With nightfall drawing near, Tyler made his way through the snow to the woodshed to get more firewood. Shivering against the cold, he closed his jacket tight around his neck and held it there to brook the wind. He had just rounded the corner of the cabin when his gaze narrowed in surprise and stopped him short. In his path he saw a heap lying just a few yards away.
“What the hell…,” he muttered under his breath, coming closer to investigate the pile of cloth and flesh. He stooped beside the mound in the snow and leaned forward to find a pulse on the delicate wrist stretched before him. His heart sank along with the slow, faint rhythm against his fingertips. Without delay he swept the limp body into his arms.
Tyler surveyed the young woman’s near-frozen face, noting the half-smile on full lips, and long mahogany lashes floating softly against pale cheeks. From her peculiar look of contentment he knew that he had to do something… and quick. It might already be too late, but he had to try. Much longer in the elements and she would have been frozen along with everything else in sight. He shivered, but not from the cold alone. He strode purposely toward the cabin door.
Inside the room Tyler placed the girl onto a roughly hewn bed in the corner near the fireplace. He quickly removed her wet shoes and thin jacket, dropping them to the floor. Without hesitation, and amidst her feeble mumblings, he removed her damp clothing—all of it—leaving it on the foot of the bed. Tyler was struck by the young woman’s fragile beauty as he pulled the worn but clean patchwork quilt over her.
He flung his jacket to the floor and unbuttoned his red flannel shirt, tossing it aside. After removing his boots and jeans he slid onto the bed and under the quilt beside the silky length of the young woman. He tenderly pulled her body next to his and held her close in his arms. Under his work-roughened hands her skin felt as soft as the piece of blue velvet that Jake had kept in the old dresser. His long fingers trailed a section of her back, resting just above her hips. He could not deny that the soft feminine curves felt good next to him, and he trembled raising his hand to brush red-gold strands from her eyes. He knew there would most likely be consequences to pay when she awoke, but this was the only choice available. Right now he was concerned with saving her life, not seducing her, however tempting that might be. Tyler pushed desire from his thoughts. He needed steel control and it came…but she felt so good in his arms. Tyler groaned with his need.
After a while, her body warmed next to Tyler’s own heat. She moaned softly, and momentarily gazed upward into his eyes. His body tensed and he waited for the scream.
But all that came was her husky voice repeating, “Ross, Ross, I found you.” She closed her arms around his neck and pulled him closer.
Now what would he do? The young woman was obviously hallucinating, a certain sign of her hypothermic condition. Speechless, Tyler continued to hold her, his mind searching for what he should say. Should he pretend he was this Ross guy or should he tell her the truth? The truth? Hell, what was the truth? He was not sure himself. One thing he did know. She felt good in his arms, her warm softness molding to him like chocolate on his tongue. He couldn’t take much more of this. His veins seemed to have liquid fire infused in them. He swallowed hard, and continued to hold her.
Soon, she was breathing evenly and Tyler cautiously moved away from her, sliding from the bed. He quickly donned his clothes and jacket, and once again went outside to get firewood. Snow still fell, and the soft flakes brushed Tyler’s cheeks as he went about his task. But heat still lingered in his loins and he felt no cold. After he had gathered the wood into his arms he went back inside and fed the coals in the fireplace. In no time the fire blazed brilliantly and its reflection danced on the cabin walls.
At times like this, Tyler could almost see Jake sitting at the table and in his gravelly voice hear him say, “Now, lad, don’t ye have no recollection of where you come from?” The mental picture saddened him as he thought of his old friend.
Tyler moved to the small table in the center of the room and lit a coal oil lamp before striding to the wood cook stove. He reached into the box beside it and pulled out kindling. After stuffing the wood into the firebox and lighting it, he filled the coffee pot and put it on a burner. Minutes later a pot of potatoes bubbled next to a pan of applesauce. Then he made biscuits like Jake had shown him and popped them into the oven. That done, he quietly covered the distance to the bed in the one-room cabin and saw that the girl was sleeping. He would wake her shortly, as soon as the meal was ready to eat. She needed all the rest she could get. Tyler noiselessly made his way back to the stove to finish preparing the evening meal.
* * *
Laura Windsor slowly opened heavy eyelids and gazed around the small, warm room trying to remember where she was and how she had gotten there. She recalled the lonely stretch of road and how she had made her way through thick, snow-laden underbrush, deeper into the forest all the while following the coil of smoke. The numbness no longer plagued her body, and her thoughts came full circle back to the cozy room with four tiny windows.
To her left beside the bed, stretched a bookshelf neatly stacked with books that had seen better days. To her right, the stone fireplace took up most of the wall except for the bed. An oak chest with a lovely patina hugged the wall at the foot of the bed, and in the middle of the room rested a small wooden table with two chairs. Across the room to her right, a primitive cook stove stood along the center of the wall. Pots and pans gleamed on the area behind it.
