DAMN IT, why did the motion sensors have to go off on the coldest night of the year?
Because the animals are cold too, dumbass, and they’re looking for shelter.
Hutch lay in bed and looked up at the ceiling, where there was a patch of light from outside. The motion-activated light and the low beep beep on his security box told him something was out there. And there he was, still lying in bed bitching about it. Fuck, he was getting soft. Then again, it was minus ten degrees out. If there were bad guys running around, they were stupid ones.
He slipped out of bed and tugged on Gore-Tex pants over his thermal long johns. He went to the main room of the cabin and put on his heavy-duty white parka, balaclava, hat, boots, and gloves. He grabbed a rifle from the closet and slipped out the back door of the cabin, away from the sensor light. Hutch regularly cleared away the crunchy snow from around the cabin, so he made no noise as he circled around to the front, inside the line of trees. That damned raccoon was in for a surprise.
Except the intruder wasn’t a raccoon. When Hutch could finally get a good look at the front yard, bracketed by cabin, shed, and carport, he saw a lone human figure in a black ski jacket, hood raised, torso doubled over. The figure took one staggering step closer to the cabin’s porch, shambling like something out of a seventies horror movie.
Or a war.
Adrenaline flooded Hutch’s system. He was instantly on high alert, sleep or no sleep, cold or no cold. He scanned the trees and the dark driveway but couldn’t see much beyond the security light. There was no sound from the darkness. He moved silently into the trees and circled the property, looking for his unwanted guest’s entourage. But there was nothing there, only the lone man’s tracks from the road imprinted in the fresh snow.
Five minutes later, when he was reasonably certain the man was alone, Hutch approached the porch. The man was now lying at the cabin’s front door. He’d probably even knocked.
Hutch stood over the man and aimed his rifle at the man’s face, still hidden in the shadows of his hood. “Who are you?” His voice was loud and deep in the hush of the Alaskan wilderness.
The man made pleading gestures with his hands and sat up stiffly, half-frozen. “Please.” The voice was deep but weak.
Hutch didn’t lower the rifle. “Who are you?” he repeated, louder.
“J-J-Jude. Devereaux. Please don’t shoot me. I was only looking for sh-sh-shelter.”
“Hands up. All the way.”
The man complied as best he could, but he appeared to be rigid with cold. Hutch searched him quickly but thoroughly, patting down thick layers of clothes over a fit, trim frame. The man had no weapons. There was a wallet, however. Hutch opened it and aimed it toward the best patch of sensor light. Jude Devereaux, California.
California. Fucking hell. The dumbass had to be in a world of shock in this temperature. Even Hutch was freezing his balls off. It was colder than a witch’s tit out here.
He lowered the gun. “Get up.”
Jude Devereaux tried to struggle to his feet, but he was in a bad way. Hutch helped him with a firm grip on his elbow, opened the cabin door, pushed Devereaux inside, and followed.
INSIDE THE cabin, Devereaux swayed on his feet alarmingly and made no move to take off his gear. The cabin was pretty cold. Hutch always let the fire burn down before he went to bed. He stirred the embers and put on a few logs, keeping an eye on Devereaux in his peripheral vision. But Devereaux didn’t move until Hutch turned to face him. Then he reached up and pushed off his hood with club-like gloved hands.
Hutch swallowed a gasp. Jesus Christ. Jude Devereaux was… well, he was stupidly good-looking. He had black hair that was thick and obviously well cut despite being mussed from the parka hood and sweat. His dazed eyes were blue. They weren’t an ordinary sort of blue either, but deep and bright, like goddamn sapphires or something. He had high, prominent cheekbones, a slightly flat profile, pale skin with freckles, dark stubble, a straight nose with a little flare at the nostrils, and a wide, fleshy mouth.
Hutch blinked. What was someone like that doing wandering around outside in Alaska on an icy March night?
“What the hell were you doing out there?” Hutch asked, not even trying to hide the implicit you dumb fuck in his tone.
Devereaux looked at Hutch, then down at himself as if checking to see if his feet were still attached. His black lashes were stark against wind-reddened cheeks. “Would you believe me if I said it’s a long story?”
“Give me the short version,” Hutch insisted, his voice hard.
Devereaux looked up at him again, his eyes focusing a bit. He looked wary. He was probably trying to determine how dangerous Hutch was. Not surprising. Hutch had greeted him with a shotgun in the face. And he wasn’t the biggest guy he knew, but he loomed pretty fucking big compared to a man of average height and weight like Devereaux. Hutch wasn’t afraid to use his bulk to intimidate, either. Now he stood with his shoulders back, legs slightly spread, and arms folded across his chest. This guy was on his turf. He wanted a damn answer.
