PASSION AND PERIL

Harlequin HQN
December 2013
ISBN 978-0373778201

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Excerpt

Acclaimed authors Suzanne Brockmann and Jill Sorenson bring you two tales of sizzling attraction…where danger is never far behind

Scenes of Passion

Safe and steady pretty much sums up Maggie Stanton's life. But a chance encounter stirs long-buried desires and urges her to do the unimaginable—take a risk. Shockingly, the man who convinces her to forsake predictability for passion is the full-grown version of her childhood best friend. Only, this Matthew Stone wants more and Maggie almost believes that their whirlwind romance is meant to be. Then she learns that Matthew is keeping a secret…and the consequences could change everything….

Scenes of Peril

The snowstorm forecast says it's a big one, but wildlife photographer Paige Dawson is prepared. Until a terrible car accident brings a sexy stranger to her remote mountain cabin and the bad weather strands them together…for days. The heat between them is like nothing she's ever known—incendiary, undeniable. And just as she begins to hope for something real with Colin Reid, after the snow melts, he remembers what caused his accident…and it may be too late for them both


EXCERPT

Passion and PerilIT WAS THE first snow of the season.

Paige Dawson stepped closer to the front window of her mountain cabin, sipping hot cocoa from her favorite mug. Wet flurries pelted the glass and wind whistled through the tall pine trees outside, swaying the moisture-laden branches.

This storm was supposed to be a big one. Twin Lakes had seen a smattering of rain over the past few days. Now the temperature had dropped to freezing and the clouds were still full. They were in for a snow dump.

Paige had stocked up on groceries and firewood just in case. It wasn’t unusual to see road closures and downed power lines in this remote corner of the California Sierras. She’d been snowed in before. Sometimes she looked forward to it. After a long week hiking and taking photographs with a wildlife research team, she should have been eager to curl up in front of the hearth with a good book.

Instead she was staring out the window, listless.

Smothering a sigh, she glanced over her shoulder at the living room couch. Her Kindle was charged and ready to go. She’d built up a cozy fire. Plush blue pillows and a soft wool blanket awaited her. Although her muscles ached with a familiar, pleasant sort of fatigue, she made no move to sit down.

When she was away from home, sleeping in a tent on the hard ground, she’d longed for her kitchen, her shower, her comfortable bed. Now that she was here, safe and sound, she felt as though something was missing.

Maybe she needed a cat.

The cabin had seemed a little empty since her brother had moved out for good. He’d been an absentee roommate anyway, staying in his college dorm during the school year and backpacking every summer. Now he was a science teacher in Southern California.

She turned back to the window, lifting the mug to her lips to drink. When a loud crack sounded in the distance, she startled, spilling cocoa from her cup. She watched a large tree branch drop from one of the towering Jeffrey pines at the end of the driveway. It landed with a terrific crash in the middle of Twin Lakes Road.

Cursing, Paige set her mug aside. Damage from downed branches and falling trees was common in the area. She could call a removal service or the sheriff’s station if necessary. First she’d try to shove it aside herself. Leaving a huge obstruction in the road wasn’t an option. Traffic around the lake was light in the fall, but someone could get in a serious accident. Visibility was limited and dusk was fast approaching.

She grabbed her jacket from the hook by the front door and put on her hiking boots, not bothering to lace them. Snowflakes stung her cheeks as she jogged down the gravel driveway, zipping up her jacket as she went. As soon as she reached the fallen branch, she realized she should have brought a flashlight to signal traffic. But it seemed unlikely that anyone would be out hot-rodding in a snowstorm, so she disregarded the safety measure.

The branch was large and heavy with green foliage. It lay diagonally across the double yellow line, blocking both lanes. Her side of the road was lined with sturdy pine trees. A short embankment on the opposite edge led straight down into the lake, which wasn’t frozen over yet. If a driver swerved to the right, he could be in for a deadly dunk. Paige had to rectify this life-threatening situation at once.

