Authors: R.C. Ryan
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For my beautiful family, always so loving and supportive.
And for Tom. The love of my life. Always.
Copper Creek, Montanaâ2002
here do you think you're going?” Bear MacKenzie looked up in surprise as his fourteen-year-old son, Whit, headed toward the mudroom of their ranch house carrying a blanket roll, his bulging saddlebags tossed over one shoulder.
“Up to the highlands.”
“All by yourself?”
“I'm going with Brady.”
At the mention of the ranch foreman, Bear shook his head. “Brady Storm's the finest worker I've ever known. But he doesn't need to play nursemaid to some green kid while tending the herd.”
“In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a kid, Pop.” Whit didn't even break stride.
“Hold on now.” Bear was out of his chair and heading after him, stopping Whit at the back door. “You see that snow out there, son? It may be just starting here, but up in those hills it could already be five feet deep or more. You could be stranded up in that range shack for weeks.”
The boy shrugged. “So?”
“What in the hell will you do up there all that time?”
“Same thing I do here at home. Instead of barn chores, Brady and I will be making repairs on the shack and checking on the herd.”
“And at night?”
“Maybe we'll get roaring drunk.” Seeing his father's red-faced reaction, he was quick to add, “I've got a deck of cards, some board games, and a couple of books, Pop. I'll have plenty to keep me busy.”
Bear studied his younger son, who had grown increasingly withdrawn since his older brother, Ash, had left after a particularly nasty fight. No one had heard from Ash since, and with each passing month, Whit had begun spending more and more time up in the hills with the herds.
Bear turned to his wife, who had listened to the entire exchange in silence. “I hope you can knock some sense into your son's thick head.”
Willow bit back the smile that curved her lips. Whenever Bear got his anger stirred, the boys became “her” sons.
“I think Whit's head has been knocked enough. Let it be, Bear.”
Temper flared in Bear's eyes. “You don't care that your kid could be trapped in the hills?”
“He's ready for whatever comes his way, Bear. A blizzard isn't going to rattle Whit any more than it would throw you off stride.”
“We're a family. He should want to be here with his parentsâ¦” Bear looked at his wife and then at his own father, Maddock MacKenzie, seated in his wheelchair, stirring something on the stove. “With his grandfather.”
Willow kept her smile in place. “Maybe he needs a break from all of us.”
At her words, her father-in-law, Mad, turned to shoot her a knowing look.
“That would be my guess, too, lass.” To his son he added, “A lad of his age needs some space. Especially now that Ash is gone. Let the lad flex his muscles, son.”
Bear threw up his hands. “You're both nuts.”
At the back door, Whit called, “See you.”
The door slammed behind him as he ran to the waiting truck, driven by Brady Storm. He tossed his things into the backseat, and they started away, hauling a horse trailer. If the snow in the highlands was too deep to navigate, they would abandon the trailer and ride their horses the rest of the way up the mountain.
Brady glanced over. “Why the long face?”
“Another fight with Pop.”
“What was it this time?”
Whit scowled. “He thinks I'm some kind of baby who can't take care of myself in a storm. He thinks I should want to spend my time at home with him.”
Brady's tone was low and conversational. “Your dad knows you're no baby, Whit. He knows for certain you can handle whatever nature throws at you. I've seen the pride in Bear's eyes when he brags that his sons are tough and independent. But it has to gnaw at him whenever he feels you're abandoning him.”
“I'm not Ash.”
“No, you're not. But just remember that Ash hasn't even left word where he's settled. And now you're taking every opportunity to put as much distance between yourself and your father as possible.”
“And why shouldn't I? I'm sick and tired of Pop's temper. There's never any praise for what I do right, but there's plenty of hot temper and curses and fists when I mess up.”
“I know, son. But I know this, tooâBear loves you and Ash with every ounce of his being. Every time you leave, he thinks he's losing you the same way he lost Ash. And though he loves you and wants you to stay, he doesn't know how to say it without sounding too soft. All he knows, all he's ever known, is how to use his voice and his fists as weapons. And though he's tamed the wilderness and turned it into one of the most successful ranches in Montana, he doesn't know how to tame his own nature.”
