn’t mean it!” Her face went as pale as new snow and she leaned away. “You really killed them?” she whispered.

“No,” he said, shoving some of his clothes into the duffel bag. “A lightning strike beat me to it.”

He heard her release a soft sigh. “I hope they rot in hell.” She touched his arm when he reached for a shirt lying beside her. “Did you call the authorities, Alec?”

He nodded. “I put a call in to the sheriff. But,” he rushed on when he saw her shoulders slump, “I told the dispatcher only that I’d stumbled onto two dead men, and I wiped away all traces of you and the wolf.” He reached out and lifted her chin. “So we have about two hours to get you settled farther
up the mountain before the sheriff arrives. That is, if you still insist on hiding out here for a few days.”

Her eyes started to brighten, but then suddenly turned suspicious. “Why?” she asked softly. “Why are you letting me stay?”

Finally
the woman was realizing she very well could be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Alec shrugged and gathered up more of his clothes. “I figured that if I didn’t let you stay there was a good chance you’d run straight back into trouble,” he said instead of admitting he was a masochistic idiot. But who was he to question the storm gods’ decision to send him a beautiful woman?

She beamed him a smile that outshone the sun. “Thank you. I promise to be a perfect guest.” She looked around the shelter at all his gear. “You appear to be settled in here somewhat permanently. Are you also hiding out? But doesn’t this land belong to the resort on top of the mountain?”

Alec stood up and stowed his duffel bag against the rear wall. “I’ve spent the summer out here building a new hiking trail.” He turned to her. “For the resort that you appear to be familiar with,” he added. “Yet I’ve never seen you around Spellbound Falls or Turtleback Station, although I’ve spent the last two summers working in the area.”

She returned to untangling her hair. “I’m…familiar with the resort.”

Okay then, that certainly narrowed things down. Alec used his foot to push the larger satchel toward her. “Grab some clothes to wear, put everything you own back in the bags, and I’ll take you up the mountain a few hundred yards.”

The brush stilled in a knot and her eyes widened. “You can’t mean to make me camp out in the open. Why can’t I stay here?”

“Because there’s a chance the sheriff might come
here
, and I prefer he doesn’t find you or your lacy underwear while I’m lying through my teeth about what happened to those men.” He pulled down the bra and panties and shirt and slacks she’d
hung over the railing to dry, and tossed them on the sleeping bag. “Or have you finally come to your senses about letting me call someone to come take you home?”

She dropped her gaze to the clothes. “No. I can’t ever go home again.”

Alec crouched down beside her. “What kind of trouble are you in, Jane?”

He saw her pull in a shuddering breath. “I believe those two men, and one other, kidnapped me for ransom.” She shook her head. “Apparently they hadn’t heard that my father disowned me two years ago, so they didn’t know he wouldn’t have paid them anything.”

Alec gave her a warm smile. “Daddies don’t ever disown their daughters, lass. They might blow and bluster and put on a good show, but there isn’t a man alive who’s immune to his little girl’s cry for help.”

She looked down at the brush she was holding in a death grip. “It was the most terrible fight we’ve ever had. We both said things we regret, I know, but…” She looked up at him. “But even if he did take me back into his heart I couldn’t return, because nothing will have changed. He’d still be dictatorial in his determination to see me settled into a life of
his
choosing, and I’d still be his…his clueless daughter,” she growled, waving the brush in the air. Her chin lifted. “And in my two years of freedom, I’ve discovered that I prefer making my own choices.”

“Are you an only child?”

“No, I have a brother.”

“And is your father dictatorial with him?”

She snorted and went back to brushing her hair.

“Who’s been bankrolling your exile?”

Her chin lifted. “I have.”

Alec remembered the half-empty jewelry bag. “And who’s been helping you stay one step ahead of your father these last couple of years? Your brother?”

She dropped her gaze as she went back to brushing, but not quickly enough for him to miss the stab of pain in her eyes. “No, a…friend has been helping me.”

Alec stood up. “You can finish fixing your hair once I have you stashed out of sight. Pack your bags and get dressed while I go fill some canteens at a spring not far from here. And if you’re still hungry, I’ll feed you before we go,” he added, trying not to sound too dictatorial himself.

He gathered together snacks she could take with her while Jane found the clothes she wanted to wear and repacked her bags in silence, then he headed up the trail to the spring—pointing out this was her chance to get dressed without him peeking.

So, it appeared Jane Smith had two problems and nowhere to run, since solving her more immediate problem by telling Daddy that kidnappers were after her meant walking right back into the very problem that had made her leave the safety of home to begin with. As for hanging out here with him…well, either Jane’s father had good reason to watch over his clueless daughter with a heavy hand, or the woman didn’t know her biggest problem was six foot four and quite eager to get her pretty little panties off her again.

Damn, he really needed to stop being attracted to women with kissable mouths, legs that ran up to their armpits, and sexy bedroom eyes—especially when they came with a whole lot of
heavy
baggage.

Either damage control no longer held the thrill it once did, Alec decided as he watched the sheriff’s small flotilla finally speed off down the fiord, or else he’d lost his legendary patience since getting out of the game three years ago. “Good-bye, you long-winded bastards,” he called after them, cheerily waving an obscene gesture.

