Joe squinted into the whirling flakes. A bad night to be out driving. He’d passed half a dozen cars off the highway before he’d gotten to the rural route that led to the cabin. Pine trees formed a dark wall beyond the road when the snow let up long enough to see. The windshield wipers could barely keep up, and with the drifting, the Jeep might get high centered. And that would be a disaster. At least he had enough food and supplies to last ten days if he got stuck inside the vehicle. It’d be unpleasant—not to mention a hell of a way to spend Christmas—but he’d survive.
The headlights caught on the reflector post marking the drive, and Joe downshifted. Something was glowing by the side of the road, next to a clump of bushes. Not normal
. There were no lights without generator power, and the only generator for miles was his. In any case, no one had ever installed a lamp down there. What would be the point?
The Jeep rolled to a stop. Joe hoped to hell he didn’t get stuck. He yanked on a heavy watch cap and opened the door. Icy air intruded, filling the Jeep with winter, and he hopped down and slammed the door. The wind whistled through the trees and pushed the snow on the ground. It’d take a couple of seconds to check this out. He waded around the front of the Jeep through the snow. The headlights shone on the oddity, and the hair on his neck stood at attention. A flashlight, half-buried in snow. Next to the light was a black lace-up boot.
Aw, fuck. Not on Christmas. Why are you out here?
Joe knelt next to the figure partially covered in snow and began to dig. A pant leg, then the edge of an army jacket. A hand in a thin rag wool glove. And finally, a face. A young face, motionless, ice crusted over the eyes, nose, and mouth. The guy looked…dead. Joe closed his eyes. Golden hair sticking out of a fire helmet, and soot.
. He opened his eyes and ran his gloved fingertips along the man’s cheek. A knit cap. Ice, not soot. The pale face in front of him was a stranger’s. It’s the holiday, the location preying on you. Shake it off.
Joe shoved his hand down the man’s collar and found a slow and weak carotid pulse. The skin was warmer beneath the clothing. Letting out a steaming breath, Joe sat back on his heels. Not dead, thank God, but unconscious, hypothermic, and possibly frostbitten.
Instinct kicked in. He had the knowledge and skills to save this guy. The snow pummeled him as Joe began scooping the drift off the man. It took a couple of minutes to free the motionless victim from the grip of the blizzard. Joe squatted and threw the man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. The guy couldn’t have gone over one hundred sixty pounds, and lay limp and lifeless. Joe headed for the Jeep, the snow squeaking beneath his boots.
Fighting the wind, Joe opened the back door of the Cherokee, settled the ice man supine on the bench seat, and buckled him in. With the Jeep in gear, Joe headed up the drive. Monstrous drifts threatened to block the way, and he maneuvered around them, avoiding the rough on the sides of the road. If the storm kept up, he’d be snowed in by midnight. Snowed in and not alone.
Merry Christmas and welcome home.
* * * *
Heat surrounded Errol’s body. The surface beneath him was soft, and he couldn’t perceive any light through his eyelids. His hands and feet hurt. He was exhausted and achy. Couldn’t open his eyes. A little more rest…
Something ticked out a muted rhythm, and every click made his head throb. During his nap someone had taken a ball-peen hammer to his head, and his tongue had become glued to the roof of his mouth. Felt like the hangover from hell.
Water. Water would be good. A hint of wood smoke filled Errol’s nose, mixed with a spicier smell—evergreen and clove, like Christmas. He must be dreaming.
The featherweight web of sleep persisted, and he rubbed at his eyes and opened them a crack. Wait a minute
. Where was he?
Well, first of all, warm and cozy in an enormous bed. Not his; not by a long shot. The thing was heaped with sleeping bags and quilts, making the covers weighty. He squinted and peeked under the covers. Naked. The ache behind his eyes intensified as he absorbed his lack of clothing. Yikes.
