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Authors: Iris Johansen

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BOOK: Last Bridge Home
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The man must be incredibly strong, she thought absently as she opened the door for him. He was carrying Sam with easy strength and the dog weighed over a hundred pounds. “Bardot said the road would be watched.”

“It
was
watched,” Jon said over his shoulder. “It’s not now. I took care of Bardot’s man when I saw Bardot pull up at the cottage.”

“Took care of?” Elizabeth asked, startled.

“Eliminated.” His lips twisted. “Not permanently. I may have violent instincts, but I don’t always indulge them. Hurry, we have to get moving.”

“My God, he’s going to kill himself!” Elizabeth stared in horror as a skier hurtled down the steep slope of a nearby mountain, heading toward their truck as they drove along the road. Dressed in a scarlet-colored ski suit that made his white-blond hair appear even more brilliant in contrast, the man had all the grace of a pregnant hippopotamus as he leaned precariously from side to side, trying to maintain his balance. “He must be a novice. Why would he risk a run on a dangerous slope like that?”

“Because he’s a reckless idiot who can’t resist—” Jon broke off as he pulled the pickup to the side of the road and turned off the ignition. “Stay here.” He jumped out of the cab onto the road, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted with a force that echoed through the mountains. “Gunner, blast you. I told you to be careful. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Trying to break your damn neck?”

The blond skier shouted back, laughing. “I’m doing very well, Jon. It’s a little more difficult than sand and harder when you fall, but give me a week and I’ll be a world-class ex pert.”

“Give you a week, and you’ll be in a plaster cast from your collarbone to your toes,” Jon said grimly.

The skier was drawing nearer to the road, still, by some miracle, in an upright position. “Is that kind? Just ask me again to go to the trouble of coming to welcome you to our happy home.” He chuckled. “I’d turn around and ski off in a huff except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know how to turn.” His deep laugh boomed in the tranquil surroundings. “So I’ll be magnanimous and forgive you under the circumstances. Particularly since I’ll have to beg for a ride back to the lodge.”

“Do you know how to stop?”

“Oh, sure, I learned that in the first five minutes. Watch.”

Suddenly he threw himself backward into the snow, his skis pointing to the sky. The momentum twisted his body in a corkscrew be fore flopping him face forward into a snowbank.

Was he hurt? He wasn’t moving. Only a moment before the blond skier had been so vibrantly alive and now … Elizabeth fumbled for the door handle and then jumped out on the hard-packed snow. She half ran, half slid around the truck and across the road. Jon was several yards ahead of her, climbing the slope with swift powerful strides.

He was kneeling beside the scarlet-clad figure and was carefully turning him over as she reached them.

“Gunner, are you crazy?” Jon’s voice was husky despite its roughness. “Why don’t you ever do what I tell you? Where does it hurt?”

“Do you mean where besides my pride?” The skier’s lids opened to reveal deep blue eyes that were dancing with mischief. “Well, I’ll probably have to sit on a pillow for a week or two, but other than that I’ve probably come off lucky.”

“As usual.” Beneath the gruffness of Jon’s tone, it was clear to Elizabeth he was greatly
relieved. Affection and lingering anxiety were only lightly veiled by the half-mocking sarcasm in his tone. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. You wouldn’t be here today if the gods didn’t love you. Are you sure you haven’t bro ken anything?”

“I’m sure.” The skier sat up and began un buckling his right ski. “You know, Jon, I think I’ll try to find another way to stop. This method is a little rough on the …” He trailed off as his gaze encountered Elizabeth’s over Jon’s shoulder. “Hello. You must be Elizabeth Ramsey. I’m Gunner Nilsen.”

Jon turned to her, frowning. “I thought I told you to stay in the truck.”

“You did,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I didn’t choose to obey you. You’ll find I seldom do what I’m ordered to do. It’s far more effective to ask me politely.”

Gunner Nilsen’ uttered a sound that was not a cough and not a chortle. Jon cast him a scowling glance, and Gunner threw up his hands in surrender. “Sorry. I was just thinking how long it’s been since anyone has put you down so nicely. As I remember it was the head of the committee for—”

“Gunner.” Jon’s voice cut through his words with the crisp incisiveness of a machete. “The fall must have rattled what little brains you have. It’s certainly loosened your tongue.”