She reached down to pick up the thick splintered end where the branch had broken away from the trunk. It was about the circumference of her thigh and wouldn’t budge an inch. She’d have to try the other side. Glancing both ways, she stepped onto the asphalt and walked toward the tapered end.

Pulse racing with trepidation, she squatted like a weight lifter and grabbed hold. This end came up, with some effort. Her breath huffed out in little clouds as she began to walk the branch toward the shoulder. That was when she heard the engine.

She froze, still in the middle of the right lane. A charcoal-colored SUV flew around the corner at a breakneck pace. There was no time to signal the driver. If she didn’t drop the branch and take a dive, she was going to get hit.

Heart in her throat, she let go of the branch and prepared to jump down the embankment. But something—her bootlace, perhaps—got tangled up in the bark. She tripped and fell hard on the slippery asphalt.

The SUV barreled toward her, its front grill gleaming.

She was going to die.

Her horrified gaze locked on the driver. She saw his eyes widen. It was too late for him to slow down. To avoid her, he’d have to crash into the branch—or the lake. At the last possible second, he cranked the wheel to the left.

Saving her life. Risking his own.

She screamed and covered her head with her arms as the vehicle hit the tree branch with full force. The timber flew across the road and rocketed down the embankment. Her bootlace snapped, freeing her foot. She was lucky to keep her leg intact.

The driver slammed on his brakes and promptly lost control of the vehicle. She looked over her shoulder and watched, aghast, as the SUV went into a sickening slide. It launched off the side of the road and tumbled down the embankment, rolling end over end. The sound of scraping metal and busted glass rang in her ears.

Then—splash.

“Oh my God,” she whispered, clapping a hand over her mouth. He’d run over the branch and gone into the lake!

Paige struggled to her feet, dizzy. Her legs felt wobbly and her thoughts were scattered. She stared at the empty space where the branch had been. Pine needles and bristlecones littered the wet asphalt. Fighting nausea, she stumbled to the edge of the embankment and searched the surface of the lake.

The vehicle was nose-down in the water, brake lights flashing. Its single occupant was slumped behind the wheel. The front windshield was broken, roof caved in. Her stomach clenched with anxiety as the SUV sank deeper.

Within seconds it was fully submerged.

She studied the bubbles on the surface, fisting her hands in her hair. Although her nearest neighbor was half a mile away, she screamed for help at the top of her lungs, hoping the wind would carry her voice. Her cell phone was on the kitchen counter, but calling 911 wouldn’t change this man’s fate.

He’d drown if she didn’t take action.

She scrambled down the embankment and shrugged out of her jacket. When she reached the shore, she kicked off her boots. On a clear day, the lake was a deep, pure blue. Now, in the fading light under a snowy sky, it appeared pale gray. Red taillights were still visible beneath the silvery surface, pulsing like a beating heart.

Although Paige considered herself a brave person and a Good Samaritan, she hesitated to enter the water. Twin Lakes was fed by snowmelt, too chilly for swimming even on the hottest summer day. At this time of year, the temperature hovered around forty degrees. A quick dip could induce cardiac arrest.

While she wavered, a picture of her mother flashed before her eyes. Both of her parents had died in a car crash during the San Diego earthquake five years ago. They’d always encouraged Paige and her brother to consider the welfare of others.

The driver had chosen her life over his. It wasn’t her fault he’d been driving so fast, but she felt responsible for the accident. She couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t at least try to rescue him.

Decision made, she waded into the lake. Her jeans soaked in the freezing water and the shock robbed her breath. She stumbled and fell to her knees. Shivering uncontrollably, she lowered herself into the water and started to swim toward the submerged vehicle. The cold invaded her body, turning her muscles to rubber. Struggling for each breath, she continued to paddle her arms and kick her legs. The short distance seemed like a mile.

