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Authors: Penny McCall

Tag, You're It!

BOOK: Tag, You're It!
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Tag, You're It!
By
Penny McCall
Contents
Baby, it's cold outside...
"Cinderella?" he croaked.

"Alex ," she corrected. Her voice was smoky, like he remembered.

"Any chance you'll untie me, Alex?" His throat might be dry, but the rest of him wouldn't be if he didn't get some relief.

"Nope."

"Then you'd better get me a bottle. An empty bottle."

She quirked an eyebrow and tried not to smile. "And I don't even know your name."

"Tag."

"As in, 'you're it'?"

"Yeah, like I've never heard that one before."

She stood up. She had the body to go along with the sexy voice; it was the first thing he noticed, and he wasn't happy about it. Not about her body, but about the fact that he'd been sidetracked by it. So what if he caught the hint of some intriguing curves under her baggy sweatshirt and jeans? He needed to concentrate on the important things. Like what kind of woman she was. Her clothing was well-worn, for instance. So were her hiking boots; and the rest of her was no muss, no fuss, from her cropped, blond-streaked hair to her short fingernails. She was either practical or broke. Clearly a private woman. Tag could respect that, but it would be damn hard to read her, and if he couldn't read her, he would be in big trouble...

Berkley (July 3, 2007)

ISBN-10: 0425216454

ISBN-13: 978-0425216453

Chapter One

ALEXANDRA SCOTT EASED THE BINOCULARS UP TO her eyes an inch at a time, barely drawing breath. She made no sudden movement, there was no glint of reflected light off the lenses, no sound, and still her quarry whipped around. Wild, piercing golden eyes, magnified a thousand times, seemed to stare directly into hers.

Excitement shivered down her spine, mixed with a healthy dose of fear. A full-grown male mountain lion was nothing to mess with, especially one half-starved from a brutal winter that should have eased into spring a month ago.

Good thing she was a mile away, and there was a mule deer between the two of them.

Alex waited until the cat went back to stalking its prey, then she carefully hung the binoculars from her horse's saddle, fielding the look the horse sent her. Equine impatience. "Just a couple of shots," she said, her hand moving over the rifle scabbard and stopping at the camera bag hanging from the saddle, "then we'll pack it in for the day." Jackass snorted, but he did it softly.

It was the plane that set everyone off. It wasn't unusual for a small plane to fly through that part of the Rocky Mountain foothills without Alex ever seeing it, but the sound carried for miles. So did Alex's curse. The doe leapt away, the cat froze and swiveled again to peer at Alex, its yellow eyes like lamplights through the late afternoon gloom and heavily falling snow. It would have made a hell of a photo if she'd been able to fumble the camera out before the plane flew over the crest of the hill to her right and dropped into the wide, treeless valley between her and the cat.

Instead of taking off after its quarry, the cat froze. So did Alex, both of them watching the plane drop low enough to almost skim the snow drifts before it shot back up to about treetop level. The wings waggled back and forth, and there were a couple of pops that might have been the engines cutting out. Or… gunfire?

Nah, couldn't be gunfire, Alex thought, but just as she'd almost convinced herself it had to be mechanical trouble, a man fell out of the plane. She didn't believe it was a man at first, until he hit the slope right below her and rolled a couple of times, arms and legs—two of each—windmilling before he came to a crumpled stop.

The plane buzzed away to the east, the sound of the engine growing fainter and fainter. Alex watched it go, her mouth open, feet rooted to the spot, frozen in disbelief. But the second the mountain lion moved, so did she. In the same direction. Toward the man.

Alex was closer, but the cat was faster. And the cat was hungry. Not hungry enough to attack an able-bodied adult human, but an incapacitated one? Survival was one of those instinctive things that was hard for a mountain lion to ignore.

Alex reacted just as much from a gut level, no thought to her own safety, no idea if the guy was even savable. No clue what she'd do when she got there and had to fend off 120 pounds of starving mountain lion.

To save someone who might already be dead.

The protective instinct that had set her feet in motion started to think better of itself, giving way to a feeling that was more along the lines of what-the-hell-am-I-doing?

Unfortunately the cat was only about twenty yards away, still barreling forward in full attack mode, and Alex had downhill momentum behind her. A conflict of some sort seemed unavoidable—then the satellite phone clipped to her belt rang, the sound shrieking through the stillness.

