Carole Mortimer was born in England, the youngest of three children. She began writing in 1978, and has now written over one hundred and seventy books for Harlequin Mills and Boon®. Carole has six sons, Matthew, Joshua, Timothy, Michael, David and Peter. She says, ‘I’m happily married to Peter senior; we’re best friends as well as lovers, which is probably the best recipe for a successful relationship. We live in a lovely part of England.’
'It's snowing again, Mummy!' Scott cried excitedly from the back of the car.
What an understatement.
It wasn't just snowing, it was blowing and gusting towards blizzard proportions. Which, in fact, the radio station Meg was listening to as she drove along had already warned that it would become some time this evening.
It had just been a flurry of delicate white snowflakes when they had left London three hours ago, pretty in its delicacy, to be admired and enjoyed, but standing no chance of actually settling on the streets of the busy city, even though some of it had clung determinedly to the rooftops.
Unfortunately, the further Meg had driven out of London, the heavier the snow had begun to fall, until it was now a thick layer on the ground, the road in front of her almost indistinguishable from the hedgerow, the snow hitting the windscreen so thickly the wipers were having a problem dealing with it.
As was Meg herself, finding it increasingly difficult to control the car as the wheels slipped and slid on the growing layer of snow, the fall of darkness just over an hour ago making things worse, the headlights just seeming to hit a wall of white rather than light the way.
Scott, at three and a half, and awake after sleeping in the back of the car for the last hour, could only see the potential fun and not the danger of this novelty in his young life.
Something Meg was at great pains to maintain as she glanced at him briefly in the rear-view mirror, her smile warm and loving as she looked at his tousled head of dark hair and still-sleepy features; one of them feeling worried and panicked was quite enough.
'Isn't it lovely?'she agreed as she hastilyreturned her attention to the road, the car having slewed slightly sideways in that moment of distraction.
She shouldn't have come by car. The train would have been so much easier. And at least if there had been a problem with snow on the rails she would have had adult company in her misery.
Because she hadn't seen another car, or even a truck, in the last half an hour.
Of course, that could have something to do with the warning being given out on the radio station for the last hour by the police for people 'not to travel unless absolutely necessary'. A warning that had come far too late for Meg, already more than two thirds of the way towards her destination.
'Can I build a snowman when we get to Granma and Grandad's?' Scott prompted hopefully, thankfully still totally unaware of their precarious situation.
'Of course, darling,' she agreed distractedly.
The relevant word in Scott's statement was 'when'—because Meg was very much afraid they weren't going to make it to her parents'house this evening, as planned.
She could barely see where she was going now, the headlights of the car only seeming to make the snow whiter and brighter, and blinding. If she could just see a house, or even a public house, anything that showed signs of habitation, then she could stop and ask them for help.
'I need the toilet, Mummy.'
Her hands tightened instinctively on the steering wheel; this was, Meg had quickly learnt after toilet-training her young son two years ago, the age-old cry guaranteed to put any mother into a panic. Because it always came when you were standing in a long queue at the supermarket, or sitting on a bus, or trying on shoes—or in the middle of a blinding snowstorm.
And something else she had also learnt very quickly: it was no good telling a small child that they would have to wait a few minutes while you finished what you were doing—when children said they needed the toilet, then they needed it now.
Nevertheless, like many other mothers before her, Meg tried. 'Can you hang on a few minutes, Scott? We aren't too far from Granma and Grandad's now,' she added with more hope than actual knowledge; she had absolutely no idea where they were, as she hadn't been able to see a signpost for miles.
'I need the toilet now, Mummy,' Scott came back predictably.
She was already so tense from concentrating on her driving that her shoulders and arms ached, this added pressure only making the tension worse. Not that it was Scott's fault. He had been asleep for over an hour; of course he needed the toilet.
But she could hardly pull over to the side of the road, even if she could find it, take Scott outside and just let him go to the loo there. This wasn't the middle of summer, it was the evening before Christmas Eve, with a temperature below zero. She could hardly expect him to expose himself to the elements.
If only she could find somewhere, a building of some kind, a barn, even, so very appropriate for this time of year, somewhere they could go and sit this thing out.
Even as the thought played across her frantic mind she felt the steering go from her completely, the car moving sideways as it slid across the snow.
