It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all she had at the moment.
“Okay,” she called through the howling wind. “I’m climbing out the high side.”
“Jump clear, use the car for leverage,” he instructed, sounding tense but remarkably sane all of a sudden.
Balancing her weight by holding on to the windshield frame, she propped her foot on the skinny edge of the raised window, which was harder than it looked. She silently counted to three, then hoisted herself up and leaped into the rushing gully waters. The car rocked dangerously as she pushed off, but she didn’t—couldn’t—look behind her to see if it had rolled or not. She was too busy finding her footing in the water and muck.
You should have taken your other shoe off
, she thought as she stumbled and fought her way around the front of the car—which was still upright and partially wedged on the stone wall framing the opposite side of the gully. And she’d left the other one back in the car. Along with her backpack and her purse ... and well, everything else she’d taken with her when she’d fled this morning. Smart. Real smart.
But there was no way she could retrieve anything at the moment. She was stuck out in the middle of nowhere, in a storm, with a half-naked man who may or may not be completely mad. No identification. She tried not to think about her laptop, presently in the watery grave of the car. Everything gone now. Not that there was anything to lose, really. She shuddered and it was only in part because of the murky water rushing around her waist as she continued with her painstakingly slow, slipping, sliding progress around the front of the car.
It struck her, though, even in the midst of her current situation, that instead of being horrified by the loss of her accumulated hard work, as she should have been, given the enormity of the consequences ... she felt strangely freed.
There was a sudden large splash, and she looked up from the slow, deliberate pace she was attempting, trying hard not to slip and go under ... thinking maybe the car had come loose ... only to find her rescuer presently wading toward her. As he drew closer, a particularly violent lightning strike illuminated his features.
She’d been so overwhelmed with her predicament, all she’d noticed before was that he was wild-looking ... and mostly naked.
The unearthly white flash of light cast him in a rugged, harsh relief. His face was angular, his jaw a hard, square line. His eyes were bottomless pools of black, his long, dark hair plastered to his head and neck, reaching all the way to his shoulders. Broad shoulders, she noted. Muscular, in a lean, defined way.
He reached a hand toward her. She’d expected something broad, with blunt, work-roughened fingers. So the refined hand with the long, almost elegant fingers surprised her.
“Come, lass,” he said, his voice roughly cajoling but impatient. He beckoned her with his hand. “I dinnae know about you, but I’ve had all of this wet I can stand for a night.” He braced his weight, squared his hips, and reached for her.
She looked from his hand to his face, and back to his hand.
Then he grinned. And it changed everything.
“No’ to worry. Ye’ve had me in this water so long anything I have that might do ye harm is frozen.”
She couldn’t help it. She laughed. Not because he suddenly looked harmless. Far from it. No matter the fact that he was standing thigh-deep in water, bedraggled and shivering ... this man would never look harmless. Not with a smile like that.
She laughed because this whole episode was so absurd that there was nothing left to do but laugh. “And if I don’t get out of this water, I’ll be too frozen to care what you do.”
“Now that’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night.”
She could only hope so. She reached out and took his hand.
er hand was slender and cold to the touch. Not a surprise, given the circumstances. What was a surprise was the strength in her grip. Thus far, she’d struck him as an entirely helpless female—and somewhat flighty as well.
“Grab on to my wrist,” he said, reaching past her hand to take firm hold of her arm. “Our fingers are too slippery.”
Once he had a good grip, he didn’t waste time. He turned away from her and began to guide her out. The sheeting rain and heavy winds hindered his forward progress, forcing him to duck his head down, barely able to see his way to the bank. The water was running higher and faster now, and it was so slippery and muddy he wasn’t sure how he was going to get up and out again, much less pull her up behind him. But that was all he allowed himself to focus on. Not the droll tone in her voice just now, one that hinted that she was someone of far greater intellect than he’d originally assumed. Nor did he let himself think about her face, all pointed chin and angular cheekbones, with a veritable waterfall of hair billowing out about it, dwarfing her narrow features, even with the rain quickly reducing it to a heavy, wet mop. No, no point in thinking about her as anything other than a major pain in the arse. And an unwelcome intruder into his solitude.
It would only be for the night. He’d survive. By morning the flash flooding would have abated and they’d haul her car out of there and see what was what. He’d get Alastair to come take a look at it, tow it in for him. And yes, he’d offer to replace the canvas top, if the rest was salvageable. How was he supposed to know she’d finally figured it out? He’d apologize later. They’d almost reached the bank. Now that the car wasn’t providing a breakfront for them, they were in the narrow section of the gully where the water was rushing unabated. With the wall lining the other side, there was no other choice but to find a way to crawl out this side. He scanned the edge for the least-steep angle out, but visibility was well limited ... and it really didn’t matter much at this point. He did look back then. “I’m going to lift you out first.”
