This Time Together

This Time Together - Gillian Doyle

This Time Together

 

He would rather lose his life to a hangman’s noose than lose the woman he loves.

“A fascinating, captivating time-travel to steal romance reader’s hearts.” 
4½ Stars TOP PICK! – RT Book Reviews

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN a present-day lady lawyer wakes up in an 1890s mountain cabin with a grizzly-faced recluse, then learns she is there to defend him against a murder charge?

Entertainment lawyer KATHERINE MARSHALL views the whole idea of time-travel as pure Hollywood escapism, but she figures the only solution to her bizarre predicament is to right a century-old mistake: the hanging of an innocent man.

FLYNT AVERY, a student of ancient Indian mysticism, finds himself believing in the claims of this fascinating woman he calls Kate—that she has somehow come from another time. But when he learns that his acquittal means she will return to her life in 1992, Flynt would rather lose his life to a hangman’s noose than lose the woman he loves.

Re-issue. Previously published by Jove.

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Reviews:

Jill Marie Landis: “Outstanding! THIS TIME TOGETHER is the perfect blend of romance, adventure and magic.”

Rendezvous Reviews: “It kept me spellbound. This author knows how to combine the paranormal, history, fiery passion and romance to produce a first rate novel. I loved it.”

RT Book Reviews: THIS TIME TOGETHER is sensuous and heart-rending…The reader will not be disappointed as Ms. Liepitz weaves a fascinating, captivating time-travel to steal romance reader’s hearts…”

Excerpt:

Chapter 1

MARCH 27, 1996

CASCADE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

The dream still haunted her.

In the early morning hours, Katherine had awakened in her motel room, still aware of the distinct aroma of meat roasting in its juices. Such virtual reality in her sleep was a new and strange experience for her. Perhaps her longing for a simpler time had stirred her imagination. It made sense. What didn’t make sense was the very real smell of cooked meat.

Not that she believed dreams had any prophetic value. On the contrary, she viewed them more as mental scrapbooks with familiar faces and the surroundings of everyday life. Usually they were so uneventful that she rarely, if ever, recalled them in the morning.

Until now.

Sitting alone in a booth near the door of the diner, she held the white stoneware mug with a two-fisted grip, staring out the plate-glass window toward a highway overpass that blocked the view of the snow-crested Mt. Shasta. Even though the caffeine had cleared the cobwebs of sleep from Katherine’s brain, it couldn’t clear her head of the peculiar dream. She dropped her head a bit and rubbed the back of her neck. These few days of rest would do her good. If nothing else, it might erase the disturbing dream from her mind.

“Need some aspirin?” asked the waitress as she delivered the heaping breakfast plate, placing it next to the empty mug.

Katherine glanced at the spreading puddle of melted butter on top of the English muffin, dribbling down the sides like gravy over a slice of roast….The dream again. Why wouldn’t it go away?

When the question about aspirin finally registered in her brain, Katherine looked up at the waitress. “That’s thoughtful of you, but more coffee will do just fine.”

The blond girl shrugged it off with a smile and turned to leave, then hesitated. “Are you a model?”

Startled by the question, Katherine resisted the urge to laugh at the absurdity of such an assumption. Fast approaching thirty, she had clients who would have smirked at the idea of their attorney prancing down a runway or mugging for the camera.

“Actually, I’m an attorney.” She held back the rest—that she was an attorney in the entertainment industry with her own talent agency. The girl would probably start to audition, she thought wryly, then chastised herself for putting this waitress in the same league with the starving actresses who served tables at restaurants near the big studios.

“Lost that bet,” sighed the blond.

“I take it you don’t lose very often.”

“Nope.” She gestured at the crowded roadside cafe. “We get a lot of tourists stoppin’ here. But they’re pretty much average-lookin’ people. Now as soon as we saw you gettin’ out of that Lexus out there, Hank—he’s the one at the grill— says that you’re an actress. But I told him, “Naw, she’s got to be a model.”

Katherine let her pancakes get cold. The small-town friendliness of her talkative waitress was simply too charming to ignore. Maybe she’d leave a couple extra dollars on the table to offset the lost bet. Then suspicion leapt into her thoughts, condemning the girl for suckering another tourist for a big tip.

Mentally shoving aside the cynical attitude that seemed to pop into her head a lot these days, she extended her appreciation for the compliment, adding, “I hope you didn’t bet your paycheck.”

“Worse—I’ve gotta fork over my recipe for blackberry cobbler.” The girl laughed, shaking her head. “With the way you’re dressed, I figured it was a sure bet.”

After a quick glance around at the jeans and cotton shirts, Katherine noticed the stark contrast of her boxy linen jacket and long gauze skirt. Accustomed to the eclectic fashion of Los Angeles, she belatedly realized her own casual tastes translated a bit differently in this rural environment. The fascinating thing was that the girl was so refreshingly candid about it.

“Orders up, Jan,” Hank-the-grill-guy hollered over the murmur of multiple conversations by the dining customers.

“Comin’!” The waitress scribbled on her order pad, ripped off the page and laid it on the table. “You just passin’ through then?”

“Actually…” Katherine had started to say yes but the word seemed caught in her throat. “I think I’ll stay a few days.”

Now that she’d said it, she didn’t think it sounded like such a crazy notion. After all, she had no destination in mind. No deadlines. No meetings. This tiny railroad town in the mountains of Northern California was as good a place as any to spend some time rethinking her life.

“There’s not a whole lot to see around here,” Jan explained with the apologetic tone of a country kid who dreamed of big-city excitement. “But if you’re into history stuff, you can check out the fountain up the road. And there’s the museum down in town. Of course, you can stop and ask just about anybody for directions…” Her words trailed off behind her as she hurried toward the plates of food waiting for her attention.

After Katherine squared her bill at the Hitching Post Restaurant, she checked out the fountain, then drove south on Dunsmuir Avenue until she located the museum in the heart of town.

Losing all track of time among the memorabilia, the lawyer in her perked up at a yellowed newspaper headline: WRONG MAN HANGED FOR MURDER. Curiosity drew her eye to the finer print. It seemed the poor guy turned out to be an eccentric millionaire from San Francisco who lived as a recluse south of town. The real murderer was discovered after the innocent man was strung up.

Bureaucratic bumbling never changes, Katherine thought to herself as she left the museum.

She walked the length and breadth of the historic business district—a short stroll, to say the least. Nestled in a deep canyon, Dunsmuir appeared to have seen better days when the railroad first laid tracks along the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Only the Rostel brick building remained from a fire that had destroyed most of the original main street down by the train depot. Yet small retail shops had revitalized some of the older stores. Nowadays, the bank and a few stores and bars lined the original “Back Street” up the hill from the tracks, creating a new main thoroughfare. As time passed, the town boundaries pushed outward in the only two directions possible—north and south—until Dunsmuir resembled the long, narrow ribbon of water running along its length.

By early afternoon, Katherine had learned just about everything imaginable of the town’s one-hundred-plus years. After a brief lunch stop in a converted railroad car, she drove past the granite spires of Castle Crags, choosing an old highway road rather than the four-lane freeway carved high into the west wall of the canyon.

Savoring the scent of pine and the sound of the rushing river somewhere beyond her sight, Katherine hooked her elbow lazily on the open window frame—a luxury she never indulged while driving alone in the city.

Turn here.

Startled, Katherine hit the brakes. Her seatbelt locked across her chest. Had she actually heard the command? She couldn’t be sure. To her left was a dirt road just like a dozen others she’d passed, most of which had been blocked by rusty chains with pockmarked metal signs. Scanning the knee-high weeds and blossoming berry bushes, she couldn’t see any posted warning of private property.

Curiosity prodded her to turn the steering wheel. She wouldn’t go far. Just a few feet. That’s all. After a quick look, she could easily back her car out and be on her way.

The front end of her Lexus dipped slightly as the wheels crossed from the asphalt into the shallow ruts worn into the dirt. Satisfying her curiosity may not have been the wisest decision she could’ve made, especially if it meant bottoming out her car or scratching the white finish on thick brambles at the edge of the road. But the sedan cleared the center hump between the ruts with no problem. Same for the thorny bushes. The sound of the rushing water grew louder, tempting her to venture further than she’d intended. She continued until the road dead-ended at a breathtaking view of the river and the bank beyond.

