Book 8: Six Pack Ranch Series
November, somewhere in the Alberta Rocky Mountains
Rachel Malone shivered as she eased up the handle on the small airtight stove. She added another log to keep the fire going, leaving the door wide open as she hauled over a chair from the tiny kitchen area so she could sit in front of the inferno. The fire crackled with delight at the extra fuel, flames licking their way up the sides of the wood like orange and yellow fingers.
She dragged the photo album off the table behind her and plopped it into her lap, taking a deep breath for courage.
The cutout in the creamy white cover showed her and Gary smiling at each other, brilliant sunshine surrounding them—man, she remembered exactly how she’d felt at that moment. Giddy and excited, and so full of dreams for the future. So sure she was head-over-heels in love.
Rachel unlatched the front cover and pulled out the eight-by-ten, admiring the outfit she wore, the tan linen showing off her dark shoulder-length hair to perfection. “Damn, I looked good.”
She flung the picture into the fire, the heat instantly taking effect as the paper ignited, their faces melting into oblivion.
She turned her attention back to the album as she flipped it open to deal with the first official page. One after the other she peeled out the pictures, her voice echoing in the quiet of the small room as she talked to herself. “Of course I’d love to go out for dinner to this fancy restaurant. Of course I’d like to try that appetizer, if you insist. Gag.”
Raw oysters. She shuddered before contributing another picture to the bonfire blazing ever hotter before her.
She paused in the middle of removing the reminders of her past six months and the whirlwind romance she’d shared with Gary Ricardo. Stared at the photo in her fingers without seeing it.
Whirlwind was accurate, romance though? Definitely not the correct word, not considering that here she was, five months after saying I do knowing I don’t would’ve been a far better choice. Pictures from their month of dating, shots from their July honeymoon in Tahiti—all torn from the album to be sacrificed to the fire along with the charred remains of her heart.
A snicker escaped. “Melodramatic, much?” she chastised herself.
She rose and went to the window. The cold seeping through the pane cooled her flushed forehead as she eased closer to the glass and peered into the growing twilight.
Melodrama wasn’t how she typically dealt with things. Nothing about her relationship with Gary had been typical, though. Maybe she should’ve known better, but at the same time he had fooled her enough that when she found evidence he was cheating on her, the blow had struck straight through the heart.
Outside the cabin the late-November weather had turned ugly. She pressed her palms to the window, watching as huge snowflakes twirled downward only to be shoved aside with each new gust of wind. Already a foot of the white stuff had accumulated on top of her car. It was a good thing she wasn’t planning on going anywhere for a while.
Nope. She was there in the wilderness for her own private lick your woundsretreat, and she had a good five days before anyone expected her back in Rocky Mountain House. She needed to put her screwup of a relationship behind her so she could move forward into something far better.
Only as the temperature dropped further, and the snow continued to fall, Rachel worried she might have bitten off more than she could chew. Snow had piled up on the path between her and the outhouse, a thick blanket covered the wood stack, and the cold increased, creeping through the log walls.
In the interest of saving herself from having to venture outside for more wood in the middle of the night, she pulled on her boots and heavy winter parka, and slipped out the backdoor. It was a cold and miserable job, but far better than running out of fuel.
A sudden tug at her neck caught her by surprise, and she froze in the middle of lowering her load. Somehow her necklace had worked loose from under her layers and become tangled around the rough bark. Rachel moved carefully to free it—that necklace was one of her only mementos from her grandmother, and she’d hate to break it.
She desperately needed to keep all the good memories she had intact, thank you very much.
Rachel looped the golden chain over a nail by the built-in bookshelf then returned to her task. One armload after another, she carried wood to beside the stove, stomping the snow off her feet at the door the best she could on every trip until her pile was so tall it teetered.
She went outside again for one last chance to use the facilities. The wind roared in her ears, and the door to the cabin slammed shut, torn from her grasp. Ice crystals wedged their way past her hood and scored her cheeks like microscopic razor blades.
