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Wet yellow leaves clung to the rain-slick, winding road. Devlyn Wolff took the curves with confidence, his vintage Aston Martin hugging the pavement despite the windswept October day. Dusk had fallen. He switched on his headlights, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in rhythm to the hard-rock oldie blasting from his Bose speakers.
No matter how fast he drove, he couldn't outrun his restlessness. He'd been on Wolff Mountain for a week, and already his father and his Uncle Vic were driving him batty. They had installed him as CEO of Wolff Enterprises two years ago, supposedly with their full trust at his back, but they loved playing Monday-morning quarterback.
It was easier when Devlyn was in Atlanta, ensconced in his fancy-ass office. Then the two Wolff patriarchs could only harass him via email and the phone. But giving up control of the company had been hard for them, and Devlyn did his best to make them feel connected, hence his frequent trips home.
His tires squealed as they spun slightly, seeking a connection with the rural highway. Devlyn knew these back roads intimately. He'd learned to drive here, had wrapped his first car around a tree not two miles up the road. For that reason alone, he eased off the gas.
At that instant, the glare of oncoming headlights blinded him as a car rounded the upcoming curve uncomfortably close to his lane. Devlyn tensed, gripping the wheel and wrestling his vehicle into submission. The other car wasn't so lucky.
Devlyn cursed as the little navy Honda spun past him, its white-faced driver momentarily visible, before the small sedan slid off the road and smashed into a telephone pole. Devlyn eased to a halt on the narrow shoulder and bounded out of the car, his heart punching in his chest as he dialed 911. By the time he hung up and reached the car, the driver was already opening her door. Air bags had deployed in the crumpled vehicle. The woman staggered to her feet, wiping ineffectually at a trickle of blood on her cheek. Even in the waning light of day, he could see a reddish mark on her cheekbone.
He grabbed for her as her knees gave out. "Steady," he said. The ground was the closest surface, unfortunately. She went down gracefully, like butter melting on a hot day. His arm was around her, but the gravel slope beneath their feet was uneven. It was all he could do to keep both of them from sliding down the embankment.
Crouching beside her, he pushed her hair from her face. "You okay?"
Her teeth were chattering. "You nearly killed me."
"Me?" His brows shot up in sync with his temper. "Lady, you crossed the center line."
Her chin lifted slightly. "I'm a very safe driver."
Glancing over his shoulder, he cursed. "Not from where I'm standing."
She shivered hard, and he realized with chagrin that this wasn't the place for such a conversation. "Your car is toast," he said. "The nearest ambulance service is forty-five minutes away at least. It will save time if we meet them in the next valley. I'll take you."
"So says the big bad wolf."
She managed a smile, though her lips were blue. "Devlyn Wolff. What brings you here from Atlanta?"
"Do I know you?" He was acquainted with most of the people in this small section of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but occasionally someone new moved into the area. Then again, something about this woman was familiar.
"Not really," she said. Her nose wrinkled. "I'm getting wet."
He'd been so caught up in worrying about her that he hadn't noticed the rain. They were only half a mile from the driveway to Wolff Mountain, and thus his doctor cousin's clinic, but Jacob was out of town.
Grinding his teeth in frustration, Devlyn glanced at his watch. He had a late dinner meeting with a powerful, important investor in Charlottesville in less than two hours. But he couldn't possibly walk away from a woman who might be seriously injured. Wolff Mountain was isolated for a reason, but at times like this, the remoteness of his childhood home was a curse.
"Let me carry you to my car. You may be hurt more badly than you realize." Even as he said the words out loud, he winced inwardly. Saint Devlyn to the rescue. He wasn't a saintfar from itbut he had an unfortunate penchant for rescuing strays, be they animal or human. A tendency that had bitten him in the ass more than once.
She stood up, wavering only slightly. "That's very kind of you. But weren't you headed somewhere?"
Shrugging, he rose to his feet, as well. "I can reschedule." And potentially lose twenty million dollars. He'd been coaxing this particular venture capitalist into trusting him for almost a year. So the moment was likely lost. But money was just money, and he'd seen enough sports accidents in his college days to realize that head injuries were not to be taken lightly.
