Gripping his gym bag in one hand and his laptop case
in the other, Ryan Monroe walked up the narrow dirt path to the cabin he'd
be calling home for the next two weeks. He looked around and shook
Man, talk about being out
in the middle of nowhere. Nothing here but a bunch of trees turned
brilliant with early fall colors, and an eerie lack of noise except for
the pine needles and leaves crunching beneath his Italian loafers.
His nose twitched as he breathed in a pungent, damp, earthy scent he could
only describe as "foresty." Definitely not like what he was used
to in Boston. Maybe coming to this desolated spot wasn't such a smart
He sliced off his niggling
doubts. Sure, it was quiet and peaceful here--that was the whole
Craning his neck, he caught
a glimpse of the shimmering lake between the trees. The sun was just
setting, and bright orange and gold ribbons flitted over the water.
Clouds, however, loomed over the mountains, and he congratulated himself
on arriving at his destination before the forecasted rainshower broke loose.
Struggling to withdraw the
key from the pocket of his khaki Dockers, he surveyed the cabin with an
architectural eye. Clean lines, two chimneys, sturdy construction.
His buddy Dave had purchased the place last year as a weekend getaway,
but with Dave away on his honeymoon, he'd been happy to loan the place
to Ryan. Dave had assured him that in spite of the rustic setting, he'd
enjoy every comfort.
And God knows he needed it.
Needed the time and relaxation not only to physically remove himself from
the recent upheavals in his personal life, but for his work. The
opportunity to design an estate for one of the world's most eccentric and
reclusive authors came along once in a lifetime--and he wasn't about to
blow it. But with his creativity hitting a brick wall, drastic measures
were needed. Hopefully this complete change of scenery would open
his mind and focus his thoughts in new directions.
Yup, there was no havoc here.
Just him. And all this peace, fresh air, and quiet. Good-bye
city-induced stress, hello idea-inspiring…desolation.
Juggling his cases, he slipped
the key from his pocket and opened the door to paradise.
Or maybe not.
The gym bag slipped from
his fingers and slapped against the wood floor--or was that his jaw hitting
Every comfort? For
whom--a person accustomed to living in a cave?
The large, rectangular-shaped
room was completely empty. Not a sign of the cozy armchairs, or overstuffed
sofa Dave had raved about. No welcoming logs set in the grate, no
homey doo-dads decorating the mantle. Nothing but a few clumps of
dust and several pine needles scattered across the dark oak floor.
In a daze, he turned and
looked at what he supposed was the eat-in kitchen, but it was hard to tell
since there was no table or chairs. The green tiled countertops were
completely bare, and based on what he'd seen so far, he guessed the stained
oak cupboards were in the same condition.
Lowering his laptop to the
bare floor, he raked his hand through his hair. This was definitely
the right cabin. Dave had written out detailed directions and the
key fit the lock. What the hell could have happened? Had the
place been robbed? Maybe, but according to Dave, there wasn't anything
worth stealing--no VCR, or stereo, and the t.v. had been an old portable.
And after living with Dave for four years during college, Ryan knew his
best friend's decorating taste. He couldn't imagine anyone wanting
to steal Dave's beat-up sofa and garage-sale chairs.
Huffing out a frustrated
breath, Ryan looked up and noticed that one item remained. A huge
moose head hung at a drunken angle on the far wall, its horns adorned with
something. Ryan walked slowly across the room, fighting off the uneasy
sensation that the moose's glass-eyed gaze followed his every move.
Animal heads hanging on the walls. Sheesh. Give him a city
landscape any day.
Standing in front of the
mounted head, he peered upward and realized that the something hanging
from its horns was a wisp of fabric. A wisp of fabric that looked
suspiciously like a pair of panties. Black, lacy panties.
Great. Several local
colleges were within easy driving distance. Probably a bunch of college
kids had staged a frat party/panty raid here and had carted off the furniture.
A mental image of muscular fraternity boys, hoisting Dave's sofa and chairs
and parading them out of the cabin and into their cars filled his mind.
Clearly a trip back to town
was going to be necessary, a prospect that filled him with annoyance.
The nearest town was a good twenty miles away, and the first fifteen of
that consisted of nothing more than a wide dirt path that had already no
doubt done considerable damage to his Lexus's suspension. He didn't
even want to contemplate the possible scratches marring the car's glossy
black paint. He'd brought along enough food to last him for the duration
of his stay, but he certainly hadn't brought any chairs, blankets or pillows.
Blankets and pillows.
Jeez, was there even a bed here to use them on, or was that gone, too?
He dragged his hands down his face and shook his head. While he hadn't
expected the cabin to be a suite at the Ritz, he definitely hadn't planned
on two weeks of what was rapidly promising to be something along the lines
of survivalist training.
But returning to his condo
was simply not an option--not if he hoped to get any work done. Marcie
and her belongings had all but taken over his home and he still hadn't
completely exorcised his ex-girlfriend's presence from the rooms.
