New book from Joan Reeves from Romantic4ever.com
Haley Gant suddenly wished she could celebrate her thirtieth birthday the way her sister planned to celebrate her own. With all her friends, a dozen of the hunkiest male strippers, and enough champagne to float a boat. Probably an aircraft carrier if Courtney’s usual parties were any indication.
Haley sighed. Right now she’d settle for enough champagne to float a tiny toy boat, but champagne was a scarce commodity on the slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Haley took a sip from the blue spattered enamel cup and grimaced. Coffee, even laced with sugar and powdered creamer, ran a distant second to a crystal flute of chilled bubbly.
Despite her resolve not to succumb to weak female emotions, as her dad would say, Haley felt downright weepy as she watched the hands on the wind-up brass clock creep toward midnight. The rising wind accompanied the ticking of the old-fashioned clock in its inexorable journey to end the old year and begin the new one, bringing her thirtieth birthday with it. Thirty-years-old! Haley’s shudder couldn’t be attributed entirely to the bitter cold of the Montana winter. Where had the years gone?
Six months ago when she and her sister had met in Las Vegas for a week’s vacation, Haley had cracked every over-the-hill joke she could think of, but she wasn’t laughing now. Courtney, younger than Haley by five years, had remarked at the time that Haley was trying too hard to be blasé. Bless her flaky sister’s heart! Courtney, who somehow had the uncanny ability to zero in on emotional issues, was on target. As usual.
Haley smiled when she thought again of how Courtney vowed to celebrate her own thirtieth. Of course, she and Courtney, split apart by their parents’ bitter divorce, with Courtney raised by their free-spirited mother and Haley by their stern, no-nonsense father, were worlds apart in opinions and beliefs.
Most of the time, she didn't dwell on how she and Courtney had ended up reflecting their respective parents’ personalities. Sometimes though, like tonight, she did find herself wishing she could be more like her younger sister.
Haley looked around her snug log cabin. Maybe she could squeeze one male stripper in, but only if he didn’t mind dancing on the old red and navy-braided rug in front of the stone hearth. The silliness brought a smile to her face and took her mind off her moody thoughts.
Normally, she was too focused on work to notice how narrow and, a small sigh escaped her, how boring her life was. Tonight though, the solitude of the small cabin and the loneliness of the isolated research station with the wind moaning through the huge pines depressed her. Even the falling snow had lost its charm after nearly two months of the blasted stuff, and, now, she had a storm to anticipate according to the weather reports.
Next time she accepted a research project, she vowed, she’d make sure it was some place warm. Like the equator! Right now the tropics sounded like her idea of heaven. She grimaced. Maybe if she wasn’t so focused on her cold solitude, she could concentrate on the report she should be writing.
Instead of writing the year-end project report she needed to present to the corporate bean counter when he arrived next week. She'd spent the last day of her twenty-ninth year staring into the flames of the fireplace and questioning her life. Past, present, and future. Another sigh escaped her. Haley didn’t like the answers she’d found to those life questions. Restless, she tossed her pen aside, too distracted to pretend to work any longer.
Though she’d never been one to celebrate the New Year, or even her birthday, she suddenly wished she were wearing a flashy gold dress and holding a flute of champagne while she danced with a hunky guy, to use Courtney’s words, in a hotel ballroom with other noisy revelers. The hunky guy would definitely be the perfect accessory for such an ensemble.
A wistful smile lifted the corners of her generous mouth as she tried to imagine a tomboy like herself, pony-tailed brown hair and unadorned features, in such a scene. There was as much chance of her appearing in public in a dress like that as there was of her having some sexy guy drooling over her.
Her smile faded. Celebrating New Year’s Eve by running the generator to power her desk lamp until midnight somehow paled in comparison.
"Whoopee!" she muttered. "Some celebration."
A glance at the clock showed only five minutes left until her planned Internet rendezvous with her sister. Haley powered up her laptop. At least Courtney and her mother always remembered her birthday. Her dad? Well, that was another story. She’d learned long ago not to expect him to mention it, even if he did remember the date.
Franklin Gant considered sentimentality cheap and something to be avoided at all costs. No matter how hard Haley had tried to be the daughter her dad seemed to want, even to following in his professional footsteps, he’d never, not even once, said he loved her. The closest he’d ever come was a terse, "Good job, Haley," when she’d received her doctorate in botany at such a young age. Another heavy sigh escaped her lips. Heaven forbid that he should ever send a birthday greeting of any kind.
