MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN, page 1
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Eden had no idea what woke her. Perhaps a strange sound. Or maybe just a feeling that something wasn't right.
She stirred and turned over, then fitfully turned over again. But changing positions did no good. Sleep had fled. With a little moan, she rolled to her back and slowly opened her eyes.
A man stood at the foot of her bed.
And then she realized what must be happening. She must still be asleep. She thought she saw a man. But it was only the shadows, only the last after-image of an already forgotten dream.
She closed her eyes again, sure that the man would be gone on a second look.
When she opened her eyes the man was still there. He murmured something.
Eden made no sense of his words. Her heart had just kicked into overdrive. It seemed to expand in her chest. Her mouth tasted like old pennies. Her blood roared in her ears.
She sat up, rubbed her eyes, looked again.
He was still there. Oh God, still there…
This couldn't be happening. Not here, not in her darling little cabin by the river in lovely, safe North Magdalene.
Disoriented, terrified, Eden glanced down and beheld her own long legs gleaming palely in the darkness. It had been a hot night, and she'd drifted off without pulling up the sheet. Now her legs were visible all the way to the hip because her sleep shirt had ridden up. And he could see exactly what she could see—which was way too much.
Yanking down the hem of her shirt, Eden scuttled back against the headboard, tucking her legs up under her, trying vainly to hide them from his view.
Cowering there among the pillows, shaking all over, she demanded, "Wh-who are you? What do you want?"
"An answer." He stepped around the end of the bed.
"Don't you come any closer!"
He swore softly. "What the hell's your problem? Settle down." He took another step toward her.
Frantic, she stuck out a hand for the night table, groping for something—anything—to use in her own defense. Her fingers found the hard, firm shape of her old-fashioned windup alarm clock. She grabbed it and raised it high.
"You get back from me. Don't come any closer. I mean it!"
"Put that damn thing down."
Her heart was pounding way too fast. Adrenaline slammed through her system, beckoning her to give in to pure hysteria. She was trying desperately to keep her head, not to let herself admit how far away she was from the next house and how unlikely the chance that her cries for help might be heard.
The intruder gave a low, disgusted grunt. "Put it down, I'm warning you." He took another step.
That did it. For Eden, it was either take action, or start shrieking like some helpless victim in a bad horror film. Eden was no victim. She hurled the clock.
And then, not pausing to see if she'd actually hit her target, she shot off the bed on the other side and headed for the door.
She didn't make it.
She heard the clock bounce on the little throw rug by the bed and then something snared her sleep shirt. The shirt stretched like a huge rubber band. She prayed it would tear. It didn't.
Grunting, the intruder hauled her in with a jerk, wrapping an arm that felt like a steel band around her the minute he had her close enough. She spun and found herself plastered against a hard, broad chest.
"Why you little—"
"Let me go, you creep! Let go!" She pounded his chest and kicked at his shins.
"What the hell is the matter with you? You're crazy— oof!"
There. She'd done it, kneed him close enough to his privates that he flinched. She tore backward.
But the man was an octopus. He held on. They toppled to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Her sleep shirt slithered up. She could feel the hard length of him, all along every inch of her struggling body. Once or twice, she felt the harsh scrape of his boot. She fought on and she fought hard, scratching and punching and squirming with all her might.
But the intruder was as hard as tempered steel, as lean and sinuous as a snake. And Eden Parker, slim and strong as she was, was simply no match for him.
With unfailing, unswerving determination, he subdued her. He redirected her. He slithered out of her way. And yet somehow he managed never to let go of her.
How long she fought him, Eden didn't know. Time lost all meaning in the battle for survival, for self-protection.
But eventually, she felt herself weakening. Her blows had less and less effect. He managed to capture both her wrists, forcing them over her head and pinning them to the floor. His body was like a lead weight on top of hers, pressing her down. Exhausted, she panted and squirmed, hating her own lesser strength. She knew she had to keep her mind clear. She had to be ready for any slightest chance he might give her to get free.
Her cruel captor panted, too, his hard chest moving in and out against her own. "Are you done?" he muttered in a harsh growl.
"I'll never be done. Never," she managed to say between painful gulps for air.
Then, unable to look at the shadow of him, her unknown attacker, so close above her, she turned her head so her cheek touched the floor. She shut her eyes. She wasn't giving up, oh no. All she needed was a few more good breaths and she'd be ready to fight again.
But then, just as she closed her eyes to concentrate on regrouping, she felt it. She felt him down there, where the placket of his jeans was pressed so unmercifully against her womanhood. He was growing hard…
"Oh, no," she moaned in desperation.
He swore, crudely and succinctly.
And then he reared back on his knees.
Eden blinked, not understanding his withdrawal when she had feared the worst. And then she realized that right now was the chance she'd hoped for.
