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Alison Cole peered out the rain-streaked window of her Subaru station wagon at the fork in the road. A quick glance at her GPS was no help at all. She'd been off the government maps for the past fifteen minutes.
She grabbed her cell phone from the seat beside her, determined to call Stephen, the graduate assistant who'd given her directions. But the moment she turned it on, she realized there wouldn't be service this far into the mountains. She punched in his number and waited, hoping that she was wrong. But when the call didn't go through, Alison tossed the phone back onto the seat.
The way she looked at it, she had two choiceswell, actually three, if she counted turning around and going back down the road to civilization. "Right or left," she murmured. She had a fifty-fifty chance of finding Ettie Lee Harper's cabin. The same odds had her getting stuck on a muddy road with no way of calling for help.
Alison had spent the past four months tracking down the elusive Ettie Lee and she was running out of time. Her search had begun the moment she uncovered an old reel-to-reel recording in the archives at the university last summer. A yellowed label gave the date as 1939, but a sound technician friend said that the tape was probably a recording of an old phonograph record. It featured a young Ettie Lee Harper, her voice clear as a church bell on a cold winter night, singing Appalachian Christmas songs along with a dulcimer.
For a musicologist, it had been like discovering a treasure chest filled with precious jewels. Only Alison's jewels were songstraditional songs that had been passed down for generations in mountain families and over time were transformed into entirely new versions. She recognized many of the original songs but there were three on the tape that were completely unfamiliar to herthree lost treasures that she was determined to uncover.
Alison had made Christmas carols the subject of her doctoral thesis at East Tennessee State, tracing the roots of Appalachian songs back to their origins with the Scots and Irish settlers who carved out a life in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Discovering a trio of new songs would open all sorts of doors. She could put together an album featuring the new songs or publish them in a folio. And she'd sing them at her Christmas-themed recital in two weeks.
The discovery alone was enough to assure her of her dream job, the chance to start a whole new department at the University of North Texas, one of the nation's top music colleges. The selection committee was coming to hear her Christmas faculty recital and she'd already been scheduled for a series of interviews in Denton.
With this new music, they'd have to see how important her work would be to their university. At the least, she'd finally get an offer of a tenure position at East Tennessee. She'd be Professor Alison Cole, Ph.D., making her music teacher parents proud.
"That's it," she muttered. "I'm calling the governor. This is ridiculous. I'm still in Tennessee. We have road signs in Tennessee."
Over the past year, Alison had ventured into the mountains a number of times in search of singers and songs. And she'd learned one important thingmountain folk were suspicious of outsiders. Maybe suspicious enough to pull down road signs? She leaned over the steering wheel and squinted into the gray light of the afternoon.
There it was. Not a regular Tennessee Department of Transportation sign, but a crude wooden marker nailed to a post. Alison jumped out of the car and ran toward it, trying to read the letters carved into the weathered plank. "Harper," she said with a smile. The left end of the sign had been fashioned into a point and she stared down the muddy road. Though the narrow cut through the forest looked nearly impassable, at least she knew there would be help at the other end if she got stuck.
Alison ran back to the car and got behind the wheel, then sharply turned the Subaru to the left. There were signs in the mud that another vehicle had passed that way recently, giving her a boost of confidence. After two minutes on the steep, winding drive, the thick forest opened into a small clearing. A pickup truck was parked off to the side of the driveway and she pulled in behind it.
A wide porch spanned the front facade of the rough-hewn log cabin and smoke curled out of a stone chimney. A small oil lamp flickered in the window between panels of a lace curtain. There were no wires or poles running along the driveway. Though indoor plumbing wasn't a must in many of the mountain cabins she'd visited, nearly everyone had electricity and phone service these days.
She honked her horn to announce her presence and waited for the obligatory dogs to appear to chase her off. When they didn't, Alison stepped out of the car and started toward the front steps. But halfway up the muddy path, the front door swung open. Two dogs came tearing out and Alison glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could get back to the safety of the Subaru in time. Her split second of hesitation was too long and the hounds raced around her, barking and sniffing at her feet.
