Read Sandra's Classics - The Bad Boys of Romance - Boxed Set Online
Authors: Sandra Marton
Chad looked up. ‘Did that hurt?’
Like blazes, but she wasn’t going to tell him that.
‘No, not really,’ she lied. ‘There was just a little twinge. It’s OK.’
‘Are you sure?’ he demanded.
‘I hope so. Because if you’re
Tears welled in her eyes again and began to trickle down her cheeks.
‘It does hurt, doesn’t
he asked angrily. ‘Dammit, tell me the truth, Jessie.’
‘I said it doesn’t.’
‘Then why are you crying?’
‘I ... I don’t
know,’ she whispered truthfully.
She shook her head. ‘It isn’t that. I—I guess I just feel useless. I know I’m holding you back.’
He leaned back on his heels. ‘Actually, you’re doing pretty damned well.’
‘You don’t have to say something just to make me feel better.’
‘Do you really think I would?’ A slow smile spread across his face. ‘I’m glad to hear your opinion of me’s improved.’
She sniffed back her tears and wiped her nose on the back of her hand. ‘Am I really doing OK?’
‘Are you serious?’ She sniffed again and he put his finger under her chin and tilted her face up. ‘I thought you’d be up half the night, waiting for something awful to come out of the woods. But you curled right up and went to sleep.’
A faint smile flickered on her mouth. ‘I’m not sure if that was courage or exhaustion.’
Chad grinned. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I noticed that you were a pretty sound sleeper except when the cold got to you. But you settled right down again once you were warm enough.’
A pink blush spread across her face
. If he wanted her to ask him if he’d held her, he was going to wait forever.
‘Well,’ she said defensively, ‘I’m not used to sleeping outdoors.’
‘Hell, that wasn’t a criticism, Jessie. What I’m trying to say is that you’re doing all right’
She brushed the hair from her eyes. ‘For a city slicker, you mean.’
‘For anybody who’s not used to the-wilderness. I can think of lots of people who’d have trouble getting up this mountain.’
‘I told you, I work out
She broke off in midsentence and sighed. ‘Who am I kidding? The only regular exercise I get is when I run for the bus or the subway. I live in dread of the elevator breaking down in my apartment building.’ She flashed him a quick, embarrassed smile. ‘Isn’t that awful? I live on the twelfth floor
‘Twelve floors? I don’t blame you.’
‘Now you’re making fun of me.’
Chad shook his head. ‘No, I’m not. You’re talking to a man who ate a
bag of M&Ms from the mini-bar for dinner the other night because the restaurant in my hotel was closed and I didn’t want to walk a few blocks for a decent meal.’
‘You’re making that up
.’ When he crossed his heart, she laughed. ‘You? Eating something as decadent as candy? I can’t believe it.’
‘Believe it. Given a choice, I can be as lazy as the next guy. Lazier, maybe. At least, that’s what my college room-mate used to tell me when he tried to convince me to clean up my half of the room.’
She smiled and closed her eyes. ‘Thank goodness,’ she sighed. ‘You’ll never know how good it is to find out that you’re human.’
‘I told you that this morning,’ he said quietly. ‘Remember?’
‘Chad, about this morning—I didn’t mean to insult you,’ she said quickly. ‘That thing about Central Park, well, I just wasn’t thinking
He shook his head. ‘No, it was my fault
. I overreacted. It’s just that, well, I had a rough time in New York last week. I had to see some administrative people about a grant I’d applied for, and a couple of them made it pretty clear they’d have felt a lot happier handing out money to one of their own. And then I had dinner with your boss at some place on the east side where they make you hang a tie around your neck before they let you through the door. And your boss made sure he used only one syllable words when he talked to me.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ Jessica s
aid, rolling her eyes. ‘He’s a nice man, but he thinks anybody born more than five miles from Times Square is suspect.’
Chad chuckled as he dug his canteen out of his pack. ‘I think he was surprised to find out that I could string more than three sentences together. Anyway, I’m sorry I jumped all over you.’
She took the canteen and drank. ‘How about this? I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine. I mean, we just got off to a bad start. That thing on the plane ... I’ve had some unpleasant experiences…'
‘You’re one hell of a good-looking lady, Jessie. You don’t have to explain. I can figure it out without any help.’
