Vivien let out a relieved breath when she saw her grandmother's paved drive. The small, hand-carved sign that proclaimed GRAN'S HOUSE was set atop a waist-high pile of brown stones. Rex Samuels had made that sign, just as he'd made all the others in town. The man was incredible with wood, creating little swirls and dips, lines and curves, even miniature animals when the occasion called. It didn't take much to imagine how his work-roughened hands would feel on her skin. Not much at all.
Absorbing the sensual shiver that rode along her bones, Vivien balanced the cooler in her grip and headed down the gentle slope of the drive. Memories cascaded around her, like ghosts playing out an ever-looping scene. Growing up here, on the edge of town, surrounded by woods and streams, had been close to ideal.
During her teen years, though, she'd gotten restless, as she supposed most teenagers did. When she'd gone off to college, she'd deliberately chosen a school in the big city. But after years away with only visits in between, she'd come right back to Bendan Town to set up her life. Time away had given her a true appreciation of the world she'd come from.
She was smiling when she saw the gracious, old two-story farmhouse sitting incongruously in the middle of nowhere. Its white wood was a bright beacon in the gathering dusk, the traditional red door decorated with a fall wreath, the rockers on the front porch creaking in the growing wind. She was only a few feet away when her grandmother opened the front door and waved. Her cropped white hair stood out in contrast to the blue robe she was wrapped in, and Vivien wrinkled her brow in concern. If Gran was in her robe before nine o'clock, she really must be miserable.
Her slippered feet made a distinct shuffle as she shifted her delicate weight. “Vivi, what in the world are you doing here?”
“Tea and sympathy,” she called back. “I knew you wouldn't feel like doing much more than opening a can of soup for dinner, so I brought you an actual home-cooked meal, plus dessert, and a helping of your own special mint tea.”
Gran grinned as she dabbed at her nose with a tissue. “I should scold you for being out like this, but I'll admit it's nice to see my girl.”
Vivien chuckled while she climbed the brick stairs. “Of course it is. And I wouldn't be this late if my darn car hadn't broken down. That's part of the sympathy.”
The older woman's gently lined face fell into a look of concern. “You should have called someone instead of walking.”
“Yes, well, let's just say I regret switching cell phone carriers.” She linked her arm with her grandmother's and turned her back around. “You should be inside, not--”
Her words were cut short by a feral growl. Before she could see what had made the noise, she was shoved out of the way by a brutally heavy weight. Her head gave a loud smack as it struck the knoll post of the porch, sending a reverberation through her skull and down her spine. She lay stunned for a moment, dizzy as she tried to gather her bearings.
When her grandmother gave a startled cry, Vivien immediately shook her head and sprung to her feet, scanning the porch with blurry eyes. What she saw froze her blood.
A wild dog, dark brown hair standing on end, spindly legs quaking with intent, was stalking her grandmother. Its thin lips were pulled back over its sharp teeth, its long muzzle wrinkled in determination. Before she could panic, Vivien grabbed the cooler and smacked the animal over its head.
“Vivi! Go, run! Get away!” Gran cried.
She didn't have time to argue the point, but she sure as hell was not going to leave her grandmother at the mercy of the dog. She whopped it again, this time smacking the hard container against its rib cage. The beast turned then, its startlingly large body angling itself toward her.
Dark eyes seemed to evaluate her body. For dinner? For attack? It didn't matter. The intent was there. Vivien flexed her knees, preparing to spring in the opposite direction of wherever the animal decided to lunge. It growled again, the guttural sound an ugly echo in her head.
“Gran, go inside and get your gun.”
She didn't look to see if her grandmother was gone. There was no way she was taking her eyes off the dog. She lifted the cooler again, this time using it as a shield. If she thought it would do her any good, she would toss the food out to distract it. But somehow she didn't think it was hungry so much as angry and feral.
If she hadn't been watching so carefully, she wouldn't have seen the subtle shift of the dog's muscles. In that moment she knew Gran was standing in the doorway again. There was only a split second to react.
As the wild dog spun to attack her grandmother, Vivien launched herself. She hurled her body at the animal, wrapping her arms around its middle and yanking backward. She caught it off guard, and it tumbled back on top of her. As they landed, she felt the distinct slice and sting of teeth sinking into the flesh of her forearm. Still, she wouldn't let go.
“I might hit you!”
Damn it. Now what the hell was she supposed to do? Before any sort of plan had even formed, the heavy body was suddenly gone. She found herself staring up at the underside of the porch roof, struggling to catch her breath. Oh God, Gran!
She jumped up, her gaze going to the doorway, and found her grandmother standing there, unmolested, with the shotgun balanced in her arms.
Vivien followed the direction of the older woman's stare. The moment the scene registered, she let out a shocked gasp. Crouched in a fighting stance, his thick arms braced wide as he and the feral animal circled each other, was Rex Samuels. She watched, mesmerized, as the dog leaped into the air. Rex didn't move as the large, lanky body sped toward him. Instead he waited until the last second before lifting his hands and smashing the animal's head between his palms. The blow must have been vicious, because the dog landed with a thump
, whimpering as it shook its head. Rex took advantage of the animal's disorientation and kicked it solidly in the same side she'd smacked. The dog growled, but the sound was more annoyance than fury.
