“YOU crazy…! What did you think you were doing, driving like that in these conditions?”
Evie blinked, and opened her eyes. She was still alive then, though the world seemed a little... unfamiliar. And someone was shouting at her. “Don’t call me crazy!” she protested, stung. A fleeting image came back to her, as if strobe-lit - of headlights stabbing suddenly through the flurrying snow. “You came out of nowhere.”
“I was turning out of my own front gate.” His voice seemed to be coming from somewhere above her. “You were on the wrong side of the road!”
“I was not!”
Though to be honest, she wasn’t entirely sure of what had happened. She knew that she was conscious, but her brain felt fuzzy, as if everything beyond the past few seconds was lost in a fog.
“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve got yourself into,” she muttered to herself. “Now what?”
The world was slowly beginning to re-orientate itself. The reason why everything seemed to be at an odd angle was because the car was nose down on a steep, snow covered slope, prevented from falling any further by a large pine tree, which had most fortunately stood in its path.
The loud bang that had exploded in her face must have been the airbag going off - it was now dangling, deflated, from the middle of the steering wheel. The seat belt was almost strangling her, and she eased herself carefully into a more comfortable position.
And the reason why it appeared to be snowing inside the car was that the passenger door was open and tilted up towards the sky. The head and shoulders of a man - presumably the driver of the other car - were a dark silhouette against the darker sky.
“Are you all right?” The harshness of his tone was moderated by at least a measure of concern.
“Yes, I think so, thank you.” There were going to be a few bruises, but at least nothing seemed to be broken. “Are you?”
“Yes, I am – thank you for asking.” He still sounded annoyed. “You’re going to need a hand to get out of there.”
Well, of all the patronising…! Fragments of memory were gradually reassembling themselves into a jumbled recollection of her life. And one thing she was quite certain of was that she never let anyone speak to her as if she was a silly little girl - even if she barely grazed an inch over five feet tall.
“Thank you, I’m perfectly capable of managing by myself.” She infused her tone with all the frosty dignity she usually adopted with people who were particularly rude to her when she was busking in Victoria underground station.
Glancing around, she took stock of her position. The car – not her own precious little second-hand Fiesta - was tipped both forward and sideways at an angle of more than forty-five degrees. It was going to be difficult to scramble out, especially without damaging the upholstery...
Shaking her head, she laughed a little unsteadily. It was pretty stupid to be worrying about the state of the upholstery, when the outside of the car was probably a crumpled wreck.
In fact it was pretty stupid to be worrying about the car at all, she reminded herself, drawing in a long deep breath as she drew herself firmly back from the edge of hysteria. She could have been killed - or worse, killed someone else. The car really didn’t matter.
The main problem at the moment was how to get out. Maybe she shouldn’t have been so quick to reject his offer of help.
Examining her predicament, she eased herself up, one small foot braced against the steering wheel, the other against the back of the driving seat, and reached out through the open passenger door, scrabbling for enough purchase to lever herself out.
It was rather more of a struggle than she had anticipated. It might have been easier if she had been wearing trousers - the slim skirt of her cherry-red suit was not the most convenient garment for clambering around inside crashed cars.
But she managed to scramble up somehow, until she was perched a little precariously on the door-sill.
The other driver was watching her, his arms folded across his wide chest, a sardonic smile twitching the corners of a rather hard mouth. No doubt he was waiting for her to ask him for assistance.
Well, she’d be damned if she gave him that satisfaction, she vowed, resolutely maintaining an air of cool dignity – which was somewhat undermined by the fact that her skirt had ridden up, revealing rather too much of her slim thighs.
She swung one leg out of the car - but as her weight moved it tilted suddenly, and with a small shriek of alarm she slithered down the side and landed in a wet and disgruntled heap in the snow.
As she struggled to sit up, the other driver laughed in mocking amusement. “I suppose you think that’s funny?” she protested, indignant.
His dark head tilted to one side as he studied the inadvertent display of lacy underwear with insolent appreciation. “Nil points for technical merit, but ten out of ten for artistic impression.”
She managed to scramble awkwardly to her feet – at which point she realised that not only had she torn her skirt from the hem almost to the waistband, but her shoes had fallen off inside the car. Which put her at even more of a disadvantage to the tall man standing a few feet further up the slope.
And as if to supply the final straw, he was drop-dead gorgeous. It wasn’t just the raven dark hair, tousled and slightly damp from the snow, nor the hawk-like slash of chiselled cheekbones, or the wide shoulders. Nor even the faint trace of an accent, almost indefinable, in his flawless English.
It was something in the aura of raw male power that seemed to surround him like a force-field, the hard-boned arrogance in the way he was standing braced defiantly against the steep slope and the biting snow-laden wind.
Just her luck that when she bumped into Mr Only-In-Your-Dreams, it should be rather too literally.
Blinking, she tore her eyes away before it looked as if she was staring. She had more than enough problems at the moment without some handsome lug thinking she was giving him the come-on.
Now she could see the scene of the accident in all its glory, and she was horrified. The road was about five feet above her. Deep gouges in the snow showed where the car had slewed over the edge – fresh snow was already covering the traces.
She had been extremely lucky that the trees had halted her slide, she reflected with a touch of alarm – the car was upended like a helpless turtle, balanced precariously on a steep slope that fell away into the flurrying blizzard.
“Oh no – look at the car!”
“I’m looking. Anyone with any sense would at the very least have fitted snow-chains in this weather.”
“It… isn’t my car.”
She frowned, still shaken by the effects of the impact. Why was she driving a rental car, on a mountain road, in the snow? A confusing muddle of memories was swirling in the back of her brain. A hotel beside a lake, a man smoking a pungent cigar…
But there were more immediate problems to think about right now. The car wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. “How on earth am I going to get it out of there?”
