A Lady’s Choice
Prim and proper widow Sami Lassiter, the guardian of her two young nieces, needs a summer job and big tough Ben Woden needs a tutor for his son. This rough and rugged Wyoming rancher talks blunt and kisses sweet and hungry, but he’s got a lot to learn about treating a lady. While Sami deals with Ben’s take-over notions, she deals with a hard past and at first, Ben reminds her of the man who scarred her. Sami also fears betraying her beloved deceased husband, Des. As Ben raises her unexpected passions—and temper, cool and collected Sami discovers primitive hungers of her own.
Copyright May 2010 Lois Kleinsasser
(previously published as Cait Logan by Berkley Books 1988)
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PUBLISHED BY READER REQUEST
Welcome to A Lady’s Choice, previously published as a Second Chance at Love, Berkley Books, by Cait Logan and reissued under Cait London, another pseudonym.
Many readers have requested a return to my early books and I’m enjoying the experience of reading them again, too. Though I’ve written many books as Cait London, I still love these early Cait Logan stories.
Presently, I live in Missouri’s Ozarks, but I grew up in Washington state, in just this same Columbia River setting as A Lady’s Choice. As an artist, too, I portray much of what I’ve visited (I travel to all my locations) in my novels.
The Methow River is a tumbling swift river, running down into the Columbia. The town of Pateros does exist and the city of Wenatchee. Dominique is fictional as are the characters.
Please note the cover’s number. It seemed only fitting to start rebirthing my early books with Number One. Watch for more.
You can find more about me at http://caitlondon.com or http://caitlondon.blogspot.com. At this moment, I am also on Facebook and Twitter, and you can to write me at email@example.com.
I hope you enjoy one of favorite settings.
“HEY! IS ANYBODY in there?” the male voice called urgently.
Surprised, Emily lifted her hand from the car horn. A gloved hand was brushing the January snow off her windshield. Moments later, a flashlight beam revealed the rugged planes of a man’s face beyond the glass. Fat snowflakes swirled around his broad shoulders.
Huddled inside the stalled car, Emily groaned, “Oh, no!”
That deep male voice could belong to only one man—Cal McDonald. Washington State was crammed with rescuers during blizzards—why him? Why her?
She shivered as she peered through the snow-streaked windshield. The face beneath the Stetson confirmed her worst suspicions. Damn! The people of the Methow Valley in Washington state didn’t send out Saint Bernards to rescue snowbound travelers; they sent out attractive six-foot-two cowboys.
And this particular cowboy was about as welcome in her life as a hooded cobra.
Emily sighed, remembering. Cal, with his laughing eyes, was as much a part of her life as the pine-studded mountains and the orchards of Washington. As a wide-eyed teenager, she had ignored her mother’s warning against him. “Emily, that McDonald boy is from the wrong side of the tracks,” her mother had protested. “I wish you’d stop mooning over him. Good heavens, he’s a good nine years older than you!”
But Emily hadn’t stayed away from him.
Then, one night, the laughter had left Cal’s green eyes. She was nineteen and as hungry for Cal McDonald as she was for life. The summer night had smelled of pines as she parked her red Jaguar XKE next to his battered pickup. At ten o’clock the tavern was busy, but Cal was leaning against his truck, smoking a cigarette.
He’d been drinking, but his smoldering stare caressed her like velvet. “Hi, Emily- girl,” he drawled. “Nice night.”
Somehow, her shoulders were encircled by Cal’s strong arm and she was cuddling next to him as he turned his pickup onto a back road hidden among the pines. Then he turned to her. “You’ve been asking for this for a long time, Emily-girl.”
His first kiss had been rough and tender and sweet as cherry cider. She was eager for him, and beneath him in the old pickup’s cab, she trembled and ached in response to his expert lovemaking.
Breathing hard, Cal had wrenched himself away from her naked body. “So now you know, little rich girl. Keep away from me.” He had stared at her devastated face. “Get your clothes on, honey. You look about ten years old. I’m not about to get in your pants. I like women, not virgins who don’t know the score. Jail bait,” he had sneered.
