Copyright @ 2018 Donna Steele
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system-except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine, newspaper, or on the Web without permission in writing from the publisher.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or name. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover Artist: Robert Steele, ©2018
Copyright @ 2018 Donna Steele
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by an information storage and retrieval system-except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine, newspaper, or on the Web without permission in writing from the publisher.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or name. Names, characters, places, andincidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover Artist: Robert Steele, ©2018
Alyssa pulled into the driveway and backed under the overhang. The cabin, a beautiful rustic place with a lovely porch all the way across the front, looked better than she had imagined. Two rustic rocking chairs with a table between them graced the space. Piles of cut wood to the left of door ensured a warm stay regardless of weather. Curtains were drawn over the large window that overlooked the front yard.
The privacy of this location was the best part. She couldn’t see any signs of civilization and that’s what she wanted for the next two weeks.
Leaving everything in the car, she unlocked the door. The inside was rustic as well, but with so much more light than anticipated. Two skylights centered over the couch added sun as well as slim lights at the top of the walls. That didn’t even count the double window overlooking the porch once she drew the curtains back. She’d been expecting the low ceilings to make the place dark and closed in. It was anything but.
Disappointment over learning there was a wood stove rather than a fireplace dissolved when she spotted the stove, beautiful with a full glass front. She could still sit and watch the flames. Now to find out if the efficiency was as proclaimed.
A picnic style table proclaimed that area the dining room. The kitchen held the basics, a gas stove, small refrigerator, and even a stackable washer and dryer. She’d been assured the propane tank was full.
Yes, it was perfect for her needs.
Though sorry not to be spending Christmas with her father, there was no way he could get home this year. She understood and they’d spend time together in January. They could celebrate just as well then. He’d been more worried about her, not wanting her to be alone on “the anniversary”. Alyssa had assured him the timing didn’t matter. Whenever they could get together was good for her.
The timing was good for her as well. The first book in her new series had hit the lists, and already paid back her advance. The second was in final edits and she was working well on books three and four. This would be the perfect place to finish them up. And no one around to pity her. Since she couldn’t convince everyone she didn’t need it . . .
Yes, this place would do nicely.
She headed outside to get her things.
Zach paused to catch his breath. His target was dead. Really dead. He’d learned a long time ago not to leave someone behind him that could sneak up on him. Hell, he’d learned that watching movies as a child.
And even better, the idiot had no time to meet with his contact and deliver the thumb drive. His boss would be able to tell the government that disaster had been averted once again thanks to the firm.
The cost was a little higher than he’d wanted. After assuring himself no further danger would come from the courier, he sat, more fell, to tend to his own wounds. The arm was a through and through, not bleeding too heavily. The leg was the problem. An artery hadn’t been hit, but bad enough. The bullet was still in there and he was bleeding badly in that area.
Zach jerked the belt from the waistband of his target and secured it around his thigh, then added the man’s jacket as well to catch any blood. Better not to be leaving a trail. He had to get back to his car and out of here.
With the temperature dropping, he was losing the light quickly. Where was the car from here? He was getting lightheaded. The last thing he needed. His blood loss was interfering already. Damn it, he had to get out of here soon or he never would.
He wiped his hand over his face and found it wet. Blood? Shit, he’d been grazed there as well. No wonder he was losing blood. Head wounds were the worse. He hadn’t even felt that one.
At least he hadn’t used his own weapon. Hadn’t needed to. The idiot had run out of ammo, wasting it blasting away at him. When the gun had clicked, Zach had lunged, snapping his neck.
With the empty gun tucked into his waistband at his back, he made it to his feet. He shoved the body toward the gully off the path. It took two shoves but the body rolled away. Hopefully if he were ever found, it would look like an accident.
Grabbing up a sturdy limb to use as a crutch, Zack moved in the direction he thought the car lay.
He couldn’t allow his growing weakness to slow him down. That could be as deadly as his wounds.
Alyssa had brought all of her supplies and luggage inside, emptying the car. The small Christmas tree brought along for decoration held a place of honor on the table. An abundance of food was now stored in the small kitchen. She’d brought too much, but she wanted to treat herself, even bringing a bottle of champagne for New Years Eve. She could celebrate alone this year.
Since she hadn’t been sure she could get the fire started, four of those self-lighting logs came along just in case. They were stacked beside the logs she’d hauled in to dry and warm up the place.
The wind picking up made a sort of low moaning around the cabin that might be scary after dark. Changing to a heavier sweater and jeans as the temperature dropped, she was snug in here, comfortable, but the wind made it feel cold. She got ready to settle down on the sofa in front of the fire, her glass of wine already poured as a reward for all her hard work.
A noise outside caught her attention. There would be animals around, she knew that, but the knowledge didn’t make her less wary.
Damnit, she really ought to check.
Picking up a healthy stick of wood, she moved to the door. No windows around the door and the peephole revealed nothing.
She’d drawn the heavy drapery over the front windows after checking the view. Did she disturb them to look out? Her preference, to remain hidden behind them, wasn’t an option. She needed to know what was out there.
Removing the bar and opening the door, she tightened her grip on the stick. Movement at the far end of the porch caught her eye. What the . . .
A man lay there, collapsed half on, half off the porch.
This wasn’t the direction of the car and Zach realized he was in deep trouble. His vision blurring, the knowledge he’d lost too much blood and was too cold actually frightened him for a first in a long time. Unable to think clearly any longer, he continued to trudge ahead.
The scent of smoke had brought him in this direction. Someone would be here. There’d be no fire if the place were empty.
Car, there was a car next to the cabin. He was in no position to steal it presently. Someone would . . . he missed the step, collapsing on the porch as his vision went dark.
Alyssa stared down at the man. What the hell? Was that blood coating his pants? He was out of it. What had happened? Where had he come from? She looked around for anyone else, but silence and stillness greeted her as though the wind died to help her think. Or to make it more sinister.
Why was he bleeding?
