Lindy Anderson slammed the phone down, cursing her ex-husband for causing this miserable divorce. Why did she even pick up the phone and listen to his ridiculous excuses again? It had been nine months since the split and he still called incessantly, begging her to forget what he'd done and come back. "I'll never go back to that jerk. Hell, I'll never look at another man again--ever," she swore under her breath.
She sank back against the wall and gazed to her left through the kitchen window where the dark forest stretched out beyond sight. Thank God for the seclusion of this Minnesota cabin, where the nearest man lived six miles away. That suited her just fine. Her gaze fell from the frost-dusted pines to a fresh muddy trail leading through the yard to her back porch. Her eyes followed the trail up the porch steps and widened in shock at the sight of a naked man sprawled shivering on the porch steps.
She threw the door open and stepped out into the cold evening air, wondering if she was seeing things. But the man moaned softly and opened his eyes to look at her as she knelt by his side. She was definitely not hallucinating.
"Are you all right?" she asked, instantly regretting the question. One quick look at him told her that he wasn't all right at all. Fresh blood seeped from a vicious wound in his right shoulder and ran down his chest in congealing reddish-brown streaks. His teeth chattered violently inside his trembling blue lips. A quick glance over her shoulder at the thermometer nailed to the porch railing showed the air temperature hovering at 30 degrees and she knew he had to be freezing. The man opened his mouth to speak but his words wouldn't come. He panted heavily between shivers, his breaths puffing out in thick white vapor that crystallized in the cold air, and looked up at her with frightened brown eyes the color of thick, rich honey. They clearly spoke the plea for help he couldn't voice. He struggled to wrap his uninjured arm across his chest, as if that would shield him from the cold, but it couldn't.
"What on earth..." Lindy said. She slipped her arms beneath his back to raise him up off the icy concrete steps. "You need to get into the house," she said, hoping that he would have enough strength to help her get him inside. He nodded that he understood and leaned forward to let her help him up. Though he was weak and unsteady on his feet, he was alert enough to stand up beside her. She thanked her lucky stars for that.
She tightened her grip around him and helped him through the door. He wobbled precariously, and she saw for the first time that his back was caked with frozen blood the color of mud. What the hell happened to you? she wanted to ask. But she didn't, knowing that the questions would have to come later. Her first priority was to get him warmed up and keep him alive.
She led him into the kitchen, through the small dining room and rounded the corner into the family room. They headed toward the opposite wall where a fire burned warmly inside the brick fireplace. Her steps were slow and tiny to match his own, and twice she felt him falter and almost fall, but she held on tight. He wasn't a big man, but he was almost dead weight and it was a struggle maneuvering him across the room. Even through her knit sweater, the cold from his flesh seeped into the warmth of her arm and made her shudder. How long has he been out there in the cold? she wondered. She hadn't even heard him come up on the porch, but then she knew she wouldn't have heard him during the shouting match with her ex.
The man leaned heavily against her, allowing himself to be led without question, though he watched her from beneath half-closed eyelids. Then his eyes closed again as though it took too much strength to keep them open.
She swept her gaze over him as they made their way toward the fireplace. At a little over her 5'7'' height, he was short for a man. His build was slight and lean with the musculature of a runner. Under a crop of shaggy cinnamon colored hair, his boyish face was smooth and hairless except for the russet hued brows and eyelashes above his honey-colored eyes. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, about five years younger than herself.
Her gaze dropped lower, over his smooth stomach and narrow hips, and came to rest on the mound of reddish hair between his thighs. He wasn't large, but was nicely proportioned. Her gaze lingered there for a moment. Why on earth was he completely naked out here in the middle of nowhere on a cold spring night? Lindy shook her head and forced her gaze away. Good God, what am I doing? she scolded herself, feeling a warm surge of shame brighten her cheeks. The poor man was probably embarrassed enough without her gawking at him.
They stumbled together onto the large braided rug in front of the fireplace and the man sank down on it in a heap. He leaned closer to the fire until its heat spilled over him and the flames' light played off his body, casting him in a molten gold glow. Despite the blood on him, he was nice looking. She couldn't imagine how he'd gotten into such a sorry condition.
Lindy ran to the bedroom for the wool blanket covering her bed and brought it back to him. "Let me wrap you in this," she commanded, pulling him toward her. He nodded and let her drape it around him and tuck the edges tightly in while his eyes followed her every movement.
When she was done, he leaned forward toward the fire again and rested silently, wanting only to let the heat soak into him. Lindy watched his eyes close before she rose and went to the kitchen to make a mug of hot tea for him. When it was ready, she knelt beside him and offered him the steaming cup.
