nna Passanante cursed herself. There were some things no mortal should ever undertake, and this was one of them.
Driving. In the mountains. In a blizzard.
Snowflakes the size of crystal balls fell from a sky so low it swallowed the tops of the pines growing in dark abundance on the mountainside. The higher she climbed on the twisting, narrow gravel road, the lower the sky fell. She could see almost nothing beyond a few feet ahead of her brand-new Jeep, which had proved almostâbut not quiteâequal to the task of navigating the mountain.
A tank, now, might have been up to the task.
She wrapped her leather-gloved hands around the steering wheel more tightly, inching up the road at five miles an hour. Overconfidence. That was her problem. Misplaced exuberance and overconfidence. After twenty-five years, she thought, a person might have learned better.
The Jeep lurched in a pothole as big as Montana, tossing Anna against the door. A jagged bolt of fear tore through her lungs and belly as the car hovered just this side of control, then settled evenly on the other side of the hole.
“Insane,” she said aloud. She would have turned back twenty minutes ago, but there had been no place to do it on the narrow road. She was stuck going all the way.
Just as the first threads of alarm started winding through her veins, the road abruptly leveled and ended in a clearing set amid the dark, snow-laden pines. Anna stopped the truck and turned off the ignition, staring in wonder.
The woodcutter's cottage.
Crouched close against the forest that towered behind it, the cabin was small, crafted of weather-darkened logs. Snow drifted in thick swirls around it, making Anna think of the glass globes sold in tourist shops. Smoke came from a stone chimney, and neat piles of wood of various sizes were stacked under a small shed.
Anna smiled. No wonder Curtis loved fairy tales so much. He lived in one.
Curtis. The four-year-old grandson of Louise Forrest was the whole reason Anna had agreed to this wild quest. Far from her enormous family, Anna had taken a special liking to the motherless Curtis, who raptly listened to Anna's endless store of fairy tales for hours on end.
Thinking urgently of the drive back down the mountain and the teddy bear Curtis could not sleep without, she opened the door.
Before she had made two ungraceful steps in the thick snow already piled on the ground, a figure emerged from the log-framed doorway. Curtis's father, Tyler. Anna halted at the furious nonwelcome she read in his posture. An enormous muslin-colored dog with bright black eyes stood next to him.
“What do you want?”
Defensively Anna called, “Your mother sent me!”
He only stared, his arms crossed, his face thunderous.
On three occasions she had met Tyler Forrest. This was the fourth, and her reaction to him had not changed one bit. Although he lived in the woodcutter's cottage, Tyler was the enchanted prince of every fairy tale ever written.
In the soft gray light, he was hauntingly handsome. Snow caught in his long hair, hair the color of sword giltânot quite gold, not quite silver, but some ethereal color in between. Thick flakes clung in airy stars to the dark blue corduroy of his shirt and landed in tufts on his lean, broad shoulders. Snow melted on the heat of his elegantly sculpted face, a face molded to capture the hearts of a thousand maidens, with its high brow and aristocratic nose and high, sharp cheekbones. Only his mouth marred the elegance, for it was wide and full, a sensual mouth formed perfectly for the shape of kisses.
It was foolish, this besotted sense of fate Anna felt every time she looked at Tyler Forrest. A prickly loner who lived alone up on the mountain with his son, miles from town, he'd never said more than three words to her directly. He never spoke to women at all, if the truth were told. He was as unattainable as a myth.
And yet, she could never seem to stop the quick, yearning ache of her heart whenever she saw him.
He lifted his chin now, that gorgeous mouth flattened to a tight line. “Did she send you to rescue me?”
Rescue him. Anna clutched her hands together. He certainly
rescuing, but a blue-collar woman from Brooklyn didn't have the tools to break the spell holding him in his lonely world. He needed a princess with golden hair and dreamy blue eyes.
“Something far more prosaic, I'm afraid,” she called, forcing a smile. “Curtis forgot his teddy bear, and you know he can't spend the whole weekend without it, even with his grandmother.” She felt her face get warm as she babbled, and clamped her lips together. She took a breath and dared to take another step forward. “If you'll just get it for me, I'll be on my wayâbefore this storm gets any worse.”
As if he'd only just noticed, he looked up at the sky. “All right.” His mouth tightened. “You may as well come in while I get it.”
Anna made her way through the thick snow in the clearing, thankful for the fur-lined boots and her parka. He waited for her, his face blank, and when she got to the porch, he held out a hand to help her up. “Watch your step.”
The hand was lean and very strong, with smooth oval nails. Small nicks and scratches, likely from his carpentry work, gave it a manly aspect. Anna allowed him to haul her up to the porch. For one minute, he looked at her hard, as if he were angry, or maybe disappointed.
His dog whined up at Tyler, his tail wagging, his feet restless in the snow. “No, Charley,” he said firmly, letting go of Anna's hand.
The dog, still very young by the look of him, looked crestfallen. “I won't bother him if you're training him as a watchdog,” Anna said, “but I'd love to greet him, if it's okay.”
“Go ahead. Be careful. He thinks he's supposed to kiss you.”
Anna bent down to rub the dog's enormous head. Exuberantly he leaped up and put his paws on her shoulders, giving her chin a lick. His thick, short hair was well brushed. “What kind of dog is he?” she asked, softly admonishing him to sit.
“A greyhound mix. Probably a little golden Lab.” He scowled at the dog. “No, Charley! Sit.”
Charley did, licking his chops as he waited for the pat Tyler gave him. “Good dog.” The scowl returned when Tyler turned his attention back to Anna. “My mother sent you, huh?”
“How did that happen?”