Resolutely, Haley shoved the lonely thoughts into a corner of her mind as she connected an adaptor to her cell phone and aligned it with the infrared port on the laptop.
A dancing envelope greeted her as soon as she jumped onto the Internet. The familiar strains of the birthday song began when Haley clicked the New Mail icon. Then the words Happy New Year and Happy Birthday undulated across the screen.
"Oh, Sis," Haley whispered through the tightness in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that had threatened all day and gave herself another scolding for being such a weepy female. She could just imagine her father’s scornful expression were he to see her acting like some weak-willed woman.
Suddenly, the laptop beeped shrilly. Haley’s eyes snapped open. "Well, hell!" How could she have forgotten to charge the battery? That was just another symptom of this blasted birthday-induced insanity.
She knew she had only a couple of minutes before the laptop died. She’d be able to read her sister’s message but wouldn’t have time to send a reply back to Courtney who was partying on the deck of her latest boyfriend’s yacht.
Quickly, she scanned Courtney’s email. Midway through, her eyes widened. A frown replaced her fond smile. Aloud she reread the part that sent a chill of apprehension through her.
"Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts. Remember how we talked about that? Well, I decided to send you something you’d always remember.
Haley frowned fiercely at the little symbol meaning grin.
"After all, you only turn thirty once, my genius sister. You can’t send this gift back. At least not right away.
Haley didn’t laugh out loud as that symbol dictated. If anything, her frown deepened into a scowl as she slowly read aloud.
"So try to kick back and enjoy this next year! Oh, and by the way, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And that leaves the field wide open!"
A shrill beep punctuated the last word she read. The laptop screen went black.
"What have you gone and done, Courtney?" she whispered.
Haley sat frozen in her seat, staring at the dead laptop, but her brain raced as she tried to figure out her devious sister’s plot. When Courtney got it into her head to do something, nothing stopped her. Especially not common sense.
A flash of light streaked across the two windows set in the front wall of the cabin. Haley looked up. Headlights. Someone had negotiated the treacherous ruts of what she jokingly called her driveway and turned into the clearing in front of the cabin. Who could possibly be visiting her at this time of the night?
She walked to one of the uncurtained windows and looked out through the falling snow. An all-wheel drive compact car looking rather worse for wear after navigating the old logging road up the mountain idled in the clearing.
Courtney’s words hit her with enough force to knock the breath out of her.
Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts.
Her sister’s idea of memorable could be summed up in one three-letter word. Men. To be more accurate, you could make that two three-letter words. Men. Sex.
"Oh, no. Courtney! Tell me you didn’t!"
Haley opened the front door and gulped a lung full of frigid air.
"If twelve men pile out of that car, I’m going to strangle you, Courtney!***
Jeff Talent rested his forehead on the steering wheel, too exhausted to even cut the engine. Somehow he’d managed to get the slipping and sliding car up the side of the mountain without major mishap. That is, if you didn’t count a flat tire on a thirty-degree slope in the middle of a snowstorm a major mishap!
He’d promised God everything from his firstborn child to his current salary as Vice President of Research for EnviroMed if He’d just get Jeff to this research station in one piece. His prayers had been answered. He’d arrived all in one piece. If you didn’t count the skinned knuckles of his right hand. Skinned was better than frostbitten though.
Jeff flexed his cold hands in the thin leather gloves. He’d been so anxious to get here and confront Gant that he hadn’t taken the time to prepare for this climate. Figuring that anything good enough for New York’s bitter winters would suffice for Montana’s had been his first mistake.
Jeff was more than a little disgruntled. He should be lying on a Mexican beach with a frozen margarita in his hand and beautiful blond Melissa by his side. But the European cartel seemed to have discovered Gant’s research. And beautiful blond Melissa had dumped him for a guy who wanted to be married to her instead of to his job. He didn’t really blame her. In fact, the incident had made him stop and think about his workaholic lifestyle.
He’d built a reputation early and had risen fast in the corporate world through a combination of hard work and leaping up the ladder of success by changing companies each time he was offered a deal too good to turn down. Now, at thirty-two, he was the wonder boy of the pharmaceutical industry. As he’d flown west today, he’d wondered if maybe it was time he slowed down enough to at least catch a whiff of the roses.
