To Tom and Ky and Larry,
for having the good sense to marry well.
Damn snow. Gabe downshifted to second gear, slowed the Jeep to fifteen miles an hour, swore and strained his eyes. Through the frantic swing of the wipers on the windshield all that could be seen was a wall of white. No winter wonderland. Snow pelted down in flakes that looked as big and as mean as a man’s fist.
There would be no waiting out this storm, he thought as he took the next curve at a crawl. He considered himself lucky that after six months he knew the narrow, winding road from town so well. He could drive almost by feel, but a newcomer wouldn’t stand a chance. Even with that advantage, his shoulders and the back of his neck were tight with tension. Colorado snows could be as vicious in spring as they were in the dead of winter, and they could last for an hour or a day. Apparently this one had been a surprise to everyone—residents, tourists and the National Weather Service.
He had only five miles to go. Then he could unload his supplies, stoke his fire and enjoy the April blizzard from the comfort of his cabin, with a hot cup of coffee or an ice cold beer.
The Jeep chugged up the incline like a tank, and he was grateful for its sturdy perseverance. The unexpected snowfall might force him to take three times as long to make the twenty-mile trip from town to home, but at least he’d get there.
The wipers worked furiously to clear the windshield. There were seconds of white vision followed by seconds of white blindness. At this rate there would be better than two feet by nightfall. Gabe comforted himself with the thought that he’d be home long before that, even as the air in the Jeep turned blue from his cursing. If he hadn’t lost track of the time the day before, he’d have had his supplies and been able to laugh at the weather.
The road went into a lazy S and Gabe took it cautiously. It was difficult for him to move slowly under any circumstances, but over the winter he had gained a healthy respect for the mountains and the roads that had been blasted through them. The guardrail was sturdy enough, but beneath it the cliffs were unforgiving. He wasn’t worried so much about making a mistake himself—the Jeep was solid as a rock—but he thought of others who might be traveling north or south on the pass, pulling over to the side or stopping dead in the middle of the road.
He wanted a cigarette. His hands gripping the wheel hard, he all but lusted for a cigarette. But it was a luxury that would have to wait. Three miles to go.
The tension in his shoulders began to ease. He hadn’t seen another car in more than twenty minutes, and he wasn’t likely to now. Anyone with any sense would have taken shelter. From this point on he could almost feel his way home. A good thing. Beside him the radio was squawking about roads closed and activities canceled. It always amazed Gabe that people planned so many meetings, luncheons, recitals and rehearsals on any given day.
But that was human nature, he supposed. Always planning on drawing together, if only to sell a bunch of cakes and cookies. He preferred to be alone. At least for now. Otherwise he wouldn’t have bought the cabin and buried himself in it for the last six months.
The solitude gave him freedom, to think, to work, to heal. He’d done some of all three.
He nearly sighed when he saw—or rather felt—the road slant upward again. This was the final rise before his turnoff. Only a mile now. His face, which had been hard and tight with concentration, relaxed. It wasn’t a smooth or particularly handsome face. It was too thin and angular to be merely pleasant, and the nose was out of alignment due to a heated disagreement with his younger brother during their teens. Gabe hadn’t held it against him.
Because he’d forgotten to wear a hat, his dark blond hair fell untidily around his face. It was long and a bit shaggy over the collar of his parka and had been styled hastily with his fingers hours before. His eyes, a dark, clear green, were starting to burn from staring at the snow.
While his tires swished over the cushioned asphalt he glanced down at his odometer, saw that there was only a quarter mile left, then looked back to the road. That was when he saw a car coming at him out of control.
He didn’t even have time to swear. He jerked the Jeep to the right just as the oncoming car seemed to come out of its spin. The Jeep skimmed over the snow piled on the shoulder, swaying dangerously before the tires chewed down to the road surface for traction. He had a bad moment when he thought the Jeep was going to roll over like a turtle. Then all he could do was sit and watch and hope the other driver was as lucky.
The oncoming car was barreling down the road sideways. Though only seconds had passed, Gabe had time to think of how nasty the impact would be when the car slammed into him. Then the driver managed to straighten out. With only feet between them the car fishtailed and swerved to avoid the collision, then began to slide helplessly toward the guardrail. Gabe set his emergency brake and was out of the Jeep when the car rammed into the metal.
He nearly fell on his face, but his boots held as he raced across the road. It was a compact—a bit more compact now, with its right side shoved in and its hood sprung like an accordion, also on the passenger side. He had another moment to think, and he grimaced at the thought of what would have happened if the car had hit on the driver’s side.
Fighting his way through the snow, he managed to make it to the wrecked car. He saw a figure slumped over the wheel, and he yanked at the door. It was locked. With his heart in his throat, he began to pound against the window.
The figure moved. A woman, he saw from the thick wave of wheat-blond hair that spilled onto the shoulders of a dark coat. He watched her reach up and drag a ski cap from her head. Then she turned her face to the window and stared at him.
She was white, marble white. Even her lips were colorless. Her eyes were huge and dark, the irises almost black with shock. And she was beautiful, stunningly breathtakingly beautiful. The artist in him saw the possibilities in the diamond-shaped face, the prominent cheekbones, the full lower lip. The man in him rejected them and banged on the glass again.
