Charlotte Foster adjusted the f-stop on her Leica and fired off another ten shots of the mountain. The pine boughs framing the shots added a splash of vibrant green to the deep turquoise blue of the sky, the stark juniper green of the wintry pasture and the mulberry wine glow of the rocky edifice in the background. Standing up, she checked her viewfinder and felt her heartbeat slow and her breath squeeze in her lungs. A sure sign she’d taken a perfect shot.
She squinted back up at the mountain. The light was glorious here. She’d never encountered anything quite like it. And they were still at least forty minutes from magic hour, that enchanted sixty minutes just before full dark fell when the natural landscape became suffused in a golden glow. She rubbed her arms, and then breathed into her fingers, noticing the dropping temperature for the first time. Screwing her camera back onto its tripod, she reached into her pack and rummaged around for a jumper and her fingerless gloves. The cold didn’t scare her, the exhilarating thought of all the amazing pictures she was going to take more than enough to stave off the threat of frostbite.
‘Hey there, Miss.’
Charlotte’s head shot up, and for the first time she noticed the man approaching her from the road, his tall, broad frame cast into shadow by the sinking sun. Panic kicked in for a nano-second and she touched the can of mace she kept in her pack, until she spotted the squad car behind him and the badge pinned to his shirt. She dropped the mace and straightened. He had to be a cop of some description despite the battered jeans and boots and thick leather jacket with a sheep fur collar. Which was good on one level – he was unlikely to be a serial killer. Not so good on another. Charlie had never been great with authority figures.
‘Hi,’ she said, shrugging on her sweater. Was she trespassing? She hadn’t even thought to ask the bus driver who’d finally agreed to drop her off here. She’d been way too busy concocting a story about the mythical rancher boyfriend who was due to pick her up and was running a bit late.
Men in Montana took the whole weaker sex thing way too seriously for her liking.
‘Can I ask what you’re doing out here, Miss?’
He stepped out of the shadow and into the light, and Charlie’s breath seized. Just like it had when she’d checked her viewfinder a few moments before. Like the rugged scenery, the man’s face was beautiful in a rough-hewn way. The granite hard jaw, dark brows, broken nose and strikingly blue eyes complemented by the most sensual pair of lips she had ever seen. Full and bowed and surrounded by the shadow of stubble, they should have looked girly but didn’t. Every molecule of saliva in her mouth dried up, her heart pounding so hard in her chest she felt a bit light-headed.
‘Miss?’ he murmured.
She jerked her gaze away from those tantalizing lips. And saw knowledge and intensity and the hint of frustration in his eyes, which she suddenly realized were as deep and pure a blue as the Montana sky. And two things occurred to her at once.
I want to photograph you – and jump you, too.
‘Nothing illegal,’ she said, suddenly feeling besieged.
The badge on his chest – his very impressive chest – glinted in the dying sunlight. What a shame Deputy Sexy Lips was a lawman. Charlie’s natural instinct to rebel against any kind of constraint had got her into no end of trouble as a teenager, when she’d been expelled from every fancy boarding school in the UK her parents had sent her to. And some of the unfancy ones, too.
Down girl, you do not want to jump him. He’d be way too much work – and probably boring in bed. The type that always insisted on being on top.
But her fingers still itched to pick up her camera. That face. She definitely wanted to photograph that face. She did a quick once-over of his impressive build. And she could just imagine what an amazing body he would have. She would definitely love to photograph that body too, preferably sans clothing. And sans badge.
‘Then it won’t be a problem telling me what it is you were doing?’ he said, in that I’m-the-boss-of-you tone that should have been pissing her off. But was turning her on a little bit. Annoyingly.
‘Right, no. I’m just…’ For god sake Charlie, stop acting like an escaped convict. ‘Taking some shots of your mountain. The light here’s incredible.’
He tipped his head to glance up at the mountain, almost as if he’d forgotten it was there, then cast that penetrating gaze back on her. ‘That’s as may be,’ he said, as if he doubted it. ‘But it’ll be dark in an hour or so, and I can’t let you stay out here on your own.’