At last her gaze rested on a head of shoulder-length hair as black as night with a new moon. Laura’s breath caught, taking in broad shoulders straining against plaid flannel that tapered to narrow hips. Her throat constricted and she swallowed hard. Her first thoughts were of Ross, but he was thinner than this man, and not so commanding. As if sensing her eyes on him, the man turned to look at Laura. Then she shivered at the full, black beard that matched his hair, and the cool, assessing eyes.
Laura started to sit up, and when the quilt fell from her chest she realized her raw state, as naked as the day she was born. A flush she knew to be crimson crept up over her cheeks and the heat traveled to her forehead. Embarrassed and outraged she quickly pulled the covers over her exposed breasts before she demanded in a shrill voice, “Where am I? And what have you done with my clothes?”
The man had no right to be staring at her the way he was. And his blatant gaze caused trickles of fire to lap at her veins. The warmth that suffused her body merely caused her irritation to grow and she fidgeted as she pulled at the cover, as if that alone would protect her from the unsettling stranger.
Tyler ignored the question and seemed to cross the floor in a single movement. The young woman pulled even tighter at the quilt and leaned away. The reaction did not go unnoticed by Tyler and he quickly offered an explanation of her condition.
“You’re in a cabin near Otter Lake and you don’t have to be afraid. I won’t hurt you. When I found you outside the cabin you were near frozen. Your clothes were wet, so naturally, I had to remove them. I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you, but you’re damned lucky to be alive. I mean, your guardian angel must be working overtime.” He reached to place a warm mug in her hand. “Here, go ahead and drink this hot coffee and then you can put on your clothes.”
“I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life, and I prefer to put my clothes on now, if you don’t mind! Where are they?” Laura knew she was being unreasonable but the virile darkness of the man disturbed her in every way. She was extremely conscious of his masculine appeal, and something close to amusement flickered in the man’s eyes.
Before Tyler spoke again, he considered the beauty of the girl’s large eyes, pools of liquid topaz–bewitching eyes. Eyes that might dance given the opportunity. But they did not dance now. They seemed uncertain and wary. She did not seem to realize that he’d had every opportunity to ravish her body. But instead of the curt remark that formed in his mind he said, “They’re on the foot of the bed, I’ll get them for you.”
“No, I’ll get them myself if you’ll please turn around.” After making sure of his compliance, Laura stretched to reach for her clothing at the foot of the small bed, all the while looking out of the corner of her eye to see that the stranger maintained his backward stance. Realizing that he intended to do her bidding she turned her attention to the apparel and swiftly pulled on faded Levi’s and a royal blue sweater before she said, “I’ll take that coffee now.”
Tyler turned an innocent-looking face to her while thoughts of her previously revealed body permeated his mind. Feeling a trace of guilt, but not remorse, he handed the mug to her.
“Thank you,” she said, absorbing the deep blue of the man’s eyes. Her hand trembled as she realized the eyes were similar to Ross’s. But his voice…it was deeper.
“What the hell are you doing here in this wilderness alone? Especially in a blizzard?” he berated, instantly appalled at the ill-natured timbre of his own voice.
At the sudden hostility in his tone, Laura immediately stiffened and stood at her full five-feet-five inches. “That’s really none of your business is it, mister…whatever your name is!” No, this could not be Ross, she fumed.
“I’m sure you’ll admit your timing is bad,” Tyler drawled.
“I didn’t expect a snowstorm in May.” Laura paused then continued in broken sentences, “When my car stalled, I saw the smoke coming from a cabin. I tried to make it. I guess I did. This morning, I mean…I think it was this morning…when I left my motel room I didn’t expect anything like this.” She hesitated, and then continued, gauging the man’s expression, “I’m searching for someone who disappeared in this country a few months ago.”
She searched the man’s face as doubt crept into her mind. Doubt that this hateful man could be Ross.
“Who is this someone?” he asked, attempting to be kinder in his questioning.
“M-my…a man. His name is Ross Hudson. He came to this area for two weeks of hunting and has not been seen since.” Laura’s eyes perused his face for reaction to the name and situation, looking for a glimmer of recognition in his cobalt eyes.
The stranger slowly turned his back to Laura as though to move away. “What is this fellow to you?” he questioned.
She paused, giving careful thought. To be honest with herself, she was not sure anymore what Ross meant to her. She thought she still loved him. She knew she had promised to marry him. And above all else, she must find him. She owed him that.
He took her silence as a refusal to reply and turned back around. “You must love, or hate, him very much to go through all this. Couldn’t you have hired a detective?”
“The police didn’t think it was worth the effort for a search.” She thought bitterly how they even suggested it might possibly be a case of willful disappearance. “And I could not afford a private detective.”
