by Sierra Dafoe
Ebook ISBN: 01935-00606
[ Shifter Romance, MF ]
She can’t possibly survive in Wolf’s vast, untamed world, any more than he could join her in hers. Now Jenna is faced with a bitter dilemma: if she stays, she’ll be putting his life at risk. If she leaves, it’s his heart she’ll be destroying…
Damn Klaus, anyway! This is all his fault.
Jenna stumbled forward, squinting against the fat, puffy snowflakes that drifted around her, confusing her eyes and getting caught on her lashes. The sky was an alarming gunmetal gray — not dark yet, not really, but it was hard to keep any sense of direction in the gloom.
It didn’t matter. All she had to do was keep heading downhill, and she’d be fine. Fine, damn it!
She jabbed her ski poles into the snow, took a step, and jarred her spine as she slipped in the deep powder and fetched up hard against a stunted pine tree.
Heading downhill’s not going to be the problem, she thought sourly as she gasped for air. The problem’s going to be staying on my own two feet in the process.
At least she’d made it down to the tree line; that was something. Wiping the sweat from her face with a snow-smeared glove, Jenna looked back up at Goat’s Eye Mountain.
The slope Klaus had brought her up two hours earlier was so steep she’d frozen in terror, staring down the precipitous slope, feeling as if all she’d have to do would be to lean forward slightly and, like a rock dislodged from a cliff, she’d be tumbling, turning over and over as she fell through open space…
“Come on, Jenna! Don’t be such a coward,” Klaus had called as he’d flashed past, white teeth gleaming in his tanned face, his heavy Germanic features spread in a broad, mocking grin. With a flick of his ski poles, he’d charged the slope — which was marked, clearly marked with double black diamonds all the way down. Hunkering expertly into the curves, he’d sent sprays of powder shooting into the air and disappeared over the ridge.
Jenna gritted her teeth and leaned against the tree, trying to ease the abominable ache in her calves. Hiking down a mountain — this mountain — in any situation would have been a feat; doing it in ski boots was well nigh impossible.
Not that she was exactly in fabulous shape to begin with. Klaus, on the other hand, was perfect; ruggedly athletic, his broad, toned body fairly rolling with muscle. In addition, he was handsome, wealthy, successful…
But not as successful as me. Not this year, anyway.
And that, of course, had been the entire problem.
She’d gotten the call Friday afternoon, just as they’d arrived in Banff for Klaus’s vacation — five days of skiing in the Canadian Rockies. After two modestly successful novels, and a third which had hit the top of the USA Today Bestseller List and stayed there for a dizzying twenty-seven weeks, her agent had gotten her a flat million-dollar advance for her fourth — and to Jenna’s mind, best — book.
“You got me how much?” she’d asked in amazement. Suddenly she’d been convinced that every word of Love’s Buried Treasures was trash. What would happen when somebody realized it? She’d be over, finished, washed out before she’d fairly begun; she knew it.
Her agent had laughed and repeated the number.
Klaus had taken her out to celebrate, of course — filet mignon and a three-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. But then he’d spent the entire meal sniping at her — and sniping was exactly what it had been.
“You know, Jenna, your hair…”
She’d brushed it back self-consciously. “What about it?”
He’d shrugged, in that dismissively European way of his. “It’s just not, perhaps, the best look. For a million-dollar novelist, I mean.” And then he’d smiled — but his eyes had been full of a cool, mocking anger.
The snow was getting thicker. Forcing her hands to let go of the tree trunk, Jenna studied the terrain below her. She was heading for Eagle Ridge, a low saddle between Goat’s Eye Mountain and the next peak over. Once she hit it, all she had to do was follow the crevasse downward and it would land her square in the middle of the resort.
The murk was deepening at an alarming rate, but she could see where the slope flattened out, just a little way below, and then rose again in the distance. That had to be the ridge. It had to. Jenna peered through the snow, hoping for a glimmer of streetlights, a radio tower, anything to pierce the endless gray.
There was nothing. Nothing but the wind gusting through the scrawny, struggling pines, the swirl of snow, the numbing cold.
She didn’t belong up here — and Klaus, by far the more experienced skier, had known it. She didn’t belong anywhere near these jagged, treacherous heights. She didn’t have the edge for it, the drive, the determination…
Suddenly, Jenna wasn’t sure if she was talking about the mountain or her life.
Don’t be such a coward.
She knew full well what Klaus had expected her to do — grit her teeth and make her halting way down, her skis spread in the squat, awkward snowplow of the novice, blushing furiously at the contempt of the skiers whizzing by her, laughing at her ineptitude. And then, as she’d finally limp her way to the base hut, he’d meet her, his charming smile rueful, artificially apologetic. I’m sorry, Jenna, he’d have said, sounding oh so sincere and contrite. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.
Oh, yes you were, you prick, she thought spitefully. But she had to admit, with the clarity of hindsight, that swallowing her pride and skiing down — however slowly, however clumsily — would probably have been the smarter decision.
Hot, angry tears blurred her vision. She blinked them back fiercely. Bracing herself with her ski poles — she’d abandoned her skis hours ago, shortly before the snow had started falling — she started down the slope, one heavy, laborious step at a time. She’d get there, God damn it. One way or another.
