Book One of the NY Series
Fusion novella with Cade, Trevor, Riley and the whole New York gang team up with Dude and Cheyenne from Susan Stoker's Seal series
An erotic author and her two bodyguards find love on the run
Sadly, on February 28th 2017, Samhain closed their doors after a valiant attempt to stay afloat as a small island in a very big sea.
I have nothing but respect and gratitude for them and I'm honored to have been a part of such a wonderful publishing house for these past years.
And Now AT LAST! The series has shiny new covers and are once again available on all your favorite book seller's sites!
With the New York series back on track, I can start looking forward again! In the works for the upcoming months I have a brand new Stand Alone novel in the works unlike anything I've ever written before! Stay tuned for excerpts and release dates
To Daddy, who is half American Indian and half Mexican and raised me with a love and respect for both of those amazing cultures.
Ashley tried not to drool. The way-too-handsome-to-be-a-doctor Dr. Eagle Feather looked around the campsite. He had the strong, proud features of his heritage—tawny skin over a high forehead and piercing brown eyes so dark she could hardly tell the pupil from the iris. He so classically fit the Hollywood version of a handsome Indian brave that she had trouble focusing on what he was saying to her. Her mind kept wandering to fantasies involving loincloths and being carried away on horseback. She wasn’t even going to look at the black silky hair that fell like satin down to the middle of his back. If she did, she was afraid she’d humiliate herself by reaching out and tangling her hands in it.
“Miss Turner?” It took a moment to register that he was waiting for her reply, “Oh, sorry. Ashley. You can drop the Miss and just call me Ashley.” “I’m sure you have to be aware of the unusual habits of the cougars up here.” He turned his back to her and looked at the breathtaking view. They were at the lookout area of the campground. Some of the most stunning mountains in the U.S. were spread out before them in an explosion of fall colors.
She owned this campground. She had shed blood, sweat and tears for the last three years to carve out the sites and nature trails. She’d hiked every inch of this mountain and knew it like the back of her hand. So of course she knew exactly what he was talking about. Ashley was all for the expedition until he dropped the next request on her. “We would like your permission to stay in your cabin with you for the winter to study them. The winter is too harsh and the wildlife too unpredictable to risk a tent base.” Ashley was glad he was facing away from her. It gave her time to compose herself. If he’d been facing her he would have seen her jaw drop to her chest. Well, at least his comment did the trick—she no longer had trouble being distracted by his looks. “I’m sorry, Mr. Eagle Feather,” she began, and then sputtered to a stop when he reached out a hand and held a finger up.
“It’s Doctor, actually, but you can just call me Jake.” Then he grinned at her over his shoulder. “Or Eagle if you prefer.” Ashley felt a flush sweep over her face. It was as if he knew about the Indian brave visions she’d had running through her mind, and he was teasing her about it.
“Well,” she said, marching up to stand next to him, “that’s just going to be impossible. You are welcome to use the campsites, but I’m sorry. I am just not going to have my home invaded by strangers for the whole winter. Once the snow starts, that’s it. Everyone who is still here when the first big storm hits stays here, and I’m not willing to make that kind of commitment.” He faced her with his big hands braced on his lean hips and gave her a smile.
“Ashley, I’m not asking you to marry me. Just let me and my partner Poncho use a couple of spare rooms. You won’t even know we’re there. If you like, we’ll even share a room.” He reached out and ran a hand from her shoulder to her wrist. “But if you have any mercy in you at all you won’t make me sleep in the same room with him. That’s one Mexican who loves his beans.” She smiled at his joke even as she pulled her arm from his grasp.
“I’m sorry, Jake…Doctor…um…Jake.” She fumbled for a title that fit him, thrown off by the jolt his touch had given her. “The money you offered is great. Unfortunately the answer is still no. I really am sorry.” Then she walked away. If she had known just how stubborn and just how much trouble he was going to cause her she might have stayed and pushed him off the mountain.
Over the next three months Ashley didn’t go a day without thinking about him. Not because of his dashing good looks. Not because of his silky charm that could so easily coax a smile out of her. Not even because of all the heated steamy sex dreams she kept having about him. If it had been for any one of those reasons she would have been just fine. It was because the man refused to give up. He turned up everywhere. Whenever an errand took her into town, no matter which part of town, he was there. If she didn’t go to town he showed up at the campsite. Or called.
She told herself she hated him, that he was a pest. She tried not to think about the jolt of pleasure she felt every time he came into her line of sight or she heard his deep voice. She didn’t know why she started saving the daily voicemails he left her. She told herself that it was a record of proof of harassment, but she didn’t believe it.
“Honey, if you would just see reason. You can’t keep spending so much time alone. You’re going to turn into one of those crazy cat ladies.” Ashley smiled at the shudder in her aunt’s voice. “Impossible, Aunt Lulu, I like dogs, remember?”
“Don’t be a smart-ass. You know what I mean.” Ashley rolled her eyes and pretended to strangle herself. “Look, it’s not gonna happen. I only spend winters alone, and I like it that way. In the summer this place is crawling with people. It’s a freakin’ metropolis seven months out of the year. Once the snow starts it’s my time, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.” Before Lulu could reply, Ashley heard the unmistakable crackle of the CB radio coming from her office. Saved by the bell, she thought.
“Aunt Lulu, I love you. I gotta go. Dad’s calling on the CB. Tell Gran I love her. I’ll call soon. Bye.” Maybe it was her dad’s fault. He was a loner too. The CB radio started crackling and snapping, a lot of snow on the ground meant a lot of snow on the radio. A couple twists of the dials and one solid thump of frustration and she finally got a clear enough signal. “Hey, you stubborn mule. When are you going to give up and get a satellite phone? You caveman.” Ashley smiled when her dad’s warm chuckle came over the speaker.
“I don’t need one of them damn things. The CB works just fine. Already got me a cell phone thanks to you. Don’t know why I need the thing, never use it.” Ashley sighed. “You can’t always be in the truck, Dad. What happens when you’re away from the rig and something comes up? And don’t say pay phone. Look around. They are obsolete, same as a CB.” It was an old argument and one of their favorites. There was nothing Ashley and her dad liked more than squabbling with each other.
“Well,” he broke in, “Never mind that. Happy birthday, baby. Did you get your present?” It was impossible to miss the mean chuckle in his voice, no matter that he tried to hide it.
“Yes, Daddy Dearest, I did and thank you ever so much.” Disgust and exasperation dripped off her words like melting ice cream. Dad had always been terrible at buying gifts. That had been Mom’s area. It was well-known and accepted that he was clueless as to what to get anyone, let alone a little girl. The first birthday they had alone he’d bought his eleven-year-old an action figure doll from some cartoon. It was a mutated bad guy complete with a snarling face and razor claws. Ashley had nightmares for a week before he took pity on her and threw it away. Eventually, it became funny, and he started looking for the worst possible thing he could find for her. A package of plus-size granny panties, a truck stop coffee mug with the logo from an oil company, even a jock strap for her sixteenth birthday. He’d told her it was a chastity belt. Now she sat at her desk and looked at the hula dancer alarm clock. Her faux grass skirt swayed, marking the seconds with each twitch of her hips. When the alarm went off, those hips shook with such force Ashley was sure they were going to break. “Dad, I think you’ve outdone yourself with this one. I love it.” They talked for a while longer and then said goodbye with the promise to talk again next week.
“Well, Apollo,” Ashley said to her mammoth dog, “It’s my birthday. Let’s celebrate.” She ruffled the fur behind his ears and gave him a quick kiss before pushing up from her desk and heading for the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, but there was no one around to think worse of her if she started her celebration early. It wasn’t every day a girl turned twenty-five.
Twenty-five was still young but Ashley felt like it’d just snuck up on her. There was so much that she hadn’t ever tried or experienced. She poured herself a glass of Merlot and stood staring out the sliding glass door off the dining room. The view was awe-inspiring—mountains and snow and trees. To her the solitude was soothing. A comfort where most would find it unsettling. During winter it was impossible to get in or out. The snow obliterated the trails to the road, and the current cougar problem discouraged most from trying. She had a sturdy, reliable snowmobile if an emergency came up, but she was always prepared for the winter months here. Summer was soon enough for people. The campers and hikers invaded every year and that was plenty.
For now she just basked in the beauty that surrounded her and sipped her wine. Ignoring the nagging voice in her head that whispered life was passing her by. As she stroked one hand down the dog’s head for comfort and sipped her wine, she squinted into the horizon. What she saw caused a sense of foreboding to settle in the pit of her stomach. She was moving before she was sure what she saw was what she thought it was. Snarling and stomping into her outer gear, she rushed outside and onto her snowmobile just as the small plane landed in her cleared patch about a mile from her home.
“Uh oh, man. She don’t look too happy to see us,” Poncho Reveras said to his friend and coworker as they climbed out of the plane. “Hey man, how ’bout I leave the lion taming to a braver and dumber man than me and start unloading?” He took another glance toward Ashley and added, “On the other side of the plane.”
“Hey, Jake,” Ashley said with rage coming off her in waves. “I told you no. I told you no to the three letters you sent. I told you no the fifty times you called on the phone, and I told your bosses no when you sicced them on me.” As she ranted she flung herself off her machine, whipped a rifle up to her shoulder and aimed it right in his face. Damn if he didn’t find it sexy as hell.
“You know, you could put an eye out with that thing.” His smile faltered a little when she lowered the barrel toward his buckle and said, “It’s not your eye I’ll be aiming for.”
“Look. Enough of this. The university will pay you for any inconvenience we put you through. This is the only place that an expedition could survive up here. The cougar population is exploding. You know that. They are throwing the natural balance way off. If we don’t get them under control, people are going to get hurt.” When the rifle never wavered and her unspoken
“Who cares?” echoed as loud as a shout, he turned his back on her and started helping Poncho unload.
“We’re staying. You shoot us and you’ll just have to play nurse while we’re here. Now, as much as I’d like you waiting on me hand and foot, I think it would be in your best interest to put the gun down and help us load up. Good thing you brought that sled, else we’d have a heck of a time getting all our equipment to the house.” He kept his back to her and continued to unload. He had no idea what he was pulling out of the plane, all his focus was behind him. He was ready to face-plant in the snow if the stubborn woman decided to call his bluff and start shooting.
Jake was more surprised than relieved when instead of gunshots he heard the engine start. He turned with a curse and this time wasn’t surprised in the least to watch the ornery woman drive off in a flurry.
“She didn’t leave the sled,” Poncho said.
“She also didn’t shoot,” he said back with a cocky grin, “so it’s already working out better than I expected.” Poncho started mumbling in Spanish about crazy Indians and even crazier women while the two of them unloaded the plane. They had a lot of equipment and gear and none of it was going to stay in the plane. It was going to be a long, hard job getting it all to the cabin in this snow.
“Jake Eagle Feather.” Ashley stormed around her kitchen, slamming cupboards and the things she pulled out of them as she started cooking.
“The nerve of this guy,” she ranted to her dogs. “Who does he think he is? He can’t get away with this, you know. They are leaving in the morning, even if I have to shoot him.” The dogs listened attentively, eyes tracking her back and forth as she motioned to them with whatever she had in her hands at the time. They were well used to this. She talked to them constantly and although she wasn’t quite the cat lady level of crazy that her aunt thought she was, she was uncomfortably aware of how close she was getting to that point. Nevertheless, she loved her dogs. They listened and never complained. They snuggled when she needed comfort and were always on her side. They were also fiercely protective. Jake was right about the cougars—the dogs had saved her more than once from them. It made it worse that he was right. Those cats weren’t scared of anything. They kept coming closer and closer to the house and camp areas.
Cougars were by nature shy and invisible hunters, easily scared off by loud noises and people. The ones on this mountain didn’t seem to know that they were supposed to be that way. Instead they were brazen. And lately nothing but the dogs seemed to scare them off. Ashley shook off the thought of those two idiots out there weighed down with gear and trekking it to the cabin instead of watching out for themselves. They were here because of the cats, after all. She told herself they’d be fine and continued cooking. As she ranted less and looked out the windows more, the dogs didn’t say a word—another reason she loved them.
“Hey? Eagle? I think I lost my big toe. It snapped off the third time I fell and it’s been knocking around like an ice cube in my boot ever since.”
