He graced her with a slash of a smile. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you want.”
“That’s a very generous thing to say. But you don’t owe me anything. One night’s stay is all I’ll be—”
“We’ll see about that,” he interrupted. “We’ll see what the doctor says tomorrow.”
“All right, Michael,” she said, too tired to argue. “But I don’t want to take your room from you. I can move into a guest room or—”
“That’s not necessary.” His smoky gaze briefly scanned hers. “You look very comfortable right here in my bed.”
Her eyes widened. One night. Just one night.
He regarded her for a moment; then he turned to leave.
“It’s good to see you again,” she called after him.
He paused in the doorframe but didn’t look back. “It’s good to see you, too, Bella.”
’Tis the season to read six passionate, powerful and provocative love stories from Silhouette Desire!
Savor A Cowboy & a Gentleman (#1477), December’s MAN OF THE MONTH, by beloved author Ann Major. A lonesome cowboy rekindles an old flame in this final title of our MAN OF THE MONTH promotion. MAN OF THE MONTH has had a memorable fourteen-year run and now it’s time to make room for other exciting innovations, such as DYNASTIES: THE BARONES, a Boston-based Romeo-and-Juliet continuity with a happy ending, which launches next month, and—starting in June 2003—Desire’s three-book sequel to Silhouette’s out-of-series continuity THE LONE STAR COUNTRY CLUB. Desire’s popular TEXAS CATTLEMAN’S CLUB continuity also returns in 2003, beginning in November.
This month DYNASTIES: THE CONNELLYS concludes with Cherokee Marriage Dare (#1478) by Sheri WhiteFeather, a riveting tale featuring a former Green Beret who rescues the youngest Connelly daughter from kidnappers. Award-winning, bestselling romance novelist Rochelle Alers debuts in Desire with A Younger Man (#1479), the compelling story of a widow’s sensual renaissance. Barbara McCauley’s Royally Pregnant (#1480) offers a fabulous finale to Silhouette’s cross-line CROWN AND GLORY series, while a feisty rancher corrals the sexy cowboy-next-door in Her Texas Temptation (#1481) by Shirley Rogers. And a blizzard forces a lone wolf to deliver his hometown sweetheart’s infant in Baby & the Beast (#1482) by Laura Wright.
Here’s hoping you find all six of these supersensual Silhouette Desire titles in your Christmas stocking.
Joan Marlow Golan
Senior Editor, Silhouette Desire
has spent most of her life immersed in the world of acting, singing and competitive ballroom dancing.
To my wonderful editor, Stephanie Maurer—
here’s to our beloved “Beasts!”
Snow fell relentlessly from a gunmetal-gray sky, coating the naked trees with an icy frosting.
Isabella Spencer pulled her wool hat down over her ears, trying to ignore the wintry glaze forming on the scarf that covered her neck and mouth. Pushing back a mounting sense of worry, she closed the door on the remaining warmth inside her lifeless car and stepped out onto the deserted road. She was two hours outside Minneapolis—and thirty miles from the small town she wanted so desperately to return to.
But fate seemed to have other ideas.
It was barely November, yet the frigid morning wind whipped at her face like tiny knives, batting her from side to side as though she were nothing more than a crumpled ball of newspaper.
Flares. Go get the flares. Someone will be by soon.
Her center of gravity newly broadened by several inches, she trudged carefully through a foot of snow to the trunk of her car, cursing the imbeciles at the weather station for their false predictions, cursing her cell phone with its short-lived battery. And as she rooted out several orange flares, lit them and laid them in the snow, she cursed the car that her husband had assured her was in fine working order.
Of course, that had been more than seven months ago. Before Rick had left her for the freedom divorce provided, before he’d gotten drunk, plowed into a telephone pole and died just a few hours later.
The shiver that ran through her had nothing to do with the cold this time. Her husband was gone. He hadn’t wanted her and he hadn’t wanted the child growing inside her, and the sooner she put that stinging piece of knowledge behind her the better. She was going home, back to Fielding, to start a new life with the new year. And she’d be damned if she was going to let a snowstorm and ghosts from the past stop her.
