Essie shivered, the wind biting her bare cheeks as she scraped ice off the windshield. She hated Midwest winters. The cold was bad enough, but the snow and ice just made it worse. Especially when all three were together.
She never felt more depressed than during this season, too. It was difficult all year long, having no one to come home to after a long day of work. But in the winter, there was no one waiting for her to snuggle up with in front of a fire, to warm her up from the inside out. She had always longed for just that, but she'd convinced herself that it was just something she'd have to experience in her mind.
Today had started bad, and she was sure it would just continue to get worse. Days like these always did. Her boss had called her to come in despite previously agreeing to let her take the day off, and it had snowed six inches last night with more in the forecast. She was supposed to be sleeping in, buried under the warm covers of her bed, imagining she wasn't alone anymore. Not clearing the car before fresh snow covered it again.
"But no, I'm freezing my butt off for the biggest jerk this side of the—"
The wind whipped around her as she slid into the driver's seat, blowing a pile of snow off the roof and down the back of her coat. She screamed and slammed the door shut behind her, jerking the gearshift into drive. The car fishtailed once she reached the highway and barely missed the neighbor's mailbox.
"If I make it through this day, I swear I'm going to quit! It'll be my Christmas present for being good all year. Surely I deserve that."
She had no sooner pulled into the lot at work and was climbing out when her cell phone buzzed. With her mittens on, it was difficult to flip open the phone and punch the green 'answer' button. She managed to drop it in the snow before succeeding.
"Hello?" she said, out of breath.
A gruff, male voice snapped back at her. "Ms. Smith, are you almost here?"
She tried not to cuss at her boss. Despite threatening to walk out on a daily basis, she needed to keep this job. At least for now. She forced a smile and managed not to raise her voice. "I'm walking in from the parking lot right now, Mr. Thomas. I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier—"
"Get us some coffee. Not that cheap stuff, either. It had better be hot," he said, and then the line went dead.
She screamed into her scarf and jammed the key back into the ignition. "Us" could only mean his two buddies were visiting, and they were no better than her boss. For a brief moment, she wished she were back in grade school and could have the gift of a snow day. Anything to not be right here, right now.
The muscles in her back complained when Essie sat back in her chair. She couldn't help the deep groan when she kicked off her required black heels, flexing her toes. No matter what season it was, she also had to wear black nylons and a black pencil-skirt. At least she could wear whatever blouse she wanted. Today, it was a fitted, navy button-up that made her gray eyes stand out...as well as her 36C-cup breasts. And her brunette hair had managed to stay neatly braided in its bun.
Yet, despite how well she presented herself, she didn't feel attractive. Then again, maybe that was because of whom she worked for. If you didn't have a dick, he made you feel like the lowest possible organism on the totem pole. And he had no problem reminding you of it.
She didn't know how she had survived the day. Running for coffee three times, dictating letters and case notes, filing all of last month's paperwork again, all while answering the phone on the second ring...with a smile.
Being Mr. Thomas's legal assistant had very few rewards. The paycheck was the only thing that kept her waking up at six in the morning, driving half an hour one way, working nine-plus hours a day, driving another thirty minutes, and then crawling into bed at night, sometimes without dinner she was so exhausted. A vacation would help, but that would mean Mr. Thomas would be without his left and right hands for more than one day, and he wouldn't hear of it.
She still couldn't believe he had told her she could have today off. Then again, he had retracted his agreement by calling her just after dawn. Some political big-wig in the city had been caught with his pants down on the wrong side of the tracks; the story had been plastered on the front page of this morning's paper. The only reason Mr. Thomas hadn't called her earlier, he'd said, was because he'd been consoling his client. She should consider herself so lucky.
Every now and then, two of his lawyer friends dropped by, like today. They holed up in his office, their raucous laughter sporadically exploding like gunfire, disrupting the blessed silence and any attempt to concentrate on her work. She knew full well that nothing serious—at least legal-wise—was accomplished behind that closed door during their visits.
It didn't help that she'd found them corralled around her desk when she'd finally walked in with their first coffee. As usual, Mr. Thomas bragged to his friends that no one could please him like she did. They'd snickered, given her a once-over with a wink, and grabbed a cup before parading back to the "man cave."