Did she bring him inside? He didn’t look like much of a danger currently. Could she get him inside? It didn’t look like he’d be of any assistance.
She realized flurries of snow had begun. Had the weather forecast included snow? Shit. She couldn’t let him freeze, or bleed, to death out here. Get him in and call 911.
Good thing he’d collapsed mostly on the porch. She would never have been able to haul him up onto it. A big man, he must be well over six feet she judged and damn muscular. Also good that he was unconscious, because she had to be hurting him.
She managed to tug him to the door, no small feat, then spotted the blood trail. Would that attract animals? She was a city girl, damn it! Things were happening too quickly.
How again had she decided this remote vacation was a good idea?
No, she couldn’t let him bleed all over the floor and rug. It wasn’t her floor. Grabbing the tarp that covered one of the woodpiles on the porch, she managed to roll him onto it and using that, pulled him on inside. Probably didn’t hurt him as much as well.
Closing and barring the door, she took a long moment to get her breath and realize her hands shook. What the hell had she just done?
It didn’t matter. She couldn’t make any other decision. He was injured. If he was a bad guy, she still had the upper hand for now.
At least he could thaw out in front of the woodstove. Alyssa shoved the coffee table out of the way, and managed to tug him closer to the stove. Damn he was heavy. What next? 911. She grabbed her cell phone from the table. No signal. Good thing they’d installed a landline. Thinking the wall phone only retro decoration, now she was happy to have it. Except for the silence on the line. It was down? When did landlines go down?
A strong gust of wind answered that question. Now what?
Okay, there must be a first aid kit here. Yeah, he had bled heavily and they probably stored a bottle of aspirin and a few Band-Aids.
The larger than usual white box with the Red Cross sat on top of the refrigerator and, to her relief, surprisingly well stocked. Good thing, since she was unable to reach the outside world.
How did one triage? She wrote romance, not suspense. The most blood seemed to come from his leg. Why was he even bleeding? With severe trepidation she moved closer.
Untying the jacket from around his leg, she spotted the belt he used as a tourniquet and the hole in his jeans became obvious. Was that a gunshot? Oh crap, what had she gotten herself into? Why couldn’t he have impaled himself on a branch?
Closing her eyes for a moment, she spread her first aid supplies on the coffee table and knelt beside his body. He was a big man. She knew that from hauling him inside, but he was a bigman. She was no pixie, topping five foot nine, but he must tower over her, when he could stand.
She needed to see the wound. If nothing else, she could pour alcohol over it. First she needed to really see it.
No scissors in the kit that could cut denim. Could she get them off him? She had to try. First the boots. Of course the laces were wet. Hell, he hadn’t bled to death yet. He’d just have to hang on.
Pulling off the boots and damp socks showed large, well shaped feet with long toes.
Yeah, Alyssa, admire the dying man’s feet.
It also revealed an ankle holster and gun. Great, she removed it and placed it out of his reach should he wake.
She moved to his waistband then and released the button. Hell, she wrote this stuff, she didn’t live it.
Damp jeans, but she managed to scoot them down a little, and startled when a gun fell out of the back. And oh shit, he was commando. Oh yeah, this guy is traipsing around in the wood, getting shot, commando. Her editor would throw this out as unbelievable.
But he was . . . distracting, and hung. Damn.
She grabbed up the guns and deposited them on top of the refrigerator. She didn’t know if they were loaded, but soon they’d be hidden behind the first aid kit regardless. She still didn’t know if he was the good guy or the bad.
Attention on the wound, Alyssa.
She draped one of the towels she’d brought over him to afford him some modesty and her some concentration. The wound, red, ugly, but not bleeding now.
His blood probably froze out there.
She poured a little alcohol over it to clean it and give her a better look. No exit wound, which meant, crap, the bullet was still inside. Not her problem, right?
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” she murmured to herself.
“Remove it.” The voice, deep, gravelly caused Alyssa to leap to her feet and stepped back two steps before she could catch herself.
“I didn’t know you were awake.”
“The alcohol got my attention. I need you to remove the bullet.”
“Yeah, dream on, mister. You should be in a hospital. I don’t know nuthin’ about removing no bullets.”
“I can’t see you getting me in a car and I’m not going to be much help.”
“True, but . . . The car’s not far.” She backed further away from him. Even helpless he didn’t look . . . helpless. Dark scruff decorated his face and his hair was long enough to curl around his collar. His eyes were intense, dark and pain filled still looked like he was in control.
She moved to the door and opened it. Maybe between them she could—“No.”
“What?” He sounded more alert at that.
“There was nothing in the forecast about snow. There must be four inches out here and it’s coming down like crazy. How long have we been inside?”
“Then it’s settled. You remove the bullet.”
Her head swiveled to stare at him, then she slammed the door shut and slide the bar back into place. He looked serious.
“It looks like you have more experience.” There were other scars, multiple ones.
“I’m good, but I can’t remove it myself.”
“What if I make it worse?”
“Then I die.”
“Oh thanks, you’re a real help.” But she found herself approaching him again.
“What’s in your first aid kit?”
Alyssa took a seat beside him on the floor and pulled the box down next to her. Yes, he could grab her if he wanted to, but that didn’t appear to be his intent. She located a pair of needle nose tweezers and, hell a scalpel. “This is hard core.”
“It’s a mountain cabin. Injuries happen.”
She cut her eyes at him but didn’t dispute it.
“Is there any whisky here?”
“Uh, yeah. Tequila and Bourbon.” She’d brought a large bottle of each, besides the wine.
“Bourbon. For me. My anesthesia.”
Taking a deep breath she rose and pulled the bottle of Maker’s Mark out of the box on the counter. So much for a relaxing glass of wine by the fire, admiring her little Christmas tree.
“Do you have a name?” She sat again, handing him the glass of bourbon whiskey.
“Alyssa.” She waited a moment, but he said no more. “Are you serious? You want me to try to do this?”
