The Cowboy Christmas Charm

Chapter Eleven

Colt didn’t want her, not even for a night. What bronco-loving free spirit didn’t want a woman? It would’ve felt good to let go of the world if only for a moment.

Footsteps padded against the hardwood floors, and a hand touched her shoulder as a body blocked her path to the stairs. Everything processed slower in her foggy brain and the darkness of the hallway.

“You’ve got this wrong.” He caught her in his arms, making her head spin. “There’s nothing more that I want than to taste your lips, touch your skin, feel your body against mine, to hold you all night.” His grip tightened. He leaned down eye-to-eye with her, but she couldn’t make out his expression in the dim light. “But the night would end, and in the morning, you’d regret it and I’d be sent packing.”

His breath came in tight waves of passion, stirring her own need, but she stiffened into a solid woman that wouldn’t be hurt again.

“I understand. I’ll keep my distance.” She shrugged from his arms and about-faced, having to catch hold of the staircase spindles when the room continued moving when she’d stopped. No way she’d make it upstairs. “We’ll remain boss and employee, so don’t worry about keeping your job.”

Saige shuffled into the grand room to face the fire and her humiliation. Her head spun, and she held it for a second, trying to make out her thoughts.

“Listen, that’s not what I meant.” His sigh echoed in the quiet room. Smell of spring with a hint of mystery wafted into her personal space. The heat of him behind her promised his comforting arms around her. “I don’t want to leave here yet. Leave you. There’s something here I want to explore more. That’s what I don’t want to risk.”

“I thought I could do it, but I can’t. Not like this.” Tears pricked at her eyes and visions of something from her past flashed, but she shoved the memories away. She’d come here to connect with her mother, not what happened after the funeral. “Can we go back to sitting by the fire? I’m tired and cold.”

To her relief, he pulled her into him and kissed the top of her head. “Then let’s get you warmed up.” His voice was deep and hoarse, and she could tell he was restrained. Could he really be a strong, sexy, charismatic man who knew how to treat a woman and not just take what he wanted?

He guided her to the floor next to him, settled them down with pillows under their heads, pulled her into his arms, and wrapped several blankets around them. His lips pressed to her temple, and he held her hand, studying each of her fingers before lacing them between hers, kissing each of her knuckles. “You’re a woman who deserves to be cherished.”

“So we’re not just boss and employee. If so, I’m afraid HR might have a problem with this,” she teased, trying to lighten the mood she’d created with her fear of being rejected. Was that why she’d clung to Thomas, because he was solid and she never truly had to open her heart to him? Unlike Trevor, who was the opposite of all things safe.

“Friends,” he offered.

“Friends with hand-holding benefits?”

“Friends with possibilities.”

She slid into him until they were meshed together and his heat kept her back warm, his arms kept her safe, and his sweet kisses along her jawline kept her wanting more.

The fire faded, but to her relief, he didn’t move to tend to it. She fought to keep her eyes open, wanting to savor every moment like this. She hadn’t felt this relaxed and happy since…since before her mother died. Since before that day when everything caved in around her.

Sleep summoned her, but the dreams haunted her. Visions of a cabin in the woods. She walked up the hill, touched the door. Noises inside told her to run. Run far and never look back. She jolted upright, with fits of tight breaths.

Strong, warm hands cupped the back of her neck and gently massaged. “It’s okay. I’m here. It was only a dream.”

But it wasn’t. It was a memory. A memory she hoped never to face. A memory that she only now realized had been buried for a decade, but being here had stirred it back to life. Only, she didn’t want it. She wanted that door to stay closed forever.

Snow continued to fall but had slowed to a drizzle. The white world outside beckoned her to see the life beyond this moment, but she didn’t want to look. She only wanted to look at the man by her side promising an escape from the harsh realities of the world.

“Electricity came back on about an hour ago. How about I fix us some breakfast and you make some of that delicious coffee of yours?”

He offered his hand and helped her to stand, but her head throbbed. “How much did I drink?”

“Enough but not too much. Close to a bottle. I had half a glass.”

“Guess I’ve lost my tolerance since college.”

He pulled her in, her cheek pressed to his chest.

Pa-pump. Pa-pump. Pa-pump soothed her even more.

“If you tell me how, I’ll make the coffee and you can rest here.”

She knew she’d never let him go if she didn’t get away quick, and she needed to let go. He’d only be here a couple weeks. What had she been thinking? She hadn’t. The wine had been thinking for her. She shoved from him and laughed it off. “No way. My grandmother always said a cowgirl can play, but she better be willing to pay because there’s no rest on a ranch.”

“Good to know.” He sauntered ahead of her and reached the kitchen. “Eggs and bacon okay? I’d love to make something fancier, but I’d like to take a look at another leak I found.”

“Sounds great. Might mop up some alcohol in my belly.” She grabbed the coffee and the grinder.

“Think we’ll be able to go to town today?”

“If the trucks run and there’s no sign of another storm. You don’t want to get trapped in the hills and mountains in a good snow. You’ll never make it out.”

They enjoyed breakfast, and by the time she was done eating and working upstairs gutting the guest room, her stomach felt better and her headache was gone.

She made her way out to the front porch, but there were no groaning engines or squeals of the salt trucks in the distance. Besides, she needed to shovel her car out of the snow since the garage had been too packed full of junk to pull her car into when she’d arrived.

“What’s the latest?” Colt exited the house wiping his oil-stained hands on a rag. He looked confident, settled, like he’d been born here on the ranch. She wanted to feel that—settled, happy, open.

“Not going to make it out today.” The snow went on as far as she could see, the land like a scene from a Disney movie. Picture perfect and undisturbed.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to get that generator working. It’s a goner. I did my best, but I pronounced it dead at 3:32 p.m.”

The way he leaned against the doorframe in that I’m chill and sexy way made her want to snuggle up to him even more than the bitter chill piercing the holes in her sweater.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re shivering. Let’s go warm you up by the fire while I check out what we have left to make for dinner.”

“Good thing you had the place stocked. The few groceries I brought wouldn’t have fed two people for a week, and that might be how long we’re snowed in.”

“Things could be worse. I’ll make you a deal. My two weeks doesn’t start until we can head to town and purchase supplies.”

He opened the door but didn’t touch her until he’d gone into the kitchen, scrubbed his hands cleaned, and then joined her by the fire.

That would mean he’d be here longer. Not something she was opposed to at the moment. “I think that’s fair. At least you can go sleep in your comfortable bed tonight with the electricity working now,” he offered, as if good news, but it wasn’t. She wanted to stay right here by the fire in his arms all night.

“Don’t count on it. The electricity out here is as reliable as the phone. Could cut off at any moment.” She said it as if a possibility, but she’d already decided even if she had to flick that breaker, she’d make sure they had to remain together.

And she did, for five more glorious nights. After all, they were friends with possibilities.

Chapter Twelve

Five days later, the sun peered out between the clouds, but Colt wasn’t sure he wanted to be greeted with such light. Sunlight meant the end of their forced proximity. Their nightly snuggle by the fire.

He didn’t dare move, in fear she’d wake. Her long lashes fluttered against her pale cheeks, and he wondered what she was dreaming about.

Could she be dreaming about him? He’d dated girls for publicity and had flings with beautiful women. His stepmother once told him that there was someone for everyone out there, and he’d wanted to ask why she’d married his father, then, but he didn’t.

