He fought to breathe, fought the panic. Clawed his way back from the abyss inch by black, painful inch. He didn’t know how long it took, but he finally blinked his eyes hard, clearing the last remnants of hell from his mind’s eye, replacing them with a pretty young woman sprawled, unconscious on the ground.
Crap. Anna was out cold. He reached quickly for her throat, relieved beyond belief to feel a strong, steady pulse beating beneath her fragile, transparent skin. His fingers trailed down the slender column of her neck, reveling in the silken softness, so foreign to his hard-edged world.
He jerked his fingertips away from her neck and swore luridly. What the hell was he doing? He was damaged goods. Worthless to any woman.
Carefully, he slipped his hand under her head and felt her scalp for bumps or blood. Nothing. His palm slid ever so gently down the back of her neck, counting vertebrae and checking for any protrusions or swelling to indicate a neck injury. Nothing.
Very gently, he ran his thumbs outward from the hollow of her throat, tracing the line of her collarbones. So delicate. So feminine. And thankfully, intact. He swept his hands down her rib cage next, shocked at how much of them his hands spanned. She really was a tiny little thing. Her T-shirt was soft and worn beneath his hands and felt like…home.
He could tell by looking that her legs were lying at the correct angles. She might have wrenched a knee or ankle, but nothing was obviously broken. He sat back on his heels, frowning. She was going to get cold fast lying on the ground like this, though.
He slipped his arms underneath her shoulders and knees, and awkwardly climbed to his feet. Aw, hell. His ribs protested violently, and he gritted his teeth against the fiery agony shooting through his side. He staggered up the front steps with her and laid her down on the dry wood porch.
She started to stir and he jumped back from her as if she would bite him, hating himself for the impulse. Since when had he become afraid of small, unconscious women who meant him no harm? Was he that screwed up in the head? He was a warrior, for crying out loud. He’d stared down death and laughed in its face more times than he cared to count.
And yet, here he was, hiding from humanity. Hiding from himself. From his own memories. He backed another step away from Anna as she reached for her head and felt it gingerly. She opened her eyes, frowning faintly until she caught sight of him.
“Oh dear,” she sighed. “I am a bit of a klutz, aren’t I?”
He felt no need to restate the obvious. Of course she was a klutz. A rather adorable one, in fact.
She sat up and reached for the porch post. He offered his hand down to her. She looked startled, nervous even. But she laid her hand in his. It was soft. Fine boned. As delicate as the rest of her. And cold, too. He gave a gentle tug and she popped up to her feet. He watched, his gut turbulent as she dusted off her rear end. Her very nice rear end. Cupped temptingly in those skinny jeans. Off-limits. Dangerous.
“You’d best come inside,” he said gruffly. “Warm up and make sure you don’t have a concussion or something.”
She stared up at him as if she didn’t comprehend his words. She mumbled, “Feels like weather moving in. I’d better get off the mountain before it hits.”
“Are you sure? You hit your head hard enough to knock you out. You should stay a little while. Just to be safe—”
She cut him off. “Thanks. But I’ll be okay.”
One part of his mind chanted silently to her, Go away. Go away. Go away. But another part of it whispered, Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. He wasn’t going to beg. And it was her life, after all. Still, he wished she would stay long enough to make sure she wasn’t seriously hurt.
She’d gotten that look in her eyes again. The haunted one that screamed of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of a man.
He crossed his arms over his chest, anchoring his hands to stop them from reaching out and forcing her to stay. He wasn’t about to force any woman to do anything she didn’t want to. Especially when it put that awful hurt look in her eyes.
He watched helplessly as she turned and navigated the porch steps facing forward this time, with better success than before.
She glanced over her shoulder at him as she opened her car door, her eyes wide with fear. As much as he hated the idea of a woman being afraid of him, maybe if she was scared of him, she would leave him the hell alone.
Except something painful twisted deep in his gut as he stood there, unmoving, and watched her drive away. Lonely. He was lonely.
Which was no less than he’d earned.
It was better this way. He didn’t deserve to be part of the human race.
Chapter 3 (#u7af247a9-950a-5d0e-bb40-35d2bc41d8e4)
She’d made it back to the sprawling stone-and-log mansion that had literally stolen her breath when she’d passed it on her way up to Brett Morgan’s place when it started to sleet. She barely spared a glance for the massive dwelling now. She had to get down to a lower altitude and warmer temperatures that would turn this wintry precipitation back into relatively harmless rain. Her lightweight car wasn’t the least bit suited for the high Rockies.
