Authors: Meagan Mckinney
He walked to the far end, near the water. Then he abruptly turned and stared at her.
“Humans or black bears?” he called out in an amiable tone.
Jo drew up short at the sound of the voice at the dark end of the dock.
For a brief moment warm relief flooded her as she realized that Nick was all right.
But then she realized she'd just been set up. She'd bet all the gold in Fort Knox that Hazel was playing matchmaker, and if Nick Kramer was playing along, then he'd be sorry.
So very sorry, she thought as she stared at him in the moonlight.
“Skinny-dipping, my brave firefighter?” she asked.
His silhouette was clear, backlit by silver moonwash, slim-hipped and wide-shouldered. When he came toward her, moonlight illuminated his handsome profile, emphasizing the strong jaw, patrician nose and his hard, much-too-experienced lips.
Desire licked at her in a dizzying rush.
Revel in the month with a special day devoted to
by enjoying six passionate, powerful and provocative romances from Silhouette Desire.
Learn the secret of the Barone family's Valentine's Day curse, in
Sleeping Beauty's Billionaire
(#1489) by Caroline Cross, the second of twelve titles in the continuity series DYNASTIES: THE BARONESâthe saga of an elite clan, caught in a web of danger, deceitâ¦and desire.
Kiss Me, Cowboy!
(#1490) by Maureen Child, a delicious baker feeds the desire of a marriage-wary rancher. And passion flares when a detective and a socialite undertake a crossâcountry quest, in
That Blackhawk Bride
(#1491), the most recent installment of Barbara McCauley's popular SECRETS! miniseries.
A no-nonsense vet captures the attention of a royal bent on seduction, in
Charming the Prince
(#1492), the newest “fiery tale” by Laura Wright. In Meagan McKinney's latest MATCHED IN MONTANA title,
Plain Jane & the Hotshot
(#1493), a shy music teacher and a daredevil fireman make perfect harmony. And a California businessman finds himself longing for his girl Friday every day of the week, in
At the Tycoon's Command
(#1494) by Shawna Delacorte.
Celebrate Valentine's Day by reading all six of the steamy new love stories from Silhouette Desire this month.
Joan Marlow Golan
Senior Editor, Silhouette Desire
One Small Secret
The Cowboy Meets His Match
The M.D. Courts His Nurse
Plain Jane & the Hotshot
Silhouette Intimate Moments
The Lawman Meets His Bride
is the author of over a dozen novels of hardcover and paperback historical and contemporary women's fiction. In addition to romance, she likes to inject mystery and thriller elements into her work. Currently she lives in the Garden District of New Orleans with her two young sons, two very self-entitled cats and a crazy red mutt. Her favorite hobbies are traveling to the Arctic and, of course, reading!
ou she-cubs need to think of something other than men and makeup.” Hazel McCallum, the matriarch of Mystery, Montana, furrowed her brow in concentration as she continued speaking to the young woman sitting next to her in the car.
She slowed down for the empty logging truck that growled up the mountain slope ahead of them, then rambled on, “I know one goes with the other, but this trip's just for the gals. No men allowed.”
“I wear hardly any makeup, Hazel, you know that. And as for men, I'm not exactly attracting them like flies to honeyâwith my bad luck, I'm not going to have to be reminded to put all my boyfriends in the toy box for a weekend.” Joanna Lofton almost
laughed. Hazel darn well knew she was the little gray mouse of Mystery, and that the matriarch was coyly trying to forget that fact made Jo's alarms go off.
“But all that girlie froufrou won't matter up on Bridger's Summit,” Hazel rattled on, as if purposely not hearing Joanna. “There
be a few males up there, I suppose, but only if you count the bears, too.”
“Bears?” Jo's eyes widened. The plain-Jane high-school music teacher was Montana-born and-bred, but even she was used to civilization. Her neighborhood in Mystery Valley was a world of cedar town houses and tiny tourist shops, with picturesque cattle ranches seen only from the road, Hazel's vast Lazy M spread included. Bears, rattlesnakes and other hazards of the wild were seldom encountered in the valley anymore.
The Bitterroot National Forest, in sharp contrast, was practically the old frontier untamed, and Jo was having second thoughts about letting her friend Hazel talk her into the trip.
Jo had agreed without really thinking about it. Hazel said the girls' weekend would do her good, perhaps get her out of the funk she was in. But there was never any talk of being mauled by wild animals.
“Did I hear the word
” Bonnie Lassiter interjected nervously from the back seat. “
Hazel and Stella Mumford, the other woman who, like Hazel, was well into her seventies, laughed as if on cue.
“You believe these two youngsters, Hazel?” Stella teased. “You'd think both of 'em are from Manhattan. Bonnie, even a townie like me knows you'll find few grizzlies anymore in the lower forty-eight.”
Jo glanced behind her to exchange a sympathetic glance with Bonnie. They were both the same age, twenty-five, and both from Mystery. Jo knew Bonnie was a divorced hairstylist who worked in Mystery Valley's most popular salon. They were also both starting to realize they had committed themselves to ten rugged days in the unfamiliar wilderness.