"Here, I made you some tea," she said. "You'll warm up faster if you drink it." The man opened his eyes and extended his left arm slowly outside the blanket to accept the cup. It shook wildly in his shivering grasp but he managed to raise it to his lips and take a long draught. His eyes closed as the warmth seeped down his throat and he moaned softly, but she couldn't tell if it was the comfort of the tea or the discomfort of his pain that caused his moaning.
"Good," he croaked hoarsely between sips. He drained the mug and handed it to her before drawing his arm back into the warmth of the blanket. Then he pulled the blanket tighter around him again and sat quietly, appearing to be on the verge of sleep.
Lindy put the cup down and set another log in the fire before sitting down next to the man. She gazed at him for a long time, trying to assess the situation. His bleeding had stopped and he seemed to be breathing well. The questions she wanted to ask him were coming fast and furious in her mind and she decided she couldn't wait any longer. "What's your name?"
His eyes opened slowly to return her gaze and it took him a moment to answer. "Gar ... Gar..." He stopped, licked his lips and tried once more, fighting to control his shivering. "Gareth."
"Gareth," she repeated. What an unusual name. "Gareth, I'm Linda Anderson. Everyone calls me Lindy." She inched closer to him. "Do you mind if I take a look at your injury?"
The man shook his head slowly without speaking.
She pulled the blanket away from his neck until it fell down and draped across his back like a shawl, then rose on her knees to get a better look at the wound. A swollen, half-inch hole gaped from his white flesh; its jagged edges were darkened and puffy as though debris had somehow been ground into the skin. "Were you shot?" she asked, trying to keep the shock from her voice.
He nodded weakly without answering but continued to watch her. She could see he was struggling to keep his eyes focused on her as if he didn't trust her.
"Do you want to tell me what happened?"
Gareth's brown eyes flared for a moment, giving her the impression that he was afraid to answer. He reached behind him with his good arm and struggled to pull the blanket back up over his shoulder. When it was in place, he lowered his head to his chest without answering.
"Well then, can I call someone for you and let them know you're okay? I'm sure they'll be worried about you."
"There's no one you can call."
"What about your wife? Or your mother? Anyone?"
He shook his head again. "There is no one."
Lindy tucked the blanket around him again and shook her head at his elusiveness. She wondered what kind of trouble he could be in. The best thing for both of them, she decided, was to get help for him as quickly as possible. "I'm going to take you to the hospital, Gareth. The nearest one is in Timberlake, about thirty minutes away. I'll go warm the car up and then I'll be back for you."
"NO." His single word came out with surprising force.
Her eyes narrowed when she looked at him. He was obviously hiding something from her and it was beginning to worry her. "You need to have that taken care of; it looks infected," she insisted. And I don't need a dead man on my family room floor.
He shook his head back and forth before turning to look at the fire. His shivering had finally stopped and the blue tinge of his lips was beginning to fade. "I'm so tired. I just want to sleep. Please," he said, swinging his gaze back to her. "Just let me sleep for a few minutes."
She wanted to flat-out refuse him. There was no way of knowing if he was running from the police or in some other kind of trouble she didn't need to be involved with. Lord knew she'd had enough man trouble to last a lifetime. Still, she felt so sorry for him. And he did seem pretty helpless at the moment. How much harm could a wounded naked man do?
"Okay," she relented. "I'll let you sleep for a while but then I'm taking you to the hospital. No arguments."
He nodded weakly and sank down on the rug, curled in a tight ball like an exhausted dog. His eyes closed and Lindy watched for a moment, checking to make sure that his breathing was still even and steady. He looked so uncomfortable but she didn't know what else to do for him. As long as his bleeding had stopped, it wouldn't hurt to let him sleep for a few minutes.
"I'll get you a pillow," she said at last and left to retrieve one from the bedroom.
She walked back into the family room and looked at the sleeping man. The pillow tumbled from her grasp as a cry choked in her throat. She shoved the back of her hand against her mouth to keep from screaming.
He breathed deeply, evenly, his chest rising and falling in deep sleep. Thick, cinnamon-colored fur peeked out from beneath the blanket, its deep reddish tint glimmering in the firelight. Fur covered his shoulders, his neck, his head, and his muzzle. Where his hand had grasped the edge of the blanket, five long claws curved over the fabric.
It was not a man sleeping beneath the blanket, but a bear. Her eyes widened at the sight of the high rounded ears protruding from the top of his head and his long reddish-brown nose at the opposite end. Her gaze fell to his exposed shoulder, where a ragged bullet wound had matted his fur with dark blood.
"Oh my God," she said and took a step back.