Dangerous Relations






Almost twenty-four hours after leaving New York they finally arrived in Great Falls, Montana. Claire usually enjoyed Brian's spontaneity. However, he'd gone way too far this time. Between layovers and delays they'd spent an ungodly amount of time in airports. Her excitement over their romantic getaway had faded into annoyance quite sometime ago.

She was amazed to discover Brian hadn't even packed a bag. Before they left New York, he had to make a mad dash through Macy's for everything; clothes, toiletries, a big coat and a duffel to hold it all. How much thought had he put into asking her to marry him, or to sneak away with him? The very least he could have done was pack a bag in preparation!

Once they collected their luggage in the terminal of Great Falls International Airport, Brian hailed a cab. The bulky, unshaven driver barked with rough laughter when he heard where they wanted to go. He informed them the trip would take over two hours and cost a fortune. Of course, money was no object for Brian--it never was.

In the ratty cab that reeked of old cigarette smoke and body odor, they traveled over desolate highways for mile after lonely mile. Sometimes, more than ten minutes of thick darkness passed without seeing a house or any other sign of human life.

Claire wondered what she'd been thinking when she agreed to this trip. It wasn't like her to make such a sudden decision. Over the past year she'd learned that any decision worth making was worth thinking over thoroughly and sleeping on for at least one night. Her fine decision making had been a sense of pride for her. Until Brian grinned at her and promised her physical pleasures. Apparently, that was enough temptation to cause her to lose the ability to think in a mature and rational manner.


This time when his image stabbed through her subconscious, she didn't fight it. Instead, she gazed out the window, into the dark wilderness, and let the mental slide show of her memories play.

Tucker, with his white-blond hair and peaceful gray eyes, helped her into the saddle of a magnificent, roan mare. Then, he swung onto the back of a powerful three year old gelding. The smile he sent her was a little shy, but infinitely beautiful. His teeth flashed brilliantly next to his young, tanned face. And his eyes. Oh, how his eyes sparkled whenever he smiled at her!

In the back seat of the cab, with Brian beside her, Claire smiled at the deep night on the other side of the window.

The cab left the highway and rousted her from her memories. It was nice when it happened that way, when she enjoyed a memory of Tucker and got distracted before the terrible pain arrived.

The road they were on now was hardly more than a narrow patch of potholes surrounded by frozen dirt. She thought back to the last town they'd traveled through--Devane, she thought, which had spanned only a short mile in length but it made her feel safer, or at least not as helpless, to have some idea of her placement on the map.

One minute stretched into ten. Still, they bounced down the God-awful road.

Fifteen minutes passed. Then twenty.

Just as she began to accept the fact that they would never, ever, arrive at their destination, yellow lights glowed in the distance. She focused on them, willing them closer.

After several more minutes of bone jarring travel, the cab stopped in front of an impressive, yet not extravagant, log cabin. A wide porch with a square, rough cedar railing lined its front and was illuminated by kerosene style lights. Two straight-backed and sturdy wooden chairs sat on either side of the massive door.

Nothing about the cabin seemed to welcome them. Still, she was happy to be there--to be anywhere. While Brian settled with the driver, she got out of the cab, anxious to stretch her legs.

A German Shepherd materialized in front of her. With a gasp of horror, she shuffled backward. The clump of muscles covered with hair barked once, then let out a long, evil growl--exposing a mouthful of frightening fangs.

"Back off!" Brian ordered, appearing at Claire's side.

The dog snarled, then ran onto the porch. He faced them, planted himself directly in front of the door and barked again.

"I should've known Nick would have a Shepherd," Brian said happily. "We always had one when we were kids." He gathered their luggage from the trunk of the cab, then sent her a charming grin. "Well, what do you think?"

"I think we're in the middle of nowhere." She glanced at the cab as it turned around in the yard and headed back down the road. Just barely, she defeated the urge to run after the cab and retrace the mind-numbing trip that had left her where she now stood.

"You'll get a real kick out of my brother," Brian said as he gestured at the wide, wooden steps of the porch with his duffel.

