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She'd never touched a dead body before and she didn't want to start now.
Chuck was practically beside himself, the yellow Lab dancing back and forth, barking madly. Do something, he was telling her. Look what I found for you. She jerked into action, half ran, half slid into the ditch, instinct overcoming shock. Ice blew sideways, stinging her cheeks.
She dropped to her knees where the stranger lay, still, utterly still. He wore dark slacks and a white button-down shirt and tie, no suit jacket or overcoat, ridiculous for this weather, and she forced herself to reach out, turn him over. Oh God. That was blood at the dark hairline of his temple. Frozen blood.
His lips were almost white in the scant light of the early storm-dark. The West Virginia mountains were in for the blizzard of all blizzards if forecasters were right, and she didn't doubt it, not after the way temps had dropped sharply from noon on. She hoped she wouldn't have to cancel the "chooseand-cut" for this weekend, the last for this year's Haven Christmas Tree Farm season. She needed a good season, and the weather wasn't helping. It hadn't been a good year altogether, starting with an earthquake last spring that had damaged her house and barn, costing her some serious money in repairs. Now she'd lost both her employees in the peak of her season and if that wasn't enough, her past was rearing its ugly head again. Now this.
A sick lump filled her throat. She tore off a glove, pushed back her hood, reached for the man's neck to find an artery, laid her cheek over his face—was he breathing? She couldn't feel a pulse, but her fingers were almost instantly numb. Wind blew. God, she couldn't tell.
Chuck barked again, running circles around the man's body. She lifted her head. Icy pellets pecked her face. No, that was snow now. And it was thickening quickly, a world of white suddenly spinning around her. She shivered even inside her thick parka, turning her gaze back to the man. There was ice on his lips, on his eyebrows, his hair. And that blood, frozen on his brow. What had happened to him? Had he fallen, or been attacked? And how the hell had he ended up here? It was miles down the mountain to town.
The man's eyes opened and she screamed. Screamed and fell back, on her ass, hard. Chuck went nuts, barking and jumping.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God." She scrambled back to the man's side. "You're alive." He was alive. Her heart slammed into her throat and it was all she could think for a full second, then— "Are you okay?" No, dammit, stupid question. He was so not okay, that was obvious. Who the hell was he and how had he gotten here were better questions, and suddenly she was scared of him. He was a stranger, a bloody stranger in a ditch on the side of the road in front of her property.
No. His mouth formed the word but he couldn't get it out, or she couldn't hear it over the hammering of her own pulse. No, he wasn't okay, he was telling her, and God, he was gray, frozen. She couldn't leave him here. She'd never turned her back on anything or anyone hurt, but— "Can you get up? Can you walk?"
His eyes held her, glassy, bright in his ashen face. Blue, she thought, but she couldn't be sure and the light was going fast. He just kept staring at her, and she couldn't have looked away if she'd tried. He didn't try to say anything else. He had to be hypothermic, and he was hurt— And there was no place to take him but the house, where she lived alone, except for Chuck. Alone, just how she liked it.
And now— She'd call for help. Maybe someone could still get up the mountain.
She was lying to herself. She'd be lucky if the phones even worked now, and she knew damn well the roads from Haven would be impassable at this point. In the rural mountains outside Haven, cell phone coverage was nonexistent.
"Come on," she shouted, the wind whipping at her words. She wasn't sure he could hear her, or understand her. She reached for his shoulders, pulling him to a sitting position. He felt heavy, muscular, but utterly helpless, and that should have made her feel better. He was weak—what could he do to her? Nothing. But his condition just scared her more.
He could still die.
She grabbed his arm now. "Help me, dammit!" she yelled at him. Something inside him seemed to snap to understanding. He made it to his feet then instantly buckled at the knees. If he lost consciousness again— She grabbed him around the waist, holding him up. "You've got to walk. Please! I can't do this alone!"
If he was an inch, he was six feet tall. She was five-seven herself, but not near his weight, and just getting him out of the ditch almost did her in. He slipped, twice, and it was all she could do to keep them moving forward then up the winding driveway, Chuck barking and bouncing alongside.
The lights from the front windows of her house came into view as they rounded the curve, and she could have collapsed with relief. Nearly there. She'd left her other glove behind in the ditch and her hand was nearly frozen from the exposure. She couldn't even imagine how much colder he must be. He felt like a block of ice in her arms, a very solid, very tall block of ice.
