Read Sandra's Classics - The Bad Boys of Romance - Boxed Set Online
Authors: Sandra Marton
And what did he care what she thought, anyway? A week from now, she’d just be a memory
, which was exactly what he wanted.
A strident cry overhead made them both look up. A wedged flight of geese was flying towards the lake, their calls echoing weirdly in the mountain silence.
‘It’s getting late,’ Chad said abruptly. ‘We’d better get moving. We’ve wasted too much time as it is.’
He started up the ridge. There was no choice but to follow him, and, after glaring at his retreating back, that was what Jessica did.
‘Have you worked out where we are?’ she asked sullenly.
‘Where I figured. The Wind River Wilderness.’
Her heart seemed to turn over.
‘You mean ... you mean it really will take five or six days to walk to a road? I just can’t believe that.’
Chad’s rough laughter drifted back to her on a gust of wind. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘because I may have estimated wrong. If those clouds mean business, there’s an early snow moving in. If that happens, getting out of here at all might be a miracle.’
Jessica groaned softly.
He had his miracles mixed up.
The real miracle would be
if they could find a way to keep from killing each other.
narrow trail wound up the mountainside, through stands of lodgepole pine and aspen. It was a game trail, Chad had said, used by deer, bear, and elk.
Even the names of those creatures made Jessica feel uncom
fortable; for the first hour, she kept glancing over her shoulder, but the only animal she saw was a squirrel scurrying across a pine deadfall.
The possibility of meeting some wild thing on the trail didn’t seem half as important after a while
, maybe because her legs ached from ankle to thigh and her breath wheezed in her laboring lungs.
The sun was a faded yellow disc hanging in a watery blue sky and the air was cool and crisp, but she was sweating hard from the unaccustomed exertion.
By the time they’d left the lake and the birch clearing far below, she was past admiring the spectacular mountain peaks rising all around them. Even the red and gold leaves, clinging to the aspens like flame, lost their appeal.
She managed the energy to pull out her little camera at the start of their climb and snap off several shots.
She’d expected Chad to make some biting remark about her wasting time—she’d stepped off the trail once or twice to get the best pictures—but he’d never even noticed.
She paused just long enough to drag a deep breath into her lungs.
He hadn’t noticed anything, she thought, watching as he moved steadily up the trail ahead of her.
He never slowed down, never stumbled over rocks or branches or his own feet the way she did.
And he never turned around to see if she was behind him.
She was, but just barely, she reminded herself grimly as she started
moving again. Every now and then she lost sight of him around a bend in the trail and then she’d scramble like crazy, puffing like a steam locomotive until she spotted him ahead of her again.
But she wasn’t about to ask Chad O’Bryan to slow down. She’d be
damned if she asked him anything. He seemed to feel the same way, which was fine with her. He hadn’t said a word in at least two hours, not since he’d shouldered his pack and headed out of the birch tree clearing.
‘Time to get moving,’ he’d said without preamble. ‘I want to cover as much ground as possible.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Out of here,’ he’d said in the patient tone people used with puppies and small children. ‘I’m going to set a steady pace, Miss Howard. Tell me if you can’t manage it.’
She’d squared her shoulders and tilted her chin up. ‘Don’t worry about me, Mr. O’Bryan,’ she’d said coolly. ‘I’ll be fine.’
Well, that hadn’t turned out to be completely accurate, she thought, stumbling over a tree root. But she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of buckling under the demanding pace he’d set. She was every bit as tough as he was and she’d prove it— even if it killed her.
Anyway, he had to stop soon. Nobody could keep this up forever, not even the cowboy who, she was sure, was determined to prove she was nothing but a soft piece of useless, citified fluff.
Ooof!’ Jessica drew in her breath as a sharp pain lanced through her foot. ‘Damn,’ she said, bending down and rubbing her toes through the sneaker.
‘Are you all right?’
No, she thought, I am not all right. I just stubbed my toes on a chunk of this mountain...
‘Fine,’ she said as he came down the trail towards her. ‘I just tripped over something.’