Watching the dog warily, she started up the steps.

The front door swung open. Violently.

Her eyes widened with surprise at the form that nearly filled the doorway. Standing before her was the largest, most masculine being she'd ever seen. He towered over her, something few people did. He had to be six foot, five--at least. He was naked, save for a bright white towel knotted at his trim waist. Apparently, the huge male had just left the shower because drops of moisture glistened against his bronzed skin and sparkled against the few black hairs between his square pectorals. She was acutely interested in more of the appealing, silky hair that started just above the towel. She struggled to stop her eyes, and her imagination, from wandering beneath the edge of that towel.

Instead, she forced her gaze up to his chiseled and shadowed face and found his startlingly blue eyes watching her intensely. It was as if those brilliant eyes of his were seeking access into her most private, and protected, inner sanctuary. A siren blared in her mind, warning her to be very careful with this particular man. He wasn't like other men and needed to be kept a safe distance away.

Claire willed herself to think rationally. Introductions would be made at any moment and she needed to be able to speak coherently.

After a day filled with demanding, physical labor, Nick Whitfield stepped into a steaming shower. He was damn hungry and more than ready for a tall glass of bourbon. He couldn't address either of those needs, however, until he washed the day's dirt and sweat away.

Starting just before six o'clock that morning he'd fed and watered five hundred head of cattle, which required a hell of a lot of travel on horseback. He'd also repaired three sections of barbed wire fence that had been damaged in last week's storm, fixed a broken well pump, and gone through a tedious training routine with a spirited, young Appaloosa he'd acquired a few months earlier.

Despite how physically straining the day had been, he felt damn good. The work he'd done was full of rewards. Since moving to Montana three years ago he'd found a sense of accomplishment like he'd never known before. At the end of the day it felt a hell of a lot better to sit back and look at the livestock he tended and the land he loved than it felt to study his widely diversified investment portfolio. Here, in Montana, he did something that mattered. Here, he had found the peace he'd so desperately needed.

Nick stepped out of the shower and frowned over the barking of his faithful dog, Shep.

He knew Shep wasn't an original, or even a slightly clever, name. But he was a basic, straightforward, no frills man. Therefore, his dog was stuck with the generic name. Hell, good-ol' Shep didn't care what he was called. Shep was only interested in making him happy and reaping the benefits of doing so. Nick fed him well, scratched his head or belly anytime it seemed appropriate, and talked to him as he talked to any of his other friends. Truth be known, Shep was privy to a lot of Nick's thoughts he'd never consider sharing with any of his two legged friends. Shep was loyal, and loyalty was a damn commendable characteristic in Nick's book. People were fickle. Flaky. Shep would never disclose Nick's secrets, or turn against him. In fact, Shep was the best company he'd ever kept.

Just after Shep barked, Nick heard a car pull away from his cabin.

Barely bothering to dry off, he knotted a towel around his waist and headed for the front door. He jerked it open as footsteps hit the porch.

"Nick! How the hell are you?"

Nick, whose attention had been captured by the woman on his porch, turned his head to scowl at his other visitor. "Christ," he hissed in an automatic and unchecked response when he realized his little brother had come to call. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Brian's laugh was hearty. "What a way to greet your only brother! Man, let us in already. It's so damn cold here, I don't know how the hell you stand it."

Because it wasn't in his nature to turn anyone, even the likes of his brother, away, he stepped back and allowed them to enter his home. Again, his gaze fell to the woman.

Her face was delicate and pretty, her long, slim body incredibly feminine. Even though she wore jeans and a plain denim coat, the elegance that came from good breeding and old money radiated from her. Her black hair was beyond sexy and created a striking contrast with her pale and creamy skin. She lifted wide, dark green eyes to his. Really dark green eyes. He nodded at her. He realized he should say something, but his social skills were rusty--especially when dealing with obviously well-bred and amazingly beautiful women.

"Hi." She stuck her hand out. "Claire Jones."

"Nick Whitfield." He shook her thin, cold hand, then turned back to Brian. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Laughing, Brian winked at his companion. "I told you, Nick's very direct." He grinned up at his brother. "I wanted you to meet my bride-to-be, your future sister-in-law! I thought we'd surprise you."

