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The calendar read December twenty-fourth, but Lori Hanson wanted to forget all about Christmas. She wanted to forget a lot of things, truth to tell, which was why she was impatient to begin her workout at the state-of-the-art facility located at Whitehorn High School in Whitehorn, Montana. Standing in the small entry area, she clutched her gym bag in one hand and used the other to dig in her coat pocket for her membership card.
Card located, she stepped up to the desk, ignoring the Christmas carols piping cheerfully through the speakers, the red-and-green tinsel draped along the counter, the fuzzy Santa hat perched on the head of the high-school boy who was there to check her in. His winning smile was impossible to avoid, though. "Merry Christmas," he said.
"You, too," Lori murmured, hoping her Scrooge mood didn't show. But Christmas was for families, something she didn't have in Whitehorn not yet.
The boy took her card and wrote her name down in a ledger book. "New member?" he asked.
"Yes, I sure am." She'd only been in Whitehorn a week, but she'd joined the gym the day after finding her small apartment and hours after she'd gone shopping for a winter-in-Montana wardrobe and groceries. To Lori, working out had become a necessity on a par with shelter, clothing and food.
"Texas?" the high-schooler asked as he handed back her card.
Lori frowned. "Texas?"
"Your accent." The boy grinned. "My mom loves to watch those Dallas reruns."
"Oh. No. I'm from South Carolina." But she was never going back there. She couldn't.
"South Carolina." His forehead scrunched in thought, he leaned back in his chair. "Capital city, Columbia, population approximately 4 million, major economic features are textile manufacturing, tourism and agriculture."
At Lori's clear surprise, he grinned again. "County geography champ last year."
This time Lori had to grin back, because his big, open smile was that cute. When she was in high school she would certainly have fallen in love with a boy like this one. Then her smile faded. Those years were long gone, though, and when she had fallen in love it was with a man who had kept his true nature hidden. She shoved her card back in her pocket and turned toward the women's locker room.
The boy wasn't through with her, though. "Winter in Montana's going to be a shock," he advised.
She sent him a half-smile over her shoulder, but kept on walking. She'd been shocked before. She had come to Montana in winter to get away from all that. To make a new start.
The locker room was deserted. Probably most women were completing their last-minute Christmas shopping or putting the finishing touches on a big family meal. Lori stifled a sharp pang of loneliness and focused instead on shedding her heavy outer clothing and exchanging her winter boots for her running shoes. The sooner she started running, the sooner she could forget her troubles.
The weight room was nearly empty too, but on its other side there was a basketball game in progress on one of the courts surrounding the indoor running track. She paused, out of long habit cautiously surveying the men at play.
Though they were the right age, somewhere in their thirties, none of them had the lean, almost slight build of the man she was constantly on watch for. Thank God.
Relaxing, she continued watching for a minute. Goodness, the males grew big in Montana. The players on the court were all over six feet tallone of them probably six and a half feet!with heavy shoulders and broad chests to match.
In various examples of ragged workout wear, they sweated and grunted and thundered up and down the court, trading good-natured insults. Lori finally moved her gaze from them and walked onto the gray-surfaced track. Eager to begin, she had to force herself to stretch before running. Shoulders, hamstrings, calves: she methodically warmed them up.
A harsh shout from the basketball court caused her to flinchraised voices still did that to herbut she made herself complete her final stretches. Then, only then, did she allow herself to start running.
Aaaah. It was almost a physical sigh that rippled through her mind as she began. A year ago, when she'd taken up running, it had merely been a part of an overall conditioning routine that she'd used to get control over her life. Self-defense classes, some weight training, the running, they were ways to gain confidence.
But the running had gained her something else, too. A runner's high. The zone, as she described it to herself. It was a place where the past couldn't find her and where she could calmly escape her present worries as well.
Even now, the murals painted on the walls of the gym began to blur. They were beautiful scenes of Montana, wildflowers, snow on the Crazy Mountains, elk on rugged plains, but as her pace increased their colors blurred. The mingled sounds of "Jingle Bells" and the thud of the basketball against wood receded too, and Lori's mood lifted.
She was safe here. Safe in the zone. Safe in Montana. It was right to come back to her mother's hometown. The day after Christmas she'd start her temporary job. And some days after that, she'd begin on the real task that had brought her here to Whitehorn.
Her speed picked up another notch, and she felt her long hair fluttering against the back of her neck. In South Carolina, she'd run outdoors, and even in the zone she'd run with one eye looking over her shoulder at all times. In Montana it was going to be different.
The hair at her temples dampened, though the breeze her own movement created dried the sweat on her face. She reveled in the pumping motion of her arms and legs, in her escalating mood, in
A body bumped into Lori from behind. Impressions flashed through her mind.
Huge. Heavy breath. Grasping hands.
Panic speared her. Her feet skittered forward. Strong fingers bit into her arms. She was jerked upright, back.
Then survival instincts woke. A burst of adrenaline surged through her muscles. With desperate strength, she tried pulling free of her assailant. Both off-balance, their feet tangled. They pitched forward. Lori landed belly-down on the running surface, the man half on top of her.
Even with the breath knocked out of her, two years of self-defense classes exploded into action. No! Not this time! Lori's mind screamed.
With a frantic twist, she heaved off his weight. Leverage on her side now, she threw herself over him, her forearm across his throat. Gulping one desperate
breath, she tossed her hair out of her face and looked down into his eyes. Into the eyes of
A stranger. A dark-eyed, dark-haired stranger.
Aghast, yet still half-afraid, Lori jumped up, then backed away from the massive form lying on the ground like a felled tree. Male laughter rang out, and she glanced around, bewildered. The basketball game had halted and the players were looking at her.