In the shade of tall pine trees, Katherine stood at the crest of a slope above the muddy bank, allowing the sounds and scents to rush over her like white water frothing over the rocks and boulders. The raw beauty was a soothing change from the rush-hour congestion of L.A. freeways, which is where she would have been at that moment had it not been for her sudden need to put her life on hold, to simply take off for parts unknown. To run away. Granted, this was probably the most spontaneous thing she’d done in her entire life. But she was long overdue for some much-needed soul searching. At least that was the excuse she’d given her partners when she’d call them from a rest stop outside of Fresno. Neither of them asked her reasons why. They both knew.

Katherine chose her footing carefully as she worked her way down the embankment, which was covered in dead oak leaves and pine needles. Her suede boots and filmy gauze skirt were the furthest thing from rock-climbing attire in her wardrobe. But her impulsive departure on her way to work yesterday morning had kept her from returning to her condo for a suitcase full of clothes. For once, reliable, predictable Katherine had done something…well, spontaneous. Any needs that arose could be solved with any one of a dozen credit cards. And at the end of a few days, she would head home—hopefully with some answers.

Eyeing the muddy bank, she dropped her bulky purse at the foot of a thick tree trunk. After slipping off her jacket, folding it and placing it on top of her purse, she sat down on the makeshift perch and removed her boots. Using a little ingenuity, she reached between her knees, grabbed the back hem of her skirt and tucked it in at the waist in front. Though the effect made her look a bit like an Italian grape-stomper, it would be sufficient to keep the wispy material from dragging in the mud.

As Katherine ventured down the embankment, pebbles in the wet soil dug into the tender soles of her feet. Years of cushioned shoes had softened the tough skin from her days on the sandy beaches along the Southern California shores. Now she was forced to step gingerly, cursing her cushy lifestyle until she reached the water’s edge. Choosing a large, smooth rock that was partially submerged, she sat down on the sun-warmed granite and plunked both feet into the river.

With a gasp, she yanked her knees to her chest. Despite the warm spring weather of late March, the water was colder than ice itself. Dangling her toes in a refreshing mountain stream certainly wasn’t anywhere near as appealing as she’d imagined.

Nothing in your life has ever turned out like you had imagined, taunted a now-familiar voice in her head. The voice hadn’t always harassed her. But after her marriage soured two years earlier, and a couple of legal deals turned ugly, she had felt as if her usual optimism were slipping through her fingers like sand. No matter how hard she tried to regain her positive perspective, the cynical voice intervened. It had seemed like a losing battle.

Until two days ago.

As she rubbed the chill from her toes, the sound of a train coming up the canyon distracted her. She heard the echo of the lonely whistle growing louder as the diesel engines came into view on the other side of the river. The rhythmic clatter of the wheels rolling over the rails lulled her. The rush of water mesmerized her.

Memories of her two business partners, Sunni and Michael, drifted into her mind. Except for a few years after college, the three childhood buddies had been inseparable. Katherine had spent those few years in a rocky marriage to a fellow lawyer who was eager to climb the ladder to the Hollywood high-wire acts. She, however, had been content to join her Aunt Lillian’s talent agency as a contract specialist. When her aunt died in the midst of the ugly divorce, Katherine nearly lost the Meridian Talent Agency to her ex-husband until her two friends signed on as her partners. Both Michael and Sunni proved to be savvy agents in their own right, leaving the legal paperwork to Katherine. Things had been looking pretty good until Michael dropped a bomb two days earlier. With the same flippant attitude he displayed under every circumstance, he’d asked Katherine to marry him.

“And ruin a perfectly good friendship?”

“We’d make a great team.”

“At the office, yes.”

“I mean in the bedroom,” he had answered, in a quiet sincerity that replaced his jovial tone. Katherine loved Michael like a brother. Next to Sunni, he was her best friend. When she’d sworn off the male species after her divorce, Michael playfully fretted about changing his sex to meet her newly established criteria for friendship.

Imagining Michael as her lover was damn near impossible. To be fair, she herself wasn’t exactly seductive temptress material, based on her own limited experience. The thought of being intimate with a man again scared the hell out of her. And yet, Michael wasn’t just any man. Maybe she was looking at this all wrong. The one reason why she kept turning him down might be the one reason why she should give him a chance. Could best friends make the best of lovers?

Still lost in the memory of that afternoon, Katherine stared at the end of the train as it disappeared up the grade. Once more, the disappointment of Michael’s kiss enveloped her. In a way, she wanted to believe that a marriage between them would be as great as their friendship and business partnership. Falling in love with Michael would solve the complicated game of finding Mr. Right. But that romantic spark just wasn’t there.

Asking him for a few days to decide, Katherine later dreaded going to the office the following morning, imagining awkward glances and tight smiles. Halfway to Century City, she realized she couldn’t work alongside Michael, knowing that he was waiting for her to accept his proposal. Within moments, she maneuvered her Lexus to the nearest off-ramp and rerouted herself back to the northbound lanes of Interstate 5. She didn’t stop until she was outside of Fresno, and only then to make that quick phone call so Michael and Sunni wouldn’t worry. Afterward, she drove to the point of exhaustion, forcing herself to pull up to the motor lodge in Dunsmuir.

Now the midaftemoon sun descended toward the western rim of the deep canyon. Rays of light pierced the treetops like brilliant theatrical spotlights focused on the narrow, fast-running river. The sparkling water seemed to dance with life. Mist from the rapids downriver reflected tiny rainbows of color, capturing Katherine’s interest. She felt as if one blink would make the beautiful illusion disappear.

She imagined herself living here in these mountains, away from the crowded streets and city crime. Away from the nameless neighbors and high-powered Hollywood deals. What would it have been like to live a hundred years ago in some tiny mountain town, where life was centered on the town hall and quilting bees? If she had been the girl next door and Michael had been the boy who used to dip her pigtails in the inkwell, Katherine would have undoubtedly stepped up to the altar of some rustic little church without any of her present-day turmoil of doubt and experimental kisses.

With a sigh born of wishful fantasies that could never be, Katherine stepped off the rock onto the muddy bank. Her self-imposed solitude by the river seemed to stir up more longings in her imagination than she cared to entertain. She’d come here to contemplate her future, certainly not dream of the past.

Dream. The word had become a nemesis. Maybe this silent reflection wasn’t a good choice after all. She’d been better off distracted by the tourist-type sightseeing in town. Determined to steer her mind into a more productive direction, Katherine marched up the bank to where she’d left her boots and jacket, and put them on. Releasing the hem of her skirt, she let it drop into place.

A sudden breeze cut through her thin jacket. Rubbing her arms at the sudden chill, she glanced up from the darkening canyon to the pale blue sky. An eagle caught her eye. A magnificent bald eagle, its wings spread wide, soared high above in the air currents, then dipped into a graceful circular descent. She watched, fascinated at the bold swoop of the white-crested bird as it passed only a few feet above the white water and landed on the boulder she’d been sitting on. She remained still, trying not to make a sound that might scare it off. Moments ticked by while the eagle perched motionless on the rock, poised like an exquisite sculpture carved in marble. Then slowly his white head pivoted.

Yellow eyes looked directly at her. She held her breath. The air grew colder. Her skin prickled with goosebumps. A rustle in a bush startled her. She glanced at the noise. It was a gray squirrel scurrying up the trunk of an oak tree. When she glanced back at the boulder, the bald eagle was gone.

The temperature seemed to be dropping steadily by the second, reminding her why she chose the warmer climate of Los Angeles. Mountain weather was too unpredictable for her tastes. She grabbed her black purse from the ground and hooked the strap over her shoulder, then started back up the slope.

When she reached the top, she paused for one last look at the river and saw that the bald eagle had returned to the rock below. He cocked his head. She gave a single nod to say good-bye, then turned back toward her car.

And stopped.

Six feet in front of her stood a luminescent apparition of a young woman in a dress of beaded white leather. Katherine’s heart pounded wildly as she noticed the faint outline of trees beyond the translucent image. Her gaze locked onto beseeching, dark eyes. The girl lifted her arms, her palms upturned as if beckoning Katherine.

The air grew cold as ice. One by one, tiny snowflakes began to drift out of nowhere, floating around and through the vision of the young Native American girl.

It’s another dream, Katherine told herself, unable to force her muscles to move. I’m tired and stressed out. That’s all. This can’t really be happening.

The woman slowly closed the distance between them. Katherine remained rooted to her spot. She looked down at the small hands reaching out but not quite touching her sleeves. She saw perfect crystal snowflakes settle on her jacket. In the silence, she lifted her gaze and suddenly understood the plea in the girl’s eyes.

“I—I can’t go with you,” she barely managed to whisper, surprised by the eerie echo of her words. A shiver rippled through her, setting her teeth to chattering. She clenched her jaw shut. An icy wind swirled around them.