Completely annoyed, Nick grunted. "You have."

Brian laughed again. "Get dressed, man. I'm sure Claire is more than a little uncomfortable standing here talking to a half naked man."

He glanced at her and found her cheeks splashed with a shade of pink he found unusually attractive. "Excuse me." He snapped a hard look at Brian. "Had I known you were coming, I would have been better prepared."

"It was a spur of the moment decision," Brian replied cheerfully.

Nick turned back to Ms. Jones. "The kitchen is right through there." He pointed at a wide doorway behind him. "There's fairly fresh coffee on the counter, food in the cabinets and fridge. Help yourself to anything you want."

"Thank you," she mummered without meeting his eyes.

Abruptly, he stalked toward his bedroom.


Nick leaned his backside against the sink in his kitchen and studied the glowing tip of his cigarette for a long and silent moment. He enjoyed the damn hell out of smoking, but strictly limited himself to two a day because of the health risks.

Finally, he leveled his attention on Brian, who stood by the table in the middle of the room. "Ms. Jones," he said in a voice he wished didn't sound so much like a growl. "There's a bedroom at the end of the hall, on the right," he continued, still studying his brother. "Unpack, clean up, . . . whatever you want to do. Make yourself at home."

She laughed shortly and without even a glimmer of humor. "I guess I've been dismissed?"

He raised one impatient eyebrow at her, then pulled on his cigarette. "I need to talk to Brian." He exhaled thick streams of smoke through his nose and tried to concentrate on the pleasure of smoking. "Privately." He was very aware of how the lovely Ms. Jones glared at him in annoyance, or maybe outrage.

"It's okay, babe." Brian winked at her. "Don't take it personally. Nick doesn't mean to be rude, he's just gruff by nature."

Nick pulled on his cigarette again. He was already near the end of his patience with Brian, even though the man had been in his home less than five minutes.

"He and I do have things to discuss," Brian continued, seemingly oblivious to the way Nick's tension thickened the air in the kitchen so much it was hard to breathe.

Images of years long past flashed through Nick's mind. Even when they were kids, Brian had always had some special power over people. Everyone adored Brian--since the day he came home from the hospital as a newborn.

As a four year old, Nick had initially resented Brian's sudden presence. However, he soon got sucked into, or maybe blinded by, the light that glowed from Brian. He helped take care of his squirmy and wrinkled little brother the best he could. His kindhearted and doting mother always sang praises to an adoring Nick for his efforts. His father, a brilliant chemical engineer, rewarded Nick with a huge, warm hand on the shoulder, a smile, and an animated, yet educational, bedtime story.

Charles Whitfield had fit the bill for a nerd--right down to the polyester pants that were two inches too short and the always present, twin and fully stocked pocket protecters he wore whenever he was awake. If his genius made him odd, Nick had only loved him more for it.

Those had been the good old days. The long gone, good old days. With a grimace, Nick pulled himself back to the here and now.

Brian held Claire's designer suitcase and matching overnight bag out to her. "Unpack, get comfortable. I'll be there soon." He gave her lips a light kiss. ''Then, we'll celebrate our engagement--all night long."

Nick pretended to study his cigarette, even though he carefully watched his two uninvited and unwanted guests.

With a quick sideways glance at Nick, Ms. Jones took her luggage. "Uh, Brian, I never said, . . ."

"Ah, but you will!" Brian locked one arm around her waist and forcibly pulled her against him, then plastered his lips to hers.

Nick's pulse thumped through his temples--a warning sign his temper was about to get away from him. He didn't understand why seeing Brian kiss a woman he didn't even know should upset him, but it did.

He forced himself to breathe deeply. Slowly. Losing his temper with Brian was something he simply wouldn't let himself do, regardless of the long-standing and deep-rooted anger raging inside of him.

Ms. Jones actually shoved Brian away from her, her embarrassment over his open show of affection obvious.

