"Erotically charged and emotionally heartwarming..." :::blush:::
-- Romantic Times Magazine
Gordon Lane climbed from the frigid mountain stream and looked for his towel. It was gone. Again.
" You worthless, fur-covered sack of manure," he grumbled, clambering up the bank to the trail. " Well, at least you left my boxers. Real decent of you."
To say he was angry would be the understatement of the century. Unfortunately, to say he was freezing his family jewels off would be the gospel truth. He glanced down, half-expecting to find icicles affixed to his anatomy. So far, so good. Scowling toward the trees above the stream, he shook his fist. " I swear there's going to be bear stew for dinner, then I'm going to turn what's left of you into a rug."
The bear--AKA practical-joker in residence--didn't belong to anyone. He came with the property. Though Gordon had never actually seen him, the evidence the klutzy animal always left in his wake was proof enough. The realtor should have listed the beast as a permanent fixture.
Cocking his head at an angle, Gordon listened to an unexpected--and unwelcome--sound. A car. And instead of turning around at the dead-end, the intruder stopped in front of his cabin. Great. Perfect.
Putting dry clothes on his wet body wasn't Gordon's favorite way to start the day, but neither was streaking. He hesitated for a moment, mischievous thoughts skipping through his mind. Why not? After all, he hadn't invited anyone. " Nah." He tugged on his boxer shorts and decided he'd better get up there before the bear paid a visit. Gordon's breath came out in bursts of white vapor in the morning air as he picked his way barefoot through the trees.
Then something bit him. Up close and really personal.
He held his breath and looked down. Dozens of red ants were crawling out of his shorts and all over him, biting again and again. Howling in pain, he tugged frantically at his waistband. To hell with his company and that damned bear. Right now, all he could think about was getting rid of the attack-shorts and cooling the sting. Which was worse--frozen anatomy or burning?
" Yeow!" An ant bit him in a particularly tender spot.
No contest. Burning.
Taylor Bowen stared in disbelief at the rustic cabin. She must've taken a wrong turn, thanks to a brand new overpass. One thing was for sure--this wasn't Digby. She opened her car door and climbed out into the coldest air she'd encountered in ten years. " Brrr. How soon we forget."
The crisp temperature enhanced the fragrance of the pine needles cushioning the ground. She'd missed that fragrance, though she hadn't realized it until now. Awesome beauty mated with the incredible silence and closed in around her, making her feel totally alone.
Shifting her gaze from one side of the cabin to the other, Taylor half-expected some wild beast to leap out in front of her and make her its breakfast. Hard to believe she'd grown up in these mountains. She slid her sunglasses farther up on her nose and pushed back a strand of dark hair that had escaped from her braid.
Her sweater was blue, so she wasn't in costume for Little Red Riding Hood. No big bad wolf lurked behind the next tree. Of course, that meant there was no grandmother's house at the end of the trail either. Pulling the front of her sweater closed against the morning chill, she stepped onto the front porch. Just as she lifted her hand to knock, a bloodcurdling howl shattered the silence.
" What in the world?" She ran down the steps and froze beside her Volkswagen. " A cougar?" A dangerous, wounded animal? She shuddered as the unwelcome memory attacked from all fronts.
" Yeow," came another howl.
" That's no animal." She opened her car door and pulled her leather medical bag from the passenger seat, then ran in the general direction of the sound. Through the trees, a sparkle of water caught her attention and she hurried, half-sliding the last few yards until the trail took a sharp downward turn. She scanned the area for any sign of life--human or otherwise--then eased herself onto a boulder and looked down.
A man danced down the sloping bank, slapping at his shorts and swearing. He twisted and turned, clearly unaware of his audience. He didn't seem hurt. Maybe she should leave before he saw her, saving them both the embarrassment. But as she turned, he howled again, then everything seemed to slip into slow motion. His arms windmilled as he tumbled down the bank and into the water.
Shading her eyes, Taylor ran to the stream just as he dragged himself toward the bank, shaking water from his hair. Her relief that he didn't require rescue barely had time to register before he slumped back against a large flat rock, his lower half still submerged.