“Just do it.”
She couldn’t really blame him for his foul mood. In all honestly, she would be a lot worse.
“Help get my coat and shirt off.”
“You’ll have to do my arm next.”
“There’s another bullet in you?” Yeah, there was blood there too, not to mention the blood decorating his face.
“Don’t think so. A through and through, but it needs to be cleaned and bandaged. Make sure you get any trash out of the wound, pieces of denim or leaves.”
“Sure, fine, whatever.” Trash in the wound? She hadn’t thought of that. Yeah, those scars showed he had tons more experience than she did.
She moved as gently as possible removing the coat and sweater, but she saw the pain in his eyes and the sweat pop out on his forehead. Offering him another drink of the bourbon, she took a deep breath. Then without another word went to the kitchen and scrubbed her hands up past the wrists. There was no one else and he seemed to know what he was talking about. Good thing she watched a lot of TV over the years.
“Ready?” she asked when she approached him.
“As I’ll ever be.”
Yeah, she felt the same. She nodded, pulled on a pair of the surgical gloves stored in the kit and laid the tweezers in the shallow pan of alcohol. Did she have everything she needed, except experience, around her? Yeah. No more stalling.
She cleaned the area again, too close to his groin, but the towel was back in place after removing his other clothes. There were a couple of fibers that she could see and she carefully removed them.
Probing was next, tentative and she was being as gentle as possible. She felt the obstruction. She was going to hurt him. She looked up to apologize again, but his eyes were closed. Had he passed out? She hoped so.
She would never forget the next five minutes as long as she lived. Even the slight sucking sound as the bullet left the wound, as though the body didn’t want to release it.
Yeah, he’d passed out. He hadn’t moved an inch, not even a twitch. She dropped the bullet into the pan and returned the tweezers as well, then let her hands shake for a couple of minutes.
She should have joined him in a quick belt of the bourbon.
Another cleaning with alcohol, but there hadn’t been much more blood thank goodness, then butterfly bandages, antibiotic ointment, the thick pad and gauze to secure it.
Oh yeah, not going into nursing had been a superb decision on her part.
Now for the arm.
That went quicker, only bandaging to do after cleaning and making sure all trash was removed. The back of the wound was worse than the front, but again butterflies would make it a smaller scar. Wasn’t like it would be his first scar.
And finally the graze on his forehead. Only skinned there, but it had bled freely. The remaining blood in his hair would wait until he could shower, but she got out what she could, then cleaned and coated the wound with antiseptic cream.
She sank back, her body aching from tension and position. Had she really dived into such a situation? Her hands shook uncontrollably now and she was near tears. But she’d done it, falling apart afterwards was to be expected, right?
He was still out or avoiding looking at her, she suspected the first, so once she forced some composure, she took the time to look at his face. Less scary when he was unconscious, his nose had been broken at least once but his jaw square and firm. His hair was long, nearly shaggy and dark, though with the blood she wasn’t sure of the true color. The quick look into his eyes earlier had shown them to be that melted dark chocolate color and, in other circumstances, swoon worthy.
Was he a good guy or not?
Didn’t matter, she possessed his guns and a kick to the leg would ensure he couldn’t catch her easily.
Unless someone followed him.
She glanced back at the door. The bar was in place and she hadn’t heard anything outside since dragging him in. Anyone would realize someone was inside with the smoke, but there wasn’t much she could do about that.
She rose and checked the level of the snow. It was the heavy, wet kind, piling up quickly and, she realized, could knock out the power. Immediately plugging in her phone and laptop to charge, she looked around. What else? If the power went out, so would the pump to the well, so she headed to the bath to fill the tub. At least they’d be able to flush.
No candles sat around that she could see, but two large oil lamps, full of oil stood on the mantle. She spotted a third in the kitchen. More wood for the fire. Damn. This was so not the working vacation she’d envisioned.
Good use of understatement. Her editor would be proud.
While the tub filled, she forced herself to open the door. Looking around, the blood on the porch had been diluted at least. There were no tracks and no movement that couldn’t be attributed to wind. She brought in as much wood as she could lift in the carrier and dumped it. After turning off the water, she hauled in another load of wood. No way they would need this much, but . . . It was wet, so she stood the pieces on end to drain near the woodstove. It had been a long time since Girl Scouts but that was something she remembered.
While she had power she might as well do a small load of laundry. The blood had probably ruined his clothes, not to mention the holes the bullets created, but he had nothing else to wear here. And the clothes were tacky and stiff.
She wasn’t even surprised when she discovered a flash drive deep in one of the front pockets of his jeans. She wrote contemporary romance not thrillers.
Write what you know, right? Well a new genre loomed now.
With the washer loaded she took a seat on the couch. She hadn’t even made her bed yet. Had she really only been here a couple of hours? Time was fluid, racing one minute and not moving at all the next while she worked on him.
Holy crap. It hit her again. Worked on him. Hell, she’d removed a damn bullet from a stranger’s leg. Her hands started shaking again. Rising she located her glass of the long awaited wine.
He would get an infection. That seemed inevitable. Nothing here was sterile and he’d walked some ways in the woods to find this place. She’d done everything she knew to do, but that was next to nothing. Surely they wouldn’t be trapped here but a day or so. She was in the mountains and people here knew how to handle the elements. Of course she was off any main road and most likely the only one up here. Would anyone remember she washere?
Renting the cabin on-line, no one local was aware of her. When she topped off the tank of her rented SUV at a self-service place she’d not even gone inside. The car wasn’t due back until after the New Year. The vehicle did have four-wheel drive. That should count as a plus.
Surely phone service would return before then. Dad would be calling Christmas morning.
Taking another sip of the wine, she tried to change direction in her thoughts. She had food and fuel. It would be okay.
It had to be.
Neither of them was going anywhere tonight.
Zach woke to silence, no, there was the snapping of a fire. He was warm and dry. Where?
The fire gave some light and he started to look around. The pain stopped that cold. What?