Undaunted, Brian chuckled as he tweaked her chin. "Don't be embarrassed, babe. Nick's a big boy. He's seen a man kiss a woman before. Hell, he's even kissed one or two women himself--isn't that right, big brother?"

Nick only pulled on his cigarette, his gaze unemotional and leveled on Brian.

Ms. Jones looked from one brother to the other, then turned and walked proudly, yet hurriedly, out of the room.

Brian's attention remained on the hallway until a door clicked shut. When he faced Nick, a wide grin split his face and showed his pretty teeth. "Downright in-your-face, drop-dead, gorgeous, isn't she?"

"What the hell are you doing?" Nick asked quietly.

Still grinning, Brian shrugged both shoulders. "What the hell do you mean?"

"Christ." Again, he pulled on his cigarette. "Drop the happy bullshit crap, Brian."


The square heels of her low-cut boots clacked against the hardwood floor with each quick step Claire took down the hallway. Fleetingly, she hoped the black heels wouldn't mar the shiny and obviously well-cared for surface.

Nothing decorated the area she traveled through--it was just a long stretch of plain, white walls. The hall mirrored her recent journey into unknown territory; void of anything personal, warm, or even remotely inviting.

She turned into the bedroom on the right and flung her bags to the foot of the bed, which was covered by a patchwork quilt. Sliding out of her coat, she surveyed the room.

Next to the wooden sleigh bed an ancient night stand held an old-fashioned lamp with a colorful leaded shade. The highly polished wooden floor was adorned by a thick cream colored rug with a subdued pattern of English Ivy. An antique dresser with a mirror in an ornately sculpted frame nearly filled one wall. Dark wooden shutters covered both of the wide windows.

She'd never been a fan of 'Early American' anything, but had to admit the room was attractive.

With a little sigh, she sprung the latches on her suitcase and tossed the top half of it back. In the matter of a few moments, with just one decision, she'd completely lost control of her life. Good Lord, she did not want to be where she was. At all.

Nick Whitfield made her extremely uncomfortable. Whether it was his size and utter masculinity, his piercing sharp eyes, the deepness of his voice, or his huge calloused hands, she didn't know--but something about him definitely disturbed her. When he came out of his room, after Brian suggested he get dressed, he wore a white T-shirt and a pair of black boxers. He considered that appropriate dress when he had female company? What kind of a barbarian was he?

On top of her misgivings about Nick, she wasn't at all pleased with Brian. The sudden proposal, the spur of the moment trip, the surprise visit to his brother's--none of it felt right. Or seemed natural.

She pulled her boots off and stowed them under the foot of the bed. She hung some of her things in the closet next to some obviously masculine things already there. She took a handful of underclothes from her suitcase and considered the dresser. Frowning, she paused, then gravitated to the door as if she had no other choice.

For a reason she couldn't define, and didn't stop to analyze, she turned the knob. The door opened noiselessly. She eased into the hall as quietly as a baby mouse.

"We're both too damn old to play this game," Nick said in a voice that sounded like grinding gears in a car. "I want to know what the hell you're doing here. With her."

"I told you!" Brian said cheerfully. "I wanted you to meet my bride-to-be."

A long, nearly palpable silence pulsed by.

Claire crept up the hall, wanting to be closer so she didn't miss anything said between the brothers.

"If you don't want to tell me what's really going on," Nick said finally. "I guess that's the way it'll be. But I know you're up to something. You're in trouble again."

Heavy footsteps echoed into the hall and she imagined Nick crossing the room in order to stand directly, and intimidatingly, in front of Brian.

"I told you before, Brian," he growled. "I won't help you out again. And if you've brought any of your kind of trouble into my house, I'll come down on you with the wrath of a pissed-off and merciless God. Do you understand me?"

"Jesus, lighten up, man! Nothing's going on. I swear, Claire has turned me around. Christ, you did see her, right? She's gorgeous, intelligent, sweet. This is it for me. No troubles, no worries. I'm a new man."

Nick grunted. "The hell you are."

More heavy footsteps bounced off the walls in the hallway.