Twenty yards later, she fell.
Scrabbling helplessly at the deep, yielding snow, Jenna tumbled, powder spraying around her, filling her mouth, her ears, her hair. Her hat was torn off. One ski pole ripped away. The other bruised her ribs as she rolled across it, clutched it to her, and slammed into the base of a tree.
White sparks burst behind her eyes and she lay there, gasping, feeling the snow burn against her skin where it had been forced up the back of her parka, her ski pants, down into her boots. When she could breathe again, she sobbed uncontrollably.
Why hadn’t she simply lied, told Klaus a hundred grand instead of a million? That would have been acceptable, not such a threat. Why hadn’t she just skied down, taken her dose of humiliation, and gotten it over with? She could have been in Klaus’s arms right now, and all would have been forgiven. Having reasserted once again that he was the man and she, no matter how successful, was only a woman, he would be charming and sweet and protective and oh, how that had made her feel all these months they’d been together!
And the lovemaking afterward would have been fantastic — she knew that. When he wanted to be, Klaus was as skilled a lover as he was a skier, able to gauge her reactions to a nicety, more than capable of bringing her, over and over, to a shuddering, ecstatic peak.
When he wanted to. When he bothered.
Closing her eyes, Jenna imagined the heat of his mouth pressed against her mons, and sobbed even harder.
That’s enough, Jen. Get your ass up. You could lose a lot more than your pride up here. The voice cut, cold and stern, through her self-pity. She knew that voice; it was the same no-nonsense tone that goaded her when she’d been dithering on a manuscript, spending days and days tinkering with it instead of finishing the damn thing up. It was the voice that told her, in no uncertain terms, no one’s going to finish it for you, Jen. No one’s going to come along and do it for you.
No. Nobody was. And even though she was facing a mountainside instead of a manuscript, it was still true. She could die out here — and no one was going to rescue her.
Slowly, carefully, Jenna climbed to her feet.
She was much lower now, she could see that — but it was a lot darker, too. Trees reared around her, blocking what little light remained. The wind gusted, and the falling snow was no longer fat and fluffy but small, sharp, stinging against her wind-chafed face as she bent her head against it.
Planting her remaining ski pole in the snow ahead of her, Jenna took one cautious step, then another. Her left knee blazed with agony at every step, and her teeth were chattering so hard her whole body shook, but she could go on.
She could do this. She was going to make it down.
Relief flooded through her so strongly it made her head swim. She clutched herself tight till the giddiness passed, waited till her arms stopped trembling. Then she carefully jabbed her pole into the snow and started down the slope.
That’s when the howling broke out behind her.
Jenna thrust herself forward so hard she nearly fell. Running in ski boots simply wasn’t possible — it was like trying to run with casts on your legs. Overstrained muscles screamed in protest as she hobbled and skidded her way down a slope she could barely see. Vast, skeletal shapes loomed out of the darkness, slapped her with their prickly arms, and disappeared back into a world of whirling, moaning gray.
The wind, it was just the wind. You’re panicking, Jen! You’re going to break your leg, twist your ankle, and then you really will die out here. Slow down!
Somehow she kept her feet under her, kept her grip on the pole, using it alternately as a rudder and a brake as she careened downhill, feeling the wind beating at her, the snow like shards of glass savaging her exposed skin. She paused for a second, panting, and a long, wavering wail cut through the darkness behind her.
That wasn’t the wind — no way was that the wind. She knew that sound. On some deep, atavistic level she suspected every human alive, from the fattest Manhattan banker to the Bedouin in the desert, knew that sound.
It was the call of the hunter. The predator.
Staggering forward, she felt the pitch of the slope grow shallower. The trees opened out around her, and suddenly she was fumbling her way through snow that came up almost to her crotch.
She was sobbing again, with rage and helplessness, feeling an ancient bitterness well in her breast — no fair! No fair! Her blood roared in her ears, her chest burned with each gasping breath. Her legs dragged like leaden weights. Spots — or was it snow? — swam before her eyes. She could hear light, almost soundless footfalls, a low, ominous snarl…
Blindly, she whirled, swinging the ski pole like a club, thrashing at the snow furiously as she shrieked, “Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Fuck you, do you hear me? Fuck you!”
Nothing. Her pole flailed against nothing, against air, against snow. The silence was broken only by the low, moaning wind, the tiny, metallic ping of snow hitting snow, her own gasping breaths. The darkness was so complete she could barely see the trees behind her.
She staggered forward again, one step, two. Then the world was whirling away, disintegrating into countless specks that swirled and danced, spinning around her, faster, faster…
Her legs crumpled under her and Jenna went down. The snow reached up to meet her, as soft and welcoming as any lover — but so very, very cold.
For a long moment, the wolf merely watched the woman. She lay outspread, her lank brown hair fanning across the snow. The wind tugged it with each gust, this way and that.
The woman didn’t move.
Finally, like a shadow against the night, the wolf glided out from the cover of the trees, loped to her, and closed his jaws gently around one outstretched arm.