Chad watched in silence as she bent over her foot again and then he shrugged free of his pack.
‘It’s time for a break, anyway. Sit down for a minute and get your breath.’
Hallelujah, she thought. He’s human.
‘I’m fine,’ she repeated, forcing a polite smile to her face as he settled down on a fallen tree. ‘You don’t have to stop on my account.’
‘I’m not,’ he said evenly. ‘I need a breather. I’m going to relax, even if you’re foolish enough not to.’ He dug through his pack and then held the canteen out to her. ‘You probably need some water.’
Not if you don’t, cowboy, she told herself.
‘No, not at all,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m not the least bit thirsty.’
‘Suit yourself.’ She drew in her breath as he tilted the canteen to his mouth, swallowing thirstily
. ‘We have some rough climbing ahead of us,’ he said. ‘It might be a good idea to prepare for it.’
What would he call what they’d been doing all morning?
‘Don’t worry about me
,’ she said coldly.
. I’m worried about me. I want to get some more distance under my belt before we have to stop and make camp.’
‘How much further do we have to go?’
Chad shrugged. ‘A couple of miles. Not very far.’
‘A couple of miles?’ she repeated carefully. ‘Well,
that’s not bad. Maybe I will sit down for just a minute. I—uh—I want to fix my laces anyway.’
‘I know I’m pushing you, Miss
‘No, you’re not,’ she said quickly, sitting down on the fallen tree as far from him as the limited space permitted. ’I’m used to exercise.’
‘Are you, indeed?’
She nodded. ‘I’ve kept pace with you, haven’t I?’
Chad offered her the canteen again. After a barely perceptible pause, she snatched it from him.
‘You wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t set a pace you could manage.’
She spluttered over the mouthful of cold lake water. ‘What? Are you trying to tell me you slowed down for me?’ She wiped her chin and laughed unpleasantly. ‘Come on, now
‘I heard you huffing and puffing and groaning to yourself, and I knew I’d better slow down if I wanted to get anywhere.’ He took the canteen from her
, closed it and tucked it back into his pack. ‘Jogging in some city park isn’t the same as climbing this mountain.’
She gritted her teeth, determined not to pick up the verbal gauntlet he’d thrown between them.
‘I do more than jog. I belong to a health club. I work out on a Nautilus machine and I do some very tough aerobics.’ Well, she thought, it wasn’t exactly a lie. The fact that she hadn’t done any of those things more than a couple of times over the past year or two was none of his business.
Chad grinned mirthlessly. ‘Nautilus machine,
And aerobics—is that where everybody wears those little bits of stretchy stuff while they bounce up and down to music?’
‘It’s not at all easy,’ Jessica said stiffly. ‘If you ever tried it, you’d know that.’
‘Yeah, I can see you people now, all decked out in some uniform designed by a guy who probably never worked up a real sweat in his life.’
‘Don’t tell me,’ she said wearily. ‘You lift weights and you run five miles a day and you do it all wearing baggy grey sweats that you’ve had for at least ten years. But your running shoes are the best on the market. Right?’
Chad’s eyes narrowed. ‘What are you getting at?’
She closed her eyes and rotated her head tiredly. ‘Nothing, nothing at all.’
‘Come on, Miss Howard. There was a message there somewhere. I’m not dense.
Her eyes snapped open. ‘Did it ever occur to you that your outfit’s as much a uniform as the one you picture me in?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. My sweats and my sneakers are for real work-outs. Why, I can tell what a man’s like just by looking at his
A triumphant smile spread over Jessica’s face. ‘Really?’ she purred. ‘How interesting.’
Chad flushed darkly and got to his feet. ‘The point is, Miss Howard, you don’t need to wear fancy outfits and join fancier gyms to develop a healthy body. Some of us were into physical fitness long before it became fashionable.’ He hoisted the pack to his shoulders and stepped across the fallen tree. ‘Come on,’ he said gruffly, ‘let’s move out. The weather’s still got me worried.’
He started up the trail without a backward glance.
