“I’m telling you I need a female agent sent down here to pose as my fiancée and I need one now! Ryan McCoy groused over the secured telephone line.
“Why?” his boss, Juliet North, prodded. “What’s going on?”
He kicked back in his chair, and propped his boot-clad feet on the corner of his desk. “Let’s just say that since Christmas came and went with no sign of the future Mrs. Ryan McCoy I’ve had more offers to cook a meal and dam my socks than I can handle.”
“Hmm.” Juliet—who was very happily married herself—paused. She continued with mock seriousness, “Did you try singing them one of your love songs?”
“Very funny,” Ryan said dryly. “And for your information, yes, I have, to no avail. The local women couldn’t care less about my pronounced inability to write an intelligible lyric or carry a tune.” Portable phone in hand, Ryan stood and stalked restlessly across the secret cave in the side of the mountain. Scowling, he glanced through the high-powered telescope in front of him. He noted the wind picking up and the snow coming down in ever-increasing intensity to the point where he couldn’t even see the area targeted for surveillance.
Juliet chuckled on the other end of the line, while Ryan checked the visual on the local weather radar on his computer screen. Just as he had feared, the storm, now being dubbed The Snowstorm of the century—predicted to rival the Blizzard of ‘96—was heading relentlessly up the East Coast and into Virginia, where it was expected to dump a record snowfall. It had only been snowing an hour or so, but they already had several inches on the ground, with two dozen more or so predicted to come in the next twenty-four hours. He could only guess how that was going to hamper his ongoing investigation.
“What do the local women care about, then?” Juliet asked.
Ryan sighed as he thanked heaven for underground utilities and poured himself another cup of Swiss almond coffee. “My future romantic happiness. And, for the record, just about everyone in these parts is beginning to question my fidelity to a beautiful fiancée no one’s ever seen. Of course, if I could pinpoint an exact time when the future Mrs. Ryan McCoy might show up, it might help take some of the pressure off.”
“I’d love to send you someone to kiss and cuddle. But you know how few female agents we have available to be reassigned right now.”
“Meaning no go?” Ryan guessed dejectedly as he raked a hand through his rumpled hair.
“Not for the next month, anyway,” Juliet confirmed.
Ryan swore heatedly as he lifted his coffee cup to his lips. “You know how many women I’m going to have to fend off in the meantime, don’t you?”
“Hey,” Ryan said defensively. He was a little embarrassed at all the unsolicited female attention he’d been receiving. “I’ve done my best to appear lazy, deluded and unsuccessful.”
“Or in other words,” Juliet paraphrased dryly, “a poor catch.”
“A very poor catch,” Ryan confirmed, then sighed as he sifted through a stack of the last surveillance photos taken and developed via machine. “It’s not my fault this particular area of Virginia has a dearth of eligible men and a wealth of attractive, highly eligible women.”
“Well, stay goofily ineligible a little while longer, will you?” Juliet prodded. “We need to get this assignment wrapped up.”
Ryan caught the new edge in Juliet’s voice and knew something vital was up. “Something happen?”
Juliet paused. “Our intelligence in Rivertown has picked up a possible shipment.”
Ryan’s broad shoulders tensed beneath his navy blue thermal underwear and thick flannel shirt. “When?”
“Probably by the end of the week, even with the weather.”
Ryan looked at the surveillance monitor again and scowled at the dense gray-white clouds on the horizon. More activity on the Hindale farm was the last thing they needed during a winter storm that was quickly paralyzing the whole Eastern Seaboard. “How soon after that do you expect them to act?” Ryan demanded impatiently.
“A matter of days. Maybe even hours.” Juliet paused. “Naturally we hope to avoid any type of armed confrontation with their group. It’s all going to depend on what kind of visuals you can get us to take forward.”
