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She was so cold.
The rain had drenched her sweater and jeans and plastered her hair to her head. Chilly rivulets streamed down her face and the back of her neck where they entered her sweater.
She hunched over, pressing against the storm's onslaught. Her eyes were nearly closed as she tried to see where to put her feet. Fallen needles from the surrounding conifers cushioned her steps but concealed ankle-deep puddles, one of which she'd already blundered into. Incense cedars, Ponde-rosa pines and Douglas firsshe automatically cataloged them as Calocedrus decurrens, Pinus ponderosa and Preudotsuga menziesiiloomed over her. No doubt wildlife abounded in the surrounding trees and brush, but they all had the sense to hunker down under cover.
She stumbled and nearly went to her knees as the thick needles suddenly gave way to a gravel road. Thank God there was at least a shred of daylight remaining or she might have traversed the narrow track unknowing. Night would be falling soon. It was nearly She raised her wrist to check her watch. Gone. Where had she left it?
As if frozen by the icy rain, her mind couldn't muster an answer. Nor could it explain where she was, how she'd gotten here in the first place, why she was wandering these thick woods in an inadequate wool sweater and denim jeans, with only ruined cross-trainers and ankle socks on her feet.
She looked right where the road sloped downhill, then left where it climbed uphill. She could barely make out the sound of running water over the noise of the pounding rain. A creek, maybe.
Downhill seemed safer, more likely to take her back to a main road. But this narrow gravel track must leadsomewhere. If she went uphill, she might find a house where she could find shelter.
The cold was dulling her brain, slowing her already-confused thought processes. When the storm miraculously let up for a moment as if it took a slow breath before expending its fury on her again, she peered up the road. In that brief respite she spotted a glimmer of light in the distance.
She turned and started up the gentle slope. The location of that distant light told her that the hill would get steeper as she drew nearer. With barely the energy to put one foot in front of the other, she wasn't sure how she'd find the reserves for a steep climb.
The roar of running water grew louder as she trudged up the road. The storm had regained its muscle, the rain so thick she could hardly breathe. When she reached the creek, she hesitated for a moment, awestruck by the speeding, foaming rush of water cutting across her path. The bridge across it seemed spindly and inconsequential in the face of the creek's power. But she could see the steel girders on either side, the stout metal railing.
From the ruts in the road leading to and away from the bridge, she knew that if the structure could handle a car, it could certainly hold her weight. Exhaustion slowing her, she stepped onto the thick timbers, one hand gripping the rail tightly. This evidence of human development comforted her, gave her an anchor. There were still people in the world. Someone would help her.
She shouldn't have stopped halfway across. But light arcing across the hillside up ahead befuddled her. Her laboring brain seemed to tell her feet to still, so she could work out the source of the light. Just as she looked back, spotting the glare of headlights appearing and disappearing through the trees below, she felt the first wash of water over her feet. Before she could work out why water lapped at her ankles, the creek surged.
The knee-deep wave pulled her feet out from under her. In an instant the flood had swept her under the railing and off the bridge.
Jack Traynor peered through his windshield at the ugly weather, his Suburban creeping along the zigs and zags of his private road. He usually zipped along the five miles of wash-board gravel at a bone-jarring clip, the big four-wheel-drive vehicle unfazed by the climb. But when visibility was near zero in a deluge like this, or in a whiteout like the ones that he would no doubt face before December was over, he navigated his sometimes treacherous road more carefully.
When his headlights first brushed the bridge across Sierra Creek, he thought the rain must be playing tricks with his vision. It looked almost as if someone was on the bridge. But considering the fact that where the creek crossed his sixty acres was a good four miles from Highway 50, that briefly glimpsed silhouette had to be an illusion. Who would walk those four miles in this downpour?
But as Jack drew nearer and drove along a straight stretch that kept his headlights focused on the bridge, he realized the person standing there was no fantasy. How in the hell had they gotten there? He had discouraged hiking with a multitude of Private Property and No Trespassing signs, not that the area surrounding his home was particularly amenable to tourists. Sometimes on balmy summer days he'd have to chase away the odd interloper, but it made no sense that someone would intrude during winter's opening volley.
