When Eden returned leading the Appaloosa and the packhorse, she found Baby sitting next to Nevada. The animal’s black paw was on the man’s forearm. Yellow wolf’s eyes stared into equally untamed silver-green ones. Neither one looked up when she walked in.
She had the distinct feeling that both males were enjoying measuring each other.
A single word called Baby off guard duty. He removed his big paw, stretched and waved his tail at Nevada in a silent offering of truce. Gravely he took off his glove and held out his hand. Baby sniffed, ducked his head and offered it to be scratched.
“You’re all bluff, aren’t you, Baby?” Nevada asked.
A huge, gleaming wolf’s grin was Baby’s answer.
“Impressive. Who’s your dentist?”
Eden smiled despite herself. She was still smiling when Nevada’s head turned and his pale green glance raked over her, taking in every detail of her appearance. Suddenly she was very grateful the horses had continued to drift in the direction of her cabin. Otherwise she wouldn’t have taken the time to change into dry clothes before coming back to him. Then she would have had to explain to him why it had been more important to get back to him quickly than it had been to find dry clothes for herself.
She doubted that he would have found her arguments convincing.
He folded the survival blanket, stuffed it in his jacket pocket and levered himself into a standing position.
“How’s your foot?” Eden asked finally.
“I can see that,” she muttered, leading the Appaloosa closer. “Does it hurt? Do you have any feeling in it? Is it frostbitten?”
“Are you cold?” he asked, ignoring her questions.
“Damn it, Nevada, I’m not the one who’s hurt!”
“Neither am I. Guess that means we’re both fine. Take it easy, you knothead.”
At first she thought he was referring to her. Then she realized he was talking to the spotted horse, which had shied when he came awkwardly to his feet. That was the end of the man’s awkwardness, however. He grabbed the saddle horn and vaulted into the saddle with catlike ease.
“Hand me my rifle.”
For a moment she was too stunned to say anything. Nevada was going to ride off into the storm without so much as a thank-you.
She could handle the lack of gratitude. What made her furious was the knowledge that he wasn’t nearly as “fine” as he said he was. His face was too pale and she was afraid the stain of red over his cheekbones owed more to fever than windburn. But apparently he was angry about being guarded by Baby, or too proud to admit he needed anything more from her, or both.
She handed the rifle up to him, shrugged into her backpack and walked off up the trail toward the cabin without a word, too furious to trust herself to speak. Her short temper shocked her. Normally she was the last one to lose control—but normally she wouldn’t have spent the last hour digging a man out of a hole before he froze to death. And not just any man. A man she had taken one look at and gone to with the absolute certainty of water running downhill to the waiting sea.
A man who thought love was a fairy tale.
A spotted flank materialized from the snowstorm in front of Eden. The Appaloosa was standing across the trail, blocking her way. At an unseen signal from Nevada, the horse turned toward her and then stood motionless once more. Nevada kicked his stocking-clad foot out of the left stirrup and leaned toward Eden, holding out his left arm.
“I’ve never ridden,” she said tightly.
“I’ve never had a wolf sicced on me. Learn something new every day.”
“I didn’t sic–”
“The hell you didn’t. Grab hold of me.”
She was never sure what happened next. All she knew was that the world swung suddenly, crazily. When things settled into place again she was behind the saddle, hanging on to him with both hands, for he had become the stable center of an otherwise highly mobile world.
“Well you’ve got the first part right,” he said dryly.
“You’re hanging on.”
She started to speak, only to make a high, startled sound when the horse moved.
Target snorted and sidestepped lightly.
“Go easy on the screaming,” Nevada said. “Target is skittish. That’s how we got into trouble in the first place.”
“You screamed?” she retorted.
He turned around enough to look at her. His narrowed eyes gleamed like gems between his thick black eyelashes, but she would have sworn his look was one of amusement rather than anger. She decided that she liked this particular gleam in his eyes much better than the icy distance that was his normal response to the world.
Then his glance shifted to her mouth and she remembered the instant when his fingertip had caressed her lips. Her heart hesitated before it beat with increased speed.
“Does that quick little tongue of yours ever get you in trouble?” Nevada asked finally.
The intriguing rasp was back in his voice, making her shiver.