She blinked and shook her head as if to clear it. As the shock passed out of them, he saw that her eyes were blue, a midnight blue. They filled now with a rush of concern. In a quick movement she rolled down the window.
“Are you hurt?” she demanded before he could speak. “Did I hit you?”
“No, you hit the guardrail.”
“Thank God.” She let her head slump back on the seat for a moment. Her mouth was as dry as dust. And her heart, though she was already fighting to control it, was thudding in her throat. “I started to skid coming down the incline. I thought—I hoped—I might be able to ride it out. Then I saw you and I was sure I was going to hit you.”
“You would have if you hadn’t swerved away toward the rail.” He glanced at the front of her car again. The damage could have been worse, much worse. If she’d been going any faster … There was no use speculating. He turned to her again, studying her face for signs of shock or concussion. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. I think so.” She opened her eyes again and tried to smile at him. “I’m sorry. I must have given you quite a scare.”
“At least.” But the scare was over now. He was less than a quarter of a mile from hearth and home, and stuck in the snow with a strange woman whose car wasn’t going anywhere for several days. “What the hell are you doing out here?”
She took the furiously bitten-off words in stride as she unhooked her seat belt. The long, deep breaths she’d been taking had gone a long way toward steadying her. “I must have gotten turned around in the storm. I was trying to get down to Lonesome Ridge to wait it out, find a place for the night. That’s the closest town, according to the map, and I was afraid to pull over on the shoulder.” She glanced over at the guardrail a
nd shuddered. “What there is of it. I don’t suppose there’s any way I’m going to get my car out of here.”
Frowning, Gabe stuck his hands in his pockets. The snow was still falling, and the road was deserted. If he turned around and walked back to his Jeep, leaving her to fend for herself, she might very well freeze to death before an emergency vehicle or a snowplow came along. However much he’d have liked to shrug off the obligation, he couldn’t leave a woman stranded in this storm.
“The best I can do is take you with me.” There wasn’t an ounce of graciousness in his tone. She hadn’t expected any. If he was angry and impatient about nearly being plowed into, and inconvenienced on top of it, he was entitled.
He moved his shoulders, aware that he’d been rude.
“The turnoff for my cabin’s at the top of the hill. You’ll have to leave your car and ride in the Jeep.”
“I’d appreciate it.” With the engine off and the window open, the cold was beginning to seep through her clothes. “I’m sorry for the imposition, Mr. —?”
“Bradley. Gabe Bradley.”
“I’m Laura.” She slipped out of the safety harness that had undoubtedly saved her from injury. “I have a suitcase in the trunk, if you wouldn’t mind giving me a hand with it.”
Gabe took the keys and stomped back toward the trunk, thinking that if he’d only left an hour earlier that afternoon he’d be home—alone—at this moment.
The case wasn’t large, and it was far from new. The lady with only one name traveled light, he thought. He muttered to himself as he hefted it out of the trunk. There was no use being angry with her, or being snotty. If she hadn’t managed to skid quite so well, if she hadn’t avoided him, they might have been needing a doctor now instead of a cup of coffee and dry feet.
Deciding to be more civil, Gabe turned to tell her to go across to the Jeep. She was standing, watching him, with the snow falling on her uncovered hair. That was when he saw she was not only beautiful, she was very, very pregnant.
“Oh, God” was all he could manage.
“I’m really sorry to be so much trouble,” Laura began. “And I want to thank you in advance for the lift. If I could call from your cabin and find a tow truck, maybe we could clear this whole thing up quickly.”
He hadn’t heard a word she’d said. Not one. All he could do was stare at the ripe slope beneath her dark coat. “Are you sure you’re all right? You didn’t tell me you were— Are you going to need a doctor?”
“I’m fine.” This time she smiled, fully. The cold had brought the color back into her face. “Really. The baby wasn’t hurt. He’s annoyed a bit, I’d say from the way he’s kicking me, but we hardly felt the impact. We didn’t ram the guardrail, we sort of slid into it.”
“You might have …” What? he wondered. “Jarred something.”
“I’m fine,” she said again. “I was strapped in, and the snow, though it started it all, cushioned the hit.” Noting that he still seemed unconvinced, she tossed back her snow-covered hair. Her fingers, though they were tucked into subtle, silk-lined leather, were going numb. “I promise, I’m not going to give birth in the middle of the road—unless you plan on standing here for a few more weeks.”
She was all right … he hoped. And the way she was smiling at him made him feel like an idiot. Deciding to take her word for it, he offered her a hand. “Let me help you.”
The words, such simple words, went straight to her heart. She could have counted on her hands the number of times she had heard them.
He didn’t know how to deal with pregnant women. Were they fragile? It had always seemed to him that the opposite must be true, given what they had to go through, but now, faced with one, he was afraid she’d shatter at a touch.
Mindful of the slippery road, Laura took a firm grip on his arm as they started across. “It’s beautiful here,” she said when they reached the Jeep. “But I have to admit, I’m going to appreciate the snow more from inside.” She glanced at the high step below the door of the Jeep. “I think you’re going to have to give me a bit of a boost. I’m not as agile as I used to be.”