“Shut up, Ponch.” But he said it with a grim smile. The house was less than thirty feet away. They were loaded down like a couple of pack mules. His legs were on fire and even with the extreme snow gear he was soaked and freezing. Poncho was in the same predicament. Both of them were in good shape, but a mile in three feet of snow, loaded with equipment would put even a Ranger under.
Looking toward the house, his smile became less grim. It was a sprawling log cabin with two rock chimneys that had a welcoming curl of smoke coming from each one of them. The lights were on in the front windows, and he smelled something wonderful in the air. He quickened his steps and swore to himself if the ornery woman hadn’t made enough of whatever she’d cooked for the two of them he was going to strangle her.
He was focused on the porch, each step a trial of endurance. He was wearing his snowshoes, but that required his walk to be a straddled march that was killing his gluts. Even with the snowshoes he still sank a little with each step and had to wrench up and out of the snow to take the next step, which was killing his quads. Focusing on the pain each step caused wasn’t going to get him there any faster, so he just watched the porch get closer and closer until all he saw was it and the warm glow from the front window.
The cat came from out of nowhere. Between one grueling step and the next, he went down under two hundred pounds of tawny fur and quivering muscle. He was loaded down in gear and padded from his high-endurance snowsuit, so he didn’t feel fang or claw. Only incredible force. As the two of them rolled from the impact, Jake saw a flash of teeth and emerald eyes a millisecond before he heard that hissing, snarling growl that only a cougar could make.
He didn’t think, training and instinct kicked in and he brought his knee up to the tender belly and shot his fingers toward the beast’s eyes, clawing as much as his gloves would allow. It reared back and tried to shake him off. He hung on, clinging like a burr. He knew that if he let go, the cat would go for his jugular and he would be dead.
“Argh!” he yelled as it shook like a rodeo horse and his already tired muscles screamed in protest. Dimly he heard Poncho shouting and felt the cat shudder under an impact. Before he thought to guess what Poncho was doing he was hit hard in the shoulder, so he yelled again, this time at Poncho. What he said was lost in another roar from the cat and a new sound.
Furious barking joined the cat’s growls and a second later the cat was barreled into by two snarling, jaw-snapping dogs. In a colorful roll of fur and the unspeakable sounds of animal voices locked in a life-and-death battle, the dogs saved his life and risked their own.
Time seemed to slow in the way that it did during moments like this. Every second seemed to last an eternity. Every detail seemed magnified. Jake could see the ripple of the cat’s muscles as it fought the two huge dogs. Fierce snarls and thunder-deep growls made the soundtrack to the battle. Fur and snow flew in a flurry around them as they fought to survive. In what felt like hours but in reality was only seconds, the cat disentangled itself. It took a moment to crouch and pose, ready to fight should the dogs charge again. With one last hissing roar, ears pinned back and fur raised, it was gone. It disappeared into the trees as fast as it had appeared.
The dogs, well trained and smart enough not to follow the cat into its territory, stood guard. There were three of them, he saw. The third had taken point and stood guard over Poncho and kept close to his charge. All three had their hackles raised and stood fierce and formidable in a semi-circle around the two men, not relaxing until they heard the call from Ashley.
“Good boys. Stand down.” Jake turned from studying the dogs to look toward their owner. She was chalk white and stood with the warm light from the open doorway behind her. She had her rifle clutched in a death grip and even from this distance he could see how she quivered. First things first though.
“Poncho,” he asked as he pushed himself up to a sitting position, “What in the hell did you hit me with?” He looked toward his best friend and partner while he rubbed at the shoulder that Poncho had damn near shattered with his blow. The lighthearted grumble had the desired effect and set the two others in motion. Ashley came pounding down the stairs, calling for her dogs, while Poncho shuffled over to him, dragging his shotgun in the snow.
“I had to hit you. You could have hurt that poor kitty cat.” All kidding aside, Poncho dropped to his knees beside him and looked him over for injuries with the care of the mother hen Jake always accused him of being. “I’m fine,” he brushed him off. “He couldn’t get a grip on me, thank God.” Poncho’s gaze met and held his.
“She. She couldn’t get a grip on you.” With a dawning horror and a colorful curse, Jake struggled to his feet. “Females don’t get that big, amigo. No way was that a female.”
“Look, you may be the babe magnet here, but I know a male from a female even if I haven’t had the pleasure of one in so long I’ve forgotten what to do with them.”
“Shut up.” Jake swayed on his feet for a second. “Smart-ass.” He looked around, checking for damage to his suit and gear. Unless he had a hell of an adrenaline rush, he was pretty sure his body was intact—it was his gear he was concerned with right now. As he bent to check his camera he heard Ashley and his stomach dropped.
“Apollo?” Her voice was frantic and full of worry, “Apollo, baby. Let me see. Dammit, Grover, get back. I need to see.” She wasn’t more than five three and couldn’t weigh more than a kid, but she shouldered the giant Irish wolfhound out of the way like Grover was a lap dog.
Apollo. Her mastiff. Two hundred pounds of muscle and heart. He knew Apollo. All the dogs were loyal to her and she loved them all.
But he hadn’t seen her without this one since they’d met and knew she’d had him since he was a brand-new pup. Damn dog went everywhere with her. He was lying in the snow, his massive side flexing with his breaths. Jake hadn’t seen him go down. Fighter that he was, Apollo had kept to his feet until his mistress had given the call. Jake and Poncho hurried to his side and watched with dismay as the snow surrounding Apollo turned crimson. Ashley fought to keep panic at bay and focus on what needed to be done. She tried to push away the fact that Apollo was her baby. The one who slept closest to her. The one who always knew her mood, would snuggle when she was feeling down or tug her into the yard for a tussle when she was restless. The one whose heart was so big and brave that he was always the first out the door when there was danger.
The other two were whining and circling her. They knew it was bad. She could hear the frantic yips and scratching from the dogs still trapped inside. They all knew the leader of their pack was down and their cries were tearing through her resolve to stay calm and focused. She needed to do something, but she couldn’t think, couldn’t move. Her hands were covered in blood as soon as she tried to stem the flow from the biggest of the wounds. She pushed as hard as she could and prayed like she never had in her life. “Baby. Baby,” she sobbed, knowing he was dying and helpless to stop it, “Hang on, baby. Hang on, Apollo. For me. Plea— Please, Apollo. Stay with me, boy.”
“Son of a—” Jake knelt down next to her and cursed when he saw the damage. “Let me help.” Ashley elbowed him. Hard. “Get away.” He wasn’t deterred and gripped her shoulders.
“Poncho’s got a first aid kit. Let us help. Get out of the way and let us help him.” Ashley shook her head no, lost to her panic, thinking only that she had to stop the bleeding. Jake’s cold gloves grasped either side of her face.
“Look at me,” he demanded with a rough shake when she still wouldn’t take her eyes off Apollo. “Go to his head. He needs to see you. If we can’t save him, you’ll want yours to be the last face he sees, won’t you?” Tears filled and fell from her eyes at that and she saw him flinch, then he pushed her toward Apollo’s head and started barking orders at Poncho. Ashley didn’t know what they said to each other, all her focus was on Apollo and his precious, trusting face. She knew he had to be in tremendous pain, but he only gazed at her with loving eyes and licked her when she leaned in close to bury her nose in his scruff.
Jake blocked out the sounds of her tears. He would break if he didn’t. The cougar got a good swipe in Apollo’s belly. He was bleeding freely from two nasty gashes. Jake opened the wound to get a look at the damage. If the intestines were intact all they had to do was stop the bleeding. If they weren’t there’d be no use. “Shouldn’t we get him inside?” Poncho was crouched next to him, field kit at the ready.
“No,” he replied, “The cold will help slow the bleeding.” Poncho nodded and started pulling out the necessary items.
“Good. I don’t think we could lift him anyway,” he murmured, then the two worked side by side in synchronized silence to save the dog that had been willing to lay down his life for them. Ashley cradled his massive head in her tender arms and wept into his neck.
“Misery.” Jake looked at Ashley and couldn’t keep the smile off his face as she walked away from the TV. “Now that’s just mean.”
“What do you expect? Want me to put on Fried Green Tomatoes instead?” He threw a pillow at her and just missed as she went to check on Apollo. The valiant mastiff seemed to be doing okay, but his worried mommy was checking on him every ten minutes anyway.
“Hey cool,” Poncho exclaimed from his seat on the other side of the couch, “I never saw this movie. Didn’t what’s her face get an award for this?” Poncho dug into the homemade chicken pot pie that hadn’t burned while they’d all been out in the snow.
He watched as what’s her face—Kathy Bates—proceeded to beat the crap out of a stranded and hurt James Caan. As the movie’s plot unfolded, Poncho understood why Jake had given Ashley a bad time about it. It was too similar to the situation they were in. A man stranded in a snowstorm and depending on a crazy woman to shelter and care for him until the roads were clear enough to get out.
“You got a pretty mean streak in you, little lady,” he admonished as she sat between them. “That’s not funny. I’m gonna lock my door tonight now.” Both Ashley and Jake snickered, but Poncho was serious. “I mean it. I’ma have nightmares about waking up with a crazy-ass Ashley standin’ over me with a sledgehammer.” The snicker turned to a full-out laugh when Poncho scooted farther into the corner of the couch and stuffed a throw pillow between him and Ashley. Ashley did her best interpretation of crazy eyes at Poncho then shoved to her feet again.
“Ashley.” Jake caught her hand. “He’s fine. You’ve checked him eight times since the movie started. Let him sleep.” He looked from her wide eyes to their clasped hands. He’d touched her before and always it was like a low-level current. Electricity would run from the point of contact to his gut and lower. This time was no different. Except for the first time, he got the feeling that she felt it too. His fingers were long, enveloping her small hand so that some of his fingers were lying on her delicate wrist, and he felt the increase in her pulse. He froze for half a second in wonder. Then he decided to test her.
He tugged, she stepped closer and the pulse kicked again. He slid his hand over hers until his longest finger was in the warm pillow of her palm. He stroked there, and her pulse went into over drive just before she snatched her hand back with a scowl and marched out of the room.
Well, well, well, he thought. The ice queen wasn’t quite as indifferent as she’d like him to believe. With his thoughts turning to what he was going to do about that he was unprepared for Poncho’s yelp.
“What the hell? Crazy bitch. Aarrgh!” It was at that moment Jake discovered why his best friend never watched scary movies. Poncho was one hundred and sixty pounds of mean scrapper. He’d had his college tuition paid in full on a wrestling scholarship and right now he was hiding his face in a pillow over a Stephen King movie.
“Poncho.” He leaned over and whispered around the pillow, “Man, I’m never letting you forget this.” Ashley stood on the other side of the wall and willed her heartbeat to return to a normal level.
Once she was sure her legs could carry her, she went to her bedroom and knelt by Apollo. She would have put him in the bed and slept in one of the guest rooms or even the couch if it came to that. Unfortunately the other dogs wouldn’t leave him alone and she didn’t want them to jostle him as they bounced on and off the mattress. He was cinched up tight with bandages around his middle and looked to be in no pain thanks to the meds they’d given him. Fortunately, she kept a variety of supplies around for the dogs.
The other dogs were keeping vigil in a circle around him and as a unit they lifted their heads to look at her as she knelt among them to stroke Apollo’s head.
“You still okay, big guy?” she murmured. Grover, the Irish wolfhound and second in command, nudged in next to her and laid his head on her lap while Bernie the St. Bernard stayed where he was stretched along Apollo’s side. The smaller dogs, Lucy and Ethel, were huskies. They whimpered, scooted closer to Apollo and laid their heads on his paws. These were her pack, and without a doubt they all knew that they had almost lost their leader today. She knew she wasn’t going back out there tonight, not after Jake had pulled that touchy-feely act, so she got comfortable and started singing. She was sure her voice wasn’t awful, after all dogs howled when you couldn’t sing, right? Nevertheless she hoped the guys stayed put because her pack were the only living beings she sang for and tonight they all needed it. She picked one of her favorites, “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” from the Disney cartoon Home on the Range. It was a sweet but melancholy ballad that seemed to fit her mood right then so she forgot about everything but the comfort of her beloved dogs while she stroked their pelts and let the music come from her heart.
