He opened his home. She stole his heart…and his money.
Many would envy veterinarian Russ Gray’s life in rural Montana’s wide-open spaces. Russ calls it lonely. In a country with more cattle than eligible females, he doesn’t envision his seven years as a widower ending anytime soon. Until a mysterious woman lands at his door in the dead of night, riddled with buckshot.
Sarah Novak hates lying to such a kind, handsome man, but if an upstanding citizen like Russ finds out why she’s been three weeks on the run, he’d surely turn her in. Yet she can’t refuse his offer to let her stay until she heals, no questions asked.
From the start they fall into an easy companionship, then teasing flirtation flares into an unexpected intimate connection. But no matter how right it feels in his arms, guilt tugs at Sarah’s heart. Russ doesn’t deserve what she must do next.
When Russ wakes up with an empty bed—and an empty wallet—his first instinct isn’t to call the cops…it’s to catch her and find out why his urge to protect her overshadows all reason. Because he’s had a taste of real passion, and he’s not letting it slip away without a fight.
By the bluish glow of a nearly full moon, Sarah spotted her first sign of civilization in an hour—an unlit house on this endless, lonely stretch of dirt road in Nowheresville, Montana. She picked up her pace, arm wrapped around her middle to cradle her wounded side. She kept her eyes locked on the shapes ahead, the trapezoid of a roof, the ladderlike stripes of a porch railing.
Her progress along the gravel rang out in the still night, uneven footsteps like seconds ticking by on a broken clock. The darkness and quiet didn’t scare her. If anything, their purity was a comfort now, a merciful change from the noise and the buzzing, yellowy bulbs of the bus stations Sarah had been sleeping in for the past three weeks, the sickly light seeping beneath the doors in every rundown women’s shelter between here and Buffalo. Between this dead-silent road and the night her entire life had collapsed. The night she’d become a fugitive.
One minute she’d been camped out on a barstool with a friend, watching baseball, nursing her second beer. Then, a phone call. A short run to an old friend’s house, moments later the snap decision that ended her world as she knew it, sent her out into the unknown without so much as a change of clothes. She’d covered nearly two thousand miles, on bus and foot mainly. It’d only taken a couple of stints as a hitchhiker for Sarah to conclude it wasn’t the way for a single woman to travel. Granted, the knife she’d had held to her throat by the second—and last—driver she’d ever flagged down would only leave a tiny scar on the outside, probably some deeper damage to her psyche. The buckshot presently lodged in her side from a run-in with a territorial farm owner… Now that injury seemed poised to linger. Whoever had given her the impression that people from postcard-pretty places like Montana would be kind and welcoming… Well, next time she’d ask for proof.
She drew close to the house, a small one-story with a long wooden structure attached to its far side. She’d slept on a bench in the Billings bus depot the previous night and doubted crashing in some stranger’s barn could be much worse. Cows and horses were unlikely to try to rob or sexually harass her—
Barks shattered the silence. Sarah stopped dead in the road, yards from the lonely house. Out of darkness shot two bodies, pointed ears alert, teeth glinting in the moonlight.
Russ woke to the sound of canine alarm, his dogs barking their ever-loving heads off in the front yard. He squinted at his dresser and the glowing numbers on his clock. Nine past one.
“Not a skunk,” he prayed. “Not a skunk, not a skunk—”
A woman’s shriek joined the chorus.
Blood chilled in an instant, Russ launched himself out of bed and scrambled through the dark house, grabbing his rifle along the way. He hit the switch for the porch light and burst out the front door and down the steps.
The two German Shepherds looked wild in the low, dingy light, dutifully guarding an inexplicable woman standing in front of Russ’s house. She seemed paralyzed, frozen between the glaring dogs and their two sets of intimidating teeth, arms held up as if someone had a gun trained on her. Which come to think of it, Russ basically did.
“It’s okay.” He said it mainly to the dogs and their bodies relaxed. “Kit. Tulah.” The dogs looked at him. “Get lost.” He gave Tulah a whap on the butt and waved his hand, and she trotted obediently around the back of the house. Kit offered the woman’s waist a final breathy snort then reluctantly followed.
