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Gareth stepped out of the shower and stared at himself in the mirror. The frigid water had done little to dampen his restlessness. Still nude, he began to shave, his toes curling reflexively against the cool stone floor beneath his bare feet.
When his chin was smooth, he grimaced at his reflection. His thick, wavy black hair almost touched his shoulders. He had always worn it longer than current fashion dictated, but now it had grown so much it was getting in his way when he worked.
He reached into a drawer and drew out a thin leather cord. When he ruthlessly pulled back the damp shanks of hair, they made no more than a stubby ponytail, but at least it was out of his eyes.
A sudden loud knocking at the front door made him groan. Neither of his brothers nor his father would bother to announce their presence. And Uncle Vincent and his cousins sympathized with Gareth's grumpiness too much to bother him. Deliveries always went to the main house. So who in the hell could it be?
He'd had his fill of being the brunt of tabloid stories over the years. Later, the communal nature of military life had given him a deep appreciation for solitude. With the exception of family, Gareth had little desire to interact with humanity if he could avoid it.
When a man had money, everyone with access to him had an angle to play. And Gareth was tired of the game. He grabbed a pair of jeans and thrust them on sans underwear. The single item of clothing would have to suffice. He wasn't in a mood to get dressed just yet. Maybe his dishabille would scare away whoever was demonstrating the temerity to bother a surly Wolff.
He strode through the house, cursing suddenly as the leather thong broke and his hair tumbled free. What in the devil did it matter? Whoever stood on his porch was going to get short shrift from him.
He flung open the door and stared at the diminutive redhead with the wildly corkscrewing, chin-length curls. His stomach plummeted to his feet, but his libido perked up. He inhaled sharply and ground out a few terse words. "Who are you and what do you want?"
The woman caught her breath and backed up half a step. Gareth framed himself in the doorway, bracing his long-fingered hands against the lintel. His barefoot stance deliberately bore no semblance of welcome.
The woman dragged her gaze from Gareth's chest with an effort that might have flattered him in other circumstances. She looked him straight in the eye, speaking slowly but distinctly as if she feared he was a wild animal in need of soothing. "I need to talk to you."
Gareth glared at his undeniably sexy intruder. "You're trespassing."
She was fair-skinned, slender and had a spine so straight a man could use it as a plumb line
or maybe trace his tongue from one end of it to the other until the woman cried out in
He sucked in a ragged breath and shoveled his hands through his hair, his heart thumping in his chest. He couldn't afford to let down his guard for a second. Even if fire-lit curls and delicate cheekbones were his own personal Achilles' heel. His sex swelled with no more than a whiff of her subtle perfume to give him encouragement.
How long had it been since he'd had a woman? Weeks? Months? He clamped down on the yearning that gripped his body like a fever. "What do you want?"
Her eyelids fluttered nervously over irises that were the clear blue of the sky above. Her small chin was stubborn, her posture defiant. As she wiped her damp brow with her hand, she smiled winningly. "Could we go inside and sit down for a few minutes? I'd love something to drink, and I promise not to take too much of your time."
Gareth tensed, and rage flashed through him with the ferocity of the furious torrents that arose in these mountains during thunderstorms and decimated the low ground far below. A user. Like all the rest.
He ignored her outstretched hand, crowding her, relying on his size and temper to bully her. "Get the hell off my land."
The slight woman stumbled backward, her eyes huge, her face paper-white.
He pressed his advantage. "Go on," he snarled. "You're not wanted here."
She opened her mouth, perhaps to protest, but in that instant, one foot slid off the edge of the porch into thin air. She tumbled backward in graceful slow motion, her hip and head striking his steps with audible, dreadful thuds before her small body settled into an ungainly heap on the unforgiving ground.
Mary, Mother of God. He was at her side in the slice of a second, his hands shaking and his brain mush. He was an animal, no better than the coyotes who roamed the hills at night.
She was unconscious. Gently he stroked his palms down her extremities, searching for breaks. Growing up with male brothers and cousins, he had seen his fair share of broken limbs over the years, but he might be sick if he found a sharp bone protruding through her silky, fine-textured skin.
He heaved a sigh of relief when he found none. But the purplish bruise blooming near her temple and the blood trickling down her leg galvanized him into action.
He scooped her negligible weight into his arms and carried her into the house and to his room, his private sanctuary. He deposited her carefully on the unmade bed and went for ice and medical supplies.
The fact that she was still unconscious began to worry him even more than the deep cut on her leg. He grabbed for the phone and dialed his brother Jacob. "I need you. It's an emergency. Bring your bag."
Ten minutes later, his sibling joined him at the bedside. Both men looked down at the woman who was dwarfed by the bed's size and masculinity. Her red-gold hair glowed against the somber gray and navy of the cashmere blankets.