He supposed it could be a reporter, but not likely. Five years ago they'd been after him like hungry vultures, all of them eager for an exclusive. But now he was old news. Other than the overblown documentary that one of the cable channels aired a year ago, the press ignored him these days.
Keeping his gaze fixed on the womanat least he'd guessed she was female, based on her slendernesshe goosed the accelerator, increasing his speed as much as he dared. As he got closer, he saw the woman sway and realized that whoever she was and however she'd gotten here, she was in trouble. Instinct told him he'd better get there damn fast.
Not fast enough. Just as he pulled over the last rise, the creek got her, a surge of water upending her. Even as Jack shoved the Suburban into Park and jumped out, he saw her go under. His heart squeezed in a hard, painful knot. He ran toward the bridge, but he knew his effort would be futile. She was dead. There was no way she could survive a ride down this raging creek.
Then he saw the arm hooked around the railing support, the woman struggling to keep her head back and above water. She seemed to squirm from side to side as the creek slammed into her. The water was the least of it. Deadfall in the fast-moving creek could break a bone.
He went in anyway and grabbed her just in time, as her arm grew lax and her head lolled forward in the water. Terrified he'd lose his grip on her, fighting the water's pressure against his lower legs, he clamped his hands under her arms. Battling against the creek's strength, he slid the woman's body back through the railing. He didn't breathe easy until he had her slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry as he slogged back to his truck.
He set her limp body in the passenger seat, then shucked his heavy duster and spread it over her. A quick check of her carotid revealed a rapid but steady pulse. Her breath curled across his hand when he held it in front of her face.
Slamming the door shut, he rounded the front of the Suburban and got in, soaked to the skin. He cranked the heat up as far as it would go and inched forward. The creek had receded again, although it still spilled a few inches of water over the bridge. Nothing the Suburban couldn't handle. Water fanning off to either side, he sped across as quickly as he dared.
The engine roared as he climbed the last steep segment of his road, windshield wipers barely keeping up with the pounding rain. He'd never been more grateful to pull into the wide asphalt driveway of his log home. Motion sensors above the garage triggered exterior lights, their glow muted by the downpour. He pressed the remote for the garage, then pulled the Suburban inside.
Damn, she was pale, Jack realized as he got his first look at her in the glare of the overhead fluorescents. Her short hair lay slickly against her head. She had red marks across her left cheekbone and a cut above her brow. Both likely caused by the fall from the bridge.
The supplies that had been his reason for heading into town in such lousy weather could wait. The woman was the more pressing concern. Jack carefully lifted her into his arms, the feel of her deadweight sending a chill of fear down his spine. Exactly how his wife had felt the night he'd found her.
Jack blanked that image from his mind, focusing instead on the feel of the woman's breath against his throat where he'd nestled her head. This wasn't Elizabeth he carried into his house. This wasn't the past repeating itself.
He shouldered through the garage door into the dining room, then hurried past to the great room. The lamp he'd left burning in the front window provided enough light to see. Easing the woman into the recliner, he threw sofa cushions onto the floor in front of the fireplace. Thank God for the fast starting pellet stove. It would be kicking out plenty of heat in no time.
He turned back to the woman. If he laid her down on the sofa cushions as she was, those wet clothes would just hold the chill against her skin. He'd have to undress her before he rolled her up in blankets. He doubted she'd like it much when she woke, but she wouldn't die from embarrassment; hypothermia was another matter.
He set aside the duster, then bent to her feet. She'd lost her shoes in the torrent of water so he had only the ankle socks to remove. The gleam of metal around her left ankle caught his eye. He lifted the wet hem of her jeans to reveal a delicate bracelet, the name Mia worked in gold.
Leaving the anklet, Jack unbuttoned the jeans, struggling against the stiff, wet material to lower the zipper. The icy goose-pimpled flesh at the woman's waist urged him to move more quickly. Jeans off, he unpeeled the Christmas-red wool sweater from her upper body.
