The glossy brochure advertising the cute little vacation cabin had not included any photos of the giant, smoking crater in the front yard.
Adria Benoit suffered through a moment of shock at the sight before her curiosity got the best of her. She pulled up so that her car’s headlights shone over the pit, as she tried to figure out what had caused it, and why the cabin’s owner hadn’t warned her of the danger.
The crater was easily wide enough to swallow her car whole. She inched forward, debating the intelligence of investigating this alone. Her other option was to turn around and head back to the nearest town for help, delaying her much-needed vacation. Again.
She eyed her cell phone. No bars, no signal. Isolation was one of the reasons she’d chosen this place. If anyone at the manufacturing facility she managed had a way to contact her, she’d spend her vacation answering calls and email.
No, this time she was doing it right, cutting all of the electronic leashes that chained her to her work.
Adria reached for the door handle, her fingers hesitating on the plastic. Crazy ideas of meteorites and misplaced missiles flittered through her thoughts. Surely this was just some kind of pit used for barbequing pigs or burning trash and leaves. The cabin’s owners had probably left a bit of it smoldering after tidying up for her arrival. Nothing to worry about.
The frozen dinners she’d brought with her were melting. The longer she sat here, the darker it got. The sun was down, and only a faint glow remained above the pines to her west.
She really didn’t want to get out of the car alone, but she refused to be cowed by a chunk of missing dirt, no matter how big that chunk was.
Time to deploy the big girl panties.
She steeled her spine as she had to do before every board meeting, and stepped out into the chilly autumn air.
Smoke drifted up from the crater, swirling lazily in the beam of her headlights. The smell of burning wood and leaves brought back memories of summer camp and hay rides—happy times filled with hope and the promise of a bright, shiny future. Those dreams were a bit tarnished, but nothing that a good polishing couldn’t fix. The next two weeks were all about a little internal scrubbing—scraping away the clutter so that the truly important things could shine once again.
Since William’s death, Adria really needed to find some new bright spots in her life.
She edged closer, peering down into the hole. It was deeper than she’d thought, drenched in shadows the high angle of her headlights couldn’t penetrate. Still, what little light did make it to the bottom revealed a hint of movement she couldn’t quite identify.
Something was down there—something alive.
Thoughts of snakes or other creepy crawly things shoved their way into her head, forcing her to take a step back away from the edge. She suffered through a shiver of revulsion, debating her options.
Getting back to nature was one thing. Sharing her general sleeping area with whatever was at the bottom of that pit was something else entirely. She was really only willing to go as far as the picturesque scenes painted in granola commercials. Snakes had no part in her vacation fantasies.
A low moan of pain rose up from the shadows.
That was no snake. That was a man.
Fear grabbed her and nailed her feet to the ground. Her breath solidified in her lungs, going cold and heavy.
Someone had fallen into that pit—probably the sweet old man who owned this place—and she sure as hell couldn’t run away and leave him there to suffer, no matter how strong the urge to flee was.
“Hello?” she called, her voice faint and wispy in the face of her fear. “Mr. Corey?”
Another groan was the only answer.
Adria rushed back to her car, shoved aside her bags of groceries, and rummaged in the trunk for the flashlight she kept there. The light it cast gave her almost as much comfort as the solid, heavy weapon it provided. While it might have been a man in the hole, she didn’t know how he’d gotten there or what else might be down there with him.
Careful of the edge, she aimed the beam down into the crater. She traced the length of a man’s thick leg up to his bare hip, over a nak*d torso and finally to his head. A mass of black hair hid his face, swaying in whatever wind currents made it to the bottom, eight feet down.
She saw no blood, a fact for which her squeamish self was eternally grateful.
Whoever he was, that was no elderly Mr. Corey. This man was buff and trim without a wrinkle or hint of sagging skin anywhere.
“Are you okay?” she called, and this time, he turned his head slightly, telling her that he’d heard her.
The man pushed his long hair from his face, rolled onto his back and opened his eyes, hissing at the light she shone at him.
Adria diverted the beam to his chest, forcing herself not to look any lower than the wide expanse of nak*d, muscular manflesh. Even so, some of the beam diffused below his waist, giving her a hint of his bountiful build.
He blinked fast, his eyes rolling around a bit too much, as if he was having trouble focusing.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
He pushed himself to a sitting position, muscles flexing into hard ridges as he moved. He wore only soot, which wasn’t nearly enough to hide his charms, but was more than enough to drench his skin in artistic shadows and highlights that made her wish she were a painter.
Wide, powerful shoulders tapered to narrow hips. His thick, solid bone structure was evident in his massive hands and heaving ribcage. Each breath he took expanded his chest, making him appear larger than life.
Whoever he was, someone had to be missing their lost Olympic athlete or cologne model.