Jacob examined her rapidly from head to toe, his mien serious, his medical training as automatic as it was thorough. "I'll have to stitch the leg. The knot on her head is bad, but not life-threatening. Pupils seem okay." He frowned. "Is she a friend of yours?"
Gareth snorted, his gaze never leaving her face. "Hardly. She was here for all of two minutes when she fell. Said she wanted to talk to me about something. I'm guessing she could be a reporter."
Jacob's brow creased. "What happened?"
Gareth leaned forward and brushed the hair from her face. "I tried to scare her off and it worked."
Jacob sighed. "That hermit act you put on is going to bite you in the ass someday. Maybe today. Damn it, Gareth. She could sue the family to hell and back. What were you thinking?"
Gareth winced when Jacob stuck a needle in the woman's leg, deadening the small area around her cut. She never moved.
"I wanted her gone," he muttered, irritated, brooding as he battled inward demons. He hoped this female was as innocent as the first pristine snows that fell in late autumn.
But she could just as easily be a viper in their midst.
Jacob finished the last stitch and covered the wound with a neat bandage. He checked his patient's pulse, gave her another shot in the arm for pain and frowned. "We'd better check for ID. Did she have anything with her?"
Gareth nodded. "It's on the chair over there." While Jacob rifled in the woman's long-handled tote, Gareth stared down at the intruder. She looked like an angel in his bed.
Jacob held up a billfold and sheet of paper, a troubled frown on his face. "Take a look at this photo. And her name is Gracie Darlington."
"Unless the ID is a fake."
"Don't jump to conclusions. You wear paranoia like a hair shirt, but this might be nothing sinister at all."
"And pigs could fly. Don't expect me to be gullible just because she's cute and cuddly. I've been down that road."
"Your ex-fiancée was overly ambitious. And cuddly wasn't in her vocabulary. It happened a long time ago, Gareth. Let it go."
"Not until I know the truth."
Jacob shook his head in disgust as he broke an ammonia caplet beneath Gracie's nose.
She moved restlessly and moaned as reality returned.
Gareth took her small hand in his. "Wake up."
She opened her eyes, blinking against the light. Her lips trembled. "There are two of you?" Her brow creased in confusion.
Jacob's chuckle was dry. "As long as you don't see four, I think we're okay. You probably have a concussion. You need to rest and drink plenty of fluids. I'll be nearby if you get worse. In the meantime, don't make any sudden moves."
His attempt at humor didn't register on Gracie's face. Her nose wrinkled in discomfort. "Where am I?"
Jacob patted her arm. "You're in my brother's bedroom. But don't worry. Gareth doesn't bite. And I'm Jacob, by the way." He glanced at Gareth. "Keep ice packs on her leg and the side of her head. I'm leaving a mild painkiller that should give her some relief as the shot wears off. I'll check back in the morning unless anything changes. Bring her to the clinic and I'll x-ray her to make sure I haven't missed something."
Gareth didn't bother to see his sibling out.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and winced inwardly when Gracie, damaged as she was, made the effort to move away from him. The simple exertion drained what little color she had left in her face, and she shuddered, leaned past him and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the floor.
Then she burst into tears.
Gareth was momentarily frozen with indecision. He'd never in his life felt such an urgent, desperate need to comfort anyone. Gracie might be a lying, cheating witch. And even worse, a woman who could cause untold trouble for his family.
But he was helpless in the face of her heartfelt misery. No one could fake such distress.
He went to the bathroom for a damp washcloth, handed it to her and proceeded to clean up the mess on the floor in silence. By the time he was done, her sobs had subsided into hiccupping, ragged sighs. Her eyes were closed, her body still as death. Probably because every little movement sent pain shooting through her skull.
Gareth had been thrown from a horse when he was twelve, and the resulting head injury had left him weak as a babe. He knew how she felt.
He didn't risk sitting down again. Instead he went to the windows and opened both of them, letting the fresh spring breezes cleanse the room. He pulled the curtains together to dim the light, wanting to make her as comfortable as possible.
Afterward, he stood by the bed and stared down at her, wondering how a day that had begun so normally had rapidly skidded off track. He cleared his throat and gently pulled the bedding to cover her slight frame, tucking it to her chin. "We need to talk. But I'll wait until you've had a chance to rest. It's almost dinnertime. I'll fix something simple that won't aggravate your stomach, and I'll bring it in when it's ready." He hesitated, waiting for a reply.
Gracie tried to gather her composure, sure that any minute now she would get a handle on her scattered wits. This all seemed like such an odd dream. The glowering man tending to her with patent reluctance was huge.
