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Snow flurries began to blow before Clint Ardmore left Conard City with his truckload of supplies. By the time he reached the county road leading to his ranch, it became apparent that winter was arriving. Big flakes whipped about in the wind, threatening a whiteout later when the temperatures dropped enough to make the snow nearly as fine as sand. As it was, the flakes reflected his low beams sufficiently to make the already dark afternoon seem darker.
Winter pleased him. He liked the cold, the snow, the isolation it brought to his ranch. Not even the most determined salesman or missionary would try to make it up the road to his house, and the neighbors to whom he leased his land for their own stock were undoubtedly pulling the last of them in. Soon his ranch would become exactly what he wanted it to be—a hermitage he left only out of necessity.
At least that was his cheerful expectation until he caught sight of a gray figure staggering alongside the road.
Hell, no one ought to be out here on foot. Cussing under his breath, he jammed on his brakes and pulled over. The snow was only just beginning to stick, so he didn't skid. Some drunk, no doubt, lost in the middle of nowhere. But whatever this person was doing out here, there was no way he could be left to wander alone in this weather. From here to the nearest ranch—his—it was another ten miles.
Clint climbed out and slammed the truck door. The wind had taken on a nasty bite, presaging a deadly night for unprotected humans.
Still cussing—he possessed quite an amazing vocabulary of cuss words in several languages—he stomped back toward the staggering figure in gray. The snow continued to swirl, thick enough to be almost foglike. He really needed this, he thought. Now he would have to drive back to town in this damn storm to make sure this idiot didn't freeze to death out here.
It wasn't until he was only a few steps away that he realized the idiot was a woman and, worse, a woman dressed only in a gray sweatshirt and pants. And when she lifted her head at his approach, he saw a shiner that would have looked appropriate on a boxer, not on a tiny woman with straggly blond hair and blue eyes the size of saucers.
At least they became saucer-size when they saw him.
Well, he could kind of understand that. He was a large man, well over six feet, and years in Special Ops had given him a need to stay in shape that wouldn't quit even though he'd left the military well behind him. Then there was his face. The faces on Mt. Rushmore looked less stony.
"Hey, lady!" he called. "You're going to freeze!"
She staggered another step, then turned and started to run. Only she couldn't quite run, because her feet didn't seem to be cooperating, and moments later she tumbled facedown on the shoulder.
At once he raced to her side and squatted. "Lady…"
"Go away!" she cried. "Get away from me!"
"I won't hurt you," he said, making his voice as gentle as when he talked to his horses. Not exactly second nature, but he knew how.
"No! No! Get away from me."
Another time, another place, he might have been happy to oblige. But not out here. Not even on a sunny day. Not when she had a black eye like that, which might mean a bad concussion.
"Easy," he said quietly. "Easy. I won't hurt you, I swear. But you'll freeze out here."
Then he reached out to help her up and realized he might as well have tried to lift an angry mountain lion. She started fighting the instant she felt his hands, kicking and swinging and trying to scratch him.
Experience came to his aid. Keeping his hold as gentle as he could, keeping her back to his chest to minimize the damage to himself, he lifted her. "Shh," he said soothingly near her ear. "Shh. I'm just going to take you to a doctor."
"No! No!" She wriggled wildly. "He'll find me! He'll find me!" There was no mistaking the terror and desperation in her voice.
"All right, then," he agreed gently, all the while wondering why he was making such an insane promise. "All right. But how about you come home with me and get warm? You'll freeze out here."
"I don't care! He'll find me!"
"Nobody's going to find you at my place, I swear. I promise you'll be safe…."
He kept murmuring soothingly, taking care to keep his grip without hurting her. She fought a little longer, but she didn't have a whole lot of strength left, and soon enough she began to sag.
He shifted her a bit, so his hold was more comfortable, then swung her up and began carrying her toward his truck. A car drove by, slowing down, but he barely glanced at it before it sped up. He didn't recognize it, so it didn't belong to the only other rancher on this road before it dead-ended. He felt a fleeting suspicion, but dismissed it. If someone were following her in a car, he would certainly have caught her long since. Probably someone visiting. Not that he cared.
