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When Emilie Bartlett heard the battering thuds below—it sounded as if someone's fist was pounding on the front door—she burrowed under the heap of blankets without bothering to open her eyes.
She wasn't sleeping.
She hadn't slept since she could remember.
But there was no one at the front door. There couldn't be. When the seaplane brought her in two days before, the blizzard had been predicted. The pilot had argued and protested about leaving her, but Emilie knew what she was getting into.
She hadn't spent time in her family's Alaskan lodge in years, but the week before Christmas, the weather was predictable. The snow had started yesterday, silent and soft. Then the wind began—tufty and capricious at first.
By midyesterday, the view from every window was a whiteout, and the winds had turned into an orchestra of trumpet blows and percussion and high-pitched screams in every nook and cranny. No one could feel more alone than in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard, but that was exactly what Emilie wanted. To be alone where no one could reach her—at least until the holiday season was completely over.
She'd just snuggled in tight again when she heard a second round of pounding.
This time she pulled the down comforter over her head. It was one thing to be depressed, another thing to be delusional. There was no one at the door. The closest house was two miles away and probably uninhabited— few stuck out the winters around Silver Bay; the weather was just too unrelentingly rough.
The wind was ferocious enough to create all kinds of eerie, unpredictable sounds. She just had to ignore them.
The next time she opened her eyes, the bedside clock claimed it was ten the next morning. Startled at how deeply she'd slept, she stumbled out of bed, nearly tripping over her shearling slippers. The loft bedroom was dark, of course. At this time of year, it was night-dark except for a few hours a day. The wind was screaming like a howling banshee, even worse than when she'd gone to sleep.
She took five minutes in the redwood bathroom to clean up and brush her teeth, then hustled into clothes. She opted for layers, naturally, choosing a Synchilla zip-up over long wool pants and heavy socks. As an afterthought, she scooped up a couple books and some extra clothes. Probably, with a blizzard this fierce, she should conserve heat, shut off the two loft bedrooms and just live downstairs for a few days.
That was a decision she'd make after coffee, she decided, and aimed down the dim staircase.
On the third step, she faltered. Out of nowhere, the child's face popped into her mind—the scared eyes, the so-white face, the boyish shock of cowlicks, the smile she'd finally managed to coax out of him in the operating room. That smile… gone. The light in his eyes… gone.
Ruthlessly she slammed the memory from her mind. She'd deal with it. That was why she was here, holed up away from everyone over the holiday. To deal with it.
But not yet. She just wasn't ready.
The staircase led directly to the massive room below. The entire downstairs was open. Behind the staircase, the kitchen and dining area faced east. Just ahead of her was the sweep of living space, dominated by the man-tall white stone fireplace. The hearth screen darkened the already shadowed room, but she could still make out the healthy bed of golden embers. The furnace was going strong, but building up a serious fire would add a ton of warmth.
Three huge leather couches framed the hearth. She dropped the books and spare clothes on one, turned around and abruptly connected with something solid— something big and bulky and strangely warm. She tripped over the object and heard a groan—a human groan, a human male groan.
Her first instinct was to be scared out of her mind, but there was no time for panic to even register—she couldn't stop herself from falling, tumbling headlong, over the body.
The crash wasn't pretty. The thick hearth rug saved her head from a serious bump, but an elbow smacked against something hard enough to send shooting pains up her arm. Her ankle twisted. Her hand scrabbled into the piled logs in the cradle.
None of that remotely mattered.
"Hell," the voice repeated several times. The voice so definitely wasn't hers. It was a tenor. Sleepy. Male.
He repeated "Hell" a few more times, making her think that possibly his vocabulary was limited. But then he seemed to remember a few more words. "I'm sorry. Damn it. Are you all right? I never meant to scare the wits out of you."
"You didn't." He most certainly had—but Emilie couldn't imagine a reason in the universe to admit it. She scrambled off him, hit her elbow again on the hearth, and still managed to push away from him fast. She hauled in a lungful of air. "Look, I get it," she said swiftly. "I have no idea why you were out in the storm, but obviously, you must have needed shelter. It's perfectly all right. I just didn't expect anyone to be here, so you startled me."