Rachel shuffled through the knee-deep snow and up the steps to the outhouse. The howling wind cut off as she jerked the door closed and stood in the small enclosure, her flashlight as pathetic as a single candle attempting to illuminate an entire pitch-black football field.
Sure, I can nab you a friend’s hunting cabin for a getaway. It’s not fancy, but the price is right.
Right then she was cursing her tight-pocketed decision to take up her friend Connie’s offer. Instead of freezing her tushie to the seat of an outhouse, she could have been off at some spa in Banff, getting herself pampered from head to toe…
The reality of her nearly empty bank account knocked the spa fantasy into the crapper damn fast. Because of Gary, this rustic palace was all she could afford.
So be it. She wasn’t going to weep over the jerk, or over how stupid she’d been. Not anymore. She was, however, going to make herself an enormous hot chocolate the instant she got back in the cabin, and if at least half the cup was liquid kick-in-the-pants, who was around to give her hell?
Rachel opened the outhouse door cautiously, bracing it against the wind. Already her footprints in the snow had filled in, barely visible in the dim light from the flashlight.
She was hurrying toward shelter when a light broke over the hill not ten feet to her left. She twisted on the spot in surprise, her heart rate rocketing as she lifted her light and peered through the driving snow. A dark shape loomed closer, and she shuffled forward, momentarily spooked as she considered who on earth was coming to such a remote place at this time of night.
Single woman, alone in the woods—lordy, she was about to become a victim of the killer with a hooked knife for a hand.
Every horror-story cliché she’d ever heard raced into her brain. She stepped off the path and tripped, the flashlight falling from her hand as she landed on her butt. A cloud of snow puffed around her before being driven away by the icy wind. Now the only light was the one shining in her eyes.
It had taken far too short a time, and already the stranger loomed over her, the extra-extra-large-size black-fur-trimmed parka turning him into a massive bearlike creature. One with a shotgun in his hand.
Her imagination was working way overtime, and she hadn’t started drinking yet. She scrambled backward, fleeing from danger, and a noise escaped her, something between a warning and a cry of fear.
“Hey, it’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
Rachel fought to place the voice as the light blinding her lowered to the ground. She blinked to clear her vision, the intruder flipped back his hood, and the familiar features of Lee Coleman came into sight.
Relief flooded in along with the realization her jeans were soaking wet and her hands were going numb even in her thick mittens. “Lee. What are you doing here?”
He peered closer, shock followed hard by confusion as his expression folded into a frown.
“Rachel?” He swooped forward and caught her hand, effortlessly pulling her to her feet. “What the heck are you doing sitting in the snow when it’s so damn cold?”
“Making snow angels,” she shot back. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to meet anyone outside.” He squatted before her, handing up her flashlight before brushing snow from her pants. “I figured everyone would be hiding out by the fire.”
Yeah, well, she wasn’t about to explain about the outhouse. Rachel wiggled uncomfortably, both from the throbbing in her hands as she banged them together to knock the snow from her gloves, and the fact Lee was brushing her butt.
His touch was impersonal. Casual, in fact, but it still caused weird sensations in her stomach. “Just leave it. I’m fine.”
He rose, towering over her. “Get inside the cabin.”
Her back stiffened at the order even though she knew it was a sensible one. Her days of meekly following orders from any man were over.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded again. It was a matter of principle not to escape into the cabin in spite of the shivers setting in.
Lee stepped past her, catching her mittened hand at the last second and dragging her with him. “We’re not holding a long hi, how are you? discussion outside. It’s cold as hell, and you’re not dressed for the weather.”
Just what she needed, another bossy man in her life. Not. Still, he was right. It made no sense to stand outside suffering when he had the door open and all the hot air was escaping.
“Thanks.” She put as much sarcasm into her comment as possible, not surprised to hear him chuckle in response.
“This is going to be one interesting evening.” The softly spoken words escaped him as she followed him into the one-room cabin.
She sighed. This? Exactly what she’d tried to avoid by heading into the wilderness. With one swoop, she was reminded all over what a fool she’d been. Lee knew everything—well, maybe not everything, but she was pretty sure he knew she’d been cheated on, and that before the ink was dry on her wedding certificate.