“Only with you,” she admitted. “Normally I’m rather quiet. But I love the sound of your voice, especially when it gets all slow and deep. Like now.”
His eyes narrowed even more, all amusement gone, replaced by something as elemental as a wolf’s howl. The searching intensity of his glance made her shiver.
He turned away abruptly.
“Can Baby lead us to the cabin?” Nevada asked harshly.
“Then tell him to do it.”
“Lead us home, Baby. Home.”
Baby turned and began trotting along the base of the scree slope.
Nevada reined Target to follow the wolf’s tracks. The instant the horse began moving, Eden made a stifled sound and clung very tightly to him. He looked down, saw her arms wrapped around him, saw hands that were slender even inside gloves, knew that the hard rise of his flesh was barely an inch from those feminine hands, and tried not to swear aloud at the ungovernable rushing of his blood.
For several minutes there was a silence that was at least as uncomfortable as he was.
“I wasn’t making fun of your voice.”
“Then why are you angry?”
He hesitated, then shrugged. “Some kinds of honesty are dangerous.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Drop your hand down an inch and you’ll understand just fine.” His voice was remote, clipped.
When she realized what he meant, she was glad he couldn’t see her blazing cheeks. Beneath her embarrassment she was shocked. When he had told her he lived every instant as though it were his last, he had meant it, and the proof was right at hand.
“Makes a girl wonder what it would take to cool you off,” she muttered against his back, certain he wouldn’t be able to hear.
He did, of course.
“Hell of a question,” he retorted. “Sure you want to hear the answer?”
She opened her mouth for an incautious reply, only to think better of it at the last instant. Before she closed her mouth, she felt the unanticipated, fragile chill of snowflakes dissolving on her tongue. Her eyes closed and she held her breath, waiting for the exquisite sensation to be repeated. As she waited, the world swayed gently beneath her and her arms clung to the living column of strength that was Nevada.
Suddenly she had a dizzying sense of wonder at being alive and riding through a white storm holding on to a man whose last name she didn’t even know, while snowflakes melted on her lips like secret kisses. She laughed softly and tipped her face back to the sky, giving herself to the miracle of being alive.
The sound of her laughing made him turn toward her involuntarily, drawn by the life burning so vividly in her. He looked at her with a hunger that would have shocked her if she had seen it, but her eyes were closed beneath the tiny, biting caresses of snowflakes. When her eyes opened once more, he had already turned away.
He made a rough, questioning sound.
“What’s your last name?”
“Blackthorn,” she murmured, savoring the name a snowflake freshly fallen onto her tongue. “What do you do when you’re not rescuing maidens or falling down mountains, Nevada Blackthorn?”
“I’m segundo on the Rocking M when Tennessee is there. When he isn’t, I’m ramrod.”
“Segundo? Tennessee? Ramrod? Are we speaking the same language?”
The corner of Nevada’s mouth lifted slightly. “A ramrod is a ranch foreman. A segundo is the ramrod’s right-hand man. Tennessee is my brother.”
“Is the Rocking M your family ranch?”
“After a fashion. We’re the bastard line. The legitimate folks are the MacKenzies. Tennessee bought into the ranch when Luke MacKenzie’s father was trying to drink himself to death. I own a chunk of the Devil’s Peak area. Cash and Mariah gave it to me for a wedding gift.”
For a few moments Eden was too stunned to breathe.
“You’re married?” she asked faintly.
“It was Cash and Mariah’s wedding, not mine.”
“They gave you a present on their wedding day,” Eden said carefully.
“It’s a long story.”
“I’m very patient.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“I doubt that much fools you,” she said matter-of-factly.
He thought of the instant he had seen her coming toward him in a smoky bar and his whole body had reached out to her with a primitive need that had shocked him. But he would have been a fool to talk about that, and Nevada Blackthorn was no fool.
“Mariah is Luke’s sister,” Nevada said. “She had a map to a gold mine that had come down through the family. The map wasn’t much use because it was all blurred. I passed the map along to some people who are real good at making documents give up their secrets. When the map came back, I gave it to her. She found the mine, Cash found her, and they got married. They gave me a chunk of the mine as a wedding present.”
The hint of a drawl in Nevada’s voice told her that she was being teased. She didn’t mind. She liked the thought that she could arouse that much playfulness in him.