A dozen feet away, there was a fireplace made of river rock, flanked by bookcases. Banked embers glowed in the hearth, outlining walls made of logs in faint rosy light. A clock ticked on the mantel, the source of the tapping irritating his ears. A sweep of muted plaid framed the dark windows, and snow hissed against the panes, seeking entry. Okay, naked, in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar place. What the—
Something rustled next to him, and he rolled over. A tuft of dark curls stuck up from the covers. Nothing else of his bedmate showed. Holy shit, make that naked next to an unfamiliar body.
Oh, no. No, no, no
. He couldn’t remember doing the sing-o-gram, but maybe he’d had a holiday drink and ended up sleeping with someone at the client’s house? Judging by the way his head felt, he had the mother of all hangovers, and if alcohol had been involved, who knew? Man, he’d be in such deep shit. Pour Vous had a strict no-sex-with-the-clients policy. If he’d broken the rules, Smitty would roast his chestnuts over an open fire and cut him loose. Without a job, he’d be out on the street in a week. He shivered.
Smitty didn’t have to know.
With a deep sigh, the bedmate rolled over, one arm pushing the covers down to the waist. Errol’s eyes widened. Whoops
. Naked, muscular, and male. Dark curly hair, a shadow of beard covering his jaw, and a face like a model. Errol had never really understood the meaning of chiseled features before now, but this met the definition. Yowza.
Wait a minute
. Smitty had said the telegram recipient was a blond woman. This was very definitely not her. So who the hell was this
guy? Had Errol slept with him? Like wild-monkey-sex slept with him?
This had to be some crazy dream. Must be that convenience-store burrito he’d eaten for lunch. Guys like Errol didn’t wake up with guys like this. Errol pinched himself and blinked. The guy was still there.
Errol covered his face with his hands and rubbed his eyes. Opened them. Still there. Must be real. What in the hell was going on? Where was he? What had happened?
A job, out in the sticks. Snowing. Dark. Cold, very cold. No, not snowing, blizzarding—could blizzard be a verb?—and he’d walked away from the Volvo, into the snow, fifty paces. Sixty? At some point, he’d lost count. Walking had tired him out, and he’d stopped to rest.
And that was where the recollection ended: stopping to rest. And now waking up God knew where, to this.
A gust blew down the chimney, fanning the embers to life, and the guy stretched. Errol inched away toward the edge of the mattress. Mountain of a Man yawned, rolled his head on the pillow, and lifted his lids. In the low light, his eyes were as dark as his hair. Lifting up on one elbow, he flashed a boyish smile. “You’re awake.”
He looked awfully happy about that. Did he expect something? Errol swallowed and clutched the covers to his nakedness. “Who are you, and where are my clothes?”
The stranger’s smile faded. “I’m Joe. Your clothes are drying.”
“I dug you out of a snow bank last night. Almost hit you with my Jeep. You were freezing…unconscious, slow heart rate. Hypothermia. So when I got you home”—he waved at the room—“I stripped off your wet clothes and put you in bed. I got in with you to warm you up skin to skin. It was the best way under the circumstances.”
Errol froze. Skin to skin with a naked man. Uh-oh. A setup for potential disaster.
Joe narrowed his eyes. “You okay?”
Heart in his throat, Errol managed a bob of the head. Hopefully his dick had been hypothermic and unconscious too.
“Hang on a minute.” The guy rolled away and got out of the other side of the bed, facing away. Firelight played along his muscles. All of him was magnificent curves and planes: shoulders, back, butt, legs. A couple of inches over six feet tall. Sexy as hell, like a magazine ad come to life.
Joe headed for a door in the corner, pushed it open, and disappeared into another room. Errol glimpsed the edge of a claw-foot tub.
“Wait—how long have I been here?”
“About seven hours. It’s four a.m. on December twenty-third.” Joe emerged wearing a robe tied at the waist and tossed a flannel shirt on the bed next to Errol. “You can wear that for now. Ought to keep you warm. You should stay in bed.”
“I’m awake now.” Staying beneath the covers, Errol shoved his arms through the sleeves of the shirt and did up the buttons. The tails would cover everything important.