Jeff exhaled loudly and turned the ignition key off. Silence rushed in to fill the void. He hadn’t realized how much noise the windshield wipers and the heater, not to mention the straining engine had made. He breathed deep, noting how cold the air inside the car had become in the space of a few moments.
Tropical heat seemed doubly tempting. Too bad he hadn’t gone on to Cancun by himself. Relaxing on the beach might have cured him of the nagging sense of being out of balance with his life. But work had come first. As usual. It had been too long since he’d had a break. As soon as he returned to civilization, he vowed, he’d take that Mexican vacation.
Moonlight glistened on the snow and illuminated the small cabin in the clearing. Light shone through the front windows so Jeff figured Haley Gant was still up. A deep porch protected the front door from the weather. Snow packed the steeply pitched roof and covered most of the ground around the cabin. He caught a whiff of wood smoke and imagined if it were daylight, he’d see smoke curling from the chimney. All in all, it must look like a picture postcard.
"Ready or not, Dr. Gant. Here I come." Somehow, he didn’t think EnviroMed’s resident genius, not a sociable woman according to her file, would be pleased to have her new boss drop in at this time of night, especially a week ahead of schedule. But that was her problem. He was too tired to care whether she liked it or not. His problem was having to deal with the woman before he could form an educated opinion about her research.
Of course, she hadn’t filed a progress report in the last six months. That was clearly against procedure, and he’d been tempted to act on the recommendation he’d received from the president of the company to just cut her loose. After all, her work was sheer speculation at best.
Then he’d learned that the Frenchman was checking out Gant. Never one to believe in coincidence, Jeff had decided, given the lack of reports from her, that he’d take a firsthand look at her research. He just hadn’t known it would require such effort to get from the Big Apple to the Big Sky state.
The light from inside seemed warm and welcoming as it twinkled like a beacon, promising refuge and comfort. Two items he could certainly use tonight. All he wanted were a friendly smile and a warm bed. As he watched, the front door of the cabin opened. A shaft of light split the darkness of the porch and fell weakly onto the fallen snow. Jeff smiled grimly and opened the car door, glad to get the confrontation over with. At least he wouldn't have to pound on her door.
Feeling as if he were scores of years older than his actual age, Jeff grabbed his bag and slammed the car door. Almost as if that were a signal, snow began falling. Surprised, he glanced skyward. A cloud was drifting across the glowing moon. He shrugged. Just his luck.
"Happy New Year, Doctor Gant," he called, aiming for a friendly start to what would probably be a difficult week.
"Hold it right there, mister!"
Surprised, Jeff froze in mid-step.
Haley Gant stepped onto the porch, blocking the light. Her posture was an easily-read portrait of outrage, and her voice menaced as convincingly as any guard dog he’d ever encountered. "You can take your G-string and get back in that car!"
Jeff’s mouth dropped open. His what? "I beg your pardon?" He felt snow landing on his lashes and wondered inanely if his face would freeze in the expression of shock that it probably bore at the moment. He took a cautious step toward the porch.
She jumped to the top step as if to bar his way. "You heard me! Just point that car down the mountain and go back to wherever my sister found you."
He’d traveled to this frozen wilderness only to be met by a mad woman! He fought the urge to throw up his hands in despair. The woman was crazy! She must have cracked under the loneliness of this frozen wilderness. He’d heard that solitude did that to some people.
"I think," he said, trying to speak calmly to the demented woman who barred his way, "that you are confused."
"I'm not confused. You’re not wanted here. And if you try to so much as unzip your pants I’ll get my shotgun."
"What?" Jeff stared at her in shock. He didn’t know how to respond to a statement like that. Was Haley Gant afraid that he’d try something with her? Something sexual, judging by the tenor of her commands. He didn’t know whether to be outraged or amused.
Finally, the last thing she’d said penetrated. Did the unbalanced woman really have a shotgun?
"Dr. Gant, I certainly didn’t come here expecting anything like, uh. like that!" Jeff was at a loss as to how to reassure the woman. Nothing like this situation had ever arisen in his career. Dr. Gant must have an inflated opinion of her sex appeal. Or he was right the first time. She was completely demented. He’d bet on that explanation, he decided.
Too tired to stand out in the cold discussing her old maid paranoia any longer, he squared his shoulders and took another step toward her. She took a step backward which somewhat reassured him. Unless she was going for her shotgun.