Russ turned to the woman, still paralyzed in profile. “Sorry about that. They won’t bother you.”
She turned, eyes wide. She lowered her arms and wrapped them around her middle. She was skinny, no older than thirty Russ guessed, with light brown hair draped over narrow shoulders. She had on jeans and sneakers and a long-sleeved shirt…no bag, no coat, no flashlight, no explanation for turning up at the edge of Russ’s far-flung property at one a.m.
He was about to demand one when he suddenly registered his own getup, boxers and a rifle.
“Hey,” he said.
“Um… Hang on a minute.” Russ left her to trot up the steps. He ditched the .22, jogged to his room and tugged on jeans and a T-shirt. She was right where he’d left her when he went back outside, her eyes aimed in the direction the dogs had disappeared.
“Hey,” he said again, clomping down the steps. “You okay?”
She nodded, way too quick.
“You break down someplace?” Russ looked at her shirt, her locked arms not hiding the dark stain along one side of her waist. “Oh my God.” He came close. He touched her forearms, tugging gently.
She locked them tighter. “Don’t.”
He eased into his firm, soothing work voice. “I’m a doctor. Are you bleeding?”
“No. Not anymore.”
She and Russ exchanged awkward eye contact as he attempted to pry her stubborn arms apart.
“I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said. “And I don’t care what you’re doing here in the middle of the night, okay? Just let me see where you’re bleeding.”
She swallowed, jaw twitching as she considered it.
“Please. I won’t hurt you, I swear.”
She let her arms drop, revealing a mottled bloodstain at her waist.
“Good God. Come inside,” Russ said, not an invitation. He steered her firmly by the shoulder, up the steps and inside, shut the door on the chilly September air.
The woman stood at the edge of the open den, looking around Russ’s modest ranch house.
He tucked his hands in his pockets in an attempt to look nonthreatening. “Can I ask what happened to you?”
She glanced around a few seconds longer then met his gaze squarely, the rigid stubbornness seeming to abandon her posture. “I got shot.”
“Shot?” Russ felt his eyebrows trying to jump clean off his face. He stepped to her, no permission requested. “Lift it up. Let me see.”
She eased the cream-colored shirt up and over her head. Underneath she had on a purple tank top, the kind with skinny straps and a narrow lacy border—the sort of garment women probably had a special name for, one Russ had surely never heard of. She peeled that off too, stripped to her putty-colored bra. Russ hadn’t seen a near-naked woman in about seven years, not in person anyhow. He’d always hoped he might find himself roughly in this position, but the reality of this moment wasn’t anywhere near as thrilling as his expectations. He looked at her and saw pale skin riddled from the waist to the ribs with red pits and scrapes, saw nothing but a patient. Still, buckshot beat bullets any day of the week. His heartbeat slowed with relief.
“Jesus.” He squinted to find the wounds through the dried blood. “You got yourself in some kind of trouble, huh?”
She winced as Russ gently touched the skin around the holes. “I have poor hitchhiker’s instincts.”
“You said you got shot?”
“How on earth did someone driving a car manage to spray you with buckshot?”
She gasped as Russ continued his examination. “He didn’t shoot me,” she mumbled. “He cut me.”
She pointed and Russ saw the thin red line drawn across one side of her throat. His heart sped back up and he swallowed. “So who shot you?”
Her eyes darted to the lamp. “Someone like you, I think. Someone who thought I was trespassing. Maybe five miles back that way.” She jerked her head in a westerly direction.
Russ stared at the punctures at her waist, none too deep, thank God. She couldn’t have been too close to whoever shot her. He straightened up and took a step back, forcing the worry to leave his body so he could do his job. “You’ve had a lousy day, haven’t you?”
She offered a weary smile and a weak laugh, just a breath pushed through her nose. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“Let’s get you lying down,” Russ said. “C’mon.”