To his disappointment, the roar of a distant engine woke her. She opened her eyes to reveal beautiful, rich, and vibrant green. “Good morning,” she whispered, covering her mouth as if scared she had morning breath. He wouldn’t care, if he could kiss her. And boy did he want to kiss her. It had been almost a week, a long and torturous time, but he’d done it. He hadn’t crossed a line. Could he be better than his father, or did the genes run so deep he’d never be capable of a real relationship with one person? At this moment, he wasn’t thinking of another woman—only Saige. How long would that last, though?

“Guess we better get moving if we’re going to get into town. Not that I mind our arrangement.” She winked but fled from his arms.

They followed in step, him at the stove and her at the coffeemaker, working together to start their day like an old married couple. He liked how it felt to have a partner by his side for daily chores.

He’d never had that. In fact, he’d barely had daily chores. They had servants for that back home, and he worked too much to care about doing anything for himself. Except when he’d snuck down to the kitchen at night to cook some food when he couldn’t sleep.

He’d liked that she thought of him as a hardworking cowboy, even if she did seem to have issues with the rough and rugged type. Then again, she had even more issues with the heartless business type. Which was he? Was there another type?

They sat and ate, toying their fingers together after each bite. Maybe he would tell her the truth. When they got into town and they had dinner, he’d slip it into conversation and tell her how he’d left behind the reputation of a being a billionaire playboy. Wait. That would be worse. It would be both rough and rugged and heartless rich boy. That wouldn’t go over well.

He should tell her now, but when he put his coffee mug on the table, she leaned in and pressed her lips to his. It was a chaste kiss, quick and simple, but erupted complex emotions inside him. “For luck. We’ll need it to dig that car out.”

She smiled and took their dishes to wash. He went to his cold bedroom, thankful he hadn’t had to sleep in there, despite the electricity coming on and then off again. He’d suspected she’d flipped the breaker, and he guessed she suspected he never checked it.

When he returned, dressed for outdoor work, she handed him a shovel then walked into the garage. A few minutes later, an engine chugged, turned over, and then she came out riding a tractor. She managed the machine like a pro.

What a sight, with her red hair flowing behind her against the white snow in the background. Mesmerized, he couldn’t remember what he was doing for a moment until she whistled and pointed to the car.

He went to work, and after about an hour, they managed to dig out the car and make a path to the road. That poor little car didn’t look tough enough to make it to town, but he wasn’t going to point that out right now.

They made quick work of lunch and grabbed their lists to set out for town.

He hesitated at the front porch steps. “You sure about this?”

“About what?” she asked. “Leaving our little hideaway to be around other people?”

She didn’t give him time to answer before she teased, “Not really, friend with possibilities.”

“I like this you. Fun, happy.” He dared to plant a quick kiss to her lips but still pulled away before it turned into anything. He eyed the big red barn and imagined horses neighing and cows mooing in the field. He wanted to ride off into the sunset with Saige by his side. “I can see this place as a dude ranch. Kids running and playing with horseback riding, outdoor games, chuck wagons, and hayrides.”

“I like your vision.” She sighed and eyed the barn herself. “We used to have a dozen or so horses on this property. Riding was a daily activity.”

“Sounds amazing.” They’d spent a week together getting to know each other, and the person he found beneath the tough exterior softened his heart. Something he wasn’t sure how to handle. But he knew a woman like Saige would never forgive him if they took things too far and then she found out about his true identity. That was probably the only reason he’d managed to keep his hands and lips and other parts to himself this long.

He opened the car door and tucked her safely into the driver’s side and then joined her for the ride. A ride that took on a new experience when they reached the mountain road. He gripped the door handle so tight he thought he’d break the door.

“Don’t worry. We’re fine.”

“There’s two feet and then a skinny rail and a huge drop-off.”

“Snow blocks most of it.”

“Snow isn’t solid,” he teased but still wanted out of the car desperately. “Sorry. Not a fan of heights or crashing down the side of the mountain.”

“I’ll hold your hand if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but no thanks. Keep both hands on that wheel.”

She laughed and continued up and around. The road curved and curved and curved.

He’d opened his mouth twice, ready to start a conversation to lead into their dinner convo about his past and who he wanted to be, but each time he tried, either an animal made an appearance, or the car slid, or the mountain taunted him with its rigid ravines.

A sign appeared ahead. Welcome to Rock Ridge.

“You can relax now. It’s a straight shot from here.”

He let out a big breath of air and unfurled his fingers. “No offense, but it’s tough being the passenger. I prefer to be in the driver’s seat. I’m not used to giving someone else control over my life.”

“Do tell…” She turned and headed down a main road that had houses dotting either side about every few hundred feet.

“I’m a man. The end.”

“I’m hoping that’s not the end of your story. If so, I’m thinking we’re friends with no possibilities.”

“Okay, maybe not, but I do like to be in control.”

“Do you like to control everything or just cleaning and driving?”

He wasn’t sure how to answer that. If he said he liked to control life, he’d be a control freak. If he said he didn’t care, then she’d know he was lying.

“Don’t overthink it. I’m not judging. Just trying to get to know my friend better. What would your sister say about you?”

A lightness flittered up inside him. “She’d give me that sassy hand on her hip, toss her ponytail behind her shoulders, and say that I needed to get over myself and play dolls with her because it’s okay for boys to play with dolls now.”

She giggled. “I think I’d like your baby sister.”

“You should. She’s got an attitude just like yours.” He reached over and took her hand, unable to keep distance between them a moment longer.

They pulled into a parking place in front of a large warehouse-looking building with hardware and feed written on the side.

“We’ll start here. The main section of town is just up there. We’ll do a late lunch/early dinner and then head back so we’re not driving at night. I wouldn’t want to make a wrong turn and end up driving off a cliff.”

“Not funny,” he grunted.

They’d barely made it two steps from the car before they were holding hands. Everything came natural and easy with her.

Only a few older people milled about in the store, but they were friendly and helpful, and to his shock, no one had a cell phone out. He’d forgotten about cell reception. “Hey, do you mind if I go call my sister? I promise I’ll be right back. I’m hoping to catch her between her dance lessons and playtime.”

“Of course. No hurry. I’ll get some stuff together.” She gave him a sideways hug and looked up at him. “But don’t be gone too long.”

“Because you’ll miss me?” He leaned down to steal one more quick kiss.

“No, because I need a big, strong man to help me get the stuff to the car.”


“Not as cold as a night sleeping in the barn would be.”

“Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?”

She sauntered off, and he swore she swayed her hips with extra swish. It worked, because he wanted to follow her, not to go outside to make a call.

Once outside, he regretted his decision. Despite not having any fresh snow falling, the temperature was still somewhere between bitter and frosty. He dialed the house and willed a nice servant to answer, maybe a new hire who didn’t know he’d been banned from their house.

“Whitmore residence.”

“This is Colt Whitmore. Please have my sister come to the phone.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but she’s not here. They’re at the hospital.”

“Hospital?” Heat surged to his face, and his heart fell like an avalanche to his stomach. “What happened? Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, sir. Just needs a couple of stiches. She fell and cut her chin.”

“What hospital? Where is she at? I’ll call there.”

“No need, sir. I’ll let her know you called when she returns. Good day.”

The phone clicked off, and his anger surged through him. He threw his phone at a bush and let out a long grunt of frustration.

“What’s wrong?” Saige was at his side moments later.

His muscles screamed to hit something. He needed to know, now. Part of him wanted to run to the nearest exit and race to California to find out what happened to the only person in his life who ever made sense to him. “My sister. She’s been sent to the hospital.”