Jeff continued advancing. To his considerable relief, she retreated.
The light from the cabin slashed across his face as he continued up the steps. "I assure you I’m only here for one thing. Maybe I’m a little early, but I know a message was sent to you alerting you to my visit. Right?"
She nodded in agreement but didn’t say a word. When she continued gaping silently at him, Jeff continued, "It’s awfully cold out here, Dr. Gant. In fact, I think I’ve lost the feeling in my feet." He grinned. "That’s more truth than a joke, by the way." He stamped his feet to emphasize his words.
Her eyes glanced down at his feet. Her lips curled in derision, but she didn’t say anything.
"I know what you’re thinking," Jeff said with a self-deprecating smile. "And you’re right. Only a city boy would wear street shoes to the frozen wilderness." He caught the glimmer of a smile before she suppressed it. "The shoes are my second mistake today. Anyway, doctor, I’ve traveled a very long way to see you. Do you think we could step inside and discuss this?"
"I guess that would be okay," she said grudgingly.
Jeff gave a sigh of relief and hurried forward. He had one foot on the porch when she added, "But don’t get any ideas about stripping."
Jeff stumbled over his own feet. He grabbed the porch railing to save himself. “I promise you, Dr. Gant, taking my clothes off is the last thing on my mind.”
Why hadn't someone told him the company's resident genius was a sex-obsessed nut case?
Haley backed toward the open door, keeping her eyes on the man. Wow, she couldn’t help but think. Courtney sure knew how to pick ‘em.
It was as if her sister had tapped into Haley’s brain and had then gone out and found the perfect man for Haley. Where had her sister found him? He was exactly the kind of guy Haley had fantasized about earlier. He’d look perfectly at ease with a glass of champagne in his hand and a beautiful woman on his arm, she decided as she stepped back inside her little cabin. She gripped the doorknob hard as he brushed past her and stumbled inside.
A soft sigh of regret escaped Haley. In the real world, a woman like her would never have a chance with a man like him. Having Courtney send her this guy as a birthday present was as close as she would ever get to her fantasy.
She closed the door behind him. With her foot, she pushed the rolled up towels back against the bottom edge of the door to block the cold drafts that sneaked under.
"Ahhh, heat," her unexpected guest moaned and rushed toward the stone hearth.
Haley watched as he jerked off black leather gloves that appeared better-suited for driving an expensive sports car than for trekking through a Montana night. From his gloves to his wingtip shoes, he was a city slicker for sure, but, oh, was he appealing!
Just look at him. Tall, tanned, and more attractive than any man has a right to be. Haley sniffed gently, trying not to be obvious in her attempt to get a good whiff of his musky aftershave. Everything about him made her pulse accelerate. Her hands shook nearly as much as the strong hands he held out to the fire.
Her gaze sharpened. She gasped. His poor hands. Besides being red from the cold, the knuckles of his right hand were skinned badly. Bruising was already evident around the injury.
Her sympathy effectively banished her bemusement. That hand had to hurt. "Your hand looks bad. I’ve got a first aid kit. Let me get it." She rushed to the small alcove that served as a bedroom, glad to have a few minutes away from his disturbing presence so she could collect her thoughts.
A patchwork curtain with round rings suspended from an iron rod fixed to the ceiling could be pulled to close off the sleeping alcove from the main room of the cabin. Haley had never drawn the curtain before. Now she did.
Exhaling loudly in relief, she pressed her hand to her racing heart and sank onto the bed. The old springs creaked. Haley winced and her cheeks flamed at the uncharacteristic erotic thought that popped into her scholarly head. She pressed her cold palms against her hot cheeks, trying to subdue the heat that seemed to have taken possession of her as soon as Courtney’s stripper had stepped out of the cold and into her cabin.
* * *
Jeff gazed around the cabin. Wow! Pretty spartan accommodations. The interior had exposed logs and was nothing more than one large room with a curtained alcove at one end, a small kitchen at the other, and the so-called living room in the center. The cabin, originally built by the Forestry Service back in the fifties, had been used for various environmental projects through the years but didn’t appear to have been upgraded in any way. EnviroMed held a one year lease on it just for Gant.
Jeff was surprised she hadn’t complained loudly and often about the place. Every woman he knew would have turned up her nose at staying a night here much less a year. He’d have to do something about this.
