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Sleet whipped through the trees, stinging her face and burrowing through her clothes to chill her skin. Gillian tightened her hold on the jacket as the wind threatened to yank it from her shoulders. Her fingers tunneled into her skimpy pockets, searching for warmth that wasn't there. Feet crunching and sinking into the dangerous snow brought her closer and closer to her goal. Warmth was only footsteps away ... many, many footsteps.
From the road, where she'd left her broken-down car, the smoke rising in the trees hadn't seemed too far off. Now, hours later, it seemed like she'd been walking for an eternity. Gillian was tempted to check her watch again, to see how long she'd been walking down the slushy, rutted road, but couldn't force her hands to leave the haven in her pockets.
One foot in front of the other, she kept trekking, stumbling over unseen rocks and tripping in hidden holes. Exhaustion began to overtake her. Each breath puffed from her mouth, turning the air bright white before she sucked back in frigid air, which seemed to freeze Gillian from the inside out. But she couldn't stop, could never stop.
The worn road she followed twisted and turned through the trees. Every time she came to a bend, she made a wish that her destination would be around the next corner. But it wasn't, so she kept pushing, begging her feet to move.
Mind over matter, girl, just a few more steps.
She'd lost the feeling in her feet hours before. The wind picked up again and pummeled the sleet into her skin like a thousand tiny knives. Hunching her shoulders to shield her face, she continued.
Can't stop. He'll catch me.
She couldn'tafford to get caught. She wouldn't go back, not ever again. The last time ... the last time she'd nearly died. Not again, not ever again.
Gillian licked her lips, tasting blood as her tongue wet her cracked skin. Hours. It had only taken hours for the cold and wind to do its damage.
Tears pricked her eyes and more than once she thought about returning to her car to wait for someone to pass by, to help her. But on these deserted mountain roads, hardly anyone ever drove by, especially with a blizzard churning and threatening the area. Now she would die in the cold, alone.
At least it would happen her way and not at another's hands.
More time passed and each breath became more labored--the only sound the harsh inhalation and exhalation as she tried to fill her lungs. The landscape was bare of animals, not even the squawk of a bird could be heard to distract her from the struggle to keep going. They were probably snuggled in their own homes for the winter.
Shadows crossed the road now, the sun having dipped behind the trees for its own slumber. The smoke had looked so close when she started out; she should have known. Gillian wasn't an outdoorsy woman--close to her, ended up being miles and miles away in reality. But still she continued. She'd walk until she collapsed or found warmth for the night; whichever came first.
Head down, she lumbered on. It wasn't until she ran into the gate that she realized she'd reached her destination. The end of the road had come and now she stood before what she'd been dreaming of all day.
A cottage. No, a cabin. A large log cabin with wisps of smoke wafting from the chimney proved she hadn't been walking toward a dream. With weathered logs forming the walls and a wood shingle roof, it looked like a solid structure, built to spite the elements.
She tugged her hand free of her coat pocket and lifted the latch on the gate, calling out a greeting as she stepped through the wooden portal.
Her voice was lost with the wind and pain sliced through her throat. The damaged tissues still hadn't healed.
Closing the gate behind her and dropping the latch in place to make sure it was locked, she stepped across the snow-covered lawn. Careful of any hidden dangers, she tested the ground with each step just as she'd done all day. She didn't want to stumble and fall when so close to her goal. Sheer determination kept her on her feet now, denying the toll the weather had taken on her body.
One puffing breath and straining step at a time she climbed the steps, shuffling across the worn plank porch to the front door. She'd burrowed her hand back in the meager warmth in her pocket, but she reluctantly withdrew it again. Raising the knocker, she let it fall against the tarnished brass plate on the door, its booming echo mixing with the wind as it whipped around the cabin. All that, for nothing.
Gillian waited, but no sound from within the cabin could be heard. She forced her muscles into action again, raising and releasing the knocker to fall against the brass plate for a second time. The sound echoed, louder this time, yet still there was no answer.
Tears burned her eyes, and she didn't hold them back. A fire burned in their hearth and they were either not home or choosing to ignore the bundled, bruised, and beaten woman at their door.
Gillian rest her head against the carved wooden door and she let her tears flow, the warm liquid stinging her near frozen skin as it slid across her cheeks. In a last effort for survival and with the remaining strength she possessed, Gillian wrapped her hand around the doorknob and twisted, stumbling when the door pushed open with her weight.
She caught herself on the door then stepped into the cabin. Warmth like she never thought to feel again enveloped her, seeped through her jeans and poor excuse for a jacket. As the heat surrounded her body, pinpricks of pain replaced the numbness she had grown accustomed to. Her waking skin burned as blood returned to her extremities.