And he saw the other red marksalong her legs, several just below her rib cage. A nasty scratch, angry crimson but no longer bleeding, marred her left forearm. He checked the sweater, expecting a tear to match the wound, but the left sleeve was intact.
He levered her up, letting her body slump against his. More marks across her back, from shoulder to hip. Seeing them, an old horror crouched inside him, clawed at his belly. Elizabeth, lying on the kitchen floor, her body bruised like this woman's, bloody.
Again he shook the images off. A raging creek could carry with it branches, logs, even rocks. That was what had pounded this woman's body, cut her arm. Rocks and deadfall. Not fists.
Grabbing an afghan from the back of the sofa, he spread it on the cushions. He carefully gathered the womanMia?in his arms and laid her on the afghan. The front of her dusty-pink bra was torn, as if it had caught on something that nearly ripped it off. Maybe a sharp edge on the bridge had snagged it when she went over. He kept his eyes averted as best he could while he pulled away the last barriers to the unconscious woman's modesty, setting the bra and matching panties on the hearth.
He brought the edges of the afghan over the woman, then hurried to the master bedroom for the thick comforter on his bed. Doubling it over, he tucked it around her.
As he stepped back, he shivered, even standing so near the blast of heat from the roaring fire. Now that the woman was safe, he needed to get out of his own damp clothes. Unbut-toning his shirt as he went, Jack returned to his bedroom.
He considered a hot shower, but didn't want to leave the woman that long. He made do with a brisk toweling dry, then pulled on jeans and a wool sweater. The propane heat had cycled on, taking the chill off the house as he returned to the great room with a fresh towel.
He knelt beside the unconscious woman and felt her pulse again. It had slowed to a steady rhythm, and her chest rose and fell evenly. A doctor ought to see her, but late on a Sunday evening, the hospital was the only option for medical care, and the nearest one was forty miles away. The roads were tricky even in the best weather; they'd be downright treacherous in this storm.
For the moment, keeping her dry and warm seemed the best course. If she didn't improve over the next hour or so, then he'd transport her up the hill to Tahoe Memorial.
His fingers probed along her skull, but his layman's examination didn't uncover any obvious bumps. He'd have to wait until she woke to ask if her head hurt. Using the towel, he did what he could to dry her hair, then tried to smooth it. If she was anything like Elizabeth, she'd be mortified by the bad-hair-day unruliness.
Except she was nothing like Elizabeth. His wife had been blond, her hair nearly to her waist, not a dark wedge like this woman's. Elizabeth's proportions were more generous, breasts full, hips and thighs softly rounded. She complained daily about the excess ten pounds she claimed she carried. But he had loved running his hand along those silky curves, seeing her smile with delight when he kissed her.
He shut down the memories, wouldn't let himself feel the pain that five years should have been enough to dull. Pulled himself back to the present and the woman lying beside his hearth.
She wasn't so much conventionally beautiful as she was striking. High cheekbones, full lips, narrow, determined chin. Her eyes seemed to slant ever so slightly upward. Were they green, an exotic contrast to her dark hair? Or dark chocolate like those still-damp strands clinging to her forehead?
And who was she? What brought her to his remote sanctuary? He supposed it was possible she'd made a wrong turn onto his road. But then, what happened to her car? If it skidded off the road, he would have seen signs of it on his way home. He supposed some of her injuries could have come from a car wreck.
Her face still felt cool to the back of his hand, although not as icy as when he first brought her inside. Was the rest of her warming up? He reached under the covers, brushing inadvertently against the bottom curve of one small breast. Heat rose in his cheeks. He felt a bit like a pervert copping a feel, but he had to know that her core temperature was rising.
His hand flattened across her rib cage, and relief filled him as he absorbed a faint warmth against his palm. She took a deeper breath, and he felt her chest rise against his hand. Her body shifted, pushing at the covers. He glanced at her face and had only an instant to register that her gray eyes were open and fixed on him.
Then she screamed.