Mela McKinley fled with her infant son and disappeared four years ago trying to heal the awful scars inside and out. Taking refuge in the mountains of Colorado, not one person had come near their secluded doorstep… though she was prepared for a fight.
In the middle of a historic blizzard, little Beck points out the window to a figure approaching in the snow. After hiding Beck…and fully armed, Mela confronts Jackson Winslow and has zero reservations about shooting him, if necessary.
Ultimately, saving him from the forces of nature, she takes the uninvited stranger prisoner in her home holding the upper hand. While cautiously tending to him, she realizes how much she has missed a man—though this scarred and tattooed man is not who he seems. Once he has invaded her thoughts in a delicious way, her guard is down and suddenly, the tables are turned and now…it’s his turn.
The teakettle whistled, and I fingered through his hair as I walked past.
I laughed. “Yes, buddy. Lots of snow.”
The whistle of the kettle faded when I pulled it from the heat, pouring Beck a hot chocolate and me my tea. The two ice cubes in his mug began to melt instantly.
Stirring honey into my tea, I put one more ice cube in his cup and carried the miniature marshmallows over to him.
“No, buddy. We won’t see Layne today,” I explained, sitting on the sofa in front of the fire, which needed wood.
“Layne is right there,” he said, tapping the window.
A sudden chill shuddered up my spine as the hair on the back of my neck stood. In slow motion, my eyes moved to where Beck pointed. The figure stood a hundred yards away, thigh deep in snow. My heart began to pound. The pack on his back showed over his shoulders. I watched through the glass as the steps he tried to take led him in the direction of the cabin.
Sitting my mug on the end table, a jolt of panic shot through me but was quickly calmed by a wave of courage—of confidence.
“Beck. Come here. Now.” My words were terse, and he immediately padded over to me.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“Sweetheart, I don’t know who this is, and my job is what?”
“To protect me?” he asked.
“Yes.” I nodded. “To protect you. Always.”
“Go. Go now to your cubbyhole. You know where your food is. You know where the water bottles are. You don’t come out until Mommy comes to get you.”
“Or Layne!” he shouted.
“Yes. Or Layne. But you and Layne have a code word and no one else knows that word. So don’t come out unless you hear that word. Got it?” Tears started to sting my eyes, but I fought with every ounce of my being not let them win.
“Yes. Go now?”
“Yep! Go now, buddy. I love you.”
“I love you more!” he yelled as he ran to his hiding spot.
The moment he was gone from my view, I turned my sights on our visitor. Thank God the snow was causing him to struggle. I unhinged the loaded shotgun from the back of the front door, then retrieved the forty-caliber from behind the coffee mugs. Both guns were pumped and cocked with the chambers full in a matter of seconds. Without a coat, I stepped out onto the porch.
“Turn around right now and go back the way you came. Follow your tracks!” I yelled.
He stopped, held his hands out to the side and swayed a bit in the wind. “I need help.” His voice was muffled from the scarf covering his mouth.
“You won’t find that here. Move along,” I shouted, then tucked the pistol into my pants. Raising the shotgun to my shoulder, I nestled it tight, resting my cheek against the cold steel while I sighted him down the barrel. The pistol would be a better choice—but the shotgun may have more effect. Rock’s mom had taught me well.
“Please,” he said weakly, swaying again.
I watched as the snow cascaded. There was no wind.
“Mister. I’m warning you now. Don’t come closer.”
After another strenuous step in the near three-foot-deep snow, he stumbled backward—falling. He lay there for a minute. Hurriedly, I seized the opportunity to grab the binoculars—Beck’s toy, plastic ones, but they worked nonetheless.
Bursts of steam puffed from his mouth straight into the air. One hand rose weakly, then collapsed back down, disappearing into the powdery snow. Through the scratched-up binoculars, I watched as he mustered up enough energy to heave himself upright. Still sitting, he pulled the scarf away from his mouth exposing red, swollen lips. Quickly, I lowered the binoculars, taking him in more thoroughly. His shoes and legs were hidden in the snow. Chunks of snow clung to the North Face jacket he wore. His eyes were heavy…thick lids blinked deliberately and sluggishly.
Snow fell so heavily…a thin blanket covered him in the minute I stood frozen. Making a hasty decision, I dashed into the house once again and grabbed the handcuffs Rock’s mom had given me. From the time I darted inside to when I got back out, he hadn’t moved. Just inside the door, I clicked my snowshoes in place and threw my coat on. The pistol tucked tightly into my waistband, handcuffs in my coat pocket, and ski poles in hand…I began my trek toward him.