The courier. He’d shot Zach, but Zach had taken care of him. He was history and Zach took the thumb drive. Or he’d taken it. He lay nude under the blanket. Had his wounds been tended?
He let his good arm explore and found the bandage around his thigh. Yes, but this was no hospital. There was a rhythmic thumping in the background and . . .
Movement to his right and above him caught his attention. Someone slept on a couch next to him.
Yes, he remembered now. He’d followed his nose toward the smell of wood smoke and seen a cabin. He didn’t remember making it inside, but a vision had come to him. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen leaned over him, not speaking. With the light behind her he hadn’t been able to tell the color of her hair but her face was pale and lovely.
He’d never expected angels where he knew he was bound, so he had soaked in the sight of her until his vision went completely dark.
Now he lay on a mat on a floor, apparently patched up, but with no memory of how he got here. And he hurt. Oh God did he hurt.
The headache was bad, but the leg was worse and his arm was no picnic. At least that confirmed he lived, whether he currently wanted to or not.
He wasn’t going anywhere. He couldn’t walk even if he wanted to and without clothes the weather was not in his favor. He could hear the wind now that he was awake enough to realize it. But what was the thumping, and how was he going to get out of here?
No one would be looking for him for days.
That was his last thought before sleep overtook him again.
When next Zach woke it was morning, the place a little lighter. No bright sun came through the skylights. They seemed to be covered with snow, but some light came from the windows under the eaves. His clothes hung from a chair near the wood stove. He could hear movement in another part of the place and the scent of . . . coffee? He needed information.
Movement and a woman appeared. “Good morning. You made it through the night I see.”
“Yeah. I have you to thank for that?”
“Could you help me up?” he asked.
“Absolutely not. You’re not walking on that leg yet.”
“I need to get up.”
“No. And why do you need to get up?”
He vaguely waved at the tent she could now see in the quilt covering him. “Oh.” He could almost see her thought process, but to his surprise, she disappeared to the other side of the couch.
He struggled to rise a little, but with his left leg out and his right arm, it wasn’t working. He heard a sawing noise and then she returned. She handed him a plastic gallon jug. She’d widen the mouth to make it easier for him to use.
“Are you kidding?”
“No. You could just explode. Your choice.”
And again she retreated to another part of the cabin.
Shit! But his options were limited and the necessity had become acute. Damn.
He’d begun to worry that he’d fill the damn thing but the relief was exquisite and his sigh heartfelt. He placed the jug beside the couch and heard her approaching again.
“Not really. Was that to humiliate me?”
“Actually it was to give your leg more time to heal. I bandaged it up quite nicely and I don’t like seeing my work destroyed.”
He glared as she took the jug away.
When she returned, she sat the damn thing within his reach and smiled. “Want some breakfast?”
“I’d rather have something for pain.”
Her smile faltered then. “All I can find is aspirin. Eat a little bit first, to get something on your stomach, then I’ll show you what I have. I didn’t recognize the names of some of it.”
He sank back on the pillow she must have placed on the floor for him last night and tried breathing slowly. What the hell was going on?
When she returned with scrambled eggs and toast, she sat the plate on the coffee table and got behind him. “Let’s see if you can sit up at least.” She helped him maneuver, propped against the couch, then adjusted one of the two quilts over him, providing some modesty. He felt the sweat that formed on his forehead at the maneuver. Damn he hurt.
“Try to eat a little. I’ll get the medicine.”
The coffee helped more, steadying him as the caffeine hit his system. The pain remained but he no longer shook. He took a tentative bite of eggs and relaxed as they stayed down.
The first aid box she brought over was larger than any he’d seen.
“Are you a doctor?”
“No,” she was looking through the box.
“A nurse, EMT?”
She stopped and faced him then. “I write romance novels.”
He knew his mouth had dropped open. “Romance . . . “
“Yes, and not thrillers, so last night was a totally new adventure for me.”
“I’m a little fuzzy on that.” He took another bite of the eggs. “Could you bring me up to date?”
“Sure. Apparently you followed the scent of smoke to my rental cabin, but collapsed before you could get to the door. I dragged you inside and tried to check you out. You roused when I poured alcohol over your leg wound and told me I had to remove the bullet. You were pretty adamant about it.” She popped a piece of toast in her mouth. “You also assured me no one was chasing you or would show up here.”
She looked at him for a long moment. “I don’t want to know, do I?”
He shook his head. She took a deep breath. “So, I removed the bullet, you passed out again, then I bandaged your arm. There was no bullet in it, and then cleaned up your scalp wound.”
His hand came up to tentatively touch his forehead. “Did we exchange names?”
“Yes. You’re Zach.”
His eyes narrowed, but she was grinning at him.
“I’m Alyssa. Pleased to meet you, I hope.”
He closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the couch. Without opening them, he said, “You really removed a bullet?”
“Yep. Want to see it?”
“Yes.” That brought his head back up despite the pain. Were there fragments of bullet still in the wound?
She handed him the bullet, cleaned and whole. He took another sigh of relief.
“I’ll change your bandages in a little while. You feel a little warm. I don’t know if there’s any kind of antibiotic here.” She motioned to the box. “Would you know?”
“Maybe. I’ll look.”
He began rummaging through the kit. He found an old bottle of clavulonate and swallowed two with his coffee.
“Wait, what was that?”
“A form of penicillin. From the date it might be too old, but it’s all that’s here. Nothing for pain but ibuprofen.” He closed his eyes, the pain was interfering with his thought processes and he needed to be alert.
What might be here that would help? Turmeric? No the processed stuff couldn’t give him that much relief. Cherries would be hard to come by up here. He’d have to stick to the ibuprofen and grin and bear it. He was lucky the clavulonate was here. He couldn’t blame the owner for not stocking something worth stealing.
Her gentle hand came to rest on his wrist. “Is there anything I can do?”