Ryan’s blood pumped as he anticipated the challenge to come. There was no one he wanted to put out of business more than this group, whom he considered to be as dangerous as they came, but to do that he needed the kind of-proof that would stand up in court. “I’ll get it,” he promised grimly, checking to make sure his high-powered cameras were loaded with both film and videotape. Satisfied all was in order, he continued, “But in return, you owe me a favor.”
Juliet chuckled, not the least surprised to be put on notice by him. “Which is...”
“As soon as I’m finished, I want out of here, that second,” Ryan demanded as he looked out the telescope and turned his attention to the road. To his amazement he saw a dark blue Suburban four-by-four pulled to one side of the precariously curving, two-lane mountain road leading to his farmhouse. Judging by the rather odd way it was listing to one side, the vehicle looked disabled. Even more incredible, a trim young blonde, clad in a city skirt and blazer, was climbing down out of the driver’s seat, into the snow.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Ryan murmured appreciatively, his glance running over her slender form, and zeroing in on the thick, dark tights that encompassed a truly sensational pair of legs. “But I may soon have company.”
“From across the valley?”
“No,” Ryan said, as his heartbeat picked up and his mouth went dry, “the road. A stranded motorist.”
“Well, get rid of him,” Juliet advised, sounding just as irritated as Ryan should’ve felt. “Pronto, before you’re stuck with an uninvited guest for the duration of the blizzard.”
“He’s a she,” Ryan said, zooming in as close as possible and watching as the sumptuous-looking blonde—who still hadn’t bothered to pull on a coat—tromped around the front of her truck. Her snowy white blouse was buttoned up as far as it would go, with some sort of glinting gold brooch pinned at the throat. Wispy bangs grazed her forehead, and she had her golden-blond hair pinned up in some sort of old-fashioned topknot that seemed to be losing strands to the blowing wind even as he spoke. Her cheeks were high, classically sculpted and pink, her lips bow-shaped, delicate and full.
“I’ll do my best,” Ryan promised, wondering why he didn’t have a woman this attractive chasing him. “But it may not be possible in this weather,” he finished honestly.
“Listen to me,” Juliet fumed on the other end, “I don’t care if you have been without a woman damn near on a year, the last thing you need on the premises at this point is a damsel in distress.”
Not to mention a pretty, delicate-looking blonde who made his blood race just looking at her. Ryan swore, knowing the last thing he wanted to do was put some unsuspecting citizen in danger. “Like I don’t know that?” Ryan grumbled, realizing Juliet was right, the last thing he needed was to be distracted.
But damned if she wasn’t the prettiest thing he’d seen in a heck of a long time, he thought as he watched the stranded woman hunker down beside the right-front tire.
“I KNEW IT! We’re not only so lost we’ll never find our way back, we’re all going to die!” ten-year-old Greta wailed as Grace Tennessen opened the door to the Suburban truck and climbed behind the steering wheel.
“No, we’re not, sfflv,” Hannah, the fourteen-year-old, replied as Grace swiveled around to face them.
“Listen up, girls,” she announced to the group off seven Peach Blossom Academy students, aged six to fourteen, in her care. “Everyone grab their coats, hats and mittens, and make sure you have your snow boots on because we’re all going to take a hike.”
“In this snow?” seven-year-old Brianna whimpered fearfully, sticking her thumb in her mouth and sucking furiously.
Grace gave the most fearful of her charges a little hug. “We have no choice, honey,” she said. “The truck has a flat tire, and we’re going to have to find someone to help us get it fixed.” Before the snow gets any worse, and we find ourselves in real danger, Grace amended silently to herself. Determined, however, to present only a serenely confident attitude to the seven students she was shepherding, she shrugged her own coat on, tugged on her insulated leather driving gloves, climbed back out of the truck, and helped all the girls down, one by one.
“Where are we going?” twelve-year-old Darlene asked seriously.
The only place they could go, Grace thought. She pointed behind them, to the top of the snow-covered rise they’d passed a quarter mile down the winding mountain road. “You see that big farmhouse up on the hill back there?”
