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Hands braced on his hips, Sheriff Nate Connor stood looking down at the strange beauty sleeping on his couch. Rolled up in his fleece throw, purple-and-pink-striped socks peeked out from one end and sunshine-yellow hair cascaded from the other.
With a muffled curse he holstered the nine millimeter he'd palmed when he found his front door unlocked. Not that he'd really expected to need it, but a soldier was always prepared. Even in River Run, where the population was less than five thousand.
Luck and skill had kept him from shooting himself when he tripped over the guitar case negligently left in the entry hall.
He considered reaching for his handcuffs, but the woman wasn't a complete stranger. He'd seen sufficient pictures here in this house and on his predecessor's desk to recognize the pretty flow of hair. He was enough of a lawman to figure out she was his new landlord.
And they'd met briefly at her father's funeral seven months ago.
Yeah, he knew who sleeping beauty was. The question was why?
Why was she here and why did she think she could make herself at home on his couch?
He'd had his own plans for that couch. Today was supposed to have been his first day off in over a month. The storm changed that. An overnight delivery truck had skidded on ice and ended up on its side in the pass, blocking traffic in both directions. By the time they got it cleared up, they were in the middle of a full-blown blizzard, and he'd given up any hope of regaining his day off.
A surge of wind knocking branches against the house punctuated the thought.
After a ten-hour day, he'd planned to come home, heat up a frozen dinner and watch the game he'd recorded earlier.
Plans delayed by his uninvited guest's possession of said couch.
A soft snore came from the fleece-wrapped bundle. Nate's dark brows slammed together in a scowl. Now that was irritating. Not because the sound annoyed him, but because it didn't. It had been cute.
He had no room in his life for soft and cute, no patience for trespassing blondes interrupting the last of his day off.
In the past seven months he'd heard nothing from Michelle Ross. Now she slept tucked up on his couch. She may own the place but he had a contract stating it was his for the next four months. He didn't know what brought her to town, but she wasn't staying here.
A matter he meant to take up with her right now.
"Ms. Ross." Advancing on the couch, he repeated the demand for her attention, and then again, louder each time. She stirred and then settled against the cushions, sighing as she pulled the throw tighter around herself.
Finally he leaned down and shook her shoulder. "Come on, beauty, wake up." she stirred and mumbled something.
Instinctively, he leaned closer to hear what she said.
But suddenly she turned and her lips brushed his. That's when her eyes opened. Lovely eyes that brought the green of spring to a late-winter's storm. And that thought distracted him long enough for her to wrap her arms around his neck and draw him down for a deeper kiss.
Questions of who and why and what disappeared in a rush of sensation. She felt warm and soft, and tasted oh, so sweet. This was what home should feel like, what a welcome should taste like.
Nate threaded his hands in all that hair and sank into the moment. After the day he'd had, he let the heat of the kiss sweep him away.
Michelle dreamed of a man on a white horse riding through the forest. Tall and strong, he carried a sword and sought a beautiful princess, ready to save her from all her woes. Michelle was both the princess and not. She liked the safety the knight represented, but it never came free and she wanted to save herself.
Only fools and optimists believed in love. Which left her out. She was nobody's fool. And she'd given up on optimism early in life. She preferred to control her own destiny than hope for the best.
Now the knight was on top of her, holding her gently, his hands fisted in her hair, broad shoulders blocking out the world. He smelled like the fleece that held her in warmth and comfort, of the woods and man. But he was heat and power and his lips were on hers and she didn't care if there was a price. Safe had never felt so good.
She arched into the kiss, opening her lips at the demand of his, welcoming him in, savoring the spicy taste of the man who held her so securely.
His hand moved in a sweeping caress from her head to her waist, where skin met skin. The shock of his cold fingers reached beyond Michelle's lethargy.
Her eyes flew open and she realized this was no dream, no Prince Charming of childish imaginings, but a flesh-and-blood man with a bold kiss and cold hands.
She broke off the kiss, planted both palms flat against his chest and pushed. "Back up, buddy!"
For a moment, just a heartbeat, he held the embrace, and then he released her and surged to his feet.
"Hell. I must be more tired than I thought." He scrubbed both hands over a face a shade too ordinary to be considered handsome. Straight dark eyebrows topped fierce gray eyes. Cut military-short, his hair was a tawny blend of brown, blond and red. Temper, or maybe it was passion, brought a ruddy hue to his cheeks.
The khaki uniform so like her father's had her narrowing her eyes on him as she swung her feet to the floor and sat up. Pain throbbed in her ankle, but she ignored it.
"Who are you and what are you doing in my house?" she demanded. "Besides accosting me?"
"You mean my home?" His hands went to his hips, and he met her glare for glare. "And you kissed me."
She raised brows at him. "A neat trick for someone asleep. I inherited this house from my father."
"And I rented it from him."
That surprised her. "He didn't tell me anything about renting the house. When did that happen?"
"Ben rented me a room when I first moved to town and I continued to rent the place when he moved in with his lady friend almost a year ago."
"Dad had a girlfriend?" She'd been dreaming of princesses and white knights, but clearly she'd fallen down the rabbit hole. As far as she knew, Dad had never had a lady friend.
"I remember you now, from my father's funeral." Usually great with names, she reached for his and came up short. The funeral had been hard for her. She took a stab. "Gabe?"
"Nate." He corrected. "Nate Connor."
"Well, Nate, it seems you took over Dad's job, and you took over his house."
His expression frosted over. "What are you implying?"
"Nothing nefarious." She waved off his paranoia. "I'm just saying this is my house."
She'd only come back to River Run to sell the house so she could move to Los Angeles and pursue her song-writing career.