Just a few words, but her voice seemed to ease his tension and therefore the pain scaled back a little. Dumb, that a voice could help, but she had been his angel so far.
He’d take it and maybe it would distract him at least. Looking at her didn’t hurt either. Her hair, a dark and straight was pulled back in a messy bun and she wore sweat pants and an oversize sweatshirt. She had no right to look that sexy in that outfit. He remembered her now, bending over him as he collapsed outside. He could still see why he had thought angel.
She’d certainly been his in more ways than one.
He needed to keep her talking, distracting him from the pain.
“So why are you alone over Christmas?” He glanced over at the little tree.
She shrugged. “Dad’s out of the country. We’ll do our celebrating when he gets back.”
“How about your mother?”
“Don’t have a clue where she is.”
He absorbed that for a moment. “Siblings, friends?”
She sighed, but didn’t get up and leave. She couldn’t know how much the sound of her voice helped.
“I had invitations but none I wanted to accept. I didn’t want to be the object of pity or be coddled. And it is a good time to get away and write. At least that’s what I’d planned. Bullet removal wasn’t on my original agenda.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Why would you be pitied?”
“Isn’t it time for your nap?”
He actually chuckled at that, which surprised him. A few minutes ago he’d been ready to take a bite out of the coffee table. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would pity her. The mother thing? She didn’t look pitiable, she looked strong and capable.
“If I’m going to sleep you need to tell me a bedtime story,” he cajoled. He didn’t know her at all, but he found he wanted to. That was different.
“You don’t want to hear that story.”
“Yes, I do.” He stopped before admitting how much listening to her soothed him. “Besides as a writer, I’m sure you’d tell it well.”
She narrowed her eyes at that. Rather than answer, she took his empty plate and mug and rose. “I’ll get you some more coffee. Try to relax.”
She moved to the kitchen area and took her comfort with her. It would not be cool to beg her to hurry back.
But that’s what she did, returning and taking a place on the floor beside him.
“Why don’t we talk about you?” she asked.
“Not that interesting.”
“Yeah, you don’t look like you have anything interesting in your life.”
He had to grin. “Yeah.”
“Are you sure whoever shot you isn’t headed this way?” He watched her glanced once more at the door.
“I can guarantee it.” And the person he was supposed to meet had no idea why he’d been detained. They were safe in that regard at least. Now the weather . . . “It’s better if you tell me a story.”
Alyssa hesitated, looking at him carefully, but after a moment spoke. “You know it’s Christmas Eve.”
He nodded. He truly had no one to share that with currently. One of the reasons he’d accepted the assignment, leaving those with family to enjoy them. But she apparently did and had avoided it. Any story from her voice would be welcome.
“Go on. Don’t make me braid your hair for a story.”
Her eyes narrowed but he saw the glint of humor in them.
“Well, Christmas Eve was supposed to be my wedding day last year. Fortunately I managed to evade it.”
She stopped then and after a moment he leaned forward. “Oh come on. You write romance novels and that’s all you have to say about it?”
She was cute when she cut her eyes at him that way.
“I managed to dodgethe bullet aimed at me.” She cast a glance at his leg.
He liked her smile. She might not be a real angel, but she was beautiful. And for no good reason, he was pleased she’d apparently extricated herself from a bad situation. And a man who must have been a douche to her. He already pictured the dude as a complete idiot.
“Well? Are you going to entertain me?”
That expression brought him close to laughing. Besides, wasn’t it supposed to be easier to talk to strangers? Bartenders knew tons of secrets.
“Fine. Lean back.”
He complied, the pain really was less when she spoke. He wasn’t going to analyze that.
“Once upon a time it was the evening before the ceremony.” She stopped and smirked at him. He didn’t try to hide the grin. “Everyone was gathered at the hotel to celebrate. It was a destination wedding. I wanted to give T-himhis wedding gift before the ceremony and I knew I didn’t have much time. The old not seeing the bride thing, so I went to his room and used my card to let myself in.” She shifted uncomfortably and Zach thought to stop her. The last thing he wanted was to make her uncomfortable. Before he could, she continued.
“He was not alone. He was so not alone. His partner’s wife and he were . . . engaged in quite a strenuous workout.”
“Alyssa . . . “ He hadn’t spoken her name before, but he didn’t want her to relive something painful.
“It’s okay.” She shook her head, “I never thought people could levitate before that, but he managed it. I can only imagine the trauma of . . . disconnecting that rapidly. Then there was the frantic attempt at explanation. ‘It doesn’t mean anything’ was the phrase, I believe. Which did not go over well with the partner’s wife, who began to screech ‘what did he mean, it didn’t mean anything’.”
Zach saw tears in her eyes then and automatically started to reach for her. But she began to laugh.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t funny at the time, but now . . . The door stood open. I’d been too shocked to close it and the hall started filling up and they were all wedding guests and people that worked with, oh hell, with Tom and his partner. Oh and then heshowed up, the partner, Phil. Everything went downhill fast then. I slipped out. I’m not sure if blows were exchanged or just administered. Security was called, but I’d escaped to my room.” She chuckled again.
“First thing I did was get on-line to transfer funds and close my accounts. The hotel asked several people to vacate the premises and by the time I re-emerged things were calming down. What could be canceled was, but Dad put on a great party the next day for those still there. It was too late to cancel the caterers.”
“Why would your friends think you needed consoling?” Zach asked.
“Oh, they were convinced he was the love of my life. I hadn’t admitted to anyone I was already having doubts. I mean the wedding was happening, and there’s no reason to admit that now. I probably wouldn’t be believed at this late date anyway. He’d planned most of it, including the destination. Most people didn’t know that. I’ve given up trying to convince them.” She shifted to a more comfortable position.
“Remember, I thought about protecting my assets before I mourned a relationship. I already knew, I just hadn’t faced it.”
“What did he say about the money?”
“Nothing to me directly. I refused his calls. And I only took half, less when there was an odd penny. I transferred his out though and I’m sure he had some trouble finding it.”