"I didneed shelter, and I knew the lodge was here. But I didn't expect to see smoke in the chimney—and I never expected to find a woman here. I did knock, I swear. And kept knocking. But no one answered, and the door wasn't locked. I had to get in. I was beyond cold. Hurt."
Only the one word caught her attention. "Hurt how?"
"Burned. Wind brought a tree down, crashed through the roof, debris came down on my woodstove, started a fire. Put out the fire, but couldn't stay there, not with the hole in the roof. Couldn't secure the place, not in these conditions. So I had to get out, even if it meant negotiating with this storm. I knew the lodge was here, closest place I could get to. I—" His voice skidded to a sharp stop. His gaze homed in on her face and body as if he'd just gotten around to looking at her. "Good grief. What on earth are you doing here?"
Emilie blinked. Most men, on first meeting, seemed to react to her a little differently than they did other women. She wasn't sure whether it was a major treat or a major insult that he took one gander at her tousled blond hair and blue eyes and leaped to an instant negative judgment. Granted, her normally decent figure had to look lumpy under the zillion layers of clothes—but this was still the first time a guy had responded to her with an expression akin to horror.
"Wait," he said, and swiped a hand over his face. "Wait. I didn't mean that like it sounded. Obviously you wouldn't be here if you didn't have a claim to the place. I'm the interloper, not you. It's just that… from your appearance, you don't look as if you could survive two minutes in an Alaskan winter. And for you to be here alone seems even more impossible. I just—"
Since he seemed determined to stick his foot even further into his mouth, she intervened. Only one thing he'd said so far mattered anyway. "Where were you burned? How bad?"
"Not bad. It was my place that suffered real damage. I was…"
Again, his voice trailed off. The more he looked at her, the more he seemed to be suffering from shock. Emilie hadn't felt like laughing in a blue moon… but darn it, she was the one entitled to feel shock at the intruder, not the other way around. His appearance alone should have struck her as intimidating. He had to be twice her weight and well, well over six feet in height.
Firelight accented his black Irish looks—the glossy dark hair, the striking blue eyes. His whiskers weren't quite a beard, just scruffy-looking. He had to be over thirty, but not by much. Being stranded with a stranger under these conditions was uncomfortable…but being stranded with an ultra-good-looking guy so close to her own age notched up the awkwardness a ton.
Maybe more than a ton. The way Emilie had been feeling lately, she could have been stranded with a cross between Keanu Reeves and Hugh Jackman and not cared. She only wished she could scare up some positive emotion about anything.
She glanced around the room, aware now that he'd left a trail of evidence from when he'd come in. He didn't have to tell the story for her to assess what had happened. The trail of parka and boots and gear on the floor by the door told its own tale. He'd clearly peeled off everything wet and ice-covered, then yanked a blanket from one of the couches and crashed on the fat, thick rug close to the fire.
While he kept talking, she tried to jolt herself into action. Her elbow and ankle still twinged a little from the fall, but overall, she was completely fine. The fire needed feeding, and doing something constructive gave her time to figure out who and what her interloper really was.
"It really never occurred to me that anyone would be in the lodge, until I got close enough to see the chimney smoke. It didn't matter. I didn't have any choice. I had to find shelter. But when I couldn't rouse you with knocking, I just figured you were the guy who owned the lodge, that you were sleeping hard. Truthfully I never hesitated to come in."
Her father and grandfather would have expected him to do just that. They never locked the place. Who locked a door in the middle of nowhere? The doors were latched to prevent animals from coming in, just as shutters on the windows were a protection against storm danger. But the larder was always left fully stocked. Anyone who needed supplies could use them, and then was expected to replace them. It was one of those unwritten laws in Alaska that everyone understood.