The whole thing disgusted her. She still expected her boss to come to her some day and proposition her...and then blackmail her to keep her job even if she rejected him.
A soft snort slipped out at that thought. Her mind always did imagine her being in undesirable situations with the worst outcome. Either that, or blissfully erotic ones where some handsome man rescued her from this nightmare and pleasured her endlessly...
Essie shook her head. The chance of either of those situations were less than slim, and with her luck, she'd find herself in the nightmare instead of the dream.
Loud footsteps made her sit up and pretend to be working on the computer. Mr. Thomas led the group of three men. None of them acknowledged her as they laughed over a dirty joke. The grating sound stopped abruptly as the front door closed.
She held her breath for a full minute, and then relaxed in her chair. After another five minutes, she pulled on her knee-high boots and buttoned her wool coat, stuffing the ends of her scarf inside the collar.
At least she wasn't required to be back here until Tuesday due to Christmas Day being on Monday. Three whole days to just stay under the covers at home without a care in the world. To pretend her life was different and she wasn't lonely anymore.
The wind had picked up, and the snow seemed to be falling harder as she hurried outside. More than an inch of the white stuff coated her car. By the time she had dug through to the handle and pried the door open, her hands were frozen, and the sleeves of her coat were soaked.
The engine died the first two times. With a groan, she slammed her hand against the steering wheel, accidentally hitting the horn, and screamed. When the engine turned over on the next try, cold air shot out the air vents and sent goosebumps prickling up her arms and shivers down her back. She wanted to cry, but she was afraid her tears would freeze right on her cheeks.
She let the windshield defrost and the thermostat warm up before she maneuvered the car out of the snow-packed lot. Remembering her deceased father's advice, she tapped her brakes as she came to the stop sign before turning out onto the highway. The car skidded for a moment—the anti-lock brakes taking hold—before it came to a stop.
With the blowing snow, she wouldn't be able to see far, but there shouldn't be too much traffic. Everyone else was sane and was probably tucked away safely in their cozy little houses with their families or significant others. It would take twice as long to get home, if not more. But what waited for her would be just as cold and dark as the night around her. She took a deep breath and started out again, at least looking forward to a little peace and quiet.
The dashboard clock showed she'd been on the road for fifteen minutes. It was half the time it usually took her to get home, but passing by the old Anderson silo showed that she had only driven three miles. The windshield was icing up on the inside as well as the outside faster than the defrost and wipers could clear it. She cursed, gripping the wheel with one hand while she rubbed her mitten across the glass.
When the car swerved, she tried to correct it, but then the wheels spun out, sending the car sliding sideways off the road. The car slammed to a stop, and her head hit the steering wheel, cutting off her scream. Sharp pain pressed behind her eyes, there was a tinny taste in her mouth, and she was suddenly freezing cold. Her fingers automatically reached for the buttons on the door, but nothing happened.
"Got to close the window..."
Her hand fell back to her lap, and then she blacked out.
A dull throbbing in her head and the smell of clean sheets with a cedar undertone told her that she probably wasn't dead. There was a faint memory of men ogling her at work; traipsing through snow to get overpriced coffee; taking notes while a heavy man with an equally bulbous nose swore to bankrupt the city's journalism industry; driving home from work. And crashing.
Or maybe she had dreamt all of that and had never gotten up this morning. Maybe Mr. Thomas hadn't called her. Maybe she had just imagined, once again, that the worst...
There was a loud exhale, then a deep, masculine voice said, "Good, you're awake."
Essie sucked in her breath and tried to open her eyes. Pain shot down the back of her head and she choked back a scream.
Large, warm hands rolled her onto her side and held her still, rubbing her back. Her bare back.
She gulped down air, unable to see anything as she strained to return to full consciousness. Who was this man? Where was she? She tried to sit up, finding herself weighted down by...blankets. She kicked at the layers while holding them to her upper body at the same time, remembering her nakedness.
"Damn it, woman, relax!" The hands pushed her back, pulling the covers over her again. When she stopped fighting, he released her.