Sometimes fate had a crappy sense of humour.
Lee’s feet were freezing, and his thighs ached from trudging through the deep snow. The scent of gunpowder clung to him like redneck perfume from when he’d been forced to use the shotgun to put down an injured cow earlier in the day. His fingers were a mess from his attempts at jury-rigging the motor of his skidoo in subzero temperatures.
He felt as if he’d just been handed a winning lottery ticket.
Heck, Santa could forget about bringing any presents next month, because he’d already gotten the one thing he wanted the most in the whole entire world.
Time with Rachel.
He placed the gun on the rack over the door then eased the backpack off his shoulders, dropping it to the floor before shedding his snow-covered jacket. Never in a million years could he have imagined this situation. “Looks like I have to crash your party. The storm’s getting worse, and my skidoo broke about half a mile from here.”
“Really?” Rachel slid back to the window and peered into the darkness before facing him, big brown eyes wide with worry. “Aren’t you supposed to stay with the sled if you break down?”
“Not when nobody’s going to come looking for you, and not when you can smell wood smoke on the air.” He tilted his head toward her. “Get out of your wet things. I’ll brush the snow off my stuff so I don’t soak the room.”
She hurried to follow his instructions, cheeks flashing to pink. Lee turned his back and deliberately ignored the shuffling noises that followed, but there was no way to turn off the instant response of his body. Not when images of her getting partially naked a few feet behind him popped into his brain.
It had been a hell of a year for both of them, although Rachel probably wouldn’t appreciate Lee linking them like that. And while he’d hated witnessing her world fall apart, she’d definitely had a far worse time of it than him.
From happily-in-love to thrown-under-the-bus, Rachel had dealt with way more than any woman should have to. Lee had been forced to watch from the sidelines, powerless to do anything to ease her pain. Their two situations were in no way comparable, but for him wanting to be with her and make it all better.
He now understood what his cousins meant when they’d sworn watching their partners deal with pain hurt far more than being thrashed themselves. Since the summer he’d seen the light fade from Rachel’s eyes, and he wanted to kill the bastard who’d torn away her joy.
But that was a discussion for some time when he wasn’t shivering, his clothes sticking to his skin like icy bandages.
He opened the top of his backpack and pulled out the sweatshirt and pants he carried with his emergency supplies. Steady silence echoed from her direction. Looked as if it was up to him to make this less awkward.
“I went out to check the herd,” he offered. Simple. Safe conversation. “A tree fell over in the high winds this morning and took down one of the fence lines. The dumb cattle decided exploring was a good idea even with a storm coming.”
“Did you find your…cows?”
Her voice wavered on the last word, coincidentally said the moment he stripped his shirt off over his head. Lee chose to ignore the implied connection that merely the sight of his naked torso was enough to affect her. Still facing away, he knocked the moisture from his hair with the shirt before dropping it onto a nearby chair. He pulled on his dry sweatshirt as he gave a partial answer. “Some. Got them into one of our shelters and locked them in—they’ll be safe from the storm until my brothers set them loose.”
He glanced over his shoulder. Rachel stood in front of the fire, her hands extended toward the flames dancing behind the glass. He wondered if he should warn her then realized he was too cold to play games. He dropped into the chair at the table, pulling off his boots with a groan of satisfaction. Snow escaped to lie in small piles around his thick wool socks.
“Do you want something hot to drink?” she asked.
“Hell, yeah.” He waited until she’d walked past him, grabbing the kettle from the counter to return to the wood stove. Once she was busy and facing away from him, he shoved off his pants and boxers, pointedly not looking her direction as he replaced them with the dry pair of sweatpants.
Even with how cold he was, if she’d been watching, she would’ve gotten an eyeful of exactly how being in the same room with her affected him.
Rachel Malone. Ever since she’d come to town and started work at the café, he’d had his eye on her. So had a lot of other guys, but Lee was positive he had more to offer her than the rest of them.