"No doctor," she said again, but her blue eyes had begun to look hazy.
"No doctor," he agreed. "Just a warm fire and some food."
Then she said something that tore at his heart. Her huge blue eyes focused on his face, and she said, "You're not him."
Then she passed out.
Kay Young returned to woozy consciousness to find she was lying on a soft sofa beneath a heap of quilts near a cheerfully burning fire. Dimly she realized it felt odd to be warm, because she had been cold for so long, so very long. But she no longer felt frozen to the bone.
When she tried to move, however, everything hurt, from her head to her feet, and she groaned. The pounding in her head alone nauseated her, and the world around her spun.
At once she heard a sound; then a stranger with a hard, harsh face was squatting beside her. "Shh," he said softly. "You're safe here. I promise. Shh. You might have a concussion."
"I have to go," she said weakly, struggling against pain, a swimming world and the quilts. "He'll find me. I can't let him find me." Run! The word shrieked in her brain, burned into every cell. Escape! Flee!
"Easy, lady," he said quietly. "Easy. You're hurt. No one's going to find you here. No one."
"He will," she said desperately, terror clutching at her insides with bony, knifing fingers. "He always finds me."
"Easy," he said again. "There's a blizzard outside. No one's getting here tonight, not even the doctor. I know because I tried."
"Doctor? I don't need a doctor! I've got to get away."
"There's nowhere to go tonight," he said levelly. "Nowhere. And if I thought you could stand, I'd take you to a window and show you."
But even as she tried once more to push away the quilts, she remembered something else—this man had been gentle when he'd found her beside the road, even when she had kicked and clawed. He hadn't hurt her. Not like her ex-boyfriend.
Terror receded just a bit. She looked at him, really looked at him, and though his face might have been granite, she detected signs of true concern there. True kindness.
The terror eased another notch, and she let her head sag on the pillow. "He always finds me," she whispered.
"Not here. Not tonight. That much I can guarantee."
And she believed him. Oh, God, she believed him. "Thank you," she murmured finally.
"I heated up some broth. Let's see if you can hold a little bit of it down. Do you feel sick to your stomach?"
"Maybe a couple of crackers first, then. After that we can try broth. I'll be right back."
She watched him straighten, amazed at his sheer size. Everything about him looked as if it might have been carved out of the nearby mountains. As he walked away from her, other things began to penetrate. She was in a warm room, a cozy room, with walls that looked like a log cabin. The furnishings were sparse but colorful, and they looked comfortable. The fire blazed merrily in a stone fireplace.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, about this place seemed in any way related to her tormentor or her experience since…since when? She didn't even know how long she had been in hell, how long ago she had begun to fear men. All men. Everything in her head was a jumble.
Oh God. She allowed her eyes to close, let her aching body relax at last. Oh God. Maybe she had truly escaped.
Her savior had returned with a small plate holding a dozen soda crackers. Only then did she realize, nauseated or not, that she was famished. Moving gingerly, she pushed herself up against the arm of the couch. He didn't try to touch her, not even to help. That seemed like a good sign.
She held the plate on her lap and nibbled at a cracker.
"I'm Clint Ardmore," he said.
"Kay Young," she answered, surprised at how weak she sounded. "May I have some water?"
"I can't believe I forgot that." He hopped up immediately from the roughly hewn coffee table on which he'd been sitting. "Would you prefer something carbonated? Maybe ginger ale or club soda?"
"Ginger ale, please."
He vanished once again, returning a minute later with a tall glass of soda. "I didn't put ice in it," he said. "I figured you need to warm up, and this is already chilled from the fridge."
"That's great. Thanks." She sipped it with relief, feeling it wet her mouth and burn a little. Her stomach liked it, and soon she was eating another cracker.