At first, Emily had felt broken, her dreams of a romance with Cal shattered like glass.
Two weeks later, though, her spirit returned, and she had marched up to Cal in the Reverent Lady Cafe in Dominique and slapped his face hard.
Then the war began. The whole Methow Valley populace sat back to watch them spar. Amid the countryside’s colorful Native American names—Okanogan, Omak, Wenatchee, Twisp, Loup Loup—Dominique’s only claim to fame was the battle between Cal McDonald and Emily Northrup.
Now, eleven years later, Emily geared up to meet Cal’s taunts. She pressed her lips together and inhaled, bracing herself against the wild emotions ignited by the sight of him. She hated his smoldering green gaze, and she hated his slow drawl.
She stared at her cell phone, its battery drained with efforts to call her Aunt Sid and for help. She shook her head. She knew that there was no reception on this mountain. Why had she even tried to call for help?
For a second, she considered freezing to death rather than confronting Cal’s taunts. But the sub-zero temperature and the deepening snow forced her to swallow her pride.
“It’s Emily,” she called out, then sank deeper into the driver’s seat. “What did I ever do to deserve this?” she muttered through chattering teeth.
Cal finished clearing the windshield and directed the flashlight beam over her white designer all-weather coat then up to her face. She closed her eyes when the light lingered on her face. Then the beam shifted and Emily forced her lids open. She saw his face clearly.
From beneath his Stetson, Cal scowled down at her, the set of his jaw firm against the collar of the shearling coat. Snowflakes clung to the tips of his light brown lashes. “I should have known.”
The molecules of Emily’s body that weren’t frozen started to heat with anger. Why did he treat her like a child? She was a successful career woman, she reminded herself—a top manager for a firm that chartered flights for foreign business dignitaries. So why did Cal McDonald still make her feel like a fourteen-year-old who needed her nose wiped?
“Damn!” He propped the big flashlight against her side view mirror, then muttered several other choice expletives as he dug through the deep snowdrift to her door handle.
“You need a keeper, little girl,” he accused as he jerked open the door. A gust of freezing wind carried a blast of snow into the car, but Cal just scowled at her. “You’re lucky I saw your headlights. What the hell are you doing driving on the mountain this time of night?”
Emily shivered and drew her coat tightly around her. She couldn’t tell whether her reaction was to the cold or to Cal’s fierce scowl. “Aunt Sidney needs me. She broke her ankle.”
“Hell, I know that. We’re neighbors, you know. Sid’s been holed up at my place since the accident three days ago. She wouldn’t stay at the hospital.”
“Aunt Sid did not say she was staying at your place. She said she was recovering nicely with people checking in on her. I supposed her friend Helen was staying with her. I wanted to come right away, but she said to take my time getting here.”
“Well, she is staying with me, and I’ve been checking with her with every meal and between.” Cal glanced down at the length of thigh her skirt revealed. Fashionable high- heeled boots concealed her calves. “These are great, Emily-girl,” he stated sarcastically.
“Great for Seattle streets, maybe, but useless in these mountains. Can you walk in those things?”
This time, Emily knew she was trembling from anger. She glared up at him. “Of course,” she managed scathingly. Wrapping her arms around her chest, she tried to still the fast beat of her heart. She didn’t want Cal to know she had driven from Seattle on an impulse when her aunt did not answer the telephone. She’d called a few locals from her cell on the way, but she couldn’t ask them to risk their lives in a blizzard. She’d comforted herself with the knowledge that her aunt had survived every hardship the mountains could throw at her. She’d hoped she was right.
Cal brushed the snow from his face with the back of his left glove. The beam of the flashlight caught his clear green eyes. “You’ve been away from this country for a long time, honey. But you should have known better than to drive up the mountain in this kind of weather at midnight. Even in that fancy four-wheeler,” he added, indicating her Toyota SUV with a nod of his head.
“Here.” He took off his snow-laden hat, slapped it against his thigh, then thrust it onto her head. The large Stetson settled over her ears, and Emily shoved it back to glare at him. “Come out of there, Emily. We don’t have time for a loving reunion. Unless you want me to crawl in there with you?”
