Authors: Rose J. Allister
She froze, listening to a rattle that certainly wasn’t a wolf or a mama bear. The noise was decidedly metallic.
The wash of light painting the cave walls now was sufficient for her to see there were no creepy crawlers waiting to skitter along her bare torso, and so she pressed herself against the damp, cold dirt wall in order to risk a peek. She almost lost her nerve when the rattle sounded again, louder this time. Still, she felt driven to look. She had to know what it was that was clinking around in a near-dark cave.
She sucked in a silent breath and held it while she poked her head slowly around the corner. Her eyes shot wide at the sight on the ground just a dozen or so feet away. She’d thought maybe she would find an animal, or some kind of tree or national forest signpost blowing in a draft brought in by the storm. The last thing she’d imagined to find was a man chained up, naked, and crouching on the cave floor.
Aimee gaped in shock at the man, whose muscled, dirt-smeared back was to her. His neck was secured by a chain that was attached to a wide, metal collar. The other end of the rugged chain was tethered to a giant ring on the cave wall. More chains crisscrossed his torso.
The second thought in her head was most likely the wiser, but unfortunately it came moments after she’d already acted on the first. She rushed into the wider area of the cave, thinking maybe he’d been taken hostage and needed rescuing. Halfway to his aid, it occurred to her that perhaps he was restrained there for a reason. That theory seemed to have more bearing when he whipped around and fixed her with a wild stare that brought her up short.
His eyes were pale blue but held a strange golden aura, almost as if they were responsible for the light that had drawn her in. This wasn’t the case, of course—the flickering light came from several brass lanterns scattered along the edges of the perhaps twenty-foot space. Those eyes seemed to pick up the golden hue of the flames until they danced like demons in his gaze. His body gleamed in the damp cave as though coated with sweat. Dirt streaked his skin in several areas, and at first glance she thought that included his face. Then she realized the darker area above his lip was the bare hint of a stubbly mustache. Dark hair slicked back from his narrow face, save for a narrow strand that fell forward across the bridge of his nose. Dirty or not, the guy was drop-dead gorgeous. What she could see of his body as he squatted on the ground was flexed and toned and bulging with muscle, and when he swiveled on the soles of his bare feet to face her, she averted her gaze to avoid staring at the naked organ hanging between his thighs. It wasn’t until his fiery stare blazed a dangerous trail along her body that she remembered her shirt was in her hand. She yanked it up in front of her and took a step back.
“Jesus, it’s you,” the man said, staring in shock, as if she was the one who had been discovered chained up and naked. “It’s really you.”
She glanced around. “You must have me mistaken for someone else. I don’t know you.”
“Oh, yes you do, darlin’. That’s what brought you in here.” There was a sexy hitch in his voice, a velvet twang that grabbed onto her middle and threatened never to let go.
“The rain brought me in here. And I’m positive that we’ve never met before.” Of that she was certain. She’d definitely have remembered a man with those intense eyes and sculpted features, whether or not he’d been in naked bondage at the time.
He flexed his arm to push back his hair, rattling the chain as he did so. She noticed a tattoo of a scaly dragon along his upper arm, the head cresting the cap of his shoulder and the tail curving around his bicep like a wicked tribal band. “You’re right, we haven’t formally met. And I have to say you picked one hell of a time for official introductions.”
“Can’t argue with you there.” She cocked her head, clutching the shirt to her tighter as she regarded his bizarre words. Perhaps there was a reason the man was chained up, after all. He was plumb crazy. “But how can I know you if we’ve never met?”
“You tell me.”
“I can’t. And I think I should leave, since I’m obviously interrupting something.”
She turned away, her eyes falling on a neatly arranged pile of garments against the cave wall several feet away from him. A dark brown Stetson lay on top of a stack of folded clothes and a tan jacket, and beside them stood a pair of worn, yet tall and proud tan cowboy boots. Was he one of the many cowboys working the ranches in Shay Falls?
When she made a move to leave, he jerked up and forward, straining in her direction with the chain tugging mercilessly at his neck. “No, wait a minute,” he said. “Please.”
Facing her up on his knees now, she couldn’t help but glance at the one part of him she’d desperately been trying to avoid. Lord, did all men look like that below the waist?
He inhaled deeply with his eyes closed. Then they snapped open. “You were with another wolf.”
She snorted. “‘Another’ wolf? No, there was just the one. I make it a point not to hang around with wolves.”
Something flashed in his gaze. “The rain nearly washed off the scent, but I can just barely make it out. Who was he? It was Caleb, wasn’t it?”
She backed away another step. “You know, I didn’t think to shake its paw and trade names while it was chasing me down, tossing my survival gear over a cliff, and nearly eating me.”
The man’s stare hardened. “Did he hurt you? I felt somethin’ was goin’ on earlier.”
“Did he lay a hand on you?” He began to pull on his chains.”Jesus, tell me he didn’t bite you.”
“No!” She eyed him warily. “Why is everyone so worried about me getting bitten around here? And—wait. Lay a
That did it. Why was she talking to a clearly disturbed man who was chained up in a cave? She would be better off outside in the storm.