She couldn’t stop picturing the man she’d left behind, brooding on his mountain. There was something…wounded…about him.
God knew, she’d never been able to resist hard-luck cases. She had taken in cats and dogs and wild animals—and humans—in need of healing for pretty much her entire life. There was no reason to believe that impulse would stop just because she had come home to Sunny Creek or because she was wounded herself.
Dark was falling by the time she pulled into the driveway of her bungalow—a renovation project in progress. She hadn’t grown up here; her mother had inherited the run-down house from a crazy great-uncle after Anna left town.
She could picture the finished craftsman cottage in her mind’s eye, but whether she would ever actually transform the decrepit structure before her into that homey, welcoming vision was anyone’s guess.
But hey. The new roof didn’t leak. And good Lord willing, the furnace she’d spent the past two weeks rebuilding would turn on tonight. Winter was coming, sweeping down out of the high reaches to consume the narrow valley that the Sunny Creek and town by the same name huddled in.
As she hustled inside her house on a gust of bitter wind, a few snowflakes flew past her nose. Yep. The cold was already cutting painfully through her California-conditioned body.
She called Vinny Benson, owner of the junk shop in Hillsdale, as soon as she shrugged out of her coat, scarf, sweater, and mittens. “Hey, Vinny. It’s your favorite impoverished house renovator.”
“Hey, baby. You coming to see me tonight? The windows I got are sweet. Original weighted mechanisms and everything. Dimensions are exactly what you need.”
“I’m sure I’m going to buy them, but I got hung up at the diner today and can’t make it over tonight. Looks like some weather’s blowing in anyway. I can’t risk the trip over the McMinn Pass.”
“It’s not snowing up in the pass, yet. Come on over to Hillsdale anyway. If you get snowed in, you can always shack up with me.”
A chill chattered down her spine. That was the sort of thing a teenaged Eddie would have said. Vinny was endlessly hitting on her, but so far, was harmless. So far. Not that she trusted any man to stay harmless for long. She had no intention of getting snowed in with him or anyone else. She took a deep breath and forced herself not to tell him what she really thought of him and all men. “I can head over there first thing in the morning to buy the windows. Just hold them for me, please.” She grimaced and amended, “Pretty please?”
She despised flirting with men, but if it got her the wooden replacement windows for her living room that she’d been hunting for desperately since she bought this house, she would find a way to stand it.
Vinny tried to extract a dinner date out of her in exchange for holding the stupid windows, but she made a lame excuse about having to work and dodged that bullet. Finally, he agreed to just hold the windows for her.
That unpleasant fire put out, she moved through the kitchen into the bungalow’s main room, a combination dining-living area. Might as well sand a little paneling tonight. The exercise would help keep her warm in the drafty house. Until those new windows were installed, she was resigned to more or less camping inside her home.
She set her phone on top of a cheap speaker and blasted beach music as she sighed, picked up a piece of sandpaper and went to work on the wooden wainscoting. At the current rate of progress, she figured she would complete refinishing the walls in approximately a million years.
It would go a ton faster with a power sander, but she was trying to save every penny and put all her money back into the materials she needed to restore the home. Elbow grease was free, and she had plenty of that. Besides, the mindlessly repetitive work of sanding wood lulled her brain into a state of thoughtless boredom in which she could actually, oh, sleep from time to time. And the physical labor tired her out enough that, on a good night, she wasn’t beset by nightmares that had her awake and screaming in the wee hours.
Sometimes, the enormity of the project she’d taken on got to her, though, and tonight was one of those times. In lieu of crying, she opted to sing along with a classic Beach Boys tune and dance around the spacious living room. It would be a gracious room if she ever managed to make it habitable for humans. Maybe someday she would finally put this house and her life back together. Someday. But not this day.
Brett heated up a can of baked beans and poured them over a couple of slices of toast. He was just sitting down to eat the makeshift grub when headlights flashed through the window. Reggie growled beside him.
“Now who’s come to bug us?” he grumbled at the dog.
Reggie merely glared at the front door and growled again, low in his throat.
A door slammed outside, and a familiar voice called, “Brett? You home?”
Oh dear Jesus. His mother. The original Morgan hurricane. No way in hell would she go away quietly after a few not-so-subtle hints like Anna Larkin had. And he couldn’t very well pretend not to be here. Miranda would have to walk right past his truck, parked out front as proud as you please, to get to the front porch. Swearing under his breath, he opened the door.
“Of course I’m home, Mother. My truck’s parked out front and the lights are on in the cabin.”
“I heard there was some excitement down at Pittypat’s today. Are you okay, sweetie?”