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Beginnings babe in the w.., p.1
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       Beginnings: Babe in the Woods, p.1

           Lorelei James
 
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  Dedication

  Thanks to editor extraordinaire Angela James for choosing this story for the first Samhain Anthology. I’m thrilled to be in such good company.

  Chapter One

  Lacy Buchanan fantasized about leaving a size ten boot print on his ass. A very fine ass that’d commanded far too much of her attention already.The tight male butt stopped. The equally fine masculine body faced her. Brown eyes snapped with barely restrained hostility.

  “Would you hurry up?” The guide waited impatiently by a decaying log, wiping away the sweat beaded on his forehead with a dirty red bandana. The compass on a chain around his neck glinted in the harsh sunlight. “We’ll never make camp before nightfall at this rate. God, what are you? Part tortoise?”

  “Better that than part caveman,” she retorted, throwing her Day-Glo orange backpack to the rocky ground. It kicked up clouds of dust. She coughed and flopped down beside it. Something inside it made a horrible crunching sound.

  Lacy could care less what survival item she destroyed because her feet were killing her—not that she’d ever mention it to the sullen hiking guide she’d dubbed Ranger Rick. Except after marching the last two hours in near-desert heat, she’d secretly added a silent “P” to his name. Not even her secret attempt at humor lessened her irritation with the man whose facial expressions registered exactly two emotions—anger and frustration.

  “Just go on. I’ll catch up.”

  His left eyebrow winged up. “You’d rather I left you out here to wander the woods alone?”

  “Yep. I’ve got water and an excellent moisturizer. Just give me your compass and I’ll be set.”

  A new expression lit his eyes. Disbelief. “Where is your compass?”

  She was so hoping not to have to confess that little mishap to this rugged outdoorsman with the instincts of a wolf and the disposition of a bear. “Umm.” She absentmindedly fingered her charm bracelet. Damn thing was supposed to bring her good luck, not bad. “It’s kind of funny actually.”

  His gaze narrowed. He didn’t look the least bit amused.

  “Okay. It fell out of my pocket and sank to the bottom of the creek when we filled our canteens.”

  “And you’re telling me now? What makes you think you’d survive out here?” He expelled a harsh bark of laughter. “Cupcake, you’d last about ten seconds before screaming your head off for me to come back and rescue you.”

  Cupcake ? Lacy ground her teeth. So she wasn’t Campfire Girl material, but she wasn’t helpless either. For godssake, she worked in the jungle of Manhattan. She’d spent years honing her survival instincts.

  “Rescue me? I wouldn’t call for you with my last breath.”

  The first hint of a smile played at the corners of his sinful mouth. “Careful, that can be arranged.”

  Ooh, his testosterone-laden behavior rankled.

  “But, if we don’t get going,” he continued, “we may be forced to rely on survival techniques that’ll offend your delicate sensibilities.”

  “Like what?”

  “Oh, I don’t know.” He scratched the sexy stubble on his chin. “Eating squirrel or grub worms.” His gaze locked on hers. “Conserving our strength tonight by sharing body heat.”

  Lacy knew he was bluffing, yet something warm and liquid pooled low in her belly. “In your dreams, Grizzly Adams. Not if you were the last man on earth.”

  “Back at you. But at this pace, the human race might be extinct by the time we reach base camp.”

  She tossed her head, reaching in the pocket of her cargo shorts for a tube of cherry Chapstick. “Please. Could we hurry back so I can choke down another meal of the prepackaged cardboard you psychos are passing off as food?”

  His avid gaze remained glued to her mouth as she spread the waxy substance over her cracked skin.

  She puckered and compressed her lips before releasing them with a loud smack. “This is not what I expected.”

  He inhaled deeply and muttered, “Don’t ask. You don’t even want to know.”

  “Want to know what?”

  “What exactly were you expecting?”

  “A nightly campfire with cowboy sing-alongs. Horseback riding through flower-filled meadows. A grumpy old man everyone affectionately called ‘Cookie’ scrounging up a kettle of baked beans. The only ones eating well on this trip are the mosquitoes.”

  “Spare me the drama. This is backwoods hiking.”

  “Well, I didn’t know that.”

  “It was spelled out on the damn brochure. How did a woman like you end up here anyway?” A beat passed. His slow, knowing grin was worse than his disdain. “Aha. I get it now. Was this adventure your boyfriend’s idea?”