Anna shrugged. “She called and asked.” Uncomfortable, she felt compelled to point to her Jeep, glossy with factory-fresh paint. “She knows I like any reason to drive my new truck.”
He looked at the Jeep, then at Anna. His eyes were as unusual as everything else about him. Pale gray, with a dark ring around the iris. The eyes of a mage, somehow clear and opaque at once. Standing so close, she could see that his eyelashes were a light brown tipped with gold, as was the shadow of beard on his narrow jaw.
She laced her fingers together and looked away. For once in her life, she would act with decorum and dignity.
Or try, anyway.
He led her inside. Anna stopped just beyond the door to let her eyes adjust to the dimness after the blazing snow light. She smelled a heady combination of spicy pine and wood smoke and apples, and heard Tyler moving away over a wooden floor. Charley padded over to the hearth and plopped himself down with a sigh.
Slowly, her vision cleared, and Anna was staring at a hearth with a low fire burning orange and yellow. The mantle was made of native stone, and the only decoration was a picture of a pretty young girl, blond and smiling, in front of the cabin on a summer day.
Conscious of the mess she'd make, Anna stayed close to the door. The cabin looked to be mainly one large room, with a kitchen at one end, a living area in the center and a bedroom at the other end. A ladder led to a loft that was dark and appeared to be unfinishedâshe assumed it held a storeroom of some kind. Tyler had gone through a doorway below the loft, probably a bedroom for Curtis.
She had expected something primitive, but it wasn't. Braided rugs covered a floor made of wooden planks, and the furniture was all of an elegantly simple design, the fabrics in warm hues of dark red and blue. In the kitchen, copper and iron pots hung from hooks. The bed was neatly made with a Pendleton blanket in a Native American pattern.
It made her feel better, somehow, to think of Curtis living here in this warm, pleasant place. For all his aloofness, Tyler had made a good home for his son.
Which she really should have expected. She'd rarely met such a bright, adorable, loving child. Neglected children were never that sunny and giving. They were afraid to be.
Tyler returned in a moment with a bedraggled teddy bear in his hands. “Anything else?”
“I think that's it. Thanks.” Anna clutched the bear close to her tummy and turned to open the door.
“Look,” he said roughly. “I don't mean to be rude. It's just that my mother knows I want to be alone this weekend, and she doesn't like it, so she's meddling.”
Anna looked up in surprise. “I swear, Iâ”
He lifted a hand. “Understood. She means well, but everyone has to grieve in their own way, and she won't stay out of it.”
He wanted to be alone to commemorate the anniversary of his wife's death. Anna knew that much, because Louise had told her. “I know,” she said. “She told me she wants you to get over it and get married so Curtis will have a mother.”
At his hard look, Anna realized how that sounded, and hastily backtracked. “I mean, not that she meant I should be...um...not that she sent me to be yourâ” She broke off, feeling heat in her face. Nothing like making a complete fool of yourself in front of the most gorgeous man in the universe. “Never mind.” She spied the photo over his shoulder and seized the distraction. “Is that her? Your wife, I mean?”
Tyler glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah.”
He crossed his arms.
Anna took a breath and reached behind her for the door handle. “I gotta get out of here before the storm gets worse.”
He followed her out to the porch, and frowned. “This is one hell of storm,” he commented, almost to himself. With obvious reluctance, he asked, “Are you sure you'll be all right? I can follow you down, if you like.”
In spite of his lack of relish for the job, Anna seriously considered the offer. She had only been inside ten minutes, and already a new layer of snow had collected in thick wet flakes on her windshield. It seemed to be coming down even harder now. If that were possible. Thinking of the narrow, heart-stoppingly twisting road, she hesitated. What if she got stuck somewhere?
But going down was easier, and wouldn't take as long. “I'll be fine,” she said with more confidence than she felt. “What's the worst that could happen? I have to walk out?” She pointed to her boots. “I'm dressed for it.”
He looked at the sky, and the road. “Maybe I should follow you, at least to the frontage road.”
“It's not necessary. Really.” She smiled. “I may sound like a tenderfoot, but I've done my homework. I know how to drive in the mountains.”
He lifted one shoulder. “All right. If you think you can handle it.”
Anna scowled. “I can handle it.” Without giving him further time to question her, she jumped in the Jeep and slammed the door. As she turned the vehicle around, the tires skidded a little, renewing her fears. It had been a bad trip up. Maybe she
let him follow her.
No. She clutched the wheel and leaned forward. She could do this. She didn't need some snotty native to laugh at her all the way down the mountain. Much as she loved Colorado, the superior attitude of the born-and-bred locals could be extremely annoying. And it was especially true in Anna's case. Her accent labeled her a New Yorkerâand the mountain people seemed to think New Yorkers were all fast-talking, clueless tenderfoots.
Or would that be tenderfeet?
Whatever. No native could love Colorado more than she did. It had been the land of her dreams from the time she was fifteen years old and her family took a two-week vacation here. Those two weeks had changed her life irrevocably, giving her a glimpse of a world she had never even dreamed existed.
More than ten years later, Anna could still remember the way she had felt the first time she stepped out of the car in Colorado Springs and she really saw the mountains in their astonishing scope and power for the first time. There had been a wild, intense pull on her heart at the sight, a soul-deep cry of such joy and wonder that she forgot she'd been needing to find a rest room for sixty miles, forgot the bruising pinch her brother had given her when she wouldn't give him a dollar, forgot the squabbling noise of her siblings. She'd simply stood there, drinking in the view as if it alone could sustain her for the rest of her life.
When they got home to New York, she bought a poster of Colorado and hung it on her bedroom wall and announced to the world in general that she would one day make the mountain state her home.