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Was this his lucky day or what?
Using the back of his arm, Marshall Cates wiped the sweat streaming into his eyes and peered a second time at the woman sitting on a boulder some twenty feet below. From his precarious position on the rock ledge, the only view he had was of a portion of her back, the long fall of her raven-black hair and her nipped-in waist; but those tempting glimpses were enough to tell him it was the heiress.
For the past three weeks every male employee at Thunder Canyon Resort had been talking and fantasizing about the mystery guest. So far Marshall had only gazed at her from afar and wondered what a beautiful young woman with money to burn was doing here alone in Thunder Canyon. True, the small western Montana town was growing in leaps and bounds and Thunder Canyon Resort, where he worked as staff doctor, was garnering a reputation for fine hospitality surrounded by scenic splendor. The clientele was becoming ritzy, flying in from all corners of the nation. Still, Marshall couldn't help but figure a woman with her apparent class would rather be vacationing on the French Riviera than in the middle of a cowman's paradise. The fact that she appeared to be here without an escort intrigued him even more.
This morning, Marshall had risen early, wondering what to do with his off-duty time. With his brothers and his buddies all tied up with other interests, he'd eventually decided to do something he loved, climbing, and had headed up one of the mountains near the resort. When he'd set out on this trek, he'd never dreamed that the chance to meet Ms. Heiress would present itself on the edge of a rocky bluff. Since he'd only ever spotted her loungingaround the lodge, he hadn't figured her for a nature girl.
Quickly, he rappelled the last few feet of the layered rock until his boots hit solid ground. Once there, he gathered up his climbing equipment and left his ropes, rings and anchors in a neat pile with his backpack.
As Marshall walked over to the woman he noticed she was sitting near an opening in the trees, looking out toward the endless valley that swept away from the mountain range. The view was majestic, especially to someone who'd never seen the landscape before. But this woman didn't appear to be enjoying the scenery; she was deep in thought. So much so that she was completely unaware of his presence.
Fearing his approach might scare her so badly she'd fall from the boulder, he stopped ten feet from her and called out.
The moment she heard his voice, her head whipped around and her palms flattened against the rock in preparation to push herself to her feet. Surprise was etched upon her parted lips and wide eyes, telling him she'd definitely believed herself to be totally alone on this particular piece of mountain. She was dressed in khaki shorts that struck her mid-thigh, a pale pink T-shirt that hugged her breasts and sturdy brown hiking boots. Her hair hung like shiny satin against her shoulders.
An enchanting princess sitting on her throne, he thought, as he felt every male particle in him begin to buzz with excitement.
"Sorry if I scared you," Marshall went on before she could gather herself enough to speak. "I saw you sitting here and thought I'd say hello."
Slowly, warily, she eased her bottom back on the boulder and her dark eyes carefully monitored his movements as he came to stand a few feet beside her. Marshall wondered if he really looked that sinister. It was an odd thought for a doctor who'd taken an oath to save lives, not harm them. But Ms. Heiress didn't know him and he supposed she was wise not to trust a strange man out in the wilderness.
Finally, she returned his greeting with a faint nod of her regal head. "Hello."
Spoken quietly, that one word was clear and without a hint of accent, giving little clue as to where she might live. However, it did tell Marshall that she'd not traveled up to Thunder Canyon from a Southern state.
Giving her the sort of smile he reserved for skittish female patients, he asked, "Enjoying the warm weather?"
Actually, it had been downright hot. Not an unusual occurrence for August, but it would take a native like himself to know the nuances of Thunder Canyon climate and right at this moment he wasn't ready to let this beautiful sophisticate know he was a born-and-bred local. She might just snub her straight little nose at him and walk off, and he was too curious about the woman to take that chance.
"Very much," she quietly replied.
Marshall took two steps forward, all the while feeling her dark eyes gliding over him, weighing him as though she were trying to decide if he was worthy of conversation. The idea irked Marshall just a bit. Especially since he was accustomed to women smiling warmly at him, not studying him like a bug on a leaf.
"The view is beautiful from here," she suddenly went on. "The sky seems to go on forever and I was thinking about hanging around to see the sunset this evening, but I suppose being caught out here in the dark wouldn't be wise."
At least the woman had a little common sense to go with all that beauty, he thought, as his gaze covertly slid down a pair of long shapely legs. Her skin was slightly kissed by the sun and the warm gleam told him it would be butter smooth beneath his hand.
Trying not to dwell on that pleasant thought, he shook his head. "No. I wouldn't recommend being here on the mountains after dark. Black bears and mountain lions are spotted in this area from time to time. You wouldn't want to meet up with any of those."