"I should have found you, woken you, I guess. But by that time, I was honestly completely wiped. Seriously cold, hurt. Just stretched beyond what I could do. In the back of my mind, I thought I'd heard a couple of doctors owned the place, but I swear, it never occurred to me there'd be a woman here—"
"Uh-huh. We've been over that." She used a fireplace fork, pushed the embers together, and then reached for the wood in the cradle. By the time she'd started with the baby-size chunks, her stranger had come up from behind to add the big suckers. The fireplace could take four-foot-long logs. Her dad used to say they could cook a bear in the hearth, if they had to—an idea that had always made her shudder.
But at that moment, her mind seemed obsessed with fire-building in an entirely different context. The stranger was close. Too close. Close enough that her body instinctively tensed in sexual awareness. He was just so obviously a strong, virile man. As soon as the fire was well loaded, she yanked the wrought-iron screen in place and quickly shifted away.
"I don't know if you need food, but I sure do. If you want to clean up, there's a bathroom behind the stairs there. I'll see what I can scare up."
Actually, she knew exactly what supplies were in the pantry, but she was hoping that if he'd get out of sight for a few minutes, she'd have a chance to catch her breath.
She turned on every light in the kitchen to start with. The whole dining area was set up institutional guy-style, all stainless steel and stone, heavy appliances, cast-iron pots and pans. Ugly. But heat piped through the floor, so her feet were warm, and besides the staples in the pantry, she'd carted in both freezer staples and fresh foods. It didn't take long to put something together. She chased up Egg Beaters, chives, fake cream cheese, pepper, frozen hash browns— not as good as a fresh omelet, but it'd have to do.
She'd whipped the ingredients together and was pouring it in a skillet when her visitor emerged from the shower. She was calmed down by then. Or so she thought.
The moment he stepped from the bathroom, her pulse jumped. Damn man. Her reaction to him was getting downright annoying. He was clean, his dark hair glossy and damp, but he was still unshaven, his clothes seriously high-tech but clearly well-worn. It wasn't his fault he was so damned striking.
He glanced at her with the same glowering blue eyes—as if he'd taken another look at her and had a similar problem. Her appearance ticked him off—for no reason she could imagine.
"If you open the cupboard to the right of the sink," she said. "You could get out a couple of plates, silverware."
"Sure. What else?"
"Nothing. This is hardly going to be fancy. How did your burns look?"
"I can't say I paid attention. There's only one that hurts. It's nothing serious." He opened the right cupboard, pulled down a couple of plates, scrounged for silverware, then turned around to see where to put them. A massive plank table took up the open south exposure, seated a dozen without half trying. He opted to set the plates on the stonework counter and pull up a stool.
Emilie didn't say, "Let me see the burns, I'm a doctor." Right now she was unsure whether she would ever be willing to put M.D. after her name again. So she just said, "I'm only asking because there's a box of first aid supplies if you need it. First shelf in the pantry."
"I bandaged up before I left."
Again, her first instinct was to press, to leap in. Instead she attacked the eggs with a spatula. "About time I asked your name. Mine's Emilie Bartlett."
"I could have guessed the Bartlett. I was told this place was called the Bartlett Lodge, that the Bartlett family had owned the property for several generations. Anyway. I'm Rick. Rick Hunter."
"Is your place going to be fixable?"
"Yeah. But I won't know when or how until after this wind and snow die down. Ideally I can fix it myself. I've got tools, roofing materials, some pretty good basic skills. But if I can't do it alone… well, then I'll radio for a plane, hole up in Anchorage until conditions are better. Unfortunately…"
She filled in the blank, as she slid the makeshift omelets onto plates. "Unfortunately, you're stuck right here until the blizzard's over."
"Afraid it looks that way." He nodded a thanks for the plate, faced her straight. "Are you going to be okay with that?"
No, Emilie thought, she definitely wasn't. Across the long room, the fire had caught, was lapping around the logs like a hungry wolf, lightening and brightening the whole room. Illuminating him. The dark hair, the darkish beard, the shoulders that stretched his shirt, the long muscled legs. Just looking at him made her hormones vibrate like a manic tuning fork.