“No!” The thought of Cal’s hands caressing her sent Emily into action, struggling upward against the slant of the car toward the open door. He wrapped a hand about her upper arm and hauled her from the seat effortlessly.
“You don’t have to be so rough.” Emily shivered as a gust of wind swooped up her skirt. Cal had left a trail through the three-foot-deep snow. The blizzard was worsening, and the forecast called for four feet of snow. Worried about her diminutive aunt, she had driven through the Cascade Mountain pass with ten feet of snow on either side of the road, only to be caught by the storm in the Columbia River basin. Turning north to follow the Methow River had demanded every winter-driving skill Emily possessed.
“I came to take care of my aunt,” Emily managed shakily as she shook free of him. She’d been badly frightened for the past half-hour, honking the horn and trying to force open the door. Now the north wind painfully bit into the smooth skin of her face. She felt like collapsing and throwing herself into the warmth of Cal’s strong arms.
She also felt like running away, and the conflicting emotions made her want to cry. But then Cal had always been able to wreak havoc with her logic. Her heels sank into the snow, and she started to fall back into the drift that nearly covered her car.
His amused chuckle floated over the howl of the wind. “Klutz,” he accused almost tenderly.
Emily glared at him. She didn’t like Cal’s knowing grin. “You know, this reminds me of the time I had to pull you out of Mike Sager’s back seat,” Cal drawled. “Even with the windows all steamed up, I could see how hard you were fighting him.”
Emily hoped her expression was aloof. Here she was in the middle of a blizzard with the wind sweeping up her frozen thighs while Cal’s long legs were sheathed in sturdy denim jeans, and probably thermal underwear beneath them. She certainly wasn’t reminiscing about the past now. Looking down at her, he grinned with undiluted male superiority. “I could have handled Mike Sager,” she said coolly. “No one asked you to interfere.”
“Oh, really?” he drawled. “I suppose it was an accident you parked next to me at the drive-in movie? You were a junior in college and out to show me how hot you were. Only Mike got carried away, didn’t he?”
That truthful taunt stung her and she glared at him, feeling like a provoked porcupine bristling with quills. “I’ve never been concerned about what you thought. But you didn’t have to hit him.”
“Uh-huh, Emily-girl. And I didn’t have to calm you down before I took you home.” He lifted one hand toward her face, then as though thinking better of the gesture, he slowly lowered it to his side. “Such a fierce scowl, Emily-girl.”
“Cal, I’m freezing. But I’d rather die than listen to your distorted memories,” she snapped. “Go away and leave me alone.”
Chuckling, Cal pulled her within the circle of his left arm and locked her to his lean, tall body. “Come on, little girl, Sid wouldn’t like you turning up with frostbite. You’re possibly the only relative who honestly cares for her.”
His authoritative tone rubbed Emily’s nerves raw. In the space of two minutes, the war was on again. “Take your hands off me, Cal. I can manage by myself.”
“Okay. Fine. You’re on your own,” he drawled and released her. He stepped away from her to pick up the flashlight.
His Stetson slipped down over Emily’s eyes, blinding her completely just as one of her high heels slipped out from under her. “Cal!” she managed before sinking into the snowdrift.
“Hardly a love call, sweetheart, but I guess I’m the only one around to answer it,” he taunted, picking her up in his arms. Cal held her against his chest for a moment, then grinned. “You can’t just sit there. If I slip, you could go rolling down the mountain. You’ll have to put your arms around my neck, honey.”
Emily wiped the snow from her face, hating his confidence. He could arouse her anger at will, and he knew it. He carried her easily, settling her close against his chest. “Relax, Emily,” he coaxed. “It’s a good half-hour uphill walk to the house. You’re frozen already.”
He was right, of course. The knowledge grated within Emily as she reluctantly wrapped her arms about his neck. On her occasional visits to her aunt’s orchard—which was adjacent to Cal’s sprawling orchards—she had avoided him whenever possible. Now she couldn’t.
Cal spoke sharply to a large shape bounding beside him in the snow. “Down, Shep. You can play with her later.” He shifted Emily against him. “Shep’s barking woke me up. I followed him here.”
