The man from pine mounta.., p.1
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       The Man from Pine Mountain, p.1

           Lisa Jackson
 
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The Man from Pine Mountain


  Revisit this fan favorite story from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Jackson, originally published in 1993.

  When Brett Matson rescues a woman from an icy river and brings her to his cabin to recover, he’s shocked to discover that the woman is none other than Libby Bevans, the former love of his life. Five years earlier, Brett and Libby had angrily parted ways after a tragedy, neither knowing how to cope. Now, they’re confined to Brett’s cabin after a blizzard, forced to reckon with their shared past.

  Libby has complicated feelings about returning to her hometown, especially when Brett pulls her from the river. As the two reconnect, she remembers all the things that made her fall in love with him. Do they still have that spark? And can they reconcile the past with their present, and find a way to love each other again?

  Originally published in 1993.

  THE MAN FROM PINE MOUNTAIN

  LISA JACKSON

  CONTENTS

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  CHAPTER ONE

  The feeling that something wasn’t right crept up his back with footsteps as cold as death.

  “Just your old demons again,” Brett told himself as he lifted his field glasses to his eyes. The snow was coming down hard, as it had been for the past thirty-six hours. Eight or ten inches had accumulated at the base of Pine Mountain. There was probably twice that much at the summit, and the drifts near the bottom of the ranger tower had piled over two feet deep. The wind was up, too, blowing and whistling through the mountains with the eerie voice of winter.

  “Nothin’ out there,” he said, still squinting through his binoculars. From the eagle’s nest of the tower, he had a wide-angle view of the hill and valleys of this part of Oregon, the place he’d called home for a good part of his life. “Just your imagination…”

  He stopped short, the hairs at the back of his neck lifting one by one as he strained to listen. In the distance, the whine of what sounded like a truck’s engine echoed through the canyons. He swung his glasses to the south, though no one in his right mind would be traveling on the old camp road.

  He’d lived most of the past twelve years at the tower, and he’d learned to gauge the sounds in the distance. He could pinpoint the soft hoot of an owl, the lonely call of a coyote, or the shouts of hunters stalking game through the heavy pine forests.

  That noisy rig, whatever it was, was way off course. The fool behind the wheel should know better; these old logging roads weren’t graded or secured by guardrails, as the county roads were. Dangerous enough in the summer, those gravel-and-mud ruts turned treacherous and deadly with the coming of the first winter storms.

  His jaw tightened, and he adjusted the focus on his field glasses. The engine’s roar was definitely coming from the south…from the direction of the old church camp. But it couldn’t be. The camp had been closed for five years, and now that the man who’d owned the property, Preacher Bevans, had passed on, the old gate was chained and padlocked. Anyway, no one ever used the twisting road that crossed White Elk Creek in the winter. Canoers and fishermen in the summer, hunters in the fall, but no one in the dead of winter.

  Until now. Less than two weeks before Christmas. He only hoped the idiot had enough brains not to try and cross the ancient bridge that spanned the creek. Constructed a hundred years ago of timbers that had slowly rotted, the bridge was meant for horse or cart travel, and was without rails of any kind. The rotting boards weren’t safe, and now, piled with a blanket of snow, the bridge would appear deceptively secure. The driver wouldn’t see the sagging pilings and broken boards until it was too late.

  But surely the gate and padlock would keep the trespassers out.

  Nonetheless, he climbed quickly down the ladder and strode through the piled snow to his Bronco. He reached for the door handle, but then he stopped, his mind clicking ahead. By road it would take him forty-five minutes to get to the camp, but on horseback, down the deer trail, he could arrive at the bridge in a third of the time. He slammed the door of the Bronco shut and headed to his small barn, which was really little more than a lean-to attached to the cabin.

  Inside, the barn was dark and smelled of horses, musty hay, leather and dung. Several of the horses pawed the straw in their stalls. Flintlock, his big sorrel gelding, greeted Brett with a soft nicker and a flick of his pointed ears. He was a huge animal, part Belgian draft horse. Brett had bought him from a logger who’d used him to drag old-growth timber down trails too steep for trucks. The gelding snorted impatiently, his breath clouding in the dark barn.