"Is it settling?"
"Very well." More ginger ale, another cracker. Somehow he no longer seemed frightening. But how could she be frightened of a man who was practically hovering in concern, a man who had given her his name without asking hers?
"You have one hell of a shiner," he said.
She looked at him. Again that granite face reflected genuine concern.
"He hit me," she said simply. Hard. Multiple times. But she didn't add all that.
"I could have guessed that," he said. "I should call the sheriff."
"No!" Panic erupted again, and he grabbed the soda from her hand right before she spilled it. "No! He'll kill me if he finds me!"
"Easy. Easy. Okay. No sheriff for now. Nothing tonight. Nobody can move in this storm anyway. You just rest. We can talk about everything tomorrow."
To mor row. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, she dared to believe there would be one. "I'm sorry," she said finally, staring at the crackers that still rested in her lap.
"No need. I can tell you've been through hell. Just take it easy. You're safe now."
And she believed him. For now, anyway. She looked at him gratefully as her panic subsided, then resumed eating.
"I'm still dizzy," she remarked. "On and off."
"That sounds like a concussion. You might be dizzy for a while."
It was then she noticed that her sweatshirt had turned dark green. Another shiver of panic. "What happened to my clothes?" Her gaze darted to his face, and for a moment the world turned into a carousel before settling again.
He frowned. "You don't remember?"
"Your clothes were wet from the snow. I helped you change into one of my sweat suits. You said it was okay."
Something far from pleasant started dancing along nerves that were already on the edge of shrieking from pain and terror. "I don't remember."
He swore. "Well, that settles it. You're seeing a doctor tomorrow. If you won't go to him, I'll get him to come to you. This sounds like a really bad concussion."
"He might find me," she said again, plunging back into the nightmare. "He said he was going to kill me!"
"No one will find you. I'll figure out something."
"Oh God, oh God…" And then she started to cry.
A fine freaking kettle of fish, Clint thought as he banged around in his kitchen, slamming pots a little harder than necessary as he tried to decide what the hell he was going to cook for himself, because he hadn't eaten all day. A terrified, injured woman in his living room, crying her eyes out, looking for all the world as if she'd been beaten and maybe tortured, who couldn't even remember letting him help her into dry clothes, who wouldn't let him take her to a doctor, not that he could anyway in the midst of this blizzard….
And all he wanted was his peace and solitude. He had a book to write, a deadline to meet, and he'd had enough of the real world to last him a lifetime. Enough so that it had stuck firmly in his craw and simply wouldn't be dislodged. And now the real world had landed on his doorstep, invaded his solitude and brought all its problems with it.
But what the hell was he supposed to do? A day, he promised himself. Two at most. He would convince her to talk to the sheriff, to see the doctor, and he would send her safely on her way to wherever she was from, where she would have family and friends and others who were far better suited to helping her through this than a crusty hermit like himself.
Finally he gave up all thought of creating some culinary masterpiece, his one indulgence, and settled instead on cocoa and some cinnamon rolls he'd bought earlier. He made enough for two in case she thought she could eat.
What kind of man would treat a woman that way and leave her so terrified? But he knew. He really didn't need to ask the question, because he'd known men like that. One of the things that lodged in his craw. He'd worked with them. They would get all messed up on the job, then take it home with them and treat their wives and girlfriends, and sometimes even their kids, like enemy combatants. He knew them too well. And he wished he didn't. So what if they were a minority?
At least he had the sense to realize that his training and experience had made him unfit for society. But God almighty, now he had that waif in the next room depending on him, and all that stuff about honor and duty and protecting the defenseless was rising up like the opening curtain on another nightmare.
Another cuss word escaped him under his breath. He stacked everything on a tray and carried it into the other room.
Kay was lying on the couch, her eyes closed, so still she might have been dead. His heart nearly stopped. He knew the dangers of concussion all too well.
He set the tray on the coffee table and felt concern clamp his chest in a vise. "Kay?" he repeated.