“Well, that’s just it.” I walked toward her and began unbuttoning my jacket. “I am worried. You aren’t dressed for the cold, and that fire you’ve got there isn’t going to keep you alive once the storm hits.” I removed my jacket and draped it over her shoulders, noticing how her body shook from the frigid air.

The simple gray dress she wore was so thin that I could almost see right through it. She might as well have been naked for how ill protected she was from the biting wind that gusted every so often. I half expected her to reject the coat, but she only pulled it shut tightly around her, self-preservation overriding pride.

She looked up into my eyes with a sincerity that melted any anger I still had toward her. “Thank you.”

I looked down at her feet. “Your shoes are completely soaked.”

She didn’t respond, but simply pulled the coat tighter around her throat. Her body still shook regardless of the jacket.

I wasn’t an impulsive man. Everything I did, I planned out from beginning to end. But staring at this young woman—half frozen to death—I knew I needed to act. “You’re coming with me.” I didn’t ask—maybe I should have—but words weren’t easy, especially as I fought back the urge to punish her for her foolish temper tantrum.

“I’ll be all right,” she said softly. “But I do thank you for the coat.”

“I’m not going to leave you out here. So go ahead and stop with this foolish act.”

“That shelter,” she turned her head to look at the pile of old wood that barely stood, “will be fine for now. At least until I get it all figured out what my next step is. Then I’ll be out of your hair.” She nodded and gave a weak smile. “I’ve camped before. Don’t you worry about me.”

I knew she was lying. She had never been camping a day in her life and even admitted so during our drive to the cabin. The easy thing would have been to agree, turn around and mind my own business. I hated games, and this clearly was one. She didn’t want me to leave her out here. Not deep down, and I damn well knew it. But today wasn’t going to be easy because this stubborn woman was coming back to the cabin with me whether she liked it or not. If I were to leave her here, I might as well shoot her between the eyes—the end result being the same.

“You’re coming home with me now. For good. No more talk of heading down the mountain.” Tessa opened her mouth to speak, but I stopped her by adding, “I told you the conditions of this job when you accepted it. So I don’t give a fuck how pissed off you are, you aren’t leaving. And I sure as hell am not going to allow you to spend the day out here and freeze to death.”

Tessa stood there a moment, looking as if she were pondering her options. The sky had started spitting out snow, and it was just a matter of time until her body would be drenched through and through. Her shelter wouldn’t have a chance holding up against the Sierra winds, and by the way she shook, even my coat wasn’t doing the job of keeping her warm.

I couldn’t help but release a small sigh of relief when a genuine smile spread across Tessa’s face. “I’m sure I look like a real idiot right now. My temper… I tend to not always think things through.” Tessa paused for a moment and then nodded. “I’ll go back. And I’m sorry for making you come out in search for me.”

“We’ll settle your debt later.” I walked over and began kicking snow into the fire to extinguish it. Standing around and negotiating with this woman wasn’t an option. White puffs of air came from my mouth, and my own body began to shiver without the warmth of my coat. I glanced down at her feet once more and then without giving it a second thought, swooped her body into my arms. “You aren’t walking in the snow with those shoes.”

She surprised me when she didn’t offer up any resistance. Instead, she wrapped her arms around my neck and whispered, “Thank you.”

“You won’t be thanking me later,” I mumbled.

“I can walk if you get too tired,” she said in the softest of voices. It reminded me of a lullaby—soothing and calm. Something about her fragile nature made me want to handle her like fine china at times, but then break her at the same time.

“It isn’t much further,” I replied as we got closer to the cabin.

As Tessa and I emerged from the dense woods, my house came into view. The stream of smoke coming from the chimney made me pick up speed to be within the warm walls.

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