Regardless of his bizarre behavior before the fall, Taylor couldn't leave him there. She had to make sure he was all right. Even if he wasn't severely injured, hypothermia could kill him just as thoroughly as drowning. Not taking time to kick off her sandals, she splashed into the pebble-strewn creek.
A quick glance revealed his eyes were closed as he moaned quietly. Breathing--okay. At least that was encouraging, though he obviously hadn't heard her approach over the rushing stream.
A nagging voice in the back of her mind insisted she look at his face again. Recognition waged a major assault...and won. Gordon. Her throat convulsed and her pulse hit the critical level. Suddenly, her need to determine the severity of his injuries became way too personal. He was going to be all right--he had to be.
Because of his silver hair, she'd thought him a much older man from a distance. But of course, they were exactly the same age. With shaking hands, she placed her bag on the rock and opened it, wondering how serious his injuries were. After jerking her stethoscope from her medical bag, she moved closer. Airway, breathing, circulation, she reminded herself. Her gaze dipped lower to check for bleeding, and she noticed the swirling silver hair covering his torso.
He moaned again and shifted slightly, though his eyes remained closed. " Those bloodthirsty little monsters better be dead, because I'm freezing," he mumbled.
" D-dead?" she repeated.
He opened one eye to stare at her. " What the--"
Taylor straightened so quickly she stumbled, barely catching herself before pitching forward. Now that would be a great way to start her career. She could already see the headlines.
Klutzy Quack Kills High School Sweetheart.
With a groan, he pushed himself to a sitting position. " Between the ants and good samaritans, a man can't--"
His gaze collided with hers and he blinked several times. " Taylor?"
She shook herself from her daze and took a step toward him. " I...I thought you were hurt."
" Taylor," he repeated.
His gravelly voice rumbled around in her belly and spiked straight to her bone marrow. Easy. She swallowed hard and tried to look away, failing miserably. " Are you hurt? Where are you hurt?"
" You're home." Disbelief filled his voice, reminding her where she was...and who he was. He rubbed his temples and flashed her a crooked grin. " I'm going to stand up now. You finished playing doctor?"
Taylor tried to ignore the implication of his words and his smile, but she couldn't. They had played doctor...once upon a time. " I'm not finished checking you yet." She lifted her chin a notch. This was the first time she'd laid eyes on him since leaving Digby. The relentless pain bypassed her brain and zoomed in on her heart.
With perfect aim.
She didn't need this--not now. Sure, she knew she would have to face him, but not so soon. Drawing a deep breath, she forced herself to meet his gaze without faltering. In spite of the bittersweet memories bombarding her, she saw the devil in his turquoise eyes. Gordon's sense of humor hadn't changed a bit, though she suspected it was more of a defense mechanism for him right now. Well, two could play at this game, and it might keep her from turning into a blubbering fool in front of him. She wasn't about to give an inch.
" I'm not finished examining you," she repeated.
" Exa--" He closed his eyes for a moment and released a long, slow breath. " I guess you're a real doctor by now." He gave a nervous chuckle and shook his head. " You know, I didn't recognize you...at first." His voice fell to a whisper.
Good thing his injuries weren't serious, because she was doing a pitiful job of maintaining any semblance of professionalism. Not to mention what seeing him again after all this time was doing to the rest of her, especially her heart. A delicious memory streaked to the forefront of her addled brain, igniting a slow burn through her veins. She saw Gordon as he'd looked more than ten years ago, kissing her, wanting her, baring her virginal flesh to his equally innocent touch....
How she'd wanted him.
A series of images from that long hot summer between their junior and senior years in high school flashed through her mind--picnics, fishing, hiking, swimming, making out behind the waterfall farther up the mountain, and the back seat of his Jeep....
They'd lost their innocence together. He'd been so tender, so passionate, so...Gordon. The sudden tightening low in her middle jerked her back to the present. She couldn't want him now--not after what he'd done to her. To them. She wouldn't want him now. Their relationship was history--a closed chapter in her life. Memories were sweet but dangerous. They made her vulnerable to the pain--a luxury she couldn't afford. Moistening her lips, she searched his face, wondering if he remembered, too.