Only every time he asked her out, she’d turned him down. Politely teasing he didn’t want to date someone as old as her.
There might be a few years between them, but he didn’t give a damn. Maybe some guys took longer to grow up. Lee had pretty much always known what his goals were, and from everything he’d seen about Rachel, he thought they would be just about perfect together.
It was hard to prove when he never got a chance.
He grabbed his wet things and joined her by the fire. “Let me hang these up so they’re out of our way.”
She shifted to the side, but there wasn’t much room. He leaned forward to drape his pants over a hook behind the stove. The move brushed him against her, tormenting him even more than the scent of apple-blossom off her skin.
“Aren’t your feet freezing?” she asked, eyeing the wet footprints he’d left, moisture soaking through the wool.
“I’ve got extra socks. I didn’t want to put them on yet and get them wet.” He reached past her again, grabbing the broom leaning against the wall. “Sit down. I’ll clean around you. By the time the water boils, we’ll both be warmed up.”
It looked as if she would protest before crawling onto the chair. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room in the cabin, is there?”
He swept the loose snow toward the door, moving quickly before it melted into wet puddles. “Sam Carver lived here with his wife and son for a couple of years.”
“You’re kidding me. Three people, in this space?”
“They moved out before their kid was school-aged, but yeah. We take personal space for granted.”
Rachel had propped her feet up on the chair so he could sweep underfoot. As he worked, she reached to tidy a pile of papers and albums on the table that he hadn’t noticed until now.
So many questions he wanted to ask. What was she doing here? How long had she been back in Rocky Mountain House?
Was she back in Rocky for good?
He didn’t bother dumping the snow outside. Opening the door would let cold air in, and even though the wood supply inside was massive, there was no use in wasting the heat they had. He put away the broom and pulled the other chair next to hers, right in front of the fire.
Rachel cleared her throat. “I have food, if you want something to eat.”
“Thanks—maybe in a bit. You taking a holiday?” Lee asked as he pulled on a dry pair of woolen socks, a sigh of relief escaping. It had been damn cold wandering through the trees trying to find a passable route to the shelter.
“Sort of. Yeah.” She paused, then the words came out in a rush. “I didn’t think I would see anyone.”
Lee picked up a half-burnt picture off the ground from beside his feet, lifting it in the air. The edges had turned ash, but the center showed her smiling face. Little white flowers tucked into her hair, what was unmistakably a wedding gown riding low on her shoulders.
Suddenly her being alone in the middle of the wilderness made sense. He glanced at her, checking to see if she had noticed his discovery. Rachel returned his questioning look, her breathing so steady she had to be concentrating on it.
He’d interrupted something important to her. “I’m sorry.”
She swallowed hard. “Me too.”
Rachel pulled the photo from his fingers and tossed it on the kindling pile.
A strange sensation buzzed through him. Maybe he hadn’t planned on being there while she got out the pain in her system from her failed marriage, but there was nowhere he’d rather be. It was a chance to give to her. To support her.
It was a chance to prove they belonged together, even if it meant risking being shot down again.
He spoke softly, like he would with a skittish animal. Staying as safe as possible as he changed topics. “Some food sounds good, but more importantly, do you want me to grab the bottle of whiskey I have in my pack?”
Her expression turned amused. “Whiskey’s part of your standard-issue supplies when you’re out searching after cows?”
The kettle on the stove went from bubbling to whistling. Rachel slipped on an oven mitt and moved to the table, hoisting a package of hot-chocolate mix in the air. “Here’s my first contribution to our evening. Go get yours.”
Brushing past her once again teased all his senses, but this time, instead of fighting his desires, he let hope steal over him.
He hadn’t gone out this morning looking for this opportunity, but no way would he allow it to slip from his fingers.
As the snow continued to fall, and the wind howled outside, screeching through the trees, Lee found the bottle of whiskey in his pack and brought it to the table. He stood behind her, pausing to soak in her nearness. In being there—in being right where he needed to be for however long they ended up trapped together.
As long as she didn’t deny him again, this could turn out to be one hell of an adventure.