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The cold air penetrated clear through Hope McKinnon's jacket as she stepped out of the rented car and looked up at the home base of the Bighorn Therapeutic Riding Facility. It was December in Alberta yet it felt like the arctic! It was a shock to her system after she'd reluctantly left the hot brilliance of the Sydney sun only hours before.
She huddled into her woolen coat and popped the trunk for her bag. The wheels of her suitcase squeaked and dragged on the snow covering the path to the wraparound porch of the big log home. Coming up the long lane, she'd thought it had a fairy-tale quality, like a romantic ski chalet nestled in the mountains. Twinkling fairy lights were intertwined through evergreen boughs on the railing, glowing softly in the waning light of late afternoon.
But that had been in the warm car, with the heater going full blast. Now she shivered. The house was rapidly losing its winter magic as she gave the case a tug over a ridge of packed-down snow. She heaved it up the stairs one at a time, growing more and more irritated until she plunked it down beside her leg and rang the doorbell.
She huddled into her jacket as she waited.
By this time her legs were cold and her feet were beginning to go numb in the soft leather boots she wore. She looked around and saw a truck parked next to the barn. She was supposed to meet a man named Blake Nelson, the guy who ran the ranch. She'd been guilt-tripped by her grandmother into coming and taking pictures of his operation, and she wasn't all that pleased about it. She could think of a million other places she'd rather be in December than in the icy cold of Alberta.
But she was here, and she was freezing, so she left her suitcase by the door and made her way across the yard toward the barn. A light glowed from a window within, a warm beacon against the grayness of the afternoon shadows. It would be warm inside, wouldn't it? She quickened her step as she neared the door.
The next thing she knew she was slightly airborne as her boot hit a piece of ice camouflaged by a skiff of snow. The weightless sensation lasted only a second and was immediately followed by a bone-jarring, breath-stealing thump as she landed squarely on her rump.
"Ow!" she cried out as her tailbone struck frozen ground. She fought for a few moments as her emptied lungs struggled for air, and then gasped it in painfully, closing her eyes.
When she opened them she was looking at a pair of worn leather cowboy boots that disappeared into two very long, denim-clad legs. Humiliation burned up her neck and into her cheeks as she forgot the pain in her bottom. What a way to make a first impression!
"You must be Hope," said a warm, deep voice with just the barest hint of a drawl. "Let me give you a hand up."
The rich voice sent shivers down her spine and she struggled to keep her breath even. She looked up then, and couldn't help the gasp that escaped her lips. This Blake guyassuming it was himwas stunning. Incredibly tall, and the form he cut was that of the quintessential cowboy, complete with sheepskin jacket and a dark brown cowboy hat to match. His breath made white puffs in the wintry air.
Her photographer's eye was already framing him as if she were behind the lens, capturing him like a great Western icon.
"Did you hit your head or something?" He still held out his hand and she realized she'd been staring at him like he was the eighth wonder of the world.
"Sorry," she said, holding up her hand and grasping his wrist. He gave a quick tug and she was on her feet again. She hid her flaming face by twisting and brushing the snow off her pants and the tails of her jacket. She didn't stand much hope of dignity now. She might as well make the best of it.
"You have to watch out for the odd bit of ice in the yard," he cautioned. "Those boots don't look like they have much tread. I hope you brought something heavier."
She tried to ignore the humiliation that seemed to burn her cheeks at his chastising tone, making her feel foolish and about five years old. She lifted her eyes and tilted her head to look up, studying his profile as he turned to inspect her heeled boots.
The looking up was a rarity. At five-foot-ten, and with a modest two-inch heel, she stood an even six feet. And she still had to look up at Blake Nelson. He had to be at least six-four, six-five. Most of the time she felt like an ungainly giant, but next to his strong build she felt positively feminine. Or she would, except she could still feel the bump on her butt, reminding her of her grand entrance. Perfect.
He turned his head slightly so he faced her squarely, and the part of his face which had been shadowed by his hat was now clearly visible. Her heart seemed to drop to her toes, and a small cry escaped her lips before she could stop it.
