“Damn, damn, damn!” Kristen thumped her fists on the steering wheel. Not that it helped ease her temper or improve her position. She was still stuck in the middle of nowhere in a car that was effectively dead. In the worst freeze Michigan had seen for years. Snow lay inches deep, and it was still falling in soft, white flakes. Pretty and cold. Possibly lethal.
Sighing, she slipped off her driving shoes and tugged on the boots she’d put on the passenger side of the car. Then she grappled with coat and hat, struggling into them despite the restrictive confines. After that, she put on her gloves.
Only once she’d made certain she was as snow-proof as she could make herself did she pop the hood and get out. She’d done a basic maintenance course. With any luck, the problem was something simple she could fix.
She peered under the hood at the steaming engine, checked the oil level as she’d done before she left home, and the water to ensure the antifreeze was working. Using her flashlight, she examined the parts she knew how to fix, not seeing the point in looking for things that might need soldering or replacing.
Basic maintenance didn’t help her. She couldn’t see any reason why the thing had stalled and then refused to start.
She took the outer clothing off again, shook off the worst of the snow, and threw it in the car before getting in and slamming the door. Shit
. She should have sold this thing and used it to buy airfare. It had glugged gas like it was sharing with its friends, and now it had died on her. Soon it would get too cold for her to stay here.
As she picked up her phone to call for help, it rang. Seeing her brother’s number, she thumbed the Answer button.
“Hi, sis. Hey, any idea what time you’ll get here? It’s getting late.”
Running her fingers through her hair, she tried to sound confident. “The snow’s coming down fast.” She paused. She had to tell her brother her situation in case something went wrong. “I’m about thirty miles from the city, and I went through a one-horse town called Liston about ten minutes ago. It had a motel, though I couldn’t see the name. The sign was smothered with snow. The car’s broken down, and it won’t start. I’m going to call a tow truck.”
She didn’t want him to worry, but she was glad she’d told him. At least one person would know where she was. They could find her body via her GPS. Shit, this kind of weather did terrible things to her spirits. It destroyed them completely. “There’s a motel a mile or two back. I’ll check in for the night.”
He paused. “Is there nowhere nearer?”
“Not that I can see, and I don’t want to walk on in case there’s nothing ahead. I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “At this rate, I won’t make the audition.” The reason for traveling to Chicago, her audition with the ballet company. She couldn’t afford to think about that now. Survival was her first priority.
“I’ll call you on my first break.” His worry clearly came down the line.
“It’s okay. There’s a place closer if I don’t make it. Some kind of private estate.” She remembered the pair of gates half a mile or so back, but she’d get to the motel fine. The breakdown guys would give her a lift there. “So don’t worry if I don’t make it tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Uncle Mike gave you a heap of rust from the back of his car lot, didn’t he?”
“Yep.” She barely refrained from thumping the dashboard. Again. It only hurt her hand. “It was nice of Uncle Mike to give me the car, but I thought he’d give me something better, not the hunk-a-junk he couldn’t sell. Still, times are hard, and he probably couldn’t afford to give me anything else.” Uncle Mike probably hadn’t expected a snowstorm of this ferocity either.
“Maybe he shouldn’t have let you take it in this weather. No snow tires. Am I right?”
She’d been slipping and sliding a bit, but not too badly. “He filled the tank and put antifreeze in for me. I’d have been okay if it hadn’t snowed so hard. The forecast said snow, but not this. Cold, sure, and a few snow showers. This storm only hit in the last couple of hours.”
The wet, white stuff was coming down thick and fast. If she didn’t move soon, she’d be snowed in. “Gotta go. See you soon.”
Despite his worry, she cut the call. She needed the cell battery to call for some assistance. She checked the Internet for a list of local towing companies. By the time she’d reached the third, she was down to one bar. No problem. She had a spare battery. Maybe she should call her brother back, tell him where she was, and let him phone somebody for her.
Everyone she called said they were busy or they were snowed in themselves.
The battery was nearly gone, so she opened her bag to find the spare and swore. “Fuck, the little shit swapped it out.”
Her sister was always using her cell, and recently she’d bought a battery on the Internet that had turned out to be the wrong one. Since Kristen had the same model, her sucky little sister had taken Kristen’s spare battery and switched it with her own.