Through the pounding of blood in her ears, she could hear his heavy breathing. "W-where am I?"
"I found you in my field. Well, your car that is. You were in your car. Now, just stay put, okay?"
She nodded, and the weight on the bed shifted.
"Your head is a little banged up," he continued, his voice farther away. There was the sound of a faucet running, cupboard doors opening and closing. "Your car is totaled. So is the deer."
"Deer?" She tried to sit up again and felt the blankets fall away. There was a loud gasp followed by a thump and a soft curse. She gathered the blankets to her and laid back down.
"Yes, the four-legged animals that run wild out here in the country. He probably stopped your car from flipping over." His voice was closer again. He moaned, as if in pain, and then the bed shifted once more as he sat down. A dull light clicked on beside the bed, but his face remained above its reach. "Lie still, I'm just going to change your bandage."
She wished she could see him. But then again, she figured he was probably just some creepy farmer who sounded all sexy when he was the farthest thing from it. Still... Her hand instinctively reached out as he leaned toward her. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." But he winced when her fingertips grazed over a slight bump on the top of his head.
"Sorry." She bit her lower lip and tucked her hand under the covers again, trying to breathe slower.
His hand smelled of soap when he reached toward her head, and his touch made her skin tingle. As soon as the bandage was gone, so was his hand. Part of her longed for it to return. He granted her wish, but she cringed as he pressed a warm cloth to her forehead.
"You'll have a scar. Nothing that needs stitches."
Water trickled down to her ear, wetting her hair. He was gentle, dabbing at her wound and then at her right eye. The whole while, he never bent low enough for her to catch a glimpse of anything besides his hands. And those had a leathered texture, evidence of someone who worked outdoors.
"I was afraid to put an icepack on that shiner. You were so cold when I found you, I didn't want to make it worse. But I did have to remove your clothes. Snow had blown in through the broken windshield and put a nice layer on you by the time I found you. Good thing I was coming home when I did."
"Thanks." She swallowed and nodded, her cheeks burning from knowing that he had undressed her. She wasn't sure if she was completely embarrassed. Something deep inside sparked to life, and she wondered if he had liked what he'd seen, or if he hadn't paid any attention at all.
He's an ugly, lonely man. Of course he paid attention. Any naked lady would turn him on. The sooner you can get out of here...
"You've stopped bleeding." He dabbed a fingertip of some ointment onto the wound, covered it with a clean bandage, and then turned away from her. "Are you hungry?"
"Not really," she said. A loud growl rose from her stomach.
He chuckled and leaned toward her as he stood up. "Liar."
She gulped down air, feeling that different, silent hunger stirring. His eyes were dark, flashing with his laughter. His hard jawline was darkened with stubble. His shoulders were wide, and as he straightened, she realized he would top her five-foot-six stature by several inches. What enticed her the most, though, was the thick blond hair softening the sharp contours of his face. Her fingers twitched under the blanket, wanting to touch it again. To pull him to her.
Okay, so he's handsome. That doesn't mean he's not a pervert.
"I made some soup," he said, and then he was gone.
She closed her eyes and tried to breathe. When she felt her heartbeat slow down, she rolled onto her side in the direction of his footsteps. A light snapped on, and she caught the first glimpses of her surroundings. Through the doorway, her rescuer stood in a kitchen, ladling soup into a bowl. A larger room lay beyond him, hidden mostly in shadows, but the visible walls and ceiling indicated that they were in a log cabin.
Her eyes returned to the stranger, imagining the muscles of his back and arms as they moved under his flannel shirt. The tightness of his jeans emphasized his ass when he dropped a towel and bent down to pick it up. She gulped again and looked away.
The rest of the bedroom was sparse besides the bed, a nightstand with the sole lamp, a dresser, and a chair in the corner. She could hear the wind howling outside the window and shivered, glad to be inside.
"Can you sit up?"
She gasped, jerking her head around at the sound of his voice. He stood over her, the light from the kitchen making his hair glow. The corner of his mouth twitched as he waited for her response. She nodded and pulled the blankets tighter around her, scooting up so her back was resting against the pillows and headboard.