An instant later, Nick's formidable body charged toward her. Claire flattened her back against the wall in an attempt to get out of his way. To her horror, she also threw the underclothes she still clenched in one hand into the air.

Her heart refused to beat as she stared up at the shadowed face of Nick Whitfield. Even in the dim light his eyes were unusually bright. And completely unsettling.

He pulled a pair of white panties from his shoulder, where they'd landed. He visually examined the garment as he rubbed the silky material between his hard thumb and fingers. Then, he turned his razor-like gaze back to her.

In the single most embarrassing moment of her life, Claire watched him kneel down and gather the rest of her underclothes from the floor. Her face felt as if it was actually on fire; glowing like red-hot coals in the now cramped darkness of the antiseptically plain hallway.

He straightened and held the handful of panties out to her.

Reflexively, she snatched them away from his massive hand. For some idiotic reason, she hid them behind her back--as if that would erase the horrible scene she was a part of. Panic bubbled in her throat when Nick Whitfield stepped even closer to her, his expression showing just how precariously controlled his anger was.

"Did you miss any part of our private conversation?" he asked in a barely audible growl. "Do I need to repeat anything for you?"

"Come on, Nick," Brian said from the end of the hall. "Give her a break."

Claire managed to return Nick's stormy stare through the ensuing, and brutal, silence.

Finally, Nick stomped down the hall. He entered the room on the left and snapped the door closed behind him.

Claire followed Brian into the other bedroom and violently shoved her underclothes into a dresser drawer. "I wasn't eavesdropping!" she hissed as she spun around to face him. "I was just looking for the bathroom." She knew her excuse didn't come close to explaining why she had a week's worth of panties in her hand, but it was the only thing she could think of to say on such short notice.

"I didn't think you were eavesdropping." He curled his arms around her waist and pulled her into a hard hug. "Don't let Nick intimidate you, babe."

"He doesn't intimidate me! I think he's incredibly rude though. He's a-a barbarian. He's so gruff and just so-so, . . . rude. I find it hard to believe the two of you are related, in any way."

"At times, so do I." Brian's laugh was good-natured. "Nick's all right though. He's just abrupt as hell."

"That's an incredibly huge understatement." She backed out of his embrace, needing to have some time alone to consider the predicament she'd maneuvered herself into. "Where would I find the bathroom?"

He rolled one shoulder. "I've never been here before. I'll ask Nick."

"No!" she cried, horrified by the idea of asking Nick Whitfield for anything. "I'll find it myself." Clenching her overnight case in one hand, she practically sprinted out of the room.

She hurried down the hall, past the front door and the old fashioned braided rug that held an enormous pair of sturdy work boots. She scurried through the kitchen, without noticing anything about it other than it was large and a very bright white.

She found the bathroom down a hallway on the other side of the kitchen and quickly locked the door behind her.

The bathroom was so spacious it bordered on being huge. Although it was far from fancy, it was tasteful and noticeably clean. Other than the oak vanity and medicine cabinet, everything was white; the light fixtures, the walls, the ceiling, the ceramic tiled floor. Like the hallway, it was free of any kind of decoration.

As she began her strict nightly skin care regimen, a deep scowl controlled her face. She wondered what kind of trouble Brian usually got into, if she had allowed herself to be pulled into it, and how she could get back to New York in record setting time.

Brian had said he wanted to celebrate all night. She definitely wasn't 'in the mood' for the kind of celebration he had in mind. On top of suddenly not trusting him because of what she'd overheard Nick say, Nick was in the very next room. She'd never be able to relax with him so close. She probably wouldn't even be able to sleep knowing he was just across the hall.

After rinsing the gentle cleanser from her face, she clenched a white hand towel, which hung from a white peg on the wall by the sink. The towel was so soft and plush she had to stop and examine it before patting her face dry.

Once the towel was carefully returned to its place, she checked the linen closet beside the bathroom door. It was filled with neatly stacked bath towels, hand towels and wash clothes. They were all snow white and so soft it was hard to believe they were towels--they felt more like velvet. Out of curiosity, she unfolded a bath towel. It was as long as she was. She nearly giggled at the thought of Nick-the-barbarian using such plush towels on his chiseled body.

