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Romance in the snow

Discussion in 'Jukwaa la Lugha' started by Yona F. Maro, Dec 16, 2008.

  1. Yona F. Maro

    Yona F. Maro R I P

    Dec 16, 2008
    Joined: Nov 2, 2006
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    Haley Gant suddenly wished she could celebrate her thirtieth birthday the way her sister planned to celebrate her own. With all her friends, a dozen of the hunkiest male strippers, and enough champagne to float a boat. Probably an aircraft carrier if Courtney’s usual parties were any indication.
    Haley sighed. Right now she’d settle for enough champagne to float a tiny toy boat, but champagne was a scarce commodity on the slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Haley took a sip from the blue spattered enamel cup and grimaced. Coffee, even laced with sugar and powdered creamer, ran a distant second to a crystal flute of chilled bubbly.
    Despite her resolve not to succumb to weak female emotions, as her dad would say, Haley felt downright weepy as she watched the hands on the wind-up brass clock creep toward midnight. The rising wind accompanied the ticking of the old-fashioned clock in its inexorable journey to end the old year and begin the new one, bringing her thirtieth birthday with it. Thirty-years-old! Haley’s shudder couldn’t be attributed entirely to the bitter cold of the Montana winter. Where had the years gone?
    Six months ago when she and her sister had met in Las Vegas for a week’s vacation, Haley had cracked every over-the-hill joke she could think of, but she wasn’t laughing now. Courtney, younger than Haley by five years, had remarked at the time that Haley was trying too hard to be blasé. Bless her flaky sister’s heart! Courtney, who somehow had the uncanny ability to zero in on emotional issues, was on target. As usual.
    Haley smiled when she thought again of how Courtney vowed to celebrate her own thirtieth. Of course, she and Courtney, split apart by their parents’ bitter divorce, with Courtney raised by their free-spirited mother and Haley by their stern, no-nonsense father, were worlds apart in opinions and beliefs.
    Most of the time, she didn't dwell on how she and Courtney had ended up reflecting their respective parents’ personalities. Sometimes though, like tonight, she did find herself wishing she could be more like her younger sister.
    Haley looked around her snug log cabin. Maybe she could squeeze one male stripper in, but only if he didn’t mind dancing on the old red and navy-braided rug in front of the stone hearth. The silliness brought a smile to her face and took her mind off her moody thoughts.
    Normally, she was too focused on work to notice how narrow and, a small sigh escaped her, how boring her life was. Tonight though, the solitude of the small cabin and the loneliness of the isolated research station with the wind moaning through the huge pines depressed her. Even the falling snow had lost its charm after nearly two months of the blasted stuff, and, now, she had a storm to anticipate according to the weather reports.
    Next time she accepted a research project, she vowed, she’d make sure it was some place warm. Like the equator! Right now the tropics sounded like her idea of heaven. She grimaced. Maybe if she wasn’t so focused on her cold solitude, she could concentrate on the report she should be writing.
    Instead of writing the year-end project report she needed to present to the corporate bean counter when he arrived next week. She'd spent the last day of her twenty-ninth year staring into the flames of the fireplace and questioning her life. Past, present, and future. Another sigh escaped her. Haley didn’t like the answers she’d found to those life questions. Restless, she tossed her pen aside, too distracted to pretend to work any longer.
    Though she’d never been one to celebrate the New Year, or even her birthday, she suddenly wished she were wearing a flashy gold dress and holding a flute of champagne while she danced with a hunky guy, to use Courtney’s words, in a hotel ballroom with other noisy revelers. The hunky guy would definitely be the perfect accessory for such an ensemble.
    A wistful smile lifted the corners of her generous mouth as she tried to imagine a tomboy like herself, pony-tailed brown hair and unadorned features, in such a scene. There was as much chance of her appearing in public in a dress like that as there was of her having some sexy guy drooling over her.
    Her smile faded. Celebrating New Year’s Eve by running the generator to power her desk lamp until midnight somehow paled in comparison.
    "Whoopee!" she muttered. "Some celebration."
    A glance at the clock showed only five minutes left until her planned Internet rendezvous with her sister. Haley powered up her laptop. At least Courtney and her mother always remembered her birthday. Her dad? Well, that was another story. She’d learned long ago not to expect him to mention it, even if he did remember the date.
    Franklin Gant considered sentimentality cheap and something to be avoided at all costs. No matter how hard Haley had tried to be the daughter her dad seemed to want, even to following in his professional footsteps, he’d never, not even once, said he loved her. The closest he’d ever come was a terse, "Good job, Haley," when she’d received her doctorate in botany at such a young age. Another heavy sigh escaped her lips. Heaven forbid that he should ever send a birthday greeting of any kind.
    Resolutely, Haley shoved the lonely thoughts into a corner of her mind as she connected an adaptor to her cell phone and aligned it with the infrared port on the laptop.
    A dancing envelope greeted her as soon as she jumped onto the Internet. The familiar strains of the birthday song began when Haley clicked the New Mail icon. Then the words Happy New Year and Happy Birthday undulated across the screen.
    "Oh, Sis," Haley whispered through the tightness in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that had threatened all day and gave herself another scolding for being such a weepy female. She could just imagine her father’s scornful expression were he to see her acting like some weak-willed woman.
    Suddenly, the laptop beeped shrilly. Haley’s eyes snapped open. "Well, hell!" How could she have forgotten to charge the battery? That was just another symptom of this blasted birthday-induced insanity.
    She knew she had only a couple of minutes before the laptop died. She’d be able to read her sister’s message but wouldn’t have time to send a reply back to Courtney who was partying on the deck of her latest boyfriend’s yacht.
    Quickly, she scanned Courtney’s email. Midway through, her eyes widened. A frown replaced her fond smile. Aloud she reread the part that sent a chill of apprehension through her.
    "Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts. Remember how we talked about that? Well, I decided to send you something you’d always remember. <G>"
    Haley frowned fiercely at the little symbol meaning grin.
    "After all, you only turn thirty once, my genius sister. You can’t send this gift back. At least not right away. <LOL>"
    Haley didn’t laugh out loud as that symbol dictated. If anything, her frown deepened into a scowl as she slowly read aloud.
    "So try to kick back and enjoy this next year! Oh, and by the way, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And that leaves the field wide open!"
    A shrill beep punctuated the last word she read. The laptop screen went black.
    "What have you gone and done, Courtney?" she whispered.
    Haley sat frozen in her seat, staring at the dead laptop, but her brain raced as she tried to figure out her devious sister’s plot. When Courtney got it into her head to do something, nothing stopped her. Especially not common sense.
    A flash of light streaked across the two windows set in the front wall of the cabin. Haley looked up. Headlights. Someone had negotiated the treacherous ruts of what she jokingly called her driveway and turned into the clearing in front of the cabin. Who could possibly be visiting her at this time of the night?
    She walked to one of the uncurtained windows and looked out through the falling snow. An all-wheel drive compact car looking rather worse for wear after navigating the old logging road up the mountain idled in the clearing.
    Courtney’s words hit her with enough force to knock the breath out of her.
    Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts.
    Her sister’s idea of memorable could be summed up in one three-letter word. Men. To be more accurate, you could make that two three-letter words. Men. Sex.
    "Oh, no. Courtney! Tell me you didn’t!"
    Haley opened the front door and gulped a lung full of frigid air.
    "If twelve men pile out of that car, I’m going to strangle you, Courtney!
    Jeff Talent rested his forehead on the steering wheel, too exhausted to even cut the engine. Somehow he’d managed to get the slipping and sliding car up the side of the mountain without major mishap. That is, if you didn’t count a flat tire on a thirty-degree slope in the middle of a snowstorm a major mishap!
    He’d promised God everything from his firstborn child to his current salary as Vice President of Research for EnviroMed if He’d just get Jeff to this research station in one piece. His prayers had been answered. He’d arrived all in one piece. If you didn’t count the skinned knuckles of his right hand. Skinned was better than frostbitten though.
    Jeff flexed his cold hands in the thin leather gloves. He’d been so anxious to get here and confront Gant that he hadn’t taken the time to prepare for this climate. Figuring that anything good enough for New York’s bitter winters would suffice for Montana’s had been his first mistake.
    Jeff was more than a little disgruntled. He should be lying on a Mexican beach with a frozen margarita in his hand and beautiful blond Melissa by his side. But the European cartel seemed to have discovered Gant’s research. And beautiful blond Melissa had dumped him for a guy who wanted to be married to her instead of to his job. He didn’t really blame her. In fact, the incident had made him stop and think about his workaholic lifestyle.
    He’d built a reputation early and had risen fast in the corporate world through a combination of hard work and leaping up the ladder of success by changing companies each time he was offered a deal too good to turn down. Now, at thirty-two, he was the wonder boy of the pharmaceutical industry. As he’d flown west today, he’d wondered if maybe it was time he slowed down enough to at least catch a whiff of the roses.
    Jeff exhaled loudly and turned the ignition key off. Silence rushed in to fill the void. He hadn’t realized how much noise the windshield wipers and the heater, not to mention the straining engine had made. He breathed deep, noting how cold the air inside the car had become in the space of a few moments.
    Tropical heat seemed doubly tempting. Too bad he hadn’t gone on to Cancun by himself. Relaxing on the beach might have cured him of the nagging sense of being out of balance with his life. But work had come first. As usual. It had been too long since he’d had a break. As soon as he returned to civilization, he vowed, he’d take that Mexican vacation.
    Moonlight glistened on the snow and illuminated the small cabin in the clearing. Light shone through the front windows so Jeff figured Haley Gant was still up. A deep porch protected the front door from the weather. Snow packed the steeply pitched roof and covered most of the ground around the cabin. He caught a whiff of wood smoke and imagined if it were daylight, he’d see smoke curling from the chimney. All in all, it must look like a picture postcard.
    "Ready or not, Dr. Gant. Here I come." Somehow, he didn’t think EnviroMed’s resident genius, not a sociable woman according to her file, would be pleased to have her new boss drop in at this time of night, especially a week ahead of schedule. But that was her problem. He was too tired to care whether she liked it or not. His problem was having to deal with the woman before he could form an educated opinion about her research.
    Of course, she hadn’t filed a progress report in the last six months. That was clearly against procedure, and he’d been tempted to act on the recommendation he’d received from the president of the company to just cut her loose. After all, her work was sheer speculation at best.
    Then he’d learned that the Frenchman was checking out Gant. Never one to believe in coincidence, Jeff had decided, given the lack of reports from her, that he’d take a firsthand look at her research. He just hadn’t known it would require such effort to get from the Big Apple to the Big Sky state.
    The light from inside seemed warm and welcoming as it twinkled like a beacon, promising refuge and comfort. Two items he could certainly use tonight. All he wanted were a friendly smile and a warm bed. As he watched, the front door of the cabin opened. A shaft of light split the darkness of the porch and fell weakly onto the fallen snow. Jeff smiled grimly and opened the car door, glad to get the confrontation over with. At least he wouldn't have to pound on her door.
    Feeling as if he were scores of years older than his actual age, Jeff grabbed his bag and slammed the car door. Almost as if that were a signal, snow began falling. Surprised, he glanced skyward. A cloud was drifting across the glowing moon. He shrugged. Just his luck.
    "Happy New Year, Doctor Gant," he called, aiming for a friendly start to what would probably be a difficult week.
    "Hold it right there, mister!"
    Surprised, Jeff froze in mid-step.
    Haley Gant stepped onto the porch, blocking the light. Her posture was an easily-read portrait of outrage, and her voice menaced as convincingly as any guard dog he’d ever encountered. "You can take your G-string and get back in that car!"
    Jeff’s mouth dropped open. His what? "I beg your pardon?" He felt snow landing on his lashes and wondered inanely if his face would freeze in the expression of shock that it probably bore at the moment. He took a cautious step toward the porch.