“Sorry,” Gunner said again, unrepentantly. He finished unfastening his left ski and slid both of them off his feet. “I suppose I felt safe. I forgot she doesn’t know yet.”

Know what? Elizabeth thought in exasperation. This situation was progressing from frustration to complete madness. “Yet? I presume I’m supposed to have this great mystery revealed soon?”

“That’s up to Jon.” Gunner rose lightly to his feet and smiled beguilingly at her. “I’m just a poor peon under orders.”

The “poor peon” smiling at her had all the charm of a gypsy horse trader and the stunning good looks of a male model. He was taller than Jon by at least two inches and had the same deeply bronzed complexion. He was a golden man with the same aura of glamour Mark had possessed. But Mark’s good looks had never possessed Gunner’s blatant sexuality and joie de vivre. Mark’s appeal had been gentle and deep and wise as … She glanced away hurriedly. “You bear more resemblance to Mark than Jon does. Are you another cousin?”

Jon looked up swiftly. “He reminds you of Mark?”

“A little.”

Gunner’s sideways glance at Jon was both amused and wary. “I wouldn’t presume to admit
to such august company. The committee said I must have the genes of a highwayman.”

Elizabeth frowned in puzzlement. “What?”

“Gunner.” This time Jon’s tone was definitely menacing.

“Oh, all right.” Gunner scooped up his skis and balanced them against his left shoulder. “I guess if I don’t keep my mouth shut I’ll be trekking back to the lodge through the snow instead of riding in luxurious splendor in the back of the pickup. Right?”

“Right.” Jon said as he rose to his feet and turned away. His hand was cupping Elizabeth’s elbow as he helped her carefully down the slope.

Gunner passed them at a trot, skidding and sliding down to the road with careless disregard. He threw his skis into the bed of the pickup and then hoisted his tall, lean body after them.

Jon’s gaze moodily followed Gunner’s movements. “I don’t see any likeness.”

“What?” For a moment she didn’t know to what he was referring. She had thought the subject of Gunner’s resemblance to Mark was closed. “Oh, you don’t? Perhaps it’s not noticeable unless you’re looking for it. However, those exceptional good looks and golden coloring aren’t exactly common.”

“No?” He was silent a moment, scowling. “You prefer fair men?”

“I never thought about it.” She shrugged. “I guess I do. I fell in love with Mark.”

His lips thinned. “Yes, you fell in love with dear cousin Mark.” He opened the passenger door of the truck and lifted her into the seat. “Lord, he had it easy.” He slammed the car door.

Elizabeth felt a pang of hurt. Why should she care if he thought her cheap? She stared straight ahead through the windshield as he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car. She blinked rapidly to keep back the tears. “Yes, he did,” she said, not looking at him. “I was totally in love with Mark. If he had told me to join the circus and become a lion tamer, I would probably have only asked which one. If that’s being easy, then I guess I’m a prime example.”

“I didn’t mean you were …” His hands tightened so hard on the steering wheel his knuckles turned white. “I always thought I was fairly articulate, but I find I’m tongue-tied as a child around you. I hurt you, didn’t I?”

Her voice was low and slightly uneven. “Yes.”

Jon muttered a soft, vehement curse as he turned to face her. “I’m not always this rough or insensitive.” His eyes, dark with intensity
and pain, were gazing into her own with mesmerizing urgency, as if he would force under standing on her by sheer will alone. “There are things about this situation I can’t explain, and they’re hanging about my neck like an albatross. Sometimes I feel as if that damn albatross is strangling me. It rubs me raw and makes me clumsy and—” He broke off. “All those excuses don’t really matter. What does matter is that you know I would never think of you with anything but respect and … affection.” He drew a deep breath, as if he’d just reached the summit of a mountain after a hard climb. “All right?”

Suddenly she felt deflated. She should be feeling comforted and reassured, not this de pressed. She smiled determinedly. “Thank you. You’re very kind.”

Jon turned away, his movements jerky and uncoordinated as he maneuvered the truck back onto the road. Kind. Lord, she thought he was kind. It was what he’d wanted her to think, but it still grated unbearably on his nerves. He wasn’t in the least bit kind, any more than the emotions coursing through him were platonic. He wanted to touch her, draw her close so he could breathe the scent of her as he had that moment at the cottage. He wanted to take off her clothes and run his hands over the fruitful earthiness of her body.
He could feel the painful tightening of his muscles and tried desperately to relax.

