Authors: Carol Grace
|Welcome to Paradise|
Chloe Hudson inherited a ranch, but didn't know a cowboy came with it. Not sexy, arrogant rancher Zeb Bowie who has designs on her property. She has to prove to him that she belongs in Big Sky Country. She'll show him she can handle the work, the horses, the cattle and the weather. But can she handle Zeb?
The day was hot, the trail was long and her suitcase was so heavy she almost regretted packing her portable espresso machine. But a summer without good coffee? Unthinkable. Especially a summer where the days are warm but the nights are cool. Chloe rested her fanny against a pine tree to catch her breath and unfolded a piece of tattered, yellowed paper that she took from her pocket.
Paradise Hot Springs, where the Ute Indians once wintered near warm thermal waters, invites tourists to enjoy warm days and cool nights in the mountains of Colorado. Mineral waters known to cure gout, obesity, broken hearts and old gunshot wounds. Guests will be met by stagecoach. El. 7500 ft. Your genial host and proprietor: Horatio W. Hudson. Est. April 1912.
“Where is the stagecoach?” she muttered. “And where is the genial host?” She knew the answer to that one. Great-Grandpa Horatio Hudson was dead at age ninety-seven. And Paradise Springs was hers now. If she could find it. There had been one hand-carved wooden sign that pointed the way, and then nothing. Just a narrow trail overgrown with blackberry thorns and nettles.
Nobody told her she'd have to leave her car at the entrance. Nobody told her she'd be walking miles uphill in suede chukka boots.
“Buy boots,” they'd said. They didn't say what kind.
“Take your camera.” It was hanging around her neck like an albatross.
“Have a great vacation.” She sighed. Maybe once she got there.
After another two hours of wading through a shallow creek, spanning fallen trees and climbing at least another thousand feet in altitude, Chloe was dripping with perspiration and gasping for breath. For two cents she would have thrown her suitcase over a cliff, coffeemaker and all.
But then she saw it in the distance. Steam rising in the clear blue sky. With one last burst of energy she dragged herself forward to the end of the trail. And there it was: Paradise Hot Springs in all its glory.
A group of dilapidated log cabins at the edge of a clearing.
A huge, empty pool, cracked and stained with orange.
An abandoned wooden bathhouse.
The pungent smell of minerals in the air.
She set her suitcase in the clearing, left her camera on top of it, and walked to the bathhouse. From the looks of the place, this was the end of the road. And the end of her dream.
She pushed and the door swung open on rusty hinges. She gasped. In her bathhouse, in her old enameled bathtub, was a cowboy. He was up to his neck in hot thermal water, wearing only a hat tilted low over his forehead. Shafts of sunlight poured through the cracks in the roof, illuminating his broad shoulders and large feet. The rest she could only imagine.
He turned his head. Electric blue eyes met hers and gave her a long appreciative look.
“Hello, darlin',” he said with a lazy grin. “What can I do for you?”
She swallowed hard. “You can get out of my bathtub.”
Obligingly he braced his hands on the edge of the tub and stood.
She should have closed her eyes.
She should have looked away.
She should have run for her life.
But she didn't. She stood there and stared at the lean, hard body of a magnificent man in all his naked splendor. Her face flamed. Her knees wobbled.
He came to his senses first and planted his hat against his muscular thighs. “Have a seat,” he said, waving his other hand in the direction of a wooden bench along the wall.
“Who—who do you think you are?” she sputtered.
“Who do you think I am?” he inquired. Tiny drops of water slid down his chest, caught in the damp blond hair there and caused her heart to pound erratically.
“I think you're an intruder and you're trespassing on my property,” she said stiffly.
“Your property...” A whole series of emotions— including shock and surprise—crossed his craggy face. But he recovered quickly. “Then you must be...”
“Zebulon Bowie,” he said extending his hand to grasp hers. “My friends call me Zeb.”
“Mr. Bowie,” Chloe said, trying to ignore the large callused hand that held hers and didn't let go. “What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?” he said with a mocking smile.
“It looks like you're taking a bath in my tub, and I would appreciate it if you, if you... if you...”
What was wrong with her, allowing the presence of a naked stranger to cause her mind to go blank and her body to hum like a live wire? She was a nurse, for heaven's sake. She'd seen naked bodies before. But not like this one.
“If I would make room for you? No problem,” he assured her. “You look like you could use some hot water.”
Again the frankly sexual gaze raked her body and caused an instant and unwanted reaction. Her nipples peaked against the damp silk shirt that was pasted to her body.
“And a cold beer,” he added.
“I don't drink beer,” she said primly while her face burned and her parched throat ached for something cool, anything. But accepting a drink would make it look like he was the host and she was the guest. And make it all the more difficult to kick him off her property.
“Too bad,” he said, letting her hand go and reaching behind him to grab a pair of clean jeans and a shirt from a shelf above the tub. “Made it myself. Won second prize last fall at the county fair.”
She exhaled slowly. Her mouth was as dry as a cotton swab. “Well, maybe just a sip,” she said weakly.
He nodded and brushed past her on his way out the door, causing her to tremble uncontrollably for no reason at all. Except that she'd had a long, hard day. And it wasn't over yet.
Zeb stood in the shade of an evergreen tree and pulled his jeans on over muscled calves and thighs. Then a clean, though wrinkled, shirt went over his damp head of hair. His skin cooled rapidly in the dry air. But his body was hot and buzzing with awareness.
