Planning to surprise her father, Beth Wyndam arrives at Reed Nixon’s Alaskan guide facility a day earlier than the rest of her party. Terrible weather snows her in with the surly older man, but she finds herself drawn to him despite his grumpiness. Reed wants her too, but the fifteen years separating them, along with the differences in their backgrounds, are obstacles he can’t bring himself to ignore. With a little luck, a lot of snow, and a power outage, Beth gets Reed in her bed. It’s everything she had hoped, but the real challenge is not falling in love with a man who warned from the start there was no future for them—especially when she realizes there will be a permanent reminder of their affair.
Reed Nixon was in a foul mood, and he had no trouble admitting it. His coffeepot had broken that morning, and it was a damned pain in the ass to replace, living way up north. He’d have to special order it, have it shipped to Fairbanks, and then delivered via a charter company to Endline. After that, he’d have to drive two hundred miles down Dalton Highway in his rugged SUV, and that was a trip he hadn’t planned on for at least another three months, until after the last of the worst weather passed for the season.
On top of that, he’d discovered a hole in his favorite snow boots, and one of the strings on his crossbow—that had cost almost as much as the SUV—was fraying, necessitating changing, which could be a time-consuming process, even for someone who knew a crossbow inside and out.
So, the last thing he felt like was greeting his arriving clients early. The Wyndam party wasn’t scheduled to arrive until tomorrow. He’d been toying with the idea of contacting the charter service to see if his pal Mike was flying in the guests. If so, he’d planned to ask Mike to bring him any kind of coffee machine, as long as it dispensed the thick, dark, and hot drink he needed to feel semi-human of a morning.
Knowing that wasn’t happening was part of the reason he was so surly as he shrugged on his coat and boots, stomping through the snow to the airfield he’d had put in a few years ago, when he’d launched his guide business. He’d be the first to acknowledge that he was generally surly anyway, as a rule.
When the small plane landed, he threw up his hands, waiting until the door opened, and the stairs descended. “I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow, Wyndam,” he started to snarl. His mouth snapped shut for just a minute as a petite figure in a bulky white parka and cumbersome white snow boots stepped down the stairs carefully.
As she drew nearer, he demanded, “Who the hell are you? Wyndam told me it’d be just him and his camera crew. He didn’t say nothin’ about his girlfriend comin’ along.” She flinched at the rough tone, and he felt a spark of regret when he noticed how young she was. That fled when she opened her mouth.
“I’m his daughter, not his girlfriend, and who the hell are you?” She asked the question in exactly the same tone he had. “Daddy said the tour guide would meet me, but that can’t be you.”
Her dismissive look rose his hackles—and brought back some of his old insecurities from growing up dirt-poor and the son of the town drunk. “Why can’t that be me, sweetheart?” He practically snarled the question at her.
If she was at all intimidated, it didn’t show. “Someone getting paid to take care of a group wouldn’t be so unprofessional.”
He opened his mouth, but then shut it for a moment, deciding she had a point. “I’m sorry,” he said, still gruffly. “I wasn’t expecting nobody ‘til tomorrow.”
She nodded. “I guess you needed that extra twenty-four hours to find your manners, huh?”
Just like that, the little hellion set his teeth back on-edge. In an attempt to control his irritation, he walked to the pilot, who wasn’t Mike. He thought this one was Vic, who mainly flew charters out of Fairbanks. “Vic?” At the man’s nod, he held out his hand, more to show the irritating kitten beside him that he had some manners than because he actually felt compelled to make a friendly greeting. “How’re you doin’?” After a quick exchange of pleasantries, he asked, “Where’s the rest of ‘em?”
Vic shrugged. “Don’t know. Got a call asking us to fly in Ms. Wyndam today, and still plan on bringing the rest tomorrow.”
With a small sigh, he turned back to face the young woman. “Ms. Wyndam, where is the rest of your party?”
She gave him a sweet smile, but her green eyes still crackled with banked anger. “They’re still in Endline and planning to come tomorrow, as scheduled. I happened to arrive early, so Daddy arranged for the charter company to pick me up in Fairbanks and deliver me here.”
He nodded just once. “Well, where’s your gear?” He expected to be hauling suitcases into the guest quarters for the next hour, so it was a bit of a surprise to have Vic hand him just one large suitcase. “You just staying overnight?” he joked, as he lifted the suitcase, bade Vic goodbye, and led the girl—young woman—toward the guest quarters.
She frowned. “No, I’m here for a couple of weeks. Why?”
He lifted the bag a bit higher. “Most women I’ve seen come here,” and he could count the number on one hand, “Bring a mountain of luggage.”
“Oh. Daddy mentioned he was packing light, but bringing lots of warm things.” Her smile seemed genuine. “I have to warn you that my dad’s idea of light packing is a lot different than mine.”
He waved a hand. “A girl who listens to her father. That’s unusual in your generation.”