He hadn’t expected to want her like this. Hell, she was heavy with child. He had thought he’d feel only tenderness and possessiveness. Desire had taken him by surprise. He knew he’d have to watch every word, every expression, while he was with her now. She had to be made to feel safe and cosseted during this period, and he knew the situation didn’t lend itself to those emotions. All she needed was to learn she was occupying a secluded house with a man who was aching to drag her into bed and teach her erotic games of which she’d never dreamed. A man aching to wipe Mark Ramsey from her mind and body and imprint himself indelibly on both.

Wait. He wasn’t an animal. He could be as patient and gentle as her precious Mark. He could forget hunger and lust and give her only what she needed from him. In a hundred ways he was stronger than Mark. The very drives he possessed that had been judged too aggressive were in his favor now. She would belong to him. If only he could forget the throbbing ache in his groin and …

“This area is very isolated, isn’t it?” Elizabeth asked, trying to make conversation. The silence between them was charged with a disturbing electricity. “It seems impossible we’re
close to a popular ski resort like Saranac Lake. Do you think Bardot will be able to locate us?”

“Not for a few weeks, and by that time we won’t need the place any longer.”

She shot him an anxious glance. “I cant stay here in the mountains for a few weeks. I have to be near a hospital. You don’t know what the winters can be like in this area. We could be snowed in for days if the storm they’re predicting turns into a blizzard.”

“I told you that your baby would be safe.”

“I know, but …” Elizabeth looked out the window at the white slopes glittering against the slate-gray of the gathering clouds. There was no use worrying about problems that might never occur. She still had time and, for some reason, she had a strong faith in Jon’s ability to assure her son’s survival. She suddenly chuckled. “Well, I hope you have a book on midwifery at the lodge. It might come in handy.”

“You’ll find the library as well stocked as the cupboards. The lodge is very comfortable. A fireplace in every room, and it has its own power generator. There’s no telephone or television but we have a short-wave radio in case of emergencies.”

“That’s a relief,” Elizabeth said. “Though I hope we won’t have to use it.”

“I thought you’d feel better knowing we had
some method of communicating with the out side world.” He nodded to the left. “The lodge is up ahead.”

The redwood chalet was larger than she had thought it would be. A two-story ultramodern structure composed of more glass than red wood. The interior was modern as well, she discovered a few minutes later. Bright-colored rugs covered gleaming parquet floors. The con temporary furniture was upholstered with fabric in tones of warm brown and beige, and the abstract paintings she glimpsed were cheerful splashes of color against the pine-paneled walls of the foyer.

“I hope you like yellow,” Gunner said as he preceded them up the carpeted stairs to the second floor. “Whoever decorated your room appeared to be overly fond of the color. Yellow drapes, yellow bedspread, yellow chair. The master bedroom looks like a daffodil in full bloom, but I thought you’d be more comfort able there than in one of the smaller bed rooms. At least the carpet is a nice calm beige.” He threw open the second door at the head of the stairs and strolled into a large, airy room. “The master bath has both a shower stall and a tub. By the way, I installed those safety bars in the shower yesterday, Jon.”

“Good.” Jon stood in the doorway, his gaze on Elizabeth as she followed Gunner into
the bedroom. She looked tired and rumpled and … wonderful. He had a sudden impulse to pick her up, hold her, cradle her. He forced himself to look away from her to the floor-to-ceiling windows occupying the entire north wall. Tenderness at last. Poignant, intense tenderness. It was going to be all right. If he could only hold on to the tenderness, it would dilute the hunger.

“I think you’ll find everything you need.” Gunner slid back the doors of the walk-in closet to reveal a multitude of clothing of every description. “Last week I found a very cooperative sales lady in one of the local shops, who assured me this is a maternity wardrobe par excellence.”

Elizabeth had an idea there would always be cooperative ladies at Gunner’s beck and call. A tiny smile curved her lips as she crossed the room to stand beside him in front of the clothing. “I’m sure she was delighted to accommodate you, but you went a little overboard. I’d have trouble wearing all these clothes in two months, and I only have three weeks.”

The smile suddenly faded from her face. He said he had purchased all these clothes last week. She had not known either of these men existed a week ago and yet they had already been making plans that involved her, she realized.
Buying clothes, installing safety bars, watching her cottage.

BOOK: Last Bridge Home
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