Quiet, sleeping parts of Adria began to wake up and take notice. Her skin hummed, and she became aware of the brush of her sweater along her arms. The feel of worn denim cradling her legs and the swirl of air along her face seemed like a familiar caress. Even the scent of her fabric softener wrapped around her, lending a sense of languid comfort.
Cold air swept past her, making her realize all too keenly just how nak*d the man in the pit was. He had to be freezing down there. She still had no idea how she was going to get him out, but she could at least help keep him warm until they found a solution.
This was no different from work. Put out one fire at a time. And right now, the biggest blaze was the possibility of him freezing to death before she could get him medical attention.
“Stay still,” she called down. “I’ll be right back with a blanket.”
She ran back to her car for the comforter she’d brought along. She scooped up the fluffy down blanket, and turned back to rush to the edge of the pit.
His hard body was right there in front of her, as though it had sprouted up from the earth, and she ran right into him. The jolt shook her whole body and drove the air from her lungs. He was completely immovable, like the trunk of an ancient oak. She sprang right off the cushion of the thick comforter in her arms. His hands grabbed her arms, keeping her from bouncing back onto her ass.
A startled squeak escaped her lips before she could control it. Her heart was galloping at a hundred miles an hour, and she wasn’t sure if it was from being startled, or from being this close to potent male perfection.
His shoulders were at eye level, stretching out into her peripheral vision. Thick cords ran up along his throat. As she watched, he swallowed, and his Adam’s apple bobbed. Even that small movement commanded her complete attention. She was mesmerized by it, unable to look away.
He was pale in the glow of her headlights. He showed no signs of feeling the cold—not even a single goose bump. His skin was smooth and taut. If not for the heat flowing off of him, she could have confused him for some kind of marble sculpture.
Everything about this man’s body seemed to draw her in and hold her captive. It was only her discomfort with that that broke the spell.
After three tries, she finally found enough air to ask, “How did you get out?”
He said nothing, but stared down at her, his gaze so intense she began to squirm under his scrutiny. There was something odd about his blue eyes, but she didn’t dare stare long enough to figure it out, for fear of giving him the wrong idea. She was sure her traitorous body was putting off all kinds of subliminal welcomes. The last thing she needed was for him to accept one of them. Instead, she lowered her gaze to his chin.
There was a small cut there, right along the underside of his wide jaw. It had already scabbed over, but in this light, that scab appeared to be dark purple.
His skin was pale and bluish, as if he were already suffering from hypothermia, but his touch was anything but cold. The heat of his hands sank through her sweater, and she swore she felt his fingers tighten slightly, as if measuring her arms. Her first thought was that he was gauging her strength—checking for muscles that would tell him she’d be able to fight back.
With her work schedule and lack of spare time, he wasn’t going to find any—certainly nothing that would compare to his obvious strength. Physical power hung heavily on his frame, mocking her relative weakness, making her feel small and vulnerable in the isolated darkness.
She gripped the comforter harder, letting the familiar feel of it calm her nerves. There was no sign he was some kind of deranged killer. He was just a guy who fell in a trash pit and had his clothes burned off. No big deal.
The idea was so ridiculous she nearly giggled. Only the anxiety tightening her neck kept the noise from coming out.
Adria cleared her throat and forced herself to sound calm and in control. She donned the air of command she used at the office—the one that made sedentary people hop out of their chairs and start scurrying to get a job done. “Are you hurt anywhere? How did you get down there? And how did you get out?”
No words, only more staring. He tilted his head to the side as if trying to understand her.
And that’s when she realized what was going on. The poor man must have hit his head and scrambled his brains so much he couldn’t figure out what she was saying. That’s why he kept simply looking at her—why he stood there as if completely captivated by her mere presence.
All of Adria’s fear evaporated under the force of her guilt. Here she was, making him out to be a serial killer when he was in need of her help. How stupid and self-absorbed could she be?
The mental kick she gave herself was enough to get her moving.
“Come on,” she said, keeping her voice calm and soothing. “Let’s get you in the car and I’ll take you to a hospital, okay?”
She pulled from his grip and draped the comforter over his shoulders so he could wear it like a robe. Not once did she give into the temptation to glance down and appease her feminine curiosity.
She took one of his dirty hands and showed him how to hold the blanket closed. And while he obeyed, the whole time he continued to stare, his gaze darting over her face and body as if soaking up some kind of hidden knowledge.
That rapt attention made her warm from the inside out, eliminating any need for a coat.
His bare feet had to be freezing against the cold ground, but she had no shoes that would fit him—not even close. All she could do was get him into her car and turn up the heat so he’d warm up.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He was silent, but went where she led, and at her urging, sat down in the passenger seat. Now that she could reach his head easily, she slid her fingers through his thick hair, feeling for signs of injury. He closed his eyes and let out a low, rumbling growl of appreciation.