She had to get away. Panic goaded her legs to finally move. Stepping back, she realized her mistake as her body fell over the lip of the riverbank in a strange sort of slow motion. The impact with the ground knocked the wind out of her as she slid, head first, down the needle-slick hillside.

Not the water. Please let me stop before I hit the water.

MARCH 27, 1892

 

Flynt Avery heard a woman’s scream as he stepped off the abandoned train. His horse, Sasti, spooked, tugging nervously on the reins looped over the iron handrail. Though the snow-locked canyon was silent now, save for the rush of water below, he was certain the cry came from the opposite bank. Hampered by the falling snow of the late-season storm, he could not even see the steam engine beyond the next railway car, let alone a few hundred feet across the river. With a touch of his gloved hand, he calmed Sasti, then swung himself into the saddle.

As his horse labored over the familiar mountain terrain, Flynt allowed Sasti to find footing, confident in the animal’s instincts. Had this been December or January, the flurries would have dusted the winter pack with a light powder. But the late-season warmth had created a wet, burdensome snow, hampering the animal’s progress.

Deep snowdrifts and raging water doubled the time it would have normally taken to ford the river, already swollen from the first spring thaw. By the time Flynt caught sight of the woman lying face down at the bottom of the bank, he held little hope of finding her alive.

Leaving Sasti on higher ground, he waded through thigh-high drifts, working his way down the steep slope. Snowflakes had already accumulated on the woman’s clothing, shrouding her in white. Her head and shoulders lay in the shallow waters. The only movement was her long dark hair floating in the ripple of the current. As he carefully lifted her limp body and turned her over in his arms, he glanced from the ghastly blood-washed bump on her forehead to the smooth granite stone in the water. It seemed the rock on which she’d hit her head had also saved her from drowning. Yet he had no indication that the blow itself had not caused irreparable harm.

Mindful of further injuries, Flynt moved back from the water’s edge and lowered the woman onto the snow. Kneeling at her side, he gently packed a handful of snow on her forehead to stem the flow of blood and bring the swelling down. If the gods were with her, she would have only a nasty bruise and a devil of a headache. But that remained to be seen. He dropped his gloves to the ground and withdrew a clean handkerchief from inside his fur cloak. Careful not to disturb the lump of snow, he smoothed a strand of wet hair from her cheek, inspecting for broken bones.

His gaze traveled over the sable hair framing her delicate features. She appeared to have the face of an angel if not for the garish cosmetics. Unnatural shades of brown powder colored her eyelids. Evidence of painted lashes had left a black smudge beneath each eye. And with full lips a curious shade of dark pink, she looked every bit a whore, though the strange costume was more of a gypsy.

Forcing his mind back to her present needs, he lightly grasped her arms to check for injuries, cautiously pressing his fingertips through the sleeves of a jacket far too large to be called her own. The soiled pink cotton had absorbed a great deal of dampness from the snow and river, darkening it to the shade of her lips. Soft, inviting lips. His gut knotted. With a mental reprimand, he continued his inspection, working his way down to her wrists and hands. His brow furrowed at her torn and broken fingernails, all the more grotesque from the strange red paint on them.

A slight moan escaped her lips, though she didn’t move.

“You have taken quite a fall, ma’am,” he told her, in the event she could hear him. “As soon as I determine nothing is broken, I will take you in out of this cold.”

He quickly finished his careful survey, pressing her ribs lightly with his palms as her breasts rose and fell in a reassuring rhythm. If a rib had broken inward and punctured a lung, she’d certainly have shown signs of distress, he assumed.

With the blank canvas of white snow beneath her, the outline of her black stockings were easily discernible through a skirt that was more like a gossamer underslip of purple and green and black. The odd attire was potently disturbing if not absolutely scandalous. He worked his fingers down thighs that should not have aroused him. Or at least he should not have allowed it. But his body betrayed him.

A few inches below her knee, the supple leather of her boots made it unnecessary to remove them to inspect her slender calves and ankles. Confident there were no broken bones in need of a splint, Flynt retrieved the blanket roll from his saddle and returned to her side.

Though there was little wind, the snowstorm hadn’t let up. If anything, it seemed to have worsened during the time it had taken to minister to the unconscious woman. In the few moments he had spent away from her, freshly fallen snowflakes had dusted her lashes, melting as they settled on her skin. He brushed the packed snow from her forehead, hoping he still had time to get her into town.

Lifting her once more into his arms and carrying her up the embankment to where Sasti waited, Flynt mulled over the fate of the strange woman he’d found across the river from the abandoned train. Once again, the snowdrifts on the rails had made the steep grade impassable. No doubt, the station in Dunsmuir had been alerted by the delayed train and volunteers had come in search of it. Yet by the time Flynt came upon the Oregon-bound train, any sign of the passengers’ footprints had been long since covered by the snow. As he mounted up and settled the woman across his lap, he pondered one question—how could she have crossed the swollen river without being swept downstream? All practical explanations escaped him while time passed slowly in his arduous struggle against the mounting snowstorm.

Flynt gazed down at the woman he carried in his arms. In addition to his own size, her weight made the journey all the more difficult. His horse struggled with each step. To reach his cabin was all he could ask of the animal. Continuing the extra distance into town would be sheer cruelty. He had no choice but to take the mysterious lady home with him.

*  *  *

The scent of wood smoke and cooked meat tugged Katherine from her contented sleep. Regretfully, a fascinating dream faded from her mind. Something about a man…and snow, of all things. He had wrapped her in something to ward off the chill, then picked her up and carried her. Cradled like a baby, she drifted in and out to a gentle rocking motion. Trying to recapture the fantasy, she turned on her side to snuggle further down into her bed.

Intense pain slammed into her temple. Where the headache had come from was not as important as how fast she could grope to the bathroom for some aspirin. As she cautiously opened her eyes, the unmistakable flickering light of fire seeped through the haze of pain and the hangover of sleep.

Her condo was on fire!

She gripped the bedcovers to throw them aside, then gasped, startled by the soft, thick fur beneath her fingers. This wasn’t her bed. And this wasn’t her condo.

Determined to wake herself from this nightmare, Katherine squeezed her eyes shut. In the dark void behind closed eyelids, her mind grasped for some small memory, only to see bits and pieces of a river. A squirrel. Falling. Fear. Then blackness. She reached up and pressed her fingers to her temples to try to block the pain. Discovering the outrageously large lump above her eyes didn’t come as a surprise. But could it be causing her to actually hallucinate?

“Of course,” she breathed, content to settle on any explanation—rational or not. No doubt she was in an emergency room imagining all this.

She opened her eyes once more. Despair replaced her small attempt at practical reasoning as her gaze darted around the room. It was anything but a hospital. The fire that had scared the living daylights out of her was safely contained in an enormous stone hearth, where a soot-smudged cookpot hung on a large black bracket. A safe distance from the sparks, her boots sat on the floor. Above them, her muddied pink jacket hung over the back of a chair, apparently drying by the heat of the fire.

The stark reality of her surroundings stirred recollections of her wistful daydream at the riverbank….What would it be like to live a hundred years ago in some tiny mountain town, where life was centered on the town hall and quilting bees? Were those momentary thoughts the source of this delusion? Was she deep in a coma or caught in a drug-induced dream?

The deliciously familiar aroma of food cooking drew a profound complaint from her stomach, further confusing the question of her present state of consciousness. Was this real or imagined?

Another stab of pain urged her to scan the four rustic walls for a bathroom where she could find some aspirin. Nothing. She groaned, which made her head pound all the harder. With one objective in mind, she put off worrying about how or why she’d ended up in a cabin that didn’t even sport indoor plumbing. All she wanted at the moment was to take care of an urgent need for something to ease the torture.

Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to muscle aside the animal pelt and drop her feet off the edge of the bed, a bed she realized was nothing more than four shaved logs, some rope and a mattress that looked more like a huge flat sack stuffed with God only knew what. As she pushed her hair out of her eyes, her fingers caught in the damp, snarled ends. She stared at her toes, which barely touched the dirt-packed floor. Whoever had brought her here had the good graces to leave her clothed and otherwise unharmed, she realized, sending up a quick prayer of gratitude that she’d not become another statistic for a newspaper headline.

She hoisted herself out of the sagging mattress. The effort made her woozy. Steadying herself, she braced one hand on the flattened top of the bedpost, her fingers curled over the edge. When some degree of lucidness returned, she shuffled to the chair where she was forced to pause once more as her surroundings blurred from the agony inside her head. Stinging tears pooled behind her eyes. If only she could find….

A muffled thump drew her attention around to the door.

