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Callista Mackintosh didn't believe in beating around the bush. Gabriel Jordan had ignored the eight phone messages she had left in the past three days, and she was running out of patience. Hence, here she was on Jordan land to beard the lion in his den.
The curtain at the front window of the house fluttered.
Must be Gabe. No one else lived here.
"He's a recluse," some of the townsfolk confided.
"He's crazy," others whispered.
Wood smoke scented the air. If not for the aging housetired and grumpy against the snowy beauty of a Colorado forestthe scene would be idyllic. The house needed to be demolished. Her boss had been right about that.
Callie didn't know nearly enough about its inhabitant. She'd done her research before driving out here but knew little more than facts.
Thirty-seven-year-old Gabe had served in the army for eight years, including a couple of tours in Afghanistan, and then had come home to start a dogsledding business. He lived alone in the old family house that neither his youngest brother, Nick, nor the middle brother, Tyler, wanted. The land, though that was worth a lot.
Their mother died four years ago. Apparently, their father died when they were children.
Despite Callie's research, who Gabe was remained as elusive as that shadow lurking behind the curtain.
She girded her proverbial loins and knocked on the door, rubbing her arms through her wool jacket. Cripes, it was cold in Colorado.
At last, the door opened and a dog peeked out, a Lab with a coat as glossy as melted chocolate. Then the door swung wide and the man she had all but stalked by phone stood in the entrance. For an instant, Callie couldn't think.
Her first thought stunned her. He's beautiful.
Wild dark hair framed a face with granite planes that mimicked the mountain behind the sky-kissing trees of the forest.
I should have brought my camera. She could shoot that face all day. Dark eyes, deep-set and alert, studied her without blinking.
Nick no longer knows his older brother. Her boss had warned that Gabe would put up resistance to their plan, but not to worry, that Nick had ways to get around him. Seeing Gabe in person, Callie wasn't so sure. He didn't look like the pushover Nick had described. This man had substance, presence.
Handsome in a rugged mountain-man way, the antithesis of lean and refined Nick, Gabe wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans, the shirt wrinkled in spots that weren't stretched tautly over muscle, and the blue jeans old and pale with wear on his thighs. Not only did Gabe look as though he could eat a bear, but he could probably wrestle it into submission with his bare hands.
His unruly beard and moustache, his black eyes and high cheekbones in a stone-chiseled face spoke of hard-earned character. But what kind? Was he as devious as Nick, as willing to do whatever it took to get a job done?
Maybe not, but Callie had the sense that he would fight for this land tooth and nail, and that her job had just become a whole lot harder.
He watched her with shadowed eyes.
He has baggage. If Callie could peek inside his head at the contents of those suitcases, she would know better how to approach this man.
Still he said nothing, simply stared with mute wariness, held by a deep, unnaturally quiet waiting.
He had a right to be wary.
Callie was about to blow his world apart.
"I'm Callista MacKintosh," she said in the confident voice that put people at their ease. "Callie. I'm here to talk about your land."
"What about my land?" His voice sounded rusty, probably par for the course with recluses, but how would she know? She'd never met one before.
"Perhaps it would be best if I come in?"
"No." He slammed the door.
Her smile vanished. She stared at paint peeling from the old wood, stunned. People liked her. They didn't close doors in her face.
She raised her fist to knock again, but the door swung open and he barged out so quickly her hand hit his chest. And stayed there.
Heat radiated through her fingers and up her arm as though the man were an oven. For the first time since arriving in the state two days ago, a small part of her warmed.
She looked up. Way up. He stared at her fingers glued to the flannel of his shirt and then at her face. His stillness came alive, resonated with a new awareness. She knew that look. He found her attractive. Men often did.
Even so, she jerked her hand away.
Normally, she would use his awareness of her as a woman to her advantage, but an attraction to him resonated inside her, disturbing her. How could she control him if she let her emotions lead the way?
She didn't mix emotion and business.
Nick Jordan built developments that made oodles of money. Callie came in ahead of time and laid the foundation before the work started. She counseled, cajoled and convinced until home or business owners finally sold, gave in or gave up their spaces so Nick could have what he wanted.
To do that, she couldn't think of them as men or women, only as clients and, when necessary, as obstacles.
No doubt about it, Gabe would be an obstacle. She couldn't possibly think of him as a man.
Oh, but Callie, you already do.