Finally, her foot glanced off the roof of the SUV. She estimated the location of the front windshield and ducked under, fighting the urge to gasp as icy pinpricks assailed her face. With her arms outstretched, she searched for the driver. Her numb fingertips encountered the top of his head, covered by short hair. Jerking her hand back, she returned to the surface for air.

Her strength was already sapped, her movements sluggish. Her lungs worked furiously to expand and contract. If she didn’t hurry up, they’d both die.

In a sudden burst of panic, she dove under again, finding his sweater-clad shoulders. He floated upward, unhampered by a seat belt. Fisting her hands in the fabric, she braced her feet on top of the hood and pulled him out of the cab.

Passion and PerilLuckily, the SUV was resting on the bottom of the lake, no longer drifting downward. She pushed off the hood and broke through the surface, bringing him up with her. He didn’t take a breath when she did.

Damn!

She didn’t know if he could be saved, assuming she could get him to the shore. But she’d come too far to give up. Walking along the roof of the vehicle, she shoved off the end, one arm hooked under his chin. Swimming this way was a challenge, to say the least. She did a poor job of keeping his head above the surface. When she could stand, she turned around and dragged him from the lake.

Without the buoyancy of water to aid her, his weight was more than she could handle. He was a big man, long and lean. She heaved him halfway onto the shore, her frozen fingers unable to maintain a grip on his sweater. He slipped from her grasp, his upper body flopping to the ground. In a strange turn of luck, the impact seemed to rouse him.

He coughed and sputtered, expelling fluid from his lungs. Then he made an awful retching noise, so she turned him on his side, grimacing in sympathy. He’d apparently swallowed lake water, as well as breathed it.

But her heart leaped with hope because he was alive!

When the spasms calmed, he started shivering. Paige was also shaking from cold, but his condition appeared serious. He was pale, his lips blue. His dark hair was plastered to his head. There was an angry gash above his eyebrow, blood streaking down his temple. Snow continued to fall all around them, gathering on their wet clothes like ice crystals.

She put her face close to his. “I can’t carry you, and I’m afraid you’ll die if I leave you to get help.”

He opened his eyes with a low groan. They were brown and bleary, one pupil larger than the other.

“Can you stand up?”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice gravelly.

Although she doubted him, she admired his pluck. If he couldn’t walk, she’d run back to the cabin, call 911 and grab some supplies. She could bring a tent and sleeping bag to him, but he might freeze to death before she returned. The nearest hospital was an hour away. What he really needed was a fire.

“Let’s go,” she said, pulling him to a sitting position. He squinted in concentration, perhaps seeing double. “Ready?”

With her assistance, he struggled to his feet. She put her arm around his waist, supporting him on one side. He didn’t collapse, which was good, because she wouldn’t be able to drag him up the embankment by herself.

She took the first step, urging him along. Luckily, he was young and fit and strong. An extra layer of body fat would have insulated him better, but he was no beanpole. His arm felt heavy on her shoulders, his torso taut with muscle.

Maybe he was a hiker or a mountain climber. It was a little too early in the season for skiing and snowboarding.

The short haul up the embankment almost wiped them both out. She took small steps, digging her frozen, sock-covered feet into the gravel. He lumbered forward, his breathing labored and his motions clumsy. She guessed that he was suffering from moderate to severe hypothermia.

“Don’t forget to feed the cat,” he mumbled.

“I won’t,” she said.

Confusion was common at this stage, along with short-term amnesia. He’d taken a hard bump to the head and lost consciousness. She was surprised he could speak at all, let alone form complete sentences.

They reached the road and crossed it, entering her driveway. Although the distance to her front door was less than a hundred yards, they struggled. Paige had reached the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States, with greater ease. This stretch seemed impossible to traverse. He stumbled with every other step, leaning most of his weight on her. Several times she considered leaving him to get her car. She abandoned the idea because she didn’t think she could move him if he passed out.

Twenty yards from the front door, he stopped shivering. A bad sign.