He winced as he pushed himself forward.
" You are hurt." She took another step toward him. " Is it your back? That was a nasty fall."
" Oh, yeah, I fell. Trust me, you don't want to know about my injuries."
" I think an x--"
" Not necessary." Chuckling, he stood in one smooth movement and wavered only slightly before collecting himself. " See? I'm fine."
He stood so close she could feel him, though she didn't dare lower her gaze. But an insistent voice from some twisted part of her psyche wanted to. Badly. Instead, she bit the inside of her cheek and tilted her head back slightly to meet his gaze. Gorgeous eyes, nice tan, long silver hair, and a tall muscular build--the kind of man women fantasized about.
She ought to know.
He was a grinning, bronze god, no longer the acne-prone teenager she'd once loved with all the youthful exuberance she could muster. Or the boy who'd promised his undying love, then broken her fragile young heart.
" Look, Ma, no hands," he said quietly, continuing to hold her gaze.
Something flickered in the depths of his eyes that momentarily stole her breath. His stare was penetrating, questioning, all-encompassing.
He remembers, too. Jerking herself back to reality, she watched him for any hint of instability. " You did fall, didn't you?"
" Yeah, sorta, but I definitely had motivation." He looked down at himself. " The water seems to have helped, though."
Without thinking, Taylor followed the direction of his gaze. Wet, clinging boxer shorts--white, of course--left little to the imagination. In addition to his rather impressive physique, angry red welts covered his lower abdomen, inner thighs, and, she suspected, other more intimate areas. " You're..."
" Stung," he finished, flashing her another crooked grin when she looked up at his face again.
" Stung," she repeated stupidly, ignoring the voice of feminist reason that told her she should be offended by her own inability to put two coherent words together. Actually, magnificent had been the word floating around in her stunned gray matter.
Little Gordon Lane had matured nicely.
Volcanic activity was a mild description of the inferno that suddenly crept over her. Still, curiosity battled embarrassment and won. " What happened?"
He shrugged. " Ants in my pants." He gestured toward the bank. " Like a fool, I left them on the ground while I went swimming."
" I see." She saw all right--and remembered. Skinny-dipping had been one of their favorite pastimes. Swimming in the buff had been incredibly erotic foreplay. Her memory was too good. Excellent, as a matter of fact. Forcing her thoughts back into focus, Taylor roused herself and reached behind him for her medical bag. The icy water had numbed her feet and her sandals were ruined. " Well, since you don't want to take my advice and--"
" Nope." He might as well have said, " Case closed--end of discussion."
He stepped around her, brushing against her arm. The feel of his water-chilled skin seeped through her sweater and straight to her libido. Good morning, hormones. Knowing he wore almost nothing didn't help matters any. A splashing sound prompted Taylor to look over her shoulder. He was bent over, splashing water onto his abdomen and thighs, oblivious--or indifferent--to the imposing spectacle he presented.
Men's backsides had never commanded her attention before, but now she had to wonder why. Lowering her sunglasses, she peered over the rims, then pushed them back into place. Through the thin wet cotton, well-defined muscles rippled along the backs of his thighs and into his buttocks. He was fine. Better than fine, in fact.
Despite her earlier embarrassment, Taylor couldn't prevent the hungry rush that surged through her again. She was a healthy, twenty-eight-year-old woman, after all, and it had been a long, long time. Through medical school and residency, her love life had been practically non-existent. Except for Jeremy, and that relationship hadn't been at all physical. Yet.
Gordon looked well-equipped to satisfy her hunger, but she had other more pressing matters to consider. Perhaps less appealing, but infinitely more important. Besides, he'd hurt her in the worst possible way. That knowledge stood between her and anything her libido might have in mind.
Brokenhearted, Taylor had told her mother the whole story of Gordon's betrayal. Since her parents were preparing to retire and move to Florida, they decided to send Taylor on ahead to stay with her aunt. Unable to face Gordon, Taylor had made her parents promise not to tell him where she'd gone.
Now she'd come full circle.