Saige wrapped her arms around him, soothing the beast inside him that wanted to fight the world. “I’m here. Tell me what I can do?”

Those words were foreign to him. No one had ever asked him what they could do for him. He’d only ever done for others in his family. “I…I don’t know.”

She hugged him tighter and then slipped away, leaving an emptiness inside him. She retrieved his phone, dusted it off, and handed it to him. “You call until you find out what’s going on. If you call enough, someone will answer. Trust me, I’ve done it enough in business. If they don’t answer, then leave a message that you know will get them to return your call.”

That would work. Threatening to return to embarrass the family further would get a return call. “You’re not only beautiful, determined, and sexy, but a genius.” He allowed his hand to drift down her shoulder, along her side, and stop at the curve of her hip.

“Guess my manipulative business tactics can be used for good.”

“You’re a good person, Saige McKinnie. I wish you could see it as I do.”

A blush dusted her cheek, and her body softened as if surrendering to his words. Maybe she finally believed him.

“I like how you see me.”

He wanted to say he’d like to see more of her, but now wasn’t the time. Now, he needed to find out about his sister, so he dialed the one person who would never return his call, his father. But he couldn’t leave the message he wanted to in front of Saige. Not until he had a chance to tell her about his reputation. He only hoped he’d proven himself a better man than one who would use and toss women aside. “It’s cold out here. Please, go inside. I only want to worry about one of the important people in my life.”

Her eyes sparkled at his words. “You just need me to survive long enough to pay you.”

“How’d you figure me out?”

“You’re not so hard to get to know after all.”

“When I get off this call, I want to tell you everything about me.” He kissed the sensitive spot under her ear. “And I hope you’ll open your heart and trust me with it.”

She shied away, but he’d make her see he wasn’t the man who cared more about a document than sweeping her off her feet. It would be hard to face the truth, but it was about time in his life he started doing that, because living a lie didn’t work.

He called his father and waited, but it only took one ring before he was sent to voicemail. “Father, I’ve been informed that Abbey’s injured. You have two choices. Call and let me know how she is and I’ll remain the hidden embarrassment of your life, or don’t call me back in the next ten minutes and I’ll be on a plane home, in which I will make sure the media knows of my return.” He hung up and paced the sidewalk outside the store.

A man across the street stood there eyeing him as if the small-town resident didn’t like the stranger. Colt waved, but the man only about-faced and walked up the road, disappearing into a building marked Barring Construction.

He didn’t have time to care because his phone rang. The picture of his stepmother with Abbey appeared. He answered. “I should’ve known he wouldn’t call me himself.”

“I know you’re upset about Abbey.” His stepmother’s voice, the woman he’d been accommodating to but never accepting of, sounded tired and upset. For the first time since she’d entered their lives, he had a twinge of sympathy for her. “I want to let you know she’s fine. Only three stiches.”

His entire body gave way and he collapsed onto the curb, holding his head in his hands. His boots were ankle deep in snow. “Thank you.” One, two, three breaths before he managed to find his next words. “What happened?”

“Honestly? I’m not supposed to tell you, but I’m going to anyway.” She cleared her throat. “Your baby sister hasn’t recovered since you left. She’s been acting out, and this time she fell out a second-story window. She’s lucky the tree broke her fall.”

“I didn’t leave. I was sent away.”

“You and I both know your father wanted you out of the media spotlight. You could’ve stayed in the house for a month or two, but you took off with some Billionaire Bad Boys Club to get back at him. To show the world you weren’t his perfect son. If you two would only have a conversation, you’d stop hurting each other. I’m tired of being in the middle. I know I’m the wicked stepmother so you probably won’t believe this, but I love you like my own son.”

“I’m only ten years younger than you.”

She let out a long breath, and he felt a twinge of guilt. “Listen, I know you’ll never accept me as your stepmother since you believe I drove your mother away, but you don’t know the entire story. He wants you to settle down and take up your torch, but he doesn’t want to do to you what his father did to him. He’s not upset with you but with himself. For marrying a woman he never loved to please his father.”

“What?” The world spun.

“As I said, I’m tired of living with lies and half truths. Your father may never forgive me, but if I ever hope to fix our family, someone has to tell you the truth. Your father never loved your mother, but he didn’t want you to know because he never wanted you to think he didn’t love you. You and your brother were the prize to those fifteen years of marriage. He fought for custody so you two could have a good life, but somewhere along the way, he got lost in the world of business and didn’t realize he’d become his own father until you were gone. He wasn’t a womanizing monster who cheats on women. He was an unloved husband looking for love. He found that in me, and he’s been faithful. I know you act out because you think you’re no better, but you are. You’re capable of so much more. That’s what frustrates us.”

Colt rubbed his temple, trying to reconcile her words with his past. What he thought was his truth. “I don’t understand. If all this is true, why didn’t he tell me himself? Why hasn’t he called me? Why did he forbid me to see Abbey?”

“Because he wanted you far away from this life so you could figure out who you were. He knew you’d never be able to figure it out living this life. You saw it as a curse, but he meant it as a gift.”

Words. He heard them, but he couldn’t process them. None of it made sense. “I… Just tell me what I can do for Abbey.”

A speaker called out in the background, revealing she was still in the hospital. “I have to go. Abbey’s fine. Figure out your life, and then come home to us, but don’t come back until you’re ready to hear the truth and live your life the way you want. I’ll work on your father while you’re gone. He’s got a lot of his own baggage to unpack.”



“Thank you. And please give Abbey a hug for me and tell her I love her.”

“I will.”

The phone clicked off, and he raised his head to look at the world around him, so different than where he’d lived all those years. Could all of what Alyssa said be true? Could he not come from a long line of jerks who used women and tossed them aside when they got bored?

That man he’d seen earlier peered out the front window of the building, but when they locked gazes, he retreated. Strange.

Shaking off his thoughts, Colt knew he needed to return to Saige. He found her at the register, but he couldn’t hold back another second. He wanted the comfort, her light to chase away his darkness, so he kissed her, daring to hold it a second longer. The minute he got the chance to tell her the truth, beg her forgiveness,  he would kiss her the way she deserved. A kiss she’d never forget.

Chapter Thirteen

Saige could feel the pain and confusion from Colt and longed to help him like he’d helped her in the last couple days find peace in her world. They finished shopping and settled into a booth at the Rock Ridge Diner for a meal. She reached across the table and took his hand. “Here. I got you something.”

She pushed the bag she’d carried that he hadn’t even noticed after loading into the car the last of the supplies they’d picked up. “What can I do?”

“A gift for me?” He smiled, lopsided and a little wilted, but he did look a little perkier. He pulled the box from the bag and smiled. “Real snow boots! Thanks.” He made quick work of getting off those ridiculous cowboy boots and putting on his snow ones. “I appreciate that. You’re a kind soul, Saige McKinnie.”

His words made her sit a little taller, but his eyes drifted to the crack in the wood tabletop.

“What can I do?” she offered.

“Nothing. It’s fine. My stepmother told me Abbey only got a couple of stitches.” His brave face and forced smile did nothing to convince her.

“I thought we were friends with possibilities. Maybe one of those possibilities is being a good listener and not judging each other.”

His face scrunched, lines by his eyes forming, and she knew he was contemplating her words.

The waitress came over and set some menus on the table. “What can I get you to drink? Hey, wait, you look familiar. Here I was thinking you were strangers. Saige, isn’t it? We were in grade school together.”

