Authors: Tatiana March
Once she reached the tractor grooves, she couldn’t resist looking back.
Shotgun by his side, the man stood on the porch, and watched her flee.
* * * *
Horrible, horrible man.
The words rattled in Rachel’s head as she returned to the cabin.
Inside, a cold draft had already started to dissipate any traces of heat. She went to the pot-bellied stove and crouched down to open the hatch. A layer of ashes covered the bottom. An image of a pile of logs rose in her mind. She’d spotted them under the eaves of the shed outside when she’d pulled up in her rental car. Unless she wanted to die of hypothermia, or plead with the gun-toting madman, she’d have to either drive back to Jackson in the falling darkness or find a way to make the cabin warm.
Rising to her feet, Rachel spun around and rushed out again. She picked a path through the snowdrifts toward the woodpile stacked against the shed. The logs were about four feet long, and on the wall above them, she found a saw and an axe hanging from metal hooks. A trestle stand lay on its side on top of the logs.
Like a puzzle, she figured it out.
Prop the stand upright on the ground.
Lay a log horizontal on top.
Saw the log into stumps that could be split into firewood with the axe.
She found a flat spot of ground, set up the stand, and selected a log.
Her breath billowed into white clouds in the cold air. An idea sparked in her mind, and her lips curved into a smile of triumph. Before tackling the firewood, Rachel spent ten minutes shuttling between the kitchen and the drifts of snow, carrying her food outside.
By the time she started with the saw, darkness covered the landscape. She climbed into her rental car and carefully advanced and reversed, turning the car around, so that the headlamps pointed in the direction of the trestle stand.
Then she set to work.
Horrible, horrible man
, Rachel chanted in her mind as she dragged the saw over the log. Her arms ached, and although she’d shed her parka, sweat ran in rivulets down her torso beneath the thermal underwear. The headlamps of her rented SUV slashed through the darkness, bathing the small clearing in a yellow light.
“What the hell is this?”
She jumped at the harsh voice that came from behind her.
The effort of cutting firewood had filled her ears with the roar of blood. Combined with the rasp of the saw, it had rendered her oblivious to the thud of approaching footsteps, and the man had been able creep up on her unnoticed. If she hadn’t been gripping the log so tightly, and if the sole of her left boot hadn’t been propped against the stand, she might have turned around.
Now, she merely clenched her jaw, ignoring him.
As soon as her heart settled back in her chest, Rachel resumed her task.
sang the saw against the log.
She hurled her weight at it, pushing out the blade, pulling it back in, over and over again. Ever since childhood, she’d possessed streak of demonic determination. No task could be allowed to defeat her. Once, she’d spent an hour uncapping a stuck lid on a pickle jar. She’d stood ankle deep in sewage to unblock drains. She’d lifted her own bodyweight in building rubble to rescue a trapped kitten.
When Rachel James took on a task, she didn’t give up.
went the saw.
“Stop,” the man said, raising his voice.
“I’ll cut the firewood for you.”
“I don’t need your help.”
Without warning, hard arms closed around her, halting her motion.
“You’ll maim yourself with the saw and axe,” he told her gruffly.
“Let me go!”
Thrashing against the powerful grip that imprisoned her, Rachel fought to break free, kicking, flailing, squirming, but the man merely tightened his hold. Then, suddenly, the steely body behind her snapped rigid and the arms around her grew slack.
She twisted around to face him.
Her breath stalled. Beneath the brim of a battered brown Stetson, dark eyes were staring down at her, their gaze narrow and burning, but this time not with fury. Raw desire glittered in their depths. Like an invitation, his arousal slammed into her, sending a response curling low in her belly, sliding through her veins.
The hostile embrace they were locked into became charged with yearning.
Rachel tipped her head back. She saw the man’s lips tighten. Nostrils flaring, he sucked in a sharp breath. He would only need to lower his head a few inches to fit his mouth against hers, take the kiss that was already crowding her imagination.
But he didn’t.
He bit out a curse, released her, and shoved her back a step.
Startled, feeling oddly bereft, Rachel watched the man’s broad chest rise and fall with ragged breaths as he pinned her with his fiery gaze. Despite the cool air, her body throbbed with heat. For a few endless seconds, the man stood still. Then he appeared to conquer the hunger that had flared in his eyes. He bent to scoop a long black flashlight from the ground where he must have dropped it. Rachel assumed he’d used the beam to pick his path through the darkness, but as she’d been facing the other way, she’d missed the bright circle of light as it danced down the hillside.
“What the hell is this?” The man jerked his head in the direction of the shopping bags full of food she’d stacked in the snow.
“Outdoor freezer.” Her voice reflected pride at her resourcefulness. “It’s already five below, and the temperature will drop overnight.”
“Take them back inside,” the man ordered. “I’ll cut the logs for you.”
Bristling at his impervious tone, she glared at him. “I don’t want your help.”
“You’ll get it anyway.”
“The hell I will. The food stays where it is, and I’ll cut my own firewood.”
“Idiot.” He poked the toe of one scuffed boot into the pile of microwave dinners. “This is bear country. You don’t leave food outside, not even scraps.”