    She jumped to the top step as if to bar his way. "You heard me! Just point that car down the mountain and go back to wherever my sister found you."
    He’d traveled to this frozen wilderness only to be met by a mad woman! He fought the urge to throw up his hands in despair. The woman was crazy! She must have cracked under the loneliness of this frozen wilderness. He’d heard that solitude did that to some people.
    "I think," he said, trying to speak calmly to the demented woman who barred his way, "that you are confused."
    "I'm not confused. You’re not wanted here. And if you try to so much as unzip your pants I’ll get my shotgun."
    "What?" Jeff stared at her in shock. He didn’t know how to respond to a statement like that. Was Haley Gant afraid that he’d try something with her? Something sexual, judging by the tenor of her commands. He didn’t know whether to be outraged or amused.
    Finally, the last thing she’d said penetrated. Did the unbalanced woman really have a shotgun?
    "Dr. Gant, I certainly didn’t come here expecting anything like, uh. like that!" Jeff was at a loss as to how to reassure the woman. Nothing like this situation had ever arisen in his career. Dr. Gant must have an inflated opinion of her sex appeal. Or he was right the first time. She was completely demented. He’d bet on that explanation, he decided.
    Too tired to stand out in the cold discussing her old maid paranoia any longer, he squared his shoulders and took another step toward her. She took a step backward which somewhat reassured him. Unless she was going for her shotgun.
    Jeff continued advancing. To his considerable relief, she retreated.
    The light from the cabin slashed across his face as he continued up the steps. "I assure you I’m only here for one thing. Maybe I’m a little early, but I know a message was sent to you alerting you to my visit. Right?"
    She nodded in agreement but didn’t say a word. When she continued gaping silently at him, Jeff continued, "It’s awfully cold out here, Dr. Gant. In fact, I think I’ve lost the feeling in my feet." He grinned. "That’s more truth than a joke, by the way." He stamped his feet to emphasize his words.
    Her eyes glanced down at his feet. Her lips curled in derision, but she didn’t say anything.
    "I know what you’re thinking," Jeff said with a self-deprecating smile. "And you’re right. Only a city boy would wear street shoes to the frozen wilderness." He caught the glimmer of a smile before she suppressed it. "The shoes are my second mistake today. Anyway, doctor, I’ve traveled a very long way to see you. Do you think we could step inside and discuss this?"
    "I guess that would be okay," she said grudgingly.
    Jeff gave a sigh of relief and hurried forward. He had one foot on the porch when she added, "But don’t get any ideas about stripping."
    Jeff stumbled over his own feet. He grabbed the porch railing to save himself. “I promise you, Dr. Gant, taking my clothes off is the last thing on my mind.”
    Why hadn't someone told him the company's resident genius was a sex-obsessed nut case?
    Haley backed toward the open door, keeping her eyes on the man. Wow, she couldn’t help but think. Courtney sure knew how to pick ‘em.
    It was as if her sister had tapped into Haley’s brain and had then gone out and found the perfect man for Haley. Where had her sister found him? He was exactly the kind of guy Haley had fantasized about earlier. He’d look perfectly at ease with a glass of champagne in his hand and a beautiful woman on his arm, she decided as she stepped back inside her little cabin. She gripped the doorknob hard as he brushed past her and stumbled inside.
    A soft sigh of regret escaped Haley. In the real world, a woman like her would never have a chance with a man like him. Having Courtney send her this guy as a birthday present was as close as she would ever get to her fantasy.
    She closed the door behind him. With her foot, she pushed the rolled up towels back against the bottom edge of the door to block the cold drafts that sneaked under.
    "Ahhh, heat," her unexpected guest moaned and rushed toward the stone hearth.
    Haley watched as he jerked off black leather gloves that appeared better-suited for driving an expensive sports car than for trekking through a Montana night. From his gloves to his wingtip shoes, he was a city slicker for sure, but, oh, was he appealing!
    Just look at him. Tall, tanned, and more attractive than any man has a right to be. Haley sniffed gently, trying not to be obvious in her attempt to get a good whiff of his musky aftershave. Everything about him made her pulse accelerate. Her hands shook nearly as much as the strong hands he held out to the fire.
    Her gaze sharpened. She gasped. His poor hands. Besides being red from the cold, the knuckles of his right hand were skinned badly. Bruising was already evident around the injury.
    Her sympathy effectively banished her bemusement. That hand had to hurt. "Your hand looks bad. I’ve got a first aid kit. Let me get it." She rushed to the small alcove that served as a bedroom, glad to have a few minutes away from his disturbing presence so she could collect her thoughts.
    A patchwork curtain with round rings suspended from an iron rod fixed to the ceiling could be pulled to close off the sleeping alcove from the main room of the cabin. Haley had never drawn the curtain before. Now she did.
    Exhaling loudly in relief, she pressed her hand to her racing heart and sank onto the bed. The old springs creaked. Haley winced and her cheeks flamed at the uncharacteristic erotic thought that popped into her scholarly head. She pressed her cold palms against her hot cheeks, trying to subdue the heat that seemed to have taken possession of her as soon as Courtney’s stripper had stepped out of the cold and into her cabin.
    * * *
    Jeff gazed around the cabin. Wow! Pretty spartan accommodations. The interior had exposed logs and was nothing more than one large room with a curtained alcove at one end, a small kitchen at the other, and the so-called living room in the center. The cabin, originally built by the Forestry Service back in the fifties, had been used for various environmental projects through the years but didn’t appear to have been upgraded in any way. EnviroMed held a one year lease on it just for Gant.
    Jeff was surprised she hadn’t complained loudly and often about the place. Every woman he knew would have turned up her nose at staying a night here much less a year. He’d have to do something about this.
    Gant was gone for so long that he began to wonder if she’d sneaked out a back door hidden behind the curtain. "Dr. Gant? Are you coming back out?"
    Haley started. His voice seemed overly loud in her quiet cabin. "Yes. Just a minute. I couldn’t remember where I put the first aid kit," she lied, grabbing the metal box from its place next to her few toiletries on top of the chest of drawers. She took another deep breath to steady her rioting nerves and shoved the curtain back.
    With quick strides, Haley crossed to the small blue sofa in front of the fireplace and sat. "Come here so I can take care of your hand."
    Without a word, he sank onto the sofa next to her.
    She grasped his hand. Her pulse leaped. She made a big show of tilting it and peered at it from every angle. "How’d you do this?"
    "Changing a tire. The jack slipped."
    "You mean you had a flat?"
    "Hey, you really are a genius.”
    His tone of voice was so dry and amused that she took no offense. "Very funny," she said mildly. "I hope that flat happened before you hit the logging road."
    "Don’t hope too hard," he said dryly, flexing his hand.
    Haley shuddered. Her respect for his persistence in getting there rose several degrees. "You have had quite a night. Why that’s got to be nearly a thirty-degree slope." She opened the kit and removed gauze, adhesive tape, and iodine.
    "Nothing nearly about it. It’s thirty degrees or my name’s not–," He bounced off the sofa as if it were a trampoline. "Whoa! Wait just a minute, doc!"
    Haley frowned up at him. "What’s the matter?"
    "That’s iodine." He shook his head and backed toward the fireplace. "No way are you pouring that on these raw knuckles."
    "Why not? What’s wrong with it?"
    "That stuff burns like fire!"
    Haley rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "It may sting a little," she agreed, "but you need some antiseptic on those scrapes, and this is all I’ve got. Don’t be so childish," she scolded. “My dad used this on me all the time when I was a kid.”
    "Hey, I like being childish." He smiled at her. Haley blinked. It was as if the sun had suddenly emerged from behind a cloud.
    "Dr. Gant. Haley, if I may?" At her nod, he continued, "I think it’s safe to say any self-respecting bacteria in this state is hibernating for the winter."
    When Haley realized he was trying to charm her out of using the iodine, she couldn’t help but grin widely. "Don’t be ridiculous. You might know dancing, but you don’t know anything about microbes. They never hibernate."
    "Dancing? What’s that got to do with anything?"
    "No offense intended. I’m not making any judgments about your choice of occupation. Now be still and let me tend that hand."
    "My choice of occupation?" he echoed.
    He seemed genuinely puzzled so Haley took advantage of his scattered focus. She reached out and grabbed his hand, intending to pull him down to the couch, but his fingers curled around hers. Something seemed to rush through her. Startled at the intensity of feeling, she looked up. Their eyes locked. His dark eyes gazed back at her with unabashed interest. Slowly, he settled onto the sofa next to her.
    Haley forgot what they’d been talking about. Still holding his hand, she laid it across her knees, too conscious now of his closeness. Carefully, she sprinkled iodine on a gauze square. Her hands shook. She risked a glance at him from the corner of her eye. He didn’t seem to notice anything unusual.
    Gently, she cleaned the wound, stroking softly along the length of each tanned finger. When he gasped, she paused and looked into his eyes. "Sorry. Did I hurt you?"
    "No," Jeff murmured. She hadn’t hurt him, but her touch unsettled him in unexpected ways. Suddenly, he could smell the subtle scent she wore. It teased his senses and made him feel restless and something he didn’t want to dwell on..
    "That’s a nice perfume you’re wearing," he murmured.
    She turned and stared deeply into his eyes. "It’s just soap," she said. She sounded as breathless as he suddenly felt.
    In the soft lamplight, he couldn’t determine if her eyes were blue or gray. For some strange reason, knowing what color they were seemed very important.
    A log shifted and fell in the fireplace, startling him. A minute passed, sixty seconds suspended in time in which his senses heightened. He swore he could hear the drum beat of his blood through his veins. It seemed to grow louder and stronger as he became intensely aware of the smell of simple soap on her skin.
    Jeff noticed how creamy, perfect, and soft her skin looked. Was it as silky as it looked? Her hands were gentle on his. The sweep of long dark lashes against the ivory perfection of her cheek fascinated him. She looked up. Her eyes opened wide then quickly her gaze dropped to his hand. A soft blush colored her face. Had she practiced that or was it innocently provocative?
    "There," she said, carefully taping a folded gauze pad across his knuckles.
    Jeff realized he’d been staring so intently at her face that he hadn’t realized she’d finished doctoring his hand. He flexed his fingers. "You did a good job."
    "And it didn’t hurt, did it?" she asked gently, smiling up into his eyes. "At least not much."
    When he grinned his agreement, Haley noticed how the right side of his mouth lifted a little higher than the left. Enchanted by his crooked smile, Haley gazed at his lips. He had a truly exceptional mouth, she decided. Full, sensuous lips complemented the hard planes of his face rather than detracting from his virile good looks. Haley stared dreamily at his lips. She leaned toward him just a fraction.
    What would his mouth feel like pressed against hers?
    Horrified, Haley realized she was fantasizing about kissing her unwelcome guest. She’d often been accused of having a wild imagination, but this was more than wild. It was insane. She leaped from the sofa.
    "Let me just put this away," she babbled. "I won’t be but a minute." She practically ran to the alcove and yanked the patchwork curtain closed. Her heart beat so loud she was afraid her handsome visitor would hear it.
    Haley tried deep breathing again as she returned the first aid kit to the top of the chest.
    Mentally, she scolded herself. Get control of yourself, Haley Gant! You’re a scientist. A no-nonsense woman! Not some soft-hearted female full of romantic notions. With that bit of advice ringing in her ears, she opened the curtain and stepped out.
    She found him looking at her. His smile made her pulse throb in unexpected parts of her anatomy. And that thought brought an unwelcome blush to her face. With her hands clasped, she squeezed hard, hoping to camouflage their sudden tremor. What on earth was wrong with her?
    "Your hand should be fine." She hoped she didn’t sound as breathless to him as she did to her own ears.