Its thick wooden bar was the width of her arm and twice as long, clearly strong enough to keep out any intruders. Just as she’d convinced herself of her safety, the bar lifted and the door opened.

A brilliant white light pierced the room like a laser. Katherine stumbled backward, shielding her eyes with her hands.

 

Chapter 2

With his back to the reflective glare of sun and snow, Flynt paused in the doorway while his eyes adapted to the shadowy interior. From the manner in which his guest retreated, she appeared to be as startled by his sudden arrival as he was surprised to discover her awake and standing barefoot—and dangerously appealing—in the middle of his cabin.

“Ma’am,” he greeted with a nod, then stepped inside. With practiced agility, he balanced the firewood in his arms, kicked the door shut and set the bar. When he turned around, he saw for a brief instant the image of his wife before he realized it was only his eyes playing tricks on him. Little Deer had been gone for eight years, and no woman had set foot inside his cabin since. Until now. It was reasonable to expect a moment of confusion, he rationalized. Even still, it disturbed him.

“I promise I will not bite,” he grumbled, making his way past her in the narrow space between her and the chair. “There is no need for you to be afraid.”

“I’m not.” But when he accidentally bumped the table and upset a mug, she took another step away from him. “Who are you? And what am I doing here?”

The soft huskiness of her voice should not have made him think of sultry nights and warm bodies. Not here. Perhaps in the city. In his hotel room overlooking the bay where he could be with a woman without being haunted by the memories of his wife. Facing those same memories now in the primitive surroundings of the log walls and dirt floor, he felt guilty about the way his body involuntarily responded to this mysterious lady.

“Flynt is the name and you are here because I found you lying face down in the river.” Kneeling next to the flat stones of the outer hearth, he stacked the firewood, careful to shake the snow off each log. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her inch forward to the only source of heat in the room. “My question to you, ma’am, is—who are you and how in blue blazes did you manage to get yourself on the other side of the river?”

“Why didn’t you take me into town?” she asked, clearly evading his inquiry.

“Too far. I found you about a mile from here,” he explained without looking up from his task. Snowflakes fell from his fur cloak to the floor around his feet and melted into the packed soil. “With this storm blowing in as it did, you should consider yourself lucky anyone found you at all.”

He looked up to see her staring into the firelight, her ashen features softened in the glow of yellow and gold. Her contemplative gaze fell upon him for a moment and he saw a flicker of vulnerability before she looked away.

“I don’t consider myself lucky to be holed up with Grizzly Adams.”

“Avery,” he corrected. “Flynt Avery.”

“Mr. Avery,” she amended in a weary tone, “I fail to see anything good about waking up in a stranger’s cabin that doesn’t even have indoor plumbing—especially when there’s a full-blown blizzard outside, though God knows where it came from.” Katherine tried to focus past the pain. During client interviews at the agency she was a master at reading people. But now it was impossible to see through this bearded mountain man with the deceptively genteel British accent. She shook her head, then winced. Her hand darted to her forehead. As she swayed, Avery shot to his feet and grabbed her shoulders to steady her.

“Don’t—” Katherine rasped. Her fingers sank into the deep brown fur of his coat as she tried to push away. “Please…I’m okay. Really.”

“It does not appear that way to me.” The quiet concern of his voice seemed as out of place as his regal accent.

She was not accustomed to looking up to men—figuratively or physically. But she guessed this Englishman was at least six foot six, perhaps more. Another startling discovery was the color of his eyes. Though she didn’t expect beady black eyes glowering at her from beneath the fur hood, she wasn’t quite prepared to see deep blue eyes. Gentle eyes. The realization was unsettling.

“I appreciate your concern.” Moving out of his reach and gripping the back of the nearby chair, Katherine slowly lowered herself onto the wooden seat as she bit back the pain. “I…can manage.”

“Are you certain?”

She only nodded, rubbing her temple, cautious of the tender lump at her hairline. When her rescuer walked briskly toward the door, she couldn’t hold back a feeling of panic. Being secluded in the cabin with the stranger was not the best of circumstances, but it was a damn sight better than being left alone to helplessly battle this mother of all headaches.

“Where are you going?” she demanded, anxiously perched on the edge of the chair.

His head snapped around. “Nowhere in this storm.” He sounded agitated with her domineering tone. Yet his expression softened as if he saw the fear she tried so hard to hide. “Worst bloody snowfall in years, coming this late as it did.”

Stopping behind the closed door, he shrugged out of the long overcoat, revealing dark blond hair that fell well below the broad shoulders of a navy blue flannel shirt. Hair that looked too soft, too touchable for the bearded giant. Catching her misguided thoughts, Katherine sternly warned herself that this man was still a stranger, still potentially dangerous.

“There was no sign of a storm when I was at the river,” she pointed out, realizing that her bewilderment sounded more like an accusation against Avery’s credibility.

Coat in hand, he glanced back at her with a puzzled frown. “Blew in quick.”

“I didn’t mean to imply you were lying.” Uncomfortable under his glare of scrutiny, she resisted the urge to squirm in her seat like a scolded child. Instead, she averted her gaze toward the divided window pane and the steady snowfall outside. “Obviously it’s not an illusion, though for the life of me I wish it was.”

“Fair to say that it nearly was ‘for the life of you’.” Gripping the shoulders of the long coat, he reached up and hooked the collar on a high peg beside the door. His buttoned cuffs strained at his wrists, tugging the full sleeves taut along generous biceps. The shirt yoke cut a horizontal line beneath his upraised arms, marking the width of his shoulders with breathtaking clarity. Below the seam, generous gathers in the dark cloth were pulled into long vertical ridges by the snug fit of his belted jeans.

Her gaze followed him to the hearth where he used an iron poker to swing the hanging kettle away from the fire.

From the thousands of publicity glossies that passed through her hands at the agency, Katherine sensed that Flynt Avery had more income potential in the fashion or entertainment industry than any model or actor on her client list. He was undeniably well proportioned for someone of his size. No lanky arms and legs. Except for bumping into the table earlier, he didn’t appear to be the least bit awkward. On the contrary, he moved with a fluid elegance that conveyed a natural ease in his body.

Her professional appraisal shifted to a sudden awareness of her clammy palms and tingling skin. Refusing to believe she was experiencing her own primal response, she blamed her sweaty hands and goosebumps on her exposure to the freezing water. The only rational explanation she could accept was an out-of-whack internal thermostat.

“There is a bit more stew in this pot than I’ll be able to eat,” Avery stated flatly, snatching a couple of faded rags from one of several iron hooks pounded into the thick wood mantel. She watched him set the kettle lid aside. Steam curled upward, floating away into the stone chimney.

“It smells wonderful,” she lied, certain her opinion would have been different if a knot of nausea hadn’t lodged in her throat. “But I’ll pass.”

As Flynt stirred his supper he pondered the deathly pale woman who seemed as odd as her exotic clothing. The inflections in her voice were distinctly different than any he had heard in San Francisco or among the mountain folk. Despite her occasional sharp remark or question, there was a bit of a lazy quality to her speech pattern that smoothed her words like hot buttered rum.

He peeked over his shoulder at the strange woman with her elbows propped on his table. She’d bowed her head as she massaged both temples, her face concealed by the curtain of her long damp hair. She had been quick to demand answers, yet not as forthcoming with a response to his own questions. The only explanation that made any sense to him was that her memory had been affected by the blow to her head.

“You need food in your stomach if you expect to feel better.” Flynt rose to his feet and walked past the table.

“I’m not very hungry.”

“Nonsense.”

Without looking up, Katherine heard a clatter of wooden bowls at the sideboard, then the muffled thump of his footsteps on the dirt floor. A hiss and sizzle from the fire accompanied the dull clunk of metal upon metal.

She forced her eyes open as he set the wooden bowl in front of her, along with a large soup spoon. He scooped up the overturned mug from the table, then grabbed another from the array of dishes. After pouring a dipper of water into each from a wooden barrel beneath the workbench, he placed them on the table, dragged a crude stool from out of a dark corner and sat down to eat.

Staring down at the steaming bowl of stew, she felt the moist heat on her face. The aroma triggered a distant memory that wavered just beyond recognition. Her eyes watered, blurring the vision of meat, carrots and potatoes that should have made her stomach grumble from hunger. Instead, she fought the nausea with a difficult swallow. It didn’t help.

Bolting from her chair, she fumbled with the wooden crossbar, yanked open the door and managed a couple of steps before her knees buckled.