He waved his hand toward his bedroom, grabbed his big medical case and a chair from the dinner table and followed her inside, pushing the dimmer switch up with his elbow. He caught her size him up with a fearful eye before sitting obediently on his rumpled bed.
Russ set the chair down and moved his pillow to the other end of the mattress, patting it. “Lie down on your side, here.”
She curled herself into an S, wounded side up, and Russ excused himself to wash his hands in the bathroom.
He returned and propped his case open above her head, getting items ready. She gasped as he ran an alcohol-soaked cloth over her skin to clean the blood away. She craned her neck, surveying his kit with its gigantic plastic syringes, battery-powered clippers. Through gritted teeth she asked, “What’s wrong with your usual patients?”
He swabbed her again, then disinfected a pair of long tweezers and set them aside. “All sorts of things. Colic, sores, rot…buckshot too, sometimes.”
“You’re a vet?”
He nodded, popping the cap off a small bottle of anesthetic spray. “This might sting a second.”
She groaned, eyes wide as a cartoon until the spritzes did their job.
Russ traced his fingertips between her punctures. “You feel that?”
“Okay. That’s only going to help the skin, so this is still gonna hurt. There’s only three shots in you, and I can see at least one of them, so they aren’t too deep. Please try to not move. These tweezers are sharp and I don’t want to hurt you worse than you already are.”
“Just do it fast.”
“I’ll do my best,” Russ said, thinking regular doctors had it worse, stuck explaining everything to their patients.
His own patient squeezed her eyes shut, knuckles white as she fisted the pillow beneath her head.
“Try to relax if it’s at all possible.”
“Fair enough.” Russ scooted his chair closer and picked up the tweezers, bracing his left hand on her ribs to keep her from jerking upright. As he brought the tips close and sized up the first shot, it felt as if he were playing that old board game, Operation. Though if he screwed this up he’d have more than a just an angry buzzer to answer to. “Okay, ready? One, two, three—”
Russ held her down as her body tried to revolt. He wrestled with way stronger, way heavier patients on a daily basis. He got the first tiny metal ball out and set it on the alcohol-soaked cloth.
“You’re doing great,” he lied. “Just two to go. And while I’ve got you pinned, I think it’s only fair to say I don’t want you leaving right away. You’re staying the night at least, so I can check these again tomorrow.”
“I—” Her own gasp cut her off as Russ went after the second shot. She whimpered, loud enough to set the dogs barking again outside. She fell silent for the third pass, body stiff with held breath. Russ dropped the final ball onto the cloth and took his bracing hand off her ribs.
“That’s the worst of it. You got real lucky, you know.”
She swallowed, chest rising and falling so deeply it had to hurt. “Oh yeah. Clearly.”
Russ caught the faintest smirk pass her lips and returned it. “I’m just going to clean these out and bandage you up, okay? You should be good as new in a few days.”
“Will I ever wear a bikini again?”
It took Russ a second to register the joke, her sarcasm darkening this bizarre situation, not taking its edge off. He rolled his eyes at her and got a fresh cloth dripping with alcohol. She balled up again as he cleaned the scrapes and holes, her teeth gritted between sneering lips.
“Okay. Almost done.” He waved a hand above her drying skin and unwrapped a pair of gauze squares. He got her patched up, taping the cotton in place. For one a.m. and dealing with a squirming human patient, he thought he’d done a damn fine job.
“Right then, you’re all set.”
She pushed herself up, touched the bandaged area gently.
“Keep it dry. Leave it alone. Oh, hang on.” Russ grabbed the cloth and folded it over. He leaned in and swabbed away a few flecks of dried blood on her neck, relieved to find the cut shallow.
Russ went out to the den to grab her clothes. They were filthy and damp, crusted with blood. On second thought he tossed them in the hamper and headed back to the bedroom, digging in a drawer for an old flannel shirt. It looked like a billowy pajama top as she buttoned it up her skinny torso.
She met his eyes and he noticed hers for the first time—light, clear brown like honey, the same color as the freckles scattered across her nose and cheeks.