So now she was stuck with one bar on her phone and a piece-of-shit car that wouldn’t start. The temperature was dropping rapidly around her. She had to get out of here and keep the phone for one last call. An image appeared vividly in her mind, of her lying in a drift, desperately calling for help.
No help was available, so she’d have to go to the motel. Shit.
She was not looking forward to this.
Her boots were warm, her coat thick but slightly damp from her previous trip into the snow. After pulling on her knit hat and gloves, she checked that she had her flashlight and shoved her cell deep in her pocket, saving it for the last emergency call. Dusk was shading the sky, as if a dimmer switch was being slowly turned down. She had to make a move.
Bracing herself, she heaved open the door. If she’d put off getting out the car any longer, she wouldn’t have been able to do it, but she put her back into it and got the door open far enough for her to slide out. The rescue guys would have to dig the vehicle out.
Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she walked back in the direction she’d come.
She had the world to herself. Snow drifted down, a quiet blanket of white rendering the landscape monochromatic. Deceptively beautiful and dangerous as hell. The muffling effect of the snow made her feel she was the only person in the world. People died in these snowstorms.
Kristen shook herself. Not going there; not thinking that
. Cold water squished between the toes on her left foot. Shit, the boot had sprung a leak. At least the water warmed up pretty fast, and it wasn’t too bad. She considered stopping and plugging her boot. Maybe a bandage from her first-aid kit would hold it.
No, she’d cope. She’d get to the motel soon.
Although she shook her head from time to time, it was inevitable her hat would get soaked and cold. Half an hour later, Kristen wasn’t as close as she’d wanted to her destination. She started to shiver.
Trying to control the shaking, she tramped on, stamping her feet to keep the circulation going. The best way to keep warm was to walk.
She stopped at the huge wrought-iron gates she’d passed earlier, staring at them through snow-clogged lashes. If this was half a mile, she’d only come a quarter of the way to her goal. No way would she last the rest of the way. Her legs ached, and her toes were numb, the lack of sensation creeping up toward her ankles.
When she moved to one side, a glimmer of light caught her attention. Was it people or a security light? There was only one way to find out. She didn’t have much choice. Her shivering had grown worse, and now she had leaks in both boots. She couldn’t feel her fingers.
Blinking the snow from her eyes, she studied the gates to find a bell or a knocker or something. A small piece of overhung metal indicated the presence of a bell. When she staggered closer, her elation rose. It was a phone, not a bell. Thank fuck.
She picked it up, and it clicked and buzzed. Not just a phone, but mother of mercy, a live phone.
Fumbling in her bag, she found her flashlight and shone it on the phone. Only then did she see the two buttons beneath. She pressed one, then the other. Then pressed and held both of them.
A man’s voice yelled down the receiver. “Who the fuck is that? Stop that, will you?”
Relief swamped her, making her dizzy. “Can you help? My car broke down about half a mile along the road. I had to walk, and I can’t get a tow truck to come out.”
“You could have called the emergency services.”
“I’m guessing they’re a tad busy. If I’d stayed in my car, the police helicopter would have rescued a popsicle in the morning.”
A heavy sigh gusted down the line. “Okay, I’ll open the doors. Keep walking toward the light. Then you’ll see the house.”
Wondrously, the gates swung open, shoving a drift of snow to each side, leaving a clear path for a couple of feet. Right until the snow started up again. Kristen trudged through, her heart lighter. Maybe she wouldn’t die tonight after all. Snow like this? Yeah, it could kill, and she hadn’t seen a car the entire time she’d been walking.
The snow came over the tops of her boots as she pushed her way through the piles of lethal, white beauty, getting closer to the light. The house must be a hundred yards from the gate.
If it was this hard to get here, then she’d never have made the motel. Fuck, she really could have died. The realization hit her hard, making her catch her breath.
Through the blizzard, the shape of a large house loomed. Somebody seriously rich lived here, and they liked their privacy.
Was she leaping into the fire from the frying pan? A man had answered her call. Visions of Scooby-Doo-style crazed caretakers flickered across her imagination.
A beam of light flared. “Over here!”