She leaned against the door, pushing it closed to stop any more of the luxurious heat from leaving the cabin. Her breath still came in soft pants and Gillian swallowed, wincing at the pain the action caused.
She wet her lips, then called out to the cabin's inhabitants again, hoping now they would hear her.
"Hello?" she croaked. Her voice didn't resemble the soft timber she normally had. Damn Kyle to the farthest reaches of hell.
Seconds ticked by as she waited, frozen to the spot, her clothes dripping water and mud on the mat in front of the door. No one answered. A clock chimed from within the cabin. Seven o'clock. She'd been trudging through the woods for thirteen hours and been awake for thirty-five. Acknowledging the amount of time she'd been awake only managed to make her fatigue intensify.
Gillian moved a few steps into the cabin and spotted the source of all the glorious heat--a fire roaring away behind the hearth screen.
She croaked out another greeting. "Hello?"
She tried raising her voice, but it only cracked and pain knifed down her throat. Gillian swallowed hard in a vain effort to relieve the pain and shuffled forward a few more steps, knocking on the worn plank wall to rouse the cabin's inhabitants.
Still no one replied. Could the house be empty?
She shuffled further into the cabin, her eyes drinking in the home's interior. Large, wood-framed couches lined the living room's walls, and an enormous rug covered the floor with a tree stump coffee table in the center. It emitted a sense of warmth and welcome, with throw blankets covering the couch and handmade end tables capping each couch. Cozy.
Gillian continued through the cabin, praying the owners wouldn't throw her out or be angry for entering without an invitation. She passed by a tidy, but small kitchen; a carved table occupied the center of the space. She kept moving through the cabin until she came upon five doors.
The first opened into a spacious bathroom with four sinks, a massive tub and a walk-in shower. The door closed with a soft click, and Gillian moved on to the door directly across the hall.
Gillian peered inside to find clothes strewn all over the room, soda cans sitting on the dresser, and shoes littering the floor. This was, without a doubt, a man's room. A messy man, but a man nonetheless. Slob or not, at least someone lived in the house; there was no way she would have dreamed up that mess.
The heat and movement wakened her limbs as she moved on to the next room, and her cold aches were swiftly becoming definite pain. The wide open door revealed a tidy yet lived-in room. Pictures lined the walls and the bed appeared to have been made with care, the top blanket pulled taut along the mattress.
Fatigue wore on her and Gillian hoped she either came upon a guest room or one of the cabin's occupants soon. She felt as if she'd drop to the ground if she didn't get off of her feet.
The last door--Gillian peered inside to find a sparsely furnished room. A full-sized bed covered with a plain comforter in one corner, the small bedside table right beside it holding a single lamp. There were no pictures on the walls; nothing at all to show the room belonged to someone. Must be the guest room.
Her shoes clopped against the wooden floor as she trod across the room, before settling on the bed. She toed her shoes off and pain shot into her legs at the movement. There was nothing she could do about that now; the damage had been done. Gillian swung her legs onto the bed and laid her head on the pillow, pulling the blanket across the bed and over her body. Tucked into the warmth of the comforter, Gillian allowed the quiet ticking of the house's clock lull her to sleep. She'd explain her presence to the cabin's owners, but right now, she just needed to rest her eyes. Just ... for ... a ... minute.
Ronan stomped through the snow toward his brothers, not quite ready to head back toward home. They didn't seem to be too worried about heading back to the cabin either. Conner took strikes at Max, swiping and clawing at his brother while Max jumped and jogged out of Conner's way.
Ronan lumbered through the melting snow shaking off the growing layer of frosty ice and leaned against a nearby tree, rubbing his back against the bark. He stretched tall, then pressed against the tree with his front legs above his head, gouging the tree and marking his territory. An Alpha bear had to make his space known and being the biggest, strongest and oldest bears in the region, Ronan didn't want anyone but he and his brothers in the area.
The growls from Conner and Max grew louder, drawing his attention away from his task. Max, being the bigger of the two, pinned Conner to the ground and held him with his razor-sharp teeth, clutching his throat. Conner continued to struggle and swipe at Max, but Max didn't look as if he would release him anytime soon.
Dropping to all fours, Ronan loped toward the two bears. Several feet from them, he growled low, but steady, showing his displeasure. Max's eye met his for a moment before he released Conner with a snort. Sometimes, just sometimes, the bear took too much control and animal instinct overrode their human emotions.