Emily looked down, warmed by Sid’s old collie welcoming her. The movement of her body threw Cal off balance, and his arms tightened around her. “One more smart move like that, Miss Jet-Setter, and we’ll both be lying in the snow,” he stated darkly.
“I can walk, Cal,” Emily said, stiffening in his arms. “Sid’s house is closer and I’ll go there. I’ll see her in the morning.”
“Okay. I’m sure as hell not going to fight you at fifteen below zero. But her old roof collapsed tonight from the weight of the snow. Good luck.” He let her slide to her feet. Planting his hands on his hips, he glared down at her through the swirling snowflakes. “You do remember where my house is, Emily?”
When she nodded, he turned and strode into the curtain of black night and snowflakes.
“And I’m staying at Sid’s.” Emily had fought against her fascination with Cal’s house for years. He had replaced his parents’ small old house with an angular contemporary structure that nestled among the orchards and blended with the rugged mountains. His home reminded her of an eagle’s nest—solitary and dangerous.
The wind howled, forcing her to take an unsteady step backward. Cal turned, brushed the snowflakes from his face, and strode back to her. “I told you the roof caved in,” he yelled above the howling wind.
Hunching his broad shoulders against the blizzard, he retraced his tracks through the snowdrifts until he stood over her. Right at that moment, she could have torn that thick shearling coat from him and dived into the warmth.
Of course, he would know that, wouldn’t he? Cal grinned, challenging her. “For Sid’s sake, I’ll carry you if I have to, Emily. But arguing now is foolish.”
Reluctantly, Emily agreed. She patted the collie’s head. “I’ll follow you, Cal.” He considered her. “Can you make it? You look pretty weak.”
Emily grimly ignored him, thinking how hard she worked to maintain her svelte five-foot six-inch figure. “Weak, indeed,” she muttered under her breath.
Cal pivoted, once again retracing his steps through the snow. His legs were long; and he could easily leave her behind. Instead, she noted, he plowed an easier trail for her by taking smaller steps.
Trudging after him, Emily pulled the collar of her coat up over her nose and thought about Cal McDonald. According to Sid, Cal’s prowess with women continued to be legendary. But now he should have had a wife and children. Yet according to Sid’s periodic news bulletins about Cal, he remained as free as the mountain winds. Oh, well, Emily thought darkly, a rolling stone gathers no moss.
Cal turned frequently to check her progress. Head down, Emily plowed on, forcing herself to place one foot in front of the other. Her muscles ached from keeping her sodden shoes in Cal’s path, and her stomach hurt. Because of the storm, she hadn’t stopped for food, and she had grown weak. Suddenly her knees buckled and she felt herself falling.
The rough tip of Cal’s finger trailed over her lashes slowly. “Emily, Emily. This is another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, little girl. Only you would drop in for a visit in the middle of a blizzard.”
Wry humor softened his words, then Cal’s impatient tone jolted her. “Open your eyes, Emily. You can go back to sleep after you’ve eaten. It’s only one o’clock in the morning; you’ve got plenty of time to sleep before Sid starts asking about you.”
She stirred beneath the warm weight of the blankets. Keeping her lids closed, she felt the first stirrings of the tension Cal always aroused in her.
He chuckled. “Playing ‘possum, Emily?”
His fingers wove through her short, stylish haircut, lifting the smooth auburn strands. “You’ve cut your hair.” His voice held deep, raw regret. “And you’re too thin.”
Emily remembered the last woman Cal had squired around a curvy tall showgirl. For no good reason, she had hated the woman at first sight. She forced her eyes open, staring
at him. “Of course I cut my hair. This style is practical for business. I’m older, Cal. Wiser, too.”
She drew the blankets closer to her and settled deeper on the couch, glaring at him. Then she realized she was wearing her woolen cream-colored sweater and nothing else. “You could have left my skirt on.”
He shrugged. “It was wet; so were your slip and panties. You were frozen and you look sick already. You’re so pale, your eyes are like chocolate drops. Does that high- priced airline keep you too busy to relax?”