Glancing at the forest surrounding them, she said, "I've noticed the warnings signs on the hiking trails and read the information posted in the lodge." She lifted one hand and shook a bracelet adorned with sleigh bells. "Just to be safe I wore a bear bracelet. I was told the sound would scare the creatures away."
"So they say." He didn't go on to tell her that as a teenager he'd had his own run-in with a black bear and that the sow had refused to back down until his brother had shot a round from his hunting rifle over the angry animal's head. Scaring the woman would hardly be the way to entice her into further conversation.
To Marshall's surprise, she suddenly climbed down from the rock and stood within an arm's length from him. The short distance was enough to give him a clear view of her face. High rounded cheekbones, a dainty dimpled chin and full lips were perfectly sculpted out of creamy skin. Her eyes, which appeared dark from a distance, were actually a blend of earthy green and brown, outlined by a thick fringe of jet-black lashes. Above them, delicate brows of the same color arched into a smooth, wide forehead.
At the moment, the corners of her pink lips were curved faintly upward and Marshall could hardly tear his gaze away.
"You've been mountain climbing?" she asked, her gaze sweeping past him to the mound of equipment he'd left beneath the rocky bluff.
"Since this morning," he answered. "I didn't make it all the way to the top, but far enough for a good workout."
Her gaze pulled back to him and he could feel it sliding over his sweaty face and down to the damp patch in the middle of his black T-shirt. Normally when a woman looked at him, Marshall didn't give it a second thought. But Ms. Heiress was studying him in a way that left him close to blushing. Something he hadn't done since his sophomore year in high school.
"I hiked up this far, but when I ran into the rock bluff I realized this would be as far as I could go," she said a bit wistfully. "Is this something you do often?"
His smile crinkled the corners of his eyes and exposed a mouthful of snow-white teeth. "You mean, find a beautiful woman up in the mountains?"
The faint flare of her nostrils said she didn't appreciate his flirty question and Marshall inwardly sighed. He should have known the woman would be cool. Rich, pampered women usually were. The words friendly and down-to-earth probably weren't in her vocabulary.
"No. I mean rock climbing," she said a bit curtly.
"Oh. Well, actually I do quite a bit of climbing and hiking. Along with biking and kayaking. Once the snow leaves the slopes, that is."
She looked faintly interested and Marshall felt momentarily encouraged. Maybe the woman was approachable after all.
"You obviously like outdoor sports," she said.
"Yeah. Skiing is my first love. I could do that every day of the year. But of course, my wallet would get pretty empty if I didn't work once in a while," he added with a grin.
Like the flip of a light switch, her back went ramrod straight and her lips compressed to a tight line. Her gaze shifted from him to a magpie squawking from a branch on a nearby spruce tree. Apparently she preferred the bird's talk to his.
After a moment, she asked in a cool tone, "Or find a willing woman to pay for your sporting games."
Stunned by this abrupt change in her, Marshall stared at her profile. She might look like an exotic princess, but that didn't mean he was going to let himself be insulted. Hadn't she ever heard of a joke?
"I beg your pardon?" he asked.
Her head swiveled back around and she stared down her straight little nose at him. "Oh, come on, I'm sure you do this all the time. Strike up innocent conversations with single women, turn on the charm and eventually get your hand in their pocketbook. Isn't that the way your game is played?"
So she thought he was after her money. Marshall was so incensed he would have very much liked to turn her over his knee and whack that pretty little bottom of hers until she apologized. But he wasn't about to use caveman tactics on a woman. She'd probably miss the point of a spanking anyway.
"Sorry, Ms.-uh-Smith, isn't it? Mia Smith?"
A mixture of surprise and suspicion suddenly crossed her face. "How do you know my name?"
"I'm Marshall Cates-the staff doctor for Thunder Canyon Resort. I've heard your name mentioned by some of the other staffers. And in case you didn't know, there are people, like me, who can make it just fine in life without a pile of riches. My salary easily takes care of my wants. I certainly don't need a woman to take care of me financially," he added coolly.
Completely stunned now, Mia stared at the man standing a few steps away. She'd assumed he was also a guest at the resort. She'd jumped to conclusions and figured he'd heard she was a single woman with money and thought she would probably be an easy prey to his good looks. To learn that he was a doctor at the resort no doubt a well-to-do one-both rattled and embarrassed her.
Hot color washed across her face as her fingertips flew up to press against her lips. Too bad she hadn't kept them shut earlier, she thought. No telling what the man was thinking of her.