A twinge of warning made her retreat to her own side of the table and study the menu, keeping her head down. “Right. Um, I’ll have some water please.”

The girl with the Mindy nametag tapped her pen against her old-fashioned pad of paper. “Where have you been? You disappeared. Rumor had it your father kidnapped you after your mother passed.”

Saige smoothed her napkin in her lap.

Colt slid a menu to his side of the table. “I’ll take a water, too. We’ll be ready to order in a minute.”

Despite his words that were obviously to tell the girl it was time for her to leave, she didn’t pay it any attention. “Oh, sorry. You still sad over that? You and your mother were awful close—well, almost as close as you and—”

“I’ll have the Cobb salad, and if you don’t mind, we’re kind of in a hurry. We need to get back on the road before the weather changes. Snow has already started falling out there.” Saige handed the woman the menu.

“I’ll have the same,” Colt said.

She wanted to reach over and hug him for making it quick.

Mindy stuck the menus under her arm. “Okay, but you’re not getting out of here until you tell me where you’ve been and why you’re back. You know I’ve gotta know all the gossip to share in town.”

She bounced away from the table as if the news of Saige’s return would be broadcast to the town in minutes.

“You okay?” Colt asked.

No. She wasn’t going there. Not now, not ever. “Past is in the past. No reason to bring it up now. Besides, we’re discussing you and your phone call with your stepmother.”

“Right.” He folded his hands in front of him. “The conversation illuminated things I hadn’t anticipated.”

She listened, knowing he chose formal words and spoke in a business tone to separate himself from his feelings. Something she’d done herself on occasion. “What did you learn?”

“That my stepmother might not have been the cause of my parents’ divorce and that my father may not hate me as much as I’d thought.” He ran his hand through his hair. In only a week, it had grown out some, and she liked it wild and untamed.

“But she said something to make you think otherwise.”

He nodded.

Mindy returned with their drinks, but apparently even she saw they were in deep conversation and withered away from their table without a word.

“Go on,” Saige nudged.

“I left because I thought my father cared more about his world than about me. I embarrassed him, and he banished me. My stepmother says that wasn’t true. That he wanted more for me than what he had.”

“What do you think?” She snagged one of his fingers, tugged his hands apart, and held them tight.

“I think I need to tell you something.” He gulped and his hands tightened, holding her as if he feared she’d slip away.

“Go ahead. I’m listening.”

Mindy returned with both Cobb salads, forcing them apart. Saige leaned back to allow room.

Mindy plopped the check down. “I still can’t believe you’re sitting at my booth today. My horoscope said something exciting would happen, but I didn’t believe it because nothing exciting ever happens in Rocky Ridge.” She bent over with hand to her mouth as if to whisper a secret. “Should’ve known better than to doubt the heavens.”

Saige averted her gaze and looked out the window while she mindlessly picked up her fork and stirred her greens. Suddenly, she caught sight of someone outside the window.

Before her brain could register the sight, her pulse hammered in warning. It couldn’t be. Not Trevor. Not the boy who’d deceived her all those years ago.

She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, he was gone. Did she imagine it? Snow came down harder, and she knew there was no way she’d spend another minute in town in fear of having her past beat down her future possibilities. “Change of plans. We need these to go. Now.”

Colt glanced over his shoulder. “Is it safe to drive back?”

“Yes, if we hurry.” Saige looked at Mindy. “Big tip if you grab some boxes fast.”

By the time Saige slapped enough cash to cover the bill and tip, Mindy had returned with the boxes. With two swipes, she pushed her lunch into the container and headed for the door. Snow covered the hood and roof of the car.

A quick press of a button started the car, and she headed out of town. To her dismay, there was no sign of salt trucks, but she wouldn’t stay in town a second longer.

“My turn to ask if everything’s okay,” Colt said.

No way she’d allow that man to take one second of her thoughts. A boy from her past didn’t deserve that kind of attention. “We were talking about you. Your father and why you left.”

He tapped the side window with his finger but didn’t say anything for a minute. “Now’s not the time. I can tell you’re upset. Talk to me. You just helped me. Let me help you.”

He couldn’t help. Her father hadn’t helped when he ripped her away from her childhood home. Business didn’t help when she’d buried herself in it for years. And returning here didn’t help because no matter how hard she’d tried all these years to fix what had broken the afternoon of her mother’s funeral, it didn’t work. None of the pieces had ever fit back together again.

Chapter Fourteen

Colt hadn’t been ready to leave the diner. He hadn’t told her the truth yet, but now was obviously not the time. Something had spooked her like a nervous horse. “I’m here to listen. What happened back at the diner? Did Mindy say something?”

Saige didn’t respond. She only kept her eyes on the road and leaned forward as if to see through the falling snow.

“You sure you don’t want to wait until morning to head back? You said there’s a hotelin town, right?”

She pointed through the front windshield. “No time. These storms blow over the mountains so quick. I checked the weather forecast, and this storm’s going to be a hefty one and will close the roads for a couple days. Worse, prediction says icy mix. That’ll make it more difficult to pass the roads closer to home.”

“Is it such a big deal to stay here, then? The wood delivery won’t arrive for a few days, so major roof repairs will have to wait anyway. I promise I’ll stay longer.” He hoped she’d let him stay longer.

“Best we get back and start on the other work.” Her words were tight and short and fast, but he had to admit the idea of being trapped in the warm house with her again didn’t sound torturous in any way.

No phones, no news, stuck in a house with a beautiful and feisty woman with a mind of her own sounded like heaven to him. Maybe when they reached the safety of the ranch, she’d open up and talk to him, and he’d be able to tell her everything.

The tires spun in protest when she turned onto the main road heading toward the mountain pass, but she maneuvered like a well-seasoned northwestern driver.

Silence punctuated the awkward tension in the car, so he touched the radio button and found some music. Pentatonix Christmas songs seemed appropriate. “Mind?”

She shook her head, eyes straight, hands at ten and two, telling him she doubted this decision, too.

“People looked at me strangely in town. Probably figured out I’m some drifter. Glad you don’t think I’m a serial killer or anything like that now.”

“Not true.” A hint of a smile curved the right side of her lips, giving him hope he’d distracted her for a moment from whatever troubled her back there. “Serial cleaner, maybe.”

“Deal breaker, huh?”

“More like a deal sealer.” She chuckled. “Usually cowboy types drip muddy manure through the house and leave smelly socks on the floor of the bedroom.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

“I grew up here.” She shrugged, but the way her hands tightened on the steering wheel despite the clear path ahead told him there was more to this story.

He traced a drop of melting snow meandering down the window. “I can safely say I’m not your typical rancher.” That was honest, if not a little misleading. “And you’re not like most girls I’ve met.”

“You mean the kind who throw themselves at you and their entire life is about you and only you?”

He dropped his hands to his lap and studied her for a moment. Her high cheekbones, large eyes with dark lashes, red hair highlighting her silky, cloud white skin. All of it pieced together into a perfect Renaissance portrait. One that he could stare at for hours and only unlock a portion of her thoughts.

The tension radiating from her screamed that she was pulling away. He didn’t like it. “You’re difficult to read. Most girls are obvious.”

A slick spot in the road took the car to the edge, but she recovered well.

“I’ve got this. Don’t break my dash.” She reset her posture and eyes to focus completely on the road ahead.

He let go and relaxed back, trusting his life to Saige. Not a notion familiar to him, but something told him she could handle any challenge in life. Except whatever she faced that drove her to flee town.

