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Authors: Tatiana March

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Rugged (15 page)

BOOK: Rugged
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Jed couldn’t breathe. His chest felt full to bursting.

“Yes,” he growled. “I want you to go.”

“Goodbye, Jed,” she said softly. “I wish you well.”

The door closed, and he knew she was gone.

He could no longer hold back the tears that stung in his eyes. They ran in hot rivulets down his face, past the numb scar tissue, and grew into sobs that shook his shoulders.

It’s for the best, he told himself, but inside him a little voice whispered.

Why is it for the best?

* * * *

Rachel waved goodbye to Ambrose and Nilesh and Melvin and Philippe and Hank when they drove off in their pair of identical rental cars. For three days, she’d kept up the lie that Jed was busy with ranch work and had told her to enjoy the company of the visitors over Thanksgiving. She felt guilty over the deceit, but it was easier to let everyone believe that she would move back into Jed’s house as soon as they were gone.

She had another two weeks before Hank expected her back in the office.

Her heart ached—with loneliness, with disappointment. Most of all, she regretted the dreadful waste of knowing that her relationship with Jed was founded on a strength of passion that could grow into a rare kind of love, if only he compromised a little, crawled out of the lonely world he’d barricaded himself inside.

By the time her first day of solitude drew toward the afternoon, Rachel knew she couldn’t stay at the cabin, so near to Jed. Georgia, the little goat, wandered down the hill, defying the drifts of snow, looking for her. The small act of loyalty drew a tremulous smile to Rachel’s lips. She hugged and petted the goat, fighting to keep the tears from falling.

Then Georgia went home again, turning back to look at her, puzzled that she didn’t follow. Loneliness returned to curl around Rachel, like a dark shadow that she decided would not lift until she left Wyoming.

Perhaps Jed had been right. She had a life to get on with.

And, unlike she had thought, she
have friends at home. She’d never expected Hank to make the trip out. She’d expected a paid messenger. But he had come, and he’d enveloped her in a bear hug as soon as she walked down the path to investigate the arriving vehicles.

And with him, he’d brought a stack of messages from her coworkers.

Not coworkers.

Friends, if she dropped her guard and allowed them to be.

She should return to where she was wanted, where she could try to build a better life. She could keep what was good—the work, the money, the car and the condo and clothes—and fix the bad—the loneliness and lack of trust.

She might start by getting a pet. A goldfish. Perhaps even a cat.

Rachel packed up the car, closed the house, and climbed behind the wheel.

Goodbye Jed
, she thought as she started the engine and steered down the track.





Chapter Eight



Jed drove home in the tractor. All day, his nerves had stretched as taut as a coil of steel wire. Today, the city crowd must finally be leaving. He’d been waiting for them to go, so he could hurry down to the cabin and plead with Rachel, ask her to forgive him.

That dreadful evening, he’d sobered up to know what he’d done.

Like a character in some folk tale, he’d cursed himself into an eternal hell.

Alone. Without Rachel. Knowing that he’d made her hate him.

The tractor ate up the icy track with a steady rumble that got him home faster than a tired horse would have done. Up ahead, before the final bend, where a wooden bridge crossed the stream that ran down the hillside, Rachel’s rental SUV was parked askew, partly off the road. The front door stood open.

Fear fisted in his gut.

She’d gotten into the car, had driven off in anger, lost control of the vehicle and crashed. It was his fault. Jed pushed the tractor up to top speed, swaying on the seat as the huge wheels lurched over the icy ruts. With ten yards to spare, he pulled the breaks and cut the engine.

“Rachel,” he roared. “Are you all right?”

“I’m here.” A muffled voice drifted up the frozen waterfall where the narrow stream cascaded beneath the bridge.

“Are you hurt?” He rushed over to the parapet and scanned the gulley below.

“I’m fine.” She sounded exhausted. “It’s the damn goat. She fell down.”

He spotted Rachel, half buried in snow. Georgia was draped like a huge shawl over her shoulders while Rachel was attempting to climb up the icy waterfall with nothing more than her hands and feet.

“What happened?” Jed asked. Relief soared inside him, both at seeing her unhurt, and at finding her alone, without the city crowd, who might have kept him from saying what he wanted to say to her.

“I was on my way to Jackson Hole,” Rachel replied. “Georgia had come down looking for me. I thought she’d gone back into the barn, but instead she was nosing around. I almost ran her over on the bridge. At the last moment, she jumped off to the side, but the ledge of snow broke off and she fell down the slope.”

“You can’t climb that ridge without crampons and an ice axe.”

“Watch me,” she said, and started a slow, careful ascent, fitting her hands and feet into the small indents in the ice that seemed too regular to be a product of nature. “Damn,” she said, halfway up. “Damn goat, don’t wriggle.”

But Georgia had spotted Jed, and in her delight, the animal tried to leap up, sending Rachel toppling off the ice wall and sliding back down to the bottom.

“Stupid, stupid goat,” she muttered. “I need to rest before I try again.”

“I have a rope in the tractor,” Jed shouted down to her.

He went back to search out a coil of nylon rope behind the seat, tied a loop at one end, and tossed it down to her. “Slip that around your body, under your shoulders. I’ll haul you up. Forget the goat.”