Hazel saw their covert glances, and a sly smile pulled at her lips.
The cattle baroness might have looked petite behind the wheel of her cinammon-and-black Fleetwood, her suede driving gloves only enhancing the “little old lady” impression. But there was nothing fuddy-duddy about the seventy-five-year-old's driving skills, nor her fierce passion for Mystery, which was why she had embarked upon her latest endeavor of playing matchmaker in order to keep her beloved town young and alive.
“Move it or lose it, bull-whacker,” she muttered, the Cadillac swooping out smoothly to pass the truck.
Jo tried to feel excited about the adventure in store for her. If she didn't know better, she'd have sworn Hazel was going to try to hone those matchmaking skills on her, but Hazel had described the Mountain Gals Rendezvous as a lot of fun and a sort of female confidence-building course. The older women, all
“graduates” of the course themselves, no longer actively participated in the more-strenuous activities; they only supervised, letting the younger women take turns leading each other in a series of mental and physical challenges.
And no men were allowed. Hazel had made that clear before Jo would even consider coming. Jo didn't want a fix-up. After Ned, all she wanted was to lick her wounds and stay very far away from the flames that had burned her.
“Low country's in the rearview mirror now,” Hazel said when the birch-covered foothills were abruptly replaced with steeper slopes and gradually thinning timber.
“Jo, I hope
at least were a Girl Scout,” Bonnie declared, “because I sure wasn't. Only place I ever camped out was in the backyard.”
Jo looked back at Bonnie, sending her friend a hesitant smile. “I think I know some heavy-duty survival skillsâlike how to roast marshmallows.”
It was a harmless joke, but Jo's timidity seemed to irk the outspoken and hard-charging Stella.
“My goodness, Jo,” she scolded mildly, “do you know you're so timid you even have a one-sided smile? Put your whole mouth into it! Pretty girl like you, it's a shame.
did you inherit that shyness of yours? If I didn't know it for a fact, I'd never believe your momma was Miss Montana. Hon, when you've got a dazzling smile, don't hide it under a basket.”
Jo realized Stella meant well. But the heat of resentment came into her face at yet another reminder that she lived in her mother's beauty-queen shadow, inadequate, a flawed colorless chip off the dazzling marble block.
Other girls were allowed to develop their own personalities, while Jo was expected to effortlessly replicate her mother's charming, gregarious, photogenic, always “on” vivacity. The ironic result was to make a naturally shy girl even shier.
“Never mind who was Miss Montana,” Hazel interceded, sensing Jo's discomfort. “It's all history now. The point is, any gal needs a backbone, not a wishbone. The rendezvous is just what these town girls need to put some stiff in their spines.”
Hazel's right, Jo tried to rally herself, the past is just history now. She was on a new road to a new outlook on life. The hurt couldn't count so much if there were no men around, even if that hurt caused by a cheating English professor in a midlife crisis left a hard, piercing sadness down deep where language couldn't soothe it.
At the sudden, unwelcome memory, Jo felt the warm and stinging threat of tears.
“Five more minutes and we're officially campers,” Hazel announced as she swung the car off the blacktop road onto a narrow gravel access lane. Although bigger trees had thinned out, stunted jack pines closed in on the lane and cut off any distant view.
“Here, Jo,” she added in an undertone, handing Jo
a faded but clean bandanna. “I think you got some dust in your eyes.”
Hazel knew the main details about Ned. Neither woman believed there was dust in her eyes.
Jo managed a wistful smile. She still regretted her decision to come on this trip, but she knew she could at least fake enthusiasm for ten days out of respect for Hazel's good intentions.
The narrow access lane took them around the shoulder of Lookout Mountain to a remote campsite near Bridger's Summit, a few simple cabins without electricity, plumbing, or other amenities.
Jo could see a small clearing just ahead with only one car in it. But Hazel slowed the Fleetwood to a stop even before she reached the campsite, and no one had to ask her why.
Sun-drenched Crying Horse Canyon, visible as a deep gash beyond the cabins, lay below them, beautiful and serene. The Stony Rapids River cut a churning green ribbon through its middle.
But a few ridges' distance to the north of Bridger's Summit, dark smoke smudged the horizon.
Even as the new arrivals watched, a U.S. Forest Service helicopter hovered into view, dangling a giant bucket over a forested gulch below. The hinged bucket opened its steel jaws and bright-orange retardant misted into the gulch.
“Fire's still pretty far away,” Stella remarked as Hazel pulled into the clearing and parked.
“Several ridges,” Hazel agreed in a dismissive tone. “I've seen the fires come closer. Besides, before we left I checked the long-range fire conditions with the rangers. State weather service is predicting low winds and high humidity next few days, and those conditions don't favor the fire even if they say we might have to be evacuated.”
Stella laughed, unloading the trunk after Hazel unlocked it. “They always have to say that, Hazel, my dear. It's a standard warning so you can't sue their butts for attractive nuisance.”
“Attractive nuisance?” Jo repeated with a bemused smile, taking her knapsack.