“Bear country?” Rachel surveyed the tall spruces that loomed sinister in the darkness. “Don’t they hibernate through the winter?”
“Some stragglers are still around, trying to fatten up. Indoors, this lot might spoil, but out here you’ll lose it for certain. If not bears, foxes or wolves or cougars might take up your invitation to a midnight banquet.” He pushed the edges of his unbuttoned sheepskin coat aside and crammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “So, what’s it to be, city girl? Accept my help, or survive on your own?”
He was smirking, with the kind of gloating masculine satisfaction men exhibit when women have to yield to their greater strength. Rachel gritted her teeth. A distant sound threaded in the forest, a forlorn cry that made her think of a lonely cat meowing through a loudspeaker.
“Cougar,” the man said matter-of-factly. His hand rose in an absent gesture to touch the three parallel scars on his cheek. When he seemed to become aware of what he’d done, his spine stiffened. “Well, make up your mind,” he snapped.
That small sign of vulnerability eased Rachel’s resentment over his blatant air of male superiority. “Thank you.” She forced out the words. “I appreciate your help.”
She walked past him, careful not to slip on the hard-packed snow that shone beneath the beam of the headlamps. Bending down, she picked up a few of the shopping bags.
“Get inside,” the man told her. “I’ll bring them in when I’m done with the logs.”
“What about…?” She stared into the forest. As if on cue, the cougar wailed again.
“I’ll be fine.” He patted the pocket of his sheepskin coat. “I have a gun.”
“I should have guessed,” Rachel muttered. “You’re one walking arsenal.”
“It’s the way of life out here,” he replied, not rising to the challenge.
Rachel surveyed the supplies scattered by her feet. She gestured at the cartons and small plastic bags printed with appetizing pictures of vegetables and ready-made meals. “Would you like some of this food?” she asked. “Maybe you could eat a few things before they spoil.”
“I’d like a stew. Make it rich and hot, with lots of meat.” The man turned to the pile of uncut wood. “I’ll be half an hour.”
“I don’t believe this.” She rolled her eyes at his back. “Did you just invite yourself to dinner, after having told me that you don’t have time for
sluts from the city
“I’ll sacrifice myself to save all that food from going to waste.”
Rachel watched the man remove the log she’d chosen from the stand and replace it with a bigger one. He’d already immersed himself in the task, moving swiftly. The frown of concentration on his face gave him a fierce look. Fear stirred in her gut. She’d been brought up to distrust men, even polite and civilized ones. Allowing this angry and volatile stranger into the cabin might be asking for trouble.
“Why are you offering to help me now?” she asked. “An hour ago you brandished a shotgun and ordered me to get off your land.”
The man paused, one booted foot wedged against the stand. “I saw you stumble and fall when you were running down the path,” he replied without turning to look at her. “I came down to make sure you weren’t hurt. And then I saw no lights on in the cabin, and you were trying to cut firewood. I realized that you really didn’t have power.”
A dismissive huff rose in her throat. “Why would I lie about it?”
Another cry of a predator echoed in the forest, breaking the silence.
“It’s getting late,” the man said, his back to her. “And I’m hungry. Either you’ll cook for me or you won’t, but either way this food has to be put away before I leave.”
Rachel mulled it over. People who wanted to take advantage usually tried to hide their nasty nature. The stranger’s abrasive manner reassured her, made her believe she’d already seen the worst of him. “All right,” she agreed with a sigh. “I’ll cook for you, but don’t expect anything sophisticated.”
“I’m satisfied with edible,” the man muttered, and started with the saw.
Shaking her head, Rachel crouched down and started to rummage through her supplies.
, she fumed in silence, but as she fished out a packet of diced chicken and a bag of mixed vegetables, she admitted to the truth.
He might be a gun-toting woman hater, but he was still the closest to a date she’d had in almost a year. And, as long as he didn’t shoot her, she was grateful for anything that would take her mind off the mess she’d left behind, help her through her first evening in the lonely wilderness, half way up a mountain in Wyoming.
Jed Ferguson stomped the snow off his boots and climbed up the front steps to the rustic mountain cabin. Drifts had collected in the corners of the porch. He raked a circle with the flashlight, looking for a brush. The city girl wouldn’t bother to sweep. She’d have no idea that the humidity in the shadow of the high deck was bad for the timber.
Don’t kid yourself.
His mouth tightened as honesty whispered the words into his ear.
He was just looking for an excuse to delay facing her.
While he’d labored cutting the firewood, she’d darted in and out of the yard, stacking the split logs into a hoop-shaped basket and carrying them inside, a little bit at a time. He’d ignored her, pretending to be absorbed in the task, but his nerves had rioted with awareness of her.
He’d overreacted earlier, nearly pointing a gun at her. Usually, an angry glare and a few harsh words were enough to chase off the women who invaded his privacy. This one had stood her ground. He’d gotten the impression that she’d been amused by his bluster, and the insult to his male pride had made him want to frighten her.
Stomping his feet a few more times to alert her to his arrival, Jed gathered his courage. As he pulled open the door and walked through, he cursed himself for listening to his guilty conscience and coming down the hill after he’d driven her off his property.