I can’t let you?
Okay, forget those kissable lips, that was not going to endear him to her. ‘As long as I’m not breaking any laws, Officer…?’ She waited politely for him to fill in his name.
‘Deputy Logan Tate,’ he said.
‘Deputy Logan Tate,’ she said, going the full obsequious. ‘I’m fairly sure that’s not your decision. It’s mine.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, Miss…?’ He waited in turn. Forcing her to give up her name, too.
‘Charlotte Foster.’ Not that anyone ever called her Charlotte. All her friends called her Charlie, but somehow she did not think her and Deputy Sexy Lips were ever going to be friends.
‘Miss Charlotte Foster,’ he said, sounding the opposite of obsequious. ‘Once the sun goes down out here, the temperature will drop to below freezing. I don’t see a vehicle anywhere – so I’m giving you a ride into town, where you can get a warm bed for the night.’ His eyes narrowed, daring her to contradict him. Unfortunately even she couldn’t make up a car that clearly did not exist. And somehow she didn’t think her mythical boyfriend would stand up to that laconic scrutiny either – which left her with only one option. Get snotty back.
‘Really, that won’t be necessary,’ she said, smiling through gritted teeth. ‘I can always hitch into town when I’m ready.’
‘Hitch?’ His eyebrows shot up, as if she’d just said she was planning to sprout wings and fly into town. ‘I can’t let you do that either. It’s not safe.’
There he went with the not-letting-her-do-stuff thing again. Her back muscles locked as her spine stiffened.
She didn’t think mentioning she’d hitched a couple of times already with no ill effects, or telling him about her trusty mace, was going to wipe the judgmental frown off his face, so she changed tack.
‘If you don’t think hitching is safe in this area, I’d be foolish not to take your advice, Deputy.’ She resisted the urge to bat her eyelashes at him. Somehow she didn’t think he was the type to appreciate sarcasm. ‘But not to worry, I’ve got a tent and a sleeping bag.’ She indicated her pack. ‘I can always camp out.’
She noticed the ticking muscle in his jaw, but his gaze didn’t falter. ‘From your accent, I’m guessing you’re not from around here.’
‘I’m British, orginally, but I’ve been touring the US for the last six months and I live in Manhattan. I’m a professional photographer.’ With exhibitions in London, New York and Paris and several prestigious awards under her belt, not to mention a contract to do a coffee table book on America’s Hidden Heartlands and regular commissions with Vanity Fair, Vogue and a long list of other glossy magazines. But she decided not to mention any of that. Somehow she didn’t think Deputy Sexy Lips was a Vanity Fair subscriber.
‘You may be a pro when it comes to photography. But have you ever camped out around here?’
‘Well, no I’ve never…’
‘Because no one in their right mind would camp out here in March.’
Charlie tucked her hands into the back pockets of her jeans and tried to get a firm grip of her temper. ‘I have a fifty-tog sleeping bag that can withstand a night on Everest,’ she said in her reasonable voice. ‘I will be fine.’
‘I don’t care if you’ve got a five-hundred tog sleeping bag that can withstand a month in the North Pole. I’m not leaving you out here tonight. So why don’t you gather up your stuff and we can get going.’
The Deputy Formerly Known as Sexy Lips, who she’d just rechristened Deputy Hard Ass flicked his eyes down for a moment. Heat arched between them. Had he just checked out her breasts? The ticking muscle in his jaw went as hard as the granite mountain she’d spent the afternoon admiring.
‘You can’t make me go,’ she said, her temper slipping through her numbing fingers. But at that precise moment a gush of frigid wind whistled over the pasturelands and right through her sweater. Her teeth chattered as a shiver wracked her body.
He swore softly under his breath. And she knew, from the dangerous look in his eyes, that there was no way on earth he was going to let her stay here for the hour she needed to get her perfect shot. She wanted to swear, too. A lot. The thought of losing the shot because of Deputy Hard Ass’s Neanderthal attitude to women making her want to scream.
