This couldn’t be the right driveway. I pulled my Jeep onto the shoulder and checked the rearview mirror. No one was coming up the snowy road behind me. I hadn’t spotted another car since leaving the main highway, and the only evidence that anyone ever came this way were the tire tracks leading into a few private drives. I’d expected Erik Gulbrandr’s driveway to look the same, but although my GPS navigator told me to turn right, I didn’t see a paved lane. Only a thick blanket of snow.
I didn’t doubt that the lane lay under the snow, however. The GPS might have miscalculated the route—it wouldn’t have been the first time the device steered me in the wrong direction—but I couldn’t mistake the wide, winding path cutting through the stand of pines that stretched south toward the mountains.
Great. Of all the driveways along this road, the one I needed was the only one that hadn’t been plowed.
I studied the lane and considered my options. The snow was about two feet deep—probably less beneath the shelter of the pine branches. Could my Jeep make it?
Maybe. My rig regularly handled rough terrain. Before starting up this road I’d put the transmission in four-wheel drive and locked traction chains around the tires. But it would only take one drift to bog me down, and I didn’t want to risk getting stuck—especially for Erik Gulbrandr. Though he was one of the partners at the engineering firm where I worked, I avoided him whenever possible. This detour hadn’t been my idea; I’d only come as a favor to the senior partner—Erik’s father—after he had discovered that I planned on visiting my parents’ home for the holidays.
Erik will sign the papers and you’ll be back on the road within ten minutes, John Gulbrandr had told me. All in all, it’ll only take you an hour out of your way.
I’d agreed to do it because taking the papers allowed me to leave work mid-afternoon instead of waiting until five o’clock, which would put me ahead of the snowstorm the local weather forecasters had been hyping for the past three days, and also give me an early jump on my week-long vacation and the four-hour drive to my parents’ place near Grand Junction. The Gulbrandrs’ lodge was on the way, a few miles off the highway about an hour outside of Denver—but I’d already been delayed by traffic, which had made leaving early pointless.
Now it looked like I’d have to take another hour’s detour after Christmas. I’d be driving this way again on my way back home. Hopefully Erik would hire someone to plow his lane before then.
I pushed in the clutch and shifted into first gear, then stopped. Crap. I had no idea what documents were in the manila envelope on my passenger seat, or how important they were. But Gulbrandr had also asked me to send them express as soon as I could get to a mail drop, so he probably wouldn’t appreciate them sitting around my parents’ house for a week. Maybe he’d prefer that I leave the papers somewhere local so that Erik could pick them up.
With a sigh, I dug my phone from my bag. One bar. Off the highway and in the shadow of the mountains, I was surprised to get any reception at all.
Gulbrandr answered on the second ring. I could easily picture him at his desk, a big man with dark hair liberally salted by gray, wearing an engineer’s unofficial uniform of a chambray button-down shirt and tan trousers.
“John Gulbrandr here.”
My boss didn’t waste time on pleasantries. He was nice enough, I supposed, but all business—and that suited me perfectly. I’ve never been good as socializing, but I’ve always been damn good at my job.
“It’s Olivia Martin, Mr. Gulbrandr. I’ve just arrived—”
“Is my boy giving you trouble?”
“No.” Did he expect trouble? I only expected Erik to freeze me with his glacial stare and politely show me the door. “I haven’t seen him yet. The drive hasn’t been plowed, and I can’t make it up to the house.”
“Damn it. Hold on, then. I’ll call him on the other extension. He can meet you at your car.”
Silence filled the line. I waited, hoping that I wouldn’t lose my connection. Hoping that this little detour wouldn’t end up taking much longer than one hour.
And hoping I’d get something to eat soon. My stomach had been rumbling since I turned off the highway. The coffee and muffin I’d grabbed for lunch hadn’t lasted, but I didn’t want one of the protein bars in my bag. I could pick up something in the next town.
