Authors: Victoria Vane
“Do you have any extra help now?”
“Dirk and the ol' man handle most of it with my help on the weekends, but we also hire a couple of part-timers during calving and branding seasons.”
“And how many horses do you have?” she asked.
“Only about thirty now, also a fraction of what we used to keep in the old days when Dirk also worked them to sell. He gave it up when he lost his leg, but then again, horses aren't as profitable as they used to be either. Now he mostly uses the ATVs to move cattleâexcept when we have to push them up into the mountains for summer grazing. We still have to use the horses for that.”
“And to bring them back down again?”
“Yeah, like now when they don't all come down on their own.”
At their approach, the older man looked to Nikki and tipped his hat. Wade made the introduction. “Nikki, this is my father, Justin Knowlton.”
She dismounted, and extended her hand. “Nice to meet you, sir.”
A broad smile broke his craggy face. “Pleasure's all mine, missâ¦”
“Nicole Powell, but please just call me Nikki.”
“Just like Wade to avoid all the work and show up for the party,” Dirk mumbled.
“It's hardly done,” the older man said. “There's at least a dozen strays still out there if I counted rightâunless the damned wolves got to 'em.”
” Nikki felt her eyes bulge.
“Yeah,” Dirk said. “The damned Wildlife Service reintroduced them to these parts ten years ago and now they prey on our stock like it's a friggin' buffet table. And if you shoot one of the sombitches, you're likely to face an inquisition.”
“Not that that's ever stopped you,” Wade said.
“Hell no,” Dirk replied with a grin. “Only good wolf on
ranch is a dead one.”
“Where do you think the strays are?” Wade asked.
“Spotted a few up toward Bulldog Mountain.” Dirk scowled up at the sun. “Not much daylight left. Late as it is, we'll probably need to overnight at the spike camp and drive 'em down in the morning.”
“Spike camp?” Nikki asked.
“It's a cabin a little farther up into the mountains,” Wade explained. “We mostly use it now for hunting elk and big horns, but it's handy when we have to recover cattle from the mountain. Dirk and I'll go up there. You can go back to the ranch with the ol' man.”
“Why can't I go?” Nikki protested.
“We're not talking a vacation chalet,” Dirk said.
“He's right, Nikki,” Wade agreed. “It's just a rough shelter with a couple of cots. It keeps the bears and wolves out, but that's about it.”
“Bears and wolves?” she repeated, wondering if he was pulling her leg.
Dirk smirked. “You ain't in Georgia anymore, Peaches.”
Wade gave his brother a warning look, and then explained to Nikki, “It's also going to be pretty cold up there tonight. I doubt you'd enjoy it very much.”
“But I've camped out before,” she protested. “I'd really like to ride up that mountain with you. You said yourself that I should see some of the sights while I'm here.”
“It's gonna be rough going,” Wade cautioned.
She jutted her chin. “I haven't slowed you down yet, have I?”
* * *
Wade regarded her for a long, thoughtful moment. In truth, she really hadn't slowed him
, which had actually surprised him. They'd left the ranch at a good clip. He'd pushed a bit harder than he maybe should have, given she wasn't used to it, but after two hours of hard riding, she hadn't complained. She had a halfway decent seat on the horse, too. He'd enjoyed making
Although common sense should have told him to leave her behind, Wade couldn't deny the temptation of having her alone for the night. The ride up the mountain would be slower going and treacherous in places, but Redman was as surefooted as a bighorn sheep.
“Got overnight gear?” he asked Dirk.
Dirk inclined his head to the packs in the bed of the ATV. “Everything we need, but we'll have to take a pack horse to get it all up there.” He jerked his head toward the mountain.
“You really think you can rough it?” Wade asked Nikki. “Once we set out there's no turning back.”
“Yes, I can,” she insisted. “I've camped out before and can even cook over a fire. I make a mean pancake breakfast.”
“Using my stomach against me is mighty close to blackmail,” Wade drawled.
“Whatever it takes.” She shrugged and grinned back at him.
“Just listen to this shit,” Dirk mumbled to his father.
Wade ignored the remark. “All right, just don't say I didn't warn you about the cold, the spiders, and the lack of amenities.”
“I can handle it,” she insisted.
“Three's a damned bit crowded for me,” Dirk interjected.
“That's just fine, big brother,” Wade retorted with a big smile. “'Cause I don't recall inviting you.”
Nikki didn't know what had possessed her to ride into the mountains alone with Wade. Was it a moment of madness? She told herself from the moment they'd met that she'd sworn off cowboys, but now she was going to spend the night alone in a cabin with one. Had she lost her mind?