She rolled her eyes. “My generation? What are you, ten minutes older than me?”
A genuine laugh burst from him. “Sweetheart, I’m thirty-three.”
As he opened the door that allowed the guests their own private entrance and exit, he moved aside to let her pass. She paused right in front of him, leaning against the doorway for a moment in her puffy white parka. “Well, sweetheart, I’m eighteen. That’s hardly another generation.”
She slipped on past him, turning back to look over her shoulder as she added, “And I only listen to my father when I feel like it.”
Feeling slightly bemused, he followed her into his house, quickly overtaking her shorter stride, to give her the brief tour. “This is the guests’ quarters. There are two rooms. A small private room, and a larger room with six bunks.” He gestured to a door nearby. “You go through there for the commode.” Farther down the wood-paneled hall, he pointed to another door. “That leads to the kitchen. It’s shared space with my residence, but you’re welcome to help yourself to anything. I hope your daddy told you to bring any special thing you wanted along. I keep the basics, and then some, but I don’t offer no fancy stuff.”
“Darn,” she said with a small hint of mocking. “I guess I should have packed champagne and caviar instead of my pants.”
The idea of this young woman running around in no pants caused a sudden hitch in his breathing. He didn’t reply to the sarcasm as he led her to the small private room with its double bed. “You’ll have to make do with this. I laid out toiletries for a man, expecting Mr. Wyndam to stay in this room. He didn’t say nothin’ about a girl,” he reminded.
“Yeah, I know. Daddy isn’t one for bragging about his children.” She said it offhandedly, as though it was no big deal, but he thought there was a hint of hurt underneath. Or maybe he was just projecting his own rotten childhood onto her.
He set her bag down on the trunk at the foot of the bed, near the rustic log footboard he’d made himself. “I’ll leave you to unpack, Ms. Wyndam. I fix dinner around six, unless you prefer to look after yourself.” He wanted to scoff at the thought. It seemed clear to him that the little princess in front of him wasn’t used to doing much for herself. Apparently, making documentaries was a lot more lucrative than he’d ever imagined, judging from her appearance and demeanor. He knew for a fact the coat she wore cost several thousand dollars. He had one from the same designer, but it was their Outlet line, and he’d had to save three years to afford it. Of course, he’d never need another one. Point was, quality costs, and she’d clearly paid a lot. Well, her Daddy’s Amex had, he thought, with a grimace of distaste.
She smiled. “Thank you, Mr.…?”
He shook his head, sending shaggy brown strands falling into his eyes. “Nah, just Reed. Reed Nixon.”
She chose that moment to push back the hood of her parka and take off the soft-looking light-pink hat underneath. A mass of silvery-blonde hair fell free, and even the confining ponytail couldn’t keep all the determined strands tamed. He had the insane urge to bury his hand in the tresses and tug her closer. Thankfully, it was a notion that passed quickly, and he took a step back to make sure he didn’t do anything asinine.
“Well, thanks, just Reed. I’m Beth.” She stripped off her gloves before tackling the zipper. “Goodness, my fingers are frozen,” she said. Struggling with the coat, she looked disconcertingly like a little girl for a moment.
Reed stepped quickly to the door. “I’ll get a fire started in the common area. Just through that door, same as the kitchen.” Without awaiting a response, he ducked out of the room and back into his own quarters. It took every ounce of self-control not to bolt the door that separated his house from the guestrooms, as though he could lock out his unexpected reaction by keeping the door between them barred.
“You’re losin’ it, man,” he said softly to himself, as he went to build up the fire that was little more than a smoldering crackle at the moment.
Beth didn’t believe in love at first sight. That was nonsense you read about in romance books, or saw in movies. She certainly hadn’t fallen for Reed Nixon on sight. He’d been surly and short-tempered, and not at all charming or warm. Nope, definitely not on sight. As she brushed out her hair and smoothed down her sweater, nerves made her stomach jump, and she tried to decide at what point she’d fallen in lust—not love—with the grouchy guide.
Her lips twitched as she remembered the pointed way he’d shaken the pilot’s hand. The only thing missing had been him sticking his tongue out at her and saying, “Neener, neener, neener.” Yeah, that was about the time she’d realized there was more to him than just a grump.
His voice was deep and rough, with a rich southern twang that seemed a little out of place in the Far North region. She liked it though, and it didn’t take too much imagination to have him whispering all sorts of naughty things in her head as she got ready to join him for dinner.
Leaning forward to touch up her lip-gloss, she met her own eyes in the mirror and grinned. He’d be the type to speak plainly, and probably earthily, rather than vaguely or whimsically. She had a feeling Reed was the kind of man who would tell a woman he wanted to fuck her, instead of asking to make love to her.
Considering the boys she knew—and none of them could be counted as men when compared to Reed—were all the romance and flowers type, she thought it would be refreshing to have a real man telling her bluntly what he wanted her to do. Or do to her, she imagined with a small shiver.