    "You’re not a medical doctor too, are you?" he asked.
    Haley laughed nervously. "No. Not at all."
    Desperate to have something to do, she hurried to the tiny kitchen and grabbed the dish cloth, wetting it with water from a gallon plastic jug. As if it were the most important task in the world, she began wiping down the white enameled steel top of the table that served as a kitchen counter.
    "Goodness, when you spend as much time as I do in isolated research stations, you have to know a good bit about everything. Especially first aid," she babbled.
    "Yeah, I imagine it’s a problem getting a doctor to make a house call out here."
    "I haven’t had anyone except the park ranger drop by since the snow began." Haley rubbed the old enamel top as if she were going to make it shine like new.
    "Isn’t that kind of a lonely existence?"
    Haley stopped her vigorous rubbing of the table. "Lonely?"
    "Yeah. I mean, don’t you miss people? Family? Boyfriends?"
    She blushed crimson but didn’t reply. Boyfriends? Her? She could have told him she’d never had a boyfriend because she’d been too busy trying to win her father’s love by becoming the world’s greatest botanist, but she shrank from revealing such vulnerability to a stranger. Instead, she shrugged and turned her attention to the two-burner propane hot plate, wiping it down as if her life depended on getting it to shine.
    "Hey! Take it easy." He laughed. "You’re going to rub the steel from that if you keep on applying the elbow grease."
    Haley laughed nervously. "You’ll have to excuse me. I’m expecting the new corporate bean counter next week. I want to make a good impression." She stepped away from the stove and ran the wet cloth over the surface of the small pine table where she ate her solitary meals.
    "Corporate bean counter?" he repeated, frowning.
    "Yes. You know the type. The kind of guy who sleeps with a calculator clutched in his ink-stained fingers."
    "I take it you don’t like, uh, bean-counters very much."
    "Those people make my life miserable. They nit-pick every expense report.” She waved her hand around the spartan cabin. “As if I’m blowing all the company money on a luxury hotel." She shrugged and folded the wet cloth over the edge of the plastic dishpan in the dry sink. "I’ve found the only way to handle them is to not file any reports until the project is over."
    "Oh, really? That’s very interesting."
    Haley waved away his comment and turned her attention to arranging the half-dozen metal cups in the small wall shelf above the counter. That shelf served as a cabinet for the few dishes provided with the cabin. When she had exhausted that task, she went to the larger wall shelf that held her food supplies.
    "You’re not going to alphabetize that, are you?" her visitor asked.
    Haley reddened and said with a huff, "Of course not. I was just trying to see if I need to make out a shopping list for my next trip to town." She’d run out of pretend domestic chores and didn’t know what to do next.
    "I hate to bother you, but do you have anything hot to drink?"
    She brightened. Relieved, she said, "Great idea. Why don’t I make some coffee? That’ll warm you up from the inside out. Just what you need before you leave."
    "You sure sound anxious to get rid of me." He yawned, too tired to get in an argument about when he’d depart. "But coffee sounds good." He stretched his long legs out toward the fire, but didn’t bother removing the heavy black overcoat he wore. The events of the last twenty-four hours were catching up to him with a vengeance.
    "I’ll just sit here and defrost. That is, if you don’t mind?"
    "I don’t mind at all. No problem." Haley grabbed the blue granite-wear percolator and poured water in it from the plastic jug. Thankful to have something to do, she took longer than necessary to prepare the pot.
    The mundane task relaxed her. She found herself humming an off-key rendition of one of Shania Twain’s upbeat songs. Bemused, Haley realized the stranger had chased away her birthday blues.
    After she placed the percolator on one of the burners, she said, "Say, mister?”
    When she got no response, she turned and walked over to the couch. He was sound asleep. Watching him, she felt the oddest sensation. She didn’t understand why she pulled a colorful crocheted afghan from the back of the sofa and spread it over his legs instead of waking and sending him packing.
    There was no harm in letting him take a short nap, she rationalized. He certainly looked as if he needed it.
    Smothering a yawn, Haley glanced at her wind-up clock on the desk behind the couch and realized dawn was just a few hours away. She was officially thirty years old and had survived the indignity without a thought once the man had entered her life. The new year had begun. This man had entered her life, bringing more excitement than she’d experienced in a long time.
    Musing on the unusual events since midnight, Haley settled on the other end of the short sofa and indulged her desire to scrutinize her guest. He was tall. She imagined her five feet eight inches would put the top of her head right below his chin.
    Fashionably styled dark hair, what everyone called the GQ look, made her wonder how it would feel to her touch. Well-built and sexy, he was a hunk by any woman’s definition, she decided. How much had it cost Courtney to send him out to the wilds of Montana?
    That was something about Courtney. She never counted the pennies. Too bad the gesture was wasted. Haley would never have the nerve to let him do some sexy, alluring strip for her. Still, she could dream.
    Smiling sleepily, she yawned. She needed to close her eyes, just for a minute or two. She’d wake her sexy visitor in an hour, give him some coffee, and send her birthday present, unwrapped, so to speak, back to civilization.
    * * *
    Haley didn’t know if it was the smell of burned coffee or the sound of the rising wind that woke her. Maybe it was the warmth of the man she was snuggled against that set off her mental alarm. She leapt to her feet and tottered dizzily for a moment as she tried to get her bearings.
    With a muttered comment on her lack of intelligence, she rushed to the stove and turned off the burner.
    The smell of boiled coffee hung in the cabin. Her nose wrinkled. That was bad enough, but what really disturbed her was the sound of the storm that battered the cabin. She had let the fire die down, and the temperature must have dropped at least ten degrees. Haley shivered and rushed to stoke up the fire. Then she hurried to look out the front window.
    Her worst fears were confirmed. The storm, obviously stronger than predicted, had arrived. "No. It can’t be!"
    "What’s the matter?" Her guest muttered sleepily.
    Haley turned. For a moment, she’d forgotten about him. Oh, no! He made matters even worse!
    He shook off the red coverlet and stretched. Unwittingly, she stared at his long-limbed action. She swallowed hard. He seemed alert and refreshed after his nap. And looked unbelievably desirable. Reflexively, her hands reached up to smooth the hair that straggled from her pony tail and hung in her face.
    "Are you all right?" Concern shadowed his eyes.
    Haley shook her head vigorously. "No," she said starkly. "I’m not all right. And neither are you."
    "You’re not making any sense, doctor. What’s wrong?"
    "Everything." Gloomily, she pointed dramatically to the windows. "Just look."
    He stood and walked over. Peering out, he frowned. "Where’s my car?"
    "Take my word for it, it’s still out there. Somewhere."
    "But I can’t see it." He cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed close to the window. His frown intensified. "In fact, I can’t see anything." He stepped over to the door and unbolted it.
    "No! Don’t do that," Haley cried, but she was too late. A stinging barrage of icy snow slammed into the room. The burst of fresh air made sparks whoosh up the chimney.
    With a breathless curse, he put his shoulder against the door and succeeded in closing it. "What’s happening?" His tone plainly said whatever it was, was her fault.
    "I’d say we’re having our first storm of the new year. We are--." Haley broke off. She couldn’t voice the word aloud.
    Snowbound. They were snowbound.
    She swallowed audibly. She was snowbound. Her eyes rounded.
    Snowbound. With her fantasy man.
    "Storm? Snowbound?" He frowned, not seeming to understand the significance of the situation. "What storm? It's just snowing. What do you mean we’re snowbound? People don't get snowbound in this day and age."
    "Storm, as in blizzard. That's what's happening outside." Haley sighed and returned to the stove. "Let me guess. You didn’t bother checking the weather report before you embarked on this little visit?"
    "Right," he muttered. "Guess that’s mistake number three."
    "Good thing this isn’t baseball," Haley said, grabbing a potholder. "You’ll learn in this country never to set out on a trip without checking the forecast. It’s an unforgiving climate."
    She lifted the percolator and poured scorched coffee into two of the tin mugs. "Here. Come fix your coffee. It’s going to be a long day. A very long day."
    He took the mug. His nose wrinkled in distaste. He set it on the table. "You’re not going to drink that, are you?"
    Oh, brother was it ever going to be a long day, Haley thought. "We both are." At his frown, she said, "I know it’s not some fancy schmancy cup of gourmet coffee, but it is hot and liquid, and it will warm you. So bottoms up."
    "Couldn’t you make us some fresh coffee?"
    He sounded so morose at the prospect of drinking less than perfect coffee that Haley had to smile. Patiently, she explained, "The water pump’s probably already frozen. These gallon jugs of water," she pointed to the dozen plastic jugs lined up on the pine table, "are all we have so it’s no point in wasting the coffee because it’s a little overdone."
    He sniffed. "Overdone? You mean burned."
    "Hey, this may be the only coffee you get today so don’t knock it."
    "Why don’t I just drive back to that little town I passed and get some more water?"
    "You really don’t get it, do you?" She sighed. "Cream? Sugar?"
    "That’s how I normally take it, but answer my question first please."
    Haley sprinkled powdered creamer and a bit of sugar into her mug then did the same to his.
    "Look, mister--" she broke off and frowned. "I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?"
    "Jeff," he said, making a face as he reluctantly picked up his mug and swirled the contents.
    Haley noticed he didn’t take a sip though. "Where are you from, Jeff?"
    "Not Montana," he said.
    The heartfelt longing in his voice surprised a chuckle from her. "That explains it I guess. A blizzard is no ordinary storm. It could blow for three hours or three days."
    "Three days!"
    Haley ignored his interruption. "Blizzard is wind and snow and ice. It blows so hard you could get lost going from the front porch to your car. And you could die out there. Snowbound means you're stuck in one place until it stops blowing."
    "We can’t be having a blizzard."
    Haley rolled her eyes. Surely, he wasn’t all beauty and no brain. "Believe me. That’s what’s happening. You’re not going anywhere until this stops."
    "You’re kidding, right? You've got to be joking."
    "No, Jeff, I’m not kidding." Exasperated, Haley added in a snide tone, "You won’t be charming any other ladies with your dirty dancing for a couple of days."
    "There you go again about dancing." Jeff crossed his arms and planted the edge of his hip on the kitchen table. He studied her intently. "Why on earth are you ranting about dancing all the time?"
    Haley frowned. "You are the stripper my sister sent me for my birthday, aren’t you?"
    "The what?" Jeff exclaimed.
    Haley nearly dropped her cup of coffee. Judging by the way his mouth dropped open, he wasn’t a bump and grind expert.
    Embarrassed by her leap to a faulty conclusion, Haley carefully set her cup on the kitchen table before asking. "If you’re not my birthday present, just exactly who are you?"
    "I’m Jeff Talent."
    Haley frowned. He’d said that as if she should know who he was. She picked up her mug and sipped the thick coffee. "Jeff Talent?" The name did sound familiar.
    His lips twitched as if he were straining to hold back a belly laugh. He fished around in his pockets and pulled out a small white rectangle. "My card, Dr. Gant."
    "J. William Talent," she read. Her eyes widened. In shock, she stared at the EnviroMed logo. The card fluttered from her hand to the floor. "You’re–!"
    "The corporate bean counter you want to impress," he said with a definite smirk on his face and amusement in his voice.
    Haley didn’t know if it was the smirk or the simmering humor beneath his words, but her temper went from zero to sixty in a nano second. "How dare you make me think you were . . . were...!" The enormity of her mistake hit her. Her mouth shut with an audible snap. Crimson stained her face.
    Jeff grinned. "A male stripper? Hey, that was your imaginative leap to a weird conclusion."
    Oh, if the floor would only open and swallow her, she prayed. Her eyes narrowed. Her spine stiffened, and she drew herself erect. She stepped closer to her new boss and came out verbally swinging.
