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There was no answer at the front door. Cody shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his thickly quilted jacket and stepped back from the door, casting a hostile glance out over what would probably be a breathtaking view during daylight. At the moment he could only dimly discern the hulking and intimidating mountains looming all around the tiny valley.
Montana, he was thinking in disgust, and in the middle of winter too. He swore softly, moving out to the edge of the rustic redwood deck that pretended to be a front porch. The durable Jeep that had brought him with relative safety up the winding and icy road to this valley was making soft popping and crackling noises as its hot engine cooled down rapidly in the frigid air. Only those sounds and an occasional whine from the wind high above disturbed the silence.
Cody took care in stepping off the deck, avoiding the two shallow steps, which, he'd discovered only moments before, were slippery. He stood for a moment in the trampled snow that formed a rough walkway, staring at the rented Jeep and then looking around quickly for any sign of a garage. Another building off to one side attracted his attention, and he made his way in that direction cautiously, silently cursing his lack of forethought in not having worn thick boots; his ankle boots just didn't allow for nearly a foot of snow.
He glanced back at the lodge once, trying for the third time to gain some impression of size or style, but was defeated again. The tall trees surrounding the building shadowed it too heavily to offer even a dim silhouette. It was big, though; that much he was sure of. And not a light showed anywhere.
He located a window in the side of the fairly large outbuilding and brushed snow away from the shallow sill, cupping his hands around his eyes and leaning closer for a look inside. The interior was dim, but he felt his brows raise slightly as he identified the hulking shape of a Sno-Cat on the far side. Nearer, he could barely make out a Jeep very like his own but with a more battered appearance.
Cody let his arms drop and backed away from the window, stumbling over rocks bordering a narrow trodden path. Regaining his balance and absently watching his quiet curses assume a misty shape in the cold air, he began to follow the path that led between the garage and the lodge around to the back.
Where the hell was the woman anyway? Cody wondered. He was sure that Pepper had let her friend know that he was coming; she wasn't the type to forget to do something like that. He swore again. If Brooke Kennedy was so damn hostile that she wouldn't even show him a welcoming light or open a door to him, the hell with it!
"Be patient with her, Cody—she's had a rough time."
Pepper's last worried words to him surfaced in his mind, and Cody forced himself to calm down. But, he told himself firmly, if you can't find her, you can hardly help her. The thought cheered him slightly. Maybe she'd gone away for a while. He could take that cruise after all.
As he was rounding a dark corner something hit him squarely in the stomach, driving all the breath out of him in an astonished whoosh, and he folded up neatly before measuring his length backward in the snow.
He lay there for a moment, staring up at the stars and trying to remember if breathing was a voluntary or involuntary action. Voluntary? Maybe he'd better try.
The stars winked out for a second as his paralyzed diaphragm resisted his efforts, then Cody found himself drawing the cold night air into his lungs in relieved gasps. He just lay there and breathed for a moment, then was about to try and get up when a voice reached him out of the darkness.
"Don't move unless you want to hit the ground again. Tell me who you are and what you're doing here."
It was a husky, oddly gruff little voice, unmistakably feminine. And if there was any fear in the warning tone, it was strictly controlled.
The discomfort of lying in the freezing snow and the ache in his middle did nothing to improve Cody's already sour temper. "What the hell did you hit me with?" he demanded, irritated by the wheeze in his voice.
"My feet." It was still a gruff little voice, possessing a faint southern drawl and still containing a warning note. "Shall I demonstrate again?"
Instead of obeying the tone, Cody made a determined effort to gain his feet. "Now, look," he began, and broke off abruptly as he found himself once more sitting in the snow, his feet neatly cut from under him.
"Who are you?" she demanded, still nothing more than a voice out of the darkness.
If his good sense had prevailed, Cody would have sat meekly in the snow and explained who he was. But the culmination of a rough drive up here, a hostile welcome that had painfully deprived him of breath, and the current freezing of his nether regions lost him the battle between good sense and recklessness. He surged to his feet, attempting a feint sideways to avoid her obviously skilled defenses.
It wasn't her fault that he misjudged the slippery path and the angle of his dodge, both of which caused his left foot to slide violently to one side and bang painfully against the stone corner of the building. The violence behind that slide also twisted his ankle in a motion it rebelled against, and Cody sank back down on the path with a bitten-off groan as red-hot pain sliced all the way up to his skull.