If he could meet up with the paramedics quickly enough, he might still be able to make his appointment. The woman clearly knew who he was, so presumably she trusted him not to be an ax murderer. He scooped her into his arms and carried her toward his car. Her token protest was feeble. The tremors that shook her slender body were undoubtedly a delayed reaction to the crash. She might have been killed.
His arms tightened around her, his breath hitching as for a split second he imagined what could have happened. Thank God she survived the impact. Her wet hair and clothing smelled of roses, an old-fashioned scent that suited her somehow.
Once, he stumbled slightly, and her hand gripped a fistful of his shirt, her fingernails digging into his skin. For a second he flashed on an entirely inappropriate scenario that involved him and her. Naked. In his bed.
He shook his head. Weird. Too weird.
He deposited her gently into the passenger seat and jogged back to retrieve her purse. When he slid behind the wheel and looked at her, she grimaced. "I'm not going to keel over, I promise. The air bags did their job."
"Maybe so, but you look like hell."
Her jaw dropped. "Well, it just goes to show "
"What do you mean?" He eased the car out onto the road.
"All the tabloids call you a billionaire playboy, but if that's your slick line with women, they've got it all wrong."
"Very funny." He peered through the windshield and upped the defroster. It was completely dark now. He turned off the music, not sure if his tastes would soothe a woman who had been knocked around in an accident. The car was silent except for the swish of the wipers.
His passenger ignored him, her body nestled into the soft leather seat. Though she seemed relaxed, her arms were wrapped tightly around her waist.
A memory kept nagging at his brain. Something to do with this slight, mousy female. But try as he might, it wouldn't come into focus.
She sighed deeply. "I hate inconveniencing you. You could drop me at my mother's house."
"Is she home?"
"Not at the moment. But she'll be back in the morning. She drove down to Orlando to visit my Aunt Tina." She paused and winced when the car hit a bump. "I'm sure I'm fine."
"Don't be ridiculous. We Wolffs may have a reputation for being reclusive, but we're pretty tame when it comes down to it."
Her muttered retort was lost in the squeal of his brakes when he stopped short to avoid hitting a deer. The animal froze, peering at them through the windshield, before bounding into the woods.
Devlyn covered the remaining distance to the main highway and up over the small gap that led to a more populated area to the east, refusing to admit, even to himself, that he was rattled. "Not long now."
"I'm surprised you drive your own car. I thought the Wolff entourage relied on limos."
"I'm a control freak. I like taking the wheel."
Maybe he was imagining it, but he was picking up on some mixed vibes from his damsel in distress. Hostility, perhaps as if she really did blame him for the accident. But even more than that, an odd intimacy, as if she knew more about him than he did about her. Devlyn was disconcerted. He was accustomed to women tucking their phone numbers into his pocket, not looking down their noses at him.
With one last call to 911, he flagged down the approaching ambulance and pulled off the road. He set the parking brake with a jerk. Before he could come around to offer assistance, his mystery lady was out of the car and heading toward the man and woman in uniform.
Damn her stubborn hide. He loped after her. If the professionals decided she needed to go to the hospital, Devlyn was off the hook.
In deference to the worsening weather, the responders left the gurney inside and had the woman stretched out by the time Devlyn approached. "Do you think it's serious?" he asked, speaking to the medic at the back of the vehicle.
She gave him that look reserved for clueless family members. "We'll know in a little bit."
The man inside bent over the patient, checking vitals. He began asking a string of questions. But one snagged Devlyn's attention right off. Name?
The mystery woman's eyes met Devlyn's across the space of several feet. She hesitated.
The question came a second time, more forcefully as the man frowned. Name?
Devlyn saw her inner struggle, and her capitulation. "Gillian Carlyle," she said clearly. Was that a glint of defiance Devlyn saw in her gaze?
Gillian Carlyle. Why did that sound so familiar? He didn't know this woman, did he?