Cal’s finger trailed down her cheek and she jerked from his touch. He grinned slowly. “You may be skinny, but honey, you look sultry as hell. You always were pretty, Emily-girl. But now it’s different—”
“People change,” she interrupted, not wanting to admit how her heart raced at his tender smile. Cal had changed through the years. His lean frame was muscle-packed now, his neck broader above the red flannel shirt covering his hard chest. Small whorls of tawny hair showed beneath the open collar, contrasting with his tanned skin.
“They sure do.” He stared at her for a moment as though trying to read behind the stillness of her expression. “You’ve definitely lost that fresh, cuddly country-girl look.” He tilted his head, sun-bleached eyebrows drawing together in a frown. “It used to fascinate me, how that soft, drowsy-kitten look covered all that fire. I never realized how much of a hellcat you were until you slapped me that day in the I. So much for sweetness. Sit up,” he ordered brusquely, his expression hardening. “I’m not about to spoon-feed you, Emily.”
He placed two earthenware soup bowls on the heavy wood coffee table and added two pottery mugs of coffee next to them.
Emily glanced at the ceiling beams and the stark wood-paneled walls of his home, relieved only by a rock fireplace. The blaze of the fire tinged the room with a sienna hue, reflecting on the polished hardwood floor. The firelight washed across the sprawling wheat-colored couch, the only piece of furniture in the room. “Where is Aunt Sid? I need to tell her I’m here.”
“She’s sleeping in the room next to the kitchen. It’s warmer there. She’s taking medication for the pain, Emily. You can see her in the morning.”
He gave her a grin that was not nice. “That’s quite some tan you’ve got. Except where your bikini strings covered your hips.”
Cal stared at the quilt covering her as if he had X-ray vision. “Imagine that,” he drawled sensuously. “Little sweet Emily with a tan all over and flashing eyes.”
He was challenging her again, throwing out his barbs like a fisherman after a hungry trout.
“Thank you for helping me, Cal. And for undressing me—needlessly,” she snapped, immediately disgusted that she had responded to his taunt.
“That’s quite all right, my dear,” he said too pleasantly with a grin. “Eat your soup.”
Cal sat at the end of the couch, and Emily drew her toes from beneath him. Handing her the soup bowl, he sipped his coffee slowly while studying her.
A warm flush crept up from her neck, heating her cheeks. Something … disturbing filled the depths of Cal’s green eyes, but she didn’t feel up to challenging it just now.
“Emily?” The softness in his gravelly voice reminded her of Cal as a young man. “Is there a man in your life?”
She shrugged. “That’s none of your business.” The childish statement was the best she could dredge from her shaken emotions.
Cal’s thick, sun-bleached brows went up, and his eyes sparkled with amusement. “We’re on top of a snow-covered mountain.”
He nodded toward an elaborate radio and stereo setup in one corner of the room. “And according to the latest forecast, we’re due for about six more inches of snow before the blizzard clears. So we’re not going anywhere. Besides talking and catching up, what else do you think we can do?” he drawled sensually.
“Sleep,” she answered automatically. Emily glanced at the frosted windowpane veiling the night. A yard light spread a circle of white on the snow. She had worked double-time to wrangle the vacation, and she was bone tired. Perhaps if she slept, she would wake to find that Cal was just part of a nightmare, a residue of her past, filtering through her weakened defenses.
“You want to sleep,” he repeated in a dangerously low growl that brought Emily’s gaze to his face. Frowning, he ran his palm around the back of his neck. “Hell, I’d like to do a little of that myself.”
The bitter statement accused her of something she didn’t understand. Emily’s fingers tightened about the handle of the coffee mug. This older Cal caused her hackles to rise. He was arrogant, testing her with the implication that he could crook his tanned little finger and every woman on the planet would come running. She scanned his face, noted the rugged beauty of his Nordic features, then damned herself for noting anything about him.
“Sweet Emily-girl.” His gaze drifted over her languidly. “You were a teenager when you threw yourself at me. You’ve been married and divorced since then, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. But you still hate me as intensely, as viciously as a mama bear protecting her cub. I wonder why,” he taunted in a dangerously deep male tone she did not remember.