“Which was your intention.”
“Yes.” She smiled that smile at him again and he felt warm, too warm.
“I wouldn’t want you as an enemy.”
“Then don’t mess with me.”
If only he could. And was his cock actually agreeing with that? He was injured. Injured as badly he could remember. But this woman had saved him.
“Turn about is fair play.” Alyssa tilted her head. “What brings you to my private get away?”
“Sorry. That’s not really a topic that’s mine to discuss. I had an assignment, which I carried out more or less successfully.”
“Oh!” She jumped to her feet and he realized he’d actually reached out to stop her. She darted into the kitchen and returned quickly. She held out the thumb drive. “Here. Before I washed your clothes I found this. Part of your assignment?”
“Yes. Thank you for not running it through the washer. That was the sound I heard last night.”
“I woke up for a minute. There was a rhythmic thumping, it was the dryer.”
“Yes, before the power went out. That’s why they’re drying over there now.”
“There’re holes in them but I don’t have anything that will fit you. As it is I’m not giving you the jeans yet, but I guess if we’re careful you could put on the t-shirt and sweater.”
“Why not my jeans?”
“I told you, no one’s messing with my lovely bandage yet. You can keep the blanket over you.”
“It’s a little late for modesty.”
“Ah, but you don’t want shrinkage.”
He blustered with fake outrage and she laughed again. Damn she had a beautiful laugh.
Alyssa sat back. What was she thinking teasing the man like this? She didn’t know him, but he didn’t frighten her. And she would be spending the holidays with him now.
She’d told him the story. For the first time, allowing herself to laugh. It hadn’t been funny at the time. But her relief was honest.
She felt guilt over the amount of money Dad lost, but her mother had been the most upset there, even though she hadn’t contributed a dime. Following the party Mom had disappeared again. Alyssa hadn’t heard a word from her since.
Her friends had kept her up on the story, despite her requests not to bother. Tom lost his job and Phil had kicked his wife out. Too many witnesses for her to try to bluff her way back to him. And too many who’d heard her screeches about Tom’s explanations.
Tom had yanked the sheet off the bed to protect his own modesty, leaving her to the eyes of all the guests without a thought.
The bitch only quieted down when Phil shoved his way through the crowd at the door. Alyssa had exited through that same hole before it closed again.
Alyssa hadn’t realized how many of Tom’s “friends” hated him. The glee they’d shown at his comeuppance had been as much as eye opener as finding him in flagrante delicto. So why didn’t her friends see it?
Back to the present, Alyssa. Thank goodness it’s only a memory.
Zach didn’t seem to be running a fever. She’d touched his hand earlier and twice had managed to stop herself before caressing his cheek. The stubble intrigued her and it had been a long time since . . .
Well he certainly wasn’t up to anything like that in his condition. She wasn’t surprised he couldn’t go into what he did or why. Three bullet wounds told her it wasn’t for public consumption.
Yes, it was naïve to decide he was the good guy in this particular scenario but it felt like it, so she would go with the flow. He had started to offer sympathy when she told her story of Tom, but had joined her in the laughter as well.
She had told him the story, but since he was a stranger, it didn’t matter. After they got free they’d never see each other again. Why did that depress her?
Hell, she liked the guy.
She didn’t know the guy, she reminded herself.
“I’m keeping you from your work, aren’t I?”
“Yes, but I think you’ve given me enough ideas for a whole new series, so I’m not complaining. I should clean up, but with the pump out I thought I’d wait.”
“The pump is out?”
“No electricity, remember? There’s a gas stove and I put the refrigerated food back in the cooler. I seem to have enough snow to keep it cold.”
“Is it still snowing?”
“Oh yeah. It’s up over the porch now, at least a foot.”
“You didn’t plan to feed two people.”
“No, I planned to overindulge and gain some weight. I don’t think we need to start rationing yet. If the Donner party shows up, I won’t let them in.” Interesting, he must have been more than a boy scout, even if he couldn’t talk about himself.
“Good idea. I’ll pay you back.”
“No need. It’s kind of nice to have someone else here. This is a little more isolated than I planned.”
“I agree there.”
“I know you can’t talk about what you’re doing up here, so I’m changing the subject. Are you in the military? Special Operations?”
“I don’t know. You’re a little old to be an Eagle Scout but—“
“Ex-military.” Was his only comment.
Not enough. He intrigued her in too many ways. “A SEAL?”
He glanced sideways at her. “No. The training was similar but we didn’t have their PR, and we aren’t in as many romance novels.”
He seemed immune to her glare, in fact he grinned at her.
“I can fix that.”
He laughed. A first for her and she felt it vibrate deep inside her.
Zach needed to get away from her, at least for a little while. She was messing with his concentration. “Don’t suppose you’d let me use the facilities?”
She actually thought about it for a moment. “I think you can get up now. I found a walking stick that might help. And the water I put on the woodstove should be heated by now if you want to freshen up.”
“In other words, you stink?”
She grinned as she placed a long heavy stick against the couch. “I didn’t say that. But you do still have some blood in your hair.”
His right hand automatically reached up and he winced slightly. Yeah, there were a couple of tacky places.
“Now, if we can get you up on the couch, I’ll change your bandage. Think you can try to stand?”
“I could do this with more modesty if you’d return my jeans.”
“Oh Honey, that ship has already sailed.” He tried to glare at her grin but she was so obviously pleased with herself he could tell it didn’t bother her.
“Not fair when you’re wearing a bulky sweater to hide assets from me.”
She made no comment to that.
With a little help, he hoisted himself to the couch and took a moment for the pain to subside and get his breath.
“Stay still. I’ll get the first aid kit.”
She was back quickly and began unwinding the gauze around his thigh. She rolled it up rather than wadding it. She was smart, this could be reused.
Then the bandage became visible and he stared at it.
“Is that . . . “
“A menstrual pad? Why yes, it is.”