The mountain lion started to backpedal, sliding another few yards before he found the traction to bound away at a right angle.

Alex slid to a stop herself, looked at the readout, and wanted to run away, too. The mountain lion might be gone, but a conflict still loomed. She almost preferred the cat. She considered not answering, but that wouldn't work either. Moving two thousand miles away from her mother might have cut the apron strings, but it had notched up the guilt level to something approaching monumental proportions.

She peeled off a glove and whistled up her horse, then wrenched at the satellite phone, ripping her belt loop beshe managed to get it loose. It was an outdated piece of equipment, but it did the job in an area that had no cell phone towers. And at the moment it was way too modern. "I asked you not to call me on this phone, Mother."

"Alexandra, thank heavens, I heard there was a blizzard in Canada, and I was so worried about you."

"I'm in Colorado, Mom. But you got the snow right." Big wet clumps of it had been falling all day, adding ten inches to the foot and a half already on the ground and reminding her that although the calendar said spring, Mother Nature was running the show.

"Oh, darling! Can you get outside? I mean, I know you have to go out to… Well, you must be careful not to get chapped," her mother lowered her voice, "you know, down there."

Right, she spent her days trekking in the wilderness, tracking an animal that could tear her to shreds inside of thirty seconds, and her mother was worried about her getting a chapped backside? 'This isn't Siberia, Mom. My cabin has every comfort I could possibly need." Except indoor plumbing.

"Does it have a man?" Cassandra Shaw Scott Hanson Martindale Winston Hobbs demanded to know. "No. And you're not going to find one there. Especially since you won't use your title—not that it does you any good alone in that forest with no one around for three states."

Alex headed toward the guy in the snow, more warily now, shifting the satellite phone so her right hand was free. "There's a town about seventy-five miles from here, and the people who live there aren't impressed with titles."

Her mother made a sound that managed to be ladylike and derogatory at the same time. "I'm talking about
civilization
, Alexandra, not that little backwater filled with cowboys and farmers. You'll never find the right kind of man out there."

"I met the right kind of man once," Alex reminded her. "I didn't like it. Neither did he. And what he did to you—"

"Oh, well, water under the bridge," Cassandra trilled in the kind of voice that came with a dismissive wave of her hand. "You mustn't let one unfortunate experience stop you from looking."

"You've found the right man five times, so I'll take your word for it."

"Alexandra!"

"Sorry," she muttered, but really, it had only been a matter of time. She always had good intentions at the beginning of these conversations with her mother. Keep it cool, she'd say to herself, don't lose your patience. The torture would be over sooner if she could only keep her mouth shut.

She could never quite pull it off. This was why they were better off on different sides of the continent—a conher mother always failed to grasp.

"Alexandra? Are you listening? You're not getting any younger, you know. It'll take simply forever in a salon to repair the damage all that sunlight and fresh air have done to your skin. And then we have to ease you back into Boston society, find a way to explain where you've been, scare up some eligible men—"

"I wouldn't want to scare anyone."

"This is serious, Alexandra. Do you think a man is just going to show up on your doorstep?"

"No," she said, stopping beside the guy in the snow. "He missed by about half a mile."

"What?"

"Gotta go, Mom."

Alex disconnected midprotest and stood there, torn between concern for the man at her feet and a gut-deep sense of self-preservation.

Concern won out, propped up on curiosity and bolstered by the more immediate fact that the guy seemed to be out cold—at the very least—and likely to freeze to death if the fall hadn't killed him.

Alex's cabin sat at the head of a valley about a mile wide and two long. She'd been a good half mile away from home, collecting deadfalls, when she'd spotted the cat. Not a long distance for an able-bodied woman wearing cold-weather gear. Too far for an unconscious man without even a coat.

She didn't know what kind of man he was, but if he was still alive, she couldn't leave him to die. That didn't mean she intended to be foolhardy.

Jackass had ambled down the hill when she'd whistled, stopping not far away. Alex hung the phone over the saddle horn—ignoring the fact that it was ringing again—and pulled the rifle from its saddle scabbard. Jackass looked back at her as if to say,
You really think you're going to need that
?

"He dropped out of a plane," Alex said, racking the gun so a shell was in the chamber. "I can come up with any number of reasons for that. None of them are good."