She glared at him, wondering why his thoughtful gaze raised goose bumps all over her flesh. Arrogance was Cal’s trademark, but he had no right to pry into the nooks and crannies of her life.
He placed his mug on the table. “Such dark-eyed passion,” he remarked. “I often wondered how two people as cold as your folks could have spawned you. Hell, you knocked the whole town on its backside when you drove Widow Simmons’s wheat truck that summer.” He paused, his eyes darkening. “I’ll bet that Ivy Leaguer you married didn’t know what to do with you. You didn’t even take his name, sweet Emily. It’s still Emily Northrup. I wonder why not,” he pressed.
The hair on the back of her neck rose as Cal’s narrowed green eyes probed; he had moved into a very private darkness she did not invaded.
Emily’s numb fingers pressed the quilt closer to the fullness of her breasts. Even now, Cal possessed a raw masculinity that tugged at the wrong strings inside her. “I was a kid when I … liked you, Cal. But I’m an adult now. My divorce is my business, and I don’t feel like discussing it with you.”
“You were a kid,” he agreed slowly, his eyes meeting hers. “But I was already a man,” he stated, pointing out the nine-year age difference between them. “You were a spoiled rich girl practically throwing that cute little body at me. Count yourself lucky that I didn’t take what you offered.”
Emily took a deep breath then counted slowly to ten as she met the accusation of his stare. “I’m not rehashing the past, Cal,” Emily snapped in a tone she reserved for executives who challenged her youth and sex. “I don’t owe you an explanation. Not now, not ever.”
His eyes flared briefly, then narrowed to study her closed expression. After a long moment that penetrating rapier stare softened and laugh lines crinkled beside his eyes. His hard lips curled sensuously. “My, my,” he murmured silkily. “Little Emily bites.”
“You’re not a nice man, Cal. I wonder if you ever were.”
His tanned fingers scratched the stubble on his cheek. “I doubt if anybody who had to wake up in the middle of the night to rescue someone stranded in a car during a blizzard would be pleasant.”
He glanced at her hands clutching the blanket, then pushed his fingers through his hair. “Look: tonight you sleep here. The bedrooms upstairs aren’t finished or heated yet. I’ll stoke the fire while you drink your soup. Then we’ll both hit the sack, Emily. We’ll iron everything out in the morning.”
Emily glared up at him. “Not likely.”
Cal woke from a restless sleep. His left knee—injured by a two-hundred-pound linebacker just before he quit college—ached. Despite the shots of whiskey he had downed after saying good night to Emily, the upstairs room was bitterly cold. The clock radio beside his cot told him it was three in the morning.
Sighing ruefully, he rose and stretched to his full height, raising his arms over his head. He rotated one shoulder then the other, grimacing. Every one of his football injuries ached, even the scars on his behind from Bruno Kluski’s cleats. He yawned and bent his stiff neck to one side, then the other.
Standing nude and ice-cold in his spacious bedroom, Cal knew why he’d slept so restlessly, untouched by the alcohol—Emily. He damned his foolish need of her. Her brown eyes had cost him a hell of a lot of sleep over the years. “You’re having some kind of an early midlife crisis, old man,” he muttered, shaking his head. “You may as well go down where it’s warm; you can’t sleep anyway.”
Drawing on his jeans and a wool shirt, Cal went downstairs.
Standing over Emily, hands on his hips, he stared down at the cascade of silken hair that spilled across the pillow. She sighed, her face moving amid the reddish brown strands like the center of a flower within its petals. Something lurched inside his heart; he was hungry for the sight of her, he admitted. He tried to ignore the warm buttery feeling he got by just looking at her.
She hadn’t really changed, he decided. The same long, dark brown lashes fringed her eyes; her cheeks still had their silky, honey-gold smoothness. Her eyes, wide-set and intelligent, could draw a man right into their velvety brown depths. His finger traced her straight nose and the entrancing curves of her slightly parted lips. He also noted the new firmness lodged in her chin and remembered how her eyes had flashed dangerously earlier.