Perhaps she was just intoxicated by the sheer beauty of her surroundings. She hadn't recalled ever feeling so at peace with nature. The white-capped peaks to the northwest, and the sweeping grassy vista below, broken only by the snaking and shimmering Ruby River, were nearly as stirring to her senses as her cowboy companion. The going was treacherous in places on the narrow cow path, but the horse never faltered and Wade stayed close.
By the time they arrived at the cabin the sun was already dipping like a red-gold ball of fire below the blue-tinged mountain peaks on the western horizon. The experience was
enough to make her forget her raw backsideâat least until she dismounted. Her legs protested as well, turning suddenly to rubber, and nearly giving out when her feet touched down. She cast a critical eye over the crude structure that was little more than a shed. “Is
the camp you were talking about?”
“I warned you it would be rough,” Wade replied without apology. “It was put up for cattle gathering and hunting, not for recreation. There's two cots and a small wood stove. That's about it.” Wade pointed to a place higher up the mountain where the cattle appeared as no more than black dots to Nikki's eyes. “It's too late to do anything about them now,” he said. “So we might as well just get settled for the night and bring them down at sunrise.”
Decision made, they unloaded and picketed the horses.
“What about water for cooking and washing?” Nikki asked.
“You'll find an artesian fissure spring in the backâthe main reason we chose this location. If you need to bring water inside, there should be a few bottles and buckets. I'll carry these in.” He untied their saddlebags, and then slung them over his shoulder. “If you want to unpack whatever's good to eat, I'll see about gathering some wood to put your cooking boast to the test.”
Their exchange was interrupted by a long and eerie echoing cry that sent a shiver rippling down Nikki's spine. It was high-pitched and sounded like a cross between a shriek and horn blast.
“What the heck was that?” she exclaimed.
Wade smirked. “
was the mating call of a bull elk. The sound is called bugling and means that rutting season has officially begun.” He withdrew the rifle from his saddle holster. “Know how to use one of these?”
“Not really. I've never fired any guns,” she confessed. “To be honest, I've never liked firearms of any kind.”
“Like 'em or not, a gun can save your ass. You should at least learn how to use one.”
“I've never felt the need for that kind of protection before.”
“That's only because you've never stared down a wolf, mountain lion, or grizzly bear. The minute you faced any one of those, I promise you'd be pretty damned thankful for a loaded gun.”
She glanced at the rifle with a nervous laugh. “Then Dirk wasn't joking?”
“No. He wasn't. You thought he was?”
“I thought he was just trying to intimidate me into staying behind. He seems that type, rather chauvinistic, I mean.”
“You'd be right about that part.” He laughed. “But it's too late now for me to take you back. It would be dark before we even got off this mountain.”
“Don't misunderstand me. I didn't ask to go back.”
“But you're sorry that you came?”
The elk bugled again. She looked from Wade to the rifle and back again.
“Not as long as
know how to use that thing.” When he cocked a brow Nikki couldn't resist the urge to add, “Just 'cause you've got the tool, doesn't mean you know how to use it.”
“Don't worry, sweetheart,” he replied with a dangerous look. “I know good and well how to use
my tools. But if you need convincing, I'm happy to demonstrate.”
“They aren't dangerous too, are they?” she asked with growing unease. “Aren't elk just another kind of deer?”
“Big-ass deer, with very large antlers. And aggressive as hell when in rut. A bull elk has only one thing on his mind this time of year, and will charge a man, a horse, cattle, even a damn motor vehicle if he feels threatened.”
“Not at all.” He laughed at Nikki's grimace and unlocked the cabin door where he dropped the supplies.
“I thought you said you'd camped out before.”
“Well yeah, I did. Sort of,” she confessed with a pang of guilt. “I once spent a week at a Girl Scout camp on Lake Lanier.”
you tell me? This ain't the Girl Scouts.”
“I didn't want you to leave me behind.”
“Well, sweetheart, you're stuck here now whether you like it or not. You'd best stay inside until I get back. I'll take the rifle in case I get attacked by a horny elkâ¦or find something better to eat than the Spam or jerky that's probably in those packs.” He left her with a shit-eating grin on his face and the rifle propped on his shoulder.
* * *
Unfortunately, Wade hadn't exaggerated the cabin's lack of amenities, the jerky, or the Spam. The structure was small, a single room with only a rudimentary kitchenâa wooden cupboard for food and dishes, and a small wood-burning stove. The furnishings were the bare basics as well, a roughhewn wooden table, two bench seats, and two cots. Clearly, the place was never intended to be recreational.