If that wasn't enough to frighten her, an elderly woman appeared on the porch, a shotgun in her hands. She raised it, pointing it directly at Alison. "You better watch yourself," she shouted, holding the gun steady. "This is private property and you're officially trespassing."
"There wasn't a sign," Alison called, protecting her eyes from the rain, which was slowly increasing to a downpour. "I'm sorry. II'm looking for Ettie Lee Harper. Does she live here?"
"There's nothing here for you. I don't have any antiques to sell, I'm not lookin' to buy life insurance and I don't wanna leave my savings to whatever charity you come callin' for."
A younger man appeared at the door and gently took the gun from the old woman's hands. They whispered something to each other and the woman nodded and went back inside.
"Just hop on back into your car and get on out of here before Ettie Lee has to shoot you," he said.
"So that was Ettie Lee." Alison took a step forward, then realized the man still had the gun in his hands. "I'm here about her music. My name is Alison Cole. From East Tennessee State. I heard her sing on an old recording and I wanted to talk to her about her songs."
Alison wiped the rain out of her eyes and pasted a friendly smile on her face as the man turned aside to discuss the matter with Ettie Lee. Though she'd met resistance before when speaking to mountain folk, Alison had never been on the business end of a shotgun.
A moment later, the elderly woman reappeared at the door and motioned to her. "Come on in, then," she called in a wavering voice. "I wouldn't wish this weather on my dogs." She cocked her head toward the man holding the gun. "Is she coming?"
"Yes, I believe she is, Miss Ettie."
"Is she pretty?" Ettie Lee shouted. "Hard to tell, Miss Ettie. Right now, she looks like a drowned rat."
Alison stepped up on the porch and pushed the damp strands of her bangs aside, then sent the man with the gun a cool look. But the moment their eyes met, she realized that she hadn't seen much beyond the muzzle of the gun pointed at her. She swallowed hard as her gaze took in the details of his features.
He was beyond handsome, his eyes a piercing blue and his lips chiseled perfection. A day's growth of beard shadowed the planes and angles of his jaw and cheeks. Thick dark hair brushed the collar of his chambray shirt. When he smiled at her, she felt a shiver skitter through her body.
It had been so long since she'd had this kind of reaction to a man. Just last week, she'd been complaining about the lack of interesting men in her life over lunch with her best friend, Tess Robertson. Tess had warned her that the right man might come along at the most unexpected time.
She'd even presented Alison with a beautifully wrapped Christmas presenta box of condoms, insisting that they both needed to make a New Year's resolution to be a little more naughty and a little less nice.
Well, this man was certainly a surprise, as was the tiny thrill that raced through her when she met his gaze. All kinds of wicked thoughts rushed into her head. Maybe Tess had been right. At the most unexpected time and in the most unexpected place.
She tipped her chin up and gave him a coy smile. "You know what they say about men with big guns," she muttered.
"Come on inside," he said, arching an eyebrow as she passed. "We've got a fire going. You can dry yourself off and get warm."
Drew Phillips closed the cabin door behind the stranger and watched as she dripped water on Ettie's floor. Though he'd said she looked like a drowned rodent, his claim was far from the truth. Even soaking wet, Alison Cole was just about the most beautiful woman he'd seen in in longer than he could remember.
He'd been trying to avoid looking at her since she'd arrived. There was something about her that he found so alluring, something that had caused his blood to warm and his pulse to quicken the instant their eyes met. She wasn't drop-dead, Hollywood gorgeous, the kind of beauty you found on the pages of magazines. Instead, she had a simple, natural beauty that even stringy wet hair and a lack of makeup couldn't diminish.
Drew groaned inwardly. Since he'd opened his practice a year ago, his sex life had been practically nonexistent. Making the decision to leave an urban hospital and move back to the mountain had been easy, but he'd never considered what the lack of available women would do to his libido. He'd just assumed that there would be opportunities, and if there weren't, he'd spend the weekend in town.