“I’m not crazy,” he said. “You gotta be careful in these parts. Things can get a little wild up here.”
“So I found out. If getting lost and chased by a wolf wasn’t bad enough, there’s some chick with a gun running around out there. She wouldn’t even point me to the ranger station.”
His eyes flared wide. “What woman? Did she have red hair?”
“How do you know that?”
“She didn’t shoot him, did she?”
“That wolf, you mean? No, it got away.”
The man sighed in relief.
“The woman chasing him wasn’t very happy with me for that, either. Like how dare I have some petty need for help because I’m lost in the woods.”
“Thank God for that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Thank God that I’m lost in the woods?”
“I meant Caleb not gettin’ shot.” His eyes began another slide along her body that prickled at the goose bumps pebbling her arms. “But I can’t say as I’m not glad you’re lost. Course, I could also argue that you’ve just been found.” A wry smile split his handsomely chiseled face in a slow, steady burn that thawed her chilled insides.
She swallowed and cocked her head. “Do I even want to ask why you are chained up in a cave?” She paused. “Naked?”
His smile spread wider. “You noticed that, huh?”
That sent her glance straight back down to the long, thick shaft between his thighs.
The answer came from behind her. “Noticed what?”
Aimee spun around toward the voice and the man attached to it just a few feet away. Had he been utterly silent in sneaking up, or had she been so entranced by the other man that she simply hadn’t noticed his arrival?
“I don’t recall you mentionin’ company was comin’,” the new man said, regarding her with undisguised curiosity. His twang was a fitting match for the dripping-wet gray Stetson and snakeskin boots he wore. His Wranglers fit like a second skin and were dark with rain spatter. A wet brown leather jacket completed his cowboy attire. Not that she should be surprised, exactly. There were several ranches in the greater Shay Falls area, and where there were ranches, there were hot studs in hats and tight jeans that tugged many a female heartstring.
Her teeth chattered harder. “I was just leaving,” she said to the newcomer, and she headed toward the tunnel. “I’m sorry I intruded on whatever this is.”
“Don’t let her go,” the chained man said to the other. “Don’t you realize who she is?”
That spun her on her heel with a frown.
“I know who she is,” the cowboy replied. He took off his hat and shook water from it while she eyed him up and down.
The two men, while both almost criminally attractive, had features that were vastly different. This one’s hair was dark blond, and his face was clean-shaven and squarer. Still, both shared the same incredible blue-gold eyes. Brothers, perhaps? Overall, this cowboy looked like an athlete whose picture should be plastered in magazines or on cereal boxes. At least, he did until he turned his head and she caught a glimpse of his profile. Half-hidden beneath the straight, damp hair that had fallen across his right cheek was a deep, pale scar.
“Then you know why you can’t let her leave,” the chained man said.
The blond shook his head. “It ain’t like she’s our prisoner.”
“What are the two of you talking about?” she asked. “How is it that you claim to know me?”
“What is she doin’ here?” the blond asked, his eyes trained on her as he spoke to the other man.
She interrupted the sputtering attempt at an answer. “
is standing right here, thanks. No need to talk like I’m invisible. Who are you two, anyway? What’s going on in here?”
He thrust a hand out at her. “Kyle West. That there’s Dillon McCain. We’re locals.” He gave her a heavy glance when she failed to take the offered hand. “And you’re soakin’ wet and freezin’.”
She glanced down at the cold, wet shirt still pressed to her front. “Aimee Jo Stevens. I’m from Philips, just down the mountain. And yeah, it’s a bit chilly.”
“You sure picked a hell of a time to show up.”
“Dillon and I already covered that, thanks. That still doesn’t answer the question of how you claim to know me.”
The smile that curved up at her had the same dangerous, heart-pounding edge to it that Dillon’s had. Apparently the dangerous tingle she was feeling stretched beyond the shock of stumbling across a naked man in a cave. The danger was just plain
“I pictured your hair longer,” he said.
She raised a hand self-consciously to the still-dripping curls that hung just above the shoulder. “I cut it recently. I don’t have time to fuss.”
The men both stared at her, and she felt her cheeks warm. How long had it been since she’d had the old late-night cowboy fantasies? She was so exhausted these days when she fell into bed that she barely ever remembered dreaming. Hadn’t her dream cowboy had brilliant highlights in his eyes, too?
Kyle shrugged off his leather jacket and dropped it along with his hat on the ground behind him. He wore a maroon sweater that he stripped right off as well. Beneath was a white, ribbed tank that displayed an admirable amount of broad, bare chest. That chest was adorned only by a scant dusting of hair and a silver medallion worn on a leather cord around his neck. Was he ever a looker, even with the lethal-looking scar running along his cheek. Damn if the mark didn’t make him look even hotter.
“Don’t tell me you’re planning on getting chained up and naked, too?” she asked, her voice breathless.
Kyle’s laugh bounced playfully in her stomach. “No, ma’am. Figured you could use somethin’ dry to put on.” He held the sweater out to her. “Unless you’d rather try the more effective method of warming up.”
“What’s that? A fire?”
“Not in here,” he said with a tiny glimmer in those blue-gold eyes. “Too smoky. I meant sharin’ body heat while huddled together naked.”