The car whined up the small hill at a slow, sluggish pace. Snow came down in a heavy icy mix, covering the road, but she kept going until it flattened out and they rounded the side of a mountain. There was a break in the snowbank, and he saw why. The snow had slid down, leaving a three-foot barrier from the road to the valley far below. He cleared his throat, about to demand they return to town, but when they reached another turn where tall pines provided a buffer to their slippery death, he decided to keep his fear to himself.

The mountain wasn’t done with them yet, though. The hill ahead could be too much for any skill level in this vehicle. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to turn back and face that downhill death trap.

The song changed to a happy “Frosty the Snowman” tune, but he thought it should be something more like The Shining theme song, with the darkening sky and isolated tree-lined road.

The slush covered the road, and if the plow hadn’t cleared recently, they wouldn’t be able to tell where the road even existed. He remembered the uphill from the main road where the drop off was only a few feet away and knew they’d never make that downhill turn safely. “We need to turn back.”

“No,” she said flatly.

“Don’t be stubborn.”

“Don’t tell me what to do. You don’t rule over me,” she shot back.

“I don’t know what happened back there, but risking our lives isn’t the answer. There’s a difference between ruling over someone and offering advice.”

“Unsolicited.” The look she snapped at him told him to retreat, but no way he’d back down from this. He wasn’t a bully, but he wouldn’t stand by and let someone die because of an emotional issue.

“We’ve only made it two or three miles, and the weather’s already turning.”

She raised her hand in the air, and the cowboy charm wiggled in warning. “All you cowboys are the same. You believe women can’t think for themselves or make good decisions. I don’t need a man to be my hero for a moment.”

“For a moment?” He eyed the road ahead. Snow blocked by the trees increased visibility. He needed to calm her, so he reached out and touched her arm. “I don’t know what happened to you in that town, but—”

Apparently he’d lit her fuse, because she snatched her arm away. “Don’t touch the driver.”

They reached a clearing between heavy woods where snow came down in sheets, blanketing the road from view. The right front tire hit something hidden beneath the snowy terrain. A branch shot up and smashed the windshield.


The car fishtailed. He shot an arm in front of her on instinct. She jerked the wheel, sending them into a full spin.

The car slid, jolting and bucking like a wild animal over stumps and debris down an embankment.

Screams. His and hers echoed in the car. Trees shot passed his view, but they slowed and slowed and slowed until they drifted to a stop, stuck in a pile of snow taller than the windshield. He heaved in a few deep breaths and let out a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?”

He lowered his arm and checked to see if Saige had any blood or breaks, but she looked unscathed. “That was anticlimactic.”

She gripped the steering wheel with unshed tears glistening in her eyes. Unmoving, unblinking, she whispered, “I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

She didn’t answer, only rested her forehead to the steering wheel.

Drawn to chase her pain away, he unbuckled and rubbed small, soothing circles on her back. “If this is about your ex, I’m sorry he broke your heart, but I’m not him. I wouldn’t tell a woman I loved her and then walk out.”

She lifted her head as if to study the ice covering the windshield. “You’re telling me you’ve never told a woman you loved her and then broken things off?”

He shifted in his seat, retreating from the warmth of her body and the elusive connection that sparked between them then vanished. He longed to see her beautiful eyes, so he brushed the hair from her face and dared to look through a peephole to see his hidden truth. A man incapable of loving anyone but himself. Maybe his father was right to send him away.

But he wanted to experience that kind of relationship. The heart-pounding, blood-pumping, can’t live without the other person kind of love. If it even existed. Even if it did, he wasn’t capable of sticking around long enough to grow that kind of bond. “I’ve never told a woman I loved her.”


Saige swallowed hard, having a moment of believing this man could truly be different. Not a friend with possibilities, but something more. Much more. A man who’d never told a woman he loved her didn’t sound plausible, though. “Men usually throw that word around like candy at Halloween.”

His knuckles brushed her cheek, sending heat down her neck. The music drifted from the speakers.

Baby, I hope Santa brings you to me.

’Cause it’s all I wished for this Christmas Eve.

She eyed the radio, trying to decipher the words as if it were some poem from a literature class written in old English. To avoid looking at Colt and falling for the bad boy cliché she’d left behind that now haunted her, she scanned the windows, looking for an opening to see the terrain.

He had to be a bad boy, because a man with the swagger and strength of a cowboy with the sensitivity and sweet tone of a good guy was an oxymoron. A dream. A Christmas wish that no matter how many years she waited, would never arrive under her tree.

She hadn’t realized it until she saw the man who broke her heart standing outside the diner window looking in at her. A face she’d excommunicated from her life and thoughts since the day he’d betrayed her and left her shattered. She’d sworn she’d never give any man the power to do that to her again.

“Guess I did it this time.” She groaned. “No way this car is getting out of this embankment. We better get walking before the weather gets worse. Mostly downhill home and a shorter distance.”

“Temperature’s dropping quick. Are we better staying put?” he asked, worry lacing his tone.

“No. There’s no one looking for us.” She grabbed the door handle, feeling convicted. Not that apologies came any easier for her than her father, but change was what this trip was all about. “I’m sorry for getting us into this. You’re right. Sometimes my Irish temper gets in my way.”

“Doesn’t matter how we got here. We need to work together to get to safety.” He pushed at his door, but it didn’t budge, and neither would hers.

The backseat windows weren’t completely covered, so she unbuckled and crawled through the space between the front seats, well aware that her butt was in his face for most of her short trip. She lifted the door handle, and the door opened a few inches. She leaned back on her shoulders and pressed her heels to it. After several pushes, the door opened wide enough she thought she could fit through it.

Her breath came in short, white bursts. “Maybe you should’ve done that.”

“I wouldn’t dare offer to help without being asked.” That dimple of his made an appearance, so she did the only thing she could. She shimmied through the small space and crawled her way out of the car.

Ice slid down the back of her jacket in cooling surprise. Good. She needed a jolt to realize she couldn’t feel this way about a man who entered her life a little over a week ago. A man all wrong for her. A man like she’d escaped from when she’d left the ranch after her mother’s death. A man who haunted her until she’d found the right man—or so she’d thought—to marry.

A man who’d dropped a prenup on her wedding day.

Colt crawled out of the car, put gloves on, and tugged his jacket up around his throat. “Better get moving.”

She should’ve remembered her thick gloves instead of the thin ones she’d slid on. The fashionable kind you wore from car to office, not from wreck to home.

The embankment challenged her resolve with each lift of a leg, only to crunch above the knee in snow. Colt managed better with his height, but white puffs of smoke and his panting told her it was still a challenge.

For each few feet they climbed, they slipped and slid a few inches back. Halfway up, she found herself holding on to his arm. His strength and power weren’t lost on her, but by the time they reached the top where they assumed the road existed, one thing was certain. Colt was right. They’d never make it back to the house. Not before they froze to death.

He took both her gloved hands in his and rubbed them. “You’re freezing. Those are too thin.”

“I’ll be fine.”

With one quick motion, he yanked his gloves from his hands and held them out, but she wouldn’t take them.

“Stupidity deserves suffering.”

“Wow, that’s harsh. Who told you that?”

She averted her gaze, unable to share that she’d coined that phrase herself in the boardroom. “Doesn’t matter.”

A place existed not too far away that could be their saving grace, but she wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t go there. Could she?

She slid her cell phone from her pocket in a vain attempt to get a signal. Anything was better than that cabin only a half mile through some rugged terrain. A place she swore she’d never return to in this lifetime. But it wasn’t just her life she risked.