He was staring at her intently now, as though deep in thought, as if he now owned the key to his subconscious and it was about to open like a long-closed vault full of treasure. But the storm of images that flashed through his head were interrupted by the aroma of biscuits that needed to come from the oven. And the moment was gone.
“I believe our supper is ready,” Tyler said offhandedly, returning to the oven to take up the biscuits. “You stay where you are. You’ve been through enough for one day, I’ll bring you a tray,” he added as Laura started to move toward the table.
Feeling suddenly lightheaded, she stepped back and sat on the bed. She thought the suggestion a practical one and lay back against the pillows. Her mind twirled like a pinwheel. Could this be Ross? Ross, for whom she had searched so desperately, day after day and week after week? Sweat beads popped out on her forehead, and she felt as if her whole body had been drained of blood.
Tyler soon set a tray in front of Laura with the tempting meal of applesauce, potatoes, and biscuits. She had not realized how hungry she was until she tasted the food. It was delicious, but…the Ross she knew could never have prepared a meal like this.
She looked across the room at the bearded stranger and studied the profile of the man who had saved her life. All her loneliness and confusion welded together in one upsurge of emotion. She longed to reach out and touch the man who had comforted her in her time of need.
Tyler finished his meal and got up from the table. After putting his dishes into the dishpan, he went to the bed to collect Laura’s dishes. As he took the tray from the side of the bed he said, “I hope you’re feeling better–I just realized I don’t even know your name.”
Tyler’s shirtsleeves were rolled up to accommodate the dishwater. Laura looked up and was forestalled by the sight of his muscled forearms covered with silky dark hair. The very air around her was electrified and her heart seemed to dance at the thought of those strong arms holding her. Reluctantly, her gaze completed its journey upward to look into dark, unreadable eyes.
She tried to force her confused emotions into order as she said, “Laura…Laura Windsor.”
Tyler fought to control the desire that welled within him. Gazing into the liquid amber eyes, he saw a flame smoldering in their depths. The knowledge left him startled and shaken. He cleared his throat before he said, “Well, Laura, my name is Tyler. It looks as if you might be here for a while if this blizzard doesn’t let up. At least my old friend, Jake, saw to it that there was plenty of provisions and wood. You won’t starve or freeze.”
Laura shifted her gaze from his intense scrutiny, and then said, “Thank you. That’s very generous of you. Where is your friend now?”
“He died a couple of months ago from a fever.”
“I’m sorry. Did he have anyone besides you?”
“No, he was a loner like me. This was his cabin, and…I know it sounds ridiculous, but at times it seems as though he’s still here.” Tyler averted his gaze and remembered how kind Jake had been to him after he found him unconscious beside Otter Lake. But he did not want to go into the details of his past, not until he knew more about the man that the lovely girl was searching for.
In an effort to distance himself from the intoxicating nearness of her, Tyler said dryly, “Excuse me, Laura, I don’t believe the maid will be in tonight.” He had changed the subject and made his way with Laura’s tray to the dishpan where his dinnerware soaked. After he washed and dried the dishes, he hung the pans behind the stove.
Tyler’s mind whirled with the knowledge that Laura had studied him while he ate his supper. What had she been thinking? Did she know about his past? Did she hold the key? He suddenly felt very vulnerable and at a disadvantage. He went to the oak dresser and took out quilts enough to make a pallet. He then spread them near the fireplace.
Laura, seeing his attempt to make another bed, felt a sense of guilt because she had put him from his bed. “I can sleep down there and you can have the bed.”
“Nonsense. You keep the bed. I’ll be fine. I’m used to this sort of thing…roughing it, I mean.”
“Oh, I thought you meant entertaining ladies,” Laura said in a failed effort to be humorous.
Tyler looked at her with guarded eyes and replied in a husky voice, “No, you’re the first I’ve had come calling.”
Laura’s skin tingled as flecks of fire licked along her veins at the open invitation in Tyler’s eyes. Their gazes held each other for what seemed like minutes before she turned away, hoping that he did not read the longing in hers.
Whether they had ever seen each other or not, Tyler knew there was something between him and the beauty. It was something so real that he could almost touch it, but he knew not to push her, so he let it go–for now.
With tension hanging in the air so thick one could almost slice it, Tyler put more wood on the fire and moved to blow out the kerosene lamp. Before he slipped into his makeshift bed he took off his boots and removed his shirt.
In the firelight, Laura could see the corded muscles rippling in his arms and the mat of dark hair that covered his chest. She wanted to bury her face in that expanse of silk, to curl it around her fingers, to feel its softness against her cheek. To Laura’s chagrin she could not control her thoughts. She turned away and scooted under her own cover. She dared not remove her sweater and jeans. As uncomfortable as they would be to sleep in, she had to erect an imaginary wall around her. She was too vulnerable, too lonely. In a way the heavy clothing offered her protection from unruly emotions.