*  *  *

When the woman unexpectedly fled the cabin, Flynt nearly choked on a large chunk of venison. As the unmistakable sound of retching came through the unlatched door, he dropped his spoon and charged outside. Seeing her on her hands and knees, he cursed his insensitivity. The minute he had found her up and about, he should have put her back into bed straight away. A blow to the head was serious enough without the added strain of weathering freezing temperatures. It wasn’t any wonder she had been overtaken by dry nausea.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Leave me alone,” she snapped without looking up at him.

“I could be of some assistance.”

Her snow-dusted shoulders shook as if she were laughing to herself. “How about assisting me off this mountain and back to where I belong?”

“This snow is too heavy, too wet. Look what it has done to your clothing in the few moments you’ve been out here. You cannot possibly expect to survive an hour—” Flynt stopped himself when he realized she was caught in the throes of another retching convulsion.

He was torn between leaving her and leaning down to cradle her forehead in his hand. But he had the distinct impression that she would just as soon bite him as let him do anything so merciful. Shaking his head, he went back into the cabin and returned with his mug.

He found her still on her knees but sitting upright with her feet tucked under her. Her head tilted back with her face to the falling snow, as if in divine supplication. The vision of her tore through him once again with memories of another time, another woman. He pushed them aside and offered her the mug.

“Drink this,” he commanded, perhaps more sternly than he’d meant. As she accepted the drink, the brush of her fingers against his declared a silent truce. Short-lived, however. She cast a suspicious eye at the orange-tinged water, then sniffed it and wrinkled her nose.

“It smells like rotten eggs.”

“It is exactly what you need to calm your stomach,” he assured her.

She took one sip and spat into the snow, spilling the soda water from the mug. Frantically, she scooped up a handful of snow and wiped it on her tongue like a bar of soap on a washboard.

“Is this your idea of a joke? I’m dying here and you hand me sulfuric acid to help me on my way.”

The idea was tempting, Flynt mused, suppressing a smile. Her caustic tongue could cause even the most tolerant of men to contemplate such extreme measures. “It happens to be mineral water from the soda springs.”

“It’s certainly not Evian.”

“No…it is Ay-ver-ee. Flynt Avery.” Flynt was baffled by her inexplicable reason to discuss his name.

She stopped, stared ahead for a moment, then squinted up at him, studying him with the most perplexed expression. “I know your name.

“Then you have me at a distinct disadvantage,” he prompted, yet she offered no name—first, last or otherwise.

When she started to push herself to stand, he silently extended his hand. Merely a reflex of his gentlemanly upbringing, he told himself, refusing to make more of it.

She stared at his hand disdainfully as if it were a centipede, then looked up at him and deliberately shunned his offer by plopping the mug into his palm. Though it would have been easier to accept his help, she struggled to her feet, then offered him a self-satisfied smirk. At the doorway, however, she paused and turned her head to one side. Without looking directly at him, she addressed him over her shoulder.

“Katherine,” she said with a quiet dignity that matched her aristocratic profile. “Katherine Marshall.”

After she stepped out of sight he puzzled over the half-dressed dark-haired woman he’d carried home from the river. The name of Katherine seemed more suitable to a stiff-postured, tightly laced governess. Hardly the description of his unexpected guest. No, she was far more like a strong-willed Kate.

*  *  *

Katherine went over to the hearth and placed a stick of wood on the glowing embers. If Avery had a lick of sense, he’d take a hike until she was done fuming over that mug of foul-tasting mineral water. He was probably standing outside right now having a great laugh at her expense.

She jabbed the burning log with the iron poker, wishing she were venting her frustration on the man himself. It didn’t help. Still, if she were forced to admit it, the effervescence of the soda water had cleaned the repulsive aftertaste of nausea from her mouth.

She heard Avery enter the cabin. Keeping her back to him, she squatted and sat on her heels with her arms wrapped around her knees. An involuntary shiver shook her from head to toe. Suffering in silence, she tightened her grip around her legs to stave off the chill.

“It will not do your health a bit of good to stay in those dirty, wet clothes,” he commented casually. “Would you care to take them off?”

Katherine craned her neck around so Avery could get a clear look at her not-on-your-life glare.

“I’m fine, thank you.” But another shiver betrayed her, bringing a disbelieving arch to his thick eyebrows.

“I cannot fathom which it is that clouds your good judgment—pride or ignorance.”

“Neither, I assure you.” Katherine turned back to stare at the growing flames, refusing to say more that would draw her into his argument. She wasn’t about to defend her good judgment to Flynt Avery. His opinion meant nothing to her.

“Very well.” She heard him settle down at the table behind her and continue his interrupted meal. “Your supper is still waiting for you, if you choose to eat.”

Considering his preference for sulfur-scented mineral water, Katherine grew skeptical of his stewed concoction of meat and vegetables. There was no guarantee that this man knew anything about wilderness survival. For all she knew, he could be a British refugee from a heavy metal band with nothing more than passing knowledge from old Disney episodes of Daniel Boone.

The chilly dampness on the back of her damp skirt and blouse prompted her to turn her back to the fire. Her head still pounding, she watched in agonizing silence as Avery ate with surprisingly good manners, given the Neanderthal image she had of him. Averting her eyes from the sight of food, she dropped her gaze to her cold toes. The feet of her pantyhose were wet from her trip outside and now muddied from the dirt floor. Resigning herself to the discomfort, she tried to take a deep, relaxing breath but managed only a shaky, shallow one. Her second try was a little more successful.

“Something isn’t right, Mr. Avery.”

“Flynt,” he corrected again. “And I could not agree more.”

“I don’t know anything about concussions but I think I need a doctor.” Keeping her head down, she stole a glance to gauge his reaction. “You don’t have to take me all the way into town. If I can just get back to my car, I’ll take myself….” Her words drifted off as she watched those blue eyes narrow.

“Too easy to get lost,” he said after swallowing, impatience laced in his words. “Besides, it will do no good to return to an empty train, I assure you.”

Train?! Katherine’s stomach muscles tightened. “I don’t want to return to a train—empty or otherwise. I wasn’t even traveling on Amtrak.”

He looked at her as if she had rocks in her head. “What, may I ask, is an…’Amtrak’?”

In her experience as an attorney in the industry, she’d developed an instinct for hard-edged tactics when challenged. One hell of a headache didn’t exactly sweeten her demeanor, either. She didn’t bother to hide her sarcasm as she explained, “Amtrak…you know that long, silver passenger train with a big diesel engine.”

“You must mean a steam engine.”

He was dead serious. Katherine felt the blood drain from her face. Her head pounded harder. Her heart slammed against her rib cage.

“It may take several days before the storm clears and the tracks are opened. But I think I can deliver you to the depot in plenty of time to continue your journey. In the meantime, I am afraid you have no choice but to tolerate my hospitality and limited cooking skills.”

“I don’t have a few days,” she said emphatically, marching up to the table. The sudden move brought another intense wave of pain and nausea. She braced both palms on the smooth wooden surface and formed her words through clenched teeth.

“If you won’t take me, I’ll hike to town if I have to.” And find a sane human being to help me.

“Not in this storm,” Flynt answered distractedly, leaning across the narrow table. Taking her chin in his hand, he turned her head so the firelight illuminated most of her face. If she had appeared pale earlier, she was now undeniably white as the blanket of snow outside his door. Virtually clean of her superficial cosmetics, she appeared considerably younger than when he’d first found her. Smooth skin. Long lashes. Slender nose. Lips the color of a dark rose. Her natural beauty was far more alluring than the painted image he had looked upon at the river.

Careful not to bruise her jaw with the firm pressure of his fingertips, Flynt gently coaxed her face toward him. He stared into her eyes, deep green and vulnerable, and felt an overwhelming need to take care of her.

“You are in no condition to go anywhere. From the look of you, I say it is best if you crawled back into bed.”

Katherine batted his hand aside, annoyed as much with his hypnotic mannerisms as with her own lulled response. “How many times do I have to tell you—I’m well enough to travel.”

The man was articulate, she’d give him that. But he was no genius when it came to comprehending her determination to get back to civilization. With each passing moment, she had the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that Avery was intent on keeping her. Preferably in his bed, according to his last comment.

“Point me toward the road. I’ll thumb a ride into Dunsmuir.”

He looked puzzled. “What do you mean by ‘thumb’?” He held up his own, examining it as if it were going to sprout horns.

“Forget it,” she groaned, shoving herself away from the table. One way or another, she was getting out of there. She didn’t have a chance against him if she tried to run from the cabin. First she had to find a way to get outside without him being suspicious of her intention to escape. Lord only knew what she’d do once she got that far.

“What the devil are you doing now, woman?”