She found the artesian spring and filled a couple of buckets. There was already a small stack of wood beside the stove, enough to start a cooking fire, but not enough to burn through the night. She found matches and gathered enough kindling to get it started. To her immense satisfaction, she had a nice blaze going before Wade returned.
As for food, Nikki had searched the cupboards for anything palatable to complement the dried and canned meats she'd found in the saddlebags but only discovered such gastronomic delights as expired biscuit mix, pinto beans, and Vienna sausagesânot exactly the makings of a banquetâbut enough to survive on, she supposed. Before she'd completely despaired, however, she found two cans of cling peaches and a half bottle of Jack Daniel's.
“Your poison?” she asked when Wade came back in with an armload of wood.
“No.” He glanced away. “I don't touch the stuff. Must be Dirk's. He spends more time up here than I do.”
“Alone?” Nikki asked.
“Yeah. He disappears every now and then. You can always tell when the walls are closing in and he has to get away. Enough about my brother.” He dropped his hat on the table and came up behind her sniffing the air. “What have we got to eat?”
She laughed. “Are you really sure you want to know?”
His brows kicked up in question.
“There seems to be a surprising variety of cuisine choices.” She elaborated. “We have Spam Classic, of course, but if you care for a bit of Cajun cuisine, there's Spam Hot and Spicy with Tabasco, or if Tex-Mex better suits your palate, we even have Spam JalapeÃ±o.”
She tossed the three cans at him with a grimace.
“Have you ever eaten it?” he asked.
“Spam? Are you kidding me?”
“Don't knock it till you try it. Billions of cans have sold worldwide. It's even considered a delicacy in Asia.” His mouth formed that cocky heart-stopping grin that made her idiot pulse speed up.
“I'll stick with the peaches, thank you kindly.”
” He cocked his head. “I never tried peaches with Spam before.”
“The peaches are mine, Wade.” She clutched the two cans tightly to her chest.
His grin faded. “You don't intend to share?”
He set the Spam on the table and advanced slowly toward her, circling with a dangerous look, one that reminded her of the wolves that very likely sat right outside the door. She shook her head and hugged them even tighter, licking her lips with growing anticipation.
“I don't think so, Wade. Finders keepers and all that.”
“Come now,” he cajoled in a honeyed voice. “I'm mighty fond of peaches.”
She found her back to the wall with his forearms pinned on either side of her head, his body looming over her all big and hard. She breathed him in with a sense of fullness in her chest. He smelled faintly of horse and leatherâ¦and something else that made her go tingly all over.
He just stood there looking down at her, his gaze sliding slowly down her body, making her skin prickle in its wake. Every nerve ending suddenly sounded an alarm. She knew she'd only egged him on. Was he going to make another move?
He dipped his head to murmur darkly in her ear. “As a matter of fact, I can't think of anything I love better than sucking on a ripe, juicy peach.”
He sure as hell wasn't talking about the canned variety. Nikki bit her lip. The cans slipped right through her fingers as a ripple of raw lust ripped through her. The first thudded to the floor, thankfully missing her foot. He must have caught the second.
God. Here we go
She'd been ten kinds of fool for thinking she could resist him. Nikki closed her eyes and parted her lips on a sigh of surrenderâbut the claiming she both longed for and dreaded, never came.
“Thanks for the peaches, sweetheart. Now all we need is a can opener.”
She opened her eyes to his mocking grin.
He'd played her like a virtuoso, effortlessly turning her into a hot and quivering mess.
No way in hell was she going to let him have the last word yet again!
“I'll make you pay for that, Wade. I promise before this night is out, you'll pay
“I don't think so, darlin'. I wasn't lying about my love of peachesâ¦though I'm especially eager to try the ones from Georgia.”
His expression was taunting and playful but his blue gaze was searing hot. Though he tried to play it cool, his little game had him just as fired up with lust as she was. She pursed her lips and shook her head, determined not to let him hold the upper hand.
“I'm afraid I can't help you out there, Wade. Now if you'd said you were partial to nectarinesâ¦”
“Yeah.” Her mouth twitched. “You know. They're a lot like peachesâ¦sweet and succulentâ¦only without the annoyingâ” She gifted him with a seductive smile.
In sudden understanding his pupils instantly flared big and black. Nikki's gaze flickered to his crotch. She certainly had his attention now.
“Shit,” he mumbled and shifted his stance. “I've never eaten a
“Then I guess you've got something new to add to your bucket list.” Her smile widened in triumph. “Payback's a real bitch, isn't it?”