She used three different potions, all incredibly expensive and filled with promises to keep her face as smooth and wrinkle free as a baby's. Then, taking her time because she dreaded facing Brian, she scrubbed her teeth vigorously and wrestled a pick through the mess that was her hair.

She repacked her overnight case and returned to the bedroom.

Brian sat in the bed with his back propped against the wooden headboard. He was covered to the waist with the patchwork quilt and wearing his most charming grin. His hard chest immediately caught her eye. He was an attractive man--no doubt about it.

The family resemblance between the brothers was there, although subtle. Brian's hair was lighter, his eyes darker, than Nick's. Their noses were the same; straight, and not too long or wide. Although their jaws were shaped the same, Nick's bone structure was wider and his beard heavier. Brian was also shorter than Nick, and not nearly as defined, or muscular--based on what she'd seen of Nick when he greeted them in his oh-so charismatic way.

"I didn't think you were ever coming back." Brian patted the mattress beside him. "Come on, babe. Uncover that killer body of yours and get in here."

"No, Brian," she said with a firm shake of her head. "Not tonight."

"Definitely tonight!" He laughed, obviously amused by her response. "We certainly can't have a romantic vacation without making love. All that time we spent in planes and airports without me being able to get my hands on you was pure hell. Come on, quit teasing me and get over here so we can lose ourselves for a few hours."

"I'm really not in the mood. I'm so tired that I just want to go to sleep." She pulled her sweater over her head and promptly pulled on a short, silky nightgown. She unfastened her bra, slid it off, then pushed her jeans to the floor. Methodically, she picked up her clothes, folded them, then stacked them neatly on top of the dresser.

After drawing a deep breath and fortifying herself with the stubbornness she was known for, she faced Brian.

''That's a very nice nightgown, but you might as well take it off."

"Brian, I said no."

"Quit playing with me, babe." He grunted. "I'm in no mood for sex games."

"I'm not playing with you. I'm telling you to back-off. Sex is not part of the story line tonight. Instead of wasting more time arguing about it, just accept it."

Brian threw back the thick pile of covers and sprang from the bed with a grace rare in men.

Of course she noticed he was naked; she'd always admired, and enjoyed, his sleek body. And of course she noticed his severe erection. She had always admired, and enjoyed, that part of him, too. Despite that, she jumped out of the way when he reached for her. "Brian!" she cried, genuinely surprised and offended by his actions. "What's wrong with you? I said no. Now, stop it! Leave me alone!"

He leapt at her.

Her second attempt to evade his reach failed and caused her to let out a startled yelp.

Brian grabbed her shoulders in a fierce hold and slammed her back against the wall. He held her there with the weight and strength of his body. "What's wrong with you?" He nuzzled her neck as he thrust his hardened length against her abdomen. "We've never spent a night together without making love. That's all I want to do, babe. I just want to make love to you, to show you how much you mean to me."

"I don't want to!" she whispered in an urgent hiss. "No! Let go of me!"

One of his hands sought out the bottom of her nightgown and found it quickly. "I need to do it, Claire," he breathed against her ear. "I need to do it now."

His hand pulled, hard, at her panties while his fingers probed for uninvited entrance into her body. "No!" she shrieked, unaware of how loud her voice was, or of how scared she sounded. "Stop it!"


Flat on his back in bed, his arms folded behind his head, Nick listened to the argument between Brian and the stunningly attractive woman with him.

While things had always gone Brian's way, Nick had worked hard in school, sweated over his homework and tests and struggled to keep on the good side of his teachers. Brian careened through school without ever lugging home a single text book. Nick knew, from one of the many talks they'd had while lying in their beds in the room they'd shared as kids, that Brian sweet-talked his female teachers and bonded with his male teachers so they'd give him high enough grades to get by, even if he hadn't earned them. That was all the effort school cost Brian. Even then, Nick tried to resent that. Instead, he'd always envied the 'people skills' Brian possessed--skills Nick had to study and practice, and still forgot more often than not.