“Putting on my boots, Mr. Avery. And as soon as I get my jacket, I’d like you to tell me where I might find a bathroom.”

“If you wish to take a bath,” Flynt informed her dryly, “You need not look for another room—you are standing in it.”

“I don’t want to take a bath, I need to use the bathroom.” She rolled her eyes at his stymied expression. “You know…nature calls.”

“Indeed. I think you must mean—”

“Just tell me where it is, okay?”

“As you wish,” he answered, with as much nonchalance as a butler granting a request for a brandy—which she could use right about now. If not the liquor, at least the bottle so she could knock him out cold and make a run for it.

*  *  *

After being escorted to the one-hole outhouse beyond the stable, Katherine was repulsed by the primitive facilities, yet relieved to discover the obnoxious mountain man had enough decency to build anything at all. It could have been worse, she realized. He could have led her behind a snowbank.

Closeted in the dank wooden box, she banged her elbow, then her head as she struggled with her wet pantyhose and cursed the filmy gauze skirt that wouldn’t cooperate with her efforts. For a few minutes, her bare backside froze while she listened to the muffled squeak of footsteps pacing back and forth in the snow.

Avery may as well have been a prison warden the way he kept watch over her. It looked like her hasty plan to get outside and escape into the woods was destined to fail unless she could think of something. She would have to convince him that she was going to take longer than expected and that he should go back to the cabin.

“Mr. Avery?”

His pacing stopped but he didn’t answer. Perhaps it wasn’t him outside. If he’d walked away during her noisy attempt to undress she wouldn’t have noticed. Then who—or what—had been moving around out there?

“Mr. Avery?” she called out again with a flutter of apprehension in her voice. Still no response. Where was he? Certainly he wouldn’t have left without telling her. He must be close. Close enough to hear her scream and come running.

“Flynt!”

“That is more like it.”

“You’ve been here all along!”

“Guilty.”

“I don’t find your joke very funny.”

“Yes, well…perhaps you could hurry up a bit so we could continue this discussion inside.”

“You can’t hurry these things, Avery. Go on without me. I’ll get back by myself.”

“I would rather not, if you do not mind.”

“I do mind,” Katherine argued, feeling utterly ridiculous talking through the thin walls of an outhouse. “Despite what you might think, I can manage walking thirty feet from here to the cabin without getting lost.”

She held her breath for a moment, hoping he would comply. The silence stretched out until the Englishman finally spoke.

“Very well. But try not to be too much longer.”

The challenge of pulling up her damp pantyhose proved more difficult than taking them off. The more she hurried, the clumsier she got, which only slowed her progress. Finally finished, she stumbled from the outhouse.

Through the white filter of falling snow, she could barely make out the only clear path that led away from the cabin into the dense forest. Gray clouds hovered low, obscuring the top half of the trees. As far as her eyes could see—which wasn’t far—there was nothing but a lumpy, sound-deadening blanket of white. She couldn’t tell a bush from a rock. Despite the ominous weather, she pulled her jacket collar around her neck and followed the parallel line of boot prints.

Pounding headache and all, she had to find her way back to civilization. If she was to get out alive, it would be totally up to her. Michael and Sunni didn’t know she’d spent the night in Dunsmuir, let alone that she’d been taken in by Grizzly Adams. It could be days before her disappearance would be investigated.

At the edge of the clearing, the trail led into the pine trees and dipped to the left, following the steep incline of the mountainside. Above her head, a green canopy of pine boughs had caught much of the current snowfall. But freezing temperatures had left slick patches in the old snowpack. She slipped and slid in her high-heeled boots.

With no other choice but to slow her pace, she managed to gain some traction by digging her heels into the hard-packed snow. Her progress was a joke, as was her stomping, arm-waving duck-waddle down a slope that would be better used as a bobsled trail. Concentrating on her balance was made more difficult by the hammering going on inside her head.

Suddenly a hand grabbed her wrist. She cried out as her feet slipped and her body weight pulled mercilessly against her captured arm. In the next instant, she was whipped back around, then caught about the waist by a strong arm.

This is it. I’m going to die.

 

Chapter 3

With her feet dangling off the ground, Katherine was practically nose to nose with the giant Englishman. From the tip of his blond shaggy beard and bushy mustache to his blue eyes squinting at her in anger, he looked like a golden boy gone bad. A shiver of fear rippled down her spine.

“Put me down!”

To her astonishment, he relaxed his hold and set her down firmly on her feet, bracketing her waist with his massive hands.

“How do I know you will not take off running again?”

“Listen, mister…” Offering him a strained yet polite smile, she removed his hands from her body with exaggerated slowness and carefully lowered his arms to his sides. “I have friends who would not be too happy to learn I’m being held against my own will. In fact, they probably have the local search-and-rescue teams looking for me right now. Why don’t you make it easier on yourself by taking me back to where you found me? I’ll get my car and keep this little misunderstanding to myself.”

“I am afraid I cannot possibly let you go,” he argued in that rhythmic cadence of a Brit. The seemingly sympathetic tone of his voice was almost convincing. But she wasn’t going to buy it. Rescuer or not, the man had no business keeping her in this wilderness.

“It’s not like I don’t appreciate all your help but I think it’s time for me to be moving on.”

Flynt watched the crazy woman mince away from him, convinced that her fear of him drove her to the wild-eyed notion that she’d a better chance of survival in the forest.

Had it not been for the severity of the storm, he would have allowed her to attempt a witless trek through the woods. He still had half a mind to turn his back on the ungracious Katherine Marshall. But he couldn’t stoop to such barbaric indifference—despite his local reputation otherwise.

He shook his head. “Why are you so hell-bent on freezing to death out here?” His arm made a wide sweep to emphasize the frigid wilderness surrounding them. As he watched her eyes flicker with uncertainty, he enjoyed a small amount of satisfaction that he might finally be getting through to her.

“Why can’t you understand that I must get back?” she demanded in exasperation. Dropping her gaze, she pressed her fingertips to her temples, paused for a moment, then tried to rake them back through her hair. When the tangles thwarted her efforts, she dropped her hands. As she lifted her chin in defiance, her eyes appeared filled with renewed determination.

“I can’t stay here. Not in these mountains. Especially not with you.” Her emphatic declaration might have been more successfully executed if she had had a door to slam in his face. As it was, her dramatic departure failed when, in her haste, she spun around in the narrow trench of snow, caught her foot and unceremoniously plopped down on her backside. Given her own height and the three-foot depth of old snow, Katherine looked as though she were seated in a chair. Her scowl said otherwise.

Flynt cocked one eyebrow in silent acknowledgment. Perhaps this latest demonstration of her questionable capabilities would prove his point. Never mind the snow, the precarious trail, the bear or wolf or cougar. Her bullheadedness was going to be the cause of her own undoing.

When she tried to lever herself out of her predicament, he offered his assistance once more. And once more she refused, choosing to stand up on her own accord.

“You are still adamant about continuing,” Flynt stated with controlled politeness.

“Yes.” Her wary gaze told him that no amount of gentlemanly tenderness was going to placate her until the storm passed. For her own safety he was forced to use less mannerly tactics.

“So be it,” he sighed. He made as if to leave, then bent over and grabbed her about the legs. Catching her off guard, he hoisted her onto his shoulder and headed home.

*  *  *

Pounding her fists against the back of his hairy overcoat, Katherine put up the best struggle her limbs would allow, especially after her arm had nearly been yanked from its socket. It was bad enough that he’d slung her over his shoulder like a side of beef, but he also managed to bump every tree bough they walked under, dumping its ice-cold snow onto her upside-down head.

Incensed more than humiliated, she continued to fight him all the way back to his isolated cabin. Futile as it seemed, she refused to give up. She’d make him regret bringing her back. Blizzard or not, she’d make him so miserable that he’d volunteer to dig a snow tunnel through twenty-foot-deep drifts just to get rid of her.

When he dropped her to her feet in the middle of the dim, squalid room, she vented her anger with a slap across his face. His blue eyes registered surprise as his head whipped to one side. The foolishness of her action belatedly entered her mind. For all the good it did her, she may as well have batted the nose of a bear.

Then she saw the small trickle of blood. Oh, Lord—now she’d really done it. Her ragged fingernail had left a tiny scratch just below his left eye.

He kept his disbelieving gaze locked on her while he slowly reached up to touch the cut. She braced herself for the worst. Lowering his gloved hand, he studied the bit of blood on the leather. Her imagination ran amok with frightening images of the man in full rage. Yet he only shook his head and turned away.