As the now familiar jabs of pain invaded her hips, then shot downward, Isabella slipped back inside her car, being careful of her protruding belly. The car’s interior was only slightly warmer than outside, but at least she was free of the raw wind. Whatever had caused her car to break down had nothing to do with the battery, thank God. She turned the key and switched the heat to high. The delicious warmth that shot from the vents could only last for a few minutes, she reminded herself. Then she’d have to turn it off, conserve as much as she could for as long as she could.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Isabella cooed, laying a hand on her belly. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Her child gave a healthy kick, urging its mother to ignore the chill in her chest and legs and the scratch of what felt like icicles in her throat. She would fight for warmth. She would fight for her child.
Her gaze lifted. First to heaven, asking her late father for help, then lower to the windshield. Snow pelted the glass, shutting her off from the outside world one perfect snowflake at a time.
Michael Wulf glanced out the tinted rearside window of the town car whisking him home from the airport. Beyond the car’s warm borders, the wind roared, causing the car to pitch slightly.
Just yesterday he’d been in Los Angeles, chuckling at the paltry first offer he’d received from Micronics to purchase a prototype of his vocal-command software. The heads of corporations never fully understood whom they were dealing with when they first met with him. They’d heard rumors that he was a mystery, a hermit, a genius, but they were never certain how to play the game.
Michael taught them quickly enough.
He’d finally left the warm sunshine with a very profitable deal closed, returning home to freezing temperatures. But the early-season snowstorm that met his plane wasn’t an unwelcome sight. He appreciated Minnesota and its climate, valued the hibernation, the solitude, the solace. Although he did miss the long daylight hours now that the beginnings of winter were here.
It was only early afternoon and yet the gray sky and unrelenting snowfall had turned the surrounding landscape dim. It was hard to see fifty feet in front of the car. But even with the hazardous conditions and his position in the back seat, Michael’s gaze caught sight of a faint orange light glowing against the snow in the distance. And near it, on the side of the road, something resembling an igloo with side mirrors and an Illinois license plate sat in ice-coated silence.
“What the hell is that?” he muttered.
The driver slowed, glancing to his right. “Looks like an abandoned car, sir.”
Abandoned. That word fisted around Michael’s gut, warning him that things weren’t always as they seemed. It would take all of five seconds to see if the car truly was abandoned. Five seconds he was willing to risk even in such a blizzard. “Stop.”
The driver did as he was instructed, pulling over in front of the car. In a flash, Michael was out the door, his bad leg stiffening in the cold as he trekked the few feet to the car. But he hardly noticed the dull ache. He was alert as he swept several inches of snow from the window, intent to see for himself that no one remained inside.
Suddenly his breath came out in a rush of fog. A woman sat in the driver’s seat. She was bundled from head to foot in down and wool, asleep—or at least he hoped she was asleep.
“Miss? Miss? Can you hear me?” He yanked open the door and ripped off his glove, then bent down and dipped a hand inside her scarf. A strong, steady pulse beat against his fingers.
She stirred then, her eyes fluttering open. She stared up at him with large, deep-blue orbs that, though shrouded with uncertainty, spoke directly to his soul.
Deep-blue windows he’d seen somewhere before.
Her lips parted. “You found me.”
And that voice. It was scratchy and raw, but he knew that voice.
The snow swirled around him like an ominous cyclone. Michael quickly shoved aside the questions forming in his mind. He needed to get her out of the car and to safety. But where? The hospital was forty-five minutes away. Too far.
“The heater stopped working…maybe half hour ago,” she said softly, slowly. “I must’ve fallen asleep.”
“You’re damn lucky,” he said, easing her out of the car then helping her to stand. “Another half hour and…” And that car would’ve become an arctic tomb. He didn’t say it.
The wind burned his face and neck as he stripped off his coat and covered her. “You’re going to be fine. Hang on.”
“All right,” she whispered.
He picked her up and started toward the town car just as the driver rushed up beside him to help.
“Sir, would you like me to carry—”
Michael ignored the offer. “Turn the heat on high and get us home as quickly as you can.”
The man nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Once tucked safely inside the car, Michael stripped off the woman’s boots and rubbed her cold toes.
“Feels good,” she said. “Itchy, but good.”
After her feet were warm, he slid off her gloves and rubbed her small hands between his large ones. Then he gathered her in his arms and held her close.
“How long were you out there?” he asked.
The woman let her head fall against his shoulder as she answered with a sigh, “Since ten. This morning.”
He cursed softly. “Just try to relax. You’re safe now.” Although a trace disoriented, she was going to be okay, he knew it somehow. But still, deep worry pricked at him. Her padded down coat couldn’t hide what he could feel against his side.
“When’s your baby due?” he asked.