Did Gordon know that she knew? Surely he'd realized the reason for her sudden departure. Dragging in a deep breath, she forced her memories at bay. For now. Later, when she was alone, she knew those memories would return with a vengeance. Well, she'd just have to deal with them.
But first and foremost, she had an obligation to the citizens of Digby. She winced, pushing back the disappointment that again threatened her resolve. She should be at a large hospital conducting research, not standing in a frigid mountain stream. Sighing, she reminded herself that if not for Digby's financial assistance, she wouldn't have been able to finish medical school at all.
" Enjoying the view?" He straightened and turned to face her in one fluid movement.
Taylor pressed her lips together and purposefully allowed her gaze to travel the length of him. Of course, at this point she knew the chances of embarrassing him were nil, but she had to fight back somehow. " Actually, I have better things to do." In my dreams. She met his gaze and took a step toward the bank. " Since you won't go to the hospital, at least let me help you back to your cabin. Is that your cabin?"
He cocked an eyebrow and gave her a nod. " Anybody ever call you stubborn as hell?"
" Yeah, you."
He sobered and she knew he was as plagued with memories as she. Good. At least there was some justice in the world.
" Well, since we're both heading the same direction anyway, I suppose there's nothing wrong with letting you come along." He flashed another grin.
" Fine." She waded from the stream and started up the steep trail, her sodden sandals making loud squishing sounds. Only the bright sunshine kept her from freezing. This was her first day back in Digby and she hadn't even found the town yet. Oh, yeah, she was really on a roll.
" By the way, thanks," he said so quietly she almost missed it.
His gratitude surprised her. She should hate him, and she was more than a little surprised to discover she didn't. Well, maturity helped some, she decided. Right now, the only way out of this mess was to joke her way out of it. It obviously worked as a defense mechanism for him, so why not her?
Pausing on the trail, she smiled to herself. She shouldn't, but she couldn't resist looking over her shoulder and flashing him what she hoped was her most lascivious smile. " I'm sorry, what did you say a while ago?"
He glanced back over his shoulder, a puzzled expression creasing his brow. " Thank you?"
" Ah, that's right." She waggled her eyebrows and allowed her gaze to drift down the length of him. " No. Thank you."
He laughed, a rich vibrant sound that filled the forest and warmed her soul. He'd changed so much--in all the right places--but he was still Gordon. His laughter ended abruptly and Taylor dragged her gaze from his awe-inspiring body up to his face. Her fond memories were destroying what remained of her self-control.
His expression said, " If you want it, here it is."
Her body answered from somewhere deep in her core--silently, thank goodness--" Give it to me. Now."
Her gaze dropped again, maddeningly. The ants obviously hadn't inflicted any serious damage. Even through his wet shorts, his arousal was blatant. Impressive.
Taylor swallowed hard, and turned to make her way back up the hill, acutely aware that he followed only a few feet behind. Remembering the sight of him bent over in the stream, a wicked smile tugged at her lips.
She should've let him go first.
Taylor had come home.
Unbelievable but true. Gordon watched the enticing sway of her hips as she climbed the hill in front of him. Oh, yeah--it's Taylor all right. Why was she here? And, more importantly, why the hell did it matter?
Remembering the last time he'd seen her, he clenched his teeth to silence the string of profanities that filled his mind. She'd walked away from him--from them. Though she'd sworn to love him forever, she'd cast their love aside without a second thought. Why? Because she hadn't trusted him. Old news, Lane.
He glanced down warily at his still-damp boxer shorts. If not for his uninvited guest, he would've removed the shorts...just in case. So far, no more bites. His icy extermination had been thorough. His head throbbed the ant bites itched and stung. Yes, he needed a little first aid, but he was more than capable of tending his own wounds. His days of playing doctor with Taylor Bowen were long past.
Taylor. Why did his angel of mercy have to be the one woman who'd broken his heart? All right, so they'd been teenagers at the time, but that didn't make the memory any less painful.
" A bear!"
