No, better not mention that. She didn’t want to scare him off. She had a tendency to be a little too blunt at times. Most men were intimidated by her aggressiveness. She glanced over her shoulder and eyed the football player turned cowboy. He didn’t look like the type who would easily scare.

“I’m researching a book.” She shrugged. “I’m writing about how the early settlers lived.” That sounded good, but did he buy her lie? She didn’t even blink as his gaze met hers. “The best way to write about it is to live it.” She held her breath to see if he’d buy her story.

“You’ll certainly be able to do that here,” he finally said before looking away.

Hook, line, and sinker. She was so good that sometimes she amazed herself. But that’s why they called her the barracuda. Oh, yeah, she knew the tag they’d given her and she was damned proud of it.

She glanced inside the bedroom. A sheet covered the mattress on the black iron bed to protect it from the dust. Her gaze quickly scanned the room. One window. No curtain.


She backed out of the bedroom and went into the kitchen. A mammoth black stove graced one wall. She’d been afraid of this: no microwave.

Near the stove was a sink with a pump. How archaic. At least she wouldn’t need to haul water. A scarred wooden table sat in the center of the room along with two rope-bottomed, ladder-back chairs.

Home sweet home. She checked her shudder of revulsion and smiled at him. “This will do just fine.”

“Then you’re staying?”

“Of course. I’m a little surprised it’s this rustic, but I’ll manage. I’m tougher than I look.” That should make him think twice about what she was made of. Ha! Nothing scared her, especially living conditions that weren’t up to her standards.

She sauntered over and opened one of the cabinets. Black, beady eyes stared back at her. She couldn’t move. Her heart thumped loudly inside her chest, and blood drummed inside her ears.

Except for wild animals. Wild animals scared the hell out of her.

Run! her brain screamed as the fight-or-flight response triggered. The electrical warning charges zipped across her brain, quickly catching up with her nonmoving limbs. She slammed the cabinet closed and whirled around, throwing herself at Cal.

He wrapped his arms around her. “Easy now.”

“Easy?” she squeaked. “There’s a wild animal in the cabinet.” She clung to him.

After a few seconds, she realized how nice it felt to be this close, especially when she inhaled his spicy aftershave. Not bad, not bad at all. At least, until his chest rumbled. She moved away and glared up at him. He dared to laugh? No one had ever laughed at her.

“There’s a wild animal in the cabinet,” she repeated. How could he be so unconcerned? She wasn’t good around animals. Hell, she’d never even been to the zoo.

“That’s just Bandit,” he said.

His attempt to keep a straight face wasn’t working. It wasn’t funny! She planted her hands on her hips. “What the hell is Bandit?”

He put his hands on her arms, but before she could savor his touch, he set her to the side and ambled over to the cabinet.

She took a step back. “You aren’t going to open the door, are you? Shouldn’t you call an exterminator or something?”

“No need.”

When he opened the cabinet door, she saw that the animal was a fat raccoon, complete with black mask, just like in the pictures she’d seen. Pictures were fine, but up close she could do without a wild animal-or any animal, for that matter.

“This is Bandit.”

“Well, make him go away.”

“How’d you get inside?” Cal asked as the animal waddled backward out of the cabinet, landing with a thump on the counter.

“Is it tame?” She wasn’t taking any chances and kept her distance.

He shrugged. “As tame as any wild animal can get. I was staying at the cabin when a pack of wild dogs killed Bandit’s mother and her other babies. I rescued Bandit and he sort of hung around.” He went to the screen door and opened it. Bandit waddled out quite unconcerned he’d nearly scared the living daylights out of her.

Nikki hugged her middle. “But he doesn’t actually live here. I mean, in the cabin. Right?”

His grin was slow, warming her blood. “Why? He doesn’t eat much.”

Okay, this story didn’t look quite so easy. People, she could handle, but she knew nothing about animals. She’d never even had a dog or cat when she was growing up. Her parents had said they didn’t have the time to devote to a house pet, and they couldn’t very well ask the maid to clean up after one. They were right, of course.

“Bandit usually hangs around the barn. I’ll find out how he got inside and make sure he doesn’t bother you again.”

She breathed a sigh of relief.

“Of course, there’s one houseguest I can’t get rid of.”

Great. If there was a pet snake or mouse, that was it. Marge could get her own story.

“What?” She warily eyed the corners of the kitchen.

“The ghost.”

She laughed.

He didn’t join in.

“You’re serious.”

“Dead serious. No pun intended.”

She smiled. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”

Maybe this was part of staying here. Ghost enthusiasts would love this place. She had never believed in anything she couldn’t see, taste, or touch.

Ghost stories never terrified her when she was growing up. Her parents always explained how the special effects created the ghostly images in the movies. “I’m not afraid of things that go bump in the night.”

“Good, then you won’t mind the one here.” He tugged his hat down a little farther on his forehead. “I’ll just go see if I can find where Bandit got in while you look around.”

There was one pressing matter she needed to take care of, and it couldn’t wait. “Where exactly is the bathroom.” She hadn’t seen a door that might lead to it.

He gave her a look that said he’d thought she’d never ask. “Out back.”

She raised her eyebrows in question. What did he mean, “out back”? The bathroom wasn’t attached to the cabin? Now that would be damned inconvenient.

He motioned toward the back door. She hesitantly walked to the screen and glanced out. Oh, good Lord. “That’s an outhouse.”

“A two-holer. State of the art. Complete with a Sears catalog.” He looked at her, his expression serious. “I might be able to scare up a JCPenney if you’d prefer.”

He was trying his hand at being funny, and he seemed to relish the discomforts she would be going through. His fiancee must’ve really done a number on him because he seemed to have decided to take his angst out on Nikki.

She’d read that Cynthia Cole was an only child of business tycoon Milburn Cole. Her investigation before she’d left Fort Worth had given her enough information that told her Milburn Cole didn’t do anything illegal, but he was so close to committing a crime that you could almost see the prison stripes on his Armani suit.

On the other hand, his daughter was the darling of society. Elite boarding schools, a private college, the best sorority-and lots of wild parties. She made Paris Hilton look like a choir girl. Cynthia had been in rehab so many times that they’d dedicated a wing to her.

So, was Cal pining for his love and decided to take his frustrations out on Nikki? Which one had broken the relationship off? Cynthia? Or him?

A week. That’s all it would take before she had her answers. She’d bet her next paycheck on it.

But for now, she had to deal with the outhouse. How hard could it be?

She smiled up at Cal. “No problem.” She opened the door and stepped out, then cautiously looked around. The

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