Gabe stowed her case, wondering exactly where to grab her. Mumbling, he put a hand under her elbow and another on her hip. Laura slid into the seat with less fuss than he’d expected.
He grunted a response as he slammed the door. He skirted the hood, then took his place behind the wheel. It took a little maneuvering, but with a minimum of effort they inched back onto the road.
The dependable Jeep started up the hill. Laura uncurled her hands as they moved along at a steady pace. They’d finally stopped shaking. “I wasn’t sure anyone lived along here. If I’d known, I’d have begged a roof long before this. I wasn’t expecting a snowstorm in April.”
“We get them later than this.” He said nothing for a moment. He respected other peoples privacy as zealously as his own. But these were unusual circumstances. “You’re traveling alone?”
“Isn’t that a little risky in your condition?”
“I’d planned on being in Denver in a couple of days.” She laid a hand lightly on her belly. “I’m not due for six weeks.” Laura took a deep breath. It was a risk to trust him, but she really had no other option. “Do you live alone, Mr. Bradley?”
She shifted her gaze just enough to study him as he turned down a narrow, snow-covered lane. At least she assumed a lane was buried somewhere under all the white. There was something tough and hard about his face. Not rugged, she thought. It was too lean and fine-boned for that. It was coldly sculpted, as she imagined a mythic warrior chief’s might be.
But she remembered the stunned male helplessness in his eyes when he’d seen she was pregnant. She believed she’d be safe with him. She had to believe that.
He felt her gaze and read her thoughts easily enough. “I’m not a maniac,” he said mildly.
“I appreciate that.” She smiled a little, then turned to look out the windshield again.
The cabin could barely be seen through the snow, even when he stopped in front of it. But what Laura could see, she loved. It was a squat rectangle of wood with a covered porch and square-paned windows. Smoke puffed from the chimney.
Though it was buried under snow, there was a path of flat rocks leading from the lane to the front steps. Evergreens mantled with white trooped around the corners. Nothing had ever looked as safe and warm as this snow-decked little cabin in the mountains.
“It’s lovely. You must be happy here.”
“It does the job.” Gabe came around to help her down. She smelled like the snow, he thought, or perhaps more like water, the pure, virginal water that poured down the mountain in the spring. “I’ll take you in,” he told her, knowing both his reaction and his comparison were ridiculous. “You can warm up by the fire.” Gabe opened the front door and waved her in. “Go ahead. I’ll bring in the rest.”
He left her alone, snow dripping wet from her coat onto the woven mat inside the door.
The paintings. Laura stood just where she was and stared openmouthed at the paintings. They covered the walls, they were stacked in corners, they were piled on tables. Only a few were framed. They didn’t need the ornamentation. Some were half finished, as though the artist had lost interest or motivation. There were oils, in colors vivid and harsh, and watercolors in soft, misty hues that might have sprung from dreams. Shrugging out of her coat, Laura moved in for a closer look.
There was a scene from Paris, the Bois de Boulogne. She remembered it from her honeymoon. Looking at it made her eyes swim and her muscles tense. Breathing deeply, she forced herself to look at it until her emotions settled.
An easel was set near the window, where the light would come in and fall on the canvas. She resisted the temptation to go over and steal a look. She already had the sensation that she was trespassing.
What was she go
ing to do? Laura gripped her hands together tightly as she let the despair come. She was stranded, her car wrecked, her money dwindling. And the baby— The baby wasn’t going to wait until she made things right.
If they found her now …
They weren’t going to find her. Deliberately she unlaced her hands. She’d come this far. No one was going to take her baby, now or ever.
She turned as the door to the cabin opened. Gabe shifted the bags he’d carried inside, leaving them jumbled together in a pile. He, too, shrugged out of his coat and hung it on a hook by the door.
He was as lean as his face had indicated. Though he might have been a bit under six feet, the spare toughness of his build gave the illusion of more height, more power. More like a boxer than an artist, Laura thought as she watched him kick the clinging snow from his boots. More like a man of the outdoors than one who came from graceful mansions and gentle blood.
Despite what she knew of his aristocratic background, he wore flannel and corduroy and looked perfectly suited to the rustic cabin. Laura, who came from humbler stock, felt fussy and out of place in her bulky Irish knit sweater and tailored wool.
“Gabriel Bradley,” she said, and gestured widely toward the walls. “My brain must have been scrambled before. I didn’t put it together. I love your work.”
“Thanks.” Bending, he hefted two of the bags.
“Let me help—”
“No.” He strode off into the kitchen, leaving Laura biting her lip.
He wasn’t thrilled to have her company, she thought. Then she shrugged. It couldn’t be helped. As soon as it was reasonably safe for her to leave, she would leave. Until then … Until then Gabriel Bradley, artist of the decade, would have to make do.
It was tempting just to take a seat and passively stay out of his way. Once she would have done just that, but circumstances had changed her. She followed him into the adjoining kitchen. Counting the baby she carried, there were three of them in the little room, and it was filled to capacity.