Leaving her standing in the middle of the room, he wordlessly removed his coat and hung it by the door, then took a large enamel pan from beneath the trestle table. As he placed utensils into the pan, Katherine grabbed the opportunity to call a truce, however tentative. Her footsteps made no sound on the dirt floor in the three short strides she took to pick up their two wooden bowls from the dining table.

“What should I do with my stew?” She hadn’t meant to sneak up on him. But he practically leaped out of his buckskin boots. Or so it seemed.

His head snapped around with a force that tossed that long hair over his shoulder. Faced with his steely glare and unkempt beard, she immediately erased her earlier image of a muscle-bound model. Her assessment was further confirmed when he gruffly snatched the bowls from her hand with a muttering of reluctant appreciation—a meager attempt at civil behavior, but one that still amazed her. He was a puzzle. A contradiction of himself. One minute gentle, the next rough. One minute talking like some kind of educated Englishman, the next muttering in monosyllables like a caveman. Completely unpredictable.

Perhaps unstable. Possibly even deranged.

The headache that had begun to fade was building once more. She was foolish to forget so easily that she was in one hell of a mess. Giving him plenty of room to work without being in his way, she planted herself in the chair at the far corner of the hearth. Allowing herself to be lulled by the warmth of the fire, she stared at the undulating red glow of the burning logs.

His unintelligible muttering continued as he emptied the cookpot, refilled it with water and swung it back over the fire to heat. Of course, he didn’t have hot and cold running water to wash the dishes, she reminded herself. Only civilized people lived with indoor plumbing. That thought brought to mind the disgusting outhouse. Good Lord, she couldn’t wait for this nightmare to be over.

After a while Avery passed behind her and walked to the back of the shadowy cabin. She heard a click of metal and a thump but she refused to give him the satisfaction of asking what he was up to.

“Gypsy fool,” he groused. His deep voice was barely a whisper, but still audible over the crackle of the fire and occasional hiss of snow falling in through the chimney. “She does not have the foggiest notion of proper dress.”

Katherine imagined he was accustomed to talking to himself, being out here alone and all. He probably wasn’t even aware that his words had been spoken aloud.

“Indeed, she is fine. Just touched.”

Katherine’s mouth dropped open. HE thinks I’M touched? At least I’m not the one talking to myself. She stood up with a ready remark on the tip of her tongue. But when she faced him the words died. In the corner beyond the bed, the mountain man was kneeling in front of an enormous open trunk. Hidden in the shadows, the old battered trunk hardly stood out from the dark log walls. Now, however, the lid was up and colorful pieces of cloth spilled out over its sides and into piles on the ground.

Avery paused, then reached down and lifted something carefully from the trunk. Katherine stepped closer, curious to see what he treated with such reverence. His hands held up a white leather dress, the bodice elaborately decorated with tiny shells and beads. Though similar to ones she’d seen at the Southwest Museum, it looked brand new. Katherine knew very little about Indian artifacts, but she suspected that an authentic dress in such perfect condition was probably worth a lot. Perhaps Flynt Avery was an anthropologist who studied Native Americans. At least that might explain why he was holed up in this isolated cabin.

Then she pushed aside the need to rationalize the man’s behavior. After all, defending the stranger wasn’t going to explain why she was holed up with him. Or how she was going to find her way home. Home. She closed her eyes, fighting off the foreboding tightness in her chest.

Another chill swept down her spine. Rubbing the damp sleeves of her arms, she glanced down at the soggy material, then at Flynt Avery. He was right about one thing—she had to change out of these wet clothes. No matter what her plans were to get home, they wouldn’t do any good if she came down with pneumonia.

“Here we are,” he announced, rising to his feet. She expected to see him turn around with the squaw dress in his hands. What she didn’t expect was the floor-length yellow gingham gown he held out for her inspection. The long straight sleeves were puffed at the shoulders. A hint of lace at the high collar was duplicated in two parallel lines down the front of the wide cotton panel in the bodice, which ended at the gathered skirt.

“You want me to wear that?” Katherine asked incredulously, then realized he was dead serious. With a placating smile, she offered, “Certainly there’s something else in there.”

She stepped around him and surveyed the array of musty clothing, picking up pieces and examining them. There were black wool pants and a matching coat, two slightly yellowed shirts, socks and black leather boots—all of which seemed large enough to fit a man the size of Flynt Avery. She also found a white cotton nightgown, another dress, a lace-up corset and other old-fashioned lingerie, each beautifully detailed with fine stitchery. Unlike movie costumes with Velcro or hidden zippers, these were designed with buttons or ribbons to look every bit like the real thing. Holding a red calico dress to her chest, she rubbed the material between her fingers. It didn’t feel worn out from years of use. Nor rotted from age. It felt crisp and new.

A strange uneasiness came over her.

“Wear that one if you prefer,” Avery suggested, his voice indicating he’d moved away to the fireplace.

Her eyes were glued to the tiny pattern of white daisy bouquets on the crimson background. Goosebumps prickled her skin. Her practical mind rejected the unreasonable anxiety. Her reaction was more likely the result of her headache and dry nausea. Avery probably had a perfectly logical story behind the unusual collection in his trunk. But something kept her from asking. Fear, perhaps. Fear of an answer that would only sound like all the rest of his responses that didn’t make any sense.

“I know beggars can’t be choosers and all that,” Katherine said, turning to face him. “But if I try to squeeze myself into either of these dresses, I know I’ll bust a seam.” Or pass out from lack of oxygen. “And I’d hate to ruin these antiques when they’re in such perfect condition.”

“Antiques?” He gave an indignant snort. “I am afraid that knot on your head has muddled your mind. I purchased that clothing new for—” He cut himself off. “Let us just say that I purchased them new in San Francisco eight years ago.”

New? Eight years ago? So much for the practical explanation. His blue eyes narrowed, warning her that the subject was closed.

“I need to feed the horses,” he informed her, striding over to his coat on the wall. “When I come back I want to see you in that bed or I will strip you down and put you there myself.”

*  *  *

Inside the small enclosed livestock shed several paces behind the cabin, Flynt stroked the snow-white blaze of his chestnut mare, Yola, the Wintun word for snow. She was due to foal this spring. The indifferent sire was his roan, Sasti, feeding on the hay he had put out for the two animals. His hand paused as he stared at the vacant corner where the milk cow had once stood next to his wife’s pony. He’d gotten rid of both eight years ago, two months after Little Deer’s disappearance.

The mare lifted her head beneath his motionless hand. He glanced toward the cabin, wondering if Kate had followed his orders and taken to bed. The image of Little Deer in that same bed tugged at his memory. The first time he’d seen her, she was but a girl of thirteen. The second time, a woman nearing twenty. And the last time she was his wife, carrying their child.

His mind filled with recollections of his fruitless search for her, then his mournful return to London to settle his father’s estate. The events that had unfolded during those few months in ‘84 convinced Flynt that his home was no longer in England. Then, as now, he was drawn back to live in the shadow of Castle Crags. Though he never learned the fate of his wife, he could not say for certain when the pain gave way to resigned acceptance.

There had been a time when he couldn’t bear to gaze upon the clothing that his wife had never seen. Yet the sight of Katherine holding the calico had not been as disturbing as he would have thought. The generous curves of the dress should suit her well, which was more than he could say about her own choice of baggy, mismatched clothing.

Flynt gave Yola one last pat and extinguished the hanging oil lamp as he walked out. Whether Kate was ready or not, he didn’t wish to dawdle while the cold crept into his bones.

The heavy snowfall hadn’t let up. Through the haze of white he could barely make out the curl of smoke rising from the stone chimney and disappearing into the low gray clouds. A week earlier the dogwood had been blooming under the warmth of the spring sunshine. At the time, SnowEagle had passed through on his way to the mineral springs. The Wintu holy man had warned that he saw on the horizon a fierce wind of disharmony. Flynt now wondered if the shaman’s prophetic dream had signaled the coming of the unseasonal blizzard or the discovery of the injured Katherine Marshall.

He touched the cut at his temple. She could certainly be considered a tempest with a wallop. And “disharmony” couldn’t begin to describe the tangled mess of thoughts regarding her. She confused him, angered him, even drew a moment of sympathy from him. But, most assuredly, she aroused him.

And that put him in one hell of a spot.

Especially when that spot happened to be his bed.

*  *  *

Katherine had dropped the dress into the trunk as soon as Avery left, his threat still ringing in her ears. She hadn’t doubted for a second that he would carry it out. As she snatched the man’s pants and shirt from the pile on the floor, she pictured herself in a useless struggle against the brawny mountain man. Fear roiled in her stomach. Her head throbbed. She slipped out of all but her underpants and bra, nervously glanced at the door, then stripped them off as well. The fire did little to ward off the chill quivering through her body. If he walked in now, she was done for.