She rolled, then scrambled to her knees.
"Oh, no, you don't," he muttered grimly. He grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. Then he groped with his free arm for a moment, until he found her brass-backed vanity chair. He spun it around and shoved her down in it, flicking on the vanity table light at the same time.
For a moment, now that they could both see more than mere shadows and shapes, they stared at each other. To Eden, he looked just as she'd expected him to look: hard and mean and dangerous. His grim slash of a mouth was set in an ungiving line. His steel gray eyes were slits.
She saw with bleak satisfaction that her makeshift weapon had actually hit its mark. A trickle of blood dripped down above his left eye. As she watched, he swiped the blood away with a forearm. She stared at that arm, noticing the ropy tendons in it, the complete lack of any softness to it.
She thought how lean he was, too lean. There wasn't an ounce of fat on him. He was all tendon and muscle and bone. Like a wolf or a junkyard dog, he looked hungry, ready for anything—and not an animal that should be let in the house.
He muttered another invective, then demanded, "Don't you have a robe or something?"
The question totally bewildered her. "Huh?"
"A robe." He looked at her as if he wondered what she used for brains. "Do you have a robe?"
"Yes, I… on the back of the door."
He whirled and saw it. Then he strode to it, grabbed it off the hook behind the door and tossed it at her. "Now for godsakes, cover yourself."
Eden just gaped at him for a moment. If he intended to rape her, then why would he—?
"Do what I said. Put on that robe."
"O-okay. I will. Sure." Swiftly, gratefully, she stuck her hands into the sleeves of the robe
"Now talk," he demanded in that low, sibilant voice of his.
"Answer the questions I asked you before."
"Y-you didn't ask me any questions."
He drew in a long breath and then he spoke very slowly, very patiently, the way a man does when he's trying to hold himself back from doing something he'll regret. "Yes, I did. I asked you two questions when you first woke up. Before you attacked me with that damn clock."
Eden frowned. "What questions?"
"I asked who you are—and what the hell you're doing in my house."
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Eden's dazed mind struggled to comprehend what he was telling her. That he was no rapist, that he wasn't even really an intruder. That he owned the cabin.
She stammered out, "But if this is your house, then you must be…"
She peered at him more closely. Yes, she could see it. A little of sweet old Oggie around the mouth and something of Heather, who had rented Eden the cabin, in the determined set of the jaw. She swallowed.
"Er … Mr. Jones?"
His gunmetal eyes stayed narrowed. His mouth remained grim. But he did grant her a slow nod. "Right."
"You're … Heather's dad, Jared Jones?"
He grunted in acknowledgment.
Eden just couldn't believe it. Relief that he was not what she'd feared, coupled with embarrassment at what had just happened between them, loosened her tongue.
"But you live out in the woods. By yourself. You hardly ever come to town. You're a hermit…"
As soon as the word was out, Eden regretted her own tactlessness. It seemed rude to call a man a hermit to his face, even if it was the truth.
She felt her cheeks flushing, looked away and then added defensively, "Heather said the last time you came to North Magdalene was four months ago. When your sister, Delilah, married Sam Fletcher."
She faced him again. "So what in the world are you doing here now?"
He gave another grunt. "You ask too many damn questions." Then he was the one looking away.
"I think I have a right to ask some questions. After all, you broke into my house—"
"—in the middle of the night. And you—"
"Look. Could you just put a lid on it for a few minutes here?" He rubbed the back of his neck. "Give a man a chance to think."
She stared at him, frustrated and bewildered. "Think. You want to think…"
"Great. Fine." She raked her hair back from her face. "You just think."
He made another of those grunting sounds and sank to the edge of the bed. Wincing, he prodded the tender spot over his eye.
She watched him, feeling a slight twinge of guilt and hoping she hadn't hurt him too badly. Reluctantly she decided she probably should apologize for smacking him with the clock, though there was no doubt that what had happened was more his fault than hers.
She offered, "I'm sorry that I hit you."
He granted her a doubting glance. "You still haven't told me who the hell you are."
She tucked her robe more closely around her and made herself sit straighter. "I'm Eden Parker, a friend of Laurie's."
He said nothing, but just looked at her with that strange flat expression.
She heard herself reminding him, "You know, your second cousin, Laurie Riley?"
"I know who Laurie is. Where do you come in?"
"I told you. I'm Laurie's friend."
"I mean, how do you know her?"
"Laurie and I met in Sacramento, where she goes to college." He went on staring. She elaborated, "You did know Laurie's going to college in Sacramento?"
He nodded. He was peering at her mouth. One corner of his mouth was lifted just slightly, in a sort of wary, silent snarl. She thought again of hungry wolves and wild dogs.
Though she was no longer exactly afraid of him, the way he kept watching her made her nervous.