The compliment pleased her more than she wanted him to see, and she busied herself re-tying her sneakers.
‘Yes, but you were right about how scared I was. And you really did help me.’
?' he said in a low voice.
‘Yes,’ she said quickly, ‘you did. You made me
Her words tumbled to a halt as she remembered the unexpected intensity of their kiss.
Her eyes lifted to his; he was remembering it too, she could see it in his face.
‘Yes,’ she said again, knowing she owed him this honest admission. ‘You’ve helped me get through some rough times, Chad.’
For a second, she thought he was going to kiss her.
Instead, he got to his feet and held out his hand.
‘The pleasure’s been all mine, ma’am,’ he said solemnly. ‘We aim to please. How’s that ankle feel?’
Jessica clasped his hand
and rose. There was an immediate twinge in her ankle, but she smiled brightly.
‘Are you sure?’
She nodded. ‘Absolutely,’ she lied.
‘Good. There’s just a little further to go. Up that trail another mile or so and then there’s a narrow pass to cross.’
‘Then what? You said something about shelter.’
as he hoisted the pack on to his shoulders. ‘I saw some aerial photos of this area a couple of years ago when I was doing a survey on golden eagles. I remember something about a valley on the other side of this mountain. At least, I hope I do.’
She picked up her bag and slung it across her shoulder. ‘What do you remember?’ she asked eagerly. ‘Will it help us?’
‘If I’ve got my landmarks straight, we’ll find an old cabin where we can get out of the weather for the night. Even at this time of year, the snows can be pretty bad here. But we’ve got to make tracks if we want to get there and have time to set up camp before the sun goes down. Are you warm enough?’
Jessica glanced down at what she was wearing, a crazy mixture of his jeans, her pink silk blouse, and a heavy fisherman’s knit turtleneck of Chad’s that hung almost to her knees.
‘I’m fine,’ she assured him. ‘Not very stylish,’ she added with deadpan seriousness, ‘but that’s OK. Just as long as we don’t run into anybody from VOGUE.
She looked up and her eyes met his. He grinned and she smiled in return.
‘Actually, I think you look kind of cute. And you might just start a new—what’s it called? A new fashion statement.’
‘Terrific,’ she laughed. ‘When we get out of this mess, I’ll recommend you to the agency. You’d be a great fashion
coordinator, cowboy.’ The name slipped out before she could stop it and she caught her lower lip between her teeth. ’Listen,’ she said quickly, ‘I didn’t mean that in any derogatory way
Chad’s eyes narrowed
. 'How else could you have meant it?’
'As a compliment.
Really. I think cowboys are terrific. You know, they’re strong and silent and honest and
began to laugh.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘So do I. It’s the fashion
coordinator crack I objected to.’
A smile spread over her face.
'Not fair, Dr. Ryan. ‘You set me up.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said with wide-eyed innocence. ‘A cowboy’s much too honest to set anybody up.’
She caught the quick grin on his face before he moved out on the trail and she smiled as she began the climb up the mountain again.
was going more slowly this time; he was always within sight, and it was somehow reassuring to see his long, lean legs in their faded denim jeans and his broad shoulders inside the worn denim jacket just ahead of her. She ached to take out her camera and capture him on film, but that would have meant slowing down.
Besides, it took all the effort she could muster to keep moving in spite of the pain in her foot
After a while, he stopped and waited until she caught up to him.
‘How’s the ankle?’
‘It’s fine,’ Jessica said blithely.
‘We can take it a bit easier from this point on. As it is, we’re making pretty good time. Maybe I’ll have the chance to put together a real dinner tonight.’
‘That’s right, tease me with visions of steak and hamburger. Raisins are raisins, no matter what you call them.’
He grinned at her. ‘I hate to tell you this, Jess, but we’re damned near out of raisins.’
‘But you said
‘I said I’d make us a real meal. How does stew sound to you?’
‘Beef stew?’ Her mouth watered at the sound of the word. ‘It’s not nice to tease the city folk.’
‘Rabbit stew. You can pull up some wild onions and I’ll fetch up the rabbit.’