As quickly as her aching muscles could move, she pulled on the billowy shirt, then the trousers. Though the white cotton shirt was soft and yellowed from wear, the wool of the pants scratched her bare skin. As an afterthought, she grabbed the lady’s drawers and put them on instead. After she tied the drawstring at her waist and lowered the long shirttail, she felt sufficiently covered up. Now if only she had something for her bare feet.

She gathered up her damp clothing, padded across the cool damp dirt and did the best she could to arrange the clothes to dry. Everything but her underwear was muddied to some degree. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. By the time she was done, her bra and panties were hanging over the lip of the open trunk. The blouse lay at one end of the table. Her jacket was hooked over the back of the chair, the chiffon skirt on the bedpost. On the hearth, her boots drooped sadly to one side. And her black pantyhose hung from the mantel like an X-rated Christmas stocking.

Katherine groaned at her results. The inside of the tiny cabin looked like the morning after a wild night of abandon. She hoped it didn’t give Grizzly Adams any ideas. He was wild enough as it was—especially when he wore that woolly mammoth coat. His shaggy beard fit the image, as well. She wrinkled her nose in disgust as she returned to the trunk, pointedly ignoring the bed.

Changing out of her clothes was one thing. But she couldn’t bring herself to obey the second half of Avery’s order. No matter how rotten she felt, she wouldn’t crawl back into his bed. The weather may have given her no choice about staying with him, but she still had a choice about sleeping arrangements. And she wasn’t about to volunteer to buddy up.

Setting her mind to repacking the trunk, she knelt in front of it and scooped out a wad of clothing, dumping it onto the pile on the floor. The last piece lay almost forgotten on the bottom of the trunk. Katherine assumed it was nothing more than a remnant left over from material cut for a shirt. But when she picked it up to refold it, her chest tightened.

The infant gown was only as long as her arm, with six tiny buttons down the front. She clutched it to her breast as her gaze turned toward the door, trying to fit the image of the man who’d stormed out earlier with the image of a tiny baby in the soft white gown. As new as the dresses, it couldn’t have been an old family heirloom. But why did Avery have it in his trunk? Was it for his own child? Katherine pictured the wild and woolly Flynt Avery as a new father, cradling a small bundle in those massive hands.

Impossible. She was unable to fathom the belligerent beast as anything but a male chauvinist who probably looked upon birth control as a woman’s responsibility and babies as a woman’s mistake. From his backwoods lifestyle, she doubted he even knew what “safe sex” meant, let alone practiced it.

The reminder of yet another complicated aspect of searching for the right man brought a sigh of resignation. She considered Michael’s proposal as she held the tiny gown at arm’s length, easily imagining him rocking a baby in his arms. With his gentleness and sense of humor, he’d be a great dad. Marrying Michael would be a sensible decision. But she’d made sensible decisions all her life. Even her early marriage during law school was logical at the time. When their goals had changed, the divorce itself had been a rational choice, despite the ensuing settlement fight.

For once, just once, she’d like to be caught up in the thrill of the moment instead of first weighing the outcome. She folded the white gown and reverently laid it on the bottom of the trunk, relegating her own dreams to the dark recesses of her mind.

As her fingers released the folded material, the back of her hand brushed against something that didn’t feel like soft material. Katherine craned her neck over the lip of the trunk and peered down inside, spotting the long rolled up paper. To reach it, she stood up and leaned in, bracing one hand on the edge.

When Flynt pushed open the door, the last thing he expected to see was the woman’s upturned buttocks clad only in white pantalettes. His first response was lust. Pure and simple. He couldn’t fault himself for a natural male reaction. Nor could he do a damn thing about it—not as long as she would rather claw his eyes out than remain caged with him in this cabin.

“What the bloody hell are you doing?” he demanded as he slammed the door. Kate bounced up like a startled jaybird taking flight. When she pivoted to face him, the gentle movement beneath her shirt caught his eye. Her unbound breasts draped only in the white cloth were nearly his undoing. Clearly the woman had no shame in her half-naked state. His sweeping gaze took in the enticing sight of her scattered clothing around the cabin. Her brazen appearance suggested a woman of seasoned sexual experience.

“I was just putting some things back in the trunk,” she answered defensively—with her hands behind her back, the shirt pulled tighter against her breasts, outlining their fullness.

“It appears as though you put too much back in the trunk. Or am I to assume you plan to wear this…outfit.” He stamped his boots to rid them of snow.

“Your treasure chest isn’t exactly bulging with fleece-lined sweatshirts or stonewashed jeans. These happen to be the only comfortable things I could find.” Like a queen, she squared her shoulders, a gesture that jostled her breasts. When Flynt shook his head and muttered an oath, she glanced down at the focus of his gaze, then raised her head to look him square in the eyes. Her chin tilted up in wordless defiance.

Judging from her silent stance, Flynt couldn’t ascertain whether she was inviting him or warning him. A burning log shifted, sending up a burst of sparks that momentarily brightened the room. She didn’t move. Her breasts rose and fell with each breath.

He cursed himself—and her—as he forced his eyes off her shamelessly half-clothed body, pegged his coat and marched over to the hearth. Whether the fire needed tending or not, he used it as an excuse to keep himself busy. He didn’t want to chance another look at her until he could trust himself not to lose control. Glaring at the sheer black stockings dangling before his eyes didn’t help the ache in his groin. He tried to tell himself that her behavior could very well be the result of the blow to her head. After a good night’s rest, she would no doubt awaken greatly embarrassed by this afternoon encounter.

And if not? If she were truly a whore? Mindful of the misadventures leading up to this moment, he envisioned her enticing him into bed only to scratch his flesh to ribbons. More and more he wished he’d never heard her scream at the river.

Katherine quickly replaced the paper scroll and finished with her own task, thankful that each of them had something to distract them. She’d come a little too close to losing the battle of wills with Flynt Avery. All it took was one jiggle under her shirt and the man practically came unglued. Yet she’d nearly lost it herself when those blue eyes of his locked with hers. For a brief instant, she caught another glimpse of a gentle soul buried beneath that gruff veneer. The image was so fleeting that when the log fell in the fireplace and the firelight lit up his narrowed glare, she was sure the shadows had played tricks on her mind. Convincing her body was another thing altogether as it responded on its own to his heated gaze drifting down the length of her, burning a white-hot trail to the apex of her legs. By the time he’d turned away, her knees were ready to give way. She’d had to grab the nearby bedpost to keep from wobbling.

Now as she slammed each piece of clothing into the trunk, she mentally chided herself, welcoming the throbbing pain in her head as justifiable punishment. How could she have gotten aroused by that grizzly-faced animal? She needed a brain scan. Obviously she’d short-circuited something when she hit that rock in the river.

Katherine took her underwear from the edge of the trunk, closed the lid, then draped the bra and panties over the top. In a natural reflex, she glanced down at her wrist to check the time. Her watch was gone. It was useless to try to remember when the thin leather watchband might have fallen from her arm. She’d been too busy falling down mountains, escaping a Neanderthal and imitating a sack of potatoes over his shoulder!

“What time is it?” she asked automatically as she stood and stretched the kinks out of her legs and back.

“Late afternoon.”

“How late?”

He paused at the long side table where he was working with his back to her, then shot a puzzled look over his shoulder. With a shake of his head, he went back to work. But his answer was loud enough for her to hear.

“It is after noon. When the sun first sets, I call it ‘evening’, after which I find the darkness aptly named ‘night time’. At dawn, it’s ‘morning’. Any more questions?”

“Yes…what time is it?”

He cocked his head as if in contemplation as he looked out the window. “Difficult to judge with this storm,” he finally said as she approached and gazed over his shoulder at the fat white flakes drifting to earth.

“Don’t you own a clock?” she asked in exasperation.

“Why? Are you late for an appointment?”

“I am simply trying to carry on a civilized conversation but I suppose that is asking too much of you.”

“I can be quite civilized…given the proper company.”

She stepped up next to him and planted one hand on the worn wooden side table. “Are you saying I’m not proper?”

As Avery nonchalantly flung the towel over his shoulder, Katherine snapped her head back to avoid being hit. He swung around, leaned one hip against the table and folded his arms over his massive chest.

“I am saying that a proper lady does not prance around in front of a gentleman wearing little else but a gentleman’s shirt and a thin pair of drawers. Unless she wishes to be intimate with him. But I must say that I am more than a bit tempted by your offer.”

 

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