Jake stood outside the door and felt his eyes sting. Her voice was rich and smooth. She sang with a surprising alto that flowed like honey and made everything in him loosen with pleasure. He’d never heard the song before but knew it was now his favorite. She sang to those dogs like they were her kids, and he sent yet another thank you to God that Apollo had been spared. He waited until the last haunting note faded before he pulled himself away to head for his guest room. Tomorrow was soon enough to start testing the waters. For tonight he would let her song be the good night he’d been going in search of. It was more than enough.
“Grover.” Exasperation was loud and clear in Ashley’s voice. “If you don’t get out of my way you won’t get your breakfast.” She looked at him with his tongue hanging out in an expression that clearly told her he had no idea what her problem was. He underlined that by sitting right in front of the pantry door where his breakfast was stored. With a laugh and a grunt she shoved until she was able to get the dog out of the way.
“How can you get them to obey you outside like they did yesterday but you can’t get them to listen to you in the house?”
Ashley froze as tingles ran from her toes to her ears and every place between. His voice was deep and gravelly from sleep, and it awakened things in her she didn’t want to name. Without turning to face him, she scooped up enough food for the dogs, then headed toward the line of raised bowls under the kitchen windows. “They are trained. It’s my tone of voice and specific commands that they obey. If I don’t give them directions they know, they just do what they want.” As soon as the kibble started to hit the bowls, barking and the thunder of running dogs filled the room as the others came scrambling in. With one exception, they each sat in front of a bowl waiting in quivering anticipation. Apollo was still zonked out on whatever it was Poncho had given him to help him sleep. She looked over her shoulder and winked at her houseguest after she’d filled each bowl, then went to put the scooper back in the food bin. As a whole the dogs stared with laser focus at their food, waiting for the command that would release them to eat.
“How long will they sit there?” Jake asked, obviously impressed. Ashley heard the grudging wonder in his voice and felt a nice dose of pride in her pack. She turned to look at them waiting and staring at their food, Grover drooling like a garden hose was pouring from his mouth.
She crossed her arms and bragged, “They won’t move until they get my signal. They’re good dogs.” Taking pity, mostly to save the patch of floor underneath Grover, she gave the signal and they dug in. “Now, to feed the uninvited humans.” She turned back to the pantry and hauled out a bag of potatoes. “Start peeling, stud. This isn’t a restaurant.” Jake took the ten-pound bag with a grunt.
“You think I’m a stud, Ash?” He snagged one of her hands and tugged her back to him since she had immediately dove back into the pantry.
“Slip of the tongue.” Ashley tried not to let it show that her heart just took off like a jackrabbit. “What I meant was schmuck.” He had a great mouth. Why hadn’t she ever noticed that about him before? Maybe it’s because it had never been this close, she thought as he leaned even closer and whispered, “Slip of your tongue, huh? I’d like to see just how slippery it is.” Then his mouth sealed on hers, and she forgot her own name. His lips didn’t coax or tease, he just took, the way she was learning he did everything.
As her knees melted she gave way and opened to him. Letting his taste fill her, she let his breath become hers and kissed him back, withholding nothing, because he would accept nothing less. The potatoes fell with a thump as he wrapped his arms around her and hauled her against his hard body. Ashley groaned at the feel of him, all muscles and ridges. He swept one hand up her back to fist in her hair, angling her head for a deeper kiss while his other hand went south and grabbed on to one butt cheek. When he used that grip to lift her higher and grind her into the ridge between his thighs she tore her mouth away with a gasp and arched back.
She was wearing thin cotton sleep pants and a tank top. Plastered as she was to him, she didn’t notice that when she’d arched back one of her breasts had popped free.
He did. With a groan Jake leaned down and engulfed the rosy tip in the melting heat of his mouth, sucking and tugging with lips and tongue. Ashley wasn’t prepared. It was shocking, intense, way too much, way too soon. She felt her body gear up for an avalanche of an explosion and wrenched herself free before it could happen.
“No,” she panted, one hand covering the exposed breast, the other extended to ward him off.
“Stop. I can’t do this.” Jake stood there and stared at the vision in front of him. His body was on fire. He still felt the echo of her vibrating against him in need. She stood less than three feet away, one small hand covering the nipple that he’d just been tasting. Her streaky blonde hair was tousled around her flushed face and her green eyes were as bright as polished glass. He took a step closer, intending to give them both what their bodies were demanding. It took a second for the panic she was feeling to register in his lust-fogged brain.
“Ashley,” he had to take a breath before he could continue, “Fix your shirt or I’m going to think you want me to finish this.” He had to close his eyes and take some deep breaths as she did. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this close to losing control.
Eventually he unclenched his fists and bent to pick up the potatoes. As he carried them to the sink, she came up behind him. “Ashley,” his voice was harsh with pent-up desire and stopped whatever she’d been about to say. “I’m one touch or word away from dragging you to the floor. Give me a minute. In fact, why don’t you go shower and get dressed. I’ll make breakfast.” He felt her hesitation, the indecision keeping her rooted before she sighed and turned to leave the kitchen.
“Ashley?” He turned and looked over his shoulder at her. “Do me a favor and wear something baggy. Maybe a muumuu if you want me to keep my hands to myself.” She shook her head at him, and he heard her mutter that he was an idiot as she continued on her way. He looked back at the spuds and thought she was probably right. Any man who let her walk away when she was so obviously turned on was an idiot.
Poncho came in five minutes later and started helping. As he cracked eggs he looked pointedly at Jake’s waistline.
“You know you’re supposed to call a doctor if those last longer than four hours.” Jake threw a dishtowel at him.
“Jackass.” But the humor helped to bring him out of the erotic scenarios that’d been swirling in his mind.
Over omelets and country-fried potatoes, the three discussed plans for the duration of the winter. “After yesterday you’ve got to know we need to be here.” Jake motioned with his fork. “That cougar was huge. And fearless. Way out of character and proportion. We have got to find out why they are so big up here and what is it about this mountain that makes them go against their natural instincts.” “I know,” Ashley said as she forked up a bite without meeting his gaze.
“I never disagreed with the need to study them. I only didn’t want you here while you did it. This is my home, and I like my solitude. The winters are the only time I get for myself. The rest of the year I’m swarmed with tourists and campers needing a million things a million times a day.” She slapped Poncho’s arm when she caught him trying to sneak food to one of the dogs, then continued. “Well, that’s over now. You’re here and even if I wanted you gone, the storm we have coming would keep you here anyway. So, what’s the plan? Are we splitting up? If we each have two dogs we will be pretty safe. You guys saw for yourselves, my guys wouldn’t let us get hurt.” She reached down, gave a loving tug on Ethel’s ears and looked expectantly at the men.
“Poncho and I are going out as a team. You are staying the hell away from those woods. You’re right about the dogs though, after yesterday I don’t want you even in the yard without at least two of them with you. Not even on the porch, you hear me?” Poncho gave an agreeing grunt and tried to sneak another bite to the dogs.
“Poncho.” Ashley slugged him this time, hard enough that he yelped. “You make my dogs into beggars and you will wake up to me standing over you with a sledgehammer.” Then she shoved from the table and took her dishes to the sink. “I didn’t want you here. But now that you are in my home, I’m not going to sit all day while you two are out there in those woods. It’ll make me crazy, waiting all day not knowing if you’re hurt and need help.” She turned and leaned against the counter with her arms folded under her breasts and a determined gleam in her eye. “Not gonna happen, Slim,” Jake said, following her example and bringing his dishes up to the sink. “It’s dangerous. We’re trained for this, we’re prepared and we know what to expect. You are just going to do whatever it is you usually do all winter and not worry about us.” She looked at Poncho, who was still staring at her—slack jawed after her unkind threat. Unfortunately, he was no help once he recovered from his shock. “No way, Ash, I’m with him.”
“Fine,” Ashley said with a sniff, “I guess it wouldn’t matter to you big, strong, manly men that I know where the cougar hunting paths are then?” That stopped them both, but Jake recovered first and said, “No. No it won’t. If you’re too ornery to save us time and tell us we’ll just have to find them ourselves.”
“Hmm.” Ashley studied her nails and pulled out the big one. “So, I guess it also won’t help to tell you I know where the den is either? Both dens.” Then she walked away while the two of them sputtered, and Jake started cursing like a sailor. It took weeks to find the hunting trails of a wild cougar and most dens were never found. That she already had this information would save them time and resources that they couldn’t afford to waste.
With more cursing Jake faced the fact that she was going with them and tried to come to terms with it. It wasn’t easy. The thought of her out there in danger was wreaking havoc in his gut. “Man,” Poncho said with a supportive thump on his shoulder. “You got your work cut out for you with that one.” “You got that right.” The two of them cleaned up the kitchen in silence, Jake’s mind moving past worry and on to the fact that a month’s worth of tedious and freezing work was magically behind them and what that would mean for the job.
That night they were all cold, wet and starving. Including the dogs. Ashley had led them to the trails and the two dens. Both were closer to her home and campground than either man was comfortable with. They set up motion-activated cameras and collected scat samples to try and ascertain what the cats were eating.
As soon as they entered the mudroom, Ashley shed her outer gear and stuffed her feet into bunny slippers. Then she dropped to her knees and started drying the dogs with the towels she had stacked by the door. Jake and Poncho did the same, minus the bunny slippers. “Thanks.” Ashley didn’t try and stop them. The dogs had earned their care and kept them all safe. Besides she was so beat. Even if they hadn’t done so on their own she would have asked for help cleaning them up. “Of course,” Jake said with a full smile as he dodged Grover’s own version of a thank you—his drool-coated tongue. “These guys earned themselves a steak dinner, least we could do is help with the rub down.”
“Mmmm,” Ashley groaned. “Red meat. I’ll pull some out on my way to check on Apollo. You guys fire up the grill.” She stumbled out with bunny ears flopping.
“Must be love,” Poncho said as he grabbed a new towel and started on the last wet dog. “That girl is wearing long johns, had a runny red nose and pink fuzzy bunnies on her feet yet you’re smiling after her like she was a swimsuit model.” Jake looked at him and grinned. “If it ain’t love, I’m going to be in trouble when the real thing does hit.” He finished drying the dog and trotted after her. long johns or not, they were wrapped around a mighty fine ass and he was going to see if he could get his hands on it before she covered it up with more layers. He stopped to wash, no matter how much the lady liked her dogs, he was sure no woman would be seduced by a man who smelled like one. Then was brought up short as he stepped into her room. She stood with her back to the door rambling to Apollo about the day they’d had wearing nothing but a miniscule pair of panties. If he’d been capable of coherent thought he’d have quietly backed out of the room and closed the door. But staring at the curve of her back and the perfect inverted heart of her ass, rational thought fled, leaving only instinct.
He moved on silent feet and slid his hands along the curve of her hips. When she jerked in surprise he held tight. At first she tried to turn to face him but must have realized she was topless and instead clasped her arms across her breasts and hissed at him, “What are you doing in my room? Haven’t you heard of knocking?” He smiled, dipped his knees a little so that when he pulled her in tighter to him, that perfect backside was nestled in just the right place. He kissed her shoulder.
“I would have knocked, if you had closed the door.” He nibbled his way up her neck and whispered into her ear, “Were you hoping I’d follow? Hoping I’d find you all but naked and do what I’m doing right now?” Then he sucked her lobe into his mouth and hummed when she gasped and shuddered for him.
“Of course I left the door open, I, um, I live a-alone.” Her words were slow and breathy and Jake took that as encouragement enough. His hands slid further along her hips, following the delicate elastic of her panties until they met in the middle, and then he delved lower.
They both groaned when his fingers found her. She was smooth skin and downy curls, and she was already swollen and damp for him. While desire clawed like an animal in his gut he slid one hand lower to find and enter her with his longest finger while his other hand zeroed in on her clit. Her hands left her breasts and she dug nails into his wrists, intending to stop or urge, he couldn’t tell because all she did was cling. Not giving her time to decide, he called on every skill he had to keep her right where she was.
“C’mon, Ashley,” he panted in her ear. “Let go. Let go and let me make you come.” She looked back at him, her eyes gone to emerald. What she saw in his face must have been enough. With a catch in her breath and a nod she gave in to him. She leaned back into his chest, tangled one hand in the hair behind his neck and braced the other hand against his thigh.