“Why do I feel you left something out?” she asked.
“Such as how a segundo knows the kind of people who can make crummy old documents sit up and sing.”
“I wasn’t always a segundo.”
She hesitated. The drawl was definitely gone from his voice. Even as she told herself she had no right to pry, she heard herself asking a question.
“What were you before you were a segundo?”
“What the Blackthorn men have been for hundreds of years—warriors.”
Vivid images from the fight in West Fork flashed before her eyes, followed by other images. Nevada lying half-buried in a rock slide with a rifle in his hand. Nevada checking the rifle’s firing mechanism with a few swift motions before he even tried to stand up. Nevada’s bleak eyes and unsmiling mouth.
It explained a lot. Too much.
The vivid joy in life that she had experienced moments before drained away, leaving sadness in its place. Her arms tightened protectively around his powerful body, as though she could somehow keep whatever might hurt him at bay. When she realized what she was doing, she didn’t know whether to laugh or to weep at her own idiocy. He needed protecting about as much as a bolt of lightning did.
But unlike lightning, Nevada could bleed and cry.
And he had. She knew it as surely as she knew that she was alive.
Breathing his name, she moved her face slowly against the cool suede texture of his shearling jacket, wiping away the tears that fell when she thought of what Nevada must have endured in the years before he went to work for the Rocking M. The knowledge of his pain reached her as nothing had since the death of her little sister during one of Alaska’s long, frigid nights.
Nevada felt the surprising strength of her arms holding him, heard his name breathed like a prayer into the swirling storm, sensed the aching depth of her emotions. Without stopping to ask why, he brought one of her gloved hands to his cheek and rubbed slowly. With a ragged sigh she relaxed against him.
For several minutes there was no sound but the tiny whispering of snowflakes over the land, the creak of cold leather, and the muffled hoof beats of the two horses as Nevada held them to Baby’s clear trail. When he saw the outline of the cabin rising from the swirling veils of snow, he removed her arms from around him.
“Time to let go, Eden. You’re home.”
Reluctantly she released him. He swung his right leg over the front of the saddle, grabbed the saddle horn in his right hand and slid to the ground. Braced by his grip on the saddle horn, he tentatively put weight on his left foot. There was pain, but he had expected it. What mattered was that the foot and ankle took his weight without giving way.
He reached up, lifted her off the horse and lowered her to the icy ground.
“Legs still working?” he asked, holding on to her just in case.
She felt the hard length of him pressed against her body and wondered if she would be able to breathe, much less stand. She nodded her head.
“Good. Go in and get a fire going while I take care of the horses.”
“Go in and get warm,” he interrupted. “You’d just be in my way.”
She would have argued, but he had already turned around and begun loosening the cinch on Target’s saddle. As she watched, he removed the heavy saddle easily and set it aside. There was a hesitation when he walked that reminded her of Baby—injured, but hardly disabled.
Besides, Nevada was right. She didn’t know what to do with the horses.
Without a word she, removed her backpack and jacket, shook snow from them and went into the cabin. Baby followed her in and went immediately to the coldest, draftiest spot in the cabin’s single room. His thick fur had been grown for a Yukon winter. Until he shed some of his undercoat, extra heat wasn’t welcome.
It took only a moment for her to stir the banked coals to life. That was one of the first things her parents had taught her about living in cold country—no matter how long or how short the absence was supposed to be, always leave the hearth in a state of instant readiness for the next fire. No more than a single match should be needed to bring light and warmth into a cabin.
She exchanged her snow boots for fleece-lined moccasins before she went to the ice chest to look for a quick meal. After sorting through the snow she had used to chill the contents of the chest, she found a package of chicken. Fresh vegetables were in a cardboard carton. She selected a handful, took the knife from her belt sheath and went to work.
By the time Nevada came in the front door carrying a pair of hiking boots in his hands, the cabin was warm from the fire and fragrant with the smell of chicken and dried herbs simmering together on a tall trivet over the fire. She looked up as he took off her knit ski cap and rubbed his fingers through his short, black hair. He shrugged out of his thick shearling jacket, hung it on a nail next to hers, and walked unevenly toward the fire. Moments later he had removed his single cowboy boot and his socks and was toasting his bare feet by the flames. Bruises shadowed his left foot, which was also reddened from cold.