Her words came airy and shallow, as if she wasn’t ready to breathe quite yet, or perhaps wasn’t comfortable being polite to the stranger who’d just forced her into minor surgery. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” Russ sat a few feet to her left, gathering the scattered items from his case and replacing them. He studied her face, and she returned the scrutiny, two pairs of eyes in a little boxing match, bobbing and weaving, sizing up the opponent.
“Do you want to tell me how you ended up out here? With a knife scrape on your neck and buckshot in your side?”
“I told you where those came from.”
“Okay… But how about you? How’d you end up on my doorstep this time of night, twenty miles from the nearest streetlight?”
She pursed her lips and looked away.
Russ sighed. “Look. I believe there’s still places in this country where a person can be left alone and not get questioned to death about where they came from and what they’ve done. And you’re in one of them.”
“But how about your name, at least?”
“How about yours?”
Russ raised a brow at that look on her face, that distrustful narrowing of her eyes, the flex of her clenching jaw. He wondered what else she’d suffered to be looking at him like a kicked dog now.
“My name’s Russell Gray,” he said, offering his hand. “Call me Russ, please.”
She shook it with a tight smile. “Sure, Russ. You can call me Nicole.”
“You live alone?” she asked, scouting the room as though a wife might be hiding behind Russ’s dresser.
“Yeah, just me. And you, ’til you’re feeling better. You hungry? When’s the last time you ate?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “I haven’t had anything since this morning.”
“Well, c’mon.” Russ stood and grabbed the chair, carrying it back into the den to set it by the table near the open kitchen. “Have a seat.”
Nicole sat, and he scanned his cupboards and fridge. “What would you like? Oatmeal? Eggs? Cereal? Ham sandwich?” He turned to her.
He smiled dryly and she returned the gesture. “Whatever’s easy.”
“Right.” Russ grabbed her a bowl and spoon, a box of cornflakes and a jug of milk.
She tore into the cereal, and Russ felt very much as though he suddenly ceased to exist. Nicole ate like a starved animal, wolfing down three bowls in a handful of minutes as Russ watched, fascinated. His wife had been the type of woman who put in long hours and neglected meals, but he’d never seen her attack a bowl of anything even half this aggressively. It was an oddly sexy look for a woman—ravenous abandon.
“Wow, you were hungry,” Russ said as she tipped the last of the milk to her lips.
“You have no idea.” She swiveled the glass bottle on the table, studying the label. “I can’t remember the last time I had whole milk.”
She nodded, setting her spoon in the bowl with a clink. Russ half-expected her to complete the performance with an almighty belch, but she just watched him cautiously until he stood and cleared away the dishes and what was left of the cereal.
“Well,” he said, shutting the fridge, “you help yourself to anything in the kitchen while you’re here. I’ll find you some bedding for the couch.”
Another tight smile. “Thank you.”
“Tomorrow morning you can grab a shower and I’ll take another look at those injuries. I think you’ll be just fine, though.” He gave her a slap on the shoulder and watched her eyebrows rise. It was what he always did to a steer or a horse after he was done tending to it, and Russ reminded himself he was dealing with a different breed of patient now, one who might not take so kindly to a friendly smack. He went to his closet and gathered some wool blankets from the shelf, grabbed one of the pillows off his bed. Nicole stood nearby as he got the couch set up.
“Could I get a glass of water?”
“Of course.” He went to the cupboards and filled her a mug from the tap.
“Thanks.” She accepted the cup, downing it in two gulps.
“Like I said, help yourself. And the bathroom’s there,” he added, pointing. “If you want warm water you better beat me to it in the morning.”
A genuine smile overtook her face, eyes crinkling, two dimples punctuating either corner of her wide lips. Russ watched her refill her cup before settling into the pile of blankets with slow, cautious movements, testing her injuries.
“You sleep tight now,” Russ said. “Come knock if you need anything.”
“I will, thanks.”
He nodded, not quite willing to meet her eyes, the strangeness of their new acquaintance sinking in now that his adrenaline had faded. He offered the wall to the left of her face an anxious smile, clicked off the lamp and closed himself in his bedroom.
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