Her face was set in determined lines as she braced herself against the current, but she didn’t argue. She simply nodded instead.
He braced himself as best as he could, then pulled her closer. “Hold on to my shoulders, and I’ll give you a leg up and out.”
She nodded again, then turned so the water came at her side and bracketed her legs in the muck before tentatively putting her hands on his shoulders. At no time did she so much as look at his face.
“Ye’ll have to hold on better than that.”
She did look up then, just as a particularly heavy gust of wind caught her back and had her clutching at his bare shoulders, her nails digging into his chilled skin. He found himself grinning and couldn’t, for the life of him, have said why. “Better. Now up ye go.”
He gripped her hips, trying not to note how trim she was, how lithe, as he bent his knees and lifted her up and more or less heaved her onto the bank. She grappled at the slick ground, scrabbling for a hold so she didn’t slide back down again. He reached up and caught her foot and gave her an extra shove, sliding her chest deep across the grass and mud.
She grunted a little, but continued fighting for purchase, finally finding it and immediately climbing to her feet. She wobbled for a moment, but quickly regained her balance. She looked out and around into the dark of the storm, then looked back at him.
She wasn’t close enough to read her expression, but Tristan could tell from the coiled tension in her body that she was thinking of running. Where to, he had no idea. Was she so afraid of him still? He had a flashback to the look on her face when he’d knifed the canvas roof. Perhaps from her perspective, he wasn’t exactly a friendly face.
But before he could say anything to calm her down or reassure her—what that would have been, he had no idea—she turned back to him.
“Can I help you?” she said, yelling over the roar of the wind.
So. Well, then. He didn’t know what to make of her.
“I’m fine,” he said, then set about making his entirely graceless exit from the gully waters, which almost included the loss of what little modesty he’d managed to preserve during his rescue effort as he dragged himself up the slick bank. Mercifully he found purchase before his boxers were scraped clean off him. An instant later she was on her hands and knees in front of him, grabbing at his wrists and pulling with all she had.
The leverage was unexpected, and he’d just found a toehold and shoved with his feet. The end result was that he catapulted up the slope and knocked her clean to her back. Landing square on top of her.
She grunted, surprised by the impact, then turned her face to look directly into his. “Well,” was all she said.
Again, his lips quirked. “Aye.”
He rolled off her, managing to catalogue just how her body had felt beneath his despite the brief contact, not to mention the complete inappropriateness of such a thing. “Are ye okay?”
She sat up. “Define
He laughed. “Come on. I’ve got dry clothes and a warm house just down the lane.” He rolled to his feet and extended a hand.
She crawled to a stand without taking advantage of his offer. She started to brush herself off, then shook her head at the useless effort. The rain continued to beat at them and the wind snatched at her clothes and hair. “Th-thank you,” she said, stuttering a little as she began to shake. Whether from the aftershock from the accident itself or the chilling effect of the water, he didn’t know, but it didn’t matter.
“I mean ye no harm. I live just down the lane and saw your brake lights streak across my front window. My family owns this property, far as you can see. I manage it. I’ll take you into the village first thing. Beyond that, you’re just going to have to trust me. There’s nowhere else to go and it’s no’ safe standing out here any longer.”
She studied him for a moment, then, crossing her arms across her chest, she looked back at the gully and her mostly submerged car.
“We’ll get it pulled out tomorrow.”
She nodded, rubbing her arms and shivering. She took a deep, shuddering breath and looked back at him. “Okay.”
“You’re not hurt, are you?”
She shook her head.
He paused, then turned and led the way at a trot. She stayed behind him, but said nothing else. He glanced over his shoulder every couple yards to make sure she was keeping up with him and hadn’t had a change of heart and bolted across the field.
A minute later he was opening his gate and motioning her to the rear of the house. “Mud room,” he shouted over the wind.
She didn’t even hesitate, but put her head down and scurried around back. He matched her pace, both reaching the door at the same time. “I have a dog,” he told her as they hunkered down. “Excitable, but friendly. Jinty is her name.”
She just nodded with a jerk of her chin, shivering and shifting from one foot to the other while Tristan opened the door. He went in first, mostly to run interference. He corralled the dancing Jinty and herded her through the mud room door into the kitchen. “You can say hello in a moment,” he told her, then closed the door between them, much to her whining dismay. “Sorry,” he said, turning back to his guest.
She was standing in a growing puddle, looking anywhere but at him.
An odd one
, he thought. Forthright one moment, shy the next. He supposed being wrecked, stranded, almost drowned, then stuck in a strange man’s house was likely enough to put anyone a bit off their stride, and decided to withhold further judgment. He pulled a towel from the pile and handed it to her. “Start with this,” he instructed, “and I’ll go see what I can round up in the way of dry clothes.”
It was only then that he noticed her gaze had tracked to the pile of wet, muddy clothes he’d already left on the floor earlier. Which then led him to slowly glance down at himself.