From the corner of my eye, I detected a flash of movement within the trees. I peered through the passenger window, searching for another glimpse. Whatever it had been was already out of sight. A deer, probably. Too big to be a rabbit, and nothing else in these woods would move that fast. I was sorry to have missed it, but the view through the window was pretty enough to make up for my slow reaction. The white-capped mountains created a stunning backdrop to the forest. Alongside the road, pine branches hung low, weighed down with snow that seemed to glow in the soft light of the late afternoon sun. No snowstorm yet, though the heavy clouds to the north said that it wasn’t far away. Only an hour of daylight remained—and the shadows between the trees were growing deeper. What the hell was Gulbrandr doing on the other line? Surely he’d had enough time to tell his son to get his ass down to the road.
Unless I hadn’t heard anything because I’d lost reception.
I pulled the phone away from my ear and glanced at the screen. Still connected. The call time counted away the increasing minutes. When I put it back against my ear, Gulbrandr was talking.
“—can’t get through. The lines must be down and I can’t reach him on his cell. Do you have a pair of winter boots and a coat with you?”
“Yes.” Of course I did. What did that have to do with anything?
“It’s only a quarter mile up to the house,” Gulbrandr said.
Oh, for Pete’s sake. He wanted me to hike there through the snow? Really? “Can’t I swing by on my way back to Denver next week?”
“Our accountants want those papers filed by the end of the year. And we’re cutting it close as it is, what with the closures and delays over the holidays.”
Maybe the firm shouldn’t have waited until the nineteenth of December to have them signed, then. But I held my tongue. Obviously, it would have to be done.
“All right. I’ll head on out.”
“I appreciate it. You’re a good woman to have around, Martin.” A pause followed. He must have realized how close that comment came to condescension, especially considering that he’d sent me on an errand that didn’t fall under my job description. He quickly amended, “You do good work.”
I know I did—but I wasn’t usually a messenger girl. I said good-bye and tossed my phone onto the passenger seat in a little snit. I wasn’t mad at him, not really. The quarter-mile walk didn’t bother me. But the way I’d pictured this going had just been shot to crap. I’d intended to drive up to Erik’s house, coolly knock on his front door, and maintain a disinterested expression as he signed the papers. Ten minutes later, I’d drive away.
And in that ten-minute period, I was determined not to remember how Erik had once kissed me like a man starving for my taste—then told me he’d made a mistake.
There was no chance that our encounter would last only ten minutes now. He would insist on walking me back to my Jeep, with icy silence between us. And instead of coolly knocking on the door, I’d show up looking like a crazy mountain woman coming in out of the cold.
I killed the Jeep’s engine and reached into the backseat for my boots. Did I have them? Of course I had them. A million things could go wrong while driving snowy roads in winter, so in addition to boots, a coat, and the long johns in my suitcase, I also had a sleeping bag, a week’s worth of dehydrated meals, a few jugs of water, and air-activated hand and foot warmers.
I liked to make plans. When events didn’t go according to plan, then I liked to be prepared for anything else.
In my seat, I toed off the ankle boots I’d worn to the office and switched them for a knee-high pair, tucking my jeans into the insulated interior and lacing them up. An orange down-filled vest topped the navy cable-knit sweater I already wore. Outside, the temperature hovered only a few degrees below freezing, so I didn’t bother to zip my coat. I tugged a shearling hat down over my ears and pulled on my wool gloves, then glanced into my bag. Spare set of keys, check. A whistle if I became lost. Pepper spray, in case I ran across a cougar or a bear out of hibernation—or worse, a man I didn’t know. I threw in extra hand warmers, then the manila envelope addressed to Erik. Slinging the bag over my shoulder, I made certain the Jeep was far enough off the road, then locked the doors.
I hadn’t taken more than two steps when my phone chirped, signaling a text message.
—Don’t worry if you can’t call later. I won’t expect you home tonight. Mom.
Disbelief dropped my mouth open. I read the text again, but her failure to mention why I’d be gone told me as well as words could have. If it was the storm, she’d have said so. So she must have seen me staying the night with Erik.
God. What had she seen?