She looked at him. “About a month.”
His jaw tightened. What idiot would let his wife travel alone through a snowstorm at this stage of her pregnancy? Well, he was sure going to find out.
With gentle precision, he drew off her scarf. He’d been so intent on getting her to shelter, he hadn’t been able to take a good look at her until now—except for her incredible and very familiar eyes. And what he could see made his chest tighten. Long waves of pale blond hair, heart-shaped face and a soft mouth. Again familiarity rapped at his mind. How the devil did he know her? He rarely went to social events, never went into town.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, letting her head fall back onto his shoulder again. “Thank you for coming to get me, Michael.”
At that, he froze like the icicles hanging off the stand of trees they passed. His mind worked, sharp and quiet, feeding information piece by piece until an answer formed.
And what an answer it was.
Falling asleep beside him sat the girl—no, the woman. A very pregnant woman. And the one person on earth to whom he owed a debt. One he’d vowed to pay back a long time ago.
He grabbed his cell phone, pushed a button and uttered, “Dr. Pinta,” into the receiver.
The old doctor who had treated three generations of Fielding residents and was as close to a friend as Michael allowed himself to have picked up on the second ring.
“I need you, Thomas.”
Visions of hot chocolate and electric blankets danced in Isabella’s fuzzy head. Along with a grainy movie of her childhood crush dressed in shining armor, rescuing her from a white dragon who breathed hail, instead of fire. It was lovely, but the closer she got to the chocolate and blankets and handsome knight, the more her toes itched and her throat hurt.
The voice came from far away, through a snow-covered haze.
“Isabella, I need you to wake up.”
The tone was parental and she forced her eyes to open and focus. She could feel that she was fully dressed, see that she was covered by several blankets and in a room that was not her own.
As she glanced around, her heart thumped madly in her chest. The room was large and furnished in dark wood. Drawn curtains made up the wall in front of her, a fire roared and crackled to her left, and a man sat beside her. A man she recognized instantly. His balding head, scholarly gray beard and hook nose gave him away.
Dr. Pinta’s kind eyes settled on her. “Well, we’re very glad to see you, my dear. How are you feeling?”
Her mind whirled with thoughts and questions, but none more important than one. “My baby?”
“Your baby’s just fine. And so are you.” He smiled. “You were very smart to set out those flares.”
Her hands went to her belly, felt the warmth, the life there, and she sighed with relief.
“It was a close call, but thank the good Lord someone came along in time,” the doctor added.
The doctor glanced over his shoulder and Isabella followed his gaze. Sitting in a thronelike chair upholstered in emerald-green velvet, facing the fire, was a man. Something inside her, perhaps inside her heart, knew instantly that the knight in her dream had been no vision, after all.
As images flashed through her mind—snow glazing her car, the door opening to reveal her rescuer, lying against the solid wall of his chest—her knight met her gaze, firelight illuminating his steel-gray eyes, rumpled black hair and granitelike features.
Only two men had ever called her that. One was her father, Emmett, who had passed away almost fifteen years ago. And the other was the sixteen-year-old runaway from a boys’ home in Minneapolis her father had taken in.
Even at the age of thirteen, Isabella had known that she loved that boy, with his quick mind and brusque nature—even with the limp that had roused teasing and taunting from other kids in town.
But she’d lost him after her father’s death. The boy had left Fielding after her great-aunt had taken her in, but couldn’t take him, too.
The picked-on outcast who’d turned into the misunderstood genius. A celebrity. She’d kept track of his progress and had even thought of getting in touch with him when she’d read that he’d moved back to Fielding three years ago. But she’d been married by then and living in Chicago. She’d had to put every ounce of energy into saving her marriage, into trying to find out why her husband had changed from charming to disinterested the moment they’d said, “I do.”
A curious smile found its way to her mouth. “Michael. Thank you.”
He gave her a quick nod. “It was nothing.”
“You saved my life. And my baby’s. That’s something.”
“I’m just glad I was there.”
He never had taken a compliment well. “So am I. I thought I was dreaming when I woke up and saw you. It’s been such a long time.”
His shadowed gaze moved over her, pausing at her belly. “A long time.”
His voice was low and deep, but tender, and she was instantly taken back in time. The gruff kid who had never been gruff with her.
A smile curled through her. Michael Wulf had been the boy she’d wanted to give her first kiss to, her heart to. Lord, how time flew. Certainly enough for her to see—and sense—the difference in him. He’d grown handsomer in fifteen years, but those gray eyes that had once been angry and troubled were as hard as steel now.