. And here he’d been thinking her a loon for not being able to rescue herself from her own car. In all the while he’d been freezing his balls off out there, not once had he stopped to think of the picture he was presenting. He’d been focused on getting her out safely and nothing more.
He shot her a quick smile as he snatched a towel from the shelf and wrapped it around his hips. “Perhaps I should see about dry clothes for us both. I apologize for my lack of modesty, but I’d just come in from the fields, caught in the same storm, and peeled out of that muddy pile. When I saw your car head into the gully moments afterward, it seemed best to make haste.” He didn’t bother to mention he’d been even less appropriately clad during his initial rescue attempt. Likely she’d seen him run bare-assed down the lane, anyway. Too late to worry about that now.
She’d wiped her face and arms with the towel he’d given her, and was presently wrapping the dry end around the length of her hair and squeezing the extra water out. All with her gaze carefully averted. But now she looked at him. “I’m sorry I’ve been so uncooperative and seemingly ungrateful. I’m not, really. I just thought you were ...” She let the words trail off, obviously—if the slight color returning to her cheeks was any indication—realizing that whatever she’d been about to say might come off as less than gracious.
“A loon,” he provided, easing her discomfort. He smiled as he took the wet towel from her hands and offered her another dry one. “Dinnae fash yerself,” he told her. “You can hardly be blamed for drawin’ that conclusion, now can you?” He scrubbed at his own hair and let his smile ease into a grin.
For a moment there, he thought he saw her lips twitch, but she was still shivering and trembling, so it was hard to tell. “Enough chatter,” he said. “I’ll be back in a moment. Use all you need,” he said, motioning to the pile of worn, frayed towels stacked on the shelf next to the washer. “Those are for cleanup and the like, but they’re fresh washed.”
“Th-thank you,” she said, her lips a bit on the bluish side. “I do really appreciate this.”
“Not a problem.” He slipped out of the room and headed swiftly to his bedroom, Jinty dancing at his side the whole way. “Aye, we have company. And I’ll expect you to be on your best behavior.” He realized he sounded almost jovial about the prospect, which wasn’t like him in the least. But there was no denying the bedraggled woman intrigued him.
He gave Jint a quick scratch, then opened his closet doors and frowned. Jeans, trousers, work pants, a few pairs of summer shorts. There wasn’t much in the way of anything that would fit her smaller frame. He rooted about and finally dug out a pair of dark-blue cotton drawstring pants that he’d had for ages but rarely wore. He grabbed a sweatshirt down from the shelf, then thought to toss an old Hagg’s Pub t-shirt on the pile as well. A quick dive into his dresser produced a pair of heavy socks. “That should do. Come on,” he said to the dog as he headed back out. “Might as well greet our new guest.” Whose name, he realized, he hadn’t bothered to ask as of yet.
He returned to the washroom to find her still standing right where he’d left her, except she’d taken off her one shoe and was standing on several smaller towels in an effort not to drip any more water onto his floor than necessary. Both of them were covered with grit, grime, and mud. A shower was mandatory, but he didn’t feel right asking her to strip down in here. “Follow me—I’ll show you to the guest room. There’s a bath, fresh towels, and soap. Not sure on shampoo, but I’ll check. Take as long as you like.”
“I don’t want to track muck through your house,” she said, and it struck him then that she was American. He’d been so caught up in the rescue process, he hadn’t really paid attention to her accent.
“Och, no worries. This auld place has suffered far worse the last few hundred years and fared well enough. It’ll survive a bit of grit and grime.” He smiled. “Or a bit more, I should say.” He gestured to his own less-than-shiny-clean self. He didn’t wait for her to argue. He opened the door and let the dog romp into the room. She set to racing circles around his guest, tail whipping back and forth.
“This is Jinty, my sheep dog and all-around companion.”
His guest didn’t shy away from the dog at all, quite the opposite. She immediately reached for Jinty’s ears and gave her a good scratch. “Hi, there. Good girl.”
Jinty all but preened, quite pleased with the attention. Tristan found himself warming even more toward his guest.
“You’ve a friend for life now,” he told her. “Come on, follow me.” He steered her through the kitchen, into the living area, and turned the opposite way from his own rooms. “Guest room is here,” he motioned. “Bathroom in here.” He opened the door and stuck his head in. “I think you have what you need. Take as long as you like. I’m going to the opposite end of the house and take a shower myself. Make yourself at home when you’re done. I’ll find something for us to eat once we’ve scraped ourselves clean.”
He held open the door and she scooted past him. She was a head shorter than he, and even with muck and mire, or maybe because of it, he found himself drawn to the unusual angles of her face. She had shadows beneath her eyes and hollows beneath her cheeks. Somehow he doubted those were just the result of this evening’s adventures. Her eyes reflected a fatigue that went far beyond a single, difficult night.