'Hang on, Scott,'Meg had time to warn before she saw a dark shape looming towards her in the darkness, the car coming to a shuddering halt as it hit an immovable object, the noise of the impact almost deafening in the otherwise eerie silence created by the blanket of snow.
'Mummy? Mummy!' Scott's voice rose hysterically at her lack of response.
'It's all right, Scott,' she soothed reassuringly even as she put up a hand to where seconds ago her head had made painful contact with the window beside her.
Amazingly, although the engine had stalled on impact, the headlights were still on, and when Meg turned she could see Scott strapped into his seat in the back of the car, tears streaming down his cheeks as he tried to reach forward and touch her.
'It's all right, baby.' She choked back her own tears as she saw and felt his fear, fumbling with the clasp of her seat belt, desperate to get out of the car and go to him, to hold him, to reassure him they were both okay.
But before she could do any of that the door beside her was wrenched open, letting in a blast of icy-cold air, Meg's face white with shock as she let out a scream at the apparition she saw looming there.
'Mummy, it's a bear!' Scott cried from the back of the car.
A big hairy grizzly bear.
A blue-eyed grizzly bear, Meg realized as the man pushed back the hood of the heavy coat he was wearing, snow instantly falling on the dark thickness of his hair.
'Are you okay?'he barked concernedly, the narrowed blue gaze turning to Scott as he began to cry in the back of the car.
'I have to go to him!' Meg muttered anxiously as she scrambled out of the car, the man stepping back as she pushed past him to wrench open the back door and almost fling herself inside. 'It's okay, Scott. We're okay.' She held him close to her, feeling his shuddering tears. 'This nice man has only come to help us.' She hoped.
It would be just her luck to have crashed into the side of the house—yes, she could see it now, the lights burning warmly inside, she had actually hit the side of a house!—of an eccentric recluse who didn't like women and children, and had no intention of helping them, either.
Although at this particular moment she didn't really care who or what the man was; she was too weary, too upset, to do more than look up at him with huge shadowed green eyes and say, 'Is there any room at the inn?'
Which was a totally ridiculous thing for her to have said, she realized, still cringing inwardly a few minutes later when she and Scott, after a quick visit to the loo for her small son, sat together in front of a warm, crackling log fire drinking hot chocolate.
Although their rescuer had simply looked at her with mocking blue eyes and replied, 'Sorry to break with tradition, but, yes, there's room at the inn,' before all but picking her and Scott up in his arms—no little weight, she was sure—and carrying them inside the house.
Well, it wasn't exactly a house, Meg noted as she took a look around her, more of a cottage with its low beamed ceilings and small rooms. Not that it mattered what it was; it was warm, and dry, and out of the snowstorm still raging outside.
A storm their unexpected host had gone back out into after making them the hot chocolate.
Scott, safely ensconced on her denim-clad knees, peered shyly around her shoulder towards the door. 'Where did the man go, Mummy?'
Good question. But apart from 'outside', she had no idea.
'The name's Jed,' the man drawled as he stepped back into the small sitting-room, looking more like a bear than ever, the heavy coat and hood liberally covered in the same snow that dripped off in lumps from the huge boots he wore. 'Yours.' He handed Meg the handbag that she had left on the passenger seat of the car. 'And yours,' he added more gently as he gave Scott a small knapsack that contained the toys he had brought along to play with on the journey. 'Your car keys.' He dropped them into Meg's waiting palm. 'Not that I think anyone is going to steal your car any time soon,' he added dryly as he shrugged out of the heavy coat. 'You dinged the front pretty bad.'
Two things had become obvious during that conversation, or should that be monologue? Because Meg's teeth were still chattering too badly for her to be able to answer him. One, that the man's accent was American, two, that he didn't look much less formidable without the bulky coat.
At well over six feet in height, with shaggy dark hair; his shoulders were wide beneath the black sweater, faded denims fitting snugly on narrow hips and powerful thighs, those deep blue eyes set in a face of teaked mahogany, the squareness of his jaw giving him an air of complete self-assurance.
Meg's arms tightened instinctively about Scott as that vivid blue gaze moved over the two of them with the same deliberation, knowing what he would see: a woman of five feet two inches tall, with a mane of straight dark hair that reached almost to her waist, a small, heart-shaped face, green eyes, with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, the little boy on her knee with the same colouring and freckles.