“It's a legal term. You know, for something that attracts people to it, yet is dangerous. Like kids playing in abandoned refrigerators.”
“Well,” Hazel scoffed. “In my day, an attractive nuisance had big boobs and her eye on your husband.”
She pointed with her chin toward the other car, a new beige Chrysler with Texas plates. “That Texas turncoat Dottie and her grandniece Kayla must be here.”
Jo shook off her misgivings as she stretched her stiff muscles. The place was attractive, and as far as she could see, there were no nuisances at all.
Hazel gazed around the camp clearing for a glimpse of Dottie and Kayla, but still spotted no one.
“I rented those two biggest cabins right near the rim of the canyon,” she explained. “One for age and
one for beauty. Looks like we have the place to ourselves right now. Maybe the smoke scared off the tourists.”
“Speaking of beauty,” Stella muttered, gazing beyond the cabins to where a hiking path emerged into the clearing. “Methinks I see Dottie's niece from Dallas. Talk about âattractive nuisance.' Just look what she's found in the woods.”
Jo, struggling under her heavy aluminum-framed backpack, looked just in time to see a man and a woman emerge from the surrounding pines and head in their general direction.
The curvy blonde had to be Kayla. She wore too much eyeliner for camping, and her denim cutoff jumpsuit, hardly designed for practicality, revealed long tanned legs and a glittering gold chain around the left ankle.
Jo glanced at the man with her. His appearance was a mystery. It was supposed to be a girls' weekendâno men allowed. But the “talented” blonde had managed to find one in the woods, anyway.
“Hey-aaaay, y'all!” the girl called out in a cheerful drawl, waving at them. “I'm Kayla. Aunt Dottie's off down the slopes gathering firewood to cook supper. Said she's starving.”
Kayla placed one hand on the man's left arm. “And
handsome gent is Mr. Nick Kramer. We're going to be invaded by men! Smoke jumpers, at that.”
Jo studied the tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped
man. Although athletic-looking in faded jeans and crewneck, he had a falcon-quick, alert gaze that evidenced a keen intelligence. He wore his cola-brown hair in a short brushcut; his eyes, she saw when he drew nearer, were amber-brown.
Not only was he incredibly handsome, she marveled, but he seemed most unaffected by it. Her experience with good-looking menâlike Nedâhad been that no woman could compete with their narcissism.
This man might not be vain, but that, she told herself, didn't mean he wasn't flawed in some other important area.
She covertly studied him.
One corner of his mouth pulled up a bit when he smiled, conveying self-confidence, cockiness.
Surely that in and of itself was a fatal flaw.
Finding her comfort zone once more, Jo dismissed her initial attraction to him as simply a brief surge in hormones following a dry spell. Besides, the last thing she needed on this trip was a man, handsome or not.
“Nick's not just a smoke jumper,” Hazel interjected. “He's a Hotshot.”
“Hazel,” Bonnie objected in a murmur, “you're flirting with him already?”
Hazel and Stella both laughed, Hazel even slapping her thigh at Bonnie's ignorance.
“Hotshots,” Hazel explained, still chuckling, “are the elite among the smoke jumpers, you goose. The gung-ho guys that get sent in closest to the source of
the fire. Don't you watch the Discovery Channel? I knew it from that emblem on his shirt.”
“Glad to meetcha, Nick,” she added, quickly making introductions all around. Jo felt Nick's gaze linger on her, and she fought the urge to squirm.
Jo knew she was no Kayla. Nothing fulsome and obvious about her looks, but she had never considered herself unattractive. She had inherited her mother's lucent green eyes and arching eyebrows, along with a shiny profusion of thick brunette hair that formed a widow's peak on a gentle, curving brow.
But that was where the mother-daughter comparison ended.
At five-two, Jo Lofton was petite like Hazel, in sharp contrast to Diane Lofton's leggy five-ten frameâlegs just perfect for gliding with catlike grace down fashion runways in Paris and New York, as indeed Diane had until she'd married and settled down.
Long legs, Jo observed bleakly, much like Kayla's.
“Don't tell me we're in danger here, Nick?” Hazel said.
“Not at the moment, Mrs. McCallum,” he replied in a polite, pleasant voice. The musician in Jo immediately recognized a perfect baritone.
“Mainly we're in this area just to thin out a few green pockets,” he added. “There's cheatgrass down below in the gulches that provides good tinder for airborne sparks.”
Cynically Jo thought there was cheatgrass all
around in the world and not just the gulches, but she remained silent.
“We're not really going to be invading you,” Nick continued. “I lead a twelve-man team that's in charge of monitoring Crying Horse Canyon, and we're using Bridger's Summit as our staging area. But we'll be downridge and we won't be in your way.”
“Of course you won't be,” Kayla said, flashing him a toothy smile wide as the Texas Panhandle. “What a neat coinkydink that we'd all end up here together.”
Coinkydink? Jo thought, groaning inwardly. That's the way some of her sophomore female students talked.
Bonnie met Jo's gaze and rolled her eyes in an
“In fact,” Kayla enthused, “why don't we all have supper together this evening? We could make it pot-luck!”