At least the woman was still and silent, not laughing at him, he thought bitterly. He nursed the injured ankle with both hands and directed his gaze into the blackness out of which her voice had come. "My name is Cody Nash," he told her flatly through gritted teeth. "And if you're Brooke Kennedy, I've come to help you."
There was a moment of silence, then she said calmly, "If that's so, you're a day early; you weren't supposed to arrive until tomorrow."
Cody held on to his ankle and his temper with both hands. "I was warned in Butte that a storm was coming later tonight and advised to get up here while I still could. Satisfied?" he finished coldly.
She apparently wasn't. "Who sent you?"
His exasperated sigh misted in front of his eyes. "Pepper sent me. Right now she's back in Maine with an anxious husband, two dogs, a cat, and possible twins—and, if you ask me, worrying unnecessarily about a friend who can obviously take care of herself!"
A patch of darkness disconnected itself from the rest to kneel in front of him, and Cody cautiously studied the hooded form he could barely make out.
"How's the ankle?" she asked, no hint of apology in her tone.
"Sprained at the very least," he told her bitterly.
She offered a gloved hand. "I'll help you inside."
"Don't put yourself out," he advised with awful politeness.
The hooded form rose abruptly to its feet. "If you want to sit there on your bruised ego and freeze," she told him evenly, "then do it. I'll be sure someone digs you out in the spring."
An angry stab from his ankle and growing numbness made Cody decide to ignore his injured pride. Sighing, he held out a hand. "Sorry," he apologized ironically. "I get this way whenever I'm kicked in the stomach with no warning."
Silently she helped him to his one good foot, her arm going immediately around his waist to steady him on the slippery path. Throwing away the last of his pride, Cody let himself lean on her, his arm around her shoulders. She was strong, which surprised him since the form he was leaning on felt slender to the point of frailness even through her thick coat. She also moved with a cat-footed sureness along the icy path, even with his dot-and-carry movements beside her.
She guided him on around the building to a door that opened—thankfully—directly out onto a flat cement walkway. The door was opened swiftly and he was led inside to find a large and old-fashioned kitchen, its light due entirely to the blazing fire in the huge stone fireplace.
Cody eased himself down in a ladder-back chair by the round oak table, straining his eyes in the dimness to watch her cross the room to a counter. "You like darkness?" he asked.
There was the scrape of a match and then a flickering flame as she lit a large kerosene lantern on the counter. "Power's out," she told him briefly. "And so's the generator. Ice storm yesterday. That's why it was so slippery outside."
She certainly didn't waste words, he thought dryly. A box of matches slid across the table to_ward him, and before he could catch more than a glimpse of her still-hooded form, she was carrying her lighted lamp toward a second doorway.
"There's another lamp on the table. I'll go find the first-aid box."
Being careful with his throbbing ankle, Cody unfastened his jacket and shrugged out of it, hanging it on the back of another chair nearby. He found the matches and the lantern, even larger than the one she'd lit, trimming the wick and lighting it until the room was fairly bright.
He looked around at the spotless kitchen, the copper pots and pans hanging around a central work island, the colorful Navaho rugs and curtains. With light it was now a cheery room, and the warmth from the fire was beginning to seep into his frozen bones. Cody bent to remove his left boot, grimacing with every movement of the hot, swollen ankle.
Morosely he thought of the sunny cruise he should have been on, making a mental note to get even with Pepper before either of them was much older. He sat back in the surprisingly comfortable chair, listening to the crackle of the fire and the silence and wondering how soon he'd be able to attempt the drive back down. If the storm held off, he decided, he'd try tomorrow—ankle or no ankle. He wasn't about to hang around and try to help this cold woman with her remote voice and her obvious competence at taking care of herself.
She didn't want his help, she obviously didn't need his help and besides, he was becoming more and more convinced that Pepper's worry was due to her pregnancy and little else. He'd tell her that her friend was fine—how, he wondered, had this cold woman won Pepper's warm affection—and then he'd take that cruise after all.
But when Brooke Kennedy came back into the room, his plans shattered like so much brittle ice.
She'd shed the thick coat, revealing a too slender but perfectly curved figure advertised by a thin, ribbed gold turtleneck sweater and faded jeans. Her hair was true black that reflected blue highlights, and it was at least waist-length. It was pulled tightly away from her face at the moment and gathered high on her head in a ponytail. The style emphasized the striking widow's peak and her marvelous bone structure. Her perfectly formed brows were twin wings above eyes the palest, greenest green Cody could ever remember seeing. High cheekbones, a straight, delicate nose, a mouth designed by nature for kissing and laughter_._._._
She was beautiful, Cody thought. Strikingly, stunningly beautiful. And that beautiful, perfect face was as remote as a windswept glacier. The lovely eyes were shuttered and still, the lips, though naturally curved, showed no laughter.