    "It’s bad enough that I have to endure your checking up on me, Mr. Talent, but it’s unpardonable that you show up, invading my privacy, a week ahead of schedule. Just what do you mean by barging in here so late at night?"
    "Don’t get your microscope all steamed up, doc," Jeff said easily.
    "It’s Dr. Gant," she snapped. "Not doc." Unfortunately, she thought, that seemed to amuse him even more.
    "Dr. Gant, for the record, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here."
    "Oh, well, don’t let me keep you. By all means leave, Mr. Talent. Please."
    "Hey, I’d be glad to. Just figure out which snow drift out there is my rental car, and I’m outta here!"
    Haley didn’t have an answer to that one. She tried to control her temper. "We’re stuck with each other so we might as well be civil."
    "You first, doc."
    At the word doc, her eyes narrowed. "Apparently, I am first. I asked you not to call me doc. At least I’m making an effort to be civil. Which is more than I can say for you. Since you’ve arrived, you’ve misled me, insulted my coffee, and laughed at me."
    "Settle down, Dr. Gant. I didn’t intend to insult you. I’ll be on my best behavior from now on. I just can’t believe that we might be holed up here as long as you said. This is the twenty-first century for Heaven’s sake. Won’t someone come looking for you?"
    "No. I hate to tell you this, Mr. Talent, but you’re not in New York City. There’s no Starbucks around the corner and no cab to call to make a quick exit. So let’s just see if we can get along. Okay?"
    "What about sending an email message?"
    "Sorry. My laptop battery died just before you arrived."
    "And my cell phone has been useless since I left the car rental agency." Jeff sank heavily onto one of the kitchen chairs at the table and lifted his cup of coffee in a silent toast. He sipped. A grimace that suggested pain creased his forehead, and he set the cup down and shoved it away. "Maybe we should just get down to business. Perhaps you could explain your failure to follow company procedure."
    "What? I’m exhausted. I’m certainly not going to sit here and be grilled over not filing some report for an office-bound pencil-pusher."
    "Let me get this straight. Are you calling me an office-bound pencil pusher?" Anger colored his voice.
    "If the Italian loafer fits," Haley muttered, staring at the expensive shoes on his feet.
    From there, things went progressively downhill. Their voices rose steadily as they argued about Haley’s refusal to send periodic reports as requested by the company.
    "Well, what about the end of year report you’re supposed to file?" Jeff asked. "Are you going to just ignore that too?"
    "Yesterday was the end of the year," Haley snapped. "So technically, that report is not due until today."
    "So are you saying you have it ready to turn in today?"
    "Not yet!" Haley snapped. "I’m working on it."
    A huge blast of wind shook the cabin, making them both jump. Jeff rubbed the back of his neck tiredly. "I’m beat. Let’s call a truce. Why don’t we table this discussion until later? If you’ll point me to the bathroom, I’d like to wash up then get about forty winks."
    The expression on Haley’s face aroused Jeff's suspicions. She smiled. Not just any smile. She beamed. Uh oh. "What?" he asked, warily.
    "I imagine you do want to freshen up."
    "Yes so just point me to the bathroom." He looked around and frowned.
    Haley's lips twitched. She pointed. "See that quilt on the wall?"
    When Jeff nodded, she said, "There's a door behind it that leads onto a tiny enclosed back porch protected from the wind. Go out the back door and straight down the path. You'll see the privy in a stand of loblolly pine about fifty feet away."
    Jeff blanched. "You're jerking my chain, right?"
    Haley said nothing. She just shook her head.
    "But... but... it's winter outside."
    She nodded. "Yep, and it doesn't have central heating or running water."
    "You said there was a blizzard. If I can't get to my car, how can I get to an outhouse?"
    Haley struggled to hang onto her laughter. "Ever heard of a chamber pot?"
    By the afternoon of the first day of the new year, Haley and Jeff had settled into an uneasy, overly-polite relationship. The tension between them had begun to ebb after Haley had suggested they move the mattress from the bed to the floor in front of the fireplace. Then she had announced that the curtained-off bedroom area was the official bathroom for the duration of the storm.
    The expression on Jeff's face had been priceless. There was no doubt that he was a city boy through and through. Haley had hastily stifled her laughter. She wondered if the astronauts had suffered the same embarrassment in figuring out bathroom privileges in the cramped quarters of the space shuttle.
    After placing the mattress between the sofa and the hearth, she and Jeff had retreated to neutral corners. Haley had dug out what she called her snowbound busywork, an unrecognizable crocheted rectangle, a ball of yellow yarn, and a crochet needle. She tried her best to ignore Jeff as he paced around the narrow confines of the cabin like a caged wolf.
    Finally, when his restlessness began to grate on her nerves, she broke the silence between them. "There’s a basket of books in the bedroom next to the bed if you want something to read, Mr. Talent."
    "Look, this formal mister and doctor stuff is a little ridiculous under the circumstances, don’t you think?" Jeff grinned.
    "You’re right. Call me Haley."
    "And I’m Jeff."
    "All right, Jeff. Why don’t you check out my little library. Reading will make the time pass faster."
    With a grunt she interpreted as thanks, he ducked behind the patchwork curtain.
    To Jeff’s surprise, instead of finding botanical texts or science fiction, as so many scientists read, he discovered romance novels in the big wicker basket. Still, reading anything, while cooped up in the cabin, was better than doing nothing. He grimaced and began to dig through the paperbacks, reading the back cover blurb of each before neatly stacking them on the floor next to the basket. After several minutes, he sighed and selected one that seemed less syrupy than the others. At least it promised a mystery in connection with the love story.
    Feeling more than a little disgruntled at being stranded in the remote cabin rather than sitting in a window seat of a sleek plane winging his way back to civilization, he returned to the sitting area and settled on the opposite end of the couch from Haley.
    He sneaked a glance at her. She wasn’t anything like what he’d expected. For one thing, she was a lot more attractive with her shining mane of rich brown hair than he’d imagined. He’d known she was a brilliant botanist, but he was surprised by her dry sense of humor. Since he’d interrupted her solitude, she’d amused and irritated him in equal measure, but she hadn't bored him. At the moment, she was scowling fiercely as she tried to pluck a knot from the rather strange yellow thing she was making with that ball of yarn.
    He’d watched his grandmother crochet before. Gram had talked a mile a minute while her needle flew, creating beautifully even stitches as she turned out everything from afghans to baby caps. When Gram crocheted, she never had the fierce scowl that marred Haley’s features.
    Haley Gant was an enigma. Though he admired her refusal to be cowed by his authority, he still didn’t know her well enough to trust her with the real reason he’d braved the Montana winter to seek her out. Maybe she didn’t know anything about the European cartel, but then again, maybe she did. The Frenchman was known for romancing secrets out of vulnerable women scientists.
    Covertly, Jeff looked Haley up and down. A slender woman with a stubborn chin and startling gray eyes. Her eyes were as changeable as the Montana weather, but he'd finally decided they were definitely gray. Not gray blue or any other fanciful color, just gray. He found them strangely appealing.
    Could the Frenchman romance research secrets from her? Haley didn’t look like anyone’s picture of vulnerability. Still, he’d reserve judgment until he had more of the facts about her project. And until he knew her a little better.
    The rest of the day passed uneventfully. They each pretended to be deaf when either had to duck behind the curtain when nature called. Night fell early on the cabin. Actually, Haley thought, laying down her yarn disaster, night didn't fall so much as the little daylight faded away.
    She stretched and yawned loudly. "Soory. I’m bushed after no sleep last night. I think I’ll fix us a bite to eat then retire for the night."
    "Sounds good," Jeff said, laying aside the novel he’d been reading. "What can I do to help?"
    Haley shrugged. "Dinner will be canned soup and cheese toast. Not exactly the gourmet fare you’re probably used to, but filling nevertheless."
    "Hey, give me a break. Just because I’m not a country boy doesn’t mean I eat nine course meals every day."
    Haley smiled. "You're right. Sorry. Guess I’m so bored that needling you passes for entertainment."
    "The boredom part I can understand, though once I got into the book, the time’s actually passed pretty fast."
    "Really? So how do you like the romance novel you’re reading?"
    He stretched before replying. "Well, I’d never have bought this book, but it’s really quite good. It’s definitely not what I thought a romance novel would be."
    "Well said." Haley beamed at him. "If more men read romance novels, maybe they’d find the answer to that age-old question."
    "You mean, what do women want?" Jeff grinned. "Judging by what I’ve read in this book, women want pretty much the same as men. And just as often."
    Haley blushed and decided not to pursue the subject any farther. "Why don’t you come help with the grilled cheese sandwiches."
    They worked in companionable silence to prepare the simple meal. Haley stirred the pot of soup, watching the letters of the alphabet float around the tomato-tinged broth. It was weird having a man in her cabin, but, to her surprise, he seemed perfectly at home as he cut slices from the block of cheddar, laid them on whole wheat bread, and arranged them on the old iron griddle.
    "Just set the griddle next to the fire,” Haley directed, handing him a couple of thick pot holders. “The cheese will melt in a couple of minutes. Then transfer them to a plate and leave the griddle sitting on the hearth."
    "I think I can figure it out," Jeff said.
    Then to her surprise, he winked at her.
    A shiver of excitement scooted up Haley’s spine. She blinked in surprise and watched him saunter off with the griddle of cheese-covered bread.
    * * *
    Late that night, footsteps woke Haley. She blinked and sat up, disturbing the cocoon of blankets on the mattress. The air in the cabin had a more pronounced chill than earlier in the evening.
    Jeff paced back and forth in the small space behind the couch. He rubbed his arms with every step. Haley sighed. She’d known he should take the mattress next to the hearth, but he wouldn’t hear of it. She wore long johns. She suspected Jeff hadn’t had the forethought to wear thermal underwear beneath his business suit.
    At bedtime, he'd vehemently insisted she take the mattress. He said he’d sack out on the small couch. Though she'd protested that she was better able to withstand the night on the couch, he’d scowled as if she'd questioned his manhood. Then he'd removed his shoes and bedded down in his starched white shirt and trousers. Now, she noticed, he wore his overcoat and shoes.
    "What’s wrong?" she asked, blinking sleepily, and knowing perfectly well what was wrong.
    "It’s freezing in here." Jeff punctuated his words with slaps up and down his arms as if to keep the circulation going. He stomped his feet too.
    Haley really did feel guilty now. She’d been sleeping like a baby tucked up in a warm crib as she lay on the mattress, right next to the hearth, the warmest spot in the cabin. Wryly, she said, "Let me guess. You didn’t take the time to purchase thermal underwear?"
    "I didn’t know I’d be camping out in Siberia. I expected to be on my way back to New York by now."
    Haley rolled her eyes. She dared not use the kerosene heater. That would be lit only if they couldn’t get out and get firewood from the shed. "Okay. Throw another log on the fire and take off your shoes and coat."
    "Why? So they can turn instantly to ice?"
    "No, because you don’t wear shoes and an overcoat to bed." She turned back the cover and scooted over closer to the couch, leaving the half of the bed near the fireplace vacant. "Come on. Climb in. I wouldn’t want to be accused of homicide by winter storm."
    Jeff didn’t hesitate. He shucked his shoes and coat in record time and practically dived beneath the thermal blankets.
    "Thank you," he said fervently.
    "Just two rules." Haley arranged the blankets over her to her liking. "One, no snoring. Two, stay on your side of the bed." She eyed him with as much seriousness as she could manage given the situation.
    "I promise you your virtue is safe with me," Jeff said with a grin as he scooted to the far edge of the mattress and closest to the hearth.
    "Somehow I have a feeling I’m a distant second compared to the warmed stones of that hearth." Haley chuckled softly.
    After a moment, Jeff sighed deeply, obviously content in his new sleeping arrangement. Haley grinned. Last night, if anyone had told her she'd be sharing her bed with her fantasy dream man tonight, she'd have laughed out loud.