And reminders of ex-girlfriends were not conducive to a healthy work environment.
With only two weeks to design the house of his life and his creative heartbeat
flat-lined, he desperately needed unencumbered, distraction-free
Maybe he'd be better off
just checking into a hotel, but damn it, he hated hotels. He spent
so much time in them as it was, and they were full of distractions--noise,
restaurants, bars, clubs...people. He really needed this time alone
to focus on his project. Perhaps the rest of the cabin wasn't so
bad. And bare.
Determined to find out, Ryan
turned to stride down the hallway he assumed led to the bedrooms.
Before he'd even taken a step, the most God-awful groaning he'd ever heard
in his life came from behind one of the closed doors off the hall.
His entire body froze, except
the hairs on the back of his neck. They stood straight up.
The muffled sound echoed again. What the hell was that? It
didn't sound human. It sounded like some poor creature in horrible
pain. Hopefully it was a relatively small creature and not a large,
hungry bear who liked to snack on architects.
Another inhuman moan came
from down the hall.
So much for quiet, stress-free
Moving cautiously across
the room, he looked around for a possible weapon and spied a plastic fork
in the sink. It wasn't much, but these were desperate times.
A further look yielded a woman's spiky-heeled shoe propped in the corner.
Probably belonged to Dave's bride, Carmen. He briefly considered
grabbing the panties, but decided they wouldn't do him much good.
What was he going to do--strangle a bear with them? Gripping his
make-shift weapons, Ryan crept down the hall.
When he reached the first
door, he flattened himself against the wall and drew a deep, steadying
breath. Damn it, what did he know about wild animals? Did he
look like he belonged hosting a show entitled "Creatures of the Wild and
Their Habitats?" No. The closest he'd ever come to large, man-eating
beasts was at the zoo, and his last trip there had been way back in tenth
grade on a science/zoology field trip. And even then he'd been more
focused on Shari Watson's short skirt and long legs than lions and tigers.
Sweat popped out on his forehead.
Jeez, did bears make those awful groaning noises? He blew out a long
breath. All right. Maybe he wasn't a forest ranger, but he
certainly knew what to do if there was a bear in that room.
Remain calm, and don't panic.
Then slam the door and run
After offering up a quick
prayer to whichever saint or angel was in charge of looking after about-to-become-hors
d'oeuvres-architects, he gently pushed open the door. Peering around
the corner, he saw no one, but noted that the bedroom--which at least had
furniture in it--was a complete shambles. Every dresser drawer yawned
open, decorated with an assortment of T-shirts he surmised belonged to
Dave hanging over the edges. The sheets and bedspread were pulled
off the twin bed, and pillow feathers covered every surface, including
a pile of clothes in the corner.
Frustration welled up inside
him. Damn it, if college kids had indeed done this and he caught
them, he was going to make the pranksters clean up this mess. Of
course, if the culprit was a crazed cabin-dwelling architect-eating bear,
Ryan figured he'd cut the bear a break and clean up the mess himself.
But if it was anyone else, he was going to make them set this place back
to rights. And he had the plastic fork and high-heeled shoe to make
them do it.
He suspected that the half-opened
door in the corner led to a bathroom and possibly hid his culprit.
Tightening his grip on the fork and shoe, he crept closer.
Through the ajar door he
caught sight of a towel rack. Yup, it was a bathroom all right.
He paused when he heard a ripping sound. Uh oh. Ripping and
groaning? Was there more than one thief or whatever lurking in there?
The ripping sound continued. Deciding the element of surprise was his best
bet, he approached the door on silent feet. Yes, definitely the best thief
was a surprised thief. Same thing applied to bears.
He slowly pushed the door
open several more inches and peeked around it, ready to heave the shoe.
And for the second time in minutes his jaw dropped.
The bathroom looked like
junior high school students had toilet papered it. Long streamers
of white toilet tissue littered the floor and hung from the towel rack
and curtain rod. The medicine cabinet gaped open. An assortment of
medicine bottles and tubes lay on their sides, most having spilled over
onto the white marble vanity. And the destructive culprit sat in
the porcelain sink.
A small, fuzzy brown raccoon.
Its body not much bigger
than a football, the raccoon nestled in the bathroom sink, tearing pages
from a magazine, a long ribbon of toilet paper draped about its body like
an old-fashioned feather boa. Ryan stared, dumbfounded, as the animal
tore out a glossy page and tossed it. It see-sawed back and forth
in the air then glided to a halt at Ryan's feet. Glancing down, he
read the bold, black headline: Put More Sizzle in Your Kiss:
Mastering Man-Melting Mouth-to-Mouth Techniques.
A glugging sound came from
the sink and Ryan's gaze snapped back to the raccoon who was now drinking
from a plastic bottle. Ryan peered at the label. Maalox.
The furry animal caught sight
of him and slowly lowered the bottle from its mouth. Clutching the
Maalox container between its tiny paws, the raccoon stared at him through
small, bright, curious eyes, then twitched its whiskers.