For the space of several heartbeats she was back in the hospital again, trying terribly hard to look at her best friend Julie in the face as the bandages came off. To smile when she felt like weeping; to tell Julie it wasn't that bad when in truth the raw shock and ugliness of her friend's injuries had made her sick to her stomach. The same quea-siness threatened now and she gulped in air, needing to steady herself. This cowboy wasn't so perfect, after all. A long scar ran from his right temple clear to his jawpink, ugly, and puckered.
"Are you sure you're okay? You've gone quite pale."
The words were polite but Hope was aware enough to realize how very cold they were. He knew exactly what had happened. She'd taken one look at the mess that was his right cheek and she'd been repulsed. What he didn't understand was why and she was too fragile right now to explain it. The last thing she wanted to do was break down in front of a stranger.
There wasn't a day went by that Hope didn't see Julie's smiling face in her mind and feel the hole that her death had left behind. Julie had been the most beautiful girl Hope had ever knownbeautiful inside and out. It had been six months since her funeral, but Hope couldn't get the image of Julie's ravaged body out of her head. It had all been so unfair, especially since Julie had been the one person Hope had let herself get close to in all these years. Julie had understood about Hope's family, about her dysfunction and frustration and the futility of hoping that someday it would all work out.
And then Julie, like everyone else in Hope's life, had abandoned her. Not by choice. Hope knew that. But when she was alone in the apartment they'd shared, when there was no one to text during a slow workday, or catch a drink with on an outdoor patio, it felt like the same thing.
Hope fought for control and shut the feelings down before they overwhelmed her completely. She had to keep focus.
"I'm Hope," she announced, trying desperately to sound normal. It shouldn't matter that he'd been injured and left disfigured. Except that it really did. It smashed into the concrete wall she'd put around her feelings with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, reminding her of everything she'd rather forget.
"Blake," he replied, but the coolness remained in his tone. "And I'm guessing you're pretty cold right about now. Let's get you up to the house."
As they walked back to the house she was constantly aware of his hand by her elbow, waiting to catch her if she slipped again. It was courteous, considering their shaky start, but unsettling, too. He opened the doorunlocked, making her feel foolish once againand held it for her to enter before grabbing her suitcase as if it weighed nothing at all and bringing it inside.
She almost wept in relief at the blast of heat that greeted her, and forgot about all her reservations at staying in a private home. She could think about that later. Right now she would focus on warming up and that was all that mattered.
He started up the stairs with her case. "I've got your room ready. I put you on the west side of the house. I thought you'd like that. It's got a view of the mountains, and the early-morning sun won't bother you. Not that it rises that early this time of year."
He was being terribly polite, and Hope was beginning to feel doubly guilty about her obvious reaction to his face, half wanting to explain and half wanting just to forget all about it and start over.
"Thanks," she said, injecting as much warmth as she could into the word. "I'm pretty jet-lagged. I'm lucky I know which end is up."
He stopped in front of a door and opened it, but his closed expression told her he hadn't exactly thawed toward her yet. "You can always nap for a while if you want," he offered. "I've got chores to finish up in the barn."
He was getting away from her as fast as he could, she realized, her heart sinking. So much for starting over.
She considered taking a nap, but she knew it would probably be better if she stayed up awhile longer and tried to go to bed later, so she didn't end up being as nocturnal as a koala.
"I think I'll wait a while, try to adjust."
She stepped into the bedroom and momentarily reconsidered. The rustic cabin-style decor in what she'd seen of the house was repeated in this room, with knotty pine paneling climbing the steeply pitched walls. Along the center of the outside wall, lined up with the peak of the pitch, was a heavy wooden bed that looked like it had been hewn from logs. It was covered in a gorgeous raspberry-and-cream quilt with several fluffy pillows on the top.
While definitely not her personal decorating taste, Hope found the room surprisingly cozy and welcoming. She could hardly wait to sink into the softness of the mattress, snuggle beneath that quilt with her head cushioned on the pillows. A stone gas fireplace was tucked in one corner. Hope almost swooned with pleasure. All it would take was a flick of a switch and she'd have toasty flames to heat up the room.