    "Did you ever read that poem Cremation of Sam McGee?” Jeff asked suddenly.
    “By Robert Service?" Haley countered with a giggle.
    "I see you know the poem," Jeff replied dryly. "Well, I swear I know just how relieved old Sam felt when he got torched." Chuckling, he added, "A little cremation would feel pretty good right about now."
    His wry comment surprised a laugh from Haley. Despite what he considered hardship, he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. She turned on her side, facing him. She felt remarkably contented at the moment. Warm, relaxed, and cozy. Not at all the way she usually felt around attractive men like Jeff.
    "What made you interested in folk remedies, Haley?" he suddenly asked. "And, why Montana wildflowers? Why not some nice warm state like Florida? Surely they have wildflowers?"
    "There’s much truth in folk remedies. Maybe some poultice used by the native peoples of this continent might be the next revolution in antibiotics or antivirals."
    "I know it’d sure make EnviroMed dance for joy."
    "As for Montana’s wildflowers, that’s easy. They have colors that shout, ‘Look at me.’ In the spring when they start popping out, it’s almost like a miracle. Besides, I spent a lot of my formative years in this state. If you’ve read my file, you know who my father is. He did several research projects on Montana’s native grasses. I was usually his unofficial research assistant."
    Haley warmed to her subject. "You’d be amazed at how many wildflower varieties there are here. Montana has about twenty-five hundred kinds of flowering plants. They grow everywhere. High in the mountains under winter snow, in woods, or in the prairies. The native peoples used them to dye clothes, to heal their sick, and to eat. Berries of the kinnikinnick when cooked pop just like popcorn. Juice from the toadflax relieves the itchiness of mosquito bites."
    In a soft voice, she told how the native people had taught Lewis and Clark to eat the root of the bitterroot, the state flower of Montana.
    Jeff wondered if Haley knew how sexy her voice was when she was relaxed and drowsy and warm. He liked the sound and asked questions just to keep her talking.
    "Does the sound of that wind ever get to you when you’re alone here?" he suddenly asked.
    "Not really. I guess I’m used to it. Does it bother you?"
    "A little, though I imagine if I stayed here long enough, it would be so much background noise, like the sound of traffic in the city."
    As the night aged and the wind howled, Haley and Jeff continued talking, first about their respective careers, then about their lives.
    Haley heard the note of wistfulness in his voice when he talked about the workaholic existence he’d led, moving from one corporation to another with little time for friends or relationships.
    Jeff listened while Haley described life with stern Franklin Gant as a single parent. He heard the longing for family as she talked about her childhood split between battling parents. He
    drifted to sleep as he listened to the quiet murmur of her voice.
    After a few minutes, Haley heard Jeff’s breathing shift to a deeper, heavier rhythm. The quiet crackle of the fire lulled her. Heat radiated from his body. As she was falling asleep, Haley felt unaccountably disappointed that her virtue was safe, just as her handsome houseguest, lying mere inches away, had promised.
    What would it take to change that situation?
    By the dawn of the second day, snow still fell. The drifts outside now reached porch height. Occasionally, the cabin seemed to shiver beneath the onslaught, but the old log house had withstood many a storm for more decades than Haley’s age so she wasn’t concerned that it might blow apart.
    Throughout the long morning the wind never abated, keeping the temperature uncomfortably low in the cabin. Haley watched the dwindling supply of firewood with concern. If she hadn’t been moping around with the birthday blues, she’d have replenished the stack on the porch when she’d first heard about the approaching storm. As it was, she and Jeff had transferred the last of the logs from the porch to the hearth after breakfast.
    Before dark, someone was going to have to go to the woodshed for more. Since Jeff didn’t have the kind of clothing to go out into the storm, that someone was going to have to be her. She shivered, not looking forward to a head-on confrontation with Mother Nature.
    After a lunch of canned stew and more cheese toast, washed down by fresh hot coffee, Haley settled on the couch with her crochet. A frustrated hour later, she tossed the yellow mess aside, too bored and too inept at the domestic art to continue.
    Jeff glanced up from the romance novel he was reading. He was on his third book since discovering her cache of sexy novels. He eyed the yellow mass of thread next to her. "If you don’t mind my asking, what’s that going to be?"
    Haley shrugged. "Beats me. All I know how to do is chain stitch and then single or double crochet into each chain." She poked the long, rather lumpy, yellow rectangle. "I’m not especially domestic," she confessed, looking up in time to see his lips twitch.
    "Yes, the, uh, coffee gave me my first clue. Maybe you could call it a blizzard scarf? Or sew a few of those rectangles together, and it could be a blanket."
    "Thanks for the suggestion," she said dryly. "I guess my dad’s right. I don’t have a feminine bone in my body. He always said I was cut out to be a great botanist so I shouldn’t waste my time trying to be something I’m not."
    With a pinched smile, she added, "Guess I was standing behind the door when God gave out feminine virtues and womanly wiles."
    Jeff heard the pain behind her joke. He knew Haley’s father Franklin Gant. He’d met the man a few years ago at a conference. From her revealing conversation last night and her comments now, he had little doubt as to what her life had been like, being raised by the terse, no-nonsense Gant. He pictured her as a little unsmiling, serious-faced girl. Had there been anyone in her life to give her a hug when she'd needed one and to let her have fun just being a kid?
    An odd need to comfort her welled within him. "I have to disagree with you, Haley. The ability to make something recognizable out of a ball of yarn isn’t what makes a woman feminine. Being a great botanist and being a woman aren’t mutually exclusive. As far as womanly wiles?” He shifted uncomfortably as he remembered last night in her bed when she'd rolled against him in her sleep. She'd been warm and soft in all the right places. Beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead as he'd worked to resist the temptation to stroke the soft curves spooned against him.
    Jeff felt uncomfortably warm again. He cleared his throat. “Let’s just say you have enough to make me think about things I shouldn’t dwell on when I’m snowbound here with you."
    When Haley stared at him, he flushed and started mentally reciting the Periodic Table of Elements again. That was what had got him through last night until he'd dozed off again. But as she looked at him, her gaze soft and seductive, which he knew she didn't realize, he found himself unable to remember the fifth element. It was B. What did B stand for? Brainless maybe?
    * * *
    Haley felt the surprising pressure of tears. She turned away quickly. She’d been flattered before by men, but no man had ever touched her heart with his words. Jeff’s quiet words reached deep inside her and warmed her soul. When she'd gazed into his eyes, she'd felt breathless. Just looking at him did that to her. She felt odd. Kind of tingly. She'd turned away because something deep inside her seemed to heat and swell in response to his knowing hot, searching gaze.
    Blushing, her eyes dropped to the tangled crochet. Nervous, she picked it up. Her fingers plucked at one of the many knots. "Yes, well, thank you." Her voice trailed off. The intimacy of their situation struck her with renewed force. Suddenly all she wanted was for him to hold her. To kiss her.
    Startled by the force of that need, Haley stood abruptly. She needed to put some distance between her and Jeff.
    "Guess it’s time to clear the door again." She’d assigned Jeff the task of opening the door every few hours, just to make sure they could get it open. Door hinges could lock tighter than welded iron in a blizzard, making it impossible to use the door should they need to get out because of an emergency. Like a fire in the cabin.
    "You’re the boss. Though I don’t know if freezing to death in the unsheltered wilderness is preferable to burning to death if the cabin catches fire," Jeff joked grimly, standing and pulling on his gloves and his coat.
    Haley watched as he pulled one of her crochet squares down over his ears and knotted it beneath his chin. He looked faintly ridiculous, but oddly enough it didn't make him look less attractive. "You don’t have to bundle up like that just to crack the door a few inches."
    "Hey, give me a break. My blood’s thinner than yours. I grew up in a civilized place like Houston, Texas, not some research station in a frozen outback like you." He grinned and turned the knob, bracing his weight against the door to keep the wind from forcing it wide open.
    "Opens fine," he gasped. Winter cold slipped through the narrow gap, disturbing the cabin’s warmth. Haley shivered as he slammed the door quickly.
    "How much longer do you think the storm will blow?" he asked.
    "It shouldn’t last more than another day." Suddenly, she didn’t want the storm to end. When it blew itself out, then what? Upset, she went to the stove and pretended to check the level of coffee in the pot. With studied nonchalance, she said, "I guess you’ll be leaving after the storm, won’t you?"
    "Another day of this, and I’ll be ready for a padded cell." Jeff made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a groan. "Why, oh why didn’t I just go to Mexico instead of here?"
    Haley didn’t know why, but she was awfully glad he’d rejected Mexico for Montana. "I don’t know," she teased. "Why didn’t you?"
    Jeff shrugged. "My girlfriend and I split up. Somehow, it didn’t seem as much fun to go alone. So I thought I’d check on your research with pinedrops."
    Haley felt foolish. She should have known he had a girlfriend. Somehow, she just knew his girlfriend knew all about being feminine and womanly. Despite his off-hand compliment to her. But he’d said they’d broken up. Her spirits lifted. So she was an ex-girlfriend. She smiled, feeling foolish and hopeful at the same time.
    "It’s not really pinedrops," she corrected. So he was single and unattached. In fact, he was the most appealing man she’d ever met. And he was was snowbound with her. If she were more like her flirtatious, sexy sister, Jeff Talent would be whispering sweet nothings into her ear by now. A sigh escaped Haley.
    "I know. I know. Don’t get upset. I really did read your proposal. It’s something similar to pinedrops." Jeff grinned disarmingly. "I read it, I promise you. I just don’t remember the Chippewa name for the plant. You haven’t told me anything about your research yet. I know we called a truce, but couldn’t you tell me if you’ve reached any conclusions?"
    Haley didn’t want to discuss her research into the flower she’d hoped would be a natural pain reliever. Hearing that his company had wasted a few hundred thousand dollars on research that led nowhere would probably end the sense of companionship that had sprung up between them.
    "So tell me, Haley, have you--?" A creaking, groaning sound outside interrupted Jeff. He asked in a hushed voice, "What was that?"
    "Oh, no!" Haley looked up at the ceiling, praying that whatever tree was falling wouldn’t hit their roof. The deafening crash, when it came a minute later, shook the whole cabin. With a frightened yelp, she jumped into Jeff’s arms. Her arms encircled his neck, and she clung to him as if there were no tomorrow.
    Then silence fell. Gradually, Haley became aware that Jeff was stroking her, soothing her.
    "You’re trembling," he said softly. "Are you all right?"
    Haley nodded, not wanting to move from his arms. Not now. Not ever.
    Jeff tilted her chin up and looked into her eyes. "What was that?"
    Every nerve ending in her body went on red alert. His eyes appeared nearly black. The intensity of his gaze made her tingle where her body touched his.
    "A falling tree,” she whispered. “Or a big branch. From the ice. Or wind. Happens a lot. In storms."
    When his gaze dipped to her mouth, she fell silent. She waited, her lips tingling. Every cell and nerve ending in her body waited. Waited for him to close the distance between his lips and her lips. Waited for the smouldering heat inside her to burst into flame. Her eyelids were heavy. Slowly, they slid shut. What was Jeff waiting for?
    Haley wanted to ask Jeff why he waited, but her mouth suddenly seemed as dry as the Sonora Desert. She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue and opened her eyes. The pupils in Jeff’s eyes, already enlarged, dilated even more. Time seemed to stand still. The sound of the storm fell away, leaving only the pounding of the blood in her veins, so hard and urgent that she suspected Jeff could hear it as well.
    Slowly, Jeff’s head lowered. Haley’s eyes closed again. She lifted her face, eager for the kiss his eyes promised. When his lips touched hers, a soft sigh of delight escaped her. She gave herself to the kiss. Her hands tangled in his hair; her fingers slid through the dark strands. She pressed closer.