“So I should just stick around and take it? Is that what you're saying, Brady?”
“I'm saying that Bear sincerely believes that the only way to succeed in this harsh land is to be tougher than everyone else. He's told me a hundred times or more that that was the first lesson his own father had taught him. He's just doing what he was taught to do. But you can change things.”
“How? By resorting to my fists to show him how much tougher I am?”
Brady watched the plume of snow in his side mirror, searching for the words this wounded kid needed to hear.
“There are other ways to be tough, Whit. Look at your mom. Strangers may think she's all soft and pretty, but she's the strongest woman I know. She counters your father's temper with words, not fists. That's because she's smart and steady and not at all bothered by his knee-jerk reaction to the problems of life. She sees the tender side of Bear MacKenzie that he doesn't want the world to see. So try to bide your time, son, and figure out how to get him to show you that side of his nature. Okay?”
When the silence stretched out between them, Brady turned. Whit was staring out the side window. In profile, his jaw was clenched, his brow furrowed. His fists, held tightly in his lap, revealed the depth of his misery.
Growing up was always hard. Growing up a MacKenzie caused its boys to become men before they were ready.
Brady Storm knew a thing or two about that.
MacKenzie RanchâToday, Early Spring
hit MacKenzie pushed the last of the hay from the flatbed truck before parking at the mouth of Stone Canyon, where he'd left his horse tethered. Satisfied that the cattle milling about in the snow had enough to keep them alive for the duration of the blizzard that had come roaring in across the mountains, he mounted Old Red, his favorite roan gelding, and headed toward the range shack in the distance.
The cabin was one of several spread out along the farthest perimeters of the sprawling, thousand-plus acres that made up the MacKenzie ranch. These cabins had been built in remote locations to accommodate the wranglers who tended the giant herds of cattle that summered in the high country. Equipped with a wood-burning fireplace, a generous supply of logs, and enough canned and dried food to last a month or more, it was the perfect shelter from the unexpected spring snowstorm that had already dumped eight feet of snow and didn't look as though it would end any time soon. Besides the snow that blanketed these hills, there was the wind, howling like a monster, creating giant snowdrifts that slowed horse and rider's pace to a crawl. Whit found himself wishing he'd brought along a snowmobile instead of Old Red as he faced into the blizzard, pulling the brim of his hat low before hunching deeper into his parka.
He'd spent all of his life here in Montana. Whether the temperature soared to a hundred or dipped to twenty below zero, Whit MacKenzie knew no fear of the elements. Snow in April or September and wildflowers popping up before spring had a chance to melt the frost were as natural as breathing.
Despite his parka and wide-brimmed hat, he couldn't ignore the bone-chilling cold and the snow lashing his face like shrapnel. The thought of a warm shelter and the bottle of good scotch he would splash liberally into his coffee as soon as he settled in had him smiling. After nearly twenty hours of never-ending work, his body was desperate for sleep. He couldn't wait to slip out of his frozen clothes and into one of those thick blankets that covered the bunk beds.
Some cowboys couldn't bear the isolation of the hills, preferring instead to share a longneck and a bowl of gut-burning chili at Wylie's Saloon with the rest of the wranglers from neighboring ranches. That, and the promise of a quick tumble with one of the hot chicks who waited patiently in town for the weekend rush, was all they needed to get them through another week of endless chores.
For a loner like Whit, time away from his big, loud family was as necessary as food. And as tempting as one of his grandfather's steaks cooked to perfection on the new grill he'd had installed in the ranch's giant kitchen. Without question, Whit loved his family. His mother, Willow, and grandfather, Mad. His brother Ash and Ash's wife, Brenna; his half brother Griff, who he'd never met until this past year; and Griff's new bride, Juliet, and her two little boys, Ethan and Casey. Ever since the murder of their father, Bear MacKenzie, the family had drawn even closer. But maybe because of their closeness, he cherished his alone time more than ever. Especially now that both Ash and Griff had gone all lovey-dovey, obsessed with their wives, and in Griff's case, two adopted sons. It was, Whit thought, one more reason he was never falling into the love trap.
