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Alex Stamos peered into the darkness, the BMW's headlights nearly useless in the swirling snow. He could barely make out the edge of the road, the drifts causing the car to fishtail even at fifteen miles per hour.
He'd done a lot of things to boost business at Stamos Publishing and as the new CEO, that was his job. But until now, he'd never had to risk life and limb to get what he wanted. His cell phone rang and he reached over to pick it up off the passenger seat. "I'm in the middle of a blizzard," he said. "Make it quick."
"What are doing in a blizzard?" Tess asked. "I thought you were leaving for Mexico tonight."
He had decided to put off his midwinter vacation for a few days. Business was much more important than a week of sun and windsurfing at his family's oceanside condo. "I have to take care of this business first. I'm leaving the day after tomorrow."
"Where are you?"
"The middle of nowhere," he said. "Door County."
"Isn't that in Wisconsin?"
"And you failed geography, little sister. How is that possible?"
Tess groaned. "That was in eighth grade."
"There's a new artist I need to see. He hasn't been returning my calls, so I decided to drive up and pay a personal visit."
"Well, I thought you'd want to know. The Devil's Own got a great review in Publisher's Preview" Tess said. "And the distributors have been calling all afternoon to increase their orders. At this rate, we're going to have to go back for the second printing before the first is out the door, so I just wanted to let you know that I'm going to put it on the schedule for later next week."
Tess was head of production at Stamos Publishing. She and Alex had been working together on his new business plan for nearly a year and this was the first sign that it was about to pay off. Until last year, Stamos Publishing had been known for it's snooze-inducing catalog of technical books, covering everything from lawnmower repair to vegan cookery to dog grooming. But as the newly appointed chief executive officer, Alex was determined to move the company into the twenty-first century. And that move began with a flashy new imprint for graphic novels.
From the time he was a kid, walking through the pressroom with his grandfather, he'd been fascinated by the family business. While most of his peers were enjoying their summers off, he'd worked in the bindery and the production offices, learning Stamos Publishing from top to bottom.
His dream had been to make Stamos Publishing the premier printer in the comic book industry. That way, he could get all the free comic books he wanted. But as he got older, Alex began to take the business more seriously. He saw the weaknesses in his father's management plan and in the company's spot in the market and vowed to make some changes if he ever got the chance.
The chance came at the expense of his family, when his father died suddenly four years ago. His grandfather had come back to run the business, but only until Alex was ready to take over. Now, nearly all the extended Stamos family, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, depended upon him to keep the business in the black.
"I'm going to run forty thousand," Tess said. "I know that's double the first run, but I think our sell-through will be good."
"I guess we were right about the graphic novels," he said, keeping his concentration on the road. Though they weren't comic books, they were the next best thing. The edgier stories and innovative art had made them popular with readers of all ages. And Stamos was posed to grab a nice chunk of the market. "What else?"
"Mom is upset," Tess said. "One of her bridge club ladies showed her that Web site. The cool operators site."
"Smooth operators," he corrected. "What did she say?"
"That a nice Greek boy won't find a nice Greek wife if he acts like a malakas. And she also said the next time you come to Sunday dinner, she's going to have a conversation with you."
"Great," Alex muttered. A conversation was always much more painful than a talk or a chat with his mother. No doubt he'd be forced to endure a few blind dates with eligible Greek girls, handpicked by the Stamos matriarch.
"Some people think that any P.R. is good P.R. I don't happen to agree, Alex. I think you need to do some damage control and you need to do it fast. I'm looking at your profile on this page right now and it's not good. These women hate you. Heck, I hate you, and I'm your sister."
"What do you suggest? I'm not about to talk about my love life in public."
"Who suggested that?"
Alex cursed beneath his breath. "The owner of the Web site called to interview me. Angela… I can't remember her last name. Weatherall or Weathervane."
"She wants to talk to you?"
"I guess. Either that, or she wants to yell at me. But I'm almost certain I've never dated her." He cursed softly. "What makes her think I'm the one at fault here? Some of these women are just as much to blame. They were ready to get married after three dates."
"You have had a lot of girlfriends. Listen, Alex, I know you're a nice guy. So why can't you find a nice woman?"
The car skidded and he brought it back under control, cursing beneath his breath. "I'll figure this out when I get back."
"So this artist must be pretty good for you to drive through a blizzard to see him."
"A little snow is not going to stop me," he replied.
"And this guy isn't just good, he's…amazing. And oddly uninterested in publication. The novel came through the slush pile and I figure the reason he's avoiding me is because he's got another publisher interested."
"So, you're just going to drive five hours in the snow and expect he'll want to talk business?"
"I'm a persuasive guy," Alex said. "My charm doesn't just work on the opposite sex. Besides, if I'm his first offer, then I have a chance to get a brand-new talent for a bargain-basement price. I'm not leaving without a signed contract."
The car skidded again and Alex dropped his phone as he gripped the wheel with two hands. He gently applied the brakes and slowed to a crawl as he fished around for the BlackBerry. But he couldn't find it in the dark. "I have to go," he shouted, "or I'll end up in the ditch. I'll call you after I check in."
"Let me know when you're settled," Tess replied.
Alex found the BlackBerry and tucked it in his jacket pocket, then turned his attention back to the road. He knew Door County was well populated, at least in the summer. But in the middle of a Wisconsin winter, the highway was almost desolate between the small towns, marked only by snow-plastered signs looming in the darkness.
Was he the only one crazy enough to be out during a blizzard? Alex leaned forward, searching for the edge of the road through the blowing snow. A moment later, he realized he was no longer in control of his car.
Without a sound the car hit a huge drift and came to a silent stop in the ditch.