Her trust galvanized him. With a growl he bent and tugged her panties down and off. He pulled her back into position and thrust his fingers into the melting heat between her thighs. The tight flesh gripped and pulsed around his digits like a hungry mouth, and he thought the top of his head was going to explode.
“Yes, like that.” He bit her where shoulder met neck and sucked hard enough to leave a mark while her honey flowed hot and sweet into his hands. Her nails dug in, and he felt all her muscles clamp seconds before her keening cry echoed in the room. Jake groaned as he felt the flood and pulse of the orgasm tearing through her. He held her through the aftershocks. Soothing and cosseting as the tension melted from her frame and she became as limp and pliable as melted wax.
With a muttered curse, he used her hips to turn her to face him and locked his mouth to hers. He lifted her into his arms with a growl of need. She wrapped her legs like a vise around his hips and kissed him like it meant her very life. With a groan he grabbed a cheek in each hand, turned to brace her shoulders against the wall, and ground her against him for several earth-shattering moments. It was an effort that cost him more than he cared to examine, but he pulled away from her and let her legs slide to the floor.
His body screamed in protest, but his heart knew that if he wanted her to accept him for more than one night, he couldn’t take her in an ambush.
His hands slid from their death grip on her ass, before he let go completely. She grabbed them and brought them to her heaving breasts with a whimper. For thirty seconds of heaven he dropped to one knee and plundered with mouth and hands the breasts that had been occupying his fantasies for the last three months. Then forced himself to stand and back away. He hoped she couldn’t tell what it was costing him. He knew to the pit of his soul if he gave in and took her right now, right now was all he’d ever get. She stood there quivering and gloriously naked, her thighs glistening with the orgasm that he’d given her and did the only thing he could trust himself to do. He ran.
Ashley felt her jaw drop. She took two steps and peeked out the door, but he was long gone. “Jake?” Nothing. “Eagle?” Still nothing. She looked down at herself just to make sure she hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. Yup. She was naked and her body was damp in all the right places. She looked back down the hallway. Still no sign of him.
“What the heck?” she muttered to herself. She looked at Apollo, but he didn’t have an explanation for what happened either. Not knowing what to think, she marched to her master bathroom and started a shower. She’d get to the bottom of this once she was able to pull herself together. Then Dr. Jacob Eagle Feather was going to have some explaining to do.
As she showered, she thought about the day they’d had. All the times she’d looked up from adjusting some piece of equipment and caught him staring at her, and the times he’d looked up and she’d been the one caught staring. He worked with a sexy level of focus that made her want to follow him around like a puppy. It was obvious he loved what he did, and that he was in his element out in the wild. The long mane of his hair was cinched at the base of his skull in a leather tie that distracted her again and again. When that wasn’t triggering her, his voice as he described the science behind what he was doing was enough to give her professor fantasies.
For the three months he’d been hounding her she’d been able to keep the attraction she felt for him at bay. Now, her first full day with him and already he’d gotten her naked. Maybe that was the real reason she’d been so set against him staying here. She turned her face into the water and tried to let it wash the confusing thoughts from her mind.
Jake was in the shower too—a much colder one. It didn’t help. He could still feel her in his arms, still taste her on his tongue. With ill grace he gave in to the inevitable, turned the water temperature to scalding and took himself in hand. No longer trying to fight it, he let his mind wander where it would. Flashes of Ashley whirled through his mind as he stroked with strong pulls on his flesh. He mixed reality with fantasy and pictured her gloriously naked, her breasts rounded and glistening in the shower while her nipples were darkened and erect.
He bit back a moan as he imagined her leaning forward, her rosy lips parting and taking him in. Pumping faster, he imagined the hot, wet cove and silky tongue bathing his cock. He pictured her cheeks hollowing as he thrust in and out of that gorgeous mouth. With a groan he came, hand pumping furiously while he braced against the wall for support and imagined her drinking every last drop from him.
The smell of fire-grilled meat greeted him when he came from his room twenty minutes later. Ashley was walking into the kitchen with a platter stacked high with some of the best-looking steaks he’d ever seen. She laid it in the middle of the table where a bowl of potato salad and a platter of corn on the cob already sat. He looked at her in amazement. “How’d you do all this?” A ding sounded and she turned to the oven, pulling out fresh rolls, and he felt his knees go weak.
“It wasn’t much really,” she said, bringing the rolls to the table and setting them down on a trivet. “The corn was frozen, just had to boil ’em for a few minutes. The potato salad is homemade, but I made it yesterday before you guys showed up. And the steaks just take ten minutes or so on each side on the grill.” She reached for a roll and slathered on some butter. “The rolls are brown-n-serve.” But she smiled at him with obvious pleasure that he was impressed with her meal.
“Well, regardless, this is awesome and we can’t thank you enough,” Poncho agreed around a mouthful of steak and the three ate in a barely contained frenzy. Ashley tried to stop at what her normal portion would be, shocked at how hungry she still was. “I feel like I could eat for another hour. What’s the deal?” When she tried to take her plate to the sink, Jake stopped her, motioned for her to sit back down. “The deal is that you probably burned enough calories to eat about three times what you just put away. If you are going to keep going out with us, you are going to have to feed your body a lot more than what you just ate.” He scooped another helping of salad on her plate and forked up another steak, thankful she’d made extras.
“Keep going. Don’t worry that you’ll make yourself sick. Your body will tell you when it’s had enough. Just listen to it and keep eating ‘til you’re full.” Then he forked up another steak for himself and dug back in. Ashley only managed about half of what he’d put on her plate before she dropped her fork and groaned.
“I’m out. That’s it. If I eat another bite I think my stomach will explode.” Jake wasn’t convinced that she’d eaten enough to make up for what she’d burned today, but he let it go. Her stomach was only so big after all. He had a feeling in an hour she was going to be back in here riffling for dessert. She pushed from the table with a satisfied sigh and started clearing dishes. With a rueful shake of her head she said, “This potato salad was going to last me all week, fellas. Gone in one meal? If that’s the way it’s going to be every night, we are going to run out of food in a month.” The men chuckled and stood to help with the cleanup.
“It shouldn’t be that bad after this week, Slim,” Jake said while Poncho started loading the dishes he handed him. “We laid almost all the cameras we had today, maybe one more day like today and then we just have to monitor them. Most of the hard work is done. In fact the only really hard work we have left ahead is catching one so we can get some bloodwork and tag it.” He saw Ashley take a calming breath before she turned to face him. “How close do you have to be to tranq one?” She looked from him to Poncho and back again. “Do the guns have the same range as a regular rifle?” Jake wasn’t going to comment, but Poncho had other ideas.
“We don’t use the guns, Slim,” he said, his face set in a serious expression that she wasn’t used to seeing on him. “They are bad news, and we don’t use ’em.”
“But,” Ashley looked at Jake, confused, “I don’t get it. They use them all the time. I watch Animal Planet almost every day and they are always using them.”
“TV doesn’t show you the reality, Ashley,” he said, drying his hands with a dishtowel. “On TV it looks like a little fluffy dart. It looks like the animal gets a small sting, takes a few steps and falls asleep. The reality is that that fluffy little dart is a syringe full of narcotics topped off with an explosive. An explosive that breaks bones if they hit anywhere near one. It hurts and scares the shit out of the animals. Do you know what they do when they’re scared? They run. Just think how much distance a cougar can cover in the twenty minutes it takes for the narcotics to kick in. We’re talking miles and miles, Slim. And that’s assuming it knocks them out at all.”
“That’s assuming they don’t turn ’round and charge us.” This from Poncho. “I’ve seen a big cat turn and charge when it got hit by a dart. Guy needed over a hundred stitches and the cat had to be shot to save his stupid ass. We don’t do tranq guns, Ashley. We trap ’em and tranq ’em up close.” Ashley’s eyes got big and round at that.
“We have been using this method for years,” Jake cut in, “It sounds scarier than shooting from a distance, but it’s safe. Safer for the animal and for us. I swear.” Ashley met his confident gaze and weighed what they said. She wasn’t an animal expert. As much as she loved her dogs and wildlife documentaries, she didn’t have a doctorate in wildlife biology like Jake or animal husbandry like Poncho. So she tried to swallow her fears and trust that the information they were giving her was fact. They would do what was best, and she would leave it all in their hands.
The next two weeks were filled, from sunup ’til sundown, with painful, grueling work. Neither Jake nor Ashley found the energy to face what had happened between them. Days started early and ended late. The cold messed with the equipment, the snow kept them in constant agony—because fresh powder may be fun to ski in but it was murder to work in—and the cats were nonexistent. They became like ghosts. Never triggering the motion detectors on the cameras or the trip wires, but always leaving behind evidence that they’d been there. In thirteen days the only thing caught on film was the prey animals, snowshoe rabbits, deer and even a moose.
But no cougars. They left their paw prints all over the sites, and at one site left a bloody yet mostly intact elk. That sight had the dogs whimpering in confusion and sent Ashley back to the cabin early. She was as heartbroken and confused as her dogs at the waste of life.
“What the hell are we dealing with, Poncho?” Jake asked angrily, looking at the elk. “It killed it, but didn’t eat. Even the belly is intact. What the hell kind of predator does that? It’s like he killed it for sport.” Poncho didn’t have an answer any more than he did though. The two set themselves to the grisly task of documenting the kill site. One thing they found was the cat had a hell of a bite radius.
When they got back to the cabin, Ashley was splitting firewood. Both men stopped in awe. Jake felt the unease he’d carried since the elk melt away as he watched this strong, beautiful woman do work that some men would balk at. “You know, Ponch,” Jake said, not taking his gaze off her, “I think I’m going to marry that girl.”
Poncho wrapped an arm around his shoulder and said, “Amigo, I knew you were gonna marry her the first day we got here and she pulled that shotgun on you.” He chuckled ruefully. “See, even now you’re smiling when you think about it. Anybody else would still be pissed.” Poncho pulled away and headed for the mudroom. Jake headed for Ashley. When the log she worked on split with a crack, he bent down and collected the halves. He threw them in the sled where she had quite a stack built up.
“Need a hand with that?” She shrugged and used a sleeve to swipe at the hair escaping from her knit cap.
“I’d love one.” She smiled at him, huffing and flushed from her exertions. “I’m always paranoid that I haven’t split enough. I know that I have, but still I keep coming out here and doing this, just in case.” Jake took the axe, lined up a log and split it in one swing. He wasn’t above showing off or taking a deep sense of pride when she was properly impressed. As she collected the pieces and tossed them to the pile, he lined up another and did it again. “Wow, Chief, that’s a pretty hefty swing you have there.” He sent her a cocky smile.
“Chief? Is that a racial slur, white girl?” She laughed and shrugged.
“No. I Googled you. You are a real—” she held up a hand like a salute and grinned mischievously, “—honest to Injun’ Chief. Impressive. A Ph.D., an animal activist and a real modern day Indian warrior brave. It’s enough to make any girl weak in the knees.” He stopped to study her, not sure how much was teasing. “The Chief stuff is not all that glamorous. Just the three P’s. powwows, politics and paperwork.” He smiled and added, “It has some nice side benefits though.” He braced against the axe handle and leveled a look at her. Then he spoke in the native language of his people. He watched the playfulness melt from her expression, replaced by desire.
“Wha…,” she cleared her throat, “What did you say?” He didn’t move, didn’t break eye contact and said it again. Ashley felt like she was on fire. On the inside. She marveled that she didn’t burst into flames on the spot. His black snow gear should have made him look bulky but instead it only emphasized his form and condition. His flawless features were highlighted in a beam of brilliant sunshine as though God Himself was showing him off.
And he was staring at her like she was the only thing in the world while those lyrical words hung in the air like magic. Without even realizing she did it, she walked to him. Before she thought better of it, she wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. She expected his lips to be cold, but they weren’t. His mouth was hot and moist, and she explored it with fierce abandon. With a sound much like a growl, he took over the kiss. His arms banded around her back to pull her close. His tongue thrust into her mouth and all reason fled.
It was exhilarating. It was frustrating. There were too many layers. She could feel the pressure of him against her, but not enough, not nearly enough.
Ashley whimpered as he hooked one hand behind her thigh and urged that leg up around his hip. The position was blatantly sexual and intimate. He adjusted his stance so the part of him that was hard and hot for her was now in exactly the right spot. They both groaned at the feel of it. It was an unashamed and invigorating tease. She pulled her head back and looked into eyes that had gone obsidian.