She set aside the vegetables she had been chopping and knelt next to his legs. She took his left foot between her hands and went over it with her fingertips, searching for swellings, cold spots that could be frostbite, or any other injury.
Silently his breath came in and stayed that way. Her fingers felt like gentle flames caressing his cold skin. Not by so much as a sideways look did she reveal that she knew what her touch was doing to him. The thought that she might be as innocent as she was alluring disturbed him more deeply than her warm fingers.
“I told you I’m fine,” he said. His voice was rough, irritable, for his body was reacting to her touch once again.
“Your idea of fine and mine are different.” She pressed her fingertips around a swelling. “Hurt?”
She examined his toes critically. Other than being cold, they showed no damage. She let go of his foot. Before he could prevent it, she had pressed her hand against his forehead. His temperature brought a frown to her face. She put her other hand against her own forehead for comparison.
“You’re running a fever,” she said.
He grunted. He had been running a fever for the past hour or more. Tennessee had been right. He should have stayed out of the mountains. But he hadn’t been able to. Since the fight in West Fork, he had been too restless to stick around the Rocking M’s tame winter pastures.
“Are you planning on riding out into the storm as soon as your feet warm up?” Eden asked evenly, removing her hand from his forehead. “Or are you going to be sensible and wait out the storm here?”
A pale green glance fixed on her with searching intensity. The warning he had spoken to her once before hung in the air between them.
Stay away from me, Eden. I want you more than all the men in that bar put together.
“Aren’t you nervous about being alone with me in a cabin at the end of the world?” Nevada asked softly.
“You damned well should be.”
He said something rude under his breath.
“I know you want me,” she said simply. “I also know you won’t rape me. And not because of Baby. The way you fight, you probably could take care of a pack of wolves. But if I said no, you wouldn’t so much as touch me. Even if I said yes…” She shrugged.
“You have more faith in me than I do.”
Her smile was as beautiful as it was sad. “Yes, I know.”
She stood up and went back to chopping vegetables.
Broodingly he looked around the cabin. Once it had been a base camp for hunters who were less interested in fine decorator touches than in solid shelter from storms. In the far corner of the room, next to Baby, there was a small potbellied stove. A section of chimney pipe was missing. Obviously Eden had decided it would be easier to stay warm near the big fieldstone hearth than to fix the stove’s broken chimney.
Narrowed green eyes inventoried the contents of the room in a sweeping glance that missed nothing. Bedroll and mattress laid out, clothes either hung on nails or put neatly into the rough-hewn dresser, camp chairs, a small can of oil set near the kitchen pump, a bucket of water to prime the pump, a kerosene lantern as well as a battery model, and kitchen implements stacked on overturned cartons. Obviously she was at home in the spare shelter.
She walked across the room, pushed a thick, faded curtain aside, and looked out. Snow was coming down thick and hard. Saying nothing, she let herself out of the cabin’s only door and closed it behind her. Instantly Baby came to his feet and went to stand by the door. A minute later the door opened again. She came in, dragging Nevada’s pack-sacks behind. She kicked the door shut.
Without the awkwardness of wearing only one cowboy boot to hamper him, he moved with startling speed and only the slightest limp. He took her hands from the canvas packsacks.
“Put your bed near the hearth,” she said. “The cabin gets cold by dawn.”
“Next time let me get my own gear. These sacks are too heavy for you.”
She gave him a look out of hazel eyes that were almost molten gold with reflected flames. “You’ve been hurt and you’re running a fever,” she said with careful patience. “That makes us about even in the strength department.”
“Bull,” he said succinctly.
With no visible effort he lifted both sacks, walked across the room and dumped the sacks to one side of the hearth.
Eden stared. She knew how heavy those bags were. She’d had a hard time simply dragging them into the cabin.
“Okay, I was wrong,” she said, throwing up her hands. “You can jump tall buildings in a single bound and catch bullets in your bare hands.”
“Bare teeth,” he said without looking up.
“You catch bullets with your teeth.”
“You may,” she retorted, “but I’m not that stupid.”
“The hell you aren’t.” He lifted his head and pinned her with a cougar’s pale green glance. “You’re alone in the middle of a snowstorm with a man who gets hard every time you lick your lips. And you trust me. That, lady, is damned stupid.”