“You’re not,” came the blunt response. “You’ll have to get a tow-truck to pull it out.”
She gritted her teeth. The last thing she wanted was to have to ask this abominable man for help, but she had little choice. The car was well and truly stuck, and she had no idea where the nearest garage was.
“Couldn’t... couldn’t you tow it out for me? You have four-wheel drive.” She indicated the top-of-the-marque Range Rover which she could just see parked on the other side of the road.
He shook his head. “Given the choice between hitting you and hitting a tree, I chose the tree - a decision which, on reflection, I may begin to regret. My front offside wheel is a little bent - I won’t be going anywhere in a hurry either.”
She stared up at him. “But what on earth are we going to do?” It was getting dark, and the snow was falling heavily – already it was covering the car and laying a fresh blanket over the drifts that had piled up earlier against the trees.
He arched one dark eyebrow as if reflecting on private thoughts he wasn’t planning to share with her. “It would seem that the only option would be to go up to the house.” He indicated a small chalet a few yards up the road, half-hidden by a row of trees and a high stone wall. “At least we can be warm while we discuss it.”
She hesitated. Her head still felt as if it was stuffed with cotton wool, and she couldn’t seem to think straight. She was quite sure there must be all sorts of very good reasons why she shouldn’t agree to go into a strange house with a man she didn’t know.
But just at the moment she couldn’t think of any alternative which didn’t involve freezing to death. “All... right,” she conceded a little uncertainly. “At least we can phone a garage from there.”
She turned to look at the car again. How on earth was she going to get her shoe – and her bag? With the car at that angle, it was going to be next to impossible to climb back in.
She stretched up on tip-toe to try to see where they were, but as she put her hand against the front wheel to steady herself it spun around, and with a thump she sat down in the snow again.
The arrogant oaf just stood there laughing. “Now what are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to reach my shoes – they fell off when I was trying to get out.” Oh, dammit, she was going to have to appeal to him for help again. “Could you… would you be able to reach them for me?”
“No I wouldn’t.” He reached over to slam the car door shut. “And if they’re anything like as practical as that skirt, they wouldn’t be worth the bother anyway.” He bent over her, and before she had realised what he intended to do he had scooped her up in his arms.
“Hey - Wh... What are you doing?” she squeaked in alarm.
“It would appear that I’m carrying you.”
Oh boy - yes, he was, wasn’t he? She felt a moment’s breathless heat at the unfamiliar experience of being lifted with such ease, and held against a hard, wide, male chest. Up close, she was suddenly alarmingly aware of the arrogant sensuality of that firmly-drawn mouth, the smoothly-sculpted lines of his cheekbones and jaw.
Her heart kicked sharply against her ribs as she struggled to gather up the scattered threads of her composure. “I can walk, thank you,” she insisted stiffly.
Mocking laughter flickered in those dark eyes. They were a very unusual colour, she couldn’t help noticing - a very dark inky blue, almost black, and fringed by the longest, silkiest lashes she had ever seen on a man.
“Do you always argue so much?”
Ignoring her protests he strode sure-footed up the slope and along the road, past the Range Rover and through a high wooden gate.
For a moment she closed her eyes, some treacherous part of her actually enjoying this high-handed treatment. But the cave-man approach had never impressed her, and she wasn’t going to let a few inches of snow give her the excuse to start acting like some clinging hot-house violet now.
“Put me down,” she demanded, her green eyes flashing him a frost-warning.
“Certainly.” His smile took on a wicked curve, and opening his arms he dropped her without ceremony into the deep drift of snow beside the front step.
She scrambled indignantly to feet. “You… you…”
“I think the word you’re looking for may be bastardo. Come on in.” He opened the door, his eyes glinting with mocking amusement as he invited her inside.
She clenched her fists, counting to ten. By the time she reached seven she had regained enough self-control to feel reasonably confident that she wouldn’t succumb to the temptation to strangle him. Smiling with an exaggerated sweetness, she stepped across the threshold.
And stopped dead, her eyes widening in amazement.
The place had looked quite small from the outside – a single storey, built of stone and wood, with a stone-tiled roof. But as her annoying companion flicked a switch just inside the front door, flooding the place with light, she realised that this was only the entrance hall - a large square hall, with a floor of cream-coloured marble and walls of pale gold wood.
Her mouth forming a silent ‘Oh’ of astonishment, she moved forward. They were in fact at the top of a series of tiered floors, following the slope of the mountain-side.
Flights of cantilevered stairs of the same blonde wood as the walls flowed in a series of organic curves to the lowest level, while opposite her scores of golden lights were reflected in the dark glass of a vast, sloping window which ran the full width of the house, from the ceiling above her right down to what seemed to be a sitting area several floors below.
She would bet that the view would be fabulous - sadly at the moment it was obscured by the falling snow.
But there was something missing. People. She glanced around, all her senses functioning on full alert. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around. “But... we can’t just break in here,” she protested, aghast. “That’s burglary.”
Her companion sighed with weary patience. “We’re not breaking in. It’s my place.”
“If you remember,” he spelled out as if talking to a small child, “I told you I was turning out of my own gate when you came racing round the bend on the wrong side of the road.”
“I wasn’t racing.” His sarcasm put her instantly on the defensive. “You should have looked before you pulled across...”
She caught at a ragged breath. The image of that split-second seemed to be etched onto her retina like a photograph, as the other car’s headlights had stabbed out across the road in front of her, and she had instinctively slammed on the brakes - to find herself skidding helplessly out of control...
She struggled to push away the lingering nightmare, but her frazzled nerves were close to breaking point. Something hot was welling up inside her, and abruptly - to her own surprise - she burst into tears.