“What did you say to me?” He smiled and told her.
“I said, come to me and let me kiss you.” She couldn’t have been more charmed. She tugged off one glove and trailed her fingers along his features—tracing the brow, the high sharp cheek bones, the blade of his nose. When her fingers got to his lips, he opened and caught the tips in his strong white teeth. She felt her eyes cross as he used his tongue on the sensitive digits. Still, she had enough brain cells left to ask the question that had been burning inside her for two weeks.
“Why did you stop?” Her gaze lifted from his mouth and what he was doing to her to meet his stare. “Why? I was naked and willing and ready. Why did you leave?” He let her fingers slip out with a final sweep of his tongue then answered in a voice gone raspy with desire.
“I didn’t want you thinking after it was over that you’d just gotten carried away. Swept up in a moment of passion because I caught you by surprise. Then turning around and telling yourself it was a fluke.” He let her leg slide down and lifted his hands to her face, not allowing her to look away from him for what he had to say next.
“When we make love, you are going to come to me with your eyes open and no excuses. You are going to come to me ready for all that I have to offer, and offer me all that you have to give.” She wasn’t a coward. She also was through with self-delusion. She knew what she felt for him was stronger than what she’d ever felt before. Maybe that’s what had her so scared. She wasn’t the type of girl who dreamed of happily ever after and being curled up with a man every night by the fire. It was probably because she’d been raised by a trucker.
Whatever the reason, marriage and family had never been high on her to do list. She’d always thought that it might happen, eventually. She just had no idea what to do about it now that it apparently had. She nodded at him, pulled away and started picking up the pieces of wood chips that were scattered around. He was being honest and up front with her. She needed to process this before she could decide what she was going to do about it. He deserved that much.
When they got into the cabin, Poncho had dinner on the table and the dogs cleaned and fed. There was a surprising addition. “Apollo, boy? What are you doing up and about?” Ashley went to her knees and checked him over in a flash. The mastiff sat still and took her prodding with long-suffering dignity. “He’s fine, Slim,” Poncho said, “I removed the stitches and everything looks great. He’s probably a little tender, but he’s good to go. He still needs to stay behind when we go out. He can come out here with the others, and we don’t have to worry that they’ll hurt his wounds. In another week he should be good to go out on the trails again.” At her skeptical look, he said, “It was deep, but it was only tissue damage. Nothing major got hurt. It’s been two weeks, and he’s healed up nicely. He’ll be good to go.”
She couldn’t deny it’d been harder and harder to keep the big guy down. He hated being left behind every day and the enforced restriction on his movements had been making him sad and listless. She gave his scruff an affectionate tug.
“You ready for that, Apollo? You ready to be my bodyguard again?” She tried to peek under the bandages to see for herself. “Last night it still looked pretty raw. Are you sure, Poncho?”
“Yeah, Slim,” Poncho replied as he ladled chili into bowls, “I’m sure. Now come eat. I hope you like it spicy ’cuz my chili’s got some kick to it.” Ashley went to wash up at the sink and told him to bring it on. There was a shift between them during that meal. Ashley felt Jake’s gaze on her as a tangible force. He watched as her lips wrapped around her spoon like he wished she were wrapping them around something else entirely. She looked up and caught him staring as she licked a crumb of cornbread from the corner of her mouth. She froze at the look of raw hunger on his face. His features looked as if they were carved from granite while his eyes blazed like fired amber. Ashley felt every part of her body sit up and beg. He looked like he’d like to eat her alive, one greedy bite at a time. The rest of the room faded to black, everything came down to just the two of them. So much so, that both of them barely noticed when Poncho discreetly left the table.
“Ashley,” Jake’s voice wrapped around her and, like warm whiskey, went straight to her head. “How long are you going to keep me waiting?” She put her spoon down, wiped her suddenly damp palms on her thighs and met his stare. She wasn’t a flirt. She wasn’t coy like most women. For the first time in her life she wished she had at least some of those flirty skills that other women seemed to be born with. But, since she didn’t, she would just go with her strengths. Straightforward and to the point. With a steadying breath and without breaking eye contact, Ashley started unbuttoning her shirt. She hadn’t gotten three undone before he was out of his seat and around to her side. With a violence that aroused her as much as it shocked her, Jake shoved her solid oak table aside and stood in front of her. Ashley gasped as he gripped the back of her chair and tipped her until she was balanced on the two back legs. Her feet dangled in the air, and her breath turned to shallow puffs. For one frozen moment their gazes locked then, with a growl from him and a whimper from her, he sealed his mouth to hers. The kiss exploded through her system like dynamite, obliterating all thoughts, leaving only feeling behind.
Ashley clutched at his hair while he devastated her with his kiss. His tongue plunged and plundered while he kept changing the angle of his head, trying to get deeper, more, everything. He spoke against her lips, “Keep going. Take off the shirt.”
Then he took her plump bottom lip between his teeth and bit. Ashley groaned at the pleasure/pain and with shaking hands resumed unbuttoning her top. Meanwhile, Jake continued to nip and nibble on her lips. Whenever she stopped, the pleasure robbing her of all ability to move, he would bite. Hard. She’d never known kissing could be like this. Once the last button was freed she didn’t know what to do with her hands.
“Finish,” he said, not letting up, “take it all off.” With her breath backing up in her lungs, Ashley managed to tug the sleeves down her arms and get the shirt off. She had a brief flash of annoyance with her no-nonsense bra with its rear clasp, but then changed her mind about that. When she arched her back and reached behind her for the clasp, it pushed her breasts into Jake’s chest.
They both groaned at the contact and Ashley saw his arms quiver as he continued to keep her balanced. Their gazes locked and his urgent command, “Hurry” galvanized her back into action. The clasp gave, and she flung it off and away even as she reared up and wrapped her arms like a vine around his neck. So fast she couldn’t trace the movement, he snaked one arm around her back, clutched her to his chest and flung the chair out from under her so she was left clinging to him. As he marauded her mouth in another soul-stealing kiss, he brought them to the floor while Ashley locked her legs around his hips. As soon as her back touched down and his weight settled on her Ashley let out a grateful moan. She tore her mouth from his to gasp,
“Yes, please. More. Oh, yes. Like that.” She panted as he took large suckling bites along the curve of her neck, his tongue awakening nerves she never knew she had.
“God, that’s good.” She heard his rumbling agreement a second before he reached her breasts. He didn’t tease her with light kisses or tickling swipes with his tongue. Instead he gathered her breasts up in his wide dark palms, mounded the plump flesh tight to each other and latched his mouth on both straining nipples at once. Sucking hard and deep, he squeezed with just the right amount of force and bit with just the right amount of teeth and Ashley came. Each pull on the tightened buds felt directly linked to her throbbing slit. Her nails racked like claws down his back as she bucked and moaned out her pleasure. Quivering and flexing with the clench and release of the climax. Jake reared back on his knees, pulled her upper body off the floor with one hand fisted in her hair and shoved his other between her legs, “Again,” he demanded, voice almost unrecognizable. He rubbed the seam of denim over her clit. “Again.” At any other time, that might have hurt. Now though, on the heels of that first shocking orgasm and with her tissues swollen and wet for him, it was glorious. Ashley arched hard in his arms and cried out as another climax took her under. With what could only be described as a snarl, Jake shoved her back to the floor, and with barely contained violence, wrenched the jeans and underwear down her legs. He didn’t take the time to get them completely free. While one foot was still tangled he scooped her hips in his arms and buried his face in her core. Just like with her breasts, he didn’t take time to tease and play. This was about hunger, a primal raging hunger that compelled him beyond finesse. He groaned at the taste of her and Ashley felt the vibrations of it ricochet through her entire being. His mouth did things to her flesh that she couldn’t name.
He seemed to have a dozen tongues, and they were licking and lapping everywhere at once. With his arms banded around her thighs, he tightened his grip and pulled her butt off the floor. Then he used his fingers to open the lips of her sex, exposing the nerve-rich bundle of her clitoris. He lifted his head a fraction to look at her there, exposed, enriched, dripping and at his mercy. When Ashley whimpered, he raised his eyes to meet her gaze.
It was a moment that Ashley was going to remember for the rest of her life. Her pale thighs were draped over his strong flannel-covered arms. His hands, so much darker and larger than hers, were holding the lips of her sex open inches from his mouth—a mouth that was already wet with the juices of her body. While his eyes blazed with passion, he spoke in that sex-roughened voice, “Again.” Without breaking eye contact, he lowered those scant inches, opened those perfect lips and took her clit into the heat of his mouth. And sucked. The orgasm damn near killed her.
He was up and pulling his pants down while the aftershocks still raged through her, arching her hips with each strong pulse. He watched her all the while and the second his jeans were low enough to be out of the way, he fished a condom out of his pocket and quickly rolled it on, and then he was on her. He gripped one thigh and pulled until her knee was draped in the crook of his arm and his hips were in position.
This time he did slow down. The broad, hard head of his shaft nudged into her folds, parting her easily and just breaching the entrance. Ashley clenched on it and watched as he hissed through strong white teeth, fighting his inclination to plunge. Sweat beaded on his brow and she saw the war he was waging to slow down and savor this first time. Ashley clenched again, she flexed her pelvis, bringing him deeper. Jake yelled and turned his head into his shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut. He took a deep breath, adjusted her leg higher and surged slowly forward. He was huge, his flesh filling her to the point that she wondered if she could take it all. Ashley felt herself glove every inch of him with a greedy viselike grip. He kept going ’til she felt his tightly drawn sack against her. He held there, and Ashley circled her hips. She gloried in the friction on her clit as well as the way his shaft tunneled inside her. It was the last thing he could stand and he reared, only to pound home. His hips thundered into her with a force that shoved her across the slick floor with every stroke. He used her leg to pull her back each time and Ashley helped by hooking her other leg around his thigh. Her hands dug into his shirt to hold on. Harder and faster he pumped, the sounds coming from deep in his chest raw and animal.
Ashley’s whole body sang with each ramming thrust. She arched her hips into his strokes and clenched her stomach muscles as hard as she could, bearing down on him as the slapping, wet sounds of their sex filled the room. Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, that the pleasure was too great and she was going to break, she heard his gruff whisper.
“Ashley, watch me.” When she managed to open her eyes, he brought one hand up and sucked his middle finger deep into his mouth. Then, still staring into her eyes, he put his hand under her and with tantalizing slowness, slid that finger all the way into her ass. The nerves there were inflamed and rich with her arousal and Ashley screamed then kept screaming as the most powerful orgasm of her life blew through her body like a nuclear explosion. Everything in her went silent. Her vision went cloudy white.
She was only vaguely aware when Jake started coming, his seed filling her depths with sizzling warmth. His hips and his finger kept going, pumping in time with the bursts from his shaft. It seemed to last forever, but eventually he slowed and their bodies gradually folded in on each other. Ashley was having a hard time breathing, and Jake seemed as though he couldn’t breathe at all. Ashley didn’t care, this was the best sex of her life and if she had to gasp like an asthmatic in payment for feeling like this, she’d happily make that payment. Every single day.
Jake shook his head as he levered his upper body off Ashley. His vision was a little murky and his lungs were still working like a bellows, but he finally felt like a few brain cells were firing again. The first thing he noticed was Ashley completely and gloriously naked. Scratch that, he thought with a grin when she stretched and he saw the jeans tangled around one foot. Almost naked.
He let his gaze wander lazily up her body, one thought chanting through his sex-addled brain—mine. Mine. Mine. She was slender and toned thanks to the life she’d chosen. Her body was sleek with muscles and strength, where most women were soft. No amount of work would change the womanly flare of her hips though, or the modest handful of her breasts either. She was stretched beneath him like a feast and all he wanted was to gorge himself again.
An aftershock hit him with a shudder and he hummed in pleasure, rubbing his hips in small circles where they were still connected. Ashley hummed back and he cursed with a moan when she clenched on his still-erect shaft. She smiled up at him and did it again.
“Damn, woman,” he said, “you keep that up and we won’t be getting off this floor for a very—” he kissed her nose, “—very—” he kissed her chin “—long time.” He kissed her luscious mouth and kept kissing it as his hips took up a lazy rhythm. She was drenched and hot inside, his cock gliding in and out of her felt like heaven.