“Maybe if we go to the clearing,” he offered, but she knew better.

“No, but there’s somewhere we can go.” Her gut twisted and heart snapped in half like the branch that had sent them down a ravine. A ravine she should’ve stayed in, because returning to the hunting cabin was something she couldn’t face. Not the memories or the lies from the day she discovered her high school sweetheart, Trevor, with another woman. The day of her mother’s funeral.

Chapter Fifteen

The sun’s muted hues beyond the dark clouds warned the temperature would be dropping faster than his father had excommunicated him from the family. He slid his cell phone out of his pocket.

Saige faced the tree line, and those unshed tears made another appearance. The way she clutched her coat to her chest and her chin dipped told him the place they were headed held something dark.

He couldn’t stand to see her upset, so he reached high over his head with his cell in hopes he could reach a magical signal.

“Won’t matter how tall you are. No service.” She marched down the hill with pure determination to get them home.

He caught up and kept pace with her. The woman didn’t stop. She hung a right and used a tree to pull herself a foot up a fifteen-foot hill. Bark broke, and she fell back into his arms. He grabbed her before she tumbled and hit her head on some unseen rock. “I know I risk being tossed off a ridge, but do you want to talk about it?”

She rested her head on his shoulder, the first sign her wall hadn’t been completely reconstructed. She shivered in his arms, so he pulled her tight and rubbed her back, her hands folded between their bodies in those darn gloves.

Two deep, stuttered breaths later, she pushed from his arms. “Nothing. Just cold and tired.”

He longed to know more, but why would this woman trust him with her secrets when he hadn’t trusted her with his? Did she know he kept something from her? Maybe it was time to open his own life and share. “Do you want to know why I came out here?”

A tree creaked and wobbled then fell into another one, which caused a branch to tumble to the ground, reminding him they needed to stay focused, but they also needed a distraction from the cold and wet world around them.

Despite her lack of response, he continued. “I’m exactly what you accused me of being when we met—a lazy, no-good womanizer. I came out here to get away and try to figure out how to be a better man.”

She stopped and bent over, hands to knees, for a break. “I don’t see it.”

Those few words opened the door to a conversation, and he entered. “What part?”

“You’re anything but lazy. I’m a hard worker, and I have trouble keeping up with you.” She shrugged and returned to her slow and steady climb.

“Let me guess. Dad wanted a star son, and you didn’t live up to his expectations. Seen that story a few too many times.” Her voice cracked. He wasn’t sure if it was from the cold or emotion, since he couldn’t see her face. “Maybe you should stop trying to be what your father wanted and be who you were meant to be. You’re happy when you’re cooking and working with your hands.”

“Can’t make much money doing either of those. That would add to his disappointment.” He inhaled an icy sting of a breath and turned the conversation on her. This was his opportunity to slip in his real life to her. “I’m not who I was meant to be. I need to face life and what waits for me. I was excommunicated from the family until I get my head on straight.” He heard the heavy sadness in his own voice.

She spun around, mouth ajar with tiny puffs of steam evaporating inches from her face. Snow dotted her nose and chin and brows. She swiped it away and looked at him as if for the first time. “I can’t imagine you did anything so terrible to deserve that.”

“I dared to disobey his wishes.”

The silence that only a good snowfall allowed made him realize they were the only two people in the world at that moment. And despite the cold, he didn’t mind.

“What were his wishes?”

“To take over the family business, but I came out here instead.”

“Just because you chose a different path doesn’t mean you’re not a good man. Trust me, it’s harder to be your own person than bury yourself in your father’s wishes. Who cares if you’re broke if you’ve found something better than money.” She grabbed a branch and took a short break. “Your father’s a jerk if he can’t see the man you’ve become because he’s blinded by his own dreams.”

He blinked at her, the only woman ever to dare say anything negative about his father. Of course, she didn’t know who she was speaking about, but something told him it wouldn’t matter if she did. This woman wouldn’t bow down to his every order.

“Don’t take offense. Mine is too. Unlike yours, though, mine wants me to be around him. More than that, to be him. It’s better to live your truth than to live a lie. Lies are poison. Lies destroy people.” She mumbled something under her breath he didn’t catch, but when she hoofed it up the hill faster, he decided not to pry any further. They’d have all night, if they made it to shelter.

He needed tell her his truth. The woman thought he was a poor rancher who left a family business to pursue his dreams. Not the billionaire bad boy who shirked his responsibilities to enjoy life in his youth. She’d never respect that man. Did he even want to be that man anymore?

If only his father would’ve allowed him to join the Boy Scouts when he was younger. He’d said it was foolish nonsense because men like the Whitmores didn’t need outdoor skills. They could pay someone to build a fire for them.

They reached the top of the hill to flat ground. He heaved and held on to a tree to catch his breath. “Guess…not…used…to…altitude.”

She bent over, hands on knees, and nodded. “Not much farther.”

“Good.” Despite the heaviness on his chest, he managed to catch his breath and scan the flat ground and then up the next hill, where he saw a brown dot. “Please tell me it’s not that.”

“Fine. I won’t tell you.” She stood upright.

He was thankful for his new snow boots, the ones Saige bought for a man she thought was down on his luck, not a man with millions in his bank account. He didn’t have the energy to get into that conversation, not to mention she might shove him down the mountain. A groan welled up inside him, and he let it out.

Howls responded in the distance, which urged him to get moving. “Don’t want to be out here at night.”

“No, we don’t.” She didn’t move, though. Instead, she took a step into his space. “I’m truly sorry I got us into this. Maybe I am stubborn, but being a woman in the corporate world, I’ve had to be that way. I wish I could be more like you. Honest and gentle and kind.”

His insides knotted with guilt. He cleared his throat and decided to stay on her topic for now. There would be plenty of time to talk once they reached the cabin. “Trust me, I understand. The thought of my baby sister having to face men who belittle her churns my stomach.”

“You really love your sister.” Her eyes lit up. “I always wished I had a sibling. I always envied my great-grandmother Francine for having six sisters. They were apparently beautiful, strong, smart, and successful. Of course, they all ended up separated in order to survive. It’s a miracle they all made the trip and, to my understanding, all lived great lives.”

“Sounds like you’re from a line of strong women.”

She offered a genuine smile that chased the frost from his insides for a moment. He took her by the elbow and walked to the next hill. She took his hand to pull herself up to the first tree.

“I had no idea how much I could care about another human until she came into my life. And to think, I was bitter about her birth.”

“Because of your father and stepmother?” she asked.

He managed to grab hold of the next tree and hoist himself up the steep, slippery hill. “My father remarried too fast for my taste after the divorce. A month later, they announced they were having a baby. I spent seven months angry, unable to face my new insta-family. But then, when I held Abbey in the hospital, I realized she was an innocent in the drama of our lives. And I hate to admit it, but I saw a love in my father’s eyes I’d never seen before. A love he’d never shown me. It made him seem human.”

“I’ve never seen that in my father’s eyes. Not since my mother died.” She missed Colt’s hand and fell on her hip with a thud. He was down on his knees by her side in a breath.

“You okay?”

She rubbed her backside. “Only bruised along with my ego. Despite all the Pilates and running I do, this hill is kicking my butt.”

Wind blew the tall pines, making them arch as if to bow to Mother Nature, causing them to dump piles of snow down around them. A warning of foul weather ahead.

“Don’t feel bad. This is killing me.” He dusted the snow from her cheek. Another howl wrenched the air, so he helped her to stand. “Come on. We can do this together.”