When I purchased the snowshoes, I had no real intention of wearing them too terribly much but they’d been on my feet more than I thought they would. Our unwanted visitor was still on his back with little to no movement. His breaths were visible in the puffs of steam in the air.
“Please don’t shoot me,” he begged albeit weakly.
“Why are you here?”
“I got caught in the storm.”
Frozen snot trailed over his upper lip.
“Why were you out here? I mean to begin with. What brought you here? There’re no trails this way.” My demanding questions spewed out quickly.
The puffs of air turned to short raspy pants.
“Lost. I…just…wanted—to get lost.”
I didn’t believe him. Anger consumed me as my hand trembled when I reached to touch him. Be strong always. The second my fingertips brushed his fiery skin; I sucked in a quick breath. He was burning up. Fever. Damn it!
Instantly, I turned around hoofing it back to the cabin and yanked Becks sled out of the corner of the front porch. Within a minute, I was back at his side. A low groan slid up his throat as I lifted him by the shoulders and scooted his upper body onto the sled. After I’d boosted his legs over, I began the trek back to the cabin remembering Beck was still in hiding. My quads and glutes burned from the haul.
Once I pulled him to the porch clearing the steps, I took a minute to breathe. Thank God, I’d trained enough to be able to heave his ass up there. He seemed to have lost consciousness at some point because as I cuffed him, he didn’t flinch. It wasn’t until I’d lugged him inside next to the fire that I exposed his hands—finding bluish tinted fingers. Instinctively, I blew on them as if they were Beck’s little fingers and I’d done that a hundred times when he’d gotten cold. How could this man’s fingers be so cold yet he was burning up with fever?
I tossed his gloves near the fire so they could dry out and warm up. The sooner I could get him out of here, the better. His fingers were swollen.
I hustled toward the hideout. “Beck!” I shouted with a whisper. “WOD. It’s ok. Come here. Mommy needs your help.”
When I pulled off the man’s stocking cap, I was captivated for a moment by his face. Though his cheeks appeared sunken in and dark rings circled his eyes, he was a beautifully, rugged man. His thick brows matched the overgrown beard. The tip of his nose was shiny and bright.
“Mommy. Who is that?”
Directing my attention toward Beck, I gave him a serious look.
“This man is sick. I need you to get me two of your cereal bowls of warm water. Not hot, ok?”
He nodded eagerly, and I watched him grab his stool and heave it into the kitchen. I felt awful keeping the man handcuffed, but I couldn’t take a chance with someone I didn’t know. I heard the water running in the kitchen and, in this moment, I was proud of the way I’d raised Beck. He needed to be independent if necessary—even if at barely four years old.
Hustling to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, I grabbed the lip butter and the ibuprofen. I darted to the kitchen and snagged a bottle of water from the fridge.
“How’s it going?”
“Good,” Beck said, walking slowly trying not to spill any water from his miniature cereal bowls—his tiny hands could barely manage.
We met near the visitor. I took the bowls from Beck.
“Nice job, buddy. Thank you.”
When Beck knelt next to him, my heart skipped a beat. Gripping Beck’s shoulders, I shook him just enough to keep his attention and for him to realize I meant business.
“We don’t know him, Beck. You must keep your distance from him. Deal?”
He nodded, backing up. “Pickle,” he whispered.
I shook my head. “You are so silly. It’s dill not deal.”
My beautiful son smiled, then found a seat on the sofa.
Kneeling next to the stranger, I balanced the bowls of water on his thighs, and then rested his fingers in the water. I tipped his head, angling his neck so his face pointed toward the ceiling. I attempted to pour some of the water through his parted lips. He instantly sputtered and choked—liquid coming back out, but thankfully his eyes opened.
“Mister,” I said.
His glossy eyes tried to focus.
“I need you to swallow this.” I kept his head upright, dropped three ibuprofen into his mouth and then tipped the bottle to his lips. When I saw his Adam’s apple jut out and back in, I knew he’d swallowed them. That was a start.
“Mommy. What’s his name?” Beck asked from the sofa.
His jeans were wet. Jeans? How ill prepared was this idiot for the storm? After I moved the bowls of water, I unfastened his jeans and began tugging them off. The elastic band of his underwear read Armani. Perfect…wealthy and dumb.