Ryan huffed out a relieved
breath. There was no reason to be nervous about a raccoon.
Was there? Nah. Especially a raccoon who appeared to be smiling
Or was it just showing its
teeth? It's rabid, sharp, make-you-bleed-to-death-if-it-bites-you
teeth. He knew zip about raccoons--except that they apparently liked
to read women's magazines and swill antacid.
The raccoon flicked its bushy
tail. With remarkable dexterity, the animal set the Maalox bottle
on the vanity, then agilely jumped to the floor and dashed through the
doorway into the hall. Ryan wasn't sure where the creature was going,
but he had bigger problems at the moment. Like that God-awful groaning,
His gaze was drawn to a half-open
door in the corner. Another sound filled the air, coming from beyond
that door. Running water. Like the shower was on.
Shower? Could that
awful noise have been caused by the shower pipes? Possibly.
The plumbing in his old apartment had moaned and groaned like someone with
a semi-truck rolling over their toe.
Hmmm. This put a whole
new complexion on things. He didn't know much about bears, but he
doubted they took showers. So that meant he was either dealing with
a human--probably the thief who'd made off with Dave's stuff, or the damn
smartest bear in the world.
Neither thought was particularly
Maybe the raccoon had turned
on the shower? No, Ryan decided. The animal hadn't been wet,
and as agile as he appeared, it didn't seem likely the beast could have
turned on the water and gotten away dry.
Moving cautiously, Ryan crept
closer to the ajar door until a vinyl shower curtain came into view.
The tub obviously was fitted against the right side wall. A towel
rack with two neatly folded white towels hung on the left wall of the narrow
room. The toilet faced him.
Billows of steam rose from
the top of the curtain and Ryan sniffed the moist air. A hint of
citrusy spice. Very...un-bearlike. That was good. Possibly
thief-like, however. That was bad.
At that instant, the groaning
started up again, nearly stopping his heart. Another sound joined
the groaning--a sound Ryan immediately recognized as human.
Unless a bear could whistle
a classic Rolling Stones' tune.
While he didn't have to face
a bear, a relief to be sure, he was faced with the unpleasant prospect
of dealing with the person most likely responsible for the cabin's condition.
It struck him odd that a thief would take the time to shower, but hey,
at least the guy wouldn't be able to conceal a weapon. And while
he wasn't Muhammad Ali, Ryan was confident he stood a pretty good chance
against whoever was in the shower. Most likely it was just some hungover
college kid he could reason with and convince to bring back Dave's stuff
and clean up the mess.
Yup, most likely.
The shower abruptly stopped,
and the groaning noise faded to silence, confirming that the pipes were
probably the source. The whistling also tapered off, replaced by
soft, melodic humming. He frowned. Wait a second. That
didn't sound like a guy. It sounded like a--
The curtain was pushed aside
with a metal scrape of rings against the pole. A long, slim, unmistakably
feminine leg stepped sideways from the tub. A matching leg appeared,
and he found himself staring at what had to be the finest backside in the
Holy naked lady, Batman.
She stood with her back to
him, which was just as well because he suspected his eyeballs had sprung
two feet out of his head. She pulled a towel from the rack and used
it to vigorously rub her long, dark hair that in spite of being flattened
from the shower, still showed signs of curling.
He tried, really tried to
look away, but, well, she had appeared so suddenly. And her ass was
so...fine. It was as if his gaze was crazy-glued to her butt.
She bent over from the waist,
drying her legs with the towel, affording him an X-rated view that made
him forget how to breathe. In with the good air, out with the bad
air. Wow. This girl could start a fire in a fish tank.
Every cell in his body tensed until he couldn't move a muscle.
Maybe his muscles were frozen
in place, but there was nothing wrong with his vision. Hey, if she
was the thief who'd emptied the place of all its belongings, he'd need
to give a detailed description of her to the cops, wouldn't he? His
gaze slid over her. Not a single identifying scar or tattoo anywhere.
Only lots of creamy, moist, soft-looking, incredible smelling flesh.
Long, long legs, slim ankles, narrow feet with nails painted flamingo pink.
His stupefied brain cells
roused themselves and tapped on his forehead. Helloooo...earth to
Ryan, you're staring at a naked stranger who is most likely a thief.
And even if she isn't, she doesn't know you're looking at her. That
borders on being a pervert.
He jolted back to reality.
Damn! He wasn't a pervert. He was just...surprised. He
hadn't had time to...react. But now that his mind was once again
functioning, sort of, he needed to stop looking at, okay--ogling--all that
gorgeous, creamy, damp, female flesh. And he would have stopped,
except at that instant she wrapped the towel around herself and turned
A breath he hadn't even realized
he held whooshed from his lungs like a popped balloon.
Her hair stuck up in odd
punk-rocker type spikes from the towel-drying. Big blue eyes stared
at him. She looked like a sea goddess, rising from a billowing mist
And boy, could she scream.