It was cold. So fucking cold.
He opened his eyes, but he saw…nothing. Groaning, he shifted, because he seemed to be face-down. Yeah…he was doing a face-plant, all right. But where was he? All he could see was snow. No, that wasn’t true; he could see trees laden with snow. And snow banks laden with snow. And snow laden with more fucking snow.
So he was in a forest…with snow. But where? Why?
And who the hell was he?
The name slurred through his ears as if uttered by a drunk man.
Sounded vaguely familiar, he supposed. Reseph. Okay, he could work with that. Especially since no other names popped into his head.
Weakly, he tried to push himself to his knees, but his arms wobbled like rubber, and he kept falling on his face. After four tries, he gave up and just lay there, panting and shivering.
Somewhere overhead, an owl hooted, and a few minutes later, a wolf howled into the growing darkness. Reseph took comfort in the sounds, because they meant he wasn’t alone. Sure, the owl might fly over and shit on him, and the wolf might eat him alive, but at least he’d have company for a little while.
He didn’t know much about himself, but he knew he didn’t like to be alone.
He also did not like snow.
Curious then, how he’d ended up alone in the snow. Had someone abandoned him here? A tremor of anxiety shook his insides as hard as the cold was shaking him on the outside. Surely someone was looking for him.
He held onto that hope as he gradually became aware of a gnawing ache in his bones, accompanied by a stabbing pain in his head. Looked like he was in for a little unconsciousness. Cool. Because right now, he was both freezing and burning up, hurting and numb. It sucked.
Yep, passing out would be a good thing.
Real. Fucking. Good.
Idiot. Dumbass. Meteorological moron.
Jillian Cardiff mentally cursed the meteorologist who screwed the pooch on the timing of this blizzard. She had nothing against weather people; hell, she’d worked with them for years in the FAA. But this…this was ridiculous.
Now she was in a rush to get back to her cabin before visibility went completely to shit and her draft horse, Sam, got testy.
“Come on, boy.” She gave the big sorrel an affectionate slap on the shoulder. “The rest of the firewood can wait.”
Sam followed her, not needing to be led by the rope snapped to his halter. He knew the way home and was as eager as she was to get inside a warm, cozy building. The sled carrying quarter cord of firewood dragged behind him, cutting through the two feet of snow they’d gotten a few days ago. This new storm would probably dump another couple of feet, and by the end of November they’d have more snow than they’d know what to do with.
The wind shrieked like a living thing, and snow blasted her face. Hefting her rifle more securely onto her shoulder, Jillian put her head down and pushed against the gale. Times like this, she really missed Florida. Not that she’d ever go back. Some things you just couldn’t forget.
Like being torn apart by demons.
She shivered, but it had nothing to do with the temperature. She was not going there again. The attack was behind her, and as long as she didn’t watch TV, get on the internet, or look at her scars, she never had to think about it.
A long, mournful howl pierced the late afternoon darkness. Had to be close if she could hear it over the wind. Sam snorted and tossed his head, and she slowed to take the lead rope and give him a pat on his big brown nose.
“It’s okay, buddy. The wolves won’t bother us.” No, wolves generally left humans alone. If anything, cougars were the big concern. In recent weeks, two area hunters had been found torn to pieces, the carnage blamed on the big cats.
She could handle a cougar. What she couldn’t handle was the dark. Demons lurked in the dark.
Abruptly, Sam reared up, a desperate whinny breaking from his big chest. The rope jerked out of Jillian’s hand, and she nearly lost her footing in the icy snow as she scrambled to catch it. Sam’s front hooves hit the ground and his shoulder rammed her, sending her tumbling down an incline. Her yelp cut off as she slammed into a tree trunk.
Pain spiderwebbed around the right side of her rib cage, and ouch, that was going to be tender tomorrow.
“Dammit, Sam,” she muttered, as she crawled back up the snowy slope, pausing to grab the rifle that had been flung into a snowbank.
Sam was snorting, going nuts as he pawed at a snowdrift. Jillian dug ice from places ice shouldn’t be as she clomped through the snow, wondering what in the world had startled Sam and now had him so freaked out.
“You’d better be digging up a pot of gold, you mangy—” She broke off with a startled gasp.
A man…a naked man…his body face-down and covered in a dusting of snow, lay in a messy sprawl just off the trail.
“Oh, my God.” Her hands shook as she stripped off her glove and brushed aside his long, platinum hair to put her fingers to his throat. His skin was icy to the touch, which she expected, but when the steady thump of a pulse bounded against her fingertips, she nearly jumped out of her own skin. He was alive. With a strong pulse. Holy cow, how?
Okay, so…think. She had to get help, but they were in the middle of an intensifying snowstorm, and there was no way off the mountain except by snowmobile. She couldn’t risk that in the storm, and it could take hours to get to the nearest town. He could be dead by then.