“And that’s great. I’m really glad to see you awake, but you need to stay warm.” Joe stood next to the opposite side of the bed, not moving.
Errol cleared his throat. Gran would frown at him for his lack of manners. “Thanks, Joe, for”— cuddling naked
—“warming me up. I’m Errol.”
“Yep, I know.” Joe grinned. “Errol—like the actor Errol Flynn.”
Here we go
. That’s what came of having a mother with a twisted sense of humor. The fancy name his mother had saddled him with had done nothing for his fledgling acting career, that was for damn sure. Laughs and funny looks were the extent of it. “How do you know my name?”
“Your driver’s license. Needed to see who I was taking care of. Errol Lockhart, age twenty-six. Five feet ten inches, 160 pounds, blond hair, blue eyes. Organ donor.” Joe shoved his hands in the pockets of his robe. “Your hair’s longer now, but I was sure it was you.”
Hyperaware, Errol ran a hand over his head. Hairstyling hadn’t survived his personal budget cuts, and it had gotten shaggy. His fingers had a vague burning to them. Holding his hands out, he studied them. Holy cow, they were red.
“Can I check your hands and feet?” Joe asked.
Errol balled his fists against his chest. “Why?”
“You have a touch of frostbite.” Joe ambled over to the couch and chairs by the fireplace. The furniture had the same chubby-nubby look of the stuff Errol’s gran had favored, old and comfortable. A rolled-up rug rested against one wall, unused, leaving the wood floor bare except for dust.
Joe squatted and rummaged in a big duffel bag with some sort of insignia, gathered a few items before returning to Errol and laying them on the bed.
Antibacterial wipes, a jar of hydrating ointment, and a thermometer. Was this guy a nurse or something? Who carried that kind of stuff with them?
“Open wide.” Joe held up the thermometer. “Need to see if you’re warmed up.”
Errol opened his mouth, and Joe popped the thermometer in.
“Hold out your hands.”
Meeting his gaze, Errol complied. Deftly Joe applied the cream, long fingers calloused but kind, running over Errol’s hands. No wedding ring. It had been a while since someone had touched him with kindness, and it felt good, even if it was somewhat clinical. Errol’s toes were next, and Joe squatted as he looked them over.
“A good thing you were wearing boots out there.” Joe stood and cleaned his hands with a wipe. “Your feet look better than your hands. I’ll take the thermometer.”
Errol slid it out of his mouth and handed it over. What would Joe propose if Errol’s temp wasn’t normal? More naked cuddling? Because now that he was awake, two hundred pounds of hunky man wrapped around him might awaken other parts of Errol’s anatomy, and that could get embarrassing.
Or it might piss Joe off, and then what would happen? Errol shivered.
He won’t kick you out. Joe pulled you
out of a snow bank, for God’s sake. He rescued you.
Joe squinted at the numbers and frowned. “Still a bit cold. We need to get some warm fluids in you.”
Joe headed to an L-shaped kitchen in the far corner. The stove was like something out of the last century—four-legged, black cast iron, and chrome accents. It had round lids instead of burners, and a white enamel backsplash with two small doors above. Joe lifted a section of the cooking surface, dropped in some sticks of kindling, and lit them with a match. He filled a teakettle with bottled water and set the pot on the stovetop.
Opposite the kitchen was the fireplace with a couch and chairs, and beyond that a door—presumably the front door, but who knew? The whole place couldn’t be bigger than twenty by twenty. This was pretty much a one-room cabin with a bathroom.
Errol rubbed at his eyes, trying to get with the program. “Where are my clothes?”
“By the fire.” Joe nodded toward a chair next to the hearth and smiled. “Do you always wear a metallic gold thong?”
Heat rushed into Errol’s face. “I was on my way to a job.”
Joe shook his head and opened a cupboard. “Must be some job.”
Errol looked away. “It’s not what it looks like. I’m not a rent boy or a strip-naked stripper or anything like that. I do—did—singing telegrams.” For some reason, he felt the need to make sure Joe didn’t get the wrong impression.