The same male voice she’d heard on the phone. She had no choice, none at all. She went forward to meet him.
A figure stood in the doorway, spotlighted in the strong light coming from behind him, a dark angel offering haven from a white storm. He had deep-brown or black close-cut hair, black clothes, and unsmiling, clean-cut features.
His intense golden eyes locked with hers. Kristen shivered as something grazed her mind. She had the strangest feeling she’d connected with him. Like one of those vampire romances she enjoyed reading, where the hero found his one true mate without a word spoken between them.
Nope, no romance here. Only a bedraggled rat and a man as handsome as sin.
Fuck, oh fuck
. The breath caught in her throat. He was tall, around six-two, with broad shoulders and a body to match. His T-shirt and jeans hid little of his shape. If she had to find one word to describe him, it would be “charismatic.” Her thighs tingled, and not from the cold, as she recognized his sensual attraction. He probably had that affect on everyone—men, women, and, hell, cats for that matter.
If he was a crazed killer, Kristen stood no chance. If he wanted to fuck her, she’d open her legs and invite him in, watching him the whole time, unable to resist. He scared her, but he drew her irresistibly. And she hadn’t even seen him properly yet, since the light was behind him. Just those eyes.
He stepped to one side, frowning. “Get in, quickly.”
With no choice other than this or freezing to death, she strode, or rather, squelched forward to meet her fate.
Heat hit her in a wave of tingling welcome. It seared her extremities, making her fingers and toes throb, the pain exquisite but needed.
“You’re welcome.” Was that amusement in his voice? Surely not in these circumstances. “Come through to the main room. You’ll need to take off your wet clothes.”
She relaxed a little when she entered the main room. The beautiful space awed her. It was huge but toasty warm. A massive fire blazed in the fireplace halfway along one wall. The central area was two stories high. A balcony ran around half the room, no doubt leading to bedrooms.
Two big wing chairs and a sofa were drawn up by the fire. She approached, slapping her feet down elephant-style. Someone else got to his feet. This man was as attractive as the one who let her in but with lighter hair and a less stern expression. Next to the first man, he was positively friendly.
As he rose, someone stirred from the sofa. A woman, probably around fifty, casually dressed in jeans and thick sweater, neat and precise, got to her feet.
She smiled. “Hello. You must be frozen stiff. How far have you walked?”
“About half a mile. I was h-heading for the m-motel.”
The woman’s eyes opened wide. “Goodness, that’s got to be three miles away. You’d never have made it. In any case, it’s closed, has been for a few years. The highway took the customers away, and the owners just left one night. You could’ve broken in to a cabin, but you’d have had to camp out. The heating was cut off a long time ago.” She shuddered. “Now you get your coat and hat off, and I’ll find you something hot to eat and drink. Are you allergic to anything?” Her easy chatter lent the scene a sense of normalcy. Almost as if they’d expected Kristen to call.
Kristen shook her head. “No al-allergies. Th-thanks.”
The woman walked away, her slippered feet making little sound.
The man who’d stood motioned to the sofa. He was as big as his friend, but he smiled with more friendliness. She tried to smile back, but pins and needles were attacking every part of her, and she could barely move. Lifting her hands, she pulled the sodden gloves off with her teeth, then tried to undo the buttons on her coat, but her fingers wouldn’t work properly.
The first man strode forward, brushed her hands aside impatiently, and took over the task. “What madness made you walk out in this? Why didn’t you call for help?”
Her teeth were chattering hard, and she couldn’t stop them. “I c-called a f-few tow truck companies, but they were all busy. I couldn’t stay in my car; it was dead. I’d have f-frozen to death. I could have waited too long for the emergency services, so I w-wanted to f-find sh-shelter.” She stopped and clamped her jaws together.
He peeled off her coat and hat, dropping the garments. They landed with a soggy thump. His hands on her shoulders, he urged her back until her knees bent and she sat heavily on the sofa. The soft red upholstery soothed her. This was the most comfortable couch she’d ever sat on. Ever.
The man knelt at her feet and tugged off her boots, his strength making it an easy task. He took her soaking, sock-encased feet in his hands and grimaced. “Couldn’t you even find waterproof boots?”