"Don't want to spill the soup." He sat down beside her, his weight cinching the blankets a tad lower. His eyes darted down and then up to meet hers, a smile tugging at his lips again.
She reached for the spoon and bowl before realizing that she needed at least one hand to keep herself covered.
"Allow me." The words were said casually, but they sounded sexy to her. Surely it was her imagination at work again. He was only trying to help.
She blinked to clear her head. He leaned toward her and held the bowl under her chin, dipped the spoon into the bowl, and then brought it to her lips. Her eyes stayed on him as he slipped the spoon inside her mouth, tipped it back to empty the contents, and then returned it to the bowl. She found the simple gesture quite arousing, and the heat of the chicken soup quickly traveled all the way down to stoke the fire between her legs as she swallowed.
They were both silent as he repeated the procedure, their gaze never wandering. When the spoon scraped the bottom of the empty bowl, he set the utensils on the nightstand.
"Do you feel better?" His voice was definitely husky now, and his eyes looked glossy. Maybe her mind wasn't playing tricks on her.
She licked her lips and nodded. Her heartbeat picked up, and her grip on the blankets tightened as she stared at this strange, gorgeous man sitting only inches away from her.
For just a moment, she glanced at his mouth. Noticing again how a five-o'clock-shadow highlighted his chin and jaw. How full his lips were. How they parted, allowing his sweet breath to brush her face. His long, thick fingers gently brushed over her bandage, grazing her temple and then her cheek as he lowered his hand.
Her own breath shuddered as a wish flashed through her mind, and then he was making it come true without her speaking a word.
His mouth was warm and soft and controlled against hers. He moved with a purpose, gently plying her lips until they parted with a sigh. Then his tongue darted into her mouth, tasting her, luring her tongue into his mouth to taste him.
She moaned as he pushed her head back into the pillows. His fingers caressed her cheek again and then slid into her hair. It occurred to her that her bun and braid had long been released, that her locks hung around her bare shoulders, grazing the tops of her breasts.
The blankets pooled in her lap. Cool air brushed over her chest, hardening her nipples. And then she was falling sideways, twisting until she was on her back.
He lay on top of her, his arms framing her head. He continued the assault on her mouth, gently tugging her lower lip in between his teeth, licking at the spots he had nibbled. His fingers and then his mouth descended to her neck, teasing the sensitive skin behind her ear; around to the nape of her neck just below her hairline; down to the dip where shoulder and neck gracefully joined.
She shivered in delight, her hands rising to massage his arms through his shirt. Her fingers took on a mind of their own, sliding over the roughness of his cheeks and up into his hair. His luxuriously soft hair that felt like silk and curled around her fingers, as if holding onto her as she held onto him. After several minutes, she forced them to abandon their play and moved down to the buttons at the flannel barrier between them.
He gasped, stealing her breath when her fingers brushed the sides of the shirt open and touched his warm skin. His muscles rippled beneath her touch. Despite their firmness, they were still malleable under her fingertips. A muffled groan passed between them, his mouth moving harder against hers, his tongue diving in deeper as he pressed his pelvis against her.
She returned the favor, arching up to him, moaning her assent. He rewarded her by lowering his mouth to her chest, taking one supple breast in his work-roughened hand and enclosing his lips around her erect nipple. Her breath came out in short gasps, her eyes staring at the ceiling but seeing nothing.
He took his time, plying her breast as he had her mouth, moaning when her hands buried in his hair again. All thoughts slipped away. Her own hands had always aroused her when she needed release, but having someone else touch her breasts...and with reverence...
While he suckled one breast, he massaged the other, cupping it, squeezing it, and sending wonderful sensations straight down to her toes. He ran the flat of his tongue over her right nipple before kissing down the inside of her breast and moving across the valley to repeat the whole procedure on the other side.
She felt the warmth and wetness growing between her legs, and the desire heightened as his free hand grasped her side, slowly stroking up and down, his fingers massaging her back, her waist, the outside of her breast. Her body fluttered, rising and falling in waves at his touch. The sounds coming from her mouth were a mixture of moans and gasps and unintelligible words.