Tyler lay awake for a long while and gazed into the coals. He realized Laura would leave when the road cleared. And most likely this time of year there would be milder weather again soon. He frowned at the thought. In the few short hours that Laura had been in the cabin, her presence had become like sunshine after a storm. Her fawn-like eyes haunted his memory and the lilt to her voice echoed like music in his ears. He could still feel her breasts against his chest, and soft vulnerable thighs burned into his. He tried to shake the visions from his head. Hopefully tomorrow would bring saner thoughts. Tonight he had to try to get some sleep.
Long after Laura began a slow steady breathing, and just before Tyler succumbed to the same deep sleep, a wolf howled in the Saskatchewan wilderness.
* * *
Tyler awoke at first light and through the tiny cabin windows he could see that snow was still falling. Momentarily, he could not think why he was lying on the floor. Then memory flooded him like a splash of warm water. The girl. A young woman was sleeping in his bed. And he had wanted her…wanted her…wanted her. Damn, he had to get rid of that kind of thinking. As he threw the covers off his body, the cold air quickly cleansed his mind of arduous thoughts, and his stomach growled reminding him it was time to eat. First though, he would have to feed the fireplace to get the cabin warm once more.
Tyler quietly stood from his toasty bed on the floor and put on his red plaid shirt, stuffing the shirttails into his pants. He then pulled on the heavy leather boots. Trying not to wake Laura he eased his mackinaw from the peg by the door, slipped the heavy jacket over his shirt, and quietly went outside to get more wood. The men at the camp would be expecting him by now. But he had to bring in enough wood to get the fire started again for Laura. He would eat at the camp as usual. All the men would be gathered in the cookhouse now eating breakfast.
Back inside the cabin Tyler placed the logs in the fireplace and once again the fire blazed. The chilled cabin air soon became as warm as a lover’s breath. He tiptoed beside the bed and the girl’s eyes were still closed. His pulse quickened at the sight of Laura sleeping. With her lips softly parted, she looked vulnerable and defenseless. Instinctively Tyler wanted to protect her. After a long moment he realized his gaze had become a visual caress. He mentally shook himself and turned from the bed, recalling that he would be late for work. He found paper and pen, and wrote:
I will be gone all day. You will find
food in the cupboard and firewood beside
the cabin door. You’ll be fine.
See you tonight.
P.S. The outhouse is behind the woodshed
He left the note on the small table, went out into the crisp morning air, and headed for the lumber camp two miles away.
* * *
“Hey Tyler, where you been?” a burly lumberjack shouted above the buzz of saws.
“Sorry Rolph. Overslept,” Tyler replied in a half-truth then waved at the man. “I’ll have breakfast and meet you at the cutting area.” Rolph nodded in agreement and walked away.
As Tyler went into the cookhouse the welcome aroma of sausage and biscuits filled his nostrils. Some of the men were finishing their meal and the one called Sean teased Tyler, “Hey, laddie, ya got a girl locked up in that cabin, only reason I can think of for ya to be late.”
At this Tyler paled and forced a smile that did not reach his eyes. Then reaching for all the lightness his voice could hold, he said, “Of course I do, she fell out of the sky with the snow, a perfect ice angel.” The room was filled with good-natured laughter and Tyler breathed easier. This was a good group of men but one or two of them were rough characters. If they found out about the girl they might not be so tame. He had to keep her presence to himself. From what she had said her car was in the opposite direction of the lumber camp, on the old logging road that was no longer used.
As loggers completed their meals and began to leave the room, Tyler finished his breakfast and gulped down the strong coffee. The lumber camp that furnished wood to the paper mill at Prince Albert had served him well for the past few months. It had kept him away from civilization and the fact that he had no real identity.
Tyler thought of Jake and how kind the old trapper had been to him. He had treated Tyler like a son. Jake might be the only father that Tyler would ever remember. He had helped him in so many ways, besides saving his life. Jake had understood Tyler’s reluctance to tell others that he had amnesia. What a misfortune that there were no identifying papers on Tyler, nothing with which to start to look for his past. Only the crest ring he was wearing that had an engraving inside it. Why couldn’t he remember who he really was? His past, or lack of one, haunted him like a hateful apparition. Always there, elusive and just out of reach. But there just the same, taunting and tormenting.
“Hey, Tyler, time to go to work,” Seth Joseph yelled in the door of the cook cabin. At the friendly summons from the stocky, red-headed logger, Tyler cleared his dishes from the table and went outside to begin the busy day. The lumber camp buzzed with activity. Loggers gathered their power saws and safety helmets while the supervisor issued instructions to each crew leader. No time now for daydreaming. This time belonged to the Saskatchewan Logging Company.