‘Rabbit?’ she repeated carefully. ‘I don’t ... I
‘I would, but not if you feel that way about it. We’ll see if there’s a stream or a lake around.’ He glanced at her and smiled. ‘I assume you’re not squeamish about eating trout.’
She shook her head. ‘No, of course not. Fish aren’t the same as rabbit.’
‘Neither are hamburgers and steaks, I guess. Right?’
A sudden image of a soft-eyed cow drifted into her thoughts. For the first time in her life, she allowed herself to make the unpleasant connection between a steak and its source. ‘I’m afraid I never thought of it that way,’ she admitted. ‘You’re right, of course.’
‘You’re learning, Jess. Don’t worry. We’ll stick with trout and wild onions for the time being.’
She sighed and plodded on up the trail. She certainly was learning, she thought, wincing as she put her weight on her bad foot.
And she had the feeling the lessons weren’t finished yet.
The sun was touching the saw-toothed mountain peak, and shadows were beginning to lengthen across the narrow trail when Chad finally halted and motioned Jessica to his side.
‘Are we there?’ she gasped as she plodded the last few feet towards him.
He took her hand and helped her up to the rocky ledge on which he was standing. ‘Yeah, we sure are. Trail’s end, Jessie. Welcome to Coleman’s Creek.’
‘Coleman’s...?’ She started to echo the name, but the words caught in her throat as she stared into the valley below.
Two lines of log cabins stood among tall grass and lodgepole pines. There was an eerie sense of abandonment about the place. The doors to some of the cabins hung open and Jessica had the unpleasant feeling that all the little buildings were staring blindly at the silent valley through the glassless eyes of their broken windows.
‘My God,’ she whispered, ‘it’s a town.’
‘Well, what’s left of one, anyway. This was a pretty prosperous little mining place until the silver petered out along about 1900.’
Without conscious thought, Jessica moved closer to Chad, who slid a comforting arm around her waist.
‘I guess I should have prepared you for Coleman’s Creek, but I wasn’t positive I could find the place and I didn’t want to get your hopes up.’
‘But a ghost
in the middle of the wilderness?’
‘There are quite a few of them in the Tetons and the Rockies—towns that sprang up overnight when there was a gold or silver strike and then died when the veins gave out.’ His arm tightened around her. ‘Want to take a peek?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said with a nervous laugh. ‘I mean, it doesn’t look terribly hospitable, does it?’
‘Look, if you’d like to wait for me up here while I check things
Jessica shook her head. ‘No, thanks,’ she said emphatically. ‘I’d much rather stick close to you, if you don’t mind.’
Chad’s hand sought hers and their fingers intertwined. ‘My pleasure, ma’am,’ he said with a quick smile. ‘Let’s go stroll through town.’
Half-way down the steep hillside, Jessica paused and tilted her head to the side.
‘Something’s moaning,’ she whispered. ‘Do you hear it?’
‘It’s just the wind sighing through the buildings, Jess.’
The eerie sound was repeated and Jessica moved closer to Chad’s side. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Jessie, believe me, there’s nothing here that can hurt you.’
‘It just seems awfully spooky.’
‘Spooky, Miss Howard? Spooky? Is that how you’d describe these busy streets? Watch out for that mule team, ma’am.’ She smiled uncertainly as Chad pulled her to the side of the grass-choked path. ‘Look lively, there, Miss Howard. This time of day, everybody’s coming into town, ready for a ten-cent bath and a twenty-five-cent hot meal.’
‘I’d settle for either one,’ she said wistfully.
‘And you’d have had them,’ Chad said gallantly. ‘But the Presidential Suite at the Grand Hotel was all booked.’ He gestured towards a large, roofless building across the weed-choked dirt street. ‘I didn’t bother making other arrangements, ma’am. I knew you wouldn’t want a common hotel room.’
It was impossible not to smile at him. ‘I’m glad you realized that, Mr. O’Bryan.’
‘As for the hot meal, I phoned ahead to the Never To Be Confused With Mom’s Cooking Café over there, indigestion a specialty of the house. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reserve a table.’
Jessica chuckled softly. ‘A pity. I believe they have three stars in the Michelin Guide, don’t they?’