Just when he started getting serious, his gliding turning to actual thrusts, something cold and wet nailed him right in the middle of his ass. With a curse and yelp, he sat back, sending Grover—who else? he thought—scrambling out of the way. Ashley was smirking at him.
“Well, at least they let us finish the first time.” He wasn’t positive that was true. She’d gotten him so crazed before for all he knew Grover could’ve joined them and he would have been none the wiser.
Ashley distracted him by sitting up and running one finger along his jaw, “C’mon, Chief,” she purred, staring at him with slumberous eyes. “Help me clean up the kitchen real fast. If you let me wear your shirt I’ll wear only it and then we can see how good you are at this in a bed.” He felt everything in him shift focus to her, the beast in him raising its head in interest.
“Leave the shirt open?” he asked with one brow arched. She smiled, big and sweet. “Deal.”
Two days later, Ashley was doing something she never in her wildest fantasies would’ve dreamed she’d be doing with a man. She was cataloging poop. She was bent over a laptop entering in dates and categories and size and weight and even the consistency of each poop sample they had. If it hadn’t been so disgusting she would have thought it was interesting. As it was, she had a scented candle at her elbow and still had to bury her nose in her shirt every five minutes.
It could be worse, she supposed, she could be the one who was actually touching it.
She looked toward Jake for the millionth time with her nose wrinkled in revulsion. “I’m gonna throw up.” He chuckled, not looking up from the microscope and his current sample.
“No, you’re not.” His voice glided up her spine and melted her insides along the way. “You get past the ick factor and it all comes down to the science of it.” God, she thought, the man was adorable even when he was talking about poop. There went those professor fantasies again.
“Did you just say ick, Dr. Eagle Feather?” she teased, and Poncho snorted from his station on the other side of the table. “Is that a technical term? You trying to impress me with all those foot-long words you learned in college?” That finally got him to look up and meet her eyes. He winked then went back to work. She tried not to be charmed and failed.
They had turned her kitchen table into a science station with each having their own space and duties. The men had a microscope and a very cool set up of slides, trays, petri dishes and sealed containers. They separated, smeared and did all manner of science-y things. To poop. Ashley shuddered, thinking that even with the butcher paper they’d laid down she was going to bleach her table. Twice.
“Ashley,” Poncho said, “tell us why you stay up here all alone in the winter.” “Well,” she said, saving her data before sliding the computer back and earning chuckles from both of them when she slid the candle into the computer’s place right in front of her.
“I used to love to be around other people. But, well, my mom died when I was ten.” They stopped and looked at her, she shrugged and evaded eye contact, not prepared to meet the compassion and pity that always greeted that statement. “Cancer. We went from hospital to hospital. There was two years of her being sick before she lost the fight. I got pretty sick of crowds.” She fiddled with the label on the candle, lost to the memories.
”I used to be pretty outgoing and wild, I guess. Mom always said I’d never met a stranger. Seemed like my parents were always yelling at me to settle down and sit. Up until then, that is. After that, well everyone was a stranger. Just another sad but smiling stranger telling me to be brave and that everything was going to be ok.” With a mental effort that she didn’t know they could see, she forced herself to get it said and done.
“Well, after that I hated to be around people. My dad’s a long-haul trucker and for a while he took me on the road with him. I loved it. Of course, I needed to go back to school eventually. So, he worked out a deal with me. During the school year I’d live with my Gran and Aunt LuLu and then I’d get to spend summers on the road with him. It was magic.” She smiled, remembering those summers of endless road, all the sights and the comfort of being just with her daddy. “So, that’s why I hate crowds and why a whole three months a year without seeing another living soul is my idea of heaven.” She looked at them finally, her eyes dry.
“You know this place was supposed to be my mom’s. Her grandpa left it to her. It didn’t have the cabin or anything. It was just raw land but my Mom and Dad would bring me up here to camp when I was little, and Mom would talk about retiring here someday. In a big log cabin.” No longer able to stand sitting still, Ashley pushed up from the table and went to the kitchen, “Anybody else want tea?” she asked as she ran water into the kettle. She jumped when Jake’s arms came around her. Damn stealthy Indian, she thought with an inner smile. She sighed then and relaxed into the comfort he offered.
“So, how long did it take to get this place up and running?” he asked with his chin nestled on her shoulder.
“Umm,” she was losing the tension now that he was holding her, “About three years.” “Must’ve cost a fortune,” Jake said conversationally.
“Yeah. Water, septic, electric, not to mention the building and clearing.” Just thinking about it made her cringe. “But, Mom had life insurance and Dad saved it for me. He wanted us to have this. He spends winters here when he can. He’s only missed one other than this.” Jake kissed the tender spot just behind her ear and whispered, “Why did he miss this year?”
“I think he’s got a girlfriend and doesn’t want to tell me.” She smiled and thought of Pat, the petite brunette with big bedroom eyes and a rear end that her Daddy couldn’t stop staring at whenever they visited her diner. She hoped so. He deserved to be happy again.
“So, tell me again what we hope to learn from all this poop?” Ashley asked, heading back to her spot at the table.
“We learn a lot, Slim,” Poncho answered, stretching his arms wide and rotating the kinks out of his neck. “Like we know now why they’re so damn big up here.” Ashley gave him big eyes. “Really? You know that now? Just from poop?” Jake chuckled and tugged on her hair as he went back to his station and answered her.
“It’s called scat, Slim, although I don’t mind hearing you say poop like that.” When she blushed and shrugged he continued, “Cougars are generally smaller here than they are closer to the Equator. Their size is in direct correlation to their food source. It’s call MWVP. Mean Weight of Vertebrate Prey. Putting it simply, it means that the larger the prey, the larger the cat.” He looked at her with that professor intensity again and she couldn’t help but get caught up in what he was saying. “They are opportunistic hunters. They’ll eat any meat they can catch. And what they are catching on your mountain is some big-ass elk and moose. That makes for some seriously big cats.”
Jake walked into the bedroom he now considered his and closed the door behind him. He shook his head ruefully with a smile as he started to undress. The girl was always leaving doors open in her wake. As he toed off his shoes, he looked toward the bathroom where he could hear the shower going. It was actually a trait he was growing to love. He stood in the doorway naked and watched through the wavy glass door as she ran her hands over her body. He now considered that his too.
He was content to watch for the moment. She was lovely, all wet and her image blurred by the glass. As her hands ran over her arms and legs he felt a welcome curl of desire start to build. When those hands smoothed over her flat stomach and cupped her breasts, it curled a little tighter. She had her neck arched and her delicate fingers were squeezing and sculpting the mounds with a firmer and firmer grip. Jake swore in a harsh whisper when those hands slid in a straight, sure line between her thighs and her whole body jolted. She had no idea that he was there watching.
He should have let her know, but he was mesmerized by her beauty and by the soft moans that he could hear above the rush of water. Her fingers on one hand glided in and around the folds between her legs. All the while her other hand caressed and squeezed the mounds of her breasts. She was as beautiful as any mythological creature in that moment, and he felt blessed by the gods just to be standing there. He held back until she was almost there.
He came into the bathroom on silent feet and left a packet of condoms within easy reach of the shower. Her movements getting rougher, her sighs sharper. Just when he judged she was going to go over, he stepped in behind her.
He didn’t give her time to be embarrassed or surprised, he just plastered his body to her back and slid his hands over hers. He groaned at the feel of her core gripping and contracting against not just his fingers, but hers too. He kept her rhythm, using her hands trapped under his and pushing her beyond everything but the need for release. He ran his open mouth up her neck.
“God, you are so fucking hot. You have no idea what it did to me to see you like this.” He groaned, almost overcome when the next clench of her sheath gripped him even tighter, “Do it. Do it, baby. Come, come—now. Ah, fuck yeah. That’s so good, baby. God, you feel so good. Again.” He started pumping again, needing her next release as much as he needed his next breath. He almost fell over when Ashley told him no and wrenched away.
Ashley sank to her knees in front of him. All thoughts abruptly left his brain. She knelt, wet hair plastered in golden ringlets across her shoulders and her mermaid eyes gazing up at him. When she spoke, it was with a smooth and sultry voice he’d never heard from her and the sound just as much as the words themselves went straight to his cock.
“You watched me, now let me watch you.” Her candy-pink tongue flicked out and teased the straining head of his shaft and she said, “C’mon, Doctor. You’ll be my first. I’ve never seen a man touch himself before.” Then she closed her luscious lips around the head for one magnificent second before she pulled back.
Jake wanted to check to see if he was dreaming. This so closely resembled a number of fantasies he’d had about her. Without taking his eyes off her enthralled expression or her delectable body, he wrapped a tight fist around his shaft and stroked. She was an avid audience, watching every move he made. He could tell it was making her as crazy as he had gotten when he’d watched her. She was starting to sway her hips in time with his strokes and whenever a drop of pre-come would seep from the tip she’d give a little moan and lick her lips. It was making him insane. Soon, it seemed it was too much for her to stand and the next drop of fluid that came forth she licked away with her tongue. He groaned, so turned on by her that he wasn’t going to last, but he wanted to.
He wanted this to go on forever. She kept licking. Little whips with just the tip of her tongue on the ultrasensitive nerves just under the head, and broad flat sweeps across the entire mushroom-capped top with the whole of her tongue.
Over and over, hard, soft, fast and slow she licked and lapped while he stroked. She even leaned closer and licked around his fingers on the shaft. Her tongue slid between the digits to dab at his straining flesh. Her hands were fisted on her thighs and she was moaning as loud as he was, it was erotic as hell and he said, “I’m coming, Ash. God, baby, here it—argh.” She kept going and the sight of his seed pouring in hot white waves across her puffy pink lips and bright pink tongue made him shout and quake. The orgasm was like a series of lightning strikes that ripped through his cock. After the last shudder left him, he reached out and grabbed a handful of her hair.
“Close your eyes,” he ordered in a hoarse whisper as he tilted her head back into the spray. While water rained down her face, he used his other hand to wash away the evidence of his desire. His fingers traced over every delectable inch of her, from hairline to chin until he swore he’d be able to recognize her by feel alone.
“Open,” he said, voice still raw with passion. When she did, his fingers slid in to tickle and stroke the tongue that she’d used so well on him. “That was the single, hottest damn thing I have ever seen in my life, Ashley.” Her lips closed on him and she smiled while she nipped his fingers.
“Ditto, Doctor.” With a playful growl, he hauled her to her feet, then crowded her against the wall. The kiss she gave him was every bit of fire and need he was feeling, and he knew just what to do about that.
“Turn around,” he said as he turned her himself. “Bend over, mmm, that’s pretty,” he murmured as she followed his instructions and folded forward from the waist. He ran his hands in smooth strong strokes from the rounded moon of her ass cheeks to her shoulders and back. “More, that’s it. More. Put your hands on the floor. Keep your knees locked and legs straight.” He groaned at the picture she made. “God, that’s perfect. Don’t move.” He grabbed the showerhead from the wall and cranked up the heat. So far the water had never gone cold on them and he hoped like hell it held for what he planned.
Jake adjusted it to the soft pulsing multi-spray. Six soft jets of water lightly caressed her lower back as he slowly worked large ovals from her dimpled rear to her shoulders and back again. He knelt behind her and ran them over first one leg then the other. Ankles, calves, behind the knee where he knew she was ticklish, over her toned thighs and then on to the next. After that he let the pulsing jets caress her luscious upturned ass, but was very careful not to let even one jet hit the part of her that wept for attention.
He turned up the heat as well as the power of the massaging heads and did it all again. Covering every inch of her while she panted and moaned and stayed right where he wanted her.
This time, when he was done with her legs, he let the water hit right where she needed it, for five torturous beats before he took it away. Ashley yelled and tried to stand straight.
He stopped her with a hand on her ass and a quiet command to hold still.
“I’m not finished,” he said. “Not nearly finished.” Then he turned it up again. Ashley groaned, but he wouldn’t be swayed form this. Her legs were quivering, and her arousal was so strong he could smell her when he finally brought the water to her slit. He didn’t want her coming just yet though, so he switched it to the lightest setting and made sure it rained around her puffy lips but stayed clear of her clit. It was swollen and ready and he knew the lightest touch would send her over. She started cursing him. He smiled grimly and cut the heat. As the water turned icy on her overheated and ultrasensitive flesh she yelped, barreled up to her tiptoes and braced her hands on the wall in front of her.
