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Last of the Ravens
Linda Winstead Jones


And then she heard another sound, one that was not at all birdlike. It might’ve been the movements of a large animal. Or a man. “Who’s there?” she called sharply, almost hoping to be answered by a growl or a bark. All went silent but she knew something, or someone, was down there. “I’m going to ask you one more time,” she said sharply, “and then I’m going to get my gun.” She did wish she’d thought to ask Roger for a pistol or a rifle! Not that she knew how to use a firearm. “Who’s there?”

After a short pause and another rustle of underbrush, a voice answered. “I’m your neighbor from up the hill.”

Korbinian, the psycho real estate agent. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“It’s my mountain,” he said, just a little bit testily.

“Not all of it,” she responded, shaking a finger at the darkness. “Wait right there.”

Miranda ran into the house, dropped her afghan and grabbed the flashlight that was sitting on the coffee table close at hand. Power outages must be common here, because the cabin was lousy with flashlights and candles. She could only imagine how complete the darkness would be here where no city light could reach.

She ran onto the deck and turned on the powerful flashlight, shining it down to the place where she’d heard movement and that voice. At first she saw nothing, and then her light found him.

Korbinian stood far below, partially sheltered by the thick growth on the slope that cut down the side of the mountain. What she could see was that longish, straight black hair, the solemn face and a bare chest. It wasn’t cold, but it was certainly much too cool for anyone to be out bare-chested—even if that chest was as nicely muscled as his was. The exposed arms were not too shabby, either.

A barely dressed stranger who had no business being here was talking to her, and she was taking the time to admire his muscles? She’d lost what was left of her mind.

“Come closer,” she commanded harshly, using the light to gesture into a clearing below her and just a few feet from where Korbinian stood.

“I’d rather not,” he responded.

“Why not?” She shone the light on his face and he shaded his eyes with one lifted hand.

“I’m naked.”

Miranda did not have an immediate vocal response for that, though her heart skipped a beat and her temperature rose slightly. Eventually she asked, “Why?”

“I’m a naturalist,” he said.

“A what?”

“A nudist,” he clarified. “I like to hike naked.”

Miranda studied the brambles below and wondered why on earth anyone would tramp through the brush bare-assed, without the protection of clothing. The night was chilly and she thought about making a joke about naked men, cold weather and shrinkage, but she didn’t know Korbinian nearly well enough to do so. Still, the thought crossed her mind.

“What are you doing here?” Korbinian asked.

She kept the light trained on his face as she leaned into the deck railing. Maybe he was naked, but he was far below and thought she had a gun. “I’m a friend of the Talbots. They offered me the use of their cabin and I took them up on it.”

“You’re on vacation,” he said.

“Yes.”

“For the weekend?”

“For the week,” she said. It really hadn’t taken much effort for her friends to convince her that a long weekend wasn’t long enough. His jaw hardened in obvious displeasure, so she added, “Maybe two. It’s so peaceful here I might call Roger and tell him I’m going to stay a while longer.”

“You’ll get bored,” Korbinian argued.

She should be annoyed with him, or frightened, or at the very least concerned. But she wasn’t. “I don’t think so. I understand there are kicking outlet malls not too far away.”

“I didn’t see a car.”

Why was Korbinian arguing with her? Why didn’t he just slink back into the woods, embarrassed at getting caught out and about without a stitch of clothing? She should be the one to end this strange conversation. All she had to do was turn off the flashlight and go inside, making sure all the doors and windows were locked.

But she didn’t. “Roger gave me the name and number of a man who will drive me wherever I want to go.”

“I’ll drive you,” he said quickly, almost as if he wanted to get the words out of his mouth before he changed his mind.

This was just too odd. Miranda very briefly shone the light onto the man’s chest and shoulders and nice arms. Once again she noted that he had a fine physique, and she imagined he spent more time building houses than selling them. With a body like that, no wonder he wasn’t embarrassed!

