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Over the river. Check. Through the woods. Check. To grandmother's house. Double check. And though corny enough to put a smile on Brenna Keating's face, the similarities between the song on the radio and her visit to Gran ended there.
Instead of relying on a horse to know the way through the oak-pine forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, she had thirty-three years of memories. She also had a dash-mounted GPS unit, one she'd installed in the economy import her parents had surprised her with ten years ago to celebrate her degree. Kinda took the romance out of the wintry trip, but then she didn't know squat about sleighs.
Transportation was one thing she wouldn't have to worry about when she hit Malawi after the first of the year. Preparing to spend the next twelve months in the impoverished African nation, she'd invested instead in good shoes, cases of antibiotics and a copy of the Oxford Handbook of Tropical Medicine. And even then she knew the in-country experience would be just as valuable as the text and her master's in nursing.
Still, the car had served her well in getting around Raleighto the hospital where she worked, to Starbucks where the baristas knew her name and her drink, to the diner where once a week she had dinner with the girls.
And getting her to Gran's wasn't usually a problem. The car was more than capable of making the long scenic drive. Today, however, most of the scenery was hidden behind a whole lot of drifting white snow.
Four hours ago when she'd left home, the approaching storm had been predicted to hit Gran's mountain close to midnight. Because Brenna didn't have chains, she'd planned her drive accordingly.
She glanced at the clock on her dash. The digital numbers clearly read 2:45 p.m., and big fat flakes were coming down faster than her wipers set to High could clear. This was the last time she paid attention to the local weathermen.
At least her heater was having no trouble keeping the cold at bay. In fact, with her boots and thick socks, and her wool coat draped over her thighs like a blanket, and her gloves, the car's interior was a tad stuffy.
She slowed for the road's next switchback, careful as she braked, then again as she accelerated. Her headlights cut twin beams through the tall trees standing sentry on either side of the roadthe road that hadn't seemed so narrow in the past.
She hated that this trip, more than any other she'd made up her grandmother's mountain, would be driven with white knuckles and near zero visibility. She wanted everything about this visit to be perfectfor herself and for Gran, too.
The next few days might be their last to spend together, and that realization had Brenna wishing for a cell signal so she could call the charity who'd been thrilled to have her onboard and tell them she'd changed her mind. She was staying here. Right here. In the only home she'd ever known. In the place that made her happy.
But doing that would disappoint Gran more than would transatlantic phone calls in lieu of spur-of-the-moment visits. Even more than the possible end of the Christmas holidays the two of them cherished. Gran was Brenna's biggest supporter, and her cheer at hearing the news of her only grandchild following in her footsteps had echoed off the mountain for days.
Leaving Gran was going to be so hard. Even harder was accepting the difficulty of getting back, what with the cost and logistics of international travel in and out of the third-world countries where she'd be putting her skills to good use.
But the hardest thing of all was realizing Gran wouldn't be around forever, and Brenna's new life of volunteer work, one her grandmother championed, meant after Christmas, they might never see each other again.
Sadness rising to choke her, Brenna glanced down to adjust the heater, looked back up
Two eyes. Glowing. Unmoving. Frozen.
Oh, God! A deer!
She swerved, skidded, fishtailed and braked, then bounced off the road and plowed headfirst into a snowbank.
Cold. So cold. Her nose and left eye throbbing. Her foot jammed under the brake pedal. Teeth chattering, Brenna pushed away from the steering wheel to sit up. The airbag plopped onto her lap like a pancake.
Groaning, she remembered the too-hot heat, the deer in her headlights, the amusement park ride into the ditch. Her car was nose down, no longer running. Her door, when she tried it, wouldn't budge. And her phone, when she found it, still had no bars.
She collapsed against her seat. Wasn't she the picture of a damsel in distress? Stupid deer. Stupid car. Stupid driver. At least Gran knew she was on her way and would eventually call out the cavalry, right?
For the love of Pete. If she'd pulled off her gloves and tossed her coat from her lap and left the car's heater alone, she'd be sitting in Gran's cozy kitchen by now. Drinking spiced cider. Filling up on glazed sugar cookies. Gran fussing over the biscuits in the oven and the soup on the stove.
Instead, visions of a tiny motherless Bambi had her stranded and now starting to shiver in the bone-cutting cold.
The tips of her fingers and toes were numb. Her breath frosted in the air as she blew it out in an attempt to remain calm. She grabbed her coat and struggled into it, then reached down to work her foot free.
Pain shot up her shin. She grimaced, pretty sure her ankle was sprained. Not that it mattered. She couldn't sit here and freeze to death. Unfortunately, getting out of her car wasn't going to be as simple as had been getting in.
She was pondering the nuts and bolts of climbing out one or the other of thethank Godmanually operated windows, when the wind began to howl and the already blowing snow whipped into what in minutes would be a full-on blizzard. Lovely.
With no street signs and a starburst crack in the center of the GPS screen, she couldn't be certain how far she was from Gran's. She'd driven this road often, but the accident and near whiteout conditions had her crazy disoriented. And mental confusion was one of the first signs of hypothermia.