Jackass snorted his agreement, waiting patiently while she strapped on her snowshoes, untied the ropes, and shoved the deadfalls she'd collected off the sled. Then he followed without hesitation where she led. The perfect male.

"He's probably dead anyway," Alex said. "I heard something that sounded like gunshots just before I saw him drop. If whoever else was on the plane didn't kill him, I bet the fall did."

Jackass had no opinion about the likelihood they were standing next to a corpse, but it didn't take Alex long to find out. The man lay half on his side, twisted at the waist so he was chest down, both his arms beneath him and his left cheek resting on the snow. Alex stripped off her other glove and hunkered down beside him, hesitating when she got a good look at his face.

In all the speculating she'd done after he'd fallen, she'd never followed it up with the word "angel." He had the looks for it, though, jet-black hair, chiseled features, and a not-bad body to go along with the handsome face. Of course, Lucifer had fallen from heaven, too. If you subscribed to that sort of thing.

She kept her shotgun in her right hand, feeling with her left for the pulse in his neck. He still had one—which ruled out tying a rope to his ankle and letting Jackass drag him back to be stacked outside the cabin like cordwood. Dammit. She'd have to get him on the sled, and then she'd have to get him back to her cabin and lug him inside somehow. Alex had a feeling she wasn't going to enjoy any of that. He looked heavy. And he looked like trouble.

He didn't waste any time proving her right. She rolled him over and found herself looking down the barrel of a pistol. She went still, eyes crossed on a half-inch black hole that looked roughly the size of a cannon. It wasn't the first time she'd had a gun aimed at her. She'd never gotten used to it, and she was having the predictable reaction: ringing ears, pounding heart, the fight-or-flight spike of adrenaline.

It took a lot of effort to hold her ground and drag her gaze up to meet his, as piercing and feral as the cat's had been, although his eyes were blue instead of gold.

"Back off," he rasped, reaching for her rifle.

She handed it over, easing off a few steps.

He tried to clamber to his feet. He wasn't having much luck.

He wasn't looking very dangerous either, Alex decided the second time he sank to his knees. And then he got the brilliant idea to use her Winchester as a crutch. Alex stepped forward, but he waved her away. With the pistol.

"I'm trying to keep you from blowing your arm off," she said. "Or my head."

He'd made it to his feet, but he was obviously in pain and half out of it, weaving and fighting to stay conscious. He tucked the pistol in his waistband—on the second try— and pointed the rifle at her. Most of the time. Kind of hard to aim a gun when you could barely stand upright.

"You're practically unconscious," she said, although she wasn't quite brave enough to go for the gun. If it had just been the pistol he was holding on her, maybe, but a shotgun blast at fifteen feet was sure to hit her. "Put the guns down and let me help you before you freeze to death."

He blinked a couple of times, squinting fuzzily in her direction and mumbling something that sounded like "two to one."

"Either I've gotten really fat or you're seeing double," Alex said, reconsidering her decision to go for the gun.

He shook his head a couple of times, looking a lot more alert. "Just a girl," he said. "Not much of a threat."

"Neither are you."

"I've got the gun."

"And no coat, no idea where you are or how to get to safety," Alex pointed out, sounding a hell of a lot steadier than she felt. "You shoot me and we're both in trouble."

"I could take the horse."

Jackass swung his head around and nipped at him, just grazing his hip but sending him stumbling. He caught himwith the rifle, not giving Alex enough of an opening to try for either gun.

"Jackass doesn't let anyone but me ride him," she said,

"and even if he did, you're half-frozen already, not to mention you could be injured from falling out of the plane. Yep," she crossed her arms and nodded, "you're probably bleeding to death internally as we speak."

He slammed a hand flat against his chest, well, flat except for the pistol, moving it around like he was searching his insides for pumpers—until he caught her smirking. "Stop talking so much and get us out of here." He pointed the gun at her again, but he was clearly on his way back to oblivion, shivering uncontrollably and struggling to keep his eyes from rolling back in his head.

"Why should I help you? You can barely stand upright. All I have to do is wait…"

He looked up at the sky at the same time Alex heard the plane again. "That's why" he said, and then he fell on his face in the snow, unconscious.

This time Alex hesitated, weighing the intelligence of rescuing a man who'd just pulled a gun on her against the possibility he wouldn't survive the guys in the plane long enough for hypothermia to do him in.

BOOK: Tag, You're It!
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