Of course, she had to get him to notice her as more than a paying client’s daughter first. It was obvious he considered her a little girl, and a real man had no interest in little girls.
A quick glance at the gold watch on her wrist revealed it was five until six, so she slipped out of the room and down the hall. Pausing at the door, she took one more deep breath for courage before opening it to enter the common area.
She let her gaze dance around the interior, finding it was more paneled wood, rustic timber supports, and some type of white stone accents. There was a large fur on the floor near the fireplace, and she frowned at it. She knew Reed ran a guide business, and that included taking clients out to hunt, but she didn’t approve. Thankfully, her daddy wasn’t one of those idiot outdoorsmen, preferring to do his shooting with a camera instead of a gun. He was here to make a documentary on the wildlife of the Far North.
The small great room led right into the kitchen, which held a dining table big enough for eight. She paused to admire the raw log legs before running a hand over the smooth wood. “This is pretty. Where’d you get it?”
He looked up from the stove for the first time since she entered the room, though she was positive he’d seen her the moment she opened the door from the guest quarters.
“I made it myself. Pretty much have to if you want something out here.”
So, he had skilled hands. That thought made her tingle between the thighs, and she pressed them together discreetly. “Can I help with anything?”
He looked surprised by the offer, along with more than a tad disbelieving. “Nah, I got it. Just some stew and cornbread.”
She nodded, taking a seat beside the chair at the head of the table, which she correctly assumed would be his. He didn’t seem to like her proximity, and she had a moment of doubt. Could she really get this man to see her as a woman, not just an inconvenient adolescent?
He set a big bowl of stew down, along with a basket of cornbread. She was a little surprised to find he’d wrapped the bread in a red-checked cloth. He was so male, so raw and rough, that she wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d served the stew in the pot and the cornbread still in the pan.
She helped herself to some of both and spooned up a bite of the stew. “Wow, this is good. What brand is it?”
He blinked. “Brand?”
Beth arched a brow. “You know, like what company put it in the can?”
Reed made a scoffing sound. “Ain’t no can, girl. I made it. Like I said, you want something in this environment, you gotta know how to make it.” He gave her an unreadable look. “Lot of folks like comin’ here for trips and such, but they ain’t got what you need to survive out here.”
She bristled at the implication she wasn’t tough or able to make do. Just because she never had didn’t mean she couldn’t. Still, arguing with him seemed counterproductive to trying to seduce him, so she bit her tongue. Her seduction plans were looking less likely with every passing minute though. Her dad and the film crew would be joining them tomorrow, and she doubted there’d be any opportunities after that.
“Well, it’s delicious. What’s in it?”
If he found the question as stupid as it was, he was nice enough not to be too obvious. “Potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, gravy, and caribou.”
She frowned, putting down her spoon. “Caribou?”
He nodded. “You got a problem with that? You seemed to be enjoyin’ it a moment ago.”
Beth grimaced. “I don’t approve of hunting when there’s food in the grocery store.”
Reed laughed, and it was more than a bit mocking. “Where’d you think that food comes from, girl? The cow fairy?”
She frowned. “I’m not a girl, and I know where it comes from. Those animals are raised in captivity. They wouldn’t know how to survive if you set them free, unlike the wildlife.”
He snorted. “So you’re doing a favor by killing them?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Have you ever seen a concentrated animal feeding operation, Beth?” When she shook her head, he said, “I have. I worked one summer at a pig company. It was brutal. Those animals are mistreated from the moment they’re born until they’re finally put outta their misery—and half the time, that’s done half-assed too, so they suffer ‘til the very end.” He took a big bite of his stew, as though for emphasis. “I’d rather know the animal I’m eating lived the life it was supposed to and was killed humanely. I don’t let them suffer.”
She hated to concede, but he had a point, and a way of making her look at it that she hadn’t considered before. “Okay, but what about the sport hunters you guide?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Some of them take the meat, and some don’t, but I don’t let none of it go to waste. If the hunters only want their trophies, they take whatever token they think is important, and I keep the rest. Sometimes I eat it, and sometimes it goes to folks that need it more. I usually end up dropping off a couple hundred pounds of meat in Endline for the town folks when I go twice a year to replenish supplies.”
“Oh.” She didn’t look up at him again as she took another tentative bite of the meat. “What about if you have a hunter who just injures the animal?”
He sighed. “That’s happened a few times. Usually, it’s some pansy-assed stockbroker, or somethin’, who couldn’t keep up with me for miles, so I end up tracking the animal and finishing it off. If it’s not too bad, I try to save it and let it go back to its life. And I never accept those incompetent assholes as clients again.”
“Oh,” she said again, nodding. “That’s very decent of you.”
He rolled his eyes, as though she had insulted him instead of complimented him. “Thanks, girl.”
“I’m not a girl,” she said again, more firmly.
With an ambiguous look, he turned his attention back to his bowl. “I know that,” he mumbled, saying nothing else throughout the meal.