  “Believe me, pal, you’re not gonna like this,” Brett said as he strapped a bridle to the gelding’s head and cinched the saddle tight. “Let’s go.”

  With his rifle in the saddle holster and his walkie-talkie in his pack, Brett led the gelding out of the barn, kicked the door shut and climbed into the saddle. Hoping that the stupid driver of the truck hadn’t brought a bolt-cutter that could clip through the chain of the gate, he spurred the eager horse forward, down the steep, snow-covered trail.

  Snow and ice pelted his head, and with gloved fingers he drew the hood of his down jacket closer around his freezing face.

  Bloody fool!

  For the next ten minutes, the horse plowed through the drifts. He stumbled twice, but moved steadily through the snowbanks and fir trees. Brett scanned the horizon. The sound of the engine had grown louder, but had changed slightly, to an idle. The driver had reached the gate and had to stop. Good. Brett felt a moment of relief before the engine started again and he knew that whoever was in that rig was through the gate.

  “Come on, blast you!” he growled to the already sweating horse. They broke through the trees, and he looked down upon the camp. It was a smattering of boarded-up buildings, now covered with snow, on the far side of what, during the hot summer months, was a lazy stream. Now White Elk Creek was a racing torrent of icy water that slashed through the canyon at the base of Pine Mountain.

  A battered Jeep was slowly creeping across the bridge.

  “Son of a bitch!”

  Easing Flintlock down the steep trail, Brett watched in horror, wondering if the Jeep would make it.

  “Come on, come on…” he ground out, not knowing if he was talking to the horse or the driver.

  The old bridge shuddered. Brett’s heart stood still. “No!”

  Timbers cracked. One of the Jeep’s rear wheels punched through the soft wood, and it landed hard on its back axle. Still the driver pushed on the throttle.

  “Idiot,” Brett muttered, kicking his horse to speed him over the slippery terrain and down the hillside to the creek.

  The driver, apparently finally realizing the danger, climbed out of the Jeep, and Brett’s heart stopped. His mouth turned dry at the sight of her—so much the same, as beautiful as he remembered, her head bare, her hair sleek and black, her features unmarred by lines after five years. She walked around the Jeep, looking for the problem, and his lungs constricted. Didn’t she know to get off the damned bridge, to leave well enough alone? He saw the sagging bridge shimmy again. Hundred-year-old cables, rusty with age, moaned in protest and began to unravel.

  “Libby! Freeze!”

  She started to turn. Her hair fanned away from her face just as the cables gave way.

  “Oh, God, no!” He was so close. Only feet from the bank when she slipped and pitched, screaming, through the ice-crisp air, toward the surging water.

  “No!” Brett thundered, watching her hit the water. Viciously he kicked his horse down the slope. Sn
ow sprayed up and hit him in the face. His old gelding was working hard, plowing through the drifts. “Come on, come on!” Brett ground out, watching, horror-stricken, as Libby—his Libby—tumbled with the swollen stream. Icy water crashed over her, dragging her downstream with the furious current.

  Only fifty more feet…

  Sweating and grunting, Flintlock plunged through the knee-high powder and skidded down the steep embankment. “Come on, you devil! Move!” The usually game horse balked at the creek, and Brett swung out of the saddle, running through the raging water, yanking off his gloves with his teeth, his eyes focused on Libby.

  Overhead, the bridge creaked loudly, threatening to collapse with the weight of the Jeep.

  Brett swam with the current, gulping too much water, breathing frigid, lung-burning air, oblivious to the freezing water and the fire in his lungs. Where was she? Oh, God! He saw her body, trapped against a fallen log, facedown. “Hang on, darlin’,” he yelled, plunging forward again, swimming with the icy current to surface at her side. His hands were frozen by the time he reached her still-submerged body.

  The bridge groaned and swayed sickeningly.

  Brett threw an arm around Libby’s shoulders and let the swift current carry them farther downstream, away from the impending disaster.