  “Ex-boyfriend,” she spit out.

  His gaze lingered on her white silk tank top permanently discolored gray by sweat stains. “You seem better suited for a bed and breakfast in wine country.”

  “Instead, I’ll spend another night sleeping on pinecones and deer poop with a man whose idea of conversation is grunting.”

  When his eyes flashed, she backtracked. “When are we going to get back to civilization?”

  “If we hurry, we can catch the group before they start the trail ride in the morning. If not. Who knows?” He uncapped his canteen, never breaking eye contact as he took a small sip. “None of this would’ve happened had you not drifted off from the main group. How did you get so lost in such a short period of time?”

  She shrugged.

  “What were you doing?”

  “I was looking for—” Her mouth snapped shut. No way was she confessing that humiliating tidbit, even if it was a normal bodily function. Even if bears regularly did it in the woods.

  “For what? A Starbucks?” His disgusted gaze zeroed in on her red leather ankle boots. “Or perhaps a Saks? No wonder your feet hurt.”

  Lacy thought she’d been limping pretty discreetly. “For your information, Captain Caveman, I ordered these boots from Eddie Bauer. The premier outfitter of all outdoor enthusiasts.” Not that you’d know, she added a mental raspberry. He probably fashioned his attire from the skins of animals he’d trapped. And killed. With his bare hands.

  “Figures you’d have blisters, ordering from that useless yuppie store. And for the last time, my name isn’t Ranger Prick or any of the other creative monikers you’ve been muttering behind my back. It’s Becker.”

  “Whatever.”

  He unhooked the compass and studied it. “It says we’re going the right direction…” He squinted at the sun, the woods behind them and the sandstone cliffs rising on both sides of the canyon. He gave her a once over. “So why does it feel like every time I look at you that I’ve stumbled into a secret passageway to hell?”

  “Back at you, Pecker.”

  His mouth tightened. “Look, Lacy. Break is over. We need to get moving before the sun drops behind those cliffs.”

  “Your compass tells you that? Let me see it.”

  “Be careful. Not sure I can find the way out of here without it.” Becker reluctantly handed the compass over.

  Lacy studied the gadget for several minutes, as if it contained a map. “What does it mean when—”

  He sucked in a sharp breath. “Put down your hand. Slowly.”

  “What now?” He wasn’t having a cow about her simply touching his precious compass, was he?

  “Don’t move.”

  “Move. Don’t move. Make up your mind. I am so sick of being bossed around. First, I got conned about this lousy trip, and now I’m stuck with you, Mr. He-man-woman-hater—”

  “Shut-up,” Becker hissed. He inched sideways from the log, his movements deliberate and steady as he reached into his backpack to ease ou
t a small shovel. “You can boss me all you want in a minute. Right now, don’t talk. Stay still.”

  “What is it?” She slid her butt lower toward her blistered heels.

  “I said. Do. Not. Move.”

  Lacy froze at his serious tone and the concentration on his face. For once he wasn’t pretending to ignore her. That scared her far more than she cared to admit.

  “Why?” she whispered.

  “Because there is a rattlesnake coiled about a foot from your backpack.”

  Sure enough, through the sudden silence, she heard an agitated rattling.

  Lacy screamed, launching herself off the log like a long-jumper on steroids. She stumbled and face planted in the dirt. For a half-a-second she stayed completely motionless—until something dry slithered over her bare calf, followed by a sharp sting.

  She leapt up, frantically beating her clothes, hopping from foot to foot drawing her knees to her chest. Her high-pitched shrieks blocked out the sounds of blood pounding in her ears, but didn’t hide the taste of fear lodged in her throat.

  A large hand clamped over her mouth. She was pulled against a solid, warm body. “Quiet.”

  Her heart slammed in her chest, but she stopped struggling.

  “Calm down.” His breath fanned her ear. “It’s dead.”

  A shudder moved through her. She slumped in Becker’s arms.

  He released his hand. “Did it bite you?”

  “I—I don’t know. I felt something touch my leg.”

  “Okay. I’m going to pick you up and carry you to that log. If it did bite you, and you continue to act like a Rockette on acid, then the poison will move through your bloodstream twice as fast, understand?”

  She nodded.

  Strong arms hooked under her knees. Her head rested under his chin as they shuffled to the log.

  Becker sat, keeping Lacy on his lap. “Which leg?”