To hear someone deny Brian something he wanted--a woman no less--was beyond refreshing and Nick enjoyed the hell out of it.

Until her shrill scream rang out.

The sound shot through his brain like a sizzling bolt of lightening. In an automatic response, he jumped out of bed and landed across the room. He jerked the door open and burst into the spare room a second later.

Brian sat on the foot of the bed, gingerly poking at his left cheek, which was a bright and angry red--obviously from a well delivered slap.

Ms. Jones stood with her back flattened against the wall, gulping loud, yet shallow, breaths. Slowly, she turned her head in order to look at him. A panicky fear glowed in her dark eyes and sent his pulse thundering through his temples while anger stabbed though his head.

"What the hell are you doin' here?" Brian demanded.

In a dark silence, Nick glared at him. He was too angry to speak. And Brian's question was too damn stupid to rate an answer.

"Well?" Brian asked loudly. "Why the hell are you here?"

Nick's jaw muscles twitched. Still, he said nothing.

Bold, despite being naked, Brian jumped to his feet and charged at Nick.

Claire shot away from the wall and leapt between the brothers--facing Nick.

He glowered at Brian, over the top of her head. His heart pounded adrenaline, his fists clenched and unclenched on their own accord. Shit, he could taste blood. Wanted to at least smell Brian's spilled blood.

"It's okay," Claire said in a calm and soothing voice. "Everything is okay. Really."

He hoped none of his confusion showed when he dropped his narrowed gaze to her.

"Really." She nodded, just slightly.

"You heard her!" Brian snapped. "Every thing's okay, hero--so get the fuck outta here!"

Nick snapped a hard look at Brian, then again lowered his gaze to Claire's.

She nodded, once.

Exercising extreme self-control, he turned and walked out of the room calmly, even though he was anything, everything, but calm.

He stalked down the hallway and turned right, into a longer corridor. A moment later he entered the expansive living room. Without the aid of artificial light, he crossed to the far wall--to the bar. He splashed bourbon into a tumbler, skipped the ice, and took a long, burning drink before moving to the south wall.

He glared through the narrow, yet plentiful, windows that stretched upward for ten feet. A quarter moon sent silver light dancing through the night and created a mystical ambiance.

Just what the hell had Brian become? How could he treat any woman with so little respect? Had he grown so accustomed to getting his way without effort that he simply couldn't take no for an answer?

A burst of cold horror straightened Nick's spine as he wondered how many other women Brian had treated the way he'd just treated Ms. Jones.

He drank again and forced himself not to wonder about Brian's recent past, deeply afraid of the scenarios his imagination might conjure up.

Instead, he thought about Ms. Jones. Why was it women defended the men who mistreated them? He'd heard of that phenomenon; women protecting the men who hurt them, rather than thanking the men who saved them. Or at least tried to save them. Wanted to save them. Damn it, he'd wanted to save her.

Next, he remembered how the beautiful Ms. Jones looked in her slinky nightgown of muted purples and pinks. He'd experienced enough women in lingerie to know hers was made of raw silk. He was particularly fond of the way raw silk felt, especially when it covered such a heavenly body. Despite the seriousness of the situation he'd charged into, her body had left a powerful impression on him. In fact, he'd noticed damn near everything about her in a single instant.

Her breasts were free beneath the slinky material. With the plunging neckline of the gown, he'd caught a glimpse of her voluptuous curves and a great deal of cleavage.

Then there were her legs; long, firm and shapely as hell. He preferred tall women because of their long legs. Ms. Jones' legs were exceptional.

Damn. How was it possible to notice so much about a body in an instant?

He thought of the pretty panties he'd picked up in the hallway after his female house guest had apparently lost her mind and tossed them into the air. They were delicate lace and fine silk; expensive and tantalizing. Then, he went so far as to wonder what color of panties she wore beneath the sexy nightgown--if she wore any at all. That thought made blood rush away from his head in order to supply another part of his body with its heated power.

A cold hand landed on his forearm.

He spun around, expecting to find Brian anxious to finish the fight they'd almost engaged in a few moments earlier. A fight they both wanted.