Smack! He slapped sharply on her ass. “Down, Ashley.” He almost thought she would turn and punch him, but she didn’t. With a sexy little whimper she got back into position. It was hot as fuck seeing a strong woman relinquish control like that and he had to take five deep breaths for control before he could get back to his task.
He placed the setting to a single fat stream this time. It was still soft, but it was pulsing and he kicked up the heat just as he placed it on the skin right under her tightly puckered back hole. She clenched everywhere, and her hands fisted on the floor. He let her suffer for ten soft pulses then, slowly, one pulse at a time, he brought the water down. Over the lips, her mons, and with his free hand he spread the delicate folds open so he could trace her opening. She was mindless, her clit so swollen it looked ready to burst. He smiled grimly and kicked up the power even more. Hot, hard and pounding, the showerhead at full force, he finally brought it to her clit and almost came himself at her scream. It was guttural, animal and endless as she came and came and came.
Jake wasn’t nearly finished. He stood up, keeping hold of the showerhead, and cursed the whole time it took to work the condom on. Then he rammed into her full force. She was still in the grip of her orgasm and the rhythmic compressions of her core sucking at him ripped a shout from his chest. He started to thrust into her, hard and deep. Over and over he plunged, hanging on to his control by the teeth. Ashley was still yelling, hoarse and begging, mindless with the buildup and it made him feel like a beast. Trying to keep it together, to keep her pleasure rocketing, he brought the showerhead back up. Highest setting, one fat hard pounding river of hot water and he directed it right on her back passage. This time when she screamed and came, she took him with her. Her body fought and pushed into his in her climax with such force he felt like he was riding a tornado. It was the most unbelievable orgasm of his life.
Like the town drunks, they staggered to their bed. Both of them damp and neither of them cared. Ashley took one minute to kiss him and swear to make him the best breakfast of his life in the morning and then passed out like she was indeed drunk. Just before oblivion claimed him, he let himself bask in the glow of knowing that he’d just blown his lover’s mind. He even gave himself a light-fisted tap to his own shoulder then let sleep take him.
Homemade blueberry pancakes. Thick-sliced bacon. Fluffy scrambled eggs. Fresh-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits and crispy fried potatoes. Ashley only wished she could make more. She’d slept like the dead all night and woke up with such a full-body glow she was surprised there weren’t little pink hearts and tweeting bluebirds circling her head.
All morning long she kept suffering mini heart attacks as flashbacks from the night before played in her mind. How his hand looked as he stroked and pulled on his shaft flashed and she had to stop and take a deep breath for control. She’d felt such an overwhelming sense of power when he’d shouted and come. The feel, the sounds, the taste as each hot ribbon landed across her lips and face.
Ashley shuddered with an echo of pleasure. It had been indescribably sensual. What had happened next went beyond anything that she’d ever imagined. Just as a quiet shimmer of reaction was fluttering through her body—just as she remembered the feel of that water pounding against her rear, Poncho walked in.
Ashley couldn’t help but blush when Poncho did nothing but stare at the table in open-mouthed awe. She knew they’d been loud. It was a solidly built house, but still, she was hoarse this morning from the screams Jake had wrung from her. If he said anything about it she didn’t know what she’d do. She was a grown woman, and wasn’t embarrassed about her sexuality, but really, she’d never in her life screamed like that before. Poncho, God bless him, took pity on her, “This looks too good to be true. I must be dreaming.” Then Jake came in and wrapped his arms around her from behind. “Nope. No dream.” Poncho continued, “If it were a dream I’d be the one holding her, amigo.” He then shot a wink her way and added, “And she’d be a redhead. A chubby one.” Jake’s chuckle warmed her cheek along with everything inside her. Ashley turned in his arms to wrap him in a hug. “Morning,” she murmured into his shoulder. “Morning, Slim,” he said and laid a gentle kiss on her temple. “This all looks amazing. You should have woken me up. I could’ve helped.” She smiled and leaned in to whisper, “I promised you this, remember?” She felt the blush bloom across her face at his soft hmm and the blush went inferno when he hugged her tighter and she felt him stir against her belly. “Hey?” Poncho called from the table, “You two gonna smooch all day or come eat before it gets cold?” They parted with a smile and went to the table.
“Okay,” Jake called out to Ashley and Poncho, “that’s it. All secure. Ponch? You got the bait ready?” Jake looked over to where Poncho was still finishing the meat. Ashley was loading the tools back onto the sled. He knew she was anxious about today, had been dreading it for these past weeks, but he also knew there was nothing he could say that was going to change that. It was trap day.
“I got it.” Poncho lugged over the chicken. “Here’s your bird, stuffed and ready to go.” They’d put a tracking device and a digestive device in the bird. The hope was that it would get swallowed whole and for at least thirty-six hours they’d be able to know not only where the cat was going but what it was eating as well. Ashley’s eye-rolling argument that they knew in too great a detail what the darn cat ate already notwithstanding, this was science, the more data the better.
Ashley walked up to him and leaned into his side. He was pleasantly surprised by how well she fit and how natural it was to wrap an arm around her hip to pull her just a little closer so her head could rest against his chest. “Are you sure this is going to work?”
“No,” he answered. “It is always a long shot. Even more so with cougars. They aren’t scavengers, bait rarely works with them.”
“So, why are we doing this then?” She asked the obvious question with a fair dose of disgruntlement in her voice. “Because,” he replied. “This is how we work. It may take a week or two, but eventually we’ll get her.” He didn’t add that if it didn’t they’d have to try far more drastic measures. There was no need to open that particular can of worms. “Thanks to your stubborn yet helpful contribution of taking us directly to the trails and dens we’re actually ahead of schedule. We can afford the time it will take for this. Science is all about patience.”
“Well, let’s finish this up and get gone,” Poncho said as he finished gathering up tools and supplies. “This cat has already proved she’s shy, let’s spray it down and go home to wait.” They each grabbed a can of the synthetic pheromone and started spraying the cage and the area around it. Knowing the cougar was female, the hope was that the male pheromones would draw her in and then she’d at least explore the bait. Even if she didn’t eat it, the cage would hopefully close while she explored and then they could tranq her.
The walk back to the cabin was long and cold. They had opted to leave the snowmobile behind, the noise and the gas fumes too much of a deterrent to the cat. They had even left the dogs tied off halfway there as well. Ashley was nervous about that part. But, the cougar had shown her fear of the dogs, and the men were sure that by no longer bringing them onto her hunting paths they would start to see her in the cameras.
“I still don’t get it,” Ashley said, trying to talk to keep her mind off the agony of her thighs. “The cats have shown no fear all summer. They were tearing through campsites and even stole one camper’s poodle, poor thing, but yet now they act shy?” She let her exasperation show and even flopped her hands at her side. “I just hated tying everybody up. They didn’t like it. And I didn’t like it worse.”
“They’ll live, Slim—” Jake reached out and held her hand, “—and so will you. I think it’s the dogs. Once she doesn’t smell them on her paths anymore she’ll be back.”
“Then we tag her and get her bloodwork. She’s already shown aggression to man, so we can relocate her in the spring and you’ll have a safe and happy mountain again.”
“That’s the thing I don’t get about her,” Ashley said. “Why is she aggressive to man? I mean you said yourself she’s getting plenty to eat, right? All that poop proved she was eating moose. Moose, for crying out loud. Why the heck would she keep bugging people when she can eat a moose?”
“Oh, I know the answer to that one.” From about twenty-five feet in front of them, Poncho turned to face them with one hand raised, a smarty-pants smile on his handsome face. “It’s pred—”
In slow motion, but too fast at the same time, the cougar took one bounding leap from a nearby tree and flew through the air. Her massive front claws were all Ashley could see as they stretched out on either side of Poncho. They dug into his shoulders as she powered him to the ground and her immense jaws clamped onto the back of his neck with a hissing, growling snarl. Ashley knew that he was dead.
Jake kept his eye on the cougar. She watched him while she kept her those teeth like a vise on Poncho’s back. He didn’t know if Poncho was moving, he couldn’t take his eyes off the cat to check. He pulled the shotgun from the holster and slowly slid his backpack off his shoulders. In a voice as loud of a shout as he could make because he knew cougars hated loud noises, he told Ashley, “Run. Get to the dogs and let ’em loose.” When she hesitated, he gave her a push. “Go! They may be the only ones who can save him. Run!”
Ashley made a wide berth around Poncho and the cougar and raced down the trail. It was a good half-mile to where they’d tied off the dogs and she didn’t waste any time getting to them.
Jake opened his arms wide, making himself as big as possible and continued to shout. The cat seemed unimpressed and started to tug backward, intending to drag Poncho away to eat in private.
“Oh, hell no!” Jake lifted the shotgun and shot in the air. She flinched, stilled, but didn’t let go. He shot again. When that still didn’t get her to release, Jake took aim just to the left of her and blew a foot of snow over them. That got her to jump back. She jumped forward again, in a crouch over Poncho with her ears pinned and a lip-curled snarl that warned him not to come closer.
It was a warning he didn’t heed.
He lifted the shotgun again, aimed to her right and BANG! another foot of snow blew over the cat and her chosen prey. She snarled even more and took a swipe at the hole he’d blown in the ground next to her. But she still didn’t give up her position over Poncho. “Don’t make me do this, you stupid,” with anger and regret he brought the gun to his shoulder one last time, “stubborn,” he took aim, this time right between her eyes, “bitch.” His finger tensed to squeeze. Just then she leapt in the air and raced through the trees, Grover, Bernie and the girls hot on her tail.
With a vicious curse, Jake dropped the gun and raced to Poncho’s side. He was alive, because while Jake had watched the dogs chase off the cougar, Poncho had managed to turn over. Poncho’s shoulders were bleeding. Tufts of down were crimson with blood on both sides. One of the arms was lying at an odd angle that told Jake she’d wrenched it from its socket when she’d taken him
His swarthy skin was pale and gray from pain, blood loss or both. Jake tore off one glove and felt for a pulse, dreading the worst. Poncho grabbed his hand with the arm he could move and limply shook his head. “It’s no use,” he coughed, weakly. “Don’t kill her. Prom—” another cough, “promise me.” He met Jake’s eyes, his fierce in passion. “Promise. Relocate. Not her fault.” A wave of pain hit him and he arched with a moan and went limp.
“Oh God! No!” Ashley collapsed next to them, tears streaming and breath coming in gasps. “Please, Poncho. No!”
He managed a small smile and said, “Shhh. Don’t cry. Shhh, no. S’okay. S’okay.”
Ashley shook her head, “No. It’s not. It’s not okay.”
Ashley looked at Jake. “I’ll get take the boys and get the mobile. The girls will stay with you.” She sniffled and tried to stop the quivering of her chin.
“I’ll run, and we’ll be ba-back.” She looked at Poncho, fire in her eyes, “You are going to be fine, and you be here when I get back. Do you hear me? You be here.”
“Wait, Ash,” Jake said softly. He hadn‘t taken his eyes off of his friend. “Ponch, let me see what she did. I’m going to roll you just a little. Let me take a look.”
“S’no use, amigo.” Poncho tried to fight it but tears of regret filled his eyes. “I felt the pop. When she bit. I felt the pop of my spine.” Even now he felt the heat of the flood that had poured from the wound going cold underneath him. He was soaked with it. It was worrisome that he was cold so soon. He knew that was the first of the last things he’d feel before death took him.
If he had to die now, he was glad it was with them. The best friend he ever had and the only woman he knew that was good enough for him. “He loves you, you know.” Poncho told her, thinking it was a good last word. “He’s loved you since the first time he came down this mountain.” Jake tried to move him again and he arched and cursed, Ashley stopped him with a touch.
“Shhh. It’s fine. Don-don’t talk.” Tears overwhelmed her and he figured he should get it said quick, he was starting to go numb.
“S’true. He came down and told me.” He had to stop as fire shot through his shoulder, “he told me: ‘Ponch, I just got turned down by the best-lookin’ woman I ever met’ and I knew. You were difrn’t. See, he never said one word to me b’fore how a girl looked. So, I knew.” Hard shivers racked him then, and he couldn’t hold back the grunt of pain.