  She burst into tears. “I don’t know.”

  “Ssh. Calm down. Deep breaths, Lacy. We’ll figure it out.” He shifted, running his hand down her right leg to her knee. “Lift up. Let me see.”

  Lacy concentrated on the gentle way his callused fingers slid over her skin and not the idea of poison flowing just below the surface.

  He turned her foot, fingers circling her ankle. “Nothing. Good. Next leg.”

  She remained immobile through the same procedure on the other calf, although his hands caressing her body made her skin tingle. Finally, he eased her from his lap.

  “You were lucky. Doesn’t appear to be a bite mark. You feel okay?”

  Relief soared through her. “If it had sunk its nasty fangs into me?”

  He tenderly brushed a strand of hair from her tear-stained cheek. “I carry a snakebite kit in my pack, just in case.”

  “Bet you were an awesome Boy Scout.”

  Becker actually flashed a half-smile. “I’ve never been a Boy Scout.”

  Whoo-ee. That could be taken the wrong way. Smiling, gentle Becker was far more dangerous than surly Becker.

  Maybe the rest of the hike wouldn’t be so bad now that they’d come to a truce.

  “So you killed the varmint, huh? With your bare hands?”

  “Nah. Chopped it in half with a shovel. Want to see?”

  “Sure.”

  Lacy stood frozen in place, horrified by what lay next to her dirty backpack. Her stomach roiled, but not at the sight of a potential snakeskin purse in its rawest form.

  No. She was sickened by the chunks of metal and broken glass that used to be a compass—a compass she’d accidentally pulverized during her impromptu snake dance.

  Damn.

  Her stunned gaze caught his.

  She decided a snakebite might’ve been preferable to the venomous gleam in Becker’s eye.

  Chapter Two

  Sam Becker stared at the broken compass.I could kill her. Wrap my hands around her lovely sunburned neck and squeeze until her cynical blue eyes popped out of her beautiful head.

  No one would find her body. Hell, since they were for all intents and purposes lost in the Bighorn Mountains, there was a good chance they’d never find his body either.

  He shoved aside his murderous impulse and jerked the chain holding the powdered compass. Spun on his boot heel and stalked to the other side of the log to consider their options. Although he felt her questioning gaze burning his neck like a laser beam, she managed to keep her smart mouth shut for a change.

  The sun beat down. The air was calm and hot without a breath of wind. Even the absence of buzzing insects seemed to mock their predicament.

  No way around it. They were seriously screwed.

  On a gut level he knew his cousin, Dave Hawk, wouldn’t wait for them at base camp beyond a few hours, but he wouldn’t immediately send out a search party. Their fledgling business had too much riding on the hike to spook other clients. Besides, Dave had told everyone Becker was a partner in Back to Nature Guided Tours.

  Problem was, Dave was the experienced backwoods guide, not Becker. Becker was merely the moneyman. He’d taken the summer off from his financial firm in New York City to reevaluate his life and help Dave build databases. He never dreamed he’d have to fill in as an actual employee.

  Without a compass, and mired in one mountain pass that looked like every other, they’d be hard-pressed to find their way back to base camp before tomorrow. He’d be damn lucky to find a way out at all.

  So there he was, lost in the woods with a babe who was pure temptation; silky blond hair, blue eyes clear as the summer sky, long legs attached to a perfectly pear-shaped ass…and a tongue sharper than his bowie knife. He’d known Lacy Buchanan was a wild card before she opened her lush pink lips.

  Becker had to buck up. Like it or not, she was now his responsibility—even if it was her fault they were up the proverbial creek.

  He might be a novice trail guide, but she didn’t know that. Somehow he’d get them back, even if they had to march all night. He grinned. She ought to just love that, especially wearing those stupid red boots.

  “Can you fix it?” she asked anxiously.

  “No.”

  “So what are we gonna do?”

  Becker pointed at the watch on her right wrist. “Don’t suppose that has a compass?”

  “Nope.” She peered at the neon blue face. “But it is waterproof to three hundred feet.”

  “Like that’ll do us any good in the middle of Wyoming.”

  Pink tinged her cheekbones. “I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to stomp on it. I sort of panicked.”

  “Sort of?”

  She blew out a frustrated breath. “I’m sure that never happens to you.”

  Becker cocked his head, studying her coolly. “I take it you don’t like snakes?”

  She shuddered. “No.”

 
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