She held tight to him. “I’m feeling like I’ve been locked in a team-building exercise.”

“Never did one of those. My father doesn’t believe in teamwork. He believes in competition.”

They clawed their way up several more feet and then sat for a short rest to catch their breath. “My father believes in conquering.”

“Sounds like our fathers would get along. What was your mother like?”

Saige pushed from the ground without a word, telling him the topic of her mother was off limits. To his relief, they reached the top of the hill and the cabin came into full view, with its tin roof, weathered wood exterior, and a single chimney.

“Doesn’t look like much, but we can get a fire going and wait out the storm. Hopefully the pipes aren’t frozen so we can get some water.”

He hoped he could get a fire going. “Guess I should warn you that my fire-building skills aren’t up to par. Never made a fire without the right tools before.”

“No worries. I can get a fire going in twenty seconds or less.”

He quirked a brow at her. “Girl Scouts?”

“Brownie dropout, but trust me, I can do it.”

“I have no doubt you can do anything you set your mind to.”

Saige stood at the door but didn’t move.

“Is it locked?” He reached around, but the door opened. The tiny, rundown cabin welcomed them inside. The small space meant fewer places for Saige to run and hide away from him. That being said, he hoped the structure would hold up to the incoming storm and his truth he needed to share.

They had a lot to talk about after her near meltdown at the restaurant. Something deeply troubled her.

The sparsely furnished cabin blocked the majority of the wind, but cool air gushed through small holes between wood slats. “That fire you were bragging about?”

She removed her gloves, revealing bright-red hands that matched her face. He removed his own and rubbed life back into them, blowing on her skin in hopes of warming it.

Soft, tiny hands easily fit into his grasp. Her eyes slid shut, but then she jerked away. “Fire.”

He didn’t pursue her. He had all night to ease into finding out what put such distance between them suddenly. He lowered the wood slat to secure the door.

Saige wadded up some old newspapers, stuck them under a couple logs, and struck a match.

“Didn’t think about the fact there might be matches or lighters in here.”

“Don’t underestimate us country folk. We always come prepared.” She held her palms to the fire. “Well, except when we have temper tantrums and run off into a storm in a midsize sedan.”

They both laughed and found a place to snuggle up next to the fire. Wind whistled outside like an angry pig ready to blow the house down. “Need to take off our damp coats. I’ll grab the blanket from the bed. Stay by the fire.”

He took the dusty old blanket and shook off what he could and then returned to wrap it around her.

“You’re shivering. Come on.” She held up part of the blanket, and he joined her.

“Didn’t want to be presumptuous.”

“Freezing to death trumps personal space, especially when I’m at fault for the situation.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” He wrapped his arm around her and scootched her tight against him. His body responded, pulse tap, tap, tapping against his neck. The feeling of her nestled against him did something inside him. A strange, nervous twitch jumped in his stomach.

They sat in silence for a while, watching the flames until they began to dull and he got up to stir it back to life. She eyed the sink and two cabinets. “I’ll see if there’s any food or if the water works. Totally forgot about our salads in the car.”

He threw another log on the fire and hoped they had enough from the pile in the corner for the night. Nothing outside would be dry enough at this point to light.

Several minutes later, she shook her head. “Water isn’t on, and no lights. Found enough beef jerky to last us a couple weeks, a couple bags of chips, and a case of sodas, plus one gallon jug of water. A dinner of champions.”

“Or desperate cabin squatters stranded in a snowstorm,” he teased.

“That, too.” She settled down, and they feasted on junk food and soda while watching the flickering light until she yawned and her eyes fluttered.

“You take the bed and blanket. I can stay by the fire and keep it going.”

She eyed the bed, her lips tight, eyes wide. Those unshed tears made an appearance, but she blinked them away. “No. Not that bed.”

“What’s going on, Saige? You can tell me. Whose cabin is this? Did someone die here?” he asked.

“No, but someone should have,” she said in a dull tone.

Chapter Sixteen

The old log cabin with stone fireplace closed in on Saige with unwanted memories. Zaps of nerves shot through her the way they had the day she’d spotted Trevor with the skank in their special place. This cabin had been her refuge from her father’s anger and her mother’s illness. A place for the two of them, not a spot to invite another girl. Not on the day of her mother’s funeral.

Colt’s reassuring hand cupped her cheek. “Hey, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me anything. We can stay right here next to the fire.”

The warmth, the comfort of a strong man with a sensitive touch and sweet words made her lean into his promise to be there for her. She closed her eyes and for a second believed all the nightmares of this place could be exorcised by this man at her side. But comfort was temporary. Men like Trevor or Colt, with their suave moves and strong bodies and confidence, never remained loyal. He’d said himself he wasn’t a good man. But everything she’d seen and witnessed told her he was but couldn’t see it in himself. No, she wouldn’t fall into this trap again. Besides, she didn’t deserve comfort, not when she’d lost a good man because she couldn’t accept the dependable, honest, hardworking businessman. The safe partner in life. Her heart got in the way of what she should want—stability and partnership.

She pushed away and dropped the blanket to the ground, welcoming the cold of the night around her frozen heart. Strength came from within, not from someone else, so she marched to the bed, ready to shove out her own darkness, but with each step her body trembled and her breath lodged somewhere between her lungs and her nightmare.

Trevor’s dark suit and the girl’s black dress tossed on the wooden floor. Saige could taste her salty tears, smell the sex and betrayal in the room. The moans and cries pierced her ears like an ice shoe climbing the mountain of betrayal. Trevor’s gaze snapped to her standing like a statue, unable to look away.

Flash after flash of the memories of that day trampled her heart like a thousand wild stallions running over her.

The memories stuttered with darkness, but she knew there were more. More than she’d allow herself to remember all these years, but then she saw it. His face, his eyes spying her and a thin smile.

“He didn’t stop.”

“Who?” Colt’s voice jolted her back. He rushed to her side, and she saw a look of horror on his face that told her he thought the worst. “You’re safe now.” He reached for her, but she retreated from his touch.

“I wasn’t assaulted.” She cleared her throat and blinked away the tears. “I’d vowed that day never to shed another tear, and I haven’t. He wasn’t worth it.” She laughed. “I’ve never spoken about what happened to anyone. I thought I’d buried it, but maybe some things don’t stay buried.”

He gestured to the fire. “Maybe it’s time you told someone. If you’re worried about having anyone else know, you only hired me for two more weeks, so I’m a good confidant.”

The way his face tightened with worry made her think this man cared. Really cared, as if he never wanted to see her hurt and would rather die than harm her. “Maybe we can extend your employment. You know, to see what possibilities turn up. If I ever get us out of this mess I’ve created.” She shrugged, but her muscles ached either from the cold or from the memories, she wasn’t sure.

He settled on the floor with the look of a little boy ready to roast marshmallows on a winter evening. She wasn’t sure if it was because Colt had spent the last week with her and earned a morsal of her trust, or because she couldn’t make it through a night in this awful place without talking about it, or because he’d proven himself a respectful man and a hard worker, but she yearned to share with him. She needed to share with someone because she hadn’t had a life here since that night.

With a deep breath and a need to chase off the bone-deep chill, she returned to the fireside and faced Colt. She couldn’t come up with the words at first, and he sat patiently for the longest time. The fire crackled. Wolves howled. Wind whistled.

He took the blanket and wrapped it around her. “You’re shivering. I’d hold you tight and get you warm, but I think you need space.”