Jake bent close to his face—to say a fond farewell—Poncho thought, so when he heard, “Why don’t we just walk down and save on gas?” he was a little perplexed.
“I can set your shoulder back in place here, then when we get to the cabin I can patch up the scratches.”
Then Ashley and Poncho both said, “Huh?”
Jake smiled. A big ear to ear smile and scooped up a handful of snow from under Poncho. He brought it up to show them. It was brown. It also smelled suspiciously like the hot chocolate Poncho had filled his camelback with. “That pop you heard, buddy, was the bladder on your camelback giving way. She had you by it, not your neck.” With relieved affection Jake threw the snow away and slipped his arm under to help Poncho sit. “Now, quit scaring my girlfriend and get up.”
The camelback was toast. It was an industrial-strength plastic bladder surrounded by insulation to keep the temperature of whatever fluid was in it consistent. It fit inside a snug backpack that rode high on the shoulders and was designed to fit close to the spine, to help either cool or warm the wearer. This particular model was made of neoprene, the same super-strong synthetic material that motorcycle gear was made of, and the cougar’s teeth had sunk through it with no more trouble than if it’d been made of latex.
“Well,” Ashley said, looking at the ruined pack spread out on her table, “it saved your life. So, even if it is ruined, I’d say it was worth it.”
“Yeah, well…” Poncho seemed to be having a hard time accepting the destruction of his pack. Ashley thought it had more to do with his embarrassment over the fact that he thought he was dying than the ruined equipment, but she kept that thought to herself.
“Thing cost me a lotta money. Damn cat,” Poncho mumbled, grabbed the remnants and tossed them in the trash with a grunt.
“Ahh, Poncho.” She wanted to say something sweet or encouraging, but instead trailed off when Jake shook his head at her and winked.
“So, buddy,” Jake spoke up. “I think you should save that and frame it. It’ll make a helluva conversation piece.” He plucked it out of the trash and held it up. “You could call it The Thwarted Good-bye.”
He lunged back when Poncho tried to grab it and held it out of reach. “Or, how about something with a double meaning, like Dead of Winter?” Poncho seemed to have a hard time keeping a straight face. Ashley had no luck at all and started laughing outright.
Relief was rich and heavy in the air, making the three of them as giddy as drunks. It had been too close. They had come too close to losing him. The euphoric rush at finding themselves all still alive was buzzing through their systems like crack. Poncho’s mortification just didn’t stand a chance against it.
“Ooh, I know,” Ashley joined in and waved her hands for the toss. She caught the mangled pack just as Poncho jumped in front of her, but since his arms were bandaged and sore she got away easily. “Let’s call it The Cougar-pellent-cocoa-pack.” They continued tossing the pack between them while Poncho laughed and cursed. The dogs even got in on the action, barking and dodging in between their legs as they ran around the house like kids in a schoolyard. All in all it was the most fun Ashley could remember having in a very long time.
That night Ashley was quiet when she crawled between the sheets. Jake was stoking the fire in the fireplace in their room. She watched as the light in front of him flared a deep orange glow. It highlighted his form and made him look like the warrior brave of her fantasies. He knelt in front of it on one knee, his hair in that leather tie he always wore and raining straight as an arrow down the middle of his strong bare back. His slender hips and muscled legs were encased in flannel sleep pants that looked tailor-made for him. As he used one log to poke the fire around, the muscles in that arm rippled and flexed. It made everything below Ashley’s belly button warm and tingle.
He was smart. Professor smart. Well, to be technical he was doctor smart and that was even better. He was endlessly kind, funny and he was an animal activist whose entire career was focused on saving wildlife. Ashley teetered on the edge of admitting that to herself when Apollo ambled up to him. The dog gave him an affectionate head butt to the shoulder. Jake looked at him and ruffled his scruff as he asked, “And how was your day, Apollo? Huh? You tired of being cooped up and missing all the action?” Then he looked over to Ashley and smiled at her. The fire behind him, her dog in his arms—Ashley didn’t just fall off that edge. She leaped.
Her expression must have shown what she was feeling because the smile warmed to something altogether different on Jake’s face. He gave a last pat to Apollo then stood and walked to the bed. As soon as he got to the side, before he could sit down, Ashley rose to her knees and reached a hand out to his waist. Her fingers lightly raked over the ridges of muscle there and then teased under elastic. She pressed a gentle kiss on one small dark nipple and smiled when his breath hitched. She bestowed the same to the other nipple and his breath hitched again. She looked up at him without taking her mouth off his skin, so the breath of her words could tease as much as the meaning of them.
“Tell me something, Doctor,” she started, kissing and nipping across his chest. “In your scientific opinion. How long—” she let her teeth scrape just a little harder, “—does it take to fall in love?” Her tongue licked in a delicate swirl while her eyes never broke contact with his, and she saw the flare of reaction on his face. “Scientifically speaking, do you think three months of very little contact followed by six weeks of very intense close contact is enough?”
She could have melted on the spot at the look on his face when he replied, “Well. Scientifically speaking. I believe there was a study done in the high ridges of the Cascade Mountains where a man actually fell in love in under one hour.” She smiled, bright and full, her whole being lighting up from within. “In fact, it could be argued that from the moment he set eyes on the green-eyed blonde, he fell.” His hands cupped her face, and he bent to bring his lips to hers. “Even when she was holding him at gunpoint he was helpless to resist.”
The kiss they shared was full of wonder and joy. Ashley ran her hands over his back and around his sides, nails digging just a little, just enough that his breathing picked up speed.
She slipped the flannel from his hips then cupped his already firm flesh. It was hard as steel and soft as velvet, and it was all for her. He hummed into her mouth when she cupped the heavy sac beneath and gently kneaded while her other hand gripped tight and strong on the base of him. She pulled from his kiss, his hands tangled in her hair, and lowered to him. His eyes flared when she slipped out her tongue to lap at the head, and his fingers clenched reflexively. She opened her lips and took him in. His groan was music to her ears, an erotic melody that guided her rhythm. She swirled her tongue, sucked hard and never let her hands or mouth stop moving. Before long his thighs were quivering and the gentle hands that before had merely cradled her head as she moved on him were now clenched into fists, tugging on her scalp with a delicious bite of pain that only thrilled her more.
She still had one hand cupped on his sac, gently molding, when she felt his balls draw up tight. She knew he was close, and she knew just what she wanted to do to send him over that edge. She smoothed her fingers up, to play in the moisture that was gathered at the base of his shaft, made sure her fingers were coated and slick. Then smoothed her hand back down, pressing in firm strokes over the patch of skin just beneath his scrotum. Next, she circled his rim, his moan turned to a full-out groan when she dipped her middle finger past that tight ring of muscles and into him.
He didn’t stand a chance. His entire body locked, head back and face carved in a grimace of passion as her mouth was flooded with burst after burst of his release. She let it slide and drip down his shaft as she continued to stroke and bob. Her finger continued to pump in time and his groan turned to guttural shouting as she kept him on that edge and dragged his orgasm out as long as she could.
Eventually, he became too sensitive and she eased back. She was a mess. They both were so she reached for the bedside table and the hand towel that was lying there. She first wiped her face and then before she could start on him, he pounced.
She gasped in shock, giggling as he fumbled to get under her clothes and rained kisses over her face and neck. Before long, she was as naked as he was and it was her turn to moan. She sighed as he entered her, said, “My, my, Doctor, quite a recovery time you’ve got there,” and then sighed again as he started a slow sweet dance over and into her. He loved her softly, gently, with words too tender to speak above a whisper and touches that gave new meaning to the word caress. As the peak rolled over her like an ocean wave, she went under with his name on her lips.
“That’s not a cougar.” Ashley stated, obviously shocked. Jake chuckled. Poncho grinned at her and adjusted the sling on his arm. Ashley was still dumbfounded. “That’s a bear. That’s supposed to be a cougar.” She looked from Jake to Poncho, truly baffled. “Why is there a bear in there?” She looked back at the mammoth brown hulk about to burst the tiny cage he was trapped in. “It’s the dead of winter. Isn’t he supposed to be asleep?” Her hands fisted on her hips, and she glared at the bear like he’d done this to her just to mess with her mind.
Jake laughed outright at her expression and rubbed a soothing hand on her arm. “This is not just any bear, Slim. It’s a grizzly. And they don’t necessarily hibernate. Especially if the food is plentiful and easily accessed. Which thanks to our cougar, it has been.”
Ashley inhaled with enough force Jake was surprised she didn’t choke. “You knew.” She pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You knew already. That’s why you guys aren’t freaked out right now.” She looked back at the cage in exasperation. “Like I am.”
“We’ve suspected this for a while,” Jake said, taking out his camera to get some shots while Poncho prepared the tranq.
“Ever since the elk,” Poncho added. “A cougar doesn’t leave her kill out in the open like that. Cougars always drag their kill off to eat in private. They hide it in the bushes, or in their den. It just didn’t make sense that she left it out there.” Dose measured and loaded, he faced the bear, just barely contained in the cage. “Only one thing in these mountains bigger and scarier than a cougar. And that’s it right there.”
The cage gave a metallic shriek as Jake got too close and the grizzly took a lunge toward him. Jake only chuckled and said, “Yes! Got that,” when he caught the action on film. “See,” Jake said, still snapping away at every possible angle. “Grizzlies are pretty lazy hunters. They’ll eat anything, and they will always follow the path of least resistance. If it’s a meal they don’t have to hunt down and kill themselves, that’s their favorite kind.”
Ashley thought of all the documentaries she’d watched on bears and how in every one of them it’d showed them stealing food. Either from people’s homes and campsites or from other, smaller animals.
“Your cougar has been forced to come closer and closer to your campers and cabin because this big bruiser has been stealing all her kills. We figured it had to be a grizzly to get her to give up on that elk.” He lowered the camera and looked at Ashley. “She’s a smart one. She’s scared of him, but she knows the only thing he’s scared of is us.” He looked back at the morose-looking bear that, though immense, looked pitiable in his cramped quarters. “She was getting desperate and hunting farther and farther out of her comfort zone in hopes that he wouldn’t follow.”
Poncho walked up from behind, the tranq at the ready. It was loaded into a ten-foot pole, but to Ashley’s eyes, it looked way too short. Gave a whole new meaning to the old adage of wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole, and Ashley thought she wouldn’t use that term lightly ever again. Poncho jabbed, short, fast and hard, hitting him in the meaty part of his hindquarter. The bear let out a roar that drained all the color from Ashley’s face and infused her with awe at the same time.
It took thirty minutes and one more dose before the men deemed him under and started to work. Ashley helped in fascinated wonder as they measured, tagged, took samples and more pictures. It was a long, backbreaking day. And another one that she could chalk up as one of the best she’d ever had.
“Now what are we going to do?” That night over the crock-pot stew that had simmered for them while they worked, Ashley wondered about the rest of the winter. “I mean, this is it, right?” she asked. “We wanted to know why she was so big. Answer? Freaking moose. Sheesh.” The men chuckled as she shook her head. “Why she was acting against her nature by coming into populated areas? Answer? Big, giant freaking bear.” More chuckles. “So, now what?”
“Well,” Jake answered. “We’ll continue to monitor them throughout the winter. Watch their patterns and make sure there aren’t more in this territory. I doubt it, but we have to be sure.” He stopped to take a drink of his tea before continuing, “We still have to catch and tag her.”
Ashley nodded at that, after the grizzly, tagging the cougar seemed like a piece of cake now.
“Then in the spring we relocate them both. They’ve gotten too used to humans, and it’s safer all around to get them far, far away from any chance of them running into people ever again.”
“In the meantime,” Poncho added, “we keep taking samples. Of the cougar and the grizz.”
Ashley set down her spoon with a snap, leveling him with an accusatory look. “More poop? Bear poop?” Poncho laughed while Ashley steamed. Jake reached over and rubbed a comforting hand along her back.
It was going to be a long satisfying winter. The dogs were sprawled in lazy abandon around them. Somewhere out in the snow-covered beauty of the Cascade Mountains, the grizzly bear that had brought this all to pass was sleeping off the meds and the cougar, finally, was getting her fill to eat.
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Edge of Paradise
Daughter of Persephone