"Sorry!" Ms. Jones leapt backwards. "I didn't mean to startle you."

He breathed, tried to relax. "Can I get you a drink?" he asked reflexively. Just as reflexively, he noticed her body was wrapped in a robe that matched the appealing nightgown he'd seen her in before.

"Please. Brandy, if you have it."

He crossed the room and dumped some damn fine brandy into a snifter, then returned to the windows and held it out to her.

Silently, she sipped it.

He pretended to look out at the night but covertly watched her from the corner of his eye. The moon provided just enough light to illuminate her profile as she faced the windows. Her eyes shimmered with a barely contained moisture and her bottom lip trembled slightly. Again, he was struck by how truly beautiful she was. She raised the snifter for another sip. Her pale fingers were long, thin, free of jewelry and graceful.

''Thank you."

He turned his head to look directly at her.

Still, she stared outside. "I mean, for what you did--for coming in there like that."

"You're welcome."

ŅI don't know what's wrong with him," she whispered emotionally. "He's never done anything like that before."

At a loss for words, he grunted and hoped like hell it sounded sympathetic.

Her gaze snapped to him.

He held his free hand in the air, spreading his fingers in a show of apology. "Sorry, but I don't know what to say."

She lifted one narrow shoulder. "You don't need to say anything. I guess I just didn't want you to think it was always that way with us."

"Why do you care what I think?"

"I don't know." She frowned up at him. "Maybe because what just happened is so embarrassing."

"Embarrassing? It shouldn't embarrass you at all. It's certainly not your fault Brian acted like an overcharged, hormonal bully."

She nodded, then sipped from the snifter again.

He continued to watch her for a long moment. "Would it make you feel better if I went back in there and roughed him up? Or, I could hold his arms behind his back so you could slap him, again." For his horrible attempt at humor, he was rewarded with a shaky smile from her.

"I'd rather just forget the whole incident. And, I despise violence." Again, she smiled at him--just slightly. "But thank you for the gallant thought."

He inclined his head and wondered how long it'd been since anyone had considered him gallant. A long damn time, for sure.

Several moments passed in a silence that was oddly comfortable as they drank their drinks and studied the night.

"Um, I think I'll sleep on the sofa," she said quietly, turning to face him. "If you don't mind."

"I mind," he said as he faced her, too. "Take my room. There's a good lock on the door so you won't have to worry about, . . . well, anything."

"Oh no. I don't want to be anymore trouble to you than I've already been."

"Then you definitely need to sleep in my room. That way I won't worry about anything either." He crossed to the bar, set his glass down and grabbed the square decanter of brandy. With the liquor in one hand, he took her elbow in the other. He steered her through the heavily shadowed hallways to his room.

After setting the decanter on the bedside table, he watched her. She watched him, too, her dark eyes guarded by a thick shield of lashes. Finally realizing there was no reason for him to stay, he stepped into the hall. "Lock it," he said, pulling the door shut behind him.

She caught the door and stopped his departure. "Thank you again," she said softly. "For everything."

He nodded, once. "I don't see why we ever need to mention any part of this evening's events again."

A very faint smile flickered across her lips.

That one little smile was all the thanks he'd ever need for trying to be a hero to a damsel in distress. He pulled the door shut and waited until he heard the lock click solidly into place before he returned to the living room, the windows, and his drink.

His brother was there. Out of the blue. Why? What the hell was Brian up to? What the hell did he want this time?

Nick had good reason not to trust Brian, who had already proven himself to be completely untrustworthy. In fact, when it came right down to it, he didn't even like his brother or respect him in any way.

But he did owe the little worm.

Because of that debt, he hadn't beaten Brian to a broken and bloody mess when he found him standing on his front porch. Because of that debt, he'd allowed Brian into his home and given him a place to stay.

As Nick considered the oversized sofa, which pulled out into a fairly comfortable bed, he finished his drink. Then, he refilled his glass and returned his attention to the wilderness beyond the windows.

He wouldn't need the bed tonight. Sleep was something he'd do very little of as long as Brian was in his home.