“Why did you—“
“It’s soft, absorbent and bigger than any of the bandages in there.”
It took him a moment to think of something to say. “Uh, good that you brought them.”
“I didn’t. The owner obviously has a wife or girlfriend. There’s a box in the bathroom.”
There was no comment that wouldn’t get him in deep trouble.
“Hey,” he forced his mind away. Think about something else. “Do you have my weapons?” Why hadn’t he thought of that before?
“Yes, I have both of them.”
He looked up quickly. “Both? There were three.”
“Yes, my weapon, my clutch piece and the gun that shot me, the one I took from the other guy.”
She shook her head. “You had one in the back of your jeans and one at your ankle.”
“My main weapon is missing,” he spoke as though to himself. He looked up at her. “Damn.”
“You said no one was following you.”
“That’s not really the point. The one at my back was the weapon used to shoot me, and it’s empty. My clutch piece, the one at my ankle is just for emergencies.”
“You could have dropped it anywhere.”
He shook his head. “No. I had it when I got to the porch I think. It was in my right hand. I was using a stick as a crutch in my left.” He paused trying to remember. “I couldn’t grab hold of the porch support with either hand. I don’t remember much after that.”
Just her face bending over him.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t see it.” Alyssa sank down on the couch beside him. He knew she saw the wince because she touched his hand in what seemed like an apology. “Okay, let’s get you in the bathroom. It’s small, so there are lots of places to hold on.”
Using the heavy stick he rose, but the blanket around his waist shifted. “Fuck it.” He tossed it aside and stood there, daring her to comment.
She didn’t aloud, but her eyes showed . . . appreciation? Well that felt kind of good.
He watched as she shook herself a little and turned to get the kettle of hot water from the top of the wood stove.
“Take your time. Do not fall,” she ordered. She seemed to be forcing herself to look at his chin. Couldn’t she look him in the eye when he stood nude like this?
How was he supposed to work under these conditions?
Alyssa stood back as he shut himself in the bathroom. They’d left the door open when it was unoccupied to allow it to heat. He should be okay if he didn’t fall.
What if it became necessary for him to have it? Yes, he’d assured her the man that shot him wasn’t coming. He hadn’t said it but she was pretty sure that man was dead. But what about the person he was supposed to meet to deliver the thumb drive?
Zach could be wrong in any case. He’d been badly wounded and could have missed something. He’d been barely conscious by the time he’d reached the cabin. How far had he traveled?
If the other guy hadn’t been dead, just knocked out, he could find his way here as well. It was unlikely, with all the snow but not impossible.
She glanced at the door again. Was she stupid to even think about going out in this?
She should have a few minutes. If she didn’t find his weapon, at least she could bring in some more wood. They might need it. He thought he’d had the gun when he got to the porch. Checking just in that area shouldn’t be a problem.
Slipping on her short puffy coat, she looked down at her boots. They were totally inadequate for these conditions and the snow was a lot deeper than the tops of them. It was past her knees now.
She wouldn’t be outside for long. She would wear the sneakers. They would dry faster. Of course the jeans weren’t going to be much protection either. She’d change as soon as she got back inside.
The gun might not be necessary, until it was.
She opened the door as quietly as possible. No need to worry him.
Zach leaned against the sink. He wasn’t going to admit he’d gotten a little light headed again standing. How much blood had he lost? He needed to be pushing fluids and not coffee.
He looked down. He had a damn menstrual pad over his bullet wound. The woman was a thinker. He’d never have considered it and it was a damn good bandage. Totally outside his experience, but clever.
She was clever. How the hell had he lucked out on finding her in the middle of nowhere? He should be dead.
Who would have found him? Them or someone from his team, finally realizing he hadn’t communicated? The thumb drive was safe. From the panic in the courier’s eyes he was pretty sure he held the only copy.
He needed to get in touch with his team, but there was little to nothing he could do about that now.
And he was going to spend Christmas with a beautiful woman. He grinned at himself in the mirror over that thought. This wasn’t any vacation he would have planned, but he could do little besides resting up.
He couldn’t hear her moving around. She must have gone into the kitchen. At least this place had a gas stove. He had no idea how long they’d be here or how much food she’d brought, but they should be okay. Considering that first aid kit, he was sure some emergency food was stashed here as well.
Too bad he needed to get into his pants instead of out of them.
Back up, Z. She’s your angel remember.
Damn but it was cold out here. The wind cut through like a knife and she couldn’t see much with the snow whipping around. Alyssa had never been in these conditions before and these clothes were less than what she needed. Even if she did ski, she wouldn’t be out in this. The wind caused her to stumble a little, but she headed to the end of the porch, where she had first spotted him.
The snow was already deeper than the two steps up to the porch, though the wind had kept it fairly clean at first. Snow was beginning to accumulate on it now. The blood trail totally wiped or washed away.
She had seen no gun when dragging him inside, so he’d dropped it prior to falling.
How far down was the ground here? Couldn’t be far because he’d fallen onto the porch. Of course, he was taller than her. Shit, just do it.
She stepped off the porch and sank to mid-thigh. Holy crap. She couldn’t be out here long. Her fingers already growing stiff in the inadequate gloves.
Shuffling around she felt for anything hard and mobile and hoped he’d dropped the damn gun only a few steps from the porch. If he’d released it to help himself up onto the structure it should be right here. She widened her search, narrowing her eyes as another gust threw blinding snow into her face.
This was impossible and stupid. If someone had been after him, they were frozen stiff out there somewhere. She turned to head back to the porch when her foot struck something hard. Could it be?
Reaching down into the snow, she had to shove some aside not to bury her face in it. There, hell, it wasa gun! And a stick he’d probably used as a crutch beside it. At least some luck still applied. She tucked the gun into the pocket of her coat.
Frozen to the bone, she floundered back to the porch. No idea how long she’d been out here, but she could no longer feel her feet or hands. Clamoring onto the porch took more time than it should have. The word clumsy was inadequate.