‘Four. The Michelin food critic found a piece of real carrot in the ragout and upped the listing on the spot.’
‘How could I have forgotten something like that?’ she said, laughing up at him. Suddenly, Coleman’s Creek seemed more like a stage set than a ghost town. ‘However did you find this place?’
‘I told you, I remembered it from an aerial survey. It’s not New York City, but it’s better than nothing.’
‘You’re darned right it’s not New York. It’s –it's… ‘She narrowed her eyes and looked slowly around her. ‘You know, I’ll bet nobody’s ever taken any pictures of this place. . And in this light, with those low clouds and the washed-out
A bright smile flashed across her face as she pulled her little camera from her pocketbook. ‘I just wish I had my SLR and a wide-angled lens. But I bet I still get some great shots.’
Chad watched as she brought the camera to her eye and peered into it. ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you about that little toy.’
‘Oh, it’s not a toy,’ she said, snapping off a shot of the overgrown main thoroughfare. ‘This little gem is the newest thing in cameras.’ She shook her head in admiration and took another quick photograph of the abandoned town. ‘I'm just glad I didn't have time to pack it in my luggage.'
‘Are you a camera buff, Jessie?*
Jessica gave him a bemused glance and then peered into the camera again. ‘What I am is a nut when it comes to photography equipment,’ she said. ‘I can never resist the newest stuff.’ She glanced at Chad and smiled. ‘Photography can be an expensive business.’
He eased the pack from his shoulders and flexed his muscles tiredly. ‘Now you’ve got me confused. I thought you said you were a fashion coordinator.’
‘Well, I am. But that’s only until I get my break. That’s why I came to New York in the first place ... Why are you looking at me that way?’ she demanded.
‘Come on, Chad, I know there’s something
He pushed his hat back on his head and grinned. ‘You won’t like it’
‘Well, I was just thinking it’s nice to know you want to do something real with your life.’ He grinned as her chin lifted defensively. ‘I told you
you wouldn’t like it’
‘What I do now is real. Just because you don’t understand the fashion industry
She stared at him through narrowed eyes. ‘Are you laughing at me?’
‘Lord, Miss Howard, ma’am, you sure are pretty when you get mad.’
His teasing drawl took the fight out of her and she laughed.
‘Only when I’m mad?’ she said. ‘I’m disappointed.’
The words slipped out before she had time to think about them. For goodness’ sakes, she thought in amazement, I’m flirting with the man!
Here they were in the middle of absolutely nowhere and she was behaving as if they’d just been introduced at a party.
Except she never behaved that way at a party—but then, she’d never run into anybody remotely like Chad O’Bryan, either. And she wouldn’t, not back in New York, not at the cocktail parties given by Allen Associates. Somehow, she couldn’t picture Chad with a plastic glass filled with warm wine in one hand and a soggy, cheese-topped cracker in the other.
‘Your turn,’ he said softly.
To do what?’
A slow smile spread across his face. ‘To tell me why you’re looking at me that way.’
She felt the heat rush to her cheeks and she turned away from him. ‘Are we really going to stand here talking in the middle of a blizzard?’ she asked quickly.
‘Not going to tell me, huh?’ He laughed softly. ‘OK, I’ll let you change the subject. Anyway,’ he added, glancing up at the few flakes falling lazily from the sky, ‘you’re right. We should find shelter before this stuff gets heavier.’ He bent and hoisted the pack on to his shoulder. ‘We might as well take our pick before the rush starts.’
She limped after him towards one of the few cabins that appeared to be intact, pausing beside him at the half-open door. The hinges squealed mournfully as Chad pushed it completely open.
A weak patch of sunlight illuminated the dirt floor. Darkness loomed beyond that.
‘My God,’ Jessica murmured, ‘it’s black as pitch in there.’
‘Let’s see if the roof's in one piece.’ Chad stepped into the shadowed interior and vanished from view. ‘It’s not bad, Jess. Come take a look.’
She stepped inside the cabin and moved tentatively across the hard-packed floor, repressing a shudder as she grazed the soft, springy edge of a spider web. As she reached Chad’s side, something small and dark scurried past her.
‘What was that?’
His arm slid around her. ‘Just a mouse, Jessie. You’re not afraid of something that tiny, are you?’
