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Shana Parisi knew better than to leave the well-marked cross-country ski trail in the mountains outside Leadville. Above all, she believed in following the rules. Her logical, predictable nature served her well in her work as an exploration geologist for AMVOX Oil.
But today was somehow different. Acting on impulse, she'd stepped off the marked trail and gone exploring. Ignoring the beginning twinges of a headache, she'd skied from one interesting geological feature to another. These mineral-rich mountains were like a trip to Disneyland, especially since she'd spent the past year and a half on assignment in Kuwait. Colorado felt so clean, so fresh, so incredibly all-American.
She poked around the edges of an open pit mine. Studied the striation on a granite cliff. And entered a natural cave pocked with dark crystals, several of which found their way into her pocket along with an unusual shard of glassy green that looked like trinite.
Outside the cave, she slipped her boots into the bindings of her short backcountry skis, fastened the tethers and inhaled a gasp of the thin mountain air. Her lungs burned. Glancing at her wristwatch, she saw that she'd been out here for over three hours. Too long. Her slight headache had turned into a real killer.
Adjusting her goggles, she peered downhill at a wide slope bordered by thick pine forest on either side and tried to remember where she'd left the cross-country trail. Downhill to the left. Or to the right? Every year dozens of people got lost in these mountains. Some were never found.
Surely, she hadn't gone too far off track. Reaching up, she tightened the scrunchie that held her thick black hair up in a ponytail. Earlier, she'd taken off her heavy gloves and parka; the May weather was warm enough for skiing in just a down vest and turtleneck.
It was colder now. Heavy gray clouds roiled overhead, and darker clouds were coming in behind them. Snowflakes fell in nasty little sputters. Should she dig her warmer gear out of her backpack? Making that simple decision seemed difficult; the inside of her head was fuzzy. Something was wrong with her. Maybe altitude sickness. She was near the Continental Divide, over ten thousand feet. She needed to get off this mountain.
Though tempted to tuck into a ball and schuss downhill like an Alpine skier, she wasn't that skilled. Carefully, she traversed the ridge above the snow-covered slope. It took all of her concentration to coordinate thrusting with her skis and picking with her poles.
A fierce wind gusted around her, taking her breath away. A strange glow surrounded her—like a spotlight from the heavens. The wind became a deafening roar. Her body was weightless, disconnected. What's happening? She blinked slowly and everything returned to normal.
Then, the storm hit hard. An instant blizzard. The heavens split open and dumped a truckload of snow on her head.
Her goggles smeared with moisture, and she could barely see. The freezing cold sank through her turtleneck and into her bones as she kept going. Though she was skiing furiously across the ridge, it felt as if she was standing still, suspended in the storm.
Turning to dig in with her edges, her skis stuttered across a patch of ice then slipped out from under her. A scream wrenched from her throat as she went flying. Her boots broke free from the bindings, and she released the poles. In a somersault, she landed on her backpack and slid downhill. Her skis, still attached by tethers, crashed beside her. She dug in the heels of her boots, fighting until finally she came to a stop.
When she struggled to stand, her feet sank deep into the snowpack, and she sprawled backward. With her heart beating rapidly, she couldn't catch her breath. She was dizzy, light-headed. The entire world was shrouded in white. And cold. God, it was cold.
Forcing herself up, she lurched and stumbled again, falling forward on her hands and knees.A wave of nausea surged in her belly. She vomited into the snow.
She needed to pull herself together, but she couldn't move. Did she hit her head when she fell? Was she paralyzed? More likely, she was in early stage hypothermia. A seductive lassitude. This is what happens when you break the rules.
It occurred to her that she might die. Alone. Unmarried and without children. There would be no one to mourn her passing except for her globe-trotting diplomat father whose greatest concern would be to choose the most appropriate coffin.
She lay back in the snow, too cold to care what happened to her. The roaring winds swept over her. In their wake came confusion. And then, a strong sense of certainty. She was meant to be here at this place and in this time. This is my destiny.
Through the swirling eddies of snow, she saw him. A man dressed in white from head to toe—camouflaged in the storm. Though he was skiing uphill against the pelting wind, he moved with great speed, driving his long skis forward. His technique amazed her. This guy was an incredible Nordic skier. A real athlete.
By the time she forced herself to sit up, he was beside her. She peered up at him. "Who are you?"
"Sergeant Luke Rawlins, 10th Mountain Division." A soldier? Though she was dizzy and weak, she cracked a smile. It seemed that the cavalry had skied over the hill and come to her rescue. His head was covered by the white hood of his fur-lined parka. His eyes were hidden behind goggles. All she could see of his face was a firm, stubborn jaw.
With a huge effort, she stood upright, knee-deep in snow. Her legs felt like rubber. The cold had drained the last bit of strength from her muscles.