“I can carry her while I climb out,” Rachel shouted back. “I took a screwdriver from the car tool kit before I came down. I’ve used it to hack steps into the ice. I think I can get enough purchase with my feet, and keep my hands free to control Georgia.”

Jed said nothing. He knew he’d waste his breath trying to argue with her. He watched Rachel secure the loop around her torso. After testing the rope, she leaned her weight into it, making the nylon cord taut while she levered the goat over her shoulders.

“Okay,” she shouted.

Jed pulled the rope, nice and smooth, taking his guidance from her movements as she inched her feet from step to step on the slope of ice. Despite the precarious task, pleasure filled him at being the rescuer, being able to look after her, protect her.

For being the man, the one in charge.

“Easy,” he coaxed. “Just a little more.”

“You stupid, stupid goat,” he heard her mutter. “If you ever do this again, I’m going to have goat stew, and kid gloves, and furry slippers, and little cups made from your horns.”

“Here.” Jed reached out a hand to grab hers, and yanked her over the edge.

Stepping aside, he waited for Rachel to shove the restless animal off her shoulders. He intended to pull her into his arms as soon as she was free, and then he’d kiss her. He’d kiss her until she could no longer breathe, until neither of them could think of anything but hurrying home, into bed, naked and close and together.

“Thanks,” she said, moving away when he reached out for her. “Got to rush. I have a flight to catch.”

“Rachel…” he started.

“Don’t.” Her voice broke with suppressed grief. “You’ve made your choice. I’m not going to have you blow hot and cold at me, treat me like garbage, just because you have a chip on your shoulder the size of those mountains.’ She slung her arm out to point at the snow-covered Tetons rising in the distance. “It’s no excuse that you didn’t mean those ugly things you said. I’d understand it better, if you
mean them. What I can’t forgive is that you said them for no other purpose than to hurt me, to push me away.”

Turning her back on him, she strode to the car, slammed the door, and started the engine. She didn’t spare him a single glance as she drove off. She didn’t roar past in anger. She rolled along, slowly and carefully, her emotions under tight control.

At that moment, Jed accepted what he’d done.

He had pushed her away, and she’d never come back.

* * * *

Rachel picked listlessly at a tuna salad and clicked ‘enter’ on her computer.

An anvil pounded inside her head. Her stomach knotted when she tried to eat. She had worked solid for three months, including the Easter weekend. The tax season was almost over, but the usual sense of achievement evaded her. She felt more than a hundred years old, tired, washed out and without hope.

Hank walked into her office.

“My brother sent you a magazine.” He tossed a big manila envelope on her desk.

“I’m not interested in fashion.”

“Melvin knows that. I expect there’s something else of interest in it for you. Open the damn envelope and you’ll find out, won’t you?” Hank retreated into the corridor. “Don’t throw the magazine in the trash,” he said on his way out. “Other girls might like to read it.”

Rachel shook her head. They were a small office with six full time staff and two part time administrators, but Hank liked to talk as if they were a multinational. Uninterested, she tore the flap on the envelope and pulled out the glossy issue of
La Diva

On the cover, a teenage actress pouted in a skimpy school uniform.

She flicked to a page marked by a sticky note.

And froze.

A close-up of Jed covered a full page. He’d been photographed in three-quarter profile, the scarred side of his face to the camera. In the top right corner, there was a picture of the new brand of cologne Ambrose had described to her.
. The logo, made of three pillars, had been redesigned to look like the scars that marred Jed’s cheek.

In addition to the portrait, and the cologne bottle, there was no text on the page, except a banner that ran across the bottom, in a typeface that looked like bold, masculine handwriting.

Come back to me

Nothing else. But those four words stabbed her like a knife.

Clutching the magazine, Rachel rushed into Hank’s office.

“Did you know about this?” she demanded.

“What?” Hank didn’t look up from his computer, but Rachel knew her boss well enough to know that he was stalling.

“This,” she said, and slammed the magazine down in front of him.

“Sure,” Hank said. “That’s Melvin’s neighbor in Wyoming. Melvin told me that Ambrose signed him up to be the face of that new cologne they’re launching.
Rugged Man
. A bit like the Marlboro Man. An icon associated with the product.”

“Don’t give me a lecture on advertising”’ Rachel snapped. Her heart was beating in a wild, erratic rhythm. All the pain she’d fought so hard to suppress came flooding out again, undoing the healing process she’d battled her way through.

“Why is he doing this?” she said through gritted teeth.

“Jed?” Hank shrugged and turned his attention to the computer screen. “Isn’t it obvious? He wants you back, and he’s found a great way to ask. You can’t exactly toss a ten foot billboard into a trashcan, can you?”

Her knees buckled. “A ten-foot bill board?”

“If you don’t want to see it, don’t go home along Santa Monica Boulevard.”

“Jesus.” Rachel rolled up the magazine, clutching it tight. “We’re talking about a guy who hates people from the city, who doesn’t see anyone unless he has to, and who thinks making money is a sin.”

“I guess he wants you back pretty bad.” Hank started typing. “Scoot. Out of my office. I’ve got work to do, and I don’t pay you to moon over a man in a magazine.”

BOOK: Rugged
13.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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