"We'll walk." Gabe shrugged into a beige rancher's coat, setting muscles rippling and flowing.
Callie stared, then registered what he'd said. He wants to walk? Really? In this cold?
Why didn't he want her inside the house? What was he hiding?
The dog stepped out. Gabe reached inside, retrieved a beige cowboy hat from a hook and snugged it onto his head, then closed the door.
When he stepped from the veranda, the dog followed.
"He doesn't need a leash?" Callie asked.
He flicked a quick glance over her, then took huge mittens from his pockets. "You have gloves?"
"In the car. I didn't think I'd need them inside the house."
He didn't acknowledge her sarcasm. "Get them."
She retrieved her leather gloves from the passenger seat but his lips flattened when she put them on. Before she could close the car door, he stepped close, took one of her hands in his and pulled the thin glove off. He tossed it into the car.
She should object to his presumption that he had the right to touch her, especially given what it was doing to her nerves, but his fingers were warm and hers too cold. He slipped one of his big mittens on her hand and then did the same with the other, his actions gentle, almost tender. A lot of restraint for such a big man.
"Won't you need these?" she asked.
He shook his head and walked away. She caught up to him easily. With his long legs, she expected long strides, so he must have shortened them to accommodate her. Soon enough, she realized it had nothing to do with her.
The chocolate Lab walked with a slow stiff gait and the man checked his stride for the dog's sake.
"What's wrong with him?" she asked.
She almost thought he wouldn't answer, then he said, "She. Arthritis."
"Oh. How old is she?"
Callie waited. He had to think about it?
Finally, Gabe said, "Fifteen."
Hmm. Not too talkative.
He led her along a path through a wood of tall pines behind the house. A carpet of snow hushed their footsteps. Sun shone through the pines, sending Jacob's ladders to the forest floor. A soft breeze whispered through the tops of the trees, dropping dollops of snowflakes through the sunbeams.
Callie stopped and stared. Lovely. Charming. She so rarely had the opportunity to appreciate nature. Maybe it was time to take a vacation. Ha! As if Nick would let her.
Gabe pulled too far ahead. The woods might be charming, but she didn't want to be alone in them and ran to catch up to Gabe and the Lab.
You 're going to have to get comfortable alone here, girl. Nick wants shots of every part of this land.
Without warning, the dense forest opened into a huge clearing. There, in amongst the trees, were the trappings of Gabe's dogsledding business.
In the center of the clearing, a low brick fire pit held a couple of huge stewpots on a grate. Steam rose out of them. That explained the source of the burning wood smell.
A large white tent sat at the far enda squat rectangle maybe eighteen by twenty feet at a guess. Ropes running along the sides anchored it into the ground. A stovepipe broke through the snow-topped roof.
"Do people actually camp here?" He ignored her. "They sleep in that tent?"
Still he didn't respond. "Yes," he said finally.
Did the man really have to think that long to answer? Her questions were only going to get harder.
On one side of the clearing, a thick chain lined a row of trees, with dogs attached at regular intervals, each lying in a bed of straw. When they saw Gabe, they jumped to their feet.
He tore a hank of straw from a nearby bale and made a nest of it near the fire pit. The Lab curled onto the straw, her motions jerky.
Tired of waiting for Gabe to turn his attention to her, Callie asked, "Can we talk?"
She waited for his answer, but Gabe seemed completely absorbed in his task of pouring the steaming liquid from the pots into a row of stainless steel bowls. It smelled like chicken soup.
"Why were you in the house when I got here?" she asked. "Why would you leave a fire untended in the middle of the woods?"
This time, since the question was specific, she knew that if she waited long enough, he would eventually answer. She thought she was beginning to understand the man. He wasn't ignoring her questions with these tactics. Rather, he seemed to be composing appropriate responses. At least, that's what she suspected was happening. But why did it take him so long to do that? She could see in his eyes that he was an intelligent man.
"The can," he said, not making eye contact.
The can? What did that mean? A blush tinged his tanned cheeks above his beard. Oh. He'd needed to use the bathroom. It seemed significant and revealing that Gabe would actually go indoors when other men would have simply used the woods. Of course, it was frigid out here. So maybe going to the cabin was merely a matter of practicality rather than any great revelation about his character.
And why was she overanalyzing this? Surely there were other ways she could learn the character of this man.
One thing was already obvious to herhe had his own timetable, his own clock.