Gant was gone for so long that he began to wonder if she’d sneaked out a back door hidden behind the curtain. "Dr. Gant? Are you coming back out?"
Haley started. His voice seemed overly loud in her quiet cabin. "Yes. Just a minute. I couldn’t remember where I put the first aid kit," she lied, grabbing the metal box from its place next to her few toiletries on top of the chest of drawers. She took another deep breath to steady her rioting nerves and shoved the curtain back.
With quick strides, Haley crossed to the small blue sofa in front of the fireplace and sat. "Come here so I can take care of your hand."
Without a word, he sank onto the sofa next to her.
She grasped his hand. Her pulse leaped. She made a big show of tilting it and peered at it from every angle. "How’d you do this?"
"Changing a tire. The jack slipped."
"You mean you had a flat?"
"Hey, you really are a genius.”
His tone of voice was so dry and amused that she took no offense. "Very funny," she said mildly. "I hope that flat happened before you hit the logging road."
"Don’t hope too hard," he said dryly, flexing his hand.
Haley shuddered. Her respect for his persistence in getting there rose several degrees. "You have had quite a night. Why that’s got to be nearly a thirty-degree slope." She opened the kit and removed gauze, adhesive tape, and iodine.
"Nothing nearly about it. It’s thirty degrees or my name’s not–," He bounced off the sofa as if it were a trampoline. "Whoa! Wait just a minute, doc!"
Haley frowned up at him. "What’s the matter?"
"That’s iodine." He shook his head and backed toward the fireplace. "No way are you pouring that on these raw knuckles."
"Why not? What’s wrong with it?"
"That stuff burns like fire!"
Haley rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "It may sting a little," she agreed, "but you need some antiseptic on those scrapes, and this is all I’ve got. Don’t be so childish," she scolded. “My dad used this on me all the time when I was a kid.”
"Hey, I like being childish." He smiled at her. Haley blinked. It was as if the sun had suddenly emerged from behind a cloud.
"Dr. Gant. Haley, if I may?" At her nod, he continued, "I think it’s safe to say any self-respecting bacteria in this state is hibernating for the winter."
When Haley realized he was trying to charm her out of using the iodine, she couldn’t help but grin widely. "Don’t be ridiculous. You might know dancing, but you don’t know anything about microbes. They never hibernate."
"Dancing? What’s that got to do with anything?"
"No offense intended. I’m not making any judgments about your choice of occupation. Now be still and let me tend that hand."
"My choice of occupation?" he echoed.
He seemed genuinely puzzled so Haley took advantage of his scattered focus. She reached out and grabbed his hand, intending to pull him down to the couch, but his fingers curled around hers. Something seemed to rush through her. Startled at the intensity of feeling, she looked up. Their eyes locked. His dark eyes gazed back at her with unabashed interest. Slowly, he settled onto the sofa next to her.
Haley forgot what they’d been talking about. Still holding his hand, she laid it across her knees, too conscious now of his closeness. Carefully, she sprinkled iodine on a gauze square. Her hands shook. She risked a glance at him from the corner of her eye. He didn’t seem to notice anything unusual.
Gently, she cleaned the wound, stroking softly along the length of each tanned finger. When he gasped, she paused and looked into his eyes. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"
"No," Jeff murmured. She hadn’t hurt him, but her touch unsettled him in unexpected ways. Suddenly, he could smell the subtle scent she wore. It teased his senses and made him feel restless and something he didn’t want to dwell on..
"That’s a nice perfume you’re wearing," he murmured.
She turned and stared deeply into his eyes. "It’s just soap," she said. She sounded as breathless as he suddenly felt.
In the soft lamplight, he couldn’t determine if her eyes were blue or gray. For some strange reason, knowing what color they were seemed very important.
A log shifted and fell in the fireplace, startling him. A minute passed, sixty seconds suspended in time in which his senses heightened. He swore he could hear the drum beat of his blood through his veins. It seemed to grow louder and stronger as he became intensely aware of the smell of simple soap on her skin.
Jeff noticed how creamy, perfect, and soft her skin looked. Was it as silky as it looked? Her hands were gentle on his. The sweep of long dark lashes against the ivory perfection of her cheek fascinated him. She looked up. Her eyes opened wide then quickly her gaze dropped to his hand. A soft blush colored her face. Had she practiced that or was it innocently provocative?
"There," she said, carefully taping a folded gauze pad across his knuckles.