“That’s not a h-h-hill, Ms. Tennessen,” six-year-old Letticia stuttered, “That’s a m-m-mountain!”
“Well, whatever it is, we’re going to walk up there and telephone for help,” Grace continued, already taking the lead.
“How long do you think it will take to get a tow truck in this weather, Miss Tennessen?” Clara, who was eight, asked.
Grace hadn’t a clue, but she kept a cheerful outlook for the sake of the girls. “Not long. Now everyone hold hands and stay together. That’s it.” She smiled bravely. “We’ll be there in no time, you’ll see.”
GRACE STOOD FACING the two-story farmhouse with the half new, half old pale yellow paint and pine green shutters. No one had answered her knock, and she was doing her best not to express her concern to the children.
“Hey, look. There’s smoke coming from the chimney,” Polly, nine, said as she nervously tugged on her pigtails and regarded the half-repainted home.
“Then how come they aren’t answering the door?” Greta demanded grumpily, pushing her snow-dusted glasses up on the bridge of her nose.
“I dunno.” Clara shrugged as they all gathered around on the covered front porch.
“Perhaps they’re somewhere else, and stuck in the snow, too,” Hannah, the oldest, suggested, as she leaned against the railing, shivering in the blowing snow and biting cold.
Her breath making frosty circles in the air, Darlene demanded, “What do you think, Ms. Tennessen?”
That we are in a heap of trouble, Grace thought as she put on her most confident expression. “Perhaps they didn’t hear us. We’ll knock a little louder.” She rapped loudly and distinctly five times, and heard nothing but the wind howling through the pines in response. The opaque white curtains blocking the view of the interior did not shift in the slightest. And then the girls all spoke at once.
“I’m freezing, too.”
“Are we going to have to walk all the way back to the truck?”
“I don’t think I can make it, if that’s the case.”
“I’m really, r-r-really c-c-cold, Ms. Tennessen.”
Desperate times called for desperate measures. Grace drew a bolstering breath and went ahead and tried the door. Damn, it was locked. Maybe a window—somewhere—had been left unlocked. Surely the owners wouldn’t mind if they took shelter, under the circumstances. “Stay right here, girls. Out of the wind. Yes, that’s it. I’m going to go around to the back and see if there’s another door there.”
Brianna took her thumb out of her mouth long enough to ask. “You won’t leave and forget us?”
“Of course not.” Grace gave her a reassuring hug. “I’m going to do my best to get us warm as soon as possible. All right?”
Brianna and the rest of the girls nodded.
Grace tromped down the porch steps and around to the back door. She rapped again, very loudly and received no reply. “Hello?” she called cheerily, peering through the glass. She could see a kitchen, but no signs of life. “Anybody in there? Anyone at all?” Hearing no response, she tried the door. It, too, was locked. Praying she wouldn’t be mistaken for a burglar, she tried the window. It was locked, and so was every other window.
By the time she circled the rambling farmhouse and reached the girls again, she knew what she had to do. “I’m going to have to try and jimmy the lock,” she told them as she removed her American Express gold card from her purse.
Grace doubted the headmistress at The Peach Blossom Academy for Young Women would see it that way. “Now, it goes without saying you are all never to try this yourselves. Understood?” Grace said sternly.
“Yes, Ms. Tennessen,” the group replied dutifuli in unison. But their expressions were excited nevertheless as she carefully fitted her credit card in the slot of the door and used it to lift the lock ever so slightly, hearing a very tiny, very satisfying click as it slid back into its housing.
Grace turned the knob, the door swung open, and she led the girls in.
“AND I THOUGHT our dormitory rooms were a mess!” Darlene exclaimed in awe as the group surveyed the large front room, complete with untidy heaps of dust-covered books, clothing, sports equipment. A huge state-of-the-art stereo system, big-screen TV, and a single well-worn lounge chair were surrounded by sliding stacks of compact discs and videotapes.
“Who lives here, anyway?” Clara asked.