But there were always emergencies, people to look after, home visits to make, and the weekends slipped by without any break from his duties. All work and no play had made Drew a very horny boy. And now, with a beautiful woman standing nearby, his thoughts would naturally turn to sex.
"Why don't you get yourself out of that wet jacket," he said, placing his hands on her shoulders. He slowly pulled the garment off, the scent of her teasing his nose.
She shivered. "II'm a little cold."
Drew grabbed an afghan from the back of the sofa and wrapped it around her shoulders, rubbing her arms to warm her. His palms slipped to her back and he continued to massage her. "Better?"
She looked up and their eyes met. For a long moment, they stared at each other. He was so used to looking after his patients' well-being that it was only natural to try to make her more comfortable. But when he realized they were nearly embracing, he quickly stepped back. "Hypothermia can set in very quickly," he murmured.
It was obvious she'd been a bit shaken by the physical contact. When she spoke, her voice trembled. "Miss Harper, my name is Alison Cole. I've been searching for you for a long time." She held out her hand, a puzzled look coming over her face when Ettie didn't move.
Drew walked over to Ettie's side and took her by the elbow to lead her forward. "She wants to shake your hand, Ettie." He smiled at Alison. "Miss Ettie is blind."
"Don't say it that way," Ettie scolded in a deep drawl. "Tell her I just don't see things the way regular folk do." The old woman held out her hand and Alison took it in hers. "So you heard my recording? There was a man came by here last summer asking about those songs. Wanted to put them on a new record."
"Someone else knows about them?" Alison asked. Her expression fell and Drew wondered why the songs were so important to her.
"But I ran him off," Ettie continued. "Didn't like the sound of his voice. He came back twice, tryin' to get me to sign some papers, but you can never trust a man with papers."
"When did you record the songs?" Alison asked.
Ettie smiled. "My Lord, I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was 1939. My fourteenth birthday. And my daddy borrowed his friend's truck and drove Mama and me into Knoxville. It was the first time I'd been away from home and I thought I'd faint from all the excitement."
"You had a beautiful voice," Alison said.
"She still does," Drew commented.
Alison glanced over at him and his breath caught. Had he been staring at her this whole time? She was even more beautiful than he'd originally thought. He found himself undressing her in his head, discovering the body beneath the damp clothes.
He held out his own hand, challenging her to take it, to touch him. It was clear she was attracted to him. He could read the signs. "I'm Drew Phillips. I'm the doctor around these parts. I was just paying a house call to Miss Ettie when you came along."
The moment she slipped her fingers into his, Drew felt a current of anticipation race through him. It had been so long since he'd thought about a woman in a purely sexual way. Though he was considered quite a catch among his patients and their single female relations, Drew made it a point not to mix his professional life with his personal life. But this woman seemed as if she'd been dropped on this mountaintop for a reasonand maybe it wasn't just to talk to Ettie about her music.
"I like the sound of you," Miss Ettie said. "Why don't you two sit down near the fire and I'll get us all some tea? We'll have a nice chat." Ettie moved to the stove. "It's chamomile. I pick it myself."
"I'll do that," Drew offered, stepping to her side.
"No, no," Ettie whispered. "You throw a few more logs onto the fire and have a nice chat. She sounds like a very pretty girl. You could use a pretty girl in your life," she added, patting Drew on the arm.
Drew turned to face Alison, certain she'd heard everything Ettie had said. "Sit," he said, pointing to a chair near the hearth. "And don't mind her. She likes to play matchmaker whenever she can."
"Yeah, I can tell you probably have all kinds of problems finding women to date," Alison teased.
Drew chuckled. "I spend most of my free time with an eighty-five-year-old woman," he said. "That should tell you all you need to know."
"I wasn't asking," Alison said, tipping her chin up. "I'm not interested in you. Only Ettie."