Before she could tell him that she was fine, her eyelids closed. She was falling through the whirling snow into unconsciousness.
IN HIS ONE-ROOM CABIN, Luke pulled the wet turtleneck up and over her head. She wasn't wearing a bra. Though his purpose in stripping off her wet clothes was to get her dried off and warmed up, he couldn't help looking. Her body was slim, but she curved in all the right places. The flare from her slender waist to her hips was sheer perfection. Her olive skin was smooth and unblemished except for three little moles that formed a triangle above her hip bone. Her breasts were small but exquisite—more beautiful than the marble statues he'd seen in Italy.
It had been a long time since he'd been with a naked woman. Nearly half a year. Before he shipped out for the front lines. Before he'd been wounded.
The woman he held in his arms groaned. Her head lifted for a moment before lolling forward. He tugged one of his army-issued T-shirts over her head and shoulders, then stretched her out on the bed and pulled up the covers to her chin.
Sitting beside her on the edge of the bed, he held her wrist to check her pulse. The beat was steady and stable; she was going to be all right after she warmed up. Though she'd taken one hell of a fall, she had no broken bones. Tomorrow, she'd feel the bruises.
Her nose wiggled as she stirred in her sleep. Then she sighed and went quiet again. She was beautiful, a regular sleeping beauty. Her thick black hair framed her face. Delicate eyebrows arched above her full lashes. Her best feature was her full, pouty lips. She had the kind of mouth that begged to be kissed.
When he'd rescued her from the blizzard, she'd looked like hell with snow matting her hair, her complexion drained and her lips tinged with blue. What had she been doing out here? This wasn't a sanctioned area; she shouldn't have been up here, but he was glad she'd broken the rules. This pretty lady— whoever she was—made a good diversion.
Only a few hours ago, Luke had received his orders to return to the front lines of battle. In less than a week, he'd be shipped back to hell. He wasn't a coward, but the order scared him. He remembered too well. Too many scenes of carnage were burned in his memory. When he closed his eyes, he saw the blood and the devastation. Buildings shattered. People torn apart. His ears still echoed with the cries of dying men and women. He felt the pain of his own wounds and relived the moment when he had been shot, when he saw his own death and welcomed it.
He didn't want to go back. Except for one thing. He glanced toward the snapshot on the table. A picture of an eight-year-old boy with thick, curly black hair. His skinny chest thrust proudly as he waved to the camera. Roberto. Though Luke needed no reminder of the boy, he always carried that photo with him. He'd made a promise to Roberto. I'll come back for you. That solemn vow was more important to him than the war or his dedication to the 10th Mountain Division or even his own survival. Roberto was the reason Luke would return to the front. Though it seemed impossible to find one small boy among the multitude of orphans left by the war, he had to try.
When Luke came to the cabin tonight, he'd been hoping to find his sense of purpose. Because he was going to need every bit of his strength and courage to find Roberto and make everything turn out okay, he needed a reason to believe in himself again. And the storm had brought this strange woman to him.
He hadn't noticed her on the slope until he heard a yelp and saw her crashing out of control. She'd been a long way uphill from where he'd been standing, and he had to backtrack and circle around before he could reach her. She was damned lucky that he'd shown up when he did.
He'd saved her life. The odds against him being nearby at the exact moment when she crashed were a million to one. And if he hadn't been here, she would have frozen to death in this freak spring blizzard. Lucky for her. And for him, too.
The fact that he'd been there—at the right place and in the right time to save her—gave him satisfaction. It was almost enough to renew his spirit, almost enough to make him believe in the possibility of redemption.
Leaving her bedside, he went to the table and poured a double shot of Jack Daniel's into a mug. Holding the cup aloft, he toasted her. "Here's looking at you."
She groaned. Her eyelids fluttered.
Luke savored his whiskey and waited patiently. When she finally wakened, she bolted upright to a sitting posture. Her dark brown eyes were huge and luminous. "Where am I?"
"One of the mountain huts constructed by the 10th Mountain Division."
Though she nodded in apparent understanding, he saw confusion in her rapidly darting gaze. Her lips worked before forming words. "I've always wanted to stay in one of these huts. It's almost impossible to get a reservation."
Though her words didn't make sense—a reservation?—she was relatively coherent. He nodded toward a cup of water on a chair beside the bed. "You should drink something."
"Right. I'm probably dehydrated."
As she sipped the water, his gaze went again to those full, ripe lips. His temperature rose. The memory of her lush naked body lingered in his mind.
He reached for the opened pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes on the table. "Smoke?"
"I quit, but I don't mind if you do. You're Luke. Is that right?"
He nodded. "And you are?"
"Nice to meet you, Shana Parisi." He liked the way her name rolled off his tongue. "How are you feeling?"