  With an eerie groan followed by an ear-splitting shriek, the old boards gave way and collapsed into the creek. Thick cables snapped in the air. Snow and splintered wood crashed downward, throwing up a wall of water. The Jeep smashed on top of the debris.

  Brett dragged Libby to the shore before any of the boards and logs could be ripped along with the current. He carried her up the slippery bank, swearing under his breath, the cold air chilling his soaked body. At the top of the embankment, he laid her on the ground, and watched in horror as her skin, usually tanned, turned an ugly blue.

  He forced her mouth open and lowered his lips to hers. “Breathe, damn you,” he murmured before forcing air into her lungs. His chilled lips lingered a second too long on hers. Then he lifted his head, pressed firmly on her chest and blew into her mouth again.

  “Come on, Libby, fight!” he urged, pushing hard against her chest and trying to stem the panic that seeped through him.

  She couldn’t die! She couldn’t! Not like this! He blew into her unmoving lips again. “Come on, come on…”

  He pushed on her chest, forcing the air out.

  Still she didn’t move. Her eyelids didn’t flutter open to reveal eyes as blue as the sky in June.

  Angrily he placed his mouth on hers and drove air into her water-logged lungs once more. How many times had he kissed her, covered her lips with his, all those years ago? Now, as he blew into her mouth, he felt an incredible ache that he might never see her alive again, never hear her laughter, never twine his fingers in the soft blue-black strands of her hair.

  With a roar, he fought his own violent grief. He couldn’t lose her! Not this way! Not now! Though he was a man who had long ago given up his religion, he whispered, “Don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die!”

  CHAPTER TWO

  She had to be dreaming.

  Blinking rapidly, her body aching from retching, Libby stared up at Brett’s worried face. Water dripped off his hair and his face, and his eyes, usually a warm brown, were dark with concern.

  She was cold. So bitterly cold. She closed her eyes again, and she was giving herself up to the warmth of unconsciousness when she was shaken so hard she had to gasp.

  “Libby! Wake up! Don’t let go!”

  With a heave, her stomach revolted. She twisted quickly and lost water from her lungs and stomach. Her teeth chattered. Strong arms were holding her tight.

  “Are you all right? Libby, can you hear me?”

  She tried to speak, but her throat wouldn’t work, and she could only nod. She ached everywhere, and for the first time she remembered where she was, recognized the snow-draped mountains where she’d grown up, realized that she’d come back home… She remembered driving the narrow switchbacks, listening to Christmas carols over the static on the radio, wondering if she’d ever see Brett again.

  “Come on. You’re freezing.” He lifted her as easily as he would have a child, carrying her through the slippery snow, his wet, waterlogged boots squishing as he headed toward the camp. Her father’s camp. She knew she should try to make it on her own, to force her own numb feet to carry her, that depending upon Brett for anything was a mistake, but she couldn’t find the strength or the desire to try to stand. Though he was as cold as she, she felt some inner warmth from his body where it pressed against hers, and her fingers clung to the collar of his wet parka. He smelled of the creek, but she didn’t mind, and she closed her eyes again, drifting off.

  “Libby…stay awake…. Libby…” His voice filtered through her subconscious, but she couldn’t force her eyes open, and she gave herself up to the dream that he was with her, caring for her, worried about her. It was a nice feeling, really, it was just that she was so cold, cold to the bone.

  Brett trudged onward through the snow, to the main camp, where a cluster of the cabins, including the chapel and the dining hall, were still standing. All the buildings were locked, but, still holding Libby, he kicked at the door of the dining hall enough times for the rusty lock to give way. Inside, the room smelled of dust and disuse, but he didn’t care. There was still an old couch and some chairs, and if the rats hadn’t eaten out the stuffing of the cushions, the meager furniture would suffice. This was the one cabin with a fireplace. He laid Libby on the lumpy couch, drew it close to the river-rock hearth and walked quickly outside.

  His memory of the camp hadn’t dimmed in the five years since he’d last been here, and he found the old woodpile, now a home for squirrels and chipmunks, no doubt. Dusting off the snow with numb fingers, he wrestled with a few logs and some kindling and hurried back to the main hall. His plan was simple: Warm Libby, check her for injuries and, if need be, ride back to his ranger station and call for help.