Greta looked around the room in awe. “I’ve never seen so many posters of country-and-western singers in one place!”
“Is that s-s-supposed to be Elvis?” Letticia asked with a perplexed frown.
“What’s ‘Hee Haw’?” Hannah asked, pointing to a framed picture of a lady with a price tag hanging off her hat. “Cause there’s a poster of that, too.”
“I never heard of anyone having a ceramic statue of a sleeping dog next to their fireplace,” Darlene observed.
Polly stifled a sneeze as she pointed to the statue, too. “Do you think whoever lives here made that himself?”
“No,” Grace murmured, momentarily as awestruck as the girls as—without touching anything—she looked high and low for a telephone she might borrow. “They sell them at the stores in the malls. I’ve seen them.”
“He must like watching sports on TV, too.” Brianna pointed to the television guide to the satellite sports channels.
“He’s even got a basketball hoop on the wall over there,” Greta announced, impressed. “From the marks on the wall around it, it looks like he’s been shooting a real basketball inside the house!”
Grace looked up and with chagrin admitted to herself that was true.
Clara frowned, perplexed. “How do you know it’s a guy who lives here?” she asked.
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Look at the size of that shirt and those boots. Those are men’s clothes. Besides, I don’t see any girly things around here, do you?”
Grace’s heart pounded. The girls were right. Those clothes that were heaped all over the place were made for a very tall, muscular man. Furthermore, there were no possessions that indicated either a woman or youngsters of any kind lived here. What exactly had she stumbled into? And what would the man who owned this farmhouse think when he returned to find his turf had been invaded by a schoolteacher and seven little girls on a field trip? She could not imagine he would be too pleased. And with good reason.
Grace regarded her charges sternly. “Girls, we mustn’t snoop. It’s bad enough we had to jimmy the door and come in here uninvited. Now, everyone come over here and sit by the fire. That’s it, form a semicircle. I want you all to stay warm while I see—” she turned toward the highly disorganized stacks of his belongings and began lifting them gingerly as she continued “—about finding a phone to call for help.”
“Well now, isn’t this interesting,” a deep male voice rumbled in a honeyed Southern drawl as a shadow fell over Grace and the girls. Her stomach plummeting at the sound of that smooth, sexy voice, Grace looked up. And saw one of the most ruggedly handsome, powerfully built men she’d ever encountered in her life. He was tall, at least six feet five inches, with broad, imposing shoulders and long, lean legs. Beneath the soft worn jeans and flannel shirt, he was solidly muscled from head to toe. Rumpled golden-brown hair—windswept and dotted with snow-flakes—fell rakishly across his brow, the tops of his ears and the back of his neck. But, to her immense relief, instead of being ticked off to find her and the girls in his home uninvited, his golden-brown eyes were alight with mischief and a distinctly sexual, distinctly masculine appreciation of her.
Shivers that had absolutely nothing to do with the cold raced up and down Grace’s spine. “Um—I can explain,” Grace murmured as his sensually chiseled lips turned up in a faintly knowing, faintly challenging smile. “I’m Grace Tennessen, a history instructor at The Peach Blossom Academy for Young Women in Arlington, Virginia.”
He looked her up and down as the corners of his mouth curled up. “You’re quite a ways from there,” he noted, folding his arms in front of him.
Clear across the state, as a matter of fact, Grace thought.
“We got lost,” Hannah piped up helpfully.
“Yeah,” Darlene added, for a moment puffing the calculator she liked to carry with her aside. “The detour signs said this was the way to 1-81, but it’s not.”
He looked sympathetic, but not surprised as his eyes drifted over Grace again, lingering on her face and hair. “The teenagers in the area have been turning around road signs to throw off unsuspecting motorists.”
“Well, it worked.” Grace sighed unhappily as his glance drifted lower still. “Because we sure headed off on the wrong road in the wrong direction.”
“And then it started snowing,” Greta said.