One foot in front of the other. The front porch looked like a mountain all by itself. She could feel him struggling as he made the first step, and she was scared to death he was going to tumble backward and take her with him.
When they reached the door she let go of him with one hand to grab the knob, push it open. He weaved on his feet as if he was going to fall over right there and she threw her arm back around him.
"No! Not here!" She had to get him warmed up, and there was no time to lose.
In the light of the small front room, the man's gaze connected, glassy and lost, but he kept his feet as if by sheer force of will. She kicked the door shut behind Chuck, who made a beeline for the kitchen and his food bowl. The first bedroom was hers and she didn't think twice. She'd pretty much turned the second bedroom into an office, the bed in there piled with boxes of soaping supplies for her side business. He was far too tall for the short couch in her front room.
She maneuvered him around a small table, between an overstuffed chair and the couch, into the small hallway. Her room was dark, but there was enough light from the front room to see the bed.
A groan escaped him as he literally fell onto the bed. She reached for the lamp on the night table, then the phone.
Please, please, please— "Dammit." She slammed the phone down, useless as she'd known it would be, and looked back at the stranger in her house. The enormity of it all hit her.
There was a stranger in her bed, and if she didn't do something, the right something, he could die. In her bed. Her knees were shaking, and not from the cold.
He was ashen, but even so, she realized with a shock that he was handsome, his jaw square, his cheeks planed, his nose straight, his hair dark, clipped short. He was maybe in his mid-thirties. He looked half-dead now, but he appeared to be fit and athletic in general, broad-shouldered and lean. Blood matted his temple and her pulse stumbled as she realized she wasn't the only one shaking.
Get his core temperature up then she'd clean his wound, figure out what to do next. And she was going to have to get his clothes off. They were icy, and when they thawed, they'd be wet.
He looked so disoriented, she didn't think he was going to be a lot of help.
Her head reeled just a little. She couldn't remember the last time she'd touched a man, let alone a naked man, and that he was helpless as a kitten didn't make her feel better. Panic didn't have to be rational, and neither did marrow-deep fears.
She tore off her parka, dropped it on the floor and approached the bed, sitting down gingerly on the edge of it. He looked huge, filling up her bed.
She reached for his hand. God, it was so cold. She pressed it between both of hers, rubbing in what warmth she could. "Hey." To whatever extent he could help, cooperate, she'd need it.
His eyes opened, blinked. Blue. They really were blue. Searing blue. Her stomach jumped.
She let go of his hand, the awkwardness and strange intimacy rearing that ugly, irrational panic again. She spoke quickly.
"I can't get help right now. The phone's out. I need you to stay awake if you can. I need to get you out of these wet clothes." She reached for his tie, unknotted it. It was a safe place to start.
"Maybe tomorrow morning the phones will be working, or I can drive you down the mountain." In truth, either possibility was slim, but she kept talking, hoping it would give him something to focus on, keep him awake. "I hope there isn't someone worrying about you tonight."
She received nothing other than a blank look in response.
Surely he had a family, maybe even a wife. He was clean-cut, good-looking, nice clothes. Without thinking, her gaze fell to his hands. No ring.
"Are you from Haven?" she asked. She pulled and the tie slid out from around his neck without him having to move. "Haven?"
His voice was slurred, a little raspy. Familiar in a way she couldn't quite place.
"Haven. You know where you are, right? You're in Haven, West Virginia. Actually we're a little outside Haven here. This is Haven Christmas Tree Farm."
He was watching her with that startlingly lost look again. She reached for the buttons on his shirt and suddenly, sharply, he moved one hand and gripped hers. Stared, just stared at her with such intensity she felt her pulse bang.
She swallowed hard. "Come on. You've got to get out of these clothes," she said, trying to pull her hand away. In an effort to distract him, she asked him another question. "How did you get here?"
"Accident. I—" He squeezed his eyes shut as if he were in pain.
"Accident where? I didn't see a car."
He still hadn't let go of her hand and his cold grip was shockingly strong.
"Come on," she said again.
His blue gaze blinked and she finally extricated her hand. She moved off the bed, needing that bit of distance. She yanked at the electric blanket cord that was tangled underneath it, hit the highest setting then got back to the bed, to him. She took the buttons of his shirt from the top down, quickly.