And the silence in the room, apart from the crackling of the logs on the fire, was starting to become oppressive.
Meg stirred herself. 'I'm really sorry to have disturbed you and your family in this way, Mr—er, Jed,' she amended awkwardly.
'No family, just me,' he dismissed easily, moving into a crouched position to place another log on the fire.
'Hey,' he murmured steadyingly as Meg and Scott moved further to the back of the chair. 'I realize I haven't been near a barber for a couple of months, but I don't really look like a bear, do I?'He gave what Meg was sure was meant to be a reassuring smile, but only succeeded in making him look more wolfish rather than harmless.
Meg moistened dry lips. The storm and crash must have made her oversensitive; this man was their rescuer, not their attacker. 'I really can't thank you enough for helping us like this, Mr—Jed,' she said again ruefully, placing Scott back on the chair as she stood up. 'Without your help Scott and I may just have well, I can't thank you enough.' She decided not to go into the details of what could have befallen Scott and herself out there alone in the storm. Scott was probably going to have nightmares about this as it was, without making things worse.
'You're welcome,' he drawled dryly as he stood up to tower over her once again.
Meg blinked up at him. He really was extremely large for this tiny room. 'If you could provide me with the telephone number of a local garage, I'll give them a call and see if they can perhaps tow my car away before taking us to the nearest No?' she said uncertainly as the man gave a derisive shake of his head.
'No,' he confirmed. 'It's after five-thirty, so the workshop at the garage in town will be closed. And even if it wasn't I doubt very much they would come out in this weather. Don't you?' He glanced pointedly out of the cottage window where the snow was still falling heavily.
She glanced at Scott who, having lost interest in this adult conversation, was now taking toys out of his bag to play with. Which was probably just as well—there was absolutely no need for him to see his mother's worry.
What was she going to do? The car, from what this man said, was undriveable. The snow was still falling, and even the few minutes she had spent outside between the car and cottage were enough to tell her she couldn't expect Scott to walk anywhere in that.
Besides which, she had absolutely no idea where she was.
Jed watched as the emotions flickered across the woman's face, although 'woman' was perhaps stretching things a bit. Despite the small boy who called her 'Mummy', she didn't look much more than a child herself, barely five feet tall, her face appearing bare of make-up, her only colour the freckles across her nose and the emerald-green eyes surrounded by the longest black lashes he had ever seen, her long, glowing black hair unstyled except for a few wisps on her forehead.
And she appeared to be quietly panicking from her pained expression and continuing pallor.
Not that he was all that happy with this turn of events himself. He hadn't deliberately placed himself out of circulation here in the middle of nowhere to have his peace and solitude shattered by a green-eyed imp and her kid.
But whatever panic she was still feeling over her predicament was placed firmly under control as she introduced herself. 'I'm Meg Hamilton—'she even managed a slight curve of those full lips as she held out a slender hand '—and this is my son, Scott,' she added with a certain amount of pride as she gazed down at the little kid now busily playing with a tractor and some farm animals.
Trust the English, Jed mused ruefully. Even in the middle of a blizzard, good manners couldn't be ignored.
'Jed Cole,'he returned abruptly, searching her face for any sign of recognition of his name as he shook her hand.
'Mr Cole.' But she only seemed relieved to have the formalities covered, as though these minor pleasantries reassured her, at the same time releasing her hand from his.
She didn't recognize either his name or him, then. That, or else she was a very good actress, followed the cynical thought.
Over the last nine months, since his life had suddenly become public property, women had tried all sorts of tricks to meet him, one of them even sneaking into the sports club he belonged to and accosting him in the shower. Apparently all the other men present in the changing-room had been too dazed by the woman being there at all to ask her what she thought she was doing.
Although perhaps dragging a kid along, in the middle of a snowstorm, was going a little far, even for the most ardent fan. And from the totally unknowing look on Meg Hamilton's face, she wasn't one of those.
'Is there perhaps a hotel nearby?' Meg queried with what he thought was more hope than expectation.
'I hate to disappoint you, Mrs Hamilton.'And he really did, already resenting this intrusion into his privacy.
Not that he would have just left her and the kid outside to freeze—he just wished she had chosen someone else's cottage to drive in to.