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"It's all for the best," her mom would have said. For a while Shelley had believed it, but she'd been wrong. Because now she was back—to beg Matt Whitlock for help. Only she'd gotten caught in a storm that blanked out every recognizable feature of the flat eastern Colorado landscape.
This was an area of sudden, violent weather. Thunderstorms in the summer and snowstorms in the winter.
Like now. But what did she expect? In the time it took to read a couple of heart-stopping sentences, her life had fallen to pieces—and plowing through the blinding snow was just one more trial she had to get through to put it back together.
If she could put it back together.
Although the windshield wipers swept back and forth in front of her, they didn't help much. If only she'd noted the odometer reading when she'd left Boulder, she'd have a better idea where she was, but she'd been too focused on getting here to check anything on the dashboard besides the gas gauge.
She almost missed the turn-off for the Silver Stallion Ranch, but from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the familiar metal archway above the stone gateposts.
Skidding as she applied the brakes, she peered up the narrow drive that led to the ranch complex. There were no tire tracks, which meant no one had been up or down the access road since the storm had started.
Her heart gave a painful lurch. After she'd come so far, was Matt away? Or was he just holed up in the ranch house, waiting out the bad weather?
Clamping her hands onto the wheel, she turned in between the gateposts and started up the lane. Once this had been familiar territory. Now she might as well be traveling through an arctic wasteland.
When the car skidded on hidden ice, she cautiously tapped the brake, wondering when Matt had last plowed the drive. It felt as if he hadn't spread a fresh layer of gravel since she'd been here.
What did the lack of upkeep mean? Was he low on funds? Or had he withdrawn even more into the shell she'd watched him building around himself?
With a sick feeling, she looked back over her shoulder, questioning her decision to come here in the first place.
But she'd had nowhere else to turn, and retracing her path would be tricky.
She managed to drive perhaps another fifty yards before the car hit an obstruction hidden in the snow. When she tried to back up, she fishtailed into the ditch at the side of the road.
If she'd been a man, she would have responded with a string of curses, but she made do with one ladylike "damn."
She was good at keeping her temper under control. Maybe that was part of her problem. She was too polite to make a fuss, which was one of the reasons she hadn't contacted Matt five years ago when…
She took her bottom lip between her teeth, unwilling to finish the thought. She'd have to get to that soon enough.
Her cell phone was in her purse, but when she pulled it out, she got another nasty surprise. Usually she charged it overnight, but that was one more detail she'd neglected in the past few days. Now the battery was dead as a tree stump.
She'd just have to walk the rest of the way to the ranch house.
With a sigh, she looked in the back seat. Her overnight bag was there, but carrying it through the snow was out of the question. After slinging the strap of her purse across her chest, she yanked her wool hat down more firmly over her dark hair, pulled her scarf up over her nose and climbed out of the car.
Immediately, the wind whipped against her slender frame, making her grab the car door to brace herself. When she felt steady on her feet, she raised her arm to shield her eyes from the stinging flakes and started plodding up the drive, glad that at least the snow wasn't higher than the top of her boots.
Up at the ranch house, Matt Whitlock shut off the alarm that had warned him that someone was on the road to the main complex. Someone he obviously wasn't expecting.
Now who would be out in a storm like this?
A traveler who needed to take shelter from the driving snow? Or someone using the weather as an excuse to sneak up on him?
He made a snorting sound. There was a time in his life when he would have considered that last thought over-the-top paranoid. From bitter experience, he'd learned that paranoia could be entirely justified.
He turned toward the window, looking out at the sea of white. From here, he couldn't even see the bunkhouse where his one remaining hand, Ed Janey, lived. It was tempting to stay inside and let the trespasser make the next move. Still, whoever was out there could be in trouble if he hadn't figured on a sudden storm. If Matt didn't want to find a frozen body in the road tomorrow morning, he'd better go out and have a look.
Or maybe he'd encounter a deer looking for shelter.
With a sense of resignation, he made his way to the mudroom that he used more than the front entrance of the ranch house.
Along one wall was a bench where he sat down to lace up sturdy boots. Next, he strapped on a holster and pulled his Sig Sauer from the gun cabinet. Not the weapon of choice for most ranchers, but it seemed more useful than a rifle under the circumstances. After clicking in a magazine, he holstered the weapon, then took a down coat and a broad-brimmed hat from pegs on the wall. Prepared for the storm—and for trouble— he stepped out of the house into the storm.
A stinging blast of snow hit him in the face, and he shook his head. The smart thing would be to go back inside, but he was out here now, and he might as well find out who the devil was stupid enough to be traveling on a February day like this.
"Oh, when the saints come marching in," Shelley sang as she struggled up the road toward the ranch.
Belting out the lively hymn helped keep her mind off her precarious situation, but she gave up when she realized she needed all her energy just to keep plowing through the snow. In the distance, she thought she saw a light, but it might simply be a mirage.
Born and bred in Colorado, she was used to extremes of weather, but it had been a long time since she'd gone out in a storm like this. If she'd been thinking about her own safety, she would have waited a couple of days before heading for Matt's ranch, but her problem had been too urgent to put off. And it hadn't been something she could talk about over the phone.
Now she was wondering if she had a chance of making it to the house.
Her foot collided with yet another hidden obstruction, and she almost went down—but managed to stay on her feet by windmilling her arms.