The sun had already set and, realizing the light of dusk was quickly fading, Alec turned and headed up the mountain at a flat-out run. Not knowing if Jane was afraid of things that went bump in the night or not—remembering the woman traveled with a sound machine—he did know darkness had a way of turning even the bravest soul into a cowering ball of sweat in the aftermath of a trauma. And to his
way of thinking, being kidnapped and held for several days was one hell of a trauma.

He found Jane and Kitty right where he’d left them, stashed under an outcropping of ledge; the only difference being that instead of fighting the tangles in her hair, Jane was hugging the wolf with her face buried in its fur, softly sobbing.

“Hey. Hey,” Alec said, sitting down and prying her away from Kitty—only to have her throw herself at him and start sobbing harder. “Easy now, it’s okay,” he crooned, stroking her back as he held her protectively. “You’re safe now, Jane. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you. What was that?” he asked, lifting her chin to look at him. “What was cut? Your leg?” He clasped her to him again. “I know it probably stings, but it’s not going to leave a scar, sweetheart. It wasn’t all that— What?” he asked, leaning away when she muttered something again.

She immediately grabbed a handful of her hair and held it up for him to see. “Th-they cut my hair,” she sobbed. “I’d forgotten the other man had taken a large ch-chunk of it when he cut off my ankle bracelet.” She pressed the hair to her eyes with a shudder. “He just hacked it off with a knife!”

“Hey now,” Alec said, urging her forward to hide her face in his shirt instead of her butchered curls. He stroked his hand over what he thought was still a lot of hair. “It’ll grow back in no time, lass.” Unless this wasn’t about the hair at all, but about the full force of how helpless she’d been finally hitting her.

Nope, it was about the hair. “But it’s my crowning mantle,” she cried, pulling out some of
his
chest hair when she balled her fist in his shirt. “I’ve been growing it for
forever
.” She suddenly sat up. “You have to fix it, Alec,” she said, making him grunt when she pushed off his lap to go after her smaller satchel. “You have to make it even. I have scissors.”

Alec scrambled to his feet, grabbed the satchel out of her hand and closed it, and gave her a tight smile. “It’s too dark to see what I’m doing,” he said, having no intention of going
anywhere near her
crowning mantle
with scissors. “Let’s go back to the shelter where I’ve got some lanterns, and I’ll see what I can do about…fixing it.”

She swiped her damp cheeks and squared her shoulders on a lingering sob. “Thank you,” she said, gathering her hair and pulling it over one shoulder as she started down toward the trail.

Alec looked at the wolf looking up at him with its head canted, one side of its face wet with Jane’s tears. “You don’t happen to have opposable thumbs on any of those paws, do you?” He picked up the other satchel with a muttered curse and followed. Damn, what if he made an even bigger mess of her hair? Women were touchy about that sort of thing. “We probably won’t need the sound machine tonight,” he continued when Kitty fell into step beside him, apparently all Janed out. “As I fear we’ll be going to sleep to the sound of sobbing.”

Alec noticed Jane was limping slightly as she walked the trail ahead of him, but he also couldn’t help but notice that her wonderfully feminine bottom—the one that sat at the top of those really long legs—formed a perfect upside-down heart. Speaking of legs, he’d been rather startled when he’d returned from filling the canteens to discover that Jane really was nearly six feet tall in her stocking feet. And after slipping on her custom-made boots and standing up again, she’d looked him almost level in the eyes.

Sexy underwear, endless legs, a heart-shaped bottom, bedroom eyes, the warmest smile this side of Bermuda; damn, the storm gods were a benevolent bunch.

She’d already pulled his food trunk away from the rear wall by the time he walked up the lean-to steps, and was sitting on it combing her fingers through her endless miles of hair that flowed around her pretty much like an actual mantle. “Hurry and light the lanterns,” she instructed, looking around for them as she squirmed expectantly.

Alec set her small satchel on her lap and the other one beside her feet, half-tempted to hold out his hand for a tip
for lugging her luggage up and down the mountain several times today. “Would you like something to eat first?” he asked, gesturing at the locker she was sitting on.

“Maybe later,” she said, pulling her ditty bag out of the satchel.

“Would you mind if I had something to eat first?”

She stilled with the scissors in her hand, and then he saw her cheeks darken and her shoulders slump. “No, of course not.”

Alec stifled a sigh and took down one of the lanterns hanging on a rafter. Hell, even though he hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast, he seemed to have lost his appetite.
Might as well get this massacre over.
He lit the lantern and hung it back up, then lit two more before walking over and taking the scissors out of her hand. “Never mind,” he said, getting down on his knees behind her. “I might as well fix your hair first.”

She squirmed again but then went very still when he reached through her mess of curls to the nape of her neck, and Alec closed his eyes and bit back a groan as he slowly slid his fingers through her hair.

“Um…I just need you to…I want…”
She
groaned and drew in a ragged breath. “Okay, just do it, Alec.”

He couldn’t do it, because he was pretty sure every blood cell he owned was pooled below his belt, and that was why his hand was trembling when he lifted the scissors only to find that his fingers wouldn’t fit in their tiny holes.

“Is…is it bad?” she whispered when he continued to hesitate.

Not as bad as it’s going to be,
he felt like saying. “No,” he said instead. He pressed a finger to the middle of her back at the height of the hacked-off hair. “Do you want me to cut it all this length? Or should I try to…” Hell, he didn’t know anything about women’s hairstyles. “Isn’t there something called layering or…something?”

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