She knew some of his past hurts, but whatever had happened after he’d disappeared from Fielding had left him far more scarred. And she wondered about it.
Dr. Pinta put a hand over hers. “Is there someone I can call for you, my dear?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Your husband?” Michael offered, the hard lines of his mouth deepening.
Isabella looked away, suddenly feeling very tired. “He died seven months ago.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” Doc said softly. “What about someone in Fielding? Anyone expecting you?”
When she’d married Rick four years ago, he’d urged her to cut the lines of communication with anyone in Fielding. It had practically broken her heart, but in an effort to save her marriage, she’d done as he’d asked. She had no idea what to expect when she returned home, no idea if her old friends would embrace her.
“I’m going to stay at the hotel for a week or so until I can get my father’s store back in working order,” she said. “I’ve decided to turn it into a pastry shop.” She looked at Dr. Pinta, sensing she had to explain further. “I’m planning on living in the apartment above it. It’ll be a perfect home for me and the baby—once it’s cleaned up of course.”
“We’ll all be glad to have you back, my dear. And a pastry shop,” Doc said with a slow grin. “Good, good. Are you going to be selling those cinnamon rolls of yours?”
She nodded, returning his friendly smile. “When do you think I can go—”
“I think you should stay right where you are,” Michael said firmly.
Doc nodded. “I agree. You and the baby should rest.” From his coat pocket came a loud beeping sound. He reached in, took out his beeper and stared at the message. “Good Lord, it’s certainly a day for emergencies. Mrs. Dalton has had an accident, something about her hip.”
“I hope she’ll be all right,” Isabella offered, her mind scattered with the events of the day.
Doc looked up. “Sorry, my dear, I need to go. I have to stop in town and get some supplies. The Dalton place is at least twenty miles out. I don’t think I’ll be able to come back until morning.”
Michael nodded. “I’ll take care of her, Thomas.”
An unfamiliar tug of awareness spread through Isabella at that simple promise. She grabbed for the doctor’s hand. “I don’t want to put anyone out. I could go with you. The hotel is right on the—”
Doc Pinta stood up. “No, no. The snow has let up quite a bit, but it’s getting colder. I don’t want you picking up another chill. Not in your condition.”
“She’ll stay here,” Michael stated firmly. “I’ll move my things into the guest room.”
Isabella felt her cheeks warm as she once again looked around the room. This time she noted several personal items: the silver watch that her father had given Michael for his sixteenth birthday on the nightstand, a book about solar-powered homes on a bench, aboriginal paintings on the walls and framed photographs on the mantel, each depicting what she imagined were Michael’s “children”—the high-tech interiors of cars, boats and houses.
This was his room, his bed.
Her pulse stumbled and the room suddenly compressed into a sort of tunnel with Michael Wulf at the end. Lord, she must have caught more than a chill. Only a fever could make her childish crush seem in danger of turning into a full-fledged, grown-up one. She was in Fielding to start a new life, create a future for herself and her child, not return to teenage dreams from the past.
“I really can’t stay here,” Isabella said, hearing the ring of panic in her voice. How could she sleep in his bed, against his pillows, surrounded by the scent of him? “I need to be at my place. I have a cleaning crew coming from St. Cloud to help me get everything—”
“They won’t make it out in weather like this, Isabella.” Doc Pinta reached down and gave her hand a squeeze. “What you need to do is calm down. You’re in no shape tonight to brave the elements. It’s not good for the baby.” He turned to Michael. “If anything changes, please call me.”
Michael nodded. “Of course.”
“You and that baby get some rest, young lady.” Doc Pinta left the room, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll see you first thing in the morning.”
An unwelcome cloud of anxiety floated in the air just above Isabella’s heart as she watched the doctor go—leaving her alone with the subject of her teenage dreams.
Dressed in simple but expensive black, Michael crossed to the bed, his limp more pronounced than she remembered. But that minor limitation hardly diminished his striking appearance and the commanding manner that burned around him like a living, breathing thing.
Up close he was even more fiercely handsome than she remembered. Dark, hooded eyes, sensual mouth, olive skin—he nearly took her breath away. He’d grown, well over six feet now with the body of a gladiator. Obviously his impediment hadn’t stopped him from staying fit, she mused as a twinge of pain erupted in her lower back.