Emily-girl, as smooth and as fragile as ice on a snowy lake. A sweet, perfumed, tormenting will-o’-the wisp who shook him right out of his socks before she fluttered out of the valley—and out of his life. He still wanted her, even though he knew she would leave again, when the time came. Butterflies did that, he reminded himself ruefully. Butterflies flew away.
Slender, mauve-tipped fingers curled beside her face, and Cal ached for her touch. Riveted by the sight of her fragile hand, he died a little, holding one thought: She was his woman.
Emily, his woman? Impossible. She’d laugh him right into the ground if she knew what he was thinking. In fact, he felt a little like laughing himself. Not from humor, but to cover his pain.
A knot tightened low in his belly. His bones seemed to throb within his flesh. She had danced through his dreams, leaving him incomplete for years. He swallowed roughly, forcing moisture down his dry throat as he felt the pain of knowing she had a life outside his world.
Slowly, Cal realized the pain biting into his upper thighs. Dazed, he stared down at the sight of his fingers gripping his legs.
“Cal?” Emily’s sleepy purr drifted up to him. “I’m cold.”
She shifted restlessly on the couch and her voice echoed through his body, taunting him. Helpless, Cal watched Emily curl into a ball and turn to face the back of the couch.
There she was, sweet and dreaming and she’d murmured his name as if she’d been snuggled close. With a deep ragged breath, Cal fought his instincts, then gave into them. He’d waited too long for her warmth, just an hour or two holding her safe against him. So much for the strength to refuse this chance, he decided darkly. He couldn’t stop himself from stripping down and settling beneath the quilt next to her. Feeling like an untried boy, Cal gulped air, strove for sanity even as his trembling hand slid out to touch Emily.
He needed to hold her. Just for the few hours until dawn and he’d leave her alone before she awoke. Dammit, every man had a weak point and Emily was his. His grim smile marked his weakness. He felt like a battle-worn warrior needing the warmth of a fire.
Cal’s heart pounded in his chest as he eased his tall body close to her, pressing his body to her back. Powerless to stop his hand, he stroked the silken curve of her waist and the flatness of her stomach as his fingers explored her softness possessively. Gently he brought his head closer to hers to inhale the tantalizing scent of wildflowers that rose from her hair. “Emily,” he whispered longingly.
He almost heard the sound of his own heart tearing. Where was his pride? He wondered briefly before the warmth of her began to fill the emptiness of the years. If only for this cold January night, he held his dream. Sleep weighted his body. Emily’s soft breathing soothed him…
Emily turned her head toward the windows and noted the overcast sky; a sliding sound, followed by a soft plop signaled snow falling from the roof. Slowly she became aware of Cal’s warm body behind her, spooning hers, his breath softly ruffling her hair.
She reacted instantly, thrusting her hands and feet against the back of the couch, pushing herself against his body.
Cal hit the wood floor heavily. “Uhhhh!”
“Cal McDonald!” she sputtered, gathering the quilt about her protectively. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
He rubbed his backside and blinked owlishly at her. “Huh?”
Emily scrambled to her feet, tightly wrapping the blanket about her. “You … you opportunist!” She blinked, then glared down at him accusingly. “You’re nude!”
Sprawled on the floor, naked amid his own scattered clothing, Cal’s muscular frame caught the muted light penetrating the window. Still sleepy, he rubbed his eyes and shook his head as if trying to dislodge reality. His wavy hair glistened in the morning sunlight as he scowled back at her, then rose stiffly and pulled on his jeans. Furious at his lack of modesty, Emily shouted, “Just what are you doing?”
He stared at her, nonplussed, as he buttoned his jeans. “What the hell does it look like? Getting dressed. Then I’m going to stoke up the wood furnace.”
Emily’s outraged retort froze on the tip of her tongue. She pointed at the rumpled pillow, feeling anger lick her skin like a whiplash. “You … you…”
“I’d think a magna cum laude fluent in two foreign languages could manage a simple sentence in English.”
“Summa cum laude, buster,” Emily corrected automatically. “You slept on the couch with me.” She trembled, her face flushed with anger. “That’s you all right, ready to take advantage of a helpless woman!”