  First things first. She was just where he’d left her, lying on the couch, shivering in her sleep, her skin still tinged a worrisome shade of blue. He reached into the pocket of his parka, prayed for the watertight properties that the salesman had assured him of when he bought the damned thing, and withdrew a sodden box of matches. “Great.” He searched through the hall and into the kitchen that angled off the eating area. In the pantry, beneath a layer of cobwebs and mouse dung, he found a box of matches, kerosene lanterns and, wrapped in plastic, several old quilts. “A bonanza,” he told himself as he hurried back to the hearth.

  His fingers found the old damper. He yanked hard, and in a cloud of dust and feathers from some long ago inhabitant, the flue was open. The tinder-dry kindling ignited quickly, and soon yellow flames crackled against the dry wood. Libby stirred, her face golden in the light of the fire. He wasted no time stripping her of her clothes—boots, jeans, sweater, bra and panties. He forced himself to be distant and not to stare at the curves he’d known so well five years earlier. Her breasts, blue-veined and covered with goose bumps, her legs, long and slim and—Oh, damn it all! Gritting his teeth, as much to force aside his wayward thoughts as in response to the cold, he quickly wrapped one of the quilts around her, fitting it as close as a shroud, to hold in whatever body heat she retained. He dried her hair with the other blanket, until the damp ringlets were no longer dripping. Through the quilt, he rubbed her arms and legs, hoping the friction would keep her blood warm and flowing. “You’re going to be all right,” he said, to convince himself as much as her. “You’re going to be all right.”

  When he was satisfied that she had stabilized and her breathing was strong and regular, he warmed his hands, then headed outside again.

  The force of the storm hit him with an icy blast that tore through his wet clothes and swept the breath from his lungs. Any heat he’d collected in the cabin was stripped away.

  He trudged through the driving snow to the bridge and saw that the Jeep
hadn’t moved. Still balanced on a pile of debris beneath the broken bridge, it seemed wedged in. Flintlock was on the far bank, and Brett braved the creek again, wading through chest-deep water until, on the opposite shore, he grabbed the horse’s reins and led him back through the water. Flintlock objected, rearing a little, and Brett, who’d lost all feeling in his hands and feet, jerked roughly on the reins.

  “This isn’t a picnic for me either, you know,” he growled at the animal as he tossed his rifle onto the bank. “Let’s go.” Clucking his tongue, he led the wild-eyed Flintlock into the stream. They followed the course of the current to the Jeep, and Brett yanked open the door. Some of the supplies and luggage seemed only slightly damaged, so he carried what he could and threw the soft luggage over the saddle.

  Once he’d packed what he could, he tugged hard on the reins and forced the horse to the opposite bank, then recrossed for his rifle. By the time he’d made it back to the camp, he was frozen to the bone. He stabled Flintlock in an old barn, rubbed the horse down with the saddle blanket and tossed him an old bale of hay. With a final pat to Flintlock’s withers, he promised, “I’ll check on you soon,” and grabbed a pail off a peg in the wall.

  Outside, the snow had become a blizzard. He shielded his eyes with his arm, and his legs moved without feeling as he trudged back to the main lodge.

  His teeth were chattering, and he’d never been so cold in his life, but he scooped snow into the bucket and shouldered open the door. The fire was blazing, casting red-gold shadows over the old wooden walls and filling the room with the scent of burning wood. Shutting the door firmly behind him, he made his way to the fireplace and found Libby breathing easily, still sleeping or unconscious.

  His shoulders sagged with relief. Setting the bucket near the fire, he then peeled off his wet clothes, hung them over the screen and stood buck-naked in front of the flames. He found a little grain of cynical humor in the fact that he was totally nude in the dining hall with the preacher’s daughter, but he didn’t laugh. Instead, he wrapped himself in the blanket he’d used to dry Libby’s hair, hung his clothes over one side of the fireplace screen and lay on the floor, rubbing his extremities, blowing on his fingers, hoping to avoid frostbite.

 
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