I fought looking at his crotch but the damn trunks hugged him tightly, and honestly, there was no ignoring the relaxed bulge. Once I had his jeans off, I laid them out in front of the fire, adding more wood, and then covered his lower half with a quilt. Out of sight, out of mind. And I certainly didn’t need Beck asking questions.
His lips were in pretty bad condition so I slathered a thick layer of the lip butter over them. His lower lip was full…plump. Jesus… narcolepsy really wasn’t my thing. But, hey, he was only unconscious not dead
“Mommy. What’s his name?”
“I’m sorry, Beck. I don’t know. Hold on a sec.”
I reached for his jeans, and, sure enough, the back pocket held a wallet. When I opened it, a Colorado driver’s license lay behind a thin piece of plastic.
“His name is Jackson,” I announced. “Jackson Winslow,” I whispered beneath my breath and stole a long glance at our bearded stranger.
For the first time, I noticed his hair was longer on one side. This man…this stranger was stunningly handsome. Ruggedly beautiful. I shook my head trying to erase any desire. It had been so long since I had felt the touch of a man. Yet, this man could have been sent here to find us…to hurt us…to take Beck. He was off limits.
Night was falling and the moon cast a beautiful reflection off the three-foot blanket of snow. Beck and I played checkers at the kitchen table. The flickering light of the fireplace flung shadows over the walls. Our stranger seemed to be resting peacefully.
Even though I felt bad for him being cuffed, my sole purpose for living sat across from me, and I had to do whatever was necessary to protect him.
“Buddy. Want to sleep in the hideout?”
Beck’s eyes about bulged out of his head.
I stood up. “Yep. Let’s get you in there and situated.”
Beck hopped out of his chair, dashing up to his room. There wasn’t anything that could make me smile bigger than witnessing his enthusiasm for life. The boy was a spitting image of his father. Most days that was good.
There was no way of knowing or even speculating what the night could hold…so I told Beck he could come out if he needed.
Once he was hunkered down under his covers, inside his tent, with his night light on…I closed the door. I hustled to my bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my face, threw on my comfy sweats to sleep in, then grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge before I stared blankly at the heap of man on my living room floor.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the glow from the fireplace, I noticed Jackson twitching. As I crept closer, I saw he wasn’t twitching; his body shook with tremors. Instinctively, the back of my fingers felt his forehead. Wow. He was burning up. Again.
Immediately, I ran to the kitchen, wetting a rag with cold water. Back in the living room, his eyes shot wide as the cold material made contact with his skin.
A small groan echoed up his throat, but as fast as his eyes opened, they closed. Without thinking, I yanked all the covers off of his body. I hated the ignorance of the—smother the fever philosophy. His body needed to cool down…quickly. Leaving him uncovered and with the cloth on his forehead, I got another bottle of water and snatched both the ibuprofen and the thermometer from the cupboard.
When I slid the digital thermometer between his lips, I realized some of the redness was gone. The lip butter was helping. Once again, his eyes opened. For the briefest of moments, our eyes met before his closed again.
At 104, the thermometer stopped blinking.
“Wow,” I whispered out loud, turning the cloth on his forehead to the cooler side.
“Wow,” he moaned or ow, I’m not sure which, but it caused me to sit back a bit, distancing myself. “Aaah.”
My stranger seemed delirious. The fever. It had to be the fever.
“Jackson. I need you to swallow these.” I lifted his head and slid my folded legs beneath him. I dropped four capsules in his mouth, then as gently as possible, I slapped his cheek…his beard was rough to my fingers, but regardless, his eyes opened.
I tipped the cold bottle of water to his lips. “Swallow,” I demanded, and he did. And once again, our eyes connected. Even though I stared down at him, and he was upside down to me, the force of whatever passed between us triggered me to drop his head and jerk away.
What the living hell? Did I know him? My left hand trembled as I set the water bottle next to him. Not that he could drink it. Both his hands were bound by metal. The clock read 10:15. The fever should be down within an hour. I’d check on him them. Other than that, I wanted nothing to do with him.
Sitting on the sofa, my eyes flickered back and forth between the fire and him. I heard Layne’s words in my ear. Information is good. Always find out what you can. I uncovered and picked up Jackson’s wallet from where I left it earlier.
Colorado drivers license. His picture was perfect. Who’s drivers license pic looked that good? Thirty-one years old. Six foot two. One hundred ninety pounds. Blue eyes. Organ donor. Ian was an organ donor and I had no idea if his organs were donated. If he was living inside someone else…
This man had no pictures of girls, family, kids, no pictures at all.
One Visa card.
One American Express card.