Jessica smothered a groan as she stood up. Point scored, Jessie, she told herself.
Too bad she was too tired to
Actually, he wasn’t that far off the mark. She shifted her bag strap, trying to keep it from digging into her shoulder.
Not that she’d ever admit it to him, of course, but one of the reasons she hadn’t gone back to the health club after her first few visits was because she felt out of place sweating and straining amid all those flawless people who never strained, much less sweated and who always seemed to be together at rallies for this year’s cause or charity, as if they had no existence outside their group.
She was sure the cowboy had been working out for years. The cowboy—correction, she reminded herself, stepping across a downed tree—he was
Dr. O’Bryan, although it was hard to think of him that way.
But it wasn’t hard to think of him as a man who kept himself fit.
He was all lean muscle and fiat planes.
And it was easier to picture him in old sweats than in chartreuse satin shorts and a matching sweatband, prancing up and down to a heavy metal beat in Swenson’s mirrored gym.
She choked back a sudden peal of laughter.
Chad heard the muffled sound drift up the trail
It sounded as if she was coughing or maybe smothering a laugh. Not that it mattered; this wasn’t a popularity contest.
Jessica Howard didn’t have to like him.
All she had to do was keep up the pace—which, surprisingly enough, she’d managed to do so far. In fact, she’d been doing all right from the beginning.
Not that he’d tell that to her, of course. The woman was all ego. She needed compliments about as much as a bull needed milking...
Jessica’s cry of pain was sudden and shrill, knifing sharply into the stillness of the trail. Chad whirled around at the sound, his heart racing.
Dammit, she was down! He tossed his pack aside and ran back towards her.
‘Jessie? Jessie!’ He fell to his knees beside her. ‘Are you all right?’
She nodded her head as his arm went around her shoulders. ‘Yes, I’m OK,’ she murmured. ‘I just tripped on something.’
Chad lifted her gently and she sat up, leaning into the curve of his arm.
‘Are you sure there’s nothing broken?’ She nodded again and he let out his breath. ‘When I heard you yell, I thought
His arm tightened around her. ‘I thought
her eyes met his. The seconds stretched between them and then Chad’s arm fell away from her. . ‘I thought you might have broken something.’
Jessica let out her breath. ‘Yes, of course. You were afraid I’d slow us down.’
‘We can’t afford any delays. I told you, there’s snow coming. We’ve got to get to shelter before then.’
Inexplicably, angry tears filled Jessica’s eyes. She blinked them back and turned away from him. ‘I won’t hold you up. I ... ouch!’
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked sharply.
‘I ... nothing. I’m fine.’
Chad pushed her back to the ground. ‘Let me see that foot,’ he said.
‘Let me be the judge of that.’
‘Really, I know what I’m doing
‘If you’d known what you were doing, you wouldn’t have fallen in the first place. Does that hurt?’ She shook her head as he prodded gently at her ankle. ‘How about that?’ She shook her head again.
‘Tell me if I’m hurting you.’
She watched as he untied the sneaker and peeled off her sock.
Lord, but he was angry, she thought, watching his face.
He was glaring at her foot as if it were his mortal enemy.
Well, she couldn’t much blame him.
There was no point in kidding herself
he was slowing him down.
And even she could feel the approaching snow now; the sky was thick with white clouds and there was a sharp, cold smell in the air.
Chad was moving her ankle from side to side.
What a strange man he was, she thought, watching his face from under half-lowered lashes. He was tough as these mountains, yet so gentle that she could barely feel the touch of his hand on her ankle.
She thought of the way he’d looked at the lake that morning, watching the geese flying high above them, and her throat contracted.
He wasn’t tough at all
was strong, strong enough to have saved their lives a dozen times over since yesterday. You couldn’t hurt a tough man but you could hurt a strong one, which was what she’d managed to do this morning when she’d made that clumsy remark about Central Park, not that she’d meant it the way he’d taken it—although the truth was she’d been taking subtle snipes at him from the
‘Ouch,’ she said through her teeth as he moved her foot up and down.