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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
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?"
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
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
stuck her hand out. "Claire Jones."
Whitfield." He shook her thin, cold hand, then turned back to Brian.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
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."
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Brian shrugged both shoulders. "What the hell do you mean?"
Again, he pulled on his cigarette. "Drop the happy bullshit crap,
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.
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
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.
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
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."
you!" Brian said cheerfully. "I wanted you to meet my
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
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
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."
"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.