Jeff realized he’d been staring so intently at her face that he hadn’t realized she’d finished doctoring his hand. He flexed his fingers. "You did a good job."
"And it didn’t hurt, did it?" she asked gently, smiling up into his eyes. "At least not much."
When he grinned his agreement, Haley noticed how the right side of his mouth lifted a little higher than the left. Enchanted by his crooked smile, Haley gazed at his lips. He had a truly exceptional mouth, she decided. Full, sensuous lips complemented the hard planes of his face rather than detracting from his virile good looks. Haley stared dreamily at his lips. She leaned toward him just a fraction.
Horrified, Haley realized she was fantasizing about kissing her unwelcome guest. She’d often been accused of having a wild imagination, but this was more than wild. It was insane. She leaped from the sofa.
"Let me just put this away," she babbled. "I won’t be but a minute." She practically ran to the alcove and yanked the patchwork curtain closed. Her heart beat so loud she was afraid her handsome visitor would hear it.
Haley tried deep breathing again as she returned the first aid kit to the top of the chest.
Mentally, she scolded herself. Get control of yourself, Haley Gant! You’re a scientist. A no-nonsense woman! Not some soft-hearted female full of romantic notions. With that bit of advice ringing in her ears, she opened the curtain and stepped out.
She found him looking at her. His smile made her pulse throb in unexpected parts of her anatomy. And that thought brought an unwelcome blush to her face. With her hands clasped, she squeezed hard, hoping to camouflage their sudden tremor. What on earth was wrong with her?
"Your hand should be fine." She hoped she didn’t sound as breathless to him as she did to her own ears.
"You’re not a medical doctor too, are you?" he asked.
Haley laughed nervously. "No. Not at all."
Desperate to have something to do, she hurried to the tiny kitchen and grabbed the dish cloth, wetting it with water from a gallon plastic jug. As if it were the most important task in the world, she began wiping down the white enameled steel top of the table that served as a kitchen counter.
"Goodness, when you spend as much time as I do in isolated research stations, you have to know a good bit about everything. Especially first aid," she babbled.
"Yeah, I imagine it’s a problem getting a doctor to make a house call out here."
"I haven’t had anyone except the park ranger drop by since the snow began." Haley rubbed the old enamel top as if she were going to make it shine like new.
"Isn’t that kind of a lonely existence?"
Haley stopped her vigorous rubbing of the table. "Lonely?"
"Yeah. I mean, don’t you miss people? Family? Boyfriends?"
She blushed crimson but didn’t reply. Boyfriends? Her? She could have told him she’d never had a boyfriend because she’d been too busy trying to win her father’s love by becoming the world’s greatest botanist, but she shrank from revealing such vulnerability to a stranger. Instead, she shrugged and turned her attention to the two-burner propane hot plate, wiping it down as if her life depended on getting it to shine.
"Hey! Take it easy." He laughed. "You’re going to rub the steel from that if you keep on applying the elbow grease."
Haley laughed nervously. "You’ll have to excuse me. I’m expecting the new corporate bean counter next week. I want to make a good impression." She stepped away from the stove and ran the wet cloth over the surface of the small pine table where she ate her solitary meals.
"Corporate bean counter?" he repeated, frowning.
"Yes. You know the type. The kind of guy who sleeps with a calculator clutched in his ink-stained fingers."
"I take it you don’t like, uh, bean-counters very much."
"Those people make my life miserable. They nit-pick every expense report.” She waved her hand around the spartan cabin. “As if I’m blowing all the company money on a luxury hotel." She shrugged and folded the wet cloth over the edge of the plastic dishpan in the dry sink. "I’ve found the only way to handle them is to not file any reports until the project is over."
"Oh, really? That’s very interesting."
Haley waved away his comment and turned her attention to arranging the half-dozen metal cups in the small wall shelf above the counter. That shelf served as a cabinet for the few dishes provided with the cabin. When she had exhausted that task, she went to the larger wall shelf that held her food supplies.
"You’re not going to alphabetize that, are you?" her visitor asked.
Haley reddened and said with a huff, "Of course not. I was just trying to see if I need to make out a shopping list for my next trip to town." She’d run out of pretend domestic chores and didn’t know what to do next.
"I hate to bother you, but do you have anything hot to drink?"
She brightened. Relieved, she said, "Great idea. Why don’t I make some coffee? That’ll warm you up from the inside out. Just what you need before you leave."