Maybe he thought if he made her wait enough before responding to her queries, she would get tired and leave. Never. Rather than waste her breath, she watched while, one by one, he delivered the filled bowls to his dogs.
Curiosity got the better of her. "Won't that burn their tongues?"
She'd never spent much time with animals, but to her untrained eye, these dogs appeared excited and happywhether for the food or to see Gabe was unclear. Their sincere reactions put Callie in a good mood for some reason.
"Stainless steel." He carried bowls to the next couple of dogs.
"It's cold out."
God, it was like pulling teeth getting a complete explanation out of him. "And?"
Several moments passed. "They cool fast." Oh. That made sense.
After the last dog was fed, Gabe opened a pair of large picnic coolers and took out blocks of something frozen. He walked down the line and filled the now empty bowls with the frozen chunks.
"What are those?"
He didn't respond. She might as well not be there for all the attention he paid her.
And for reasons she didn't care to examine, his disregard bothered her. "What are you doing?"
Over his shoulder, he looked at her as though she had a screw loose. "Feeding my dogs."
"I can see that," she snapped. This interview wasn't going as planned. "Why are you ignoring me? Can you please stand still long enough for us to have a conversation?"
"In five minutes." A glint appeared in his eyes. Was it Was he laughing at her? As quickly as it appeared, it was gone, and she wasn't certain she'd truly seen it.
While she crossed her arms over her chest to ward off the cold, he continued about his business.
"You need good clothes." The suddenness of his words, in the silence of the snow-shrouded forest, startled her.
She glanced at her jacket and boots. "What's wrong with my clothes?" They were from this season's collection.
He picked up a couple of empty bowls. "You're shivering."
Yes, of course she was shivering. She was frozen. "I hadn't planned on spending time in the woods today."
He took a moment as if to digest her sarcasm. "Buy a warm jacket. Boots. Gloves." He glanced at her red hair and she touched it self-consciously. "Get a hat."
He had a point. She planned to be in town long enough to walk every inch of this property. She should be prepared to spend hours out in these low temperatures.
"Don't go to the Willow Branch or that other fancy boutique," he said. "They'll sell you useless shit. Go to the Army Surplus. Noah will give you the right stuff."
"A speech. I'm honored."
That humor gleamed againshe hadn't imagined itand as quickly disappeared.
"For a recluse, you sure know a lot about Accord." He stopped walking and his innate stillness deepened. "Who said I'm a recluse?"
Had she said something wrong? "Everyone in town."
"Most people," she amended. He didn't respond. "Well? Are you one?"
He dumped the last bowl into a pot of clean water. "I'm myself. No more. No less."
He approached her, moving in too closely, taking her breath and hovering over her as though to intimidate her. Fat chance.
"Back off, Chewbacca. You're in my space."
Another glimmer of amusement in his eyes. It didn't reach his lips, though. Or did it? Hard to tell through that much facial hair.
He eased away from her. "Why are you here?"
The moment of truth. In her gut, she knew she would have a fight on her hands. For the briefest of seconds, she considered lying, then quickly abandoned the thought. Best to get it out into the open. Nick might be devious. She was not.
"I work for your brother Nick."
Gabe startled at his brother's name. "So? What does he want?"
"He wants to build a ski resort on this land." His face turned to stone. "Never."
"Can't we discuss it?"
"No." There was no hesitation now. "Boo," he shouted and spun away.
She jumped. What the hell? "Hey! You can't scare me off that easily."
"I was talking to the dog." He tossed the words over his shoulder as he stalked into the woods.
The Lab accompanied him.
Callie followed, keeping only a small distance between them.
Once they'd reached the house, he opened a door. "Go sit by the fire, Boo." After Boo entered he closed it, then took Callie by the elbow, steering her toward her car, surprising her again with his gentle touch. Gentle, maybe, but also relentless.
"It's time," he said, taking no care now to keep his strides small. She had to skip to keep up.
"You can't be here."
Not leave, or go, but you can't be here. Why phrase it like that?
He opened her car door and urged her into her seat. How he did it without making her feel manhandled baffled her. She never let men control her, but he did it with such restraint that she acquiesced. He shut the door, again with a leashed touch and, without another word, disappeared around the side of the house.
"Well," Callie huffed. "That was that."
She removed Gabe's oversize mittens, got out of the car and left them on the veranda. She had no choice but to leave. There was nothing else for her to do here today. Anger would be useless. Instead she would go back to the B and B and regroup.