An annoyed Caleb Hunt heard the car as it crept up the overgrown driveway. It wasn’t often that someone disturbed his solitude, but such visits rarely failed to displease him. He peered out his cabin’s window and watched as an overloaded Subaru came to a stop beside his pickup.
This must be the professor, he thought, wondering why his buddy Masterson had waited so long to warn him about the scientist’s arrival. Probably because he knew how pissed the news of an uninvited guest would make me. Brice was no fool, even if he sometimes played one for the ladies.
All of Caleb’s annoyance disappeared when of a pair of shapely legs, followed by a very feminine body, emerged from the car.
For a moment he was awestruck, staring at the well-proportioned woman in his driveway. He’d been working in the forest for long enough that she was definitely a sight for sore eyes.
Must’ve gotten lost. It was probably too early to expect Brice’s professor anyway. Maybe the woman was a camper who’d made a wrong turn. Best to set her straight and get her out of here. The natural area was not yet open to the public.
A half smile appeared. Unless she wanted to stick around for the night. I’m sure I could find something for her to wrap those legs around.
Caleb stepped out onto the cabin’s porch and let the screen door slam shut behind him. He strode down the few steps to the driveway and approached her. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said in an official tone, “You must have gotten turned around. There’s no camping here.”
The woman stared up at him, her dark eyes shining in the sunlight. Her frame was petite and curved in the best places, but he couldn’t help noticing the tension that seemed to vibrate through her. A dozen ways of relieving her tension flitted through his head.
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to turn around and return to the main road. The closest town is Alsea. Head south for 12 miles or so–”
“I know where Alsea is.”
“Oh,” he murmured, for a moment at a loss for what to say. He tried on a smile. “Well, then…I take it you don’t need directions…?”
The woman shook her head, and Caleb’s voice stalled.
She held out a delicate hand to him. “I think there must be some mistake. I’m Dr. Danielle French, and I was led to believe that you would be expecting me.”
Caleb’s mouth fell open, and he stared, attempting to come to grips with what she’d just said. Dr. French? This woman was Masterson’s professor? The woman didn’t look like any professor he’d ever met. She was younger than him, for one, and he wasn’t even thirty yet. Where were the thick glasses, frizzy hair and perpetual bad posture?
“Dr. French,” Caleb smiled, brushing off his charm and praying the last six months in the woods without human contact hadn’t rusted it beyond repair. He took her hand and shook it. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
She paused for a few seconds before responding. “Yes…well…I was able to get an early start, and, uh…”
Caleb held her hand for a moment before she pulled it away and flushed, turning her face to the ground. She was gorgeous, and he felt his libido, ignored for so many months, kick into overdrive. He had to remember to thank Brice for this perfect little distraction.
“You’re here now,” he said, already humming with the anticipation of the chase. He wondered which method would be most effective at getting her in his bed. A college professor that meant smarts. She was probably used to being in control, having students hanging off her every word.
But she was no longer in her classroom. These were his woods, and he was the Big Bad Wolf.
Caleb turned his attention to the equipment bulging out of her car, wondering how she would take a less-than-complimentary assessment of her visit. He prided himself on his skills at seduction and quickly calculated the most efficient means for roping in the young professor.
If she was used to being right, it was time to show her what it felt like to be wrong. He wiped away any trace of a smile as he headed toward her car, then shook his head to give the impression of disapproval. “I see you’ve gone through a lot of trouble. Seems like you’ve got your heart set on your little campout. Might as well get started.”
Her smile faded while a fire kindled in her eyes. Hmm… must not have liked that remark. Good, she wasn’t supposed to. First, he’d get her ire up, get her all bristly like an angry kitten, and then he’d turn all that fire to his own advantage.
Instead of screaming at him, she’d be screaming his name.
“I’m sure you’re busy,” she said, stopping him in his tracks, “and I don’t want to be a bother.” She pointed to the all-terrain vehicle parked next to his forestry truck. “If you’ll just allow me the use of your ATV, I can get settled on my own.”
Caleb’s eyebrow rose at her words. She’d taken the bait, but he hadn’t expected her to push back so hard, not right away. Besides, she was a fool if she thought he was just going to let her drive off into the woods without him.
Dr. French didn’t seem like the outdoors type. His gaze traveled down her frame, making its way down her Central Willamette University t-shirt to her hips around which hung low-slung jeans. A quick glance into her vehicle confirmed his suspicion. Most of her gear was still in its original boxes.
“Not gonna happen, Professor,” he said, heading around to the back of the car and motioning for her to unlock the rear latch. Her face screwed up, and he thought she might not unlock it, but she hit a button on her key fob before heading over to join him. Good girl.
The latch popped and Caleb dove inside, cataloging the items she’d brought and started to unload them.
“Careful!” she said when he began dragging out her gear to stack it around him. “I’ve organized all of my equipment, and it would really be better if you’d just let me…” Her words petered out as he tossed a box of books out of the back of her car. The box bounced once and some books tumbled out, along with a folder of papers.
“Shit!” She raced to grab the papers and reorganize them. Caleb noticed the dirty look she shot in his direction and had to hide a grin. He watched as she stalked around him, attempting to bring order to the chaos he was creating. Phase One of Piss-Off-The-Pretty-Professor was working out according to plan.
To call her attractive would be an understatement. Her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail that fell down her neck and past her shoulders. Arresting eyes the color of sweet bourbon glared in his direction. A small nose and full pink lips completed her delicate features, all framed by a heart-shaped face.