She closed her eyes, swallowed and tried not to panic, but her teeth were chattering, gooseflesh pebbled her skin and the car's interior was rapidly turning into an icy tomb. Tears welled and she brushed them away, sniffing.
Cold. So cold. And tired. And very very scared.
"Hello! Miss! Hello!"
Brenna's eyelids fluttered open. Had she been asleep? Dreaming? "Miss! Hello!"
She glanced toward her window, saw a fist, a coat a man.
He leaned down, a big black Stetson pulled low on his face, and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Can you roll down your window?"
She cleared the glass with her sleeve and nodded, reaching for the handle. Frigid air sucked the remaining warmth from the car's interior, slapped her in the face, stole her breath, started her teeth chattering anew.
"Are you hurt? Can you move?"
"My ankle. It's sprained or bruised." It wasn't broken. Of that much she was sure. "I can move."
"Okay. If you can, turn your back to the window. I'm going to slide my arms under yours and lift you out."
Nodding again, she did as he instructed, ignoring what felt like nails hammering her head. Then he was there, big, strong, hefting her out of her seat. She pushed with her good foot, winced when she tried with her bad.
But she was sliding out, her shoulders, her butt, finally her legs. He eased her to her feet, and she hobbled to lean against the car.
"Thank you," she said, but the wind whipped her words away, the same wind pelting her with ice shards.
"C'mon," he yelled, reaching for her. "We've got to get you out of here and warmed up."
She needed her purse, her clothes, Gran's Christmas gifts. But he didn't give her a chance to tell him any of that. He scooped her up as if she weighed no more than a snowflake and turned, and that was when she saw his horse.
The big chestnut beast had snow-frosted lashes and a similarly dusted mane. His breath puffed out in clouds as he snorted. Her rescuer lifted her into the saddle, then swung up behind, scooting her onto his lap before wrapping his thick sheepskin coat around her.
He smelled like leather, like hay, like the deep green woods and the snow. His chest behind her was broad and warm, his thighs beneath hers solid. Like her, he wore gloves, but she could tell his hands were big, and obviously capable as he reined the horse around and away from her car.
She tilted her head back. "I almost hit a deer."
Having leaned down to catch her words, he nodded, then brought her tighter against him with an arm across her middle. She really should be much colder than she felt, and had to be nearly delirious because all she could think about was how treasured, how protected, how small and feminine and faint she felt.
And how romantic it was to be rescued by a knight in a black Stetson on horseback.
Brenna woke later to find herself in a bed, not hers, in a bedroom, not Gran's, and dressed in her socks, her panties and the long-sleeved pullover she'd been wearing with her jeans, which were missing. She had no idea what time it was, or how long she'd been asleep.
What she did know was that she was warm, her ankle sore but only slightly swollen beneath an elastic bandage. And she was safely out of the storm.
Beyond the walls, the wind screamed bloody murder. And on the other side of the door, a fire crackled and popped, its light flickering in long yellow tongues over the bedroom's hardwood floor.
Not sure why, she found herself hesitant to leave the cocoon of quilts and pillows. She assumed she'd find her knight in a black Stetson on the other side of the door, and before she faced him she'd like to have her jeans.
Still, she couldn't resist. She'd felt his strength as he'd lifted her from the car, as he'd guided his horse through the blizzard and kept her safe. She'd sat in his lap, and knew how he moved, his thighs, his abs, his hips, balancing the both of them.
Yet she had no idea what he looked like. He was a blur, a shadow. A sheepskin coat, and boots and jeans, and the sort of big black hat she'd always associated with bad guys. She wanted to see him. So hand on the knob, she turned and inched the door open.
Her first impression of being in a log cabin instead of a frame house like Gran's was spot-onthough this cabin was no rough-hewn shack. The stone fireplace containing the blaze took up a full wall of the structure. The flames provided the room's only light and more heat than did Gran's furnace.
Brenna supposed there was a lot more to see furniture, fixtures, decorative design but her gaze was snagged and held by the man sleeping on the sofa in front of the fire. He was stretched out on his back, his boots on the floor beside him, his socked feet crossed at the ankles, an arm thrown over his eyes.
All she could see of his face was his nose, his mouth, his very square and very strong jaw, and his end-of-day beard that appeared darker than his short hair crushed flat to his head by his hat. But his body she could see almost all of it, and another of her first impressions was proved right.
He was a big man. Tall and fit and dressed like he belonged on horseback in a yoked Western shirt. His hat hung on a peg with two others beside the front door, and his heavy coat that had kept her so warm hung on a coat tree nearby.
The only item out of place was his brass belt buckle. She was too far away to make out the engraving, but thought it looked more military than rodeo cowboy. Interesting, and unexpected, here on Gran's mountain.
Who was this man? How soon could he get her to her grandmother's house, and why had he been out riding in the storm?
But the most important question was, what had he done with her pants?