Heat spread across my cheeks. My mom almost never did anything like this. Despite her uncanny ability to look into the future and see trouble coming, she adhered to a strict “I’m Not Telling” policy, particularly in regards to my older sister’s and my futures. She’d only broken her rule a few times that I knew of—once to tell my sister to hide a drunken friend’s keys, and once to warn me that a boy I was dating in high school would hit me in a jealous rage after he saw me talking with another guy.
I hadn’t believed her. Joey had been one of the sweetest kids I knew. Neither my sister nor I had my mother’s ability, but she’d always told us to trust our instincts—and my gut told me that he was a good guy.
But I’d mistaken hormones for instincts. One night at a friend’s party, I grabbed a couple of drinks before making my way into the living room where Joey waited. He’d stared at me with an expression that I couldn’t identify, until I realized that he’d seen me chatting with a guy from my Calculus class in the kitchen. I recognized his fury then, and saw his clenched fist—but even though my instincts raised an alarm, I still hadn’t believed he’d try to punch me.
Until he’d actually swung.
My mom’s warning had prepared me. I’d ducked; he’d missed. So I tossed my drink into his face and slammed my knee into his crotch. He’d probably pissed blood for a week, but he never hit me.
Nothing my mother saw was inevitable. If she didn’t interfere, events usually progressed as they originally would have. But just because she saw something didn’t mean it had to happen.
I wouldn’t be staying the night with Erik. She’d completely misread that future.
—You’re SO wrong, I texted back. I’ll be there.
I started up the driveway. A few seconds later, her reply came.
—Just be careful.
A little shiver ran up my spine. She never said ‘be careful’ lightly. Coming from someone with her ability, a ‘be careful’ could drive a person mad worrying about what she’d seen and what was going to happen to them.
My mother hadn’t said it to me in fifteen years—since the night of that high school party. One of the reasons I always prepared myself was so she wouldn’t worry. She knew I carried all of that stuff in my bag…yet she still told me to be careful?
Slipping the phone into my coat pocket, I returned to the Jeep. A lockbox sat under the passenger seat. I dialed the combination and lifted the lid. Inside, my 9-millimeter pistol lay nestled in gray foam. I made certain the safety was on and tucked the weapon into my bag—right next to a box of condoms.
I didn’t plan to use either. But I did like to be prepared.
The temperature dropped a few degrees when I entered the shade beneath the pine trees. Cold, but without any wind adding to the chill, not bitterly so.
About twenty yards on, the driveway curved to the west, following the path of a frozen creek on the left. I lost sight of my Jeep. Ahead, another curve bent south again. Everything was quiet except for the rhythmic crunch of snow beneath my boots.
I checked whether my mom had sent another text and saw a ‘No Service’ indicator. Of course. She’d known the phones would be out.
That didn’t mean I’d be in Erik’s bed tonight.
But now I was thinking of it. Sex with Erik. His mouth hot on mine, his rough hands over my skin, the heavy thrust of his body between my thighs. A familiar coil of heat tightened in my belly. This wasn’t the first time I’d imagined being with him.
Once upon a time, I thought it might happen in reality. I’d met him a year and a half ago, when I’d still been working as a project supervisor with D&E, a local construction outfit. During the excavation phase of a small condo project headed by Gulbrandr Engineering, our backhoe ruptured an old gas line that hadn’t been marked anywhere on the plans and hadn’t been noted in the survey. After locating the main and stopping the leak, I’d suspended all work on site. Then I called the lead engineer on the project and ripped him a new one.
I hadn’t been surprised when Erik Gulbrandr had come to the site and took over as lead. The move was pure damage control for their firm. I’d been lucky not to lose any men. Even without injuries, discovering the gas line meant expensive delays. Gulbrandr had a client to answer to and a reputation to protect.
I had been surprised by Erik Gulbrandr himself, though—and more surprised by my reaction to him.
His looks weren’t the reason, though I’d have been dead not to notice him. He was gorgeous in that rough, strong-jawed way that some men had, the sort of dark and handsome that would never model clothes in a magazine but would look just right in a firefighter’s uniform or in a saddle roping a steer. He stood a head taller than most men I knew, and the pale blue of his eyes fascinated me anew every time I looked at him.