Her face was gorgeous, but her body was a goddamn miracle.
“Wait. Ranger. Sir!” the professor exclaimed, sliding around behind him and fidgeting as he continued pulling out her gear. “This really isn’t necessary!”
He didn’t even pause in his inventory. “The name’s Caleb Hunt. I’ve worked for the Forest Service for years and spend a majority of my time outdoors. There’s no way I’m letting an inexperienced camper wander off into the woods alone. So just concentrate on gathering your equipment and let me do my job.”
* * * *
Dani took a deep breath, pushing away the anger that she felt at the ranger’s high-handedness. Her phone rang, and she glanced down, relieved to see it was her friend, Janna. She answered, turning her back on the ranger and concentrating on the call.
“Hey, I missed you at lunch. I brought you some gluten-free muffins to take with you, but you didn’t show. Another last-minute meeting?”
The rapid-fire pacing of Janna’s speech made Dani smile. “Not quite. I left a day early.”
“You what?!? But I thought you still had tons of stuff to do.”
Dani sighed. “I did, so I stayed up late and got it done. Then I finished loading up the car this morning and hit the road. I just arrived at the park a few minutes ago.”
“Any particular reason why you moved up your time frame? Your schedule is…how do I say this…very precious to you.”
That was Janna’s polite way of reminding her of what she called her obsessive tendencies. “You probably schedule your bathroom breaks down to the last second. You must have had a good reason to move up your departure date. Spill it.”
“Because I was really excited, Puchie…?” The rising tone of Dani’s inflection didn’t convince her friend.
“Bullshit. And don’t call me Puchie, you know I hate it. Are you sure it didn’t have anything to do with that meeting I mentioned?”
Dani rolled her eyes. Janna went after gossip like a terrier after a squirrel, and she knew Dani was holding on to a particularly succulent morsel. “Fine. You’re right. I rearranged my whole fucking schedule because of my meeting with Dean Fischer. To avoid it, actually, but that didn’t work.”
“Well, after you high-tailed it out of my office…” They had been discussing the plans for her fieldwork in her office when they’d been interrupted by a knock at the door. Jeffrey Fischer, Dean of Sciences and the man currently overseeing her tenure review, leaned against the doorframe and nodded at them. Before the dean could even manage to recall Janna’s name, she’d jumped to her feet and rushed out the door, heading down the hallway and abandoning Dani.
“Couldn’t be helped. You know I put my foot in my mouth whenever I get nervous, and deans make me nervous.”
Dani wanted to laugh, but she was still too annoyed. Janna, self-proclaimed “Oldest Graduate Student of All Time,” was Dani’s closest friend. Although she was still a student, she was a few years older than Dani, who was junior faculty in the Department of Biology and struggling to make her way up the tenure ladder. They often met for lunch to discuss their academic woes. Dani always enjoyed their conversations.
Well, almost always.
“Let’s just say the meeting was less about my research and more about whether I’d be all alone in the dark and scary woods.”
“Seriously? I mean, the dean’s always come off as an elite asshole, but not a creepy elite asshole.”
Dani’s gaze scanned the forest around her; then she risked a glance at the ranger who continued to carelessly pitch her meticulously organized equipment to the ground. She watched him for a moment, trying to keep her mind from dwelling on her lunch with Fischer. Forget it, focus on something else, she told herself, her mantra whenever circumstances became unpleasant. Although perhaps choosing the ranger as her current focus would be just as unpleasant, despite his handsome smile. “Anyway, I won’t go into the gory details now–”
Janna jumped in, right on cue. “Don’t think you’re gonna get out of telling me exactly what he said!”
“I know!” Dani suppressed a groan. “And I promise to, the next time we have lunch together.”
“When will that be? Won’t you be out in the field for the next few months? I can’t believe you’ve decided to camp, by the way. You never seemed like the outdoors type.”
“Just because I’m from the city doesn’t mean I don’t like the outdoors.”
Janna’s tone betrayed her smirk. “So, have you been camping before?”
Dani hesitated before replying. “How hard can it be?”
“Look, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be a cakewalk. There are bears and mountain lions. And the rainy season is about to start, and it gets pretty cold at that elevation at night. And did I mention bears?”
Dani blew out a frustrated breath that lifted her bangs off her forehead. “Come on, Puchie, it’s not like I’m heading into the wilderness for forty years.”
“I think you’re underestimating the challenge you’ll be facing. No hot showers. Mosquitoes. Bad weather.”
“Really?” Janna said, her disbelief evident. “What about spiders?”
Dani’s smile faltered at the mention of her irrational fear. “Stop trying to freak me out! I’m doing this. This grant is a huge deal, so why don’t you just support me like a good friend and—” Her words were cut off by the gruff laugh of the ranger.
“What the hell did you bring this thing for?” he asked, holding up a camouflaged flashlight, one of five that she’d packed for her excursion. “Don’t you use a flashlight in the dark? What good is camouflage in the dark?”
Dani sighed, rolling her eyes. Her friend, however, was instantly on alert.
“The park ranger,” Dani answered, walking a few steps farther away and speaking softly.
“He sounds hot. Is he?”
“That’s not an answer. He’s hot, isn’t he?” Janna never gave up. Dani wasn’t sure if that tenacity was a blessing or a curse.
“Yeah, he is,” she replied. “But he’s also an asshole.”
“Hmm, a few months in the woods with a hunky asshole. Things could be worse.”
“Yeah, I could run into one of those bears you keep mentioning.”
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