How did he know what she needed when she didn’t have a clue? “I guess it wouldn’t hurt to tell you. It’s not like it’s a secret that could cause any real damage. I’m not sure why I’ve never told anyone, except I thought it was just something in my past. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about Trevor since I left MH Ranch a decade ago.”

She let out a half chuckle mixed with a half moan. “Almost to the day. My mother’s funeral was ten years ago today.”

“I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine being a teenager and facing such pain.” His words were soft and soothing, coaxing her to say more.

Saige clutched the blanket around her and eyed the bed. He followed her gaze but then tended the fire, stirring sparks that danced up into the chimney as if to escape this place the way she longed to.

“After the funeral, I came here. It had been Trevor’s and my special place. I got in a fight with my father because he wanted me to move with him and leave the ranch. He said I was too much like my mother and needed to toughen up and it was time to live in the real world.”

“Harsh. I’m not sure I like your father much more than I like my own. Funny how that is.”

“What?” she asked, welcoming the distraction for a second to gather her strength to face what came next.

“We can love our parents, but sometimes we don’t like them.” He chuckled, and she knew he remembered the argument that drove him from his family.

“Why did your father disown you?” she asked.

He scrubbed his stubbled jaw. “I want to tell you. I need to tell you, but this isn’t about me right now. Maybe tomorrow we’ll discuss why I’m here. Tonight, in this place… This is about you.”

Since when did anyone in her life ask how she was? Thomas had been there for all the important decisions, but he wasn’t an affectionate person. They never spoke about feelings. “Alright. Tomorrow you’ll share your story.”

He nodded, but the way his shoulders rose to his ears told her it would be difficult for him.

She toyed with a frayed edge of the blanket. The same blanket that had been on the bed all those years ago. Did he still come to this place? She shoved the thought from her mind. “After the funeral, I came here to get away, but I heard something inside.” She swallowed the lump rising in her throat. No tears. Never again. Not for him. “He was inside, but something told me not to open the door.” She lifted her hand as if to reach for the knob, the vision pounding her head with no restraint. “I turned it, and the door creaked open. The sounds intensified. Animalistic, raw sounds. My knees were weak and I thought I’d collapse, but I stepped inside.”

She dropped her hand and shook off the memory for a second to take a sip of water. “Funny part is that my mother and my friends warned me about him, but I was too in love to see it. They’d said a guy like him would never be here for a girl like me. My father said he wanted my family money. He was the partying type, the kind who runs off in the middle of the night or lets you down at the worst moment of your life.”

He closed his eyes, and the lines deepened around his mouth. “I know the type.”

Did he have a woman in his past who had done something to him? Maybe this would help him open up. Maybe he wasn’t one of those kinds of men. Maybe she could change him the way she thought she could change Trevor. Stupid. These kinds of men always made women believe stupid lies.

She twisted the top onto the bottle and slipped back into the awful truth of this place. “The bed creaked and banged against the wall. I forced my gaze to go from my black leather boots, across the floor, up the bed post, to this blanket.” She held it open and wished she had another option so she could throw this one into the fire. “This blanket that entangled Trevor and another woman in our special place on the night of my mother’s funeral. And do you know what he did?”

Colt shook his head, as if not wanting to say anything in fear of her reaction. Smart man.

“He looked at me. That’s it.”

“What?” Colt’s brow furrowed.

“No, he didn’t just look at me. He smiled and kept going at it with the other woman as if I stood there as audience for his great performance.” Her voice cracked, but she cleared her throat and forced the pain down.

“I’m so sorry. What a monster.” Colt scooted closer, but she put her palm up. No way she’d fall into another man’s empty promises. “I hadn’t realized it before, but Thomas was safe all this time. A man who spoke about decisions, never about feelings. Unlike a man of passion, who fills the need for intimacy, but with that brings danger of heartbreak. To give another person the ability to crush you with one act, one word, one lie. But in the end, I couldn’t marry a man who wanted a sterile, emotionless life. I wanted what Francine and Walt had.”

“I understand now,” he mumbled but averted his gaze to the fire.

“Understand what?” she asked.

He glanced at the bed and then at her. “Why you can’t let me in. Why you want something one minute from me but push me away the next. You see me as that man.” He shuffled away. “And you’re right. You shouldn’t be close to me. You deserve so much better.”

She snagged his pinky. “You’re too hard on yourself. Stop seeing yourself through your father’s eyes. That kind of man would’nt be next to me night after night this past week without trying to push things further than cuddling and hand holding.”

“You’re right, I’m not Trevor. I can safely say I’ve never done anything like that. I’ve never intentionally hurt a woman, and I’ve never cheated on one. That man is the type who makes every other man look like a jerk. Now I see why you returned and why you couldn’t be around your father. But that doesn’t mean I’m a good man.”

The fire popped, and a spark flew out onto the blanket. He reacted faster than a racoon after a morsal of food in winter, smacking the flame into submission.

She looked at him, really looked at him. A man who didn’t judge her, who worked hard, and made a vow he’d never be like Trevor.

“Why do you think I couldn’t be around my father?”

“Because you left here after this happened, the day after your mother’s funeral, to a life you didn’t originally want. You’ve made comments about how amazing your mother was. How you admired your great-great-great-great-grandmother Francine. You’re back here hoping to find the person you lost that day.”

Her mouth fell open. How could he decipher something in five minutes she couldn’t figure out in a decade, and how did he remember how many greats to her grandmother? He’d paid attention. Trevor had never even remembered her birthday. Maybe a man did exist who offered both goodness and passion. “Okay, Dr. Colt, what do I do now?”

“You face the past and open yourself up to future possibilities.” His words were simple, but when he took her hand in his and kissed her knuckles, his actions were complicated. Too complicated and dangerous.

“I vowed that day never to let a man have that kind of hold over me.”

“You were young, and something tells me you’re way too strong to ever let someone control you at this point in your life.”

She chuckled. “Well, Dr. Colt, you psychoanalyzed part of it, but not all of it. My father’s been controlling me for years, and he’s not a man easy to refuse. I came all this way out here to get away from him so that I could learn to think for myself again. To reconnect with the McKinnie sisters. The last thing I need is another man in my life.” Her pulse thudded a desire to return to their evening position by the fire and take it to the next step, but she couldn’t. A part of her wanted to get back at Trevor by sleeping with another man in this place, but that was too juvenile, and she wouldn’t do that to Colt. He deserved better. Even so, could she really trust a man like him with her heart? “Tomorrow you’ll tell me your story, and then I can overanalyze you. After that, we’ll discuss an extension of your employment or I’ll send you packing.”

He folded his arms over his chest and faced the fire. “Then I’m glad we have now.”

His words sent a frost over her more fierce than the world outside. Whatever he had to share, it bothered him. Did he think it would change her mind about him? That she’d send him away because of some past mistake? Isn’t that what she’d just said? “Listen, there are mistakes people make that are just that, mistakes. And then there are evil, selfish, and self-serving acts that degrade or humiliate someone. I won’t turn my back because of a mistake. We all make them. I know I have. It’s the deceit and the lies I can’t handle. There’s nothing worse than a liar who manipulates people.”

She dared to approach, wanting to feel that connection with Colt again that she’d lost since entering this awful place. “Maybe it’s time for us both to face our fears.”

His hand covered hers on his shoulder. “What then? Facing fears is one thing. Making a change is far more difficult. I want to be the passionate, kindhearted man you see in me, but I’m not him. What if I can never be him?”

“Then we walk away forever.”