But I’d grown up around construction sites, and almost every crew had that one guy who could draw a second and third look. I knew plenty of men who fit that ‘rugged and masculine’ mold—though most of them didn’t do it half as well as Erik. And I hadn’t gotten where I was by panting over hot men. I could appreciate a walking sexual fantasy without letting him affect me or my work.
Erik got under my skin anyway. Right away, he’d scored points when he hadn’t talked down to me. It was difficult enough being female in my field—too many men seem obligated to explain basic concepts to me, despite my master’s degree in civil engineering and a decade on the job—but my slight build often inspired an additional measure of condescension. It didn’t matter that I was strong and as tough as steel; they saw ‘female and petite’ and mentally filed me away as a girl.
I hadn’t detected a hint of that from Erik. He’d been as angry about the fuckup and as irritated by the delay as I was. In the on-site project trailer, we’d spread the plans across the table and sketched out a fix. By the end of the day, he’d won my respect—no wiggling in any easier, inferior solutions or cutting corners. And I’d liked him. While we worked he had a laser’s focus, but over the course of interruptions and coffee breaks, I also discovered that he had an easygoing personality, and his humor had a wicked little edge. The cynical part of me suspected that he’d turned on the charm to help smooth out my anger, and that it was just another facet of damage control. Every other part of me was keenly interested in Erik Gulbrandr—and when his gaze rested on my face and mouth a little longer than necessary, I thought Erik returned that interest.
I’d seen those looks before. I’m not a ravishing beauty, but I’ve never lacked for male attention. My best feature is my hair, a thick and glossy chestnut that falls to the middle of my back. On the job, however, my hair isn’t much help—often confined by a French braid and concealed by a hard hat. When I’m not wearing makeup to enhance my green eyes and plump up my lips, my mirror tells me that I’m on the attractive side of plain…until I smile. It lights up everything and pushes me straight over into pretty.
By the end of the day, I’d been smiling often.
A week passed before I saw him again, though he called every day with updates. He’d finally gotten the new plans approved at the close of business on a Tuesday. As we’d both been unwilling to delay the project any more, he’d brought the plans by D&E’s office the same night so that we could go over the changes and work out a new schedule. Around eight, we’d ordered pizza and took a break.
And for the space of about twenty minutes, I stopped thinking about backfill and excavation depths and that damned gas line. He’d asked me how long I’d been with D&E, and I told him that I’d paid for college by flagging in the summers and on night jobs during the school year. I’d learned that he loved the mountains as much as I did, and whether in skis or hiking boots, he couldn’t stay away from them. When he’d leaned in and wiped tomato sauce from the corner of my lips, I’d learned that his hands were calloused and warm.
And I’d discovered that he could scorch my mouth with a kiss.
I’d never been kissed like that in my life. I’ve been kissed hard before, a big hand flat against my back and hauling me up against a firm chest. I’ve felt the onslaught of arousal, the sudden tightening of my body, that delicious shudder when a man’s tongue penetrates my lips and takes possession of my mouth.
I’ve never been kissed as if he needed it. As if he’d die without it.
And I’ve never been pushed away, never had a man throw a gruff, “Forget that. It was a mistake,” at me before walking out.
I hadn’t forgotten it—but I hadn’t blamed him, either. It could have been a mistake. If we’d slept together, any conflicts on site might have taken an ugly turn. Even a kiss was a bad idea…yet I liked that he hadn’t been able to resist.
I wasn’t looking for trouble, though. So I’d dialed my attraction back—outwardly, at least. When I’d seen him again, it might as well have been our first meeting. Erik was still easygoing, still showing those flashes of humor, but he was completely focused on the job. I did the same. The project had progressed smoothly, and ten months later, the day after D&E’s final pay estimate had been approved, I’d called Erik and asked him to dinner.
His reply? “It’s impossible. Goodbye, Miss Martin.”
Five abrupt words. He’d hung up before I could respond, and I’d been left staring at my phone with a hollow ache opening up in my gut.