“They made you go out in a blizzard?”
Images flashed of the Volvo rolling to a halt, and the interior cooling as snow gradually covered the windshield with a dull blanket. “No. I volunteered for the job, but on the way there Bessie broke down.”
Eyebrows raised, Joe took a couple of mugs from a cabinet and set them on the counter. “Who’s Bessie?”
“My car. I waited for a while, but there was no traffic. I decided to hoof it. I got cold and tired and stopped to rest. And now, I’m here. Wherever here is.”
“My cabin. I think you must’ve taken a wrong turn on your way to sing your telegram last night, because there’s no one in this neck of the woods.”
“Exactly how far from civilization are we?”
“This time of year, the closest human civilization is twenty-eight miles. It’s mostly vacation homes in this area.”
Errol’s gut tightened. “Do you think you can take me to my car?”
Joe snorted. “Have you looked outside? It’s a blizzard, my friend. A good old-fashioned six-foot-drifts, downed-lines, can’t-leave-the-house blizzard.”
“I can’t stay here.” I don’t know you.
“You don’t really have a choice at this point.”
Maybe he could call for a ride. The highway patrol or a snowplow or something. “Do you have cell service?”
Where the hell was this place? “Internet?”
Leaning against the counter, Joe lowered his chin and gave Errol a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me look before turning back to the stove.
Errol swung his legs out of bed and tugged the shirttails down. His feet hit the floor. His toes were sore, but the floor was unexpectedly warm.
The teapot whistled. Joe took a box of teabags from an open shelf, draped a teabag in each mug, and filled them with steaming water. “Sugar or milk?”
“Sugar, I guess.”
Joe shoveled a quantity into each mug and stirred. He carried the mugs over, offered one to Errol, and sat down next to him on the bed. Joe smelled faintly of wood smoke and pine. Errol blew on the tea and took a sip. Hot, strong, and sweet, just the way he liked it.
“Do you live out here full-time?” Errol asked.
“Nope. I…don’t live in this area.”
“So, is this a summer home or something?”
“Pretty rustic for a summer home, don’t you think?” Joe said it with a wry look and a crooked grin.
“Hunting lodge?” No twenty-point buck mounted over the fireplace, but hey, not everyone went for the dead-deer look, right? In fact, the wall above the mantel was blank. Framed pictures graced the mantel, along with what looked like a collection of vintage toy fire engines. As a kid, Errol had had a modern version of a pumper truck, back when he’d wanted to be a fireman. Back before the acting bug bit.
Joe said, “My great-grandfather built the cabin, mostly as a place to stay when he went fishing up here. In the spring, the lake is full of trout.”
“There’s a lake?” The directions he’d been given hadn’t had a lake.
“Yeah. Are you a fisherman?”
The thought of stringing a squirming worm on a hook, followed by catching a slimy fish…and cleaning it? Fish guts—blech. Errol shuddered, and Joe laughed.
“I’ll take that as a no. Anyway, the place passed to my Gramps and then my dad. And now me.”
“Are you expecting company for the holiday?”
“No.” Joe swirled his mug and stared into its depths, frowning. His hands were large and well formed. They looked strong. “No company.”
Wrong question. Errol shifted on the bed, uncomfortable, sitting there with a stranger while wearing only a flannel shirt. Errol lifted the cup to his lips and downed the rest of the tea. Heat and the heaviness of fatigue spread from his chest out to his fingers and toes
“Hungry?” Joe asked.
“Not now.” He felt like he’d hiked for days, and a yawn got loose. “Tired.”
“Okay.” Joe stood and took Errol’s cup. “Get some rest.”
“Are you going to…warm me up?” Heat filled his face. God, that sounded bad
. Errol slid under the covers.
Joe gave that crooked smile. “I think you’re good on your own now.”
“Okay.” He hadn’t been good on his own for months. Clamping his eyes shut, Errol dragged the covers up to his nose. He heard Joe sigh and pad away.