“Honey, I’d stop right there if I were you,” he cautioned. His nostrils flared, and the fierceness of his expression made Emily take a step back. Then his gaze passed slowly over her quilt-shrouded body, from her dark burgundy toenails to her tousled auburn hair.
His jeans shifted lower on his hips as he took one step toward her. Cal was lean and male and looked on the prowl as he took another step; Emily swallowed a gasp as she noted he had not completely buttoned the jeans. Her stare rose to his bare chest, gleaming and hard in the light, a wedge of tawny hair running from his chest to a downward line that ended at the waistband of his jeans.
Cal’s hard stare challenged her as he stalked toward her. The room shrank when Cal stood just inches from her, staring intently down at her frozen expression.
“If you graduated summa cum laude, baby, you should be able to count the number of beds in this house. Where else was I supposed to sleep? Sid’s using my bed and I’ve been sleeping down here. The upstairs bedrooms are ice cold—l haven’t put in the heating vents yet. I’d work on that today, so we can have separate beds. But I’ve got to work on Sid’s house. It has a minor problem—no roof and almost everything she has is under said non-roof. And we’re due for more snow.” He added grimly, “You can’t make it to your folks’ place down at Pateros, Emily. Nothing is moving up here on the mountain.”
Emily sensed the challenge of his taut body. Reluctantly, she gazed at the broad chest so close to her face. Muscles defined its masculine contours, his nipples flat and brown.
“Now, I could have woke you up and asked you to go upstairs, but you were dead to the world. If you think that I’d try any hanky-panky with a woman so out of it that she didn’t know I was lying right beside her, you’re nuts. When I make love to a woman, she goddamn well knows it. You can insult a man in a lot of ways, but not that one.”
Cal was dangerously male. Too big and too close and too angry. Definitely not in a reasonable mood. Emily felt her stomach tense; her fingers ached from clutching her protective shroud. She assessed the taut ridges of his shoulders, the hard biceps, the tightly curled fists, and knew it would be pointless to accept his challenge. Everything he’d said was perfectly logical and she’d acted like a frightened, silly girl.
“Cal, I … ”she began weakly.
“What little girl?” The glitter in his eyes dared her. “You were saying?”
Emily’s skin heated beneath the blanket as she noted how his gaze pinned her face. “That’s more like it.”
Lazily, he raised a hand and trailed his forefinger over the tender comers of her mouth. “You’d be a handful, Emily. You always were.”
Caught with her defenses down, Emily could not move away from his sensuous touch . His callused palm caressed the delicate slope of her cheek and jaw. His thumb stroked her lower lip, sliding over its trembling fullness as though testing satin.
Emily could see her pale face reflected in Cal’s dark green eyes. “Emily-girl,” he whispered raggedly, “don’t you know better than to kick a man out of bed onto a cold floor? The results probably aren’t going to be friendly.”
“Well, maybe I can see your point. But you should have tried to wake me anyway. And you could have at least worn some clothes.”
“Waking the dead and snoring isn’t easy and I sleep naked.” His lips slowly curved in a wry smile. “Are you hungry?”
The practicality of his question pierced through the sensuous spell surrounding Emily’s body. Unable to drag her eyes from the warmth of his, she murmured, “Starved.” “Can you boil water?” he asked, his eyes filled with amusement, crinkling at the corners.
“I’ll manage.” She stepped back from the touch of his hand. Cal McDonald was getting more dangerous; he was like a mountain cougar stalking her senses. And his virile masculinity could easily overwhelm her defenses, if she let him. And she wouldn’t. Not again. “I’d like to get dressed.”
“Okay. Your clothes should be dry now.” He grinned without moving.
A flash of brilliant sunlight, intensified by the snow, pierced the frosted window and shone on the angles and muscled planes of Cal’s naked torso. His face was shadowed, yet Emily felt his eyes on her, waiting …
Her palms became sweaty, her throat ached. “I…” She swallowed hard, defying the delicious quivers coursing through her body. “I want to see Aunt Sid.”
He nodded slowly, his lids lowering over his darkened eyes. “Run away, little Emily-girl,” he said softly.