“Come on,” she said, trying not to panic. “We’re almost there.”

“Sss hot,” he said. “Need…rest.”

He sounded drunk. She didn’t think he was; his breath didn’t smell like alcohol, and his stomach had been full of lake water, not booze. Disorientation and slurred speech were symptoms of hypothermia. Victims often complained of overheating and removed clothing when they were freezing.

“It’s not hot,” she said, her lips numb. Quite the contrary. “Keep moving.”

He lurched toward the lighted windows, monsterlike.

“Almost there,” she urged.

By the time they reached the front steps, he was beat. She attempted to help him up, but the task was beyond his current capabilities. He didn’t seem to understand the concept of stairs. His motor skills had deteriorated completely.

Paige wanted to cry in frustration. They were so close! If he died on her doorstep, she’d be devastated.

She put her back to him and hooked his arms over her shoulders, letting him slump against her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t bear his full weight, let alone take him up stairs. He slid off her back and landed in a crumpled heap.

Unconscious.

Skirting around him, she opened the door to the cabin and hurried inside. It was evening now, full dark. Relieved that the power was still on, she crossed the room and picked up her cell phone, checking for service.

No bars.

With trembling hands, she reached for the cordless. Her heart sank as she heard no dial tone. The landline was out, too. Replacing the phone in the cradle, she returned to the motionless figure on her doorstep. It was up to her to save him, all by herself.

She went back outside and sat down on the top step, rolling him onto his back. With his head in her lap, she slipped her arms under his and linked her hands across the center of his chest. Flattening her feet on the lower step, she heaved with all her might, using her leg muscles to scoot backward.

“Heavy bastard,” she said, teeth clenched.

After she brought him over the threshold, she straightened, dragging him across the hardwood floor. Panting from exertion, she shut the door and continued toward the fireplace. His head lolled to the side, insensible. His limp body left a damp trail along the way. She stopped at the sheepskin rug in front of the couch.

Pushing her wet hair out of her eyes, she gave him a closer study. His chest rose and fell with steady breaths. The wound on his head needed bandaging, but it was no longer bleeding. He had good features. Without the unhealthy pallor, he’d be handsome.

Moving quickly, she grabbed some blankets from her bedroom and retrieved her cold-weather sleeping bag from the closet. Tossing the pile on the couch, she pulled off her sweatshirt and jeans. His wet clothes had to go, as well.

She found a pair of scissors and knelt beside him. He was wearing a gray cable-knit sweater with a blue thermal undershirt. The garments were casual but appeared high quality, like his worn leather boots. His SUV had also been new and expensive looking. This guy was no grubby backpacker or local hunter.

Frowning, she cut through both layers, starting at the hem. When she was finished, she pulled the fabric away from his torso, revealing broad shoulders and strong arms. Her gaze trailed down his lightly furred chest and flat abdomen.

Not that she was checking out a half-dead guy, but…wow.

Mouth dry, she set the scissors aside to remove his boots and socks. He had nice feet. Kind of big and hairy but well maintained. She brought her trembling hands to his fly, unbuttoning him with cold fingers. As she stripped the wet denim down his narrow hips, his black boxer-briefs came along for the ride.

She didn’t want to look. Not really. It was such an invasion of privacy, ogling a man when he was vulnerable. But his male parts were in her direct line of sight, just inches from her face, and she was only human. She looked.

Cheeks flaming, she pulled his jeans down his long legs and rolled him onto the rug by the fire. Then she covered his impressive form with the sleeping bag and blankets. She added several thick logs to the blaze and took a sip of cocoa. It had grown cold.

Passion and PerilAlthough she’d planned to bandage his head, she was exhausted, and reversing the effects of hypothermia seemed more important. Shivering, she slipped out of her damp undergarments and crawled in beside him. With the fire at his front and her body heat cuddling his back, he’d warm up in no time.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and snuggled close, shutting her eyes

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