Cody, staring at her and forgetting to breathe, watched as she placed a first-aid box on the table and opened it, seemingly completely unmoved by his steady gaze. He searched the beautiful face for life, and found nothing.
She looked at him. "I know a little first aid. Or would you rather?" She was holding a roll of elastic bandage.
"If you would. Please." He heard his voice and was dimly astonished at its calm tone.
She pulled forward a kitchen step stool and sat down on it, turning up his pant leg and removing the sock before beginning to wind the bandage around his swollen ankle. Her touch was deft, gentle, and totally impersonal.
Acutely aware of the cool touch of her long, graceful fingers, Cody stared at her face and wondered. Beautiful. God, yes, she was beautiful. But that remote coldness, the shuttered eyes_._._._
He tried to convince himself that he saw emptiness, that nothing at all lay beneath the perfection of features, but instinct and intuition warned him not to believe that. Empty eyes needed no shutters to hide what they contained. But that remote face_._._._
Watching her intently, he only dimly heard a sudden wail as the wind picked up outside, but he saw her reaction. The green eyes slid sideways suddenly, darting quickly toward the outside door.
And for a moment, a single instant, her eyes held stark fear.
It was over almost immediately, and he could almost hear her mind identifying the sound and classifying it as something normal, something unthreatening. The shutters were up again; her fingers completed their task with the remote impersonal touch. She rose after calmly putting his sock back on.
"Coffee?" she asked casually, moving toward the counter and a large thermos there.
"Thanks." What, he wondered, had terrified this woman? Her remoteness, he was now almost certain, was neither innate to her nor indicative of coldness. It was control, he thought; a rigid, fierce control over fear. And something told him that Brooke Kennedy wasn't easily frightened.
He no longer thought Pepper's worry the product of imagination.
She set a cup of steaming liquid in front of him on the table, gesturing wordlessly toward the sugar and cream containers near the lamp, then retreated back to the counter and leaned against it to hold her own cup.
"I tried to stop you from coming," she told him in the distant, oddly gruff voice. "But by the time I got hold of Pepper, you were already on your way."
Cody sipped his coffee slowly as he watched her. He ignored both tone and words to say casually, "You must be a good friend of hers."
He was rewarded for the statement by the first sign of warmth he'd yet seen on her lovely face. There was even a faint, brief spark of humor in her remarkable eyes. "Do you think," she asked dryly, "that anyone could meet Pepper and not become a good friend?"
Cody grinned. "Not a chance! Pepper hugs the world."
Inexplicably the spark vanished as though it had never existed. "Yes," she murmured, then shook her head slightly and abruptly changed the subject. "Sorry about the welcome. I was walking back up from the barn when I heard you coming around the corner. I decided to stack the deck in my favor before asking questions."
He felt his sore stomach ruefully. "Is that what you call it? Stacking the deck in your favor? I thought I'd been hit by a train."
"Karate," she said, his remark winning no spark this time. "Comes in handy sometimes."
Cody nodded, watching her and reaching for another spark. "Is that why you learned first aid? To be able to patch up your victims?"
She looked at him for a long moment. No spark, no visible reaction. Then her eyes slid almost involuntarily toward the door again before returning to his face. Abruptly she said, "You won't be able to drive back down with that ankle. I can take you down in the Sno-Cat; there's a shortcut."
"Anxious to be rid of me?" he drawled softly.
Green eyes reflected the fire's light and nothing else; her voice remained even and remote. Disinterested. "You can report to Pepper that I'm fine, and that I'm sorry I worried her. I have guests coming next week; the lodge is doing great. Then, your duty discharged, you can go on to wherever you'd planned to go before Pepper roped you into this."
Presented with a quick and easy way out of his obligations, Cody was perversely determined not to take advantage of it. "Oh, I think I'll stick around for a few days. This is a guest lodge, right? So consider me a paying guest." As she opened her mouth to speak he added smoothly, "At least until the ankle heals."
Instead of speaking immediately, she sipped her coffee for a moment. When she finally did respond to his statement, he could have sworn that there was a note of relief in her voice. "Am I going to be faced with a lawsuit, Mr. Nash?"
"Cody." He smiled slowly. "Of course not. Why would I sue you? Just because I slipped on an icy path and loused up my ankle? Going to court is no way to start a friendship."