She'd escaped this town when she graduated from high schoolcouldn't leave the little burg fast enoughand nothing had changed since. With her dad's passing the small town had even less going for it now than it had when she was a kid.
So no, she hadn't crept through Dead Man's Pass praying to a deity she hadn't spoken to in way too long to be kicked out of her own home.
"It's your house, but it's rented to me. I have a contract if you'd like to see it." Nate crossed his arms over his chest, causing his biceps to pop. "You didn't talk to your dad much, did you?"
The truth she'd come to acknowledge since her dad's passing hit her hard. Hearing the censure from the current sheriff didn't help.
"You don't know anything about my relationship with my father." Anger had her pushing to her feet. The ankle she'd injured walking up the snow-covered path from the car to the front door protested at the sudden motion, at the sudden weight, and gave out on her.
He caught her before she could fall, putting those impressive biceps to work, his grip under her elbows easily holding her weight off the sore foot.
"Are you okay?" Exasperation sat alongside concern in the question.
"Fine." She attempted to shrug off his touch, but he held firm until she was seated once again. "I tripped on something on the way up the walk."
He frowned. "I'll check it out tomorrow. Do you need ice for your ankle?"
It irked to hear him playing host in her house. She shook her head. "I'm fine. How long did you know my dad?"
"Three years," he said as he shrugged out of his jacket and hung it on the newel post.
She waited, hearing the cry of a kitten in the lull, but that was all he shared. Great. Her father had been the same all her life, bound by duty, determined to steal all the joy from her life. Now it seemed there'd been more to him than she remembered, but the bearer of the news was no more talkative than her father had been.
"Not very long," she challenged.
"Not compared to twenty-five years, no. But I talked to him, worked with him, spent time with him. You let a complete stranger make funeral arrangements."
Shame burned in her. That had been the lowest time in her life. A bad week capped off by the loss of her father. Yeah, she should have come home and taken care of the details of Dad's funeral, but she'd been trying to save her job, trying to hold together the fraying edges of her life.
In the end she'd only been delaying the inevitable.
"I thanked you for your help." She tried to find a smile and a little of her patented charm to ease the way with him. She'd learned early in life that a pretty girl had power, and she wielded the tool of her looks like any other talent.
But she was too weary, too annoyed with him and the crying of his cat, to bother. Or maybe she was too unsettled by the taste of him still in her mouth to summon a smile.
And what had that been about anyway? She was supposed to have kissed him in her sleep? Right.
So okay, she'd been kissing the knight in her dream. Coincidence. By no means did that translate into smooching a stranger in her sleep.
"Huh." He dismissed her claim of gratitude. "Where are you staying?"
She frowned. "What do you mean? This is my home, I'm staying here."
"I have a contract that says you're not."
"You can't throw me out of my own house." Dread tightened like a fist in her gut. She couldn't afford to pay for alternative accommodations.
"This badge says I can."
"Please." She gestured to her swollen foot. "I couldn't leave if I wanted. I can't drive."
He drew a set of keys from his pants pocket. "I can take you wherever you need to go."
Sleet blew against the window as the wind roared, a timely reminder of the harsh weather.
"I'm not leaving." Defiant, she crossed her arms over her chest and made a show of settling back into the couch. The tension from the long trip was back as she faced being expelled from her own home, the stress aggravated by the cries of distress from the kitten deep in the house.
"Oh, you are."
She shook her head, holding up a staying hand. "Before we continue this argument, can you go feed your cat? The distressful cries are driving me crazy."
"What are you talking about? I don't have a cat."
She blinked in surprise. "Well, then one is trying to get in. Don't you hear that? It's been crying for the last five minutes."
This should be interesting. Would the big bad sheriff help the stray or leave it to fend for itself in the storm he was so ready to toss her out into?
He cocked his head as he listened. The roaring wind covered the sound for a moment and then the plaintive wail came again, weaker now. Poor kitty.
"That's not a cat." Suddenly his expression changed, became hardersomething she couldn't have imaginedand determined. Urgent now he moved to the front door, flung it open, and charged coatless into the blizzard. "It's a"
The wind grabbed his last word and garbled it, but it sounded like he'd said baby. Unbelieving, she hobbled over to the door, righted her suitcase, which had fallen, and set it and her guitar case against the wall.
Using the door for support, she peered into the darkness and screamed when Nate loomed up in front of her. He carried a baby seat. The howling she'd mistaken for a cat's yowls had turned to faint whimpers.
"My God. Hurry," she urged him. "A baby! What if I hadn't heard him crying?" She slowly followed Nate to the couch, where he set the carrier down. "Poor thing, he's shivering. And look how red his skin is."
"Hypothermia. Get him out of the seat and his clothes," Nate ordered. "Put him inside your shirt and wrap up in the fleece. Don't rub his skin. I'll get the fire going."
Michelle sat down and pulled a damp blue blanket away to get at the straps holding the baby in the seat. Quiet now, eyes closed, the infant shook so hard the seat moved. A dingy white cap covered the child's head, but he wore no socks and his thin outfit offered little protection against the elements, including his own blanket.
Next she unbuttoned her pink-and-purple plaid flannel shirt and pulled her T-shirt from her jeans. Her heart broke as she lifted the tiny body, quickly stripped him down to his diaper and then cuddled him to her chest under her shirt. Teeth chattering at the chill he brought with him, she wrapped them both in the warm fleece blanket.
"His hands and feet are freezing cold," she reported, happy to see the fire going. Already the room felt warmer. "How could anyone leave a baby out in a storm like that? It's inhumane."
"Yes, it is." Ice dripped from the words as Nate came to stand over her. "It's neglect and child endangerment. I hope you have a good lawyer."