Most confrontations between bears were one-on-one. With a third left out of the fight, there would always be someone around to break it up. That's what made their brotherly triad work.
Ronan shook his head at the two of them then turned and started for home. Darkness would be upon them soon and the fire he'd started before leaving the cabin beckoned him. The sounds of Conner and Max following in his footsteps met his ears and he was pleased they'd decided to follow. While he couldn't force them to head home with him, he always enjoyed their company.
As they trudged through the forest's undergrowth, Ronan used his body to push bushes and branches out of his way, his fur-encased feet sloshing in the wet snow. The falling snow turned to sleet and coated his fur and he was thankful for the insulation his bear form provided from the elements. His breath turned white as it met the frigid air and he didn't look forward to changing back to his naked human form on the back porch of their cabin. No bears in the house. That was their rule. It had actually been their mother's rule, but they had kept it in place even if she did live on the other side of the country.
The scent of his fire and the plume of smoke rising above the trees guided him home. As he approached the back porch he shook off the excess snow and moisture before making his way up the steel reinforced steps and then waited for his brothers to join him.
They formed their sacred triangle and recited the ancient words calling upon the Maker to assist in their change from beast to man. As one, the mists rose and enveloped their bestial bodies and flowed into their noses and mouths to touch their souls. Bones cracked while muscles retracted and shifted, changing them from bear to mirror images of each other. In seconds, with no hint of pain, men stood where bears once did. The moment the transformation was complete, the mystical ancient mist returned to its place within the earth, leaving them naked and cold.
Without waiting for his brothers, Ronan dashed for the back door and darted toward the living room. Snatching his sweatpants from the couch, he yanked them on and then wrapped a blanket around his shoulder before flopping onto the worn sofa. The worst part of shifting from beast to man in the dead of winter? The cold. It was enough to make his balls hibernate in his chest for the season. Goose-bumps lined his skin as he shook, slumped on the couch letting the warmth from the fire seep into his body. Heaven.
Conner and Max were quick to follow, both of them going through the same motions he just had. When they had all settled on the couch before the roaring hearth, Ronan relaxed into the cushions.
The scents of home teased his nostrils--a mix of burning wood, his brothers' musks, and cinnamon permeated the entire cabin. But he sensed something else, something different, new ... feminine? No. No woman lived on the mountain. The closest woman was the forest ranger, and she lived at least twenty miles away, in town. He must be just catching her leftover scent from her last visit. But it didn't smell like her. It smelled like vanilla and lavender, with just a hint of mint. So sweet. Intoxicating.
Raising his head off the couch, Ronan looked at Conner and Max. They both held the same expression of confusion he was sure he wore. Did they smell the fragrance too?
Rising from the couch, Ronan tightened the blanket around his shoulders, hesitant to lose the warmth he'd acquired. He paused near the living room entrance as something on the floor caught his eye. Muddy footprints marred his perfectly polished wood floors. Mud! The perpetrator was a dead man walking. When he glanced over his shoulder he saw Conner and Max had risen to follow him. Ronan pressed his finger to his lips, motioning for them to remain silent.
Ronan followed the prints through their home, cringing with each step as he saw more and more mud and melted snow defacing his beautiful floors. The hint of scent he'd caught in the living room grew stronger as he traveled down the hall.
They seemed to travel from room to room, stopping first at the bathroom, and then traveling to Max's bedroom, before moving to Conner's and finally entering his. His room. The owner of the addictive scent and muddy feet quite possibly resided on the other side of his closed bedroom door.
The muddy footprints disappeared beneath his door. Not only did the owner of the lovely scent teasing his nostrils reside on the other side of the inch of wood, so did the owner of the muddy marks.
The two halves of his being warred within; the human side, holding steadfast to his fastidious nature, raged at the dirt, snow and mud traipsed through his home. Meanwhile, his beast roared in triumph over finding its mate.
Its mate? No. His beast was just hungry. After all, they'd been out into the snow-laden forest and hadn't hunted while they were out. His mate couldn't be on the other side of the door, could she?
Max growled at him. Growled! His gaze shifted to his brother and he found a look which surely mirrored his own. Lust, hunger, and need flashed across Max's face. One look at Conner, and he saw the same.
His voice just a whisper, he addressed his brothers.
"We don't touch her. We'll talk about it after we figure out who she is, and why she's here. For now, we keep our distance until we know more, agreed?"
They replied in unison through gritted, grinding teeth.
Ronan turned the knob and pushed open the door on its silent hinges and stared at the beauty ... and she was filthy ... and, goddamn it, in his bed!