"You sure sound anxious to get rid of me." He yawned, too tired to get in an argument about when he’d depart. "But coffee sounds good." He stretched his long legs out toward the fire, but didn’t bother removing the heavy black overcoat he wore. The events of the last twenty-four hours were catching up to him with a vengeance.
"I’ll just sit here and defrost. That is, if you don’t mind?"
"I don’t mind at all. No problem." Haley grabbed the blue granite-wear percolator and poured water in it from the plastic jug. Thankful to have something to do, she took longer than necessary to prepare the pot.
The mundane task relaxed her. She found herself humming an off-key rendition of one of Shania Twain’s upbeat songs. Bemused, Haley realized the stranger had chased away her birthday blues.
After she placed the percolator on one of the burners, she said, "Say, mister?”
When she got no response, she turned and walked over to the couch. He was sound asleep. Watching him, she felt the oddest sensation. She didn’t understand why she pulled a colorful crocheted afghan from the back of the sofa and spread it over his legs instead of waking and sending him packing.
There was no harm in letting him take a short nap, she rationalized. He certainly looked as if he needed it.
Smothering a yawn, Haley glanced at her wind-up clock on the desk behind the couch and realized dawn was just a few hours away. She was officially thirty years old and had survived the indignity without a thought once the man had entered her life. The new year had begun. This man had entered her life, bringing more excitement than she’d experienced in a long time.
Musing on the unusual events since midnight, Haley settled on the other end of the short sofa and indulged her desire to scrutinize her guest. He was tall. She imagined her five feet eight inches would put the top of her head right below his chin.
Fashionably styled dark hair, what everyone called the GQ look, made her wonder how it would feel to her touch. Well-built and sexy, he was a hunk by any woman’s definition, she decided. How much had it cost Courtney to send him out to the wilds of Montana?
That was something about Courtney. She never counted the pennies. Too bad the gesture was wasted. Haley would never have the nerve to let him do some sexy, alluring strip for her. Still, she could dream.
Smiling sleepily, she yawned. She needed to close her eyes, just for a minute or two. She’d wake her sexy visitor in an hour, give him some coffee, and send her birthday present, unwrapped, so to speak, back to civilization.
* * *
Haley didn’t know if it was the smell of burned coffee or the sound of the rising wind that woke her. Maybe it was the warmth of the man she was snuggled against that set off her mental alarm. She leapt to her feet and tottered dizzily for a moment as she tried to get her bearings.
With a muttered comment on her lack of intelligence, she rushed to the stove and turned off the burner.
The smell of boiled coffee hung in the cabin. Her nose wrinkled. That was bad enough, but what really disturbed her was the sound of the storm that battered the cabin. She had let the fire die down, and the temperature must have dropped at least ten degrees. Haley shivered and rushed to stoke up the fire. Then she hurried to look out the front window.
Her worst fears were confirmed. The storm, obviously stronger than predicted, had arrived. "No. It can’t be!"
"What’s the matter?" Her guest muttered sleepily.
Haley turned. For a moment, she’d forgotten about him. Oh, no! He made matters even worse!
He shook off the red coverlet and stretched. Unwittingly, she stared at his long-limbed action. She swallowed hard. He seemed alert and refreshed after his nap. And looked unbelievably desirable. Reflexively, her hands reached up to smooth the hair that straggled from her pony tail and hung in her face.
"Are you all right?" Concern shadowed his eyes.
Haley shook her head vigorously. "No," she said starkly. "I’m not all right. And neither are you."
"You’re not making any sense, doctor. What’s wrong?"
"Everything." Gloomily, she pointed dramatically to the windows. "Just look."
He stood and walked over. Peering out, he frowned. "Where’s my car?"
"Take my word for it, it’s still out there. Somewhere."
"But I can’t see it." He cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed close to the window. His frown intensified. "In fact, I can’t see anything." He stepped over to the door and unbolted it.
"No! Don’t do that," Haley cried, but she was too late. A stinging barrage of icy snow slammed into the room. The burst of fresh air made sparks whoosh up the chimney.
With a breathless curse, he put his shoulder against the door and succeeded in closing it. "What’s happening?" His tone plainly said whatever it was, was her fault.
"I’d say we’re having our first storm of the new year. We are--." Haley broke off. She couldn’t voice the word aloud.
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