His body heat seared through the sodden wool, and her hyperawareness of him took another jolt. Tempted to remind him that body heat worked best as a warmer, she decided on a less contentious route.
She controlled her jaw enough to speak again. “The box said they were w-waterproof.” She’d hoped to use them in the inclement Chicago weather, but they hadn’t gotten that far.
“You should sue.” With evident distaste, he tossed them aside.
Subtle light illuminated the room, nothing glaring, but everything was clearly visible, from the floor-to-ceiling windows to the stairs at the far end.
“To be fair, Nathan, nobody expected weather this ferocious,” the other man said. “We only received the storm warning a couple of hours ago.”
The man at her feet—Nathan—glanced up at her. A shadow passed over his eyes.
On his passport, it would say he had hazel eyes. That was a mundane way of describing a changeable color impossible to describe adequately in a word or two. When he turned his head, they gleamed green, but when he looked at her, they were light brown. Golden—shocking in his high-cheekboned face with its strong, square jaw. He was impossibly handsome, like a Russian ballet dancer she’d once known. Maybe he was as vain, but that would be a difficult task to achieve. Mikel hogged every mirror he came across.
Nathan seemed vaguely familiar, but she wasn’t sure where she’d seen him. Some celebrity magazine, most likely. Not in her world, for sure.
When he stripped off her second pair of socks, his attention riveted to her bare feet. He paused, staring.
Not proud of their condition, she tried to withdraw them. “I’m a dancer. We get calluses the same way blue-collar workers get them on their hands.”
He smiled but in a reflexive, polite way. When he returned his attention to her face, his features revealed no humor, only a sardonic acceptance. “I see. Well, we’ll get you sorted out. Cora, my housekeeper, will find you somewhere to sleep.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean—” But she’d have to stay. It was that or die.
“She could eat with us,” the other man said quickly, “if she doesn’t mind waiting.”
Cora returned, bearing a large mug. “Here, drink this.”
“We can stretch the meal to three, can’t we?” the man said.
She glanced at Cora, who shook her head. “I’ve eaten already.”
“No, I couldn’t possibly—” But she took a sip of the cocoa Cora had given her. It warmed her hands first, then her insides, heating all the way down to her stomach, restoring her to something resembling a human being. She gritted her teeth against the pain when her tingling extremities returned to normal.
“Drink that, and then I’ll take you upstairs. You can have a hot bath and change while dinner’s cooking. We’ll find something for you to wear,” Cora said.
The older woman glanced at Nathan, who nodded. He got to his feet and crossed to the empty chair by the fire, motioning to the other man. “This is Dalton Thorndyke.” He didn’t introduce himself.
The name meant nothing to her, but she liked the man who smiled reassuringly at her. She smiled back, but she didn’t feel the same connection to Dalton as she did with the decidedly grumpy Nathan. She felt bad for intruding, which was ridiculous given the circumstances. And that made her mad with herself.
“I was prepared for some snow,” she said. “Just not this much.” The pain was receding. “Is it still coming down?”
This room had huge windows along one wall. The sofa she occupied was facing the big fire with its back to the big windows. She twisted around to see. And yes, the weather was still bad.
Snow didn’t so much float as hurtle past the windows. Drifts were heaping against them, six inches at least.
Her heart sank. Maybe she could call and rearrange her audition. Recalling that, she glanced to where her bag lay on the floor. “Do you mind if I charge my phone?”
“Sure, go ahead.” Nathan flicked a glance at his friend. “But you won’t get a signal. It’s bad around here. The snow has probably blacked out my satellite reception.”
She raised a brow. This was definitely the home of a wealthy man, so why didn’t he get his signal improved?
As if he’d read her mind, he explained. “I come here for rest. I don’t want to be pestered.” For the first time, his expression held no bitterness. He smiled. And it melted her.
Warmth exploded inside her, much more effective than any hot drink. Although she’d been sipping the cocoa since she’d received it, and it had done a good job, one smile from Nathan and she was toasty warm. Or maybe just toast.
“Shall I wait dinner?” Cora asked.