Her shout shattered the morning calm as they reached the top of the hill in front of his cabin. In his near-naked splendor, Gordon charged into the clearing and stopped short when he saw the cause of her terror--dozens of huge bear prints. Normally, he'd consider her reaction ridiculous, but not for Taylor, who at the ripe old age of ten had spent several terrified hours cornered by a wounded bear. Her fear was perfectly understandable.
" Damn." He released a long sigh and looked toward her car. " Ah, my towel."
Taylor backed against a tree and dropped her leather bag her sunglasses fell unheeded to the ground.
Hoping to reassure her, Gordon allowed himself a small smile. " At least he always returns them. I'd be out a fortune in towels if he didn't."
" A b-bear?"
Gordon glanced at her from the corner of his eye. All color had drained from her face and her eyes were huge as she stared at her car. " He's gone now. Besides, he won't hurt you." I hope. With a disgusted groan, Gordon walked to her car and retrieved his formerly white towel. " See, that old bear never lets anyone see him, so he's harmless," he repeated steadily, returning to stand beside her.
When he looked at Taylor again, her eyes grew even larger, though she didn't move or utter a sound. Gordon was pretty sure breathing wasn't high on her current list of priorities either. He wanted to touch her--desperately. Why did he still care? After high school, she'd written him off. Correction--written them off. They'd been so much in love.
Ah, cut the crap, Lane. He sounded like a lovesick teenager. Whining.
Suddenly, her knees gave and she slid to the ground, her back pressed firmly against the tree. Her face was still white and her hands trembled as she clenched them in front of her. Gordon stooped at her side, resisting the urge to cup her face in his hands, to stroke her silky hair away from her eyes. " It's all right. The bear's gone now."
She didn't make a sound, but at least she looked up at him again. That was progress. The sight of her slightly upturned nose with freckles sprinkled across its bridge made his chest tighten. Her full mouth looked too large for her small face. Dark brown curls with a hint of red fell around her face, framing eyes as green as he remembered.
Life couldn't be this cruel.
Holding his breath, he studied her pretty face. Even prettier now. Oh, yes, life could be this cruel. It was almost laughable. Then why wasn't he laughing?
Enough. She was frightened and he was taking a stroll down Memory Lane. " You aren't wearing perfume, are you?" he asked, just in case.
The terror in her eyes was very real, but she managed to shake her head.
" Good." He chuckled, hoping to ease her mind. " I haven't seen it for myself, but I've heard that bear has a fondness for perfume. Not a pretty sight, I'm told."
The minute the intended joke left his mouth, he knew he'd made a mistake. He reached for her hands, but she shot to her feet before he could touch her and sprinted to her car. Intuition told him to run after her, but common sense demanded he disobey. Besides, she was already in her car and had the engine started. He took a step toward his cabin as she dropped the Bug into gear and sped away, but his foot brushed against something smooth. Glancing down, he saw her leather bag and sunglasses.
" Damn." More memories assaulted him as he slid the sunglasses into the bag and stared at it. Memories he didn't want. " Get over it," he muttered, walking toward the house. Now he'd have to go find her. At least this gave him an excuse--not that he wanted one. A few feet from the porch, he froze. Suddenly, he knew why she was here--she had to be the new doctor. He'd known about the town's deal with a medical student, but her identity came as a complete surprise. Why would Taylor agree to give three years of her life to Digby? It didn't make sense.
A barrage of conflicting emotions sliced through him. Joy. Disbelief. Anger.
Why hadn't the mayor revealed the doctor's identity? Then another memory brought a smile to his face. Former Mayor Reynolds had selected the candidate personally. Just before his death, Reynolds had made a remark to Gordon about Tom Bradshaw, Digby's new mayor. It hadn't made sense then, but it sure did now.
" I'd sell my soul to live long enough to see the look on Tom's face the first time he has to bend over and cough for the new doc."
" That old fart." He drew a deep, cleansing breath, then chuckled. " Taylor." When he'd first opened his eyes and found her looking at him like that, he'd thought maybe he was dead. It could've been heaven--at least, his perception of heaven. His groin tightened again in recollection, bringing a painful reminder of his close encounter of the insect kind. At least her arrival and his physical response had proven one thing.
Those damned ants hadn't done any permanent damage.