His face was remarkable, wholly masculine, but striking rather than handsome. He had a crooked nose, a jaw carved from granite and cheekbones that drew attention to his deep-set, black-as-midnight eyeseyes so dark, his pupils were indiscernible.
Equally dark hair framed his face aggressively, suggesting wildness and a lack of concern for polite conventions. The strands were thick and vibrant, and Gracie wanted to bury her hands in them and drag his head down to see if the tousled layers were as soft as they looked.
His broad, bare chest was golden-tan, its sleekly muscled beauty marred by three small scars over his rib cage. She frowned, her fingers itching to trace each imperfection. She refused to acknowledge that she was gob-smacked by his sheer magnificence. He left the room finally, closing the door behind him, and eventually, she dozed, rousing now and again to the awareness of pain and frightening loneliness. Shadows cast the room into near darkness by the time her host returned.
He carried a tray which he set on a wooden chest at the foot of the bed. She feared the sudden onslaught of bright light from the fixture overhead, but instead, he turned on a small antique table lamp with a cream silk shade. The diffused glow was bearable.
He stood beside her. "You need to sit up and eat something."
Questions clogged her throat. The smell wafting from a handmade earthenware container made her stomach growl loudly. He didn't comment, but helped her into a seated position. His manner was matter-of-fact. Everywhere his skin touched hers, she burned.
His expression was hard to read. When she was ready, he placed the tray across her lap. She sucked in a breath as she moved her leg beneath the covers. She hadn't even realized until that moment that she had injured more than her head.
He answered her unspoken question. "Jacob put six or seven stitches in your shin. You hit some sharp gravel when you
" His voice trailed off, and she saw discomfiture on his face. He pulled up a straight-back chair and watched her eat. If she hadn't been starving, his intense scrutiny would have made her nervous. But it must have been hours since she'd had any food, and she was hungry.
He, or someone, had prepared chicken soup, which required far more effort than simply opening a can. Large chunks of white meat mingled with carrots and celery in a fragrant broth. She tore off a hunk of the still-warm wheat bread and consumed it with unladylike haste.
Neither she nor her companion spoke a word until she had cleaned her plate, or in this case, her bowl.
Removing the trappings of the decidedly fine dinner, Garethwas that his name?sat back down and folded his arms across his chest.
He was dressed casually in old faded jeans and bare feet. But he had buttoned his top half into a rich burgundy poet's shirt made of an unusual handwoven fabric. Some men might have appeared ridiculous in such garb. On him, the shirt looked perfectly natural, enhancing his air of confidence and male superiority.
She struggled to conquer panic, postponing the moment of truth. "I need to go to the bathroom." It galled her that she required his help to stand up. Her injured leg threatened to crumple beneath her, but after a moment, she was able to shuffle to the facilities.
The bathroom was enormous, with a stone-lined, glassenclosed shower. She caught a sudden mental picture of the mysterious male's huge bodynudeglistening beneath the spray of water and soap.
Her knees went weak. Despite her distress, she was stingingly aware of her host's blatant sexuality. She took care of necessities, washed up, and then made the mistake of glancing into the mirror. The image confused her. Good Lord. She was so white her freckles stood out in relief, and her hair was a bird's nest.
She rummaged without guilt through his drawers until she found a comb. But when she tried to run it through the worst of the tangles, she scraped against her injured skull and cried out at the pain.
He was beside her in an instant, not even making a pretense of knocking. "What is it?" he demanded, his gaze fierce. "Are you sick again?" In an instant he saw what she was trying to do. "Forget your hair," he muttered, scooping her into his arms and carrying her back to bed.
When she was settled, ice packs back in place, he handed her two pain pills and insisted she wash them down with milk. She felt like a child being soothed by a parent, but everything about her reaction to this strange man was entirely adult. He headed for the door. "Don't go," she blurted out, blushing as if he could see her inner turmoil. "I don't want to be alone."
He returned to the chair, swinging it around to straddle the seat, and folded his arms across the back. His expression was guarded. "You're perfectly safe," he said, his low voice rumbling across her shattered nerves with a tactile stroke. "Jacob says you'll recover rapidly."
Any bit of softness she sensed in him moments before had been replaced with almost palpable hostility and suspicion. What in the heck did he have to fear from her?
She picked at the edge of the blanket. "Does your brother live with you?"
He frowned. "Jacob has a house on the property. Why did you come here?"
Her tiny surge of energy abated rapidly, leaving her weak and sick again. She slid down in the bed and turned her head away from him toward the open window. "I don't know," she said dully.
"Look at me."
She did so reluctantly, feeling embarrassed and disoriented. He frowned. "You're not making sense." She bit her lower lip, feeling the hot sting of tears behind her eyes. "You seem angry. Is it because of me?"