“Yes, please. Twenty minutes,” Nathan said, only sparing his housekeeper a glance. He went back to studying Kristen. He sat in one of the large armchairs by the fire, one arm draped along the armrest, the other propping up his chin. He crossed his ankle over his knee. He’d barely taken his disconcertingly perceptive gaze off her.
“Have you finished your drink, honey?” Cora said.
To her surprise, Kristen found she had. She smiled and gave the cup to the housekeeper with a word of thanks.
“I’ll take you upstairs.”
“Take off your wet things and put on a robe. I’ll launder them for you,” Cora said.
Unused to anyone doing her washing for her, Kristen shook her head. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly let you do that.”
“Don’t be silly. Everything’s automated. All I have to do is spin a few dials and press a button or two.”
Although tingles still attacked her hands and feet, she’d improved enormously from the shivering creature she’d been ten minutes ago. A hot shower, and she’d be fine. She’d prefer a bath, but she wanted a soak, not the short dip a twenty-minute recess would afford her.
Grabbing the handles of her large bag, she pushed herself to her feet. And fell over. Or she would have if Nathan hadn’t been there to catch her. He must’ve had the reflexes of a jungle cat to get there in time. With a thump
, she landed heavily against his chest. She should have knocked the breath out of him, but he didn’t appear to notice. Lifting her into his arms, he continued to walk without pausing.
With his arms banded around her, she should have felt trapped, scared even, but it was as if a soothing lullaby was calming her, humming through her body. She felt safe and cared for in this man’s arms, as never before. It didn’t make sense, but that was the nearest she could get to the sensation as he strode to the stairs at the end of the room and took them effortlessly.
He shouldered his way into a room and kicked the door shut before taking her to the big bed and setting her on it.
She choked back a laugh. “What made you do that?”
He backed off. “You were hurting. You needed help.” He lifted his head, gazed at the ceiling. “Sorry. I couldn’t just watch you fall over, could I?”
A good guy after all? She’d decide about that later, but the fact that he’d helped her so promptly went some way to making up her mind. Maybe broody and intimidating didn’t equal bad guy. And he’d held her so close, she couldn’t miss his potent allure, so dangerous. As he’d taken her upstairs, she’d have given a great deal to be able to curl her hand around his neck and discover what his finely cut lips tasted like. Impossible of course, but it didn’t stop her dreaming about it.
Although this was a big bed in a spacious room, she felt closed-in—and she didn’t have claustrophobia. It was him. His presence. Some people called it charisma. She had no idea what it was, but she knew it now.
It had to be her and her confused mind. She said the first thing that came into her head, the words coming out in a rush. “I could have died out there. Nobody expected a storm this bad. I heard the weather reports. I have a survival kit in the car, but even with a space blanket and extra clothes, I might not have made it once the engine died.”
He raised a brow. “Sure.”
Anger swelled inside her. “Don’t you believe me?”
“Of course.” But he didn’t sound convincing. “There’s a robe on the back of the bathroom door and some slippers that you can use. If you need more time, we can hold dinner back for you.”
“I’ll be fine.” Unable to look away she stared at him. He kept her attention, his gaze roaming over her, his eyes warming as he took in the curves of her body. Kristen moved just a little, the subtle wriggle emphasizing her curves. She was a dancer—she knew how to move her body.
With a groan, he leaned forward, cupped her cheek in one hand, and kissed her. A swift kiss, over almost as soon as it had started, startling her with its intimacy.
He stepped back and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Sorry. I swear you’re in no danger here, but I wanted— Never mind.”
She licked her lips, claiming the last of his fleeting taste. “I didn’t feel in danger.” Maybe she should, but she didn’t. Instinctively she knew he would stop if she told him to, though how she knew defeated her. How could she tell what he was like?
“You’re a dancer, and you stopped for shelter at my doorstep,” he said, as if that answered everything.
She stared at him, bewildered.
“I can’t do this.” He turned on his heel and left abruptly.
“Awkward.” Spreading her hands, she shrugged. What was his problem? What was hers? How could she want this man so much after nearly dying in the snow? Surely she should be tired or recovering or some shit like that?
This was a gorgeous place, and she was here. Time she investigated the shower.
After stamping her feet to ensure the pins and needles were gone, she cautiously stood and headed for the bathroom.