So this was Chloe Hudson. If he'd known she had long gorgeous legs that didn't quit, spectacular breasts clearly outlined by a clingy damp silk shirt, and a face the angels would envy, he would have... What? Given up his plan to buy her property and resell it at a huge profit? Not a chance. Not even if she'd jumped in that tub with him and he'd watched the water bead on her smooth skin, traced its path with his tongue as it trickled down her neck.... What did she need an old hot-springs resort for? He, on the other hand, had a desperate need for cash. Now. And no need for sexual gratification. Not from little Miz Hot-Springs Heiress.
He grabbed a cold bottle of beer from under a rock in the stream, then lifted her suitcase and carried it to the bathhouse. “Got your brew for you,” he announced. “And your duds.”
No answer. He should have warned her about taking care in the hot tub. Some people, unused to a sudden infusion of hot mineral water, fainted dead away. He yanked the door open.
Her head was tilted back against the porcelain, her red-gold hair cascading in wet ringlets over the edge of the tub. Her eyes were closed.
Her eyes flew open and she gave him a look that could have shattered the bottle in his hand.
“I knocked,” he explained, his eyes riveted on the slope of her smooth shoulders as she sank deeper into the water. But not so deep he couldn't catch a glimpse of rosebud-tipped breasts floating like strawberries in a glass of champagne. He drew in a ragged breath, set the bottle on the floor and walked out.
So now they were even, he thought as he stomped down the rickety steps to solid ground. She'd seen him and he'd seen her. It wasn't as if he'd never seen a naked woman before. Then why was his heart pounding in time to some distant drum?
He glanced back at the bathhouse. “Hey,” he yelled. “I left your bag at the door.”
No answer. He could go back in. Make sure she hadn't succumbed to heat prostration and didn't need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Oh, lord. The idea of plundering her mouth, exploring the moist hot recesses, set his pulse racing.
As he stared at the door, it opened. Slowly, cautiously, she stuck her head out, extended one bare arm and dragged the tan leather bag inside.
Enough, he told himself. Enough ogling his new neighbor and fantasizing about saving her life by holding her flat against the floorboards, forcing her lips open, filling her lungs with air from his, his hand cradled under her head. He let out a deep breath. And practiced what he'd say when she came out.
“Welcome to Paradise,” he'd say. Then he'd wait a minute to let the irony sink in. “It's not much to look at, but it's all there is. Not to worry. Being the good neighbor I am, I'll take it off your hands. Right after dinner. Then I'll give you a ride to your car...your bus, whatever. And you can be on your way.” He smiled with satisfaction. He shouldn't have to say much more. The run-down buildings, the overgrown weeds spoke louder than any words.
Chloe let the last draught of the smooth dark beer slide down her throat, then rubbed herself dry with a rough towel she found hanging from a peg on the wall. Her skin tingled, and her body throbbed. She closed her eyes and said a prayer that when she opened the door, the cowboy who thought he was God's gift to women would be gone.
But he was far from gone. Instead, he was kneeling over a campfire, sun-bleached blond hair falling over his forehead, coaxing a bundle of dry sticks to burn. She noticed broad shoulders in blue denim and muscled thighs in tight jeans. She sucked in her breath. He had a gorgeous body, in or out of his clothes.
She reminded herself that his gorgeous body was trespassing on her property and stalked purposefully toward him across the clearing.
He looked up through a haze of smoke. His eyes traveled lazily up her legs, lingered on her hips and hovered over her breasts until their eyes finally met. The heat from his gaze combined with the warmth of the fire turned her face red and made her heart pound.
“Do you mind...” she began.
“Not at all,” he said pointing to a flat rock where she could sit.
It wasn't easy, considering the hot bath and the bottle of dark beer had made her legs feel like Jell-O, but she continued to stand and glare down at him. “Do you mind,” she repeated, “telling me what you're doing here? Besides taking a bath, that is.”
“Right now,” he said positioning a blackened frying pan on the fire, “I'm making us dinner.”
She should have declined, but with only a power bar to sustain her since morning, the sides of her stomach were gnawing at each other. With a sigh she gave in and sat down on the rock opposite the arrogant cowboy who'd taken over her bathhouse, without even apologizing for trespassing.
“Do you have a home?” she asked as she watched him toss fresh fish filets into the smoking pan.
“A home, yes. But no hot spring.”
“Wife?” she asked. Where did that come from? Whether he had a wife or not was none of her business.
“No wife,” he said slanting a glance in her direction. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“Wouldn't you ask a lot of questions if you found somebody in your bathtub?”
“Depends on the somebody.” He gave her a look that made her heart pound in her ears. It could have been the altitude, the bath or the beer, but it wasn't. It was the way he stared at her, his eyes glittering dangerously.
“First thing I'd ask is how long you staying?” he asked.
She looked around at the ramshackle buildings as twilight fell on the old resort and sighed. “I don't know.”
“Disappointed? I don't blame you. Old place is falling apart. Not Horatio's fault, though. He did what he could.”
“You knew him?”
“Next-door neighbors. He must have mentioned the Bowie Brothers.”
“Wild men who raised hell all over the county?”
“Yep,” he said with a cocky grin. “So you've heard of us.”