I wasn’t heartbroken. I wasn’t. I was just…sorry. That had been one hell of a kiss, and nothing I’d learned about him in our frequent meetings afterward made me question my attraction. I’d liked him. A lot. So desire had sharpened into quiet, painful need, and for ten months I’d carried around the hope of picking up where we’d left off. Everything inside of me had been screaming that Erik Gulbrandr would be The One, and that he was just as interested in me as I was in him.
But I’d been wrong. My hormones had been screwing with my instincts again. And after that cold rejection, I’d been determined not to waste any more time on him.
Perhaps I’d have been successful if, two months later, John Gulbrandr hadn’t decided to add a construction arm to his firm. He’d offered my bosses at D&E an obscene amount of money and folded the company into Gulbrandr Engineering. I only glanced once at the salary he offered me before I went, too, but the money hadn’t been my only reason. At D&E, I couldn’t have advanced any further than project supervisor. I loved the construction work, but I had my eye on a position in project development. After ten years of coming in on a job after all of the development work had been completed, I wanted to take a stab at helping to bring the projects to life, and Gulbrandr’s firm was big enough to accommodate me.
I’d only hesitated once: when I realized I couldn’t avoid seeing Erik again, which didn’t fit my plan to forget about him. Then I’d decided the firm was big enough to accommodate me and Erik Gulbrandr.
After that kiss, we’d kept everything between us professional. Surely we could do the same if I took the job at his firm.
So we did. At our first meeting, a hard expression had frozen his features and he’d subjected me to his glacial, penetrating stare—maybe wondering if I’d mention the kiss or give him grief over rejecting the dinner date. But I’d simply offered him my all-business nod, and after a long moment, he’d done the same.
And that had been that. Not an unprofessional look or a touch between us in six months, though we regularly saw each other at the firm’s weekly progress meetings. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out that his charm and humor had been damage control, because I never saw any sign of them again—only that same icy politeness. Erik’s coldness had stung at first, but after a while I was grateful for it. In the past few months I’d heard rumors from the engineering division that Erik’s temper had been short and hot. I’d never seen evidence of it, but I knew everyone had been tiptoeing around him, and I didn’t want to become a target for his anger. So despite my hope to move out of construction, I’d been content to stay in that division a little longer, finishing the projects I’d come into the firm with.
I’d been content…but I hadn’t been able to put him out of my mind. Every time I imagined sex, I imagined Erik. I no longer hoped for something happen between us, but I couldn’t stop myself from noticing him. I was more aware of Erik than I’d ever been aware of any other man. And, by God, I resented that. I resented how I stopped to listen when I heard his name mentioned. I resented how the sound of his voice could start a trembling ache deep inside me. I resented that my attraction hadn’t faded—especially because Erik’s obviously had.
I resented that it had been so damn easy for him to file me away as a mistake.
But I didn’t intend to act on that resentment. My job was worth more to me than that—worth enough to trudge through a quarter mile of snow for, at least. So I would just follow my original plan: knock, get in and out, ten minutes.
I rounded the final bend in the driveway. My steps slowed as I got my first look at the house ahead. Not even a house. More like a castle. A small fortress. Nothing like the Alpine-style lodge that I’d expected.
Granite blocks formed solid walls. At the ground and second levels, the only windows were narrow arrow slits. To my astonishment, a portcullis had been suspended from the gatehouse ceiling. Its sharp spikes dangling over the recessed entrance, where a heavy wooden door waited. Iron bars guarded the full-sized windows in the third story. Two corner towers overlooked the front of the house, each topped by a conical roof. Long icicles hung from the eaves.
Absolutely unreal. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Rapunzel brushing her hair in the turret room. What in the world had possessed the Gulbrandrs to buy—or build—a place like this?
I’d be able to ask him. As I approached the gatehouse, the front door opened and Erik emerged, wearing faded jeans and a gray t-shirt that clung to his broad chest. My stomach clenched at the sight of him, just as it always did.
I resented that, too.
“Olivia?” His voice thunderous, Erik strode out of the shadows within the gatehouse. “What the hell are you doing here?”