    Her response rocked Jeff. Hunger exploded in him. Maybe it was the trusting way Haley reciprocated his embrace. Maybe it was her honesty in accepting his kiss and returning it rather than playing coy. Probably, it was simply the exceptional woman herself. She made him laugh. She challenged him intellectually. She hadn't bored him for even a nano second.
    Yet, beneath her genius-level IQ was a vulnerability that made him want to protect her. In every way, she was completely unlike Melissa or any other woman he’d dated. And the way she made him feel when he touched her. He shuddered in response. He wanted to go on kissing her. Forever.
    They broke apart, gasping for air. Then hungrily, his lips settled on hers again. He couldn’t get enough of her. Jeff felt like a teenaged boy who’d discovered the joys of making out.
    Suddenly, another loud crash intruded, shaking the cabin, and sending them jumping apart.
    Though Haley knew the huge boom was another lost tree, she felt as if it had been a warning klaxon to alert her to the emotional danger she was in. Dismayed, she stared at Jeff. What had possess her? She’d fallen for a man she could never have. That thought did more than scare her. It terrified her. Jeff Talent was way out of her league. Why was he kissing her? Plain, old Haley who was all brains and little beauty. Little sex appeal. It had to be the enforced intimacy of their situation. That was the only answer.
    Being snowbound with only each other for company had forced them into a closeness that wouldn’t have occurred in other circumstances. That had to be the answer. When the storm was over, Jeff would leave. He probably wouldn't even remember kissing her. She was just a way to pass the time while he was stuck there. That was the bottom line as businessmen like him were fond of saying.
    From somewhere deep inside, she rallied her defenses. Haley knew she'd get her heart broken if she didn’t take steps to protect herself. She had to put a stop to this, she hesitated. This escalating desire.
    Frantically, she brainstormed strategies for keeping away from him. First, she simply couldn’t risk being alone with him. Not because of what he might do, but because of what she might do. She didn’t trust herself not to throw herself at him and demand he finish the interrupted kiss, with the hope that it would lead to something else. The something else made her giddy and colored her face bright red.
    "Are you all right?" Jeff asked.
    Haley stared at him, wondering at the note of concern in his voice. She didn’t want to be pleased that he sounded concerned. He was a calloused city boy from New York, she reminded herself. She was a botanist more used to research stations in the wilds. Like this one on the western slope of the Bitterroot Mountains. Neither fit into each other’s worlds. She had best remember that in case her hormones combined with her imagination to produce happily ever after fantasies.
    "I’m fine. I was just thinking that it’s going to be another long, cold night. I think I should get some firewood in before it gets dark."
    "Too late. It’s been dark all day," Jeff said. Though he smiled, his eyes studied her intently.
    Haley turned away from his sharp gaze, not wanting him to discern her discomfort. Again, Haley wished she could be like her sister. Courtney would just grab him, kiss him, and shove him into bed.
    Bed! If his kiss made her this erratic and emotional then anything beyond that would probably make her world tilt on its axis. Heck! He made the earth move just when he looked deep into her eyes.
    "Yes, it’s dark now, that’s true," she babbled. "But I meant real darkness. Sunset. When the sun goes down."
    "Right. I know the meaning of sunset."
    The easy humor in his voice nearly undid her. For a moment, the intensity of her desire for him nearly undid her. Tears stung her eyes. She grabbed her snow boots and began pulling them on.
    "Okay, if you think it’s necessary."
    Haley looked up and saw Jeff getting his coat.
    "Oh, no, not you. I’ll get the firewood."
    "Haley, you can’t go out there alone."
    "I can, and I will. You don’t have long johns or even proper gloves or boots," she said, staring pointedly at his black wingtip shoes.
    Ruefully, Jeff said, "Surely my fingers and toes won’t freeze in the short time I’m outside."
    "Without the right kind of gear, you wouldn’t last two minutes out there. Besides, you’re not used to this climate. Your blood’s thinner than mine, remember?" She forced a grin and walked over to a pine chest in the corner of the cabin. Lifting the lid, she said, "You get to stay inside and be my anchor." She pulled a yellow nylon rope from the chest.
    "Are you sure this is necessary? That wind sounds pretty fierce." Jeff frowned, his brow wrinkled with worry, surprising Haley.
    "Trust me," she said, with false bravado. "I’m the expert on wilderness survival. If we ever find ourselves stranded in the Big Apple, then you get to be my guide. Here, I’m the boss. Believe me, if the blizzard continues, it’ll be darker than you can believe tonight. And colder."
    "It can’t get much colder. I can already see my breath."
    "Oh, you’d be surprised how much colder it can get. I just hope the park ranger comes around real soon after the storm is over, or we’re going to have a long cold walk down this mountain."
    "Maybe your truck will start."
    "Yeah, if a pine as big as Godzilla doesn’t fall on it."
    "What about my rental car? It might start."
    Haley laughed. "You’re not serious? It would be an absolute miracle if that little tin can you drove up here started. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. For now, we need to get some firewood while we still can."
    "Okay. Let’s get this unpleasantness over with," Jeff said.
    "You really do hate this cold weather, don’t you?" Haley asked, pulling on another sweater, her green parka, and then a black ski mask.
    "You look ready to knock over a bank," Jeff quipped.
    "Maybe if I don't get another research grant, I might have to do that." She got her insulated gloves and laid them on the back of the couch then she tied the rope securely around her middle.
    "Okay, your turn." As she secured the other end of the nylon rope around Jeff’s waist, she couldn't help but notice there wasn’t an ounce of fat on his tall frame.
    "You know, I was born on the hottest day of summer," Jeff said. "My idea of heaven is a sandy beach in some tropical paradise. Maybe I could show you the pleasures of coconut-scented suntan oil when you’ve had enough of Montana."
    His off-hand suggestion startled Haley. Did he mean it? Or was he just making small talk? She didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t used to playing the flirtatious games men and women indulged in so she answered honestly, "I might like that."
    She definitely liked the mental picture of him and her, lying on golden sand, while he kneeled over her and lovingly massaged scented oil onto her skin. The fantasy made her feel light-headed, not the way she needed to feel prior to going out into a blizzard.
    Haley picked up the coiled length. "When I’m ready to come in, I’ll tug on the rope. All you have to do is stand just inside the door with it cracked only enough to allow the rope to move easily. That way I won't lose my way." She pulled a pair of goggles over her eyes.
    "Okay, Gretel. That's even better than breadcrumbs." His smile changed to a frown. "You be careful out there." Jeff pulled the hood of her parka up, drawing it tight around her face, and fastened the clamp on the drawstring.
    His closeness made her breathless. Maybe the cold outside would shock her back to her senses. "Thanks," she whispered.
    "No problem. Ready?"
    Haley nodded. "Ten minutes should be enough time to get a few armloads of wood. I’ll pile it by the door."
    "Okay, but I’m hauling you in when time’s up regardless of how much wood you’ve stacked."
    Despite her stance as an expert, Haley had never ventured out into a blizzard before. She had to admit she was a little scared. But she had the gear for this, and Jeff didn't. She took a deep breath. "Okay. Let’s do it."
    Jeff opened the door, and Haley stepped out as quickly as she could though it was more like a waddle as bundled in layers as she was. The door closed behind her, leaving her alone in a blinding universe of wind and snow.
    The ski mask helped, but icy needles still found their way to her skin. The air seemed to freeze as she breathed in. It was so cold her lungs hurt. For a moment, she marveled at the frozen landscape before her. In the waning light, it looked like an alien frozen planet.
    Snowdrifts, level with the porch floor, alarmed her. She hoped they were frozen because if she stepped into one and dropped, she'd be buried. She moved as quickly as she could to the end of the porch and gingerly stepped onto a drift. Navigating around them would be impossible. Luckily, the tops had iced over so they were more like moguls on a ski run than banks of powder to impede her progress.
    The cold was numbing. The wind-blown snow was more like knife blades than snowflakes. Wind buffeted her, knocking her down as she rounded the corner of the cabin. She landed on her bottom but struggled to her feet as quickly as she could. Haley wiggled her fingers and was disconcerted by the fact that she couldn’t feel them. This was a lot harder than she’d thought it would be. How long had she been gone? Ten seconds? Or ten minutes?
    Haley stumbled along to the woodshed, using the side of the cabin as an anchor. The shed was directly opposite the back corner of the cabin so she should be able to find it easily which was a good thing considering the light was fading fast. Damn. She should have attempted this earlier in the day.
    Carefully, she inched along, breathing shallowly and testing the next drift before stepping on it. Her progress was painstakingly slow and arduous. She paused to catch her breath, berating herself for not transferring more wood from the shed to the porch in the days prior to the storm. But she’d been too busy feeling alone and sorry for herself.
    Her next step broke through the top of a frozen snowdrift. Haley plummeted. Snow and chunks of ice rained down, covering her in a frozen shroud. Smothering her. Fear uncoiled inside her.
    Haley gasped for air and found none.
    Jeff checked his watch. Only a couple of minutes had passed, but it seemed like an eternity. Mentally, he tried to calculate how long it would take her to cover the distance to the woodshed and back, with a load of wood in her arms. He glanced at his watch again. Had he payed out too much rope when she'd left? He tested the yellow nylon. No tension. Wouldn't it be getting tighter as she walked? Worried, he glanced at the sweep hand of his watch, staring at it as it crawled around the gold circle.
    A crashing tree branch snapped Haley back to reality. She fought the loose snow over her head and quickly got her face exposed, dragging in a much needed breath that burned all the way to her lungs. Without pausing, she dug through the drift and scrambled her way out. Her teeth chattered uncontrollably, and she couldn't feel her hands. She knew she had to get moving, but she was terrified of falling through another drift.
    Praying with every step, she finally reached the corner of the house. The rope tugged sharply against her waist.
    With renewed energy, she half-ran, half-stumbled, with her arms outstretched, in the direction of the shed and ran right into it.
    Though the small structure was built a foot above ground level, snow had begun to bury it. Haley dug at the mound of snow. Panting with exertion, she managed to uncover the doorway. The exertion sapped her energy even more, but finally she managed to raise the heavy leather flap covering the doorway.
    Somehow she managed to load her arms with a half dozen of the split logs. Exhausted and colder than she'd ever been in her life, she left the meager shelter and lurched back into the swirling snow and ice.
    Suddenly, she realized if anyone saw her stumbling across the snow, they'd probably think she was drunk. Haley giggled. She imagined she looked like a stiff-jointed, drunken robot. The more she thought about it, the funnier she found the image. She laughed so hard, she fell and almost dropped her precious load of wood. Laughing and giggling hysterically, she tried to rise without letting the wood go. Thanks to well-developed leg muscles she managed the task and stood there laughing like a maniac.
    Finally, she reached the porch. Jeff opened the door and reached for her. "Get in before you're frozen."
    "No," she gasped. "One ... arm load of wood ... isn't enough. Another... ten minutes."
    With Jeff still protesting, she dropped the wood next to the door. His face looked grim. She was too tired to argue. She stumbled off the porch.
    "Five minutes," Jeff yelled.
    Haley moved as quick as she could since she had a path carved out now, but she was exhausted. The laughter had drained her. One more armload of wood. That would hold them. Until tomorrow. Surely the storm would blow itself out by then.
    Retracing her steps to the wood shed, she managed to get there without falling this time. She managed to load her arms with the same amount of wood and started back.
    Her feet seemed to weigh more with each plodding step. Her arms felt as wooden as the logs she carried. She was so cold. So tired. If she could just rest a moment. Just stand still and lean against the house. Just for a minute. Then she'd be able to finish carrying the wood to the porch.