In the lean-to that abutted the cabin, he unsaddled Old Red and toweled him down before filling troughs with feed and water. Grabbing up his rifle and saddlebags, he trudged around to the door of the range shack and leaned a shoulder into it. Just as he did, he caught the unexpected whiff of wood smoke.
Inside, he dropped the saddlebags and rifle on the floor before turning to secure the door.
“Move a muscle, you're dead.”
He felt the press of something hard between his shoulder blades at the same instant he heard the whispered words.
“What the hellâ¦?”
“I said don't move.”
It was too late. On his lips was a snarl of rage as he turned to face his attacker. The beam of light from a flashlight momentarily blinded him. He lashed out with a fist, sending the flashlight clattering to the floor. “You'd better not miss on your first shot because there won't be a secondâ¦”
Now that the blinding light had been deflected, the words died in his throat. The weapon was a broom handle. And the one holding it was a woman, wrapped in a blanket, thick blond hair tumbling over her shoulders and down her back in a riot of tangled curls. Her eyes, more green than blue, were wide with absolute terror.
His blood was too hot to cool, despite what he saw. In one smooth motion, he knocked the broom aside, then pulled away the blanket to assure himself she wasn't hiding a weapon underneath.
Too late, he realized his mistake. There was no weapon, and no way she could be hiding anything. Beneath the blanket he saw only the tiniest bikini briefs and a nude lace bra. And an expanse of pale firm flesh that had his throat going dry as dust.
Her eyes blazed, and he could have sworn he felt daggers aimed straight at his heart.
Her words were pure ice. “Okay. You've looked long enough. You make one move toward me, Cowboy, I'll rip your head from your shoulders and feed it to the wolves.”
It was the sexiest voice he'd ever heard. Low, sultry, breathless.
Or calm, cool anger?
Never in his life had Whit backed away from a fight. And though the MacKenzie temper already had him by the throat, the look of her, like a cat poised to pounce, had laughter bubbling up instead of the expected anger.
“You and what army, honey?”
She tossed her head, sending that wild mane flying. “I'm not your honey. And if you think I'm just going to stand here and let some lecherous drifterâ¦”
His hand shot out, gripping her wrist so firmly her head jerked back and her eyes went wide with undisguised terror.
“I warned youâ¦” Her words died in her throat when he dragged her close.
“I heard you.” His voice was little more than a growl. “Now I'm warning you. I'm tired. And I'm mad as hell. You're trespassing on my land. This is my range shack. You have one minute to explain why I shouldn't throw you outside in that blizzard and let the wolves have a tasty little meal tonight.”
When he released her, she rubbed her sore wrist while backing away. “First I need my clothesâ¦”
“Don't bother on my account.” With a half grin of appreciation, he watched as she turned away and snatched at a makeshift clothesline strung across the upper bunk, retrieving a pair of denims and a plaid shirt.
Whit couldn't help admiring the air of dignity about her as she slipped into the jeans and covered herself with the shirt, buttoning it clear to her throat before turning to face him.
He picked up the discarded flashlight and set it on the small kitchen counter, and noted the way she put the distance of the room between them, while her gaze darted to his rifle on the floor, then back to his face.
“Don't even think about it,” he warned.
She stood, ramrod straight, her head high, her chin lifted like a prizefighter.
He watched her through narrowed eyes. “I didn't see a vehicle outside. And the only horse in the lean-to is mine. How'd you get up here?”
“A friend's ranch.”
“This friend have a name?”
“It's none of your business.”
“Okay. We're done.” He tossed his parka over the back of a wooden chair and, carrying his rifle with him, stormed across the room.
Turning his back on her, he sat on the edge of the lower bunk and eased off his boots with a long, deep sigh, grateful that she already had a fire burning on the hearth.
She was so startled, she started toward him, then froze. “What are you doing?”
He never even looked up. “Making myself comfortableâ¦in my cabin.”
“But you can'tâ¦” She paused and tried again. “Look, I know you said this was your place andâ”
“It is my place. And I'm here for the night.”