“No, thanks,” she said cautiously. “I’ll probably stay right here, after all.” Sleeping, reading, doing nothing at all.

“Do you have a name?” he asked brusquely.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he said. “It would just be nice to be able to call you something besides the blonde.”

“Why are you calling me anything at all?”

“You’re on my mountain.”

“Our mountain,” she countered. “For this week, at least.” She leaned over the deck railing a little, secretly wishing for a better look. It wasn’t like her to be so bold and so curious, but there was something about Korbinian that appealed to her. Her instincts had been sharpened since the accident, and at this moment she was quite certain that there was no reason to be afraid of Brennus Korbinian. “My name’s Miranda. Miranda Lynch.”

“Call me if you change your mind about that ride, Miranda Lynch. The name’s Korbinian. I’m in the book.” Korbinian stepped back into the darkness of the forest, moving into the shadows and away from the beam of her flashlight. Too bad. He must’ve startled the birds because suddenly she heard them again. They rustled and cawed, and soon burst from the trees and took flight.

Miranda moved her flashlight slowly back and forth, the light cutting through trees and brush but only to a certain point before darkness took over. Unable to see any sign of Korbinian, she said in a soft voice, “You scared the birds.”

Alone in the darkness, Miranda’s stomach clenched and flipped. She grasped the deck railing and took a deep, calming breath. Before her conversation with Korbinian she’d been perfectly content, but suddenly she was keenly aware of her solitude.

Chapter Two

It was Sunday and he didn’t have to be anywhere early, but years of habit had Bren up at dawn. While it was still early he headed down the mountain, driving slowly even though he knew the road. His eyes strayed toward the Talbot cabin as he approached, and he wondered what on earth had possessed him when he’d told Miranda Lynch to call him if she needed a ride. His days were more than full, and he wasn’t running a taxi service for the woman who’d intruded on his mountain.

Still, he slowed as he passed the cabin, and when he caught sight of her on the deck, sitting there admiring the view with a cup cradled in her hands and a blanket across her lap, he stopped. He sat there for a moment, then he cursed and backed up so he could pull into the driveway. He turned off the engine and pushed open the door, angry with himself for stopping but unable to stifle the urge to get a good up-close look at the woman who had all but lured him to this cabin last night.

He couldn’t get onto the deck from here, not without a few acrobatic tricks, so he stopped near the spot in the very small excuse for a front yard where the ground sloped sharply. The deck was solidly built onto pillars that were buried deep into the side of the mountain. He could transform and be on that deck in a matter of seconds, but since he’d spent a lifetime hiding what he could do that wouldn’t be a smart move, tempted though he was. So he called the woman’s name, perhaps a bit more sharply than was necessary.

Miranda Lynch walked to the railing, much as she had last night. This time she had that afghan around her shoulders and she continued to hug the cup against a morning chill. Her fair hair was slightly mussed; she hadn’t bothered to comb it yet, he imagined. There was an interesting flush to her cheeks, one caused by the crisp morning air. He couldn’t discern her shape beneath that blanket, but he had seen it well enough last night. She was petite and finely formed. Her heart-shaped face was framed by a mop of pale hair, and her blue eyes were almost too large for her face. Standing so close, he could tell that there was a light sprinkling of freckles across her pert nose. Miranda Lynch had a girl-next-door look. She was cute, not gorgeous, and still he felt an incredible draw to her that was anything but natural.

“Mr. Korbinian,” she said, smiling gently and then taking a sip from the blue mug. “This is a surprise.”

“I’m going to the grocery store, and since you don’t have a car I thought I’d see if you needed anything.” His offer was voiced more sharply and abruptly than was necessary, he supposed, but since he wasn’t exactly sure why he was making it at all he didn’t feel guilty.

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “I didn’t have you pegged as the neighborly type.”

“You don’t know me, so why am I ‘pegged’ at all?” He could only imagine what Talbot had told her about him. They hadn’t exactly been on the best of terms in the past few years.
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