This time, Alex strung enough curse words together to form a complete sentence, replete with plenty of vivid adjectives. He wasn't sure what to do. The car wouldn't go forward or backward. Even if he got the car back on the road, it was becoming impossible to see where the road was. He didn't have a shovel, so there wasn't much chance of getting himself out of the ditch.
Alex grabbed his gloves from the seat beside him and pulled them on. If he could clear some of the snow from beneath the wheels, he might be able to get back on the road. If not, he'd call the auto club for a tow. He grabbed a flashlight from the glove box, then crawled out of the car, his feet sinking into a three-foot drift.
Even with the flashlight, it was impossible to see through the blowing snow. Blackness surrounded him as he dug at the snow with his hands. But for every handful of snow he pulled away, two more fell back beneath the tire. Alex knew the only safe option was to wait in the car for help.
He pulled out his phone to call for a tow, but his gloves were wet and his fingers numb from digging in the snow. The BlackBerry slipped out of his fingers and disappeared into the snowdrift. "Shit," he muttered. "From one bone-headed move to the next." Was it even worth searching for the phone?
He decided against it, figuring the BlackBerry would be ruined anyway. As he struggled back to the door, headlights appeared on the road. For a moment, he wondered if the car would even see him in the blinding snow, but to his relief, the SUV stopped. He waded through the drift as the passenger-side window opened.
"Hi," he called, leaning inside. "I'm stuck."
A female voice replied. "I can see that."
Alex could barely make out her features. She wore a huge fur hat with earflaps and a scarf wound around her neck, obscuring the lower part of her face. In truth, she was bundled from top to toe, except for her eyes. "Can you give me a ride into town?"
"No," she said. "I've just come from town. The road is nearly impassable. I'm on my way home."
Her voice was soft and kind of husky… sexy. He felt an odd reaction, considering it was the only thing that marked her as a woman. "I'd call for a tow, but I lost my cell phone."
"Get in," she said. "I'll take you to my place and you can call from there."
"Let me just get my things from the car." By the time Alex retrieved his duffel, his laptop and his briefcase from the BMW, he was completely caked with snow. He crawled into the warm Jeep and pulled the door shut. "Thanks," he said. He glanced over his shoulder to find two dogs in the backseat, watching him silently, their noses twitching. The larger of the two looked like a lab mix and the smaller had a fair bit of terrier in him.
"What are you doing out on a night like tonight?" she asked.
"I could ask the same of you," Alex said with a grin. "I'm glad you were as brave as I was."
"Stupid is more like it. And I'm not driving a sports car," she said.
"It's not a sports car," he said. "It's a sedan." He glanced over at her. It was impossible to tell how old she was. And the only clue to her appearance was a lock of dark hair that had escaped from under her hat. "Do you live nearby?"
"Just down the road."
He settled back into the seat, staring out at the swirl of white in front of them. He couldn't see the road at all, but she seemed to know exactly where she was going, expertly navigating through the drifts. Before long, she slowed and turned off the highway onto what he assumed was a side road and then a few minutes later, into a narrow driveway, marked by two tall posts, studded with red reflectors. The woods were thick on either side, so it was easy to find the way through the trees.
A yard light was visible as they approached and, before long, Alex could see the outline of a small cabin made of rough-hewn logs. She pulled up in front and turned to face him. "The front door's unlocked," she said. "I'm just going to put the Jeep in the shed."
Alex grabbed his things from the floor and hopped out, then walked through another knee-deep drift to get to the front steps. As he stamped the snow off his ruined loafers, the dogs joined him, racing through the darkness to the porch.
He opened the door a crack and the animals pushed their way into the dimly lit interior. The cabin was one huge room, with a timbered ceiling and tongue and groove paneling. A stone fireplace covered one wall and windows lined the other. The décor was like nothing he'd ever seen before, every available space taken with bits and pieces of nature—a bird's nest, a basket of acorns, a single maple leaf in a frame on a bent-willow table.
He kicked off his shoes and stepped off the rug, but then froze as the dogs growled softly. They'd seemed so friendly in the car, but now they watched him suspiciously as he ventured uninvited into their territory.
"The phone is over there."
He turned to see her standing in the shadows on the other side of the kitchen. "Do they bite?" he asked.
"Only if I tell them to," she murmured. There was a subtle warning in her tone. It wasn't surprising, considering she just allowed a stranger into her home. For all she knew, he could be some deranged psycho— driving an expensive European sedan and wearing ruined Italian loafers.
"I won't make any sudden moves," he said.
She shrugged and walked out of the room, her heavy boots leaving puddles of water on the floor. Alex slipped out of his coat and tossed it over a nearby chair, then kicked off his shoes. When the two dogs approached, he held his breath. They sniffed at his feet, then each picked up a shoe and retreated back to the sofa with their prizes.
"Give those back," he pleaded. "No, don't do that. You can't eat those." Alex heard footsteps behind him and he spun around, coming face-to-face with a woman of peculiar beauty. He glanced around the room. "Hello," he said.
He slowly took in the details of her face. She wore dark makeup on her eyes and her shoulder-length hair was cut in a jagged way, with streaks of purple in the bangs. Was this the woman who had rescued him? He'd imagined the face that went with the voice, speculated about the body, but this wasn't at all what he'd expected.
"They eat shoes," she said, grabbing the loafers and handing them back to him.
Only when he heard her voice was Alex certain. This was the woman who had rescued him. But the instant attraction he felt was rather disconcerting. She was the exact opposite of women he usually pursued. He liked blondes, tall and willowy, surgically enhanced and trainer-toned. This girl was petite, with an almost boyish figure, and a quirky sense of fashion.
"Put them in the closet," she said, pointing to a spot near one door. "They don't know how to operate a doorknob… yet. They're still working on tearing strangers limb from limb."