While the medical exam continued, Devlyn analyzed the puzzle. Gillian's looks were unexceptional. Medium brown hair, darker brown eyes, pale skin, an angular figure. The cream angora sweater she wore along with a brown corduroy skirt and knee-length boots were not in any way provocative.
She wasn't his type, not at all. So he knew they hadn't dated in some far-distant adolescent past. Yet for some reason, he was intrigued.
Finally, she was allowed to sit up. "Thank you," she said quietly. "I'm feeling much better now."
The ambulance driver began putting away all the equipment, addressing Devlyn over Gillian's head. "She told me you were the Good Samaritan who stopped to help her. Can you drive her home? She's gonna be okay. Lots of bumps and bruises, though. Make sure she's not alone tonight in case anything crops up that we missed. She should see her doctor for a follow-up visit tomorrow."
Devlyn groaned inwardly. Even if he dashed back up the mountain and took the chopper, he'd never make it now. "Sure," he said, with a smile that felt like a grimace. "I'd be glad to." In the boardroom, he had no trouble acting like a bastard. Not so much in real life.
He watched Gillian deal with the necessary evil of insurance info. Then he shepherded her back to the car, his arm around her narrow waist. Her bone structure was slender, though she was fairly tall. She fit against his shoulder as if she had been created for just that spot. In the flashing lights from the ambulance he could see that she was dangerously near the point of exhaustion.
How in God's name could he simply drop her off at a deserted house in her condition? "Is there anyone you can call to stay with you tonight? A friend? A neighbor?"
"No. But I'll be fine." She turned her head away from him.
He tucked her into the car and kicked the heat on full blast. If his big body was chilled, she must be freezing. Consigning his last hope of making the business meeting to hell, he sighed. "I'm taking you to Wolff Mountain. We have enough guest rooms for a small army. No one will bother you, but you'll have help close by if you need it. I'll call a tow truck in the morning and we'll see about your car."
She half turned to face him, her body visibly shaking. Moisture glittered in her eyes. "You don't even remember who I am, do you? Even after you heard me say my name. Take me home, Devlyn. I don't belong on your mountain."
And just like that, a memory clicked.
Devlyn recalled the day with painful clarity. It was the first anniversary of the terrible tragedy that had torn the Wolff family apart. On that particular sunny afternoon, Devlyn's father and uncle had insisted that their six combined children help scatter two urns of ashes over a newly planted rose garden on the side of the mountain.
For Devlyn, the process was gruesome and confusing. As soon as he was able, he fled to the secret cave that had become solace at his new home. A girl appeared from nowhere it seemed, staring at him with pity, pity he loathed.
"I'm sorry your mother died," she said. Her long, caramel-brown hair had been plaited into two identical braids that hung forward over her narrow shoulders.
Devlyn was embarrassed and humiliated. Boys didn't cry, especially not in front of girls. He ran a hand across his nose and was further mortified to see a smear of snot. "I hated her," he said abruptly. "I'm glad she's gone."
The girl's long-lashed eyes widened. "Don't be stupid," she said. "You can't hate your mother. She was beautiful. Like a princess. My mother lets me go into Mr. Wolff's bedroom sometimes when she's cleaning if I'm really good. I love to look at Mrs. Wolff's picture on the wall." She held out her hand. "Here. I made you a card."
Devlyn's desperate anger swelled, determined to end this encounter. "You 're not allowed," he shouted, knocking the small folded construction paper out of her hand. "Not anymore. This is my mountain, and you don't belong here. Go home."
Her face crumpled. He felt as if he had kicked one of the new puppies that lived down at the stables. The silent misery on her delicate features only made him madder. "Go," he screamed. "Go away."
Devlyn felt anew the weight of guilt and remorse. For over two decades, he had carried the burden of knowing he had hurt a young girl with his hateful words. Now here she was. As if fate had given him a second chance.
He could pretend he didn't know her could text a late arrival to his much-anticipated appointment and drop Gillian as quickly as possible. But his own cruelty stared him in the face. "Gillian," he said slowly. "Gillian Carlyle. It's been a long time."