Praying this guy wasn’t a serial killer and trying not to think too hard on why he’d be in the mountains, naked, in the winter, she eased Sam up the trail until the sled was alongside the man’s body. As quickly as she could, she heaved the firewood to the other side of the path and tucked the ax into the loop on Sam’s padded harness.
Rolling the man onto the sled was not as easy as she’d hoped. The guy was heavy as a damned boulder and huge. And…handsome. And very, very naked.
“Really?” she muttered to herself. “You’re going to notice how hot he is now?”
Granted, it was impossible not to notice those things, but she still felt a little guilty as she ran her hands over him, checking for injuries. Aside from being unconscious and as frozen as a fish stick, he appeared to be uninjured.
Interesting horse tattoo on his right forearm, though. When she’d skimmed her fingers over it, she swore she’d felt a dim vibration, as if the henna-colored lines pulsed with a mild electrical current. Too bad warmth didn’t ride in on that current, though, because damn, she swore the temperature plummeted twenty degrees in the few minutes it took to check the guy out.
As if Mother Nature had some sort of grudge against her, the biting cold wind picked up even more, and the snow, which she normally loved, became an enemy. It was probably stupid of her, but she stripped off her coat and laid it over the guy, tucking the coat’s sleeves carefully beneath him. The half-dozen shirt layers she was wearing should protect her for a while, as long as they hurried.
“Let’s go, Sammy.” She urged the gelding to move faster than she’d normally like, but nothing about this situation was normal.
She was freezing and exhausted by the time she smelled the smoke from her wood fire, and her eyelashes were crusted with ice by the time she eased Sam up to the rickety porch. The frigid air burned her lungs with each breath as she dragged the man’s dead weight off the sled and then unhitched Sam. She’d remove the harness later. Right now she had to get the man into the house and the horse into the barn.
She ran the thirty yards to the barn and, battling the wind, tugged open the door. Sam trotted inside, but she didn’t bother taking him to his stall. He’d find it on his own.
Too bad getting the man to her bedroom wasn’t nearly as easy as putting up the horse. As a fitness freak who worked a small farm, Jillian wasn’t a wuss, but she thought she might have dislocated something as she dragged Fish Stick across the floor. She spent another ten minutes heaving and straining to lift him onto her bed.
Once he was sprawled out on his back, his broad shoulders taking up an enormous amount of room on the mattress, she cranked the electric blanket to the highest setting and checked his pulse. Still strong. Shouldn’t it be sluggish? She’d taken basic CPR classes as well as Search and Rescue training, and from what she remembered, hypothermia caused a slow, weak pulse. Fish Stick’s couldn’t be more opposite. Steady, surging, and she swore his skin had already pinked up a little.
Leaving the mystery alone for now, she checked the phone, and sure enough, it was dead. Next, she stoked the fire and turned up the electric heat to eighty degrees. She was lucky to have electricity at all, actually. The power kept flickering, and it was probably only a matter of time before it went the way of the phone line.
Ooh, and then she’d be alone, in the dark with no phone, in the middle of nowhere…with a stranger.
This was a horror movie setup. She even had the token small animal to prove the situation was serious and make all the women in the audience worry.
Her Bengal cat, Doodle, watched the activity from his bed in front of the wood stove, unconcerned that there was a strange man in the house. But then, nothing really fazed him. As long as he had food and someone to pet him, he didn’t bother to get excited about much.
“You’re a big help there, buddy.” She shot Doodle a dirty look as she changed into dry sweats and slippers. “I’m going to check on the complete stranger in my bed, but don’t worry about me, okay?”
Doodle blinked his green eyes at her.
Wishing she had a big dog right about now, Jillian slipped into the bedroom. As she entered, Fish Stick sighed and shifted in the bed, just the smallest movement, but enough to give her a bit of hope.
Then his eyes popped open.
Startled, she leaped back, slapping her hand over her mouth. His eyes…God, they were amazing. The lightest shade of blue, and crystal clear, like a shallow glacier. They bored into her, but there was nothing cold about them. The raw heat in them pierced her all the way to her core.
Feeling silly for her overreaction but her legs trembling anyway, she returned to the bedside.
“I’m Jillian. I found you in the woods. You’re going to be okay.” She wasn’t sure if he understood or not, but his eyes closed, and his thickly-muscled chest began to rise and fall in a deep, regular rhythm. His color was good now, and his full lips, once pale and chapped, were a smooth, dusky rose.
What now? Maybe she should get something hot into his stomach. Quietly, she started for the door to put some broth on the stove.
“Hey,” he rasped, his voice a broken whisper. “Did I…hurt you?”
She inhaled sharply and turned, risking a look at him. Once again, his eyes drilled into her, but this time, they seemed to…glow a little.
“No.” She swallowed dryly. “No, you didn’t hurt me.”
His long, golden lashes fluttered down, as if he was satisfied by her answer. But dear God, why would he think he might have hurt her?
Who the hell had she brought into her house?