No, at him.
He was looking at her.
His face, all angles made up of strong cheekbones and a chiseled jaw, appeared rough-hewn, handsome, even when slightly dazed. His eyes were bittersweet-chocolate brown with long black lashes she d have had to use two coats of mascara to achieve. He blinked, as if trying to clear his head.
Lori swallowed, a new kind of alarm zinging through her. "I'm so sorry. Are you are you all right?"
He didn't move. "Depends on if you're asking me or my ego."
She swallowed again. "What?"
He seemed to consider a moment. "Okay. The answer is, I'm fine, but the ego might need a good soak in the whirlpool. His mouth lifted in the slowest, sweetest smile Lori had ever seen in her life. "Join me?" he asked.
She took a giant step back. "No."
"But it's Christmas. His crestfallen expression made her feel as if she'd stolen the ribbon from around a teddy bear's neck.
Then he rose to his feet, and she just felt afraid. The basketball player she'd attacked was the huge one she'd noticed earlier. He towered over her five feet eight inches and, as he came toward her, Lori found herself retreating farther.
Her heart slammed against her chest as he just kept coming. She scuttled back some more.
"Watch he started, reaching out.
Too late. Her feet tripped over a basketball. With resigned dismay, she realized she was falling again. His huge hand came nearer, as if to catch her, and by some miraclefear over physicsshe managed to regain her balance before he could touch her. She felt her face flush.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Lori couldn't remember the last time she'd been so clumsy. "It depends on if you're asking me or my ego."
At her little joke, he smiled again, slow and big. "I m Josh," he said, bending to retrieve the ball.
"Lori," she answered, moving back another step.
Catcalls from the court had him glancing over her head and he tossed the basketball toward his teammates. "I'm sorry, Lori. The first apology should have been mine. I was chasing after the ball and didn't look where I was going."
Her breathing could finally settle down, but, funny, it didn't. "I'm sorry too. I overreacted."
He shrugged, his massive shoulders moving up and down. "Can't believe a little thing like you could overturn me like that."
She half smiled. "I'm stronger than I look." That was her hope, anyway.
The other men were shouting at him from the court. Lori glanced over her shoulder. "I think they want you to rejoin the game. You're sure you're not hurt?" Her face heated again as their tangle replayed in her mind. The man probably thought she was certifiable for going into maul-the-mugger-mode at the slightest contact.
He shook his head. "I'm fine. You might considering registering with the sheriff as a lethal weapon, though."
Her eyebrows rose. "My hands, you mean?"
His eyebrows lifted, too. "The whole package, sweetheart." With another of those slow smiles warming his rugged face, he touched two fingers to his forehead in a casual salute and then jogged back to his game.
Struck dumb by his good looks and almost offhand charm, Lori found herself staring after him. She was still standing there three baskets later, when despite his large size, he made a graceful, clean swish of two points and glanced over at her, grinning in triumph.
With a jerk, Lori got herself moving again, even as yet another blush crawled up her neck to her cheeks. Steering way clear of the game, she headed for the locker room.
There were some things it wasn't smart to forget, not even for a moment. South Carolina hadn't been safe because of a man. She wasn't going to let the same thing happen to her here in Montana.
By the time she was back in her outerwear, she was feeling a lot less flustered. She hadn't seen Josh at the gym before today, and she probably never would see him again. If she did, she'd ignore him. That would be simple enough.
The day after Christmas, Lori braked her car in front of a small building and opened her notebook to recheck the address she was seeking. Though a small sign declared the place was indeed Anderson, Inc., the site of her temporary job, the dark-red, wood-sided building looked more like an old schoolhouse than the office of a construction company.
But the address was the correct one, so she parked her car in the small attached lot beside a behemoth four-wheel-drive SUV, then headed for the front door. Her black boots made quiet clacks against the brick pathway. She d teamed the boots with a long black wool skirt and a chunky black sweater. An austere look, maybe, but warm. Her roots might be in Montana, but her leaves were definitely more accustomed to the milder Southern winters.
Despite her woolen clothing, a small shiver rolled down her spine. But it was normal apprehension, not a quaking, stomach-knotting fear, thank God. She was starting the first job of her new life today, and she desperately wanted it to go smoothly.
Through the plate-glass front door, Lori spied the orangey curls of Lucy Meyer. The fortyish woman was a new mom and Lori had been hired to replace her as the receptionist while Lucy took maternity leave. They'd met oncein Lucy's home. Her baby had just arriveda month earlyand Lucy was anxious to get someone to help "the boss" as she referred to the head of the company, Mr. Anderson, as soon as possible.
When Lori opened the door, Lucy turned toward her with a smile. "Come in, come in," the other woman said, bustling forward with characteristic energy.
Lori walked into an expansive reception area. Centered on the wall to her right sat a woodburning stove that was pumping out pleasant heat. A large oval rag rug, in shades of red and cream, covered a honey-toned wooden floor. Several comfortable-looking chairs and a selection of magazines made the room appear even more homey.
Lucy took Lori's coat and hung it on one of the brass hooks attached to the wall by the door. "I want to get you as familiar with things as I can before the squeaker gets hungry," she said.
Lori smiled, her nervousness allayed by the unexpected pleasantness of the office. "Where is Baby Walt?"
Lucy jerked her head in the direction of a doorway off the waiting area. "With the boss. I'll introduce you to him in a minute."
Lori had only a second to peer through the indicated door, and only another to absorb a glimpse of a massive desk with a pair of giant-sized, booted feet propped atop it. Then Lucy drew her away.
"This is where you sit," she said.