‘Yeah, I can,’ he said, his voice as deep as it was firm. ‘You’ve got a choice. You can either get in that squad car without an argument. Or I can cuff you, and arrest you and put you in it. Either way you’ll be riding into town now. But one way you get to ride up front, the other you ride in the back and get to spend a night in the cells.’
‘You can’t arrest me? What for?’
‘For jay-walking,’ he said.
‘But I’m not jay-walking,’ she said. Not that she was exactly sure what jay walking was.
‘Walking down a highway would qualify.’
‘But I’m not on the highway. And since when is walking down a road an arrestable offence?’ If they arrested people for that in Manhattan they’d have to lock up the whole city.
‘It is, if I say it is,’ he said, the tiny twitch on those wide sexy lips antagonizing her more.
Was he finding this amusing? Because she sure as hell wasn’t. She wanted to stay out here and take her shots. This was her professional career. But more than that, she could feel the shimmer of excitement in her blood, always triggered when she knew she was on the cusp of taking an amazing shot. And it could only be the prospect of that causing it this time, too… Because her weird reaction to him was becoming less and less explainable the more snotty he became. Getting pushed around was not high on her list of turn-ons. Even by guys that looked like he did.
‘If you’re going to arrest me, go ahead.’ Sod obsequious. ‘But I’m not leaving until you do.’
She turned her back on him, which was her second mistake. The tiny jingle of metal on metal was followed by the cold touch of steel and the soft click on her wrist. She spun round, shocked into silence, when he took her other wrist in firm callused hands and snapped the other handcuff shut.
‘I’m arresting you for jaywalking on I-89, Miss Charlotte Foster.’
‘You have got to be kidding me?’ She managed, the surge of something that made no sense at all annoying her almost as much as the shock of getting handcuffed.
Instead of answering, he stared her down with those cool blue eyes, and began reciting a load of rights at her, which he reeled off in a deadly serious monotone. But she could see that slight twitch on his lips was still there.
Good grief, he is totally getting off on this.
She wanted to be outraged, unfortunately she couldn’t quite be, because she could feel the melting sensation in her panties as he lifted her pack and her tripod as if they weighed nothing at all on to one shoulder.
‘Come on,’ he said, grasping her arm above the elbow and leading her to the squad car. ‘The sooner we get you into town, the sooner I can charge you and throw you in a nice warm cell for the night.’
‘You’re actually serious? You’re going to imprison me for being sixty feet from a road?’ She was so completely astonished by the turn of events, the cold steel of the handcuffs clamped on her wrists and the warm feel of his fingers firm on her arm as he directed her to the car, that she was still struggling to get to her outrage.
She’d met hard asses before. She had never met anyone as hard assed as this guy.
He opened the back door of the car, dumped her pack and her camera inside and then placed his other hand on her head to direct her into the seat. After buckling her into the car, he slammed the door and got into the driver’s seat in front, then spoke through the grill.
‘You’ll thank me for it, Charlotte, when you’re warm and cozy in a cell tonight and not dying of hyperthermia.’ The twitch gave way and a lop-sided smile tipped up those beautiful lips.
Heat suffused her cheeks, and concentrated at her core.
Damn the man for being even more sexy when he was patronizing her.
She sent him an angry glare, and then ignored him, finally locating her outrage.
‘I very much doubt that,’ she grumbled under her breath as the rich redolent glow of happy hour began to roll across the landscape.
The car pulled onto the road and she watched her perfect shot disappear out the back window.
It took twenty minutes to drive into the nearby town. Charlie fumed every second of the way in the back seat. Cursing Deputy Hard Ass, America’s ludicrous highway code and her big mouth but most of all her sex-starved libido, which – if the liquid warmth in her abdomen was anything to go by – had so lost the plot it had actually decided that getting manhandled by a guy who obviously enjoyed bossing women about was actually sort of hot.