"Look. It's very simple, really. We met because Laurie needed a part-time job." Eden found that the sound of her own voice soothed her nervousness a little, made this whole bizarre situation seem a little less strange. She prattled on. "I'm sure you know how expensive college is in California these days. Even though her folks are paying the tuition and basic expenses, Laurie couldn't get by on that alone. So she applied at La Cantina. That's a Mexican restaurant on Howe Avenue
"So that's where we met. I was the manager there and I hired her. And we just hit it off from the very beginning. Right away, we became best friends." She forced what she hoped was a cheerful smile.
"So you're just visiting here, then?"
"No, I live here."
"A few months ago. Laurie brought me up here for a visit. And I just … fell in love with this place. And with your family, too. You really do have a terrific family. And I was looking for a change in my life. So I decided to leave my job in Sacramento and move up here. I needed a place to stay and Laurie said you told Heather to rent this cabin if she could find a trustworthy tenant. So I met with Heather and—"
"That was two years ago."
"It was two years ago, when I told Heather to rent this place."
"Well, I know but—"
"I've been back half a dozen times since then and my place is always right here, waiting for me. Until now."
Eden looked at him sideways. It was becoming painfully clear that Jared Jones was not happy with news that he had a tenant.
Well, if he didn't like it, then he had a problem. She had a signed agreement that said she had every right to be here.
Eden drew herself up. "Mr. Jones. From what I understand, most of the time you're not an easy man to find. I'm sure Heather intended to tell you that she'd found you a tenant as soon as you gave her the chance."
"Yeah, great. But that doesn't do me a hell of a lot of good right now."
"What do you mean?"
He gave her another of those brooding, snarly looks of his.
She prompted, "Well?"
Instead of answering, he looked away.
Eden had the impression he was deciding how to proceed from here, and that until he had decided what he was going to do, she'd be lucky to get even one more surly grunt out of him.
"Oh, never mind," she supplied unnecessarily.
Then she fell silent. And since Jared Jones wasn't much of a talker, the room was suddenly deathly quiet.
In the soft light from her vanity table lamp, Eden stared at his rugged profile. As she stared she realized she still had no idea what this man had thought he was doing, appearing at the foot of her bed in the middle of the night, scaring several years off her life.
She said pointedly, "So now you know all about what I'm doing here. But you haven't said a word about what you thought you were doing, a total stranger to me, appearing at the foot of my bed in the middle of the night. I have to tell you, I've never been so terrified in my life. What was going through your mind? You must have realized that when I woke up I would be frightened out of my wits, but still you—"
He pinned her with those piercing eyes again and waved a hand for silence.
Generously Eden held her tongue for a moment, waiting for him to explain himself. But he didn't explain a thing. He just sat there on the bed, glaring at her as if she were the intruder instead of him. Then he poked at the cut over his eye again.
Right then, it occurred to her that after bopping her landlord on the head, she probably ought to patch him up. Even if she had only thrown the clock in what she'd honestly believed was self-defense.
"You should put some ice on that," she suggested, trying for a sympathetic tone and somehow ending up sounding abrasively cheerful.
He shot her a pained look. "Never mind. It's fine."
She said nothi
"I'll get the ice." She stood up.
"I said forget it."
It was a simple thing to pretend she hadn't heard him, since she was already out of the chair and halfway to the door. She marched through the big living area, around the end of the stairs that led up to an open sleeping loft and straight to the kitchen. There, she flipped on the light and set right to work knocking ice cubes from a tray to wrap in a hand towel. As she was arranging the ice on the towel, she noticed a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. It was him.
She glanced his way, thinking that it was the next thing to creepy, how quietly he could move around. She hadn't heard him follow her at all. She'd simply happened to turn her head when he came in the room.
Small surprise, after all, that he had been able to enter the cabin, find his way to her bedroom and stand at the foot of her bed for heaven knew how long without her even knowing it. And actually, the more she thought about it, the way he'd entered the house and her bedroom without her knowledge really did aggravate her.
She spoke a bit harshly. "Sit down at the table. I'll be right back."
"Look, I said I—"
"Sit down," she told him and swept past him, not deigning to check to see if he did as she ordered. She strode to the cabin's one bathroom and found the first-aid kit she kept in the medicine cabinet. Then she returned to the kitchen.
He'd done as she'd told him and was sitting at the end of the table. His expression was no longer quite so stony as before. Now, if she had to define his look, she'd probably call it glum.
Well, she decided, it didn't matter how he looked. She was going to patch him up and find out what, precisely, he was doing here and then send him on his way. To that end, she set down the first-aid kit on the table and then crossed to the sink to collect her makeshift ice pack.
"What did you do with my stuff?" he said in a flat voice as she returned to him.
Eden was instantly defensive. "What stuff?"
"You know, my furniture. The clothes in the closets. My pots and pans."
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