After taking a moment to catch her breath, she started forward again. As the light faded, the temperature dropped, and numbing cold began to penetrate her coat.
Tears blurred her vision, but she blinked them away. If she let herself get worked up, she was going to start screaming— or sobbing, and that wasn't going to do her any good.
Instead, she kept putting one foot in front of the other as she lowered her head against the wind and followed the road as best she could toward the ranch complex.
The wind kicked up, blowing the snow into drifts that blocked her way. She judged that she had covered about half the distance between the car and the house when she blundered off the driveway and into the ditch—which was piled with snow.
For a long moment, she lay where she was—panting. Then she forced herself up because she knew that if she stayed where she was, she'd end up freezing to death. Lips set in a grim line, she scrambled back onto the road, but now her steps were slower, and she knew she was in serious danger of going down again.
Matt was several hundred yards from the house when he saw something through a curtain of falling snow. A person, struggling up the driveway that led to the ranch yard. "This way," he called out.
There was no response, and he knew the wind had drowned out the sound of his voice. As he watched, the guy pitched over into a snowdrift and lay still.
Matt picked up his pace. The damn fool was in trouble— whoever it was.
"Just stay there. I'm coming," he called out, then laughed harshly at himself. It didn't look like the interloper was going anywhere under his own power.
Matt tramped onward through the blizzard, finally reaching the guy, who had fallen in the snow and didn't have the strength to get up.
Squatting down, he turned the man over and pulled down the scarf that covered his face.
When large green eyes blinked open, he made a strangled sound.
"Matt…" she gasped out as she focused on his face. "Thank God."
"What are you doing here?"
She blinked, and her lips moved, but she apparently didn't have the strength to answer.
"Come on." He helped her to her feet and slung his arm around her waist, holding her erect.
"Can you walk?"
He was cursing himself for not bringing a four-wheeler down the road, but he'd been too intent on sneaking up on the intruder. Now he was stuck walking Shelley back to the house.
Holding her firmly against his side, he turned and retraced his steps, following his own trail through the snow.
It was still falling like a son of a bitch, and it was hard to see where he was going. But he pushed his surprise guest onward as fast as he could make her walk because he knew he had to get her out of the cold and wind as soon as possible.
As he held her upright, images from the past assaulted him— starting with a very nervous Shelley Young, just out of college, interviewing for the job of his accountant. She'd worn her brown hair longer then. He skipped a few months and saw himself and Shelley in his office, going over the computer files. The two of them at the breakfast table. Walking hand and hand along the creek. Down by the corral—feeding carrots to the horses.
He tried to keep one more vivid picture out of his mind— him and Shelley naked in bed, in each other's arms, clinging desperately together because they both sensed that the relationship was never going to work out, and neither of them was willing to admit it.
He squeezed his eyes closed, struggling against that last image and against his own reaction. If he was smart, he would put her into a four-wheel SUV and drive her back to Boulder, where she was living now.
But he couldn't do it. She must have come here for a reason, and he needed to find out what it was. Still, he knew he had his own reasons for bringing her inside.
If he could have her here for just a little while, maybe that would be enough to last him another five lonely years.
When they finally reached the house, he muttered a prayer of thanks as he helped her through the door. Once they were in the warmth of the house, he sat her down on the bench in the mudroom and pulled off her boots, coat and purse.
"It's okay. What are you doing here?"
She shook her head, and he could tell she wasn't exactly with it.
After tossing his own coat on the floor and pulling off his boots, he picked Shelley up in his arms and carried her through the kitchen, then down the hall to the room where he had slept when he was a kid.
He'd long ago moved into the master bedroom where he had more space to spread out, but he'd kept this room in case he needed it. Yeah, sure. For what?
Well, at least he didn't have to put Shelley in his bed. That was something.
He propped her against his hip then pulled the covers aside and eased her onto the bed. When she was lying down, he reached for her feet. They were cold and wet, so he pulled her socks off and inspected her toes, which were red but not frostbitten. When he found that the hems of her jeans were wet, he opened the snap at her waist, pulled down her zipper and dragged the pants down her legs.
"You're undressing me," she murmured, her lips curving in a silly grin.
"We need to get you warm and dry," he answered, peeling down her thermal underwear and discarding it along with her jeans, struggling to ignore his reaction to her slim legs, feminine thighs and the triangle of dark hair he could see through the thin fabric of her panties.
Luckily, her shirt was still dry, so he dragged the sheet and blanket over her, covering the tempting image of her lying in bed.
"You need to sleep."
"I need you."
Her arms whipped out and circled his neck, pulling him down so that he flopped on top of her.
"I need you, Matt," she whispered, her voice quavery.
"For what? Why did you come here?"
She made a muffled sound.
When he lifted his head to gaze down at her, she still looked dazed and confused, and he knew he should climb off the bed and beat a retreat into the other room.
As he hesitated, she cupped the back of his head and brought his mouth to hers, and he couldn't make himself pull away. When his lips touched down on hers, a jolt of sensation shot through him.
Somewhere in his mind, he knew none of this should be happening. He shouldn't be in a bed with her—holding her— for so many reasons.
Yet at this moment in time, none of the reasons mattered. The only thing his brain had room for was that she was lying in his embrace.
He broke the kiss and lifted his head. Her lips were parted now, her breath shallow, her eyes full of hope—and, he thought, pain.
"What is it?"
"Just be with me."
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