“Can't you just go back to your ranch?”
He did look up then, his eyes reflecting the weariness he was feeling. “In case you haven't noticed, there's a blizzard raging out there.”
“Are you calling this little storm a blizzard?” She stalked to the door and pulled it open. A wild gust of wind snatched it from her hand and sent it slamming against the wall. Within seconds, snow billowed inward, dusting the floor at her feet.
With a look of disbelief, she stared at the alien landscape outside. Everything was buried beneath mountains of snow. With great effort, she forced the door shut and locked it before turning to face him.
“I'm sorry. I didn't realizeâ¦” She took in a breath. “I know I should leave, but I don't see how I can.”
Whit shrugged. “Looks like we're stuck with each other until it's safe to travel.”
He crossed to the small kitchen counter and dumped bottled water into a coffeemaker, along with a measure of ground coffee from a package, before setting it on a grate over the fire. Soon the little cabin was filled with the wonderful aroma of brewed coffee.
At her nod, Whit filled two cups and opened the bottle of scotch, pouring a liberal amount into his coffee.
“Want a splash of this?”
She shook her head.
“Suit yourself.” He handed her the cup and leaned a hip against the small wooden table as he took a long, satisfying drink.
As the warmth snaked through his veins, he looked up to see her watching him.
Though he was far from feeling human, he managed a smile. “My name's Whit. Whit MacKenzie.”
“We'll talk in the morning, Cara Walton. I'm afraid if I don't crawl into that bunk right now, I'll be asleep on my feet.”
He drained his coffee and placed the empty mug in the sink before crossing to the bunk beds.
The blankets on the lower bunk were mussed, indicating that his uninvited guest had been sleeping there. No matter. He didn't have the energy left to climb to the top bunk.
There was no energy left for modesty, either.
Without a thought about the woman, he shucked his wet denims and plaid shirt, tossing them over the back of a chair to dry.
“Sorry, Goldilocks. I'm reclaiming my bed. You'll have to make do up there.” He nodded toward the upper bunk.
Rolling beneath the covers, he lay the rifle beside him, closed his eyes, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
Cara stood across the room, reeling from the assault on her senses. First there had been the sudden appearance of this stranger in the dark of night and their terrifying scuffle.
She rubbed her wrist. He could have easily snapped her bones like twigs. She should be grateful to still be standing.
She began pacing. What were the odds that somebody would stumble on this cabin in the middle of nowhere? Not just somebody, but the owner. Wasn't this just her luck? And why should she be surprised? Everything that other people took for granted seemed just out of her reach. In the past year, when she'd thought things were turning around, even the simplest things had been flipped upside down. All her dreams, all her plans snatched from her grasp. She knew she ought to be feeling scared, vulnerable, overwhelmed. Instead, all she was feeling was a deep well of anger.
She turned, crossing her arms over her chest. She'd thought this little cabin in the middle of nowhere might be her sanctuary, at least until she could sort out her future. And now this cowboy shows up just in time to send her packing yet again.
She bit her lip as she watched and listened to the man in the bunk. Her bunk, she thought with a rush of annoyance. She couldn't believe he was actually asleep. One minute he'd come rushing in like a tornado and the next he was out like a light. But at least that gave her time to think. To plot her next move.
She'd heard the wind howling outside the cabin, of course. But she'd been so sound asleep, she'd never bothered to get up and check on the weather. Who would have predicted a blizzard in early April? Judging by the amount of snow she'd spotted out the door, it could be up to the roof by morning.
That little trick of Mother Nature's would require a change of plans. She couldn't just slip away while the intruder slept. That meant she might be forced to spend a day or more in these tight quarters with an arrogant, hot-tempered cowboy.
She finished her coffee before turning toward the bunks. First things first. She would sleep while he was sleeping so she would be fresh in the morning and better able to stay one step ahead of him.
As she switched off the flashlight and climbed the rustic ladder to the upper bunk, she smiled grimly. Wasn't it just her luck to be trapped in the wilderness with a stranger, who, if that introduction was any indication, had a nasty temper and the muscles to back it up.