Tasha Lockridge tightened her grip on the upper rung of the heavy metal gate and shoved with all of her strength. She managed to move it forward a few more inches. Widening her stance, she ignored the rain that spattered her face. Her dark hair, arranged in a chignon at her nape prior to her departure from San Francisco early that morning, felt as sodden as the rest of her.
She pushed a second time, the gate shifting another inch or so. Her left foot slid sideways a heartbeat later. Groaning her exasperation, she grabbed at a gate-rung to keep herself from landing on her knees. Ankle-deep ooze sucked at the Italian leather of her low-heeled shoes, stockings, and cuffs of her wool slacks.
Fueled by her frustration, she shoved once more against the sagging barrier to the acreage her former husband had inherited from his grandfather. Although she’d never visited the property before, she’d paid the taxes on the land for several years. Otherwise, it would have been claimed by the state during Craig’s absence. She planned to drive to the cabin on the property, rather than attempting to locate it on foot.
And then she would see him for the first time since his trial. Would a confrontation ensue? She expected as much, and she knew she had no choice but to accept whatever unfolded between them.
Thunder rumbled and boomed overhead, jarring her from her thoughts. Tasha squinted up at the sky just as lightning split the dark clouds with laser-like flashes of light. She pushed at the gate yet again, too stubborn and far too determined to allow it to thwart her. Inch by inch, she widened the opening.
She paused to catch her breath several minutes later, silently cursing her small-statured body. Being petite had definite disadvantages, and this was one of those days when circumstances beyond her control felt compelled to demonstrate her physical limitations to her in spades.
She frowned, her head lifting when she heard an unfamiliar sound. Searching for the source, she glanced back over her shoulder. Stretched out before her for as far as she could see were the narrow black ribbon of rain-slick pavement she’d traveled earlier and the dense stands of pine that towered on either side of the road.
The sound intensified to an ugly growl. She gripped the top edge of the recalcitrant gate as she studied the rutted trail that disappeared into a canopy of trees located about twenty yards in front of her.
A dented, mud-drenched Jeep suddenly burst into the clearing with all of the subtlety of a fireball exploding out of a burning building. Tasha stared at the vehicle as the driver slammed on his brakes. His tires sent up a spray of mud and loose gravel as he skidded to a stop less than fifteen yards from where she stood.
The dense rain and thick patches of fog gave the surrounding landscape an added sensation of threat. She shivered as a rough looking, long haired man vaulted out of the Jeep, a shotgun gripped in one hand. Still emotionally drained from reading the contents of her late father’s journal, not to mention a sleepless night, she failed to recognize the man who strode toward her.
She did, however, register the barely contained fury that emanated from him, as well as the fact that he seemed uncaring about the miserable weather. An unfastened black slicker snapped angrily against his long, muscular legs. His stride, aggressive in the extreme, remained sure despite the rutted terrain and the mud that sucked at his battered-looking boots.
Tasha’s gaze slowly shifted up his body as he drew closer. She unconsciously measured the snug fit of the jeans that encased his powerful thighs and hugged his groin like the palm and fingers of a lover’s hand — a lover who savored his blatant maleness.
She held her breath and allowed her eyes to travel higher. Despite the clothed state of his body, her senses noted a belly she guessed was as flat and hard as a slab of granite, a chest that strained the fabric and buttons of a faded plaid shirt, and broad shoulders that tugged at the seams of the slicker he wore. Exhaling unevenly, she took in the muscles that corded his neck and the dark stubble that covered his chin and jaw.
Something deep inside of her lurched unexpectedly - something heavy and suffocating that seemed intent on expanding in size and intensity even as it sucked the air from her lungs. She blinked and focused on his lips. Although compressed into a straight white line, they appeared familiar while simultaneously hinting at an erotic nature worthy of a woman’s exploration.
Tasha shuddered, astounded to realize that she was reacting to his physical prowess on an instinctively sensual level. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d responded to a man — any man. Startled and a little embarrassed, she dragged her gaze higher still and met his furious gaze.
She nearly cried out, would have cried out as shock rippled through her if she’d possessed the strength or the breath. She recognized him, although the years and the experiences he’d endured had changed him in ways she sensed went far deeper than his altered appearance. Tasha stared, eyes wide as her disbelief held her immobile.
Craig Wilder paused on his side of the gate. Tasha saw his contempt for her in his narrowed gaze.
He glared at her, and then he ordered, “Get the hell off my property, and don’t come back.”
She jerked in surprise, her brain coming to grips with the reality that the yuppie lawyer she’d married so long ago had become some untamed creature – a creature who now felt at home in the sparsely populated high country of northern California. The civilized veneer he’d once worn like armor had been scraped clean from his entire being.
Craig Wilder looked exactly like what he’d become — an angry, thirty-eight year old ex-con who’d gone to ground in the year since his release from federal prison.