    What she really needed was to lay down for a minute or two. The huge snow drifts made her think of down-filled white comforters. Wouldn’t it be nice to curl up under one of them? Tiredly, Haley leaned against the side of the cabin and closed her eyes. There was a tightness around her waist that was painful, but she couldn't figure out what it was. Maybe if she just rested. She leaned against the log wall of the house. Her thoughts drifted off into nothingness.
    Bemused, she stared at the graying gloom of the day and thought it was like being inside a television that wasn’t receiving a signal. So that’s why they called it snow on the TV screen, she thought. It was nearly hypnotic, she thought, watching the gray. She closed her eyes to rest them a moment.
    Get up, Haley Gant!
    Haley blinked. Something dark loomed over her. Her lips felt too frozen to form the question in her head. Then something, some force pulled her upright. Her sluggish brain sent the word to her lips. They formed the name but no sound came forth.
    She tried to ask a question, but the wind tore the words from her lips. For a moment, she seemed to hear her father’s voice, shouting, commanding. Just like he’d done that summer at camp when she’d been in the swimming race and had nearly given up because a cramp had hit her.
    "No excuses, Haley," Franklin Gant had yelled at her. "Just do it!"
    Filled with that memory and encouraged by the man next to her, Haley managed to put one foot before the other and was half dragged, half carried onto the porch.
    "Let go of the wood," Jeff shouted.
    Haley stared dumbly at him.
    "Haley! Drop the wood."
    She stared. Finally her brain transferred the message to her arms. She opened them and the wood fell by the door.
    It seemed like an eternity later when Jeff shoved her through the cabin door. She fell onto the hardwood floor. Jeff sank down next to her. She felt encased in ice. When she tried to speak, to thank him, her teeth chattered so badly, the words made no sense yet Jeff seemed to understand.
    "You're welcome," he muttered as he fumbled with the knots in the rope, freeing each of them from the yellow nylon loops.
    Haley was too tired to help him. Some expert she’d turned out to be. Once out of the blizzard and into shelter, she realized with horror that she'd been a hair's breadth away from hypothermia. How long had she been out there, motionless, with her brain starting to shut down? Thank God Jeff hadn't waited to reel her in like a frozen trout.
    Haley shuddered. Then the shakes set in. She felt frozen to her very core.
    "You all right?" Jeff asked, tugging her to a sitting position, rubbing her arms and legs.
    "J--just f--feeling incred–credibly f--foolish," she managed to gasp. "So c--cold. You?"
    "Just peachy," he said as he pulled his gloves off and shucked his wingtip shoes. He rubbed his feet which looked fairly bloodless at the moment but which rapidly pinkened. Then he shoved her hood back, whipped off the goggles, the cap, and the ski mask.
    Haley took a deep shuddering breath. She shook so hard with the chills that it was agonizing.
    "Got to get you warm," Jeff muttered, removing her gloves and her coat before she could blink. An untidy mound of dripping, discarded clothing formed next to them as he divested himself of his coat. "Let’s move over to the fire," he said, pulling her upright.
    Compared to the outside, the cabin with its sixteen inch log walls seemed as warm as if it had central heating. Haley allowed herself to be pushed and prodded toward the source of heat. The few steps to the mattress in front of the hearth seemed like a 10K run, she thought, collapsing on it.
    Jeff removed her outer clothing, leaving her in the unflattering thermal underwear then he stripped down to a tee shirt and briefs. He tented the blankets over them both as they faced the fire. Then he began rubbing her arms again, then her legs, infusing her with his own warmth. Still she shook like a leaf in the storm.
    He lay down and pulled her close, wrapping the blankets carefully around them. He shared his body heat with her, and Haley didn’t even squeak a protest. After several minutes, her body relaxed a bit. The quaking subsided to shivering and after a while that faded.
    Haley felt at home in his arms. She could tell by his body’s reaction that he didn’t feel nearly as relaxed as she. Drowsiness crept over her. Exhausted, she could hardly keep her eyes open. "You’re pretty good at shucking clothes and getting a girl in bed," she whispered.
    Jeff chuckled. "I owe it all to Jennifer Como and the backseat of my dad’s Chevy."
    Surprised, Haley laughed. "You’re terrible." Then suddenly, her laughter changed to a sob as the enormity of what had almost happened hit her.
    "Shhh. I've got you." Jeff held her even tighter. "Go ahead and cry. It's all right." He craned his head to see her better. Tears ran down her reddened cheeks. Her nose was red and running. Yet, to him, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
    The surge of adrenalin had ebbed, but he still felt the shock of fear that had filled him when he’d tugged on the rope and got no response. He hadn’t hesitated before plunging into the storm. When he’d seen Haley sitting next to the cabin, with her arms full of wood, he’d thought she’d frozen. She seemed as motionless as a marble statue. His heart had turned over with fear.
    "Oh, Haley," he whispered, his hands restless on her back as he sought to reassure himself that she was safe. "I thought I’d lost you," he whispered fiercely. Just holding her wasn’t enough to vanquish the fear he’d felt. He blazed a kiss across her lips.
    Haley gasped. His unexpected passion ignited some primeval emotion inside herself. He seemed to know exactly what she needed to chase away the stark fear that had held her in thrall.
    Clumsily, she cupped his face with both her hands and kissed him back. "Please," she whispered, moving against him.
    It was as if they were one in thought and emotion. Jeff rained kisses onto her face. Haley felt the most delicious warmth curl through her, filling her senses with an excitement that left no room for cold and fear.
    Guided by emotions she’d scarcely felt before, she welcomed his passion and responded whole-heartedly to it. Glad to be alive. Glad to be in his arms. Glad for this one night with him.
    "Ah, Haley," Jeff breathed against her lips. "What am I going to do with you?"
    Silence awoke Haley sometime before dawn. The storm had died. The wind had abated. No icy pellets bombarded the windows. She listened to Jeff’s breathing and smiled. He slept on undisturbed. She'd never forget her night with Jeff. They’d talked until well after midnight. He’d told her how his dedication to work had ruined one relationship after another. She’d told him of how she’d dedicated her life to her research but that she had always longed for more than that.
    He’d told her about his parents and about his life growing up with three brothers and a sister. She’d told him, haltingly, of her lonely childhood spent with a father left bitter by his wife’s betrayal.
    On and on they’d talked, sharing intimacies. They'd shared everything except sex. She'd been willing. More than willing, but Jeff was the one who called a halt. Finally, she'd fallen asleep in his arms.
    Why hadn't they made love? She lay on her side with Jeff spooned to her back and savored his warmth, his closeness and wished it could always be this way. Was it possible to fall in love in a few days time?
    Lying curled next to Jeff, she felt a contentment she’d never found anywhere. Not in her work. Not in her other relationships. Jeff’s arms were her refuge. She felt at home. A lump filled her throat painfully. If only she knew how Jeff felt about her. With no storm to imprison them, would he demand her findings about her research and then leave? She felt insecurity sink its claws into her.
    A shaft of silvery moonlight peeked through the front windows. Moonlight on snow was a sight worth losing a little sleep. She started to wake Jeff so he could see the simple, elegant beauty that drew her back here time after time. She lay her hand on his cheek, intending to wake him. Just that simple touch made her shiver.
    When he turned his face into her palm and kissed her hand, she forgot all about the natural beauty she’d wanted to show him. As he pulled her back into his arms, she prayed that there was something real between them. Something special. She only hoped they had enough time together for him to feel it too.
    When she awoke again, bright sunlight streamed through the windows.
    "Well, good morning, sleepyhead."
    Haley moaned and pulled the covers over her head.
    "Uh uh. We’ll have none of that lollygagging in bed."
    Then the covers were ripped away.
    "Jeff!" Briefly, they engaged in a tug of war for the blanket, but he won.
    "All right, all right. I’m up." Haley yawned and stretched.
    "And about time too, Dr. Gant. We need to go over your project analysis. Time’s awasting and life’s awaiting."
    Haley’s heart turned over at his business-like tone. All her fears intensified. It took forever for her to dress because her hands shook. When she appeared from behind the curtained alcove, Jeff sat at the table with two cups of steaming coffee waiting.
    Feeling awkward and uncertain, Haley took her seat at the table and waited.
    "Now, before we get started, I want to tell you why I arrived here early," Jeff began.
    Haley frowned and cocked her head to the side. "Listen. Do you hear that?"
    Jeff frowned. "I don’t hear anything."
    "Someone's coming." Regret washed over Kaley. She’d lost her opportunity to be alone with Jeff.
    "Hey! I do hear something." Jeff jumped up and rushed to the door.
    Haley followed in time to see a Snow Cat chug into the clearing and ease up to park near the end of the porch. "It’s the park ranger, but I don’t know the other guy."
    "That’s Etienne Roget."
    Haley could tell by his tone of voice that Roget was not one of Jeff's friends. "Who's Etienne Roget?"
    "I guess you could call him an industrial spy. I’d heard he was after you and your project. Looks like I was right."
    Realization dawned on Haley. "I see. So that’s why you’re here early. Afraid I’d tell him about the project I’m working on?"
    Jeff flushed. "Not exactly. You hadn’t filed any reports, and I didn’t know if I could trust you. I mean I didn't know you. Then. But I did know how Roget works. You wouldn’t have been the first woman who revealed her secrets to that French Don Juan." He shrugged. "I felt it was in the best interests of the company that I check on you."
    "You mean check up on me!" Anger burned through Haley's uncertainties. What a fool she’d been! She felt mortified by every kiss they’d exchanged. He’d been playing her until he got that final report on her project. He wanted to ensure her research went to his company instead of being sold under the table to a higher bidder. Not only did he think she had no scruples about her work, he obviously thought she had none where her personal life was concerned either. Why hadn't he made love to her? Bitterly, she decided he hadn't wanted to go to that trouble when a few kisses and pillow talk would take care of her.
    "I’d say you know a little about romancing women too."
    Jeff turned and leveled an indignant look at her. "What exactly is that supposed to mean?"
    "I think you know very well what it means. You’ve been cozying up to me since you arrived. Kissing me! Complimenting me! Acting as if I had enchanted you."
    "I want you. I’ve made no secret of that."
    "Ha! You don’t want anything except to protect the interests of EnviroMed. How dare you think I’d sell out when I’ve been hired by your company. At least I have scruples."
    Jeff's brows snapped together in a scowl. "And I don’t? Is that what you’re saying?"
    "Hey, if the shoe fits!" Haley’s voice rose. "And how dare you try to romance me to protect your lousy company’s interests."
    "That’s a rotten thing to say!" Jeff grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her close.
    "Let go of me." Haley jerked from his arms. After thirty years of leading a sane, orderly life, she’d fallen head over heels in love with a rotten, manipulative Romeo. Oh, had she been ripe for the picking!
    "You can take your silly gloves and your New York overcoat and your dress-for-success wingtip shoes and go back to the city where you belong."
    "You honestly believe that nonsense you're babbling? You don't believe me?"
    "Why should I? Give me one good reason?"
    Jeff stared at her, tempted to give her the reason she asked for. But if she believed he’d shared his soul with her just to keep her loyal to his company, then she’d never believe he’d fallen in love with her.
    Loud barking split the tension between them. Haley and Jeff turned as one to gape at their unwelcome foreign visitor who wrestled with an ungainly black bundle.
    "What the–?" Jeff broke off.
    Haley saw the Frenchman struggling to lift a huge black Labrador retriever from the cab of the Snow Cat. He sat the dog down, and the animal made a beeline for Haley. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry as she stared at the clumsy puppy bounding through the snow,
    Somehow, she knew that her big surprise birthday present from Courtney had finally arrived.
    Jeff gazed out the wall of windows at a world that looked like a snow globe. Even New York’s winter conspired against him to keep Haley forever in his thoughts.
    "Jeff? Hey, boss!"
    Jeff shook his head as if to clear it and turned to his secretary. "Sorry, Marge. What did you say?"