Once out of the snow that had encompassed her legs, the wind bit hard at the wet denim.
She staggered through the wind that tried to halt her progress toward the door, until finally she was close enough to shove it open.
Thank goodness it opened in. She couldn’t have fought it open otherwise.
Dropping the walking stick she hadn’t realized she still held, she fell back against the door, closing it.
Zach hesitated before opening the door from the bath. It was getting chilly in here and he was still nude from the waist down.
He’d shaved. Not usually a high priority but after washing out his hair to the best of his abilities he’d looked too scruffy for her.
What a moron. That woman could do a lot better than him. He was in her debt, not the other way around.
He still couldn’t hear her moving around. Maybe she was at the table, writing. That wouldn’t give him time to wrap one of the quilts around him before she spotted him again, though why bother now?
Surely she knew he wasn’t in any condition to hurt her. Not that he ever would. He was the vulnerable one here.
She didn’t know him at all. Only that he couldn’t tell her anything about himself. A real trust builder there. Alyssa had shared what must have been the most painful episode of her life and he’d muttered ex-military. Shit.
He didn’t spot her at the table. That was a break.
Moving as swiftly as he could, he reached the couch and wrapped the quilt around him. But he still couldn’t hear her. Before he could start for the kitchen area he spotted it. The bar that secured the door was up.
She’d gone outside?
They had plenty of wood and there was certainly nothing to look at right now.
She had gone outside to try to find it. The certainty was staggering. She was worried about their safety. He should have been more reassuring.
How long had she been out there? He’d been in the bathroom at least twenty minutes, maybe more. Would she have gotten lost in a white out?
Damn it, the gun was of no consequence if she were missing. No one could follow the scent of smoke in this even if someone were out there.
His options? He wouldn’t be much help floundering around with a walking stick, assuming he could even get dressed alone.
Hell, no choice. He grabbed the dry and stiff jeans from the chair even as the door banged opened and Alyssa staggered inside.
Damn, her lips were blue. He should never have allowed her out there, fuck the gun.
“I-I got it.” Alyssa wasn’t even shivering. She was too cold for that. He set the bar to lock the door she’d knocked closed.
The clothes she wore were as inadequate as the quilt he’d had around him.
She reached for her pocket but he took her hand. “Let me.”
He pulled the gun out and automatically ejected the clip. Let them dry separately. She was top priority now.
“Over here. We have to get these wet clothes off you.”
“A nice bonus,” he responded as he moved her closer to the wood stove. Her jeans were soaked nearly to her crotch and her sweater up past her elbow. That short jacket she wore had been little help.
His pain receded further at her need. He could concentrate on her now. He helped her remove the sweater and then the turtleneck top beneath it, leaving only her bra. The jeans were harder, wet skinny jeans fought them both, but finally she stood in a tiny strip of panties and bra.
“Sit.” He moved her to the couch and he sat on the coffee table, keeping his bad leg extended. He proceeded to roughly dry her off with the quilt that had been around him, stimulating blood flow to warm her up as quickly as possible.
Her lips were no longer blue, but she was far from warm.
“Here, lie down on my bed.” It was closer to the stove. He then sat on the couch and lowered himself to the floor.
“W-what are you do-doing?”
“Warming you up.” Body heat would work fastest. To his shock, she cuddled in seeking warmth from him, without fear.
And part of him came to full attention at the act.
Crap. Who knew he had that much blood left.
He looked up to apologize, but she had fallen asleep against him.
Pulling another dry quilt atop them, he relaxed beside her.
Alyssa woke slowly. Light came in the windows under the eaves. The storm was over?
She was on the floor and . . . Zach’s arms encompassed her. He was still slept, but why was she in his arms. And nude.
It began coming back then. She’d gone outside to find his gun. She’d found it but stayed too long and gotten wet and cold. He’d saved her. She hadn’t even been able to remove her wet things with frozen fingers.
She remembered him tugging off the wet and uncooperative jeans. Mom jeans from now on. To hell with those stupid skinny things.
He’d used his injured and battered body to warm her.
And now if what she was feeling pressing into her thigh was what she thought it was, he was damn happy to see her.
Hell, she hadn’t checked his injuries after his foray to the bathroom. She’d planned to change his bandage and check out his arm. After making it back inside, she’d been useless though she had recovered his weapon. Where was it?
“It’s early, go back to sleep.” The deep rumbling voice felt damn good.
“I’m not sure about that,” she said, cuddling in a little closer. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Maybe, when we get out of here, we can tally it up and see.”
See him again, out in the real world? Well, they were pretty compatible even if they had been thrown together, more than once. “That might be nice. And Merry Christmas.”
She could see the surprise on his face. “Yeah, Merry Christmas.” His lips found hers and all sorts of pain receded.
Looked like a lot of new memories were ahead to replace last Christmas.
Other Books by Donna Steele
Rth Rising – Book One, Rth Rising Series
Rth Claimed – Book Two, Rth Rising Series
The Infection – Book One, The Melting Series
The Progression – Book Two, The Melting Series
The Cohesion – Book Three, The Melting Series
Another Time – Book One, Guardians of Now Series
A Different Time – Book Two, Guardians of Now Series (coming Summer 2018)
Nowhere for Christmas
Christmas with Family
A Collection of Christmas Stories
Women strong enough for love.
Donna writes science fiction, paranormal and contemporary romances about women coming into their strength and having the courage to find and accept love.
Now that she has retired from going into an office every day, she created an office at home and writes full time. Talk about living the dream!
She was the girl at the party who was yearning for the quiet corner and a book to read (go Rory Gilmore!), and has been writing in her head since she learned to read. Getting those stories down on paper (or in her laptop) has been more fun than she ever imagined it could be.
The possibilities of science fiction have always drawn her and she’s read them all, there just needed to be a little more romance in them. She finally got up the courage to write them herself and is delighted to be able to share these stories with you.
She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal Chapter of RWA and the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. She can be reached at