Devereaux licked his chapped lips nervously. “I came here with a friend for a ski vacation. We had an argument, and I left.”
“Left? Left where?”
Devereaux tried to shrug but it turned into a shiver. “It was a r-rental place. Must have been at least five miles from here. I walked.”
Hutch raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“It was stupid,” Devereaux agreed quickly. “I… I went out the front door and I…. It didn’t seem that bad out. I thought I could walk to town. It hadn’t seemed all that far when we drove in. Obviously I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“You don’t say.”
Devereaux looked down at the floor. “I jogged a few miles. Didn’t think it would be a problem. I run six, seven miles easy at home, and I thought running would keep me warmer. But… the cold. My body got too stiff to jog, and town was farther than I realized. I… I saw your driveway. I almost passed it in the dark.” His tone dropped to a low tremor. “Thank God. Probably wouldn’t have made it much farther.”
“No shit. You’re a lucky son of a bitch to be alive right now. You know that, right?”
Devereaux looked up at him with a frank gaze. One corner of his mouth quirked up. “Yeah. First rule of walking out in a huff: Don’t do it off short piers or in the Alaskan wilderness.”
The wry humor in his tone did more to relax Hutch’s suspicions than his pat-down had. He grunted. “Better see how much damage you did and get some hot liquid into you.”
“I don’t want to trouble you. If you could let me use the phone, I’ll call a cab.”
Devereaux was putting up a good front, but Hutch could tell that, as he warmed up in the cabin air, he was hurting. He hadn’t tried to remove his coat, and his hands were held up and out from his body stiffly. His mouth, when he wasn’t making a joke, was thin with pain. If he’d really come miles in this weather, his body was in trouble, especially if he was acclimated to California.
“It’s two in the morning,” Hutch said firmly. “And this isn’t exactly Manhattan. You’re not going anywhere tonight.” Not unless I decide it’s life-or-death to get you to a hospital, Hutch added in his head. “Take off your coat. I need to check your hands and feet.”
For a moment Devereaux looked like he wanted to argue, but his exhaustion won out. He fumbled with his gloves, not having the strength to remove them. So Hutch did it, pulling them off carefully. Devereaux’s hands were an angry, abused red from the cold, but not the black that would indicate frostbite.
Hutch unzipped Devereaux’s flashy, expensive ski parka and removed it. Underneath he wore a blue wool ski sweater and thermals over a very fit body. Hutch steered Devereaux to the couch, helped him to sit, and knelt at his feet. The boots he wore were a hard-core German brand, like something you’d see at luxury resorts in the Swiss Alps. They were a heavy leather and tech material, lined with sheepskin, which probably had saved his feet. When Hutch got his two pairs of woolen socks off, he could see Devereaux’s feet were much the same as his hands—red but not black. One outer edge and pinky toe were just starting to darken to an angry red.
“If you’d stayed out there much longer, you would have lost that,” Hutch said, tapping the toe.
“Shit,” Devereaux muttered without much energy.
Like the rest of Devereaux, his hands and his feet were elegant—long and well formed. Hutch had a niggle of unease. Someone like this should not be out here.
Hutch stood. “I’m going to draw you a warm bath. I want you to sit in it and add hot water from the tap a little at a time as you get used to the temperature.”
Devereaux shivered. “It’s hot in here. I’m hot.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s not that warm, Devereaux, so being hot isn’t a good sign. You’re going to take that bath, and then you’ll go to sleep. We’ll figure out what’s next in the morning.”
Devereaux’s eyes had slipped shut, but he opened them now, those insanely blue orbs fixing on Hutch with what looked like gratitude. “Jude. Call me Jude. You’re very kind. I’m sorry to impose on you like this. If you’re sure there’s not a cab….”
Hutch refrained from rolling his eyes. “Yeah, not going to happen in the middle of the night.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Hutch. Thank you.”
Jude’s eyes slipped closed again, and he slumped back on the couch. Hutch took the opportunity to do a more thorough search, patting him down and checking his pockets. Devereaux never even stirred. He wasn’t carrying any weapons unless he was carrying them up his ass, in which case, he deserved to win, as Moby D used to say. Cue snare drums—ba ba bum.
Hutch left Devereaux asleep on the couch while he went to fill the bath.