    "Is that all you wanted to say about Dr. Gant’s project?" his secretary asked.
    "Oh. Uh, I don't know. Where’d I stop?"
    She read the last sentence he’d dictated. Jeff tried to focus on the summary he’d written based on the project report Haley had mailed to him last week, but it was no use. Every time he said Dr. Gant, his heart squeezed. He’d finally fallen in love, and the fall had devastated him. Well, not the fall, but what had happened afterwards. He lapsed into thought again, recalling the hours they’d spent snowbound in the cabin.
    "Maybe we should finish this in the morning?" Marge suggested, bringing him back to the present.
    "Sure, Marge. No problem. Maybe I’ll be sharper tomorrow."
    "You might try getting some sleep. That’d help." With a tsk tsk, she added, "You could pack clothes in those bags under your eyes."
    "Get out of here," Jeff said. "Next thing I know you’ll be complaining about my personality."
    "Now that you mention it, you seem to have left your sense of humor out west." Marge grinned. "Maybe you should go back to Montana and find it."
    Jeff waved his hand at her, shooing her out of the office.
    "Okay. I can take a hint. I’m going. I’m going."
    Jeff listened to her soft chuckle as she closed his office door. Marge knew him too well. He’d brought her with him from company to company. They were a good team. When he’d accepted the EnviroMed position, she'd been more thrilled than he. The woman was honest to a fault. Trouble was, she was right. He’d been a pain in the neck for three weeks now.
    Three long weeks.
    He realized now that he should have made Haley listen to him that day. But he’d been so hurt by her accusations. By her lack of faith in him. Then when he’d got back to New York, his hurt transformed to anger.
    After another week had passed, the anger and hurt turned into a loneliness he’d never felt before. He missed her. He should have tried harder to make her listen - to convince her that he was more interested in her, the woman, than in her as a scientist. A heavy sigh escaped him. He’d made mistakes every step of the way. Last week, he'd sent her a demand that she turn over all her project papers. He'd hoped that would at least get her to talk to him on the phone. Instead, she'd sent a terse report with no supporting documents. Not even a cover letter. His plan to get a dialogue going must have just incensed her. Morosely, he thought his order had been the nails in the coffin of their fledgling relationship. He should just email her and tell her how he felt about her. Would that work now? He sighed again. Probably not.
    Tiredly, Jeff picked up his briefcase and opened it to pack away the work he should have done at the office. Staring at the expensive leather case, he grimaced then slammed it shut. Why take any work home? He knew he wouldn’t be able to focus on it any better there than he had here. He rubbed the tense muscles at the back of his neck, straightened and stretched and walked to the window. Snow continued to drift past the glass. Was it snowing in Montana too?
    * * *
    Haley stared out the cab window at the black glass skyscraper. Weak morning sunlight ricocheted off the top of the building. If her timing was right, Jeff should be seated at his desk, having his morning cup of coffee.
    She stepped out of the cab and shivered. Somehow New York seemed colder than Montana. Of course, in Montana she dressed like a lumberjack. She shivered in her charcoal wool pants suit. The high-heeled boots looked great, but they weren’t nearly as warm as her fleece-lined work boots.
    Still, freezing her toes off would be worth it if Jeff thought she looked good. She wanted to be sophisticated and cool, not frazzled and needy, when she told him what she thought about that demand letter he'd sent.
    * * *
    Jeff stared at his coffee. Anger coursed through him. Enough was enough. He was tired of giving Haley space. That had been a mistake, and it was time to correct it. He nodded emphatically, picked up the cup and drained it. For the first time in weeks, he felt clear-headed and decisive. He rose and went out to Marge’s desk.
    "Get me a reservation on the first flight to Montana."
    "Good morning to you too!" Marge grinned up at him.
    "It is a good morning," Jeff said heartily. "Or it will be once I get back there."
    "Looks like you had an epiphany during the night."
    "You might say that." Jeff winked. "I decided to go back and find my sense of humor."
    "I’ll let you know when I have your reservation." Marge said with a sly grin. "You sure you don't want to tell me about what happened between you and Dr. Gant during that blizzard?"
    "That’s for me to know and you to wonder about." Whistling, Jeff turned and went back to his office. He’d just sat down when the phone buzzed.
    "Got that reservation already?"
    "Not yet, Mr. Talent," Marge said, formally. "You have a visitor. Dr. Haley Gant."
    Jeff dropped the phone and raced to the door. When he jerked it open, the woman standing next to Marge’s desk turned.
    Gone were the ponytail and jeans. No thermal knit undershirt peeked from the vee opening of a plaid shirt. Instead, red lipstick outlined Haley’s mouth to perfection. Her hair was coiled in a simple twist. She looked as cosmopolitan as any woman in the city. But the gray eyes sparkling with some unnamed emotion were unmistakably the same.
    Jeff couldn’t suppress his grin of delight. "Haley! You’re not in Montana!"
    "How astute you are, Mr. Talent." Haley arched one dark brow as she walked toward him.
    Jeff devoured her with his eyes. She was wonderful this way too. Her eyes held his gaze. He realized what emotion shimmered in her beautiful gray eyes. Anger.
    Cautiously, he stepped back. "Why don’t you come in and tell me what's on your mind?"
    She breezed past him. He caught the scent of perfume, a fragrance that made him think of tropical flowers. His imagination took a short leap to his favorite fantasy - Haley and him and miles of golden sand. Coconut-scented suntan oil. Her luscious body with no flannel shirt, no jeans, no longjohns, no blanket between her skin and his.
    "You can wipe that silly grin off your face," Haley snapped. She clenched her hands around the slim briefcase she carried. If she let go of the case, she knew she’d make a grab for him. Why did he have to look so good?
    His was the face she saw in her dreams. He was the man she wanted, but it was obvious from the nasty demand letter he’d sent that he had no thoughts about her other than ones related to EnviroMed’s project.
    Jeff realized he was still holding the door wide, and no doubt, she was right. He probably did have a silly grin on his face. "Sorry," he said, closing the door and walking toward her. He didn’t know how to begin. He'd made a mess of things before, and he didn't want to blow it again. What could he say to make her forget what a jackass he'd been?
    What could he say to make her fall into his arms? That's all he wanted. Haley in his arms again.
    Haley tried to collect herself as Jeff returned to his desk chair. When he was seated, she opened her briefcase and pulled out a thick folder then slammed it down on the desk in front of him.
    "Here are your lousy notes. I certainly wouldn’t want you to file a lawsuit against me."
    "Haley, let me explain."
    "What’s to explain?" She interrupted, letting the anger she felt obscure the pain.
    "But, the letter. I sent the letter just to...."
    "Just to what? Add insult to injury?"
    "No." Jeff rubbed the back of his neck. He stood. "You sit. Let me get you some coffee. Let me explain...."
    Haley remained standing. "I don’t want to sit down, and I don’t want any coffee. And I certainly don’t want any of your explanations. Let’s just call it even, and I’ll be on my way." She turned as if to leave, all the while hoping he would say something to stop her.
    Jeff leaped to his feet and raced to the door. Arms and legs outstretched, he barred the in dramatic fashion. "No. If I let you walk out that door, I'll be making an even bigger mistake. And so will you."
    Haley’s eyes narrowed. "Don’t make me hurt you, Jeff. I know karate."
    "Go ahead. Hurt me." His eyes gazed deep into hers. "Whip me, beat me. Make me listen to techno music," he joked. His gaze darkened as he searched for a sign, any sign, that she had some feeling for him. "Do whatever makes you happy as long as you love me."
    Abruptly, Haley turned. Stiffly, she walked away, back toward his desk.
    Jeff followed. When she reached his desk, unable to go any farther, he reached out and clasped her shoulders with his hands. Gently, he turned her to face him. Tears sparkled in her eyes. Pain stabbed him. "Sweetheart, what is it?"
    "Don’t joke. Not about love."
    "I’m not joking, Haley. Sweetheart, I sent that stupid letter of demand in hopes you’d call me to bawl me out, and I could tell you how I felt. It was dumb, but I was desperate. I didn't know what else to do. I don’t want your notes, no matter how brilliant and detailed they probably are. I want you."
    She raised her head. Her gleaming eyes met his. In a husky whisper, Haley asked, "What are you saying?"
    His phone buzzed. His eyes never left hers as he punched the intercom button. "Yes, Marge?"
    "I have that reservation to Montana. Do you still want it?"
    Haley’s eyes widened. Jeff smiled. His gaze never left hers. "No, Marge, why don’t you change it to a reservation for two to Las Vegas."
    Haley’s heart seemed to swell inside her breast. If she lived to be a hundred, she’d never forget this moment. "You were coming back to me?" She couldn’t stop the tears from falling now, but they were tears of happiness.
    Jeff caught them on the tips of his fingers and brushed them away. "Yes, sweet Haley." She offered no resistance when he pulled her into his arms.
    "Why?" she breathed, wanting to hear the magical words. She wanted to hear them, and she wanted to say them to him.
    Jeff understood. "Because I love you. And I think you love me."
    * * *
    By the time, Haley and Jeff had checked into their private villa in Acapulco, she was severely jet lagged and completely exhausted. In the space of a day, she’d flown across the country. Twice. Been married in Vegas. Then caught a plane to Mexico.
    Once their bags had been unloaded at the glistening white-walled villa, Jeff had kissed her and ducked out on some mysterious errand. She’d waited a bit, but when he hadn’t returned in an hour, she’d been a little miffed. After all, this was their wedding night. Or was it wedding day? The sun was already baking the golden sand when they’d arrived at the resort. She shrugged, certain Jeff had a good reason for leaving her. She smiled when she realized the old insecurities had lost their power over her.
    Perhaps, Haley decided with amusement, Jeff was being considerate. He knew how tired she was. She decided to take a shower then turn in until he came back to her.
    The hot water soothed her travel aches. Haley stayed under the rain-shower stream of water until it began to run cool. She turned the water off and stepped out onto the pale green bath mat. All she really wanted was sleep, she decided. Yawning, she lazily applied the thick luxurious towel. A flash of red caught her attention.
    "Oh, how beautiful." Lying on the velvet-covered vanity bench was a filmy red negligee. So that was Jeff’s mysterious errand!
    Smiling happily, she picked up the gossamer creation and slipped it over her head. Lace straps supported a lace bodice that hugged her breasts. The length of delicate flame-colored silk drifted to her ankles. Haley stared at her reflection. She felt incredibly sensuous. And beautiful. She twirled, eyes closed, admiring her reflection in the mirrors and enjoying the glide of silk on her skin.
    When she opened her eyes, she noticed a neat stack of one dollar bills on the vanity. "What on earth?"
    Puzzled, she picked up the money. Looking down at the bills in her hand, she opened the bathroom door and called out, "Jeff?"
    As if on cue, a slow, jazzy song, heavy with saxophone, began playing. Startled, Haley looked up from the money in her hand and saw Jeff. Her husband. Clad in his suit trousers and with a red bow tie around his neck. He began undulating toward her, doing a pretty good bump and grind dance routine.
    Giggling, Haley watched him rock his lean hips side to side to the beat of the drums in the song playing in the background. When he stopped in front of her and pulled her close, Haley peeled off a couple of the dollar bills and tucked them into the waistband of his trousers. She loved this man. She could look ahead and see a future bright with love and passion and companionship. But she planned to live it one day at a time, savoring her life with Jeff.
    "Tired, Dr. Gant?"
    "That’s Mrs. Talent to you," she said, tossing the rest of the dollar bills over her shoulder. With his eyes on her, admiring her, loving her, Haley knew she wasn’t that tired.
    "So, tell me, Jeff." She kissed his lips lightly. The music ended. Her mouth curved into a smile as she slid her hands down to his belt buckle.
    "What do you do for an encore?"