Rex stood and gazed at him, holding the animal's stare with a cold, unreadable look. The dog snuffed and snapped at the air; still Rex didn't move. She had the giddy thought that she might be watching an old western, where the sheriff and the gunfighter stared each other down in the middle of town before they drew their six-shooters. Only this time it was the little old lady on the porch who held the loaded gun. She turned to take the weapon from her grandmother to use herself when she heard the spinning of feet. She quickly turned back, shocked to find the tall beast had spun on its paws and was racing into the thick covering of the woods.
“Oh, my…my dear Lord.” Gran laid a hand on her chest and swallowed. “I've never seen the like.”
“Are you ladies okay?”
Vivien, still dazed and confused, shook her head before nodding. “I think so.”
Rex approached them in a few long strides, his muscled legs taking the steps two at a time. “I was coming through the woods when I heard the commotion.”
Gran gave him a wavering but grateful smile. “I'm so glad you did. I have no idea where that dog came from. We've never had a problem with ferals before.”
“I'm sure it was an aberration.” His warm blue eyes turned to Vivien, and she could have sworn she saw a spark of heat there. “You shouldn't have tangled with him.”
“He was trying to kill my grandmother,” she snapped. “I wasn't going to let him--”
Her sentence was cut short when Rex grabbed her hand. His grip was gentle, but just as she'd suspected, his fingers and palm were tantalizingly rough. Languid flames seemed to curl around her bones, seeping into her system before curling in the pit of her stomach. Desire, she realized with a shock. She hadn't known a single touch could ignite want into something so potent.
“You're hurt.” Rex caught her gaze again, and this time his eyes held accusation. “You let him bite you.”
She didn't know whether to be insulted or laugh. “I let
him bite me? Oh, yes, I held out my arm and said, 'Here Mr. Big Bad Wolf, take a hunk of me.'”
He let out a long sigh, as if he knew his accusation was ridiculous. “You're bleeding.”
Gran gasped and stared down at the injury. “You're going straight to the emergency room, young lady. God only knows what kinds of diseases that rabid animal was carrying. I'll just get my coat.”
“Mrs. Spooner, wait. I have a friend, a doctor, who'll come by if I call him. I think we should get Vivi inside and get the bite cleaned and the bleeding stopped.”
“Oh well, if he'll come, then… Yes, yes, of course. I'll get some towels.”
Vivien found herself being led into her grandmother's house, Rex's gentle hand still on her arm. She didn't think anything short of amputation would make her pull herself away from him. The sudden, wildly exciting feelings were new to her, something she'd never experienced before, and she was sure, something she'd never experience again.
She was quiet as he made his way through the front sitting room, tossed his coat onto the love seat, and turned right into the kitchen. Strange how he didn't ask where he should be going; he simply went, as if he owned the house. Of course, that was how it felt whenever she saw him anywhere. He was the benevolent ruler of the town, allowing the citizens to live on the land that was rightfully his. A silly idea, she supposed, but true just the same.
“You have a head injury.”
His statement brought her up short, leaving her in just the right spot to be hit on the backside by the kitchen's white swinging door. “I do?”
He raised an eyebrow, and the corner of his very sexy mouth lifted. “Yeah, you do.”
Rex flipped up the lever on the kitchen sink, then opened the freezer with his free hand. “Here, take these, put them on the swelling.”
She accepted the pack of frozen peas without a word and placed them on the rising bump with her uninjured hand. She watched as he checked the water, nodded to himself, then carefully pulled her punctured flesh underneath the stream of hot water. She winced as it hit.
“I know it hurts. I'm sorry.” His deep voice was rough with sympathy, but he kept his gaze on the wound. “You shouldn't have been walking in the woods alone, especially at night.”
If it had been anyone else, she might take his comment as an indictment. But the soft words were thick with concern, and she couldn't. “I didn't intend to walk. My car broke down, and since I couldn't get a cell phone signal, I couldn't call anyone to help.”
He gave a curt nod and poured a slow stream of liquid hand soap onto her scored skin. “I saw your car. I figured you were probably walking, since you weren't inside.”
“Oh.” She couldn't think of anything else to say.
His fingers began smoothing the soap over her flesh, and the sensation nearly brought her to her knees. Little circles, over and over, rendering her incoherent. Between his woodsy male scent, the touch of his hand, and the surging adrenaline, her libido was screeching at the top of its lungs. If he decided to toss her down right there on the floor of her grandmother's kitchen and have his way with her, she'd be more than complacent. She'd be a wild participant, ripping his clothes off, tearing her own away.
“Towels.” Gran's worried, efficient voice cut straight through the haze of need. “I'll do that while you phone the doctor.”
Rex kept his eyes on his work when he replied. “I've already got my hands wet. Why don't you go sit down and call Dr. Zeigler for me? Just let him know I asked you to contact him.”
“Oh, oh, all right, then.”
Vivien turned to watch her grandmother as Rex rattled off the number. Somehow he'd known without looking at the older woman that she needed to be off her feet. Her skin was as pale as milk, her hands shaking, her red nose raw, and her eyes still wide with shock. When Gran hurried from the kitchen, Vivien gave his profile a small smile.
“Thank you for that. Sometimes she doesn't want to admit when she needs help.”
Again he gave a quick nod while his fingers worked. “I like your grandmother. Whenever she thinks work might be slow, she always comes up with something for me to do for her. She even slips in free lunches.”
Vivien took a tiny step closer, easing toward his heat. “Gran is a very special lady.”
“So is her granddaughter.”