Blake put down her suitcase as she went to the window and looked out. For miles the white foothills rolled, leading to the gray hulking shapes of the Rockiesso large that they appeared closer than she suspected they actually were. In all her travels around the world as a photographer she'd never been here, and she suspected that on a clear, crisp day the white-capped peaks were stunning.
She turned and chafed her hands together. "Thanks. Mr. Nelson.. "
"Just Blake," he corrected, straightening. "I'm not so much into formality around here."
"Blake," she continued, unsure how she felt about him calling her Hope instead of Ms. McKinnon for the duration of her visit. The last thing she needed was anyone getting overly personal. She preferred to keep her distance, after all. "Doesn't this feel weird to you? A stranger in your home?"
He looked taken aback by her question. "You city people," he said. "It's not like that around here. Consider it Western hospitality."
The words should have been friendly, but to Hope they still held the stiff veneer of politeness. Great. So he was as awkward about her being here as she was. She should have stood her ground and told Gram no. But she'd never been able to say no to Gram.
Hope considered telling him she hadn't always been a city girl. She'd spent lots of time climbing trees and swimming and picking wildflowers. Getting grass stains and skinned knees from falling off her bike, and in a town where you could knock on anyone's door for a quick glass of water or a Band-Aid to heal a scrape. The memories caused a pang inside. They hadn't been ideal yesterdays but they weren't all bad, especially all the times spent in Beckett's Run with Gram. That town was about as far from a big city as you could get.
She looked up at him, smiled politely, and kept her mouth shut.
He shrugged. "After what Mary said on the phone, there's no trouble with you staying here. Really."
Hope's brow furrowed. What did Blake mean? The only reason she was here was to take pictures, right? She replayed her conversation with Gram in her head. Pictures and
Something uncomfortable wound its way through Hope's chest. Pictures and down time, Gram had said. Time spent not working. In a house with a single man
Gram wouldn't be matchmaking, would she?
Hope banished the thought. Gram didn't even know Blake. The very idea was ridiculous. Boy, Hope really did need some sleep, didn't she?
She looked into Blake's face and thought she saw his eyes soften with what looked like compassion. Compassion for her? Ridiculous. "I don't know what she told you. Why don't you enlighten me?"
At her sharp tone the soft look in his eyes disappeared and she wondered if she'd imagined it. He tilted his head the slightest bit, his keen gaze feeling a bit like an assessment as he paused.
He shook his head. "You look dead on your feet. We can talk about things later, after you've had a chance to rest and have something to eat. I've got to get back out to the barn, but I'll put on some coffee in the kitchen before I go."
He looked down at her legs and back up again, his expression knowing. His examination made her feel about two inches tall.
"If I were you I'd change out of your wet pants. The snow is starting to melt. You're going to be quite uncomfortable in about thirty seconds."
She looked down and saw a puddle by her boots. She hadn't taken them off when she came inside. Hadn't done anything but march dutifully up the stairs. She looked back up, but her head seemed to lag half a second behind her eyes. Uh-oh. Having the equivalent of an out-of-body experience was no time for a conversation about the whys and wherefores of the next few weeks. It would keep.
"Coffee would be great, thank you."
He went to leave but turned back, his right cheek facing her so she couldn't look at him without seeing the scar in all its angry, beastly detail. The funny tingling sensation she recognized as anxiety crawled down the backs of her legs again but she forced herself to hold his gaze.
"I'll be back inside at dinner. Anna put a roast in the crockpot this morning, so we can eat when I come back."
Anna? Hope felt a rush of relief. Perhaps they weren't going to be alone, then. Maybe Gram had been wrong. Maybe Blake had a wife, or a girlfriend.
That would be very welcome news, because while Hope certainly lived in the twenty-first century, there was a small part of her that felt odd knowing it was just going to be the two of them under the same roof.
Wouldn't her friends have a chuckle about that? Who knew she would be so traditional, after all? Of course she might just be feeling that way because, despite the scar and the cool attitude, she did find Blake rather attractive in a raw, rugged sort of way