“And we g-g-got a flat tire—” Letticia added.
“And here we are,” Clara piped up.
Grace reddened again, and with one hand, self-consciously tried to restore order to her hair. “Again, I apologize for bursting in on you like this—”
“How did you get in, by the way?” he asked pleasantly.
“American Express.” Grace slipped the gold card out of her pocket and held it up for him to see as she quipped, “I never leave home without it.”
To her relief he looked amused, rather than angry. “I can see where it came in real handy.”
“Yes, well, I wouldn’t have barged in if I hadn’t been desperate to use the phone to call the auto club. So if you don’t mind—”
Nodding his agreement, he looked around and finally tugged a combination phone and answering machine out from beneath a pile of newspapers. “Be my guest,” he said, unraveling the cord and handing the entire unit over.
“Thank you,” Grace said.
The base of the phone in one hand, the receiver in the other, Grace dialed the 8oo number of the auto club. She explained her problem, then frowned at the answer. “Well?” the handsome stranger prodded when she had ended the call with a push of the buff on.
Grace sighed her disappointment and relayed what she’d been told. “They’re swamped. Every tow truck available is already out on calls, and they have a waiting list over four hours long as it stands. Considering the way it’s snowing in most parts of the state, they can’t guarantee me help until much later tonight—if then, depending on the state of the roads.” Which meant she had to get herself and the girls out of here, fast, before they really did get stuck here.
“So what next?” he asked, beginning to look a little worried, too.
There were a lot of people counting on her. Grace wasn’t about to let them down. Grace squared her shoulders determinedly. “Just what you’d think. I take care of this problem the old-fashioned way and change the tire without the auto club’s help.” She turned her attention back to the phone in her hand. “First, however, I’d better call the school and let them know we’re all right. I was supposed to call hours ago to let them know we’d arrived at our destination, and given the weather, they’re probably worried sick.”
While he picked up an acoustic guitar that had been polished to a golden sheen, propped it gently in his arms and settled it on the edge of a nearby desk, Grace placed a collect call. She got hold of the headmistress and swiftly explained the problem, only to be promptly—and infuriatingly—told it might be best to just stay put. “We can’t do that,” Grace said firmly, aware the handsome stranger whose house she had just broken into was covertly listening to her every word.
“Why not?” the headmistress demanded in her usual exacting tone.
Grace turned her glance away from the stranger and studied the snow coming down outside. Thank heaven he regarded them as a pleasant diversion and not an infuriating nuisance. “This is a private residence, not a hotel.” And he’s too damned attractive. “I’m sure we can make it to a hotel before the roads become impassable. In the meantime, just so the school knows, where exactly are we, Mr.—”
“McCoy. Ryan McCoy. And you’re at 100 High Mountain Road in Blue Mountain Gap, Virginia.” He relayed the phone number.
Grace repeated the information for the headmistress.
“Tell your boss not to worry,” Ryan offered as he idly strummed a few chords. “I’ll make sure you all get where you need to go.”
“Thank you,” Grace murmured, beginning to relax just a tad as she conveyed his promise to the school. She glanced at her watch, aware valuable time was passing. She needed to get a move on if she was going to make good on her promise. “Yes, I’ll call as soon as we get settled somewhere for the night. All right. Goodbye.” She hung up the phone, then paused as she looked down. “Your message light is blinking.”
He nodded, unconcerned, as his eyes drifted over her in a way that warmed her frozen body from head to toe. “So it is.’
Grace flushed with awareness despite herself. “Aren’t you going to check and see what it is?”
He regarded her with guileless eyes and a deceptively innocent smile as he lazily waved off her suggestion. “Nah, I don’t usually listen to my messages.”
Grace narrowed her eyes at him. She suspected he was a lot more ambitious than he was pretending to be. And that this good-old-boy charm of his was a device he used to keep people at arm’s length, without going so far as to be rude or unsociable. “Then why do you have an answering machine?” she asked calmly.