She swallowed hard. ‘No, I’m not afraid of mice. Rats, yes, and snakes and bats and
‘No snakes, I promise. They’re cold-blooded creatures and they sleep the winter away. No bats, either. I already looked.’
‘I guess I’m not supposed to notice that you left rats off that list, huh?’
Chad smiled and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. ‘Give me a couple of minutes to check the debris in the fireplace and then I’ll let you know, OK? You just stand right there.’
‘Believe me, I won’t move an inch!’
He touched her hair lightly and then stepped away.
She felt vulnerable outside the comforting circle of his arm.
She watched as he pulled open the shutters at one of the windows. Light spilled into the cabin. He knelt before the hearth for a moment, then walked around the small room, opening cupboards and peering into the comers.
He moved with a kind of animal grace, clearly as much at home in this roughly made place as he had been on the mountain trail. She thought of what it would be like to be in Coleman’s Creek with one of the men she sometimes dated in the city—not that one of them would have got this far.
The idea was so incongruous that it made her smile. She could just picture Tom in his Italian silk suits or Craig in something in suede and leather that suited the setting...
‘Perfect,’ Chad said, tossing his hat on the dusty table. ‘There’s not a sign of anything that could bother us. In fact, there might even be good news
He knelt before the fireplace and peered into it. ‘Seems as though somebody’s had a fire in here within the last couple of years,’ he grunted, pulling a chunk of fire-blackened paper out from the ashes in the hearth.
Jessica’s eyebrows rose. ‘Somehow, the possibility of somebody wandering around here doesn’t sound so good to me,’ she murmured, glancing over her shoulder.
‘I didn’t mean there was anybody here now, Jess. This place hasn’t been touched for a long time. What I was thinking was that if somebody had holed up here, he might have left some things behind.’ Chad got to his feet and wiped his hands on his jeans. ‘Canned goods, maybe, or flour. Suppose you see what you can do about straightening up a little while I check out the other buildings?’
She glanced around the cabin and then she nodded. ‘Sure. That’s a good idea.’
Chad smiled. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, Jessie, but you can come with me if you’d rather not stay here alone.’
She shook her head. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said briskly. ‘You’re talking to a New Yorker, remember? Nothing fazes us.’ She smiled and pushed him gently towards the door. ‘Go on, Chad. By the time you get back, I’ll have the floor waxed and the windows washed and the walls painted and the furniture gleaming.’
He grinned and touched his finger to her nose. ‘Don’t forget to put the steak on.’
She smiled at him in return. ‘How about if I open a bottle of Beaujolais?’
Chad laughed and ran his finger down her nose to her mouth. It was a lightly affectionate gesture but it sent a tremor spiraling through her.
‘I only wish,’ he said. ‘Maybe I can at least find us some coffee or tea.’
‘I’m counting on it,’ she said lightly. She watched as he headed out the door and then she shook herself. ‘Get to work, Jessie,’ she muttered aloud. ‘Do something useful.’
There was a tumbled pile of old rags on one of the shelves. Carefully, using two fingers, she pulled out a piece of cloth and turned towards the table, attacking its dusty covering gingerly at first and then with a vengeance. She stood back and admired her handiwork. At least you could see the wood, she thought, which was more than you’d been able to do before.
She grimaced and swung the rag at a spider web hanging from the ceiling. The fragile structure collapsed and she whisked it away.
With increasing vigor, she moved about the cabin, dusting the lopsided chair in the corner, the stool beside the table, the cupboard against the far wall. She swung the cloth towards the narrow, wood-slat bed beside the cupboard and her hand stopped in mid-air.
A tingling sensation danced down her spine as she thought of spending the long, dark hours of the night in this little room with her cowboy.
Silly, of course, considering the way they’d been living. Except for a handful of minutes, they hadn’t been out of each other’s sight.
There was an intimacy about their living arrange
ments that went beyond anything she’d experienced before.
They had eaten together and slept together—a figure of speech, she reminded herself quickly. Until now, she hadn’t spent this many consecutive hours with any man, not even the one or two who had been important to her in the past. Relationships that took you from dinner to breakfast and back to dinner again had more disadvantages than benefits.