Gorgeous consultant Jake Blackwell doesn't want to let this beautiful woman out of hissight, yet the next morning she's gone. Only to reappear that same day as the new midwifein his OB-GYN department. That's not the only surprise—it's now startlingly obvious thathis mysterious Miranda is also six months pregnant…
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SHE'D MADE SUCH A MESS of her life.
Sodden with misery, Miranda sat on the rock, staring at the frozen lake, oblivious to the fact that she was slowly losing the feeling in her fingers and toes.
Around her the mountains rose, wrapped in their lethal covering of snow and ice, but she was as indifferent to their beauty as she was eager for their sanctuary. They offered refuge from glittering tinsel and other symbols of festive cheer.
It was Christmas Day, but up here in the icy wilderness of the Lake District, Christmas Day was just another span of daylight hours without meaning or significance.
And she really shouldn't be crying.
It had been six months. Six long months. Time enough to accept the situation and move on. Time enough to forgive herself for being unforgivably stupid and naive.
She was supposed to be streetwise. Independent. She was supposed to know everything there was to know about the dark side of human nature. Well, apparently she didn't. She gave a cynical laugh. Apparently even she could be duped.
She'd been stupid and gullible and she just hated herself for having been taken in so completely.
With a sniff, she rubbed her numb cheeks with equally frozen fingers. Crying was pointless and was something she rarely indulged in. Struggling to hold back the tears, Miranda searched inside herself for the fierce strength that she knew she possessed, but all that happened was that more tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her frozen cheeks. Oh, for goodness'sake! She brushed them away with an impatient hand and wondered what was happening to her. She was never usually this pathetic! It was just because it was Christmas. Christmas made everything feel different. At Christmas, everything was focused on the image of the perfect family, but for her to be seduced by that image was completely laughable because she knew better than anyone that families were entirely imperfect.
She didn't want one!
She was better off on her own.
But she'd managed to forget that fact. Briefly, she'd lost all sense of judgment. She, of all people, who had learned long ago that the only person you could truly depend on was yourself. She never leaned on people. Never. And yet she'd—
Gritting her teeth, she pushed the thought away. That was in the past now. Whether she liked it or not, it was over and the past didn't matter. All that mattered was the future. And remembering not to make the same mistake again.
She straightened her spine and lifted her chin.
It was time to grow up. That was going to be her New Year's resolution. She was going to stop being such a romantic dreamer and get to grips with the realities of life. Princes didn't ride up on white chargers or horses of any other colour, come to that. Ordinary people didn't win the lottery and families were entirely dysfunctional and not to be envied in the slightest. And Christmas was just one day out of three hundred and sixty-five and it would pass soon enough.
There was absolutely no point in sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere, feeling sorry for herself for not having something that just didn't exist.
She needed to pick herself up and make the best of the situation.
Feeling something cold brush her hand, she glanced up and realised with a flash of surprise that it was snowing. Suddenly aware of just how cold she was, she turned her head and noticed with a stab of alarm that she could no longer see the top of the mountains.
The weather had been perfect when she'd left her miserable, cramped, rented flat.
What had happened to the blue sky and the sunshine? With a flash of panic, she realised that she actually had absolutely no idea where she was. She'd been so desperate to get away from the rows of houses with Christmas trees and fairy-lights—so desperate to escape from the glaring taunt of happy family gatherings—that she'd just climbed onto her rusty, secondhand bike and ridden out of town until the houses had been far behind her and all that had lain ahead had been the mountains. She didn't even know the area because she'd only moved here a week ago.
She'd abandoned the bike in a deserted car park and started to walk, lured by the promise of fresh air, blue sky and the absence of festivities.
Up here on the fells it hadn't seemed like Christmas. Up here, she hadn't felt like the only person on the planet who was surviving Christmas Day on her own. Up here it had just seemed like any other normal day.
Except that her life had reached crisis point. But the time for reflection had passed and more immediate problems were now pressing in on her. Like finding the car park again. If she were to stand any chance of finding her way down the mountain, she was going to have to leave immediately.
She stood up and stamped the snow off her trainers, real-ising how totally inadequate they were.
How could she have been so irresponsible?
The answer, of course, was that she hadn't been thinking about anything except her problems, but problems had a way of shifting around and she knew that her immediate problem was one of basic survival.
Trying to identify the way she'd come, she walked for a few minutes and then realised that she could no longer see the ground directly in front of her. She couldn't work out which way was up and which was down. The path had vanished and beneath her feet lay a lethal, snowy carpet. A treacherous covering that concealed the way home.
The temperature was dropping, she was lost and she had no means of contacting anyone. No one knew where she was.
Suddenly understanding the seriousness of her situation, her heart lurched with fear and her mouth dried. Panic gripped her with tight, merciless fingers and for a moment she found it hard to think.
The weather was deteriorating by the minute and she knew absolutely nothing about surviving in freezing, wilderness conditions.
If she walked without knowing where she was going, there was every chance she could walk over a precipice, to her death.
But staying still wasn't an option either. She had no equipment, nothing with which to create warmth or shelter.
Part of her just wanted to sit down and give up. But something stirred inside her. Something that reminded her that giving up wasn't an option. Dying wasn't an option. She had to live.
She'd just have to find a way down. Somehow.
She was going to survive.
And once she'd done that, she was going to totally rethink her life.
* * * Jake Blackwell trudged steadily up the path, noting the change in the weather with a faint smile of amusement. Mountains. A bit like women, he thought to himself as he shifted the pack on his back—unpredictable of mood and always to be treated with respect.
In many ways he preferred unpredictable, wild weather to sunshine and blue skies. Walking and climbing became more of a challenge, a guessing game, a battle of wits between him and the mountain.
The deep snow crunched under his boots, the air was cold enough to numb the face and in the distance he could hear the peal of bells from the village church.
It was Christmas Day.
He should have felt happy.
When he'd set out, the sun had been shining in a perfect blue sky, he'd just enjoyed a traditional turkey dinner with his oldest and dearest friends and watched their children opening presents and playing happily round a twinkling Christmas tree.
The house had been filled with warmth and joy, not least because Alessandro and Christy had finally patched up the holes in their marriage.
He was pleased for them. Relieved. But as he'd closed the door behind him, leaving them to their happiness, a hollow, empty feeling had gnawed at his insides. There was nothing like Christmas to remind you that you were on your own.
It wasn't that he was short of prospective candidates. With a total absence of vanity, he was more than aware that there were no end of midwives and female doctors who were interested in ending his bachelor lifestyle. But none of them interested him. At least, not in the long term.
He dated, of course. He was a healthy, single male so no one expected him to live like a monk. But no matter what happened during the twelve months leading up to Christmas, he always seemed to end the year on his own. No woman had ever held his attention for the long term.
Except Christy, and she'd married his best friend and he'd long since trained himself to put thoughts of her out of his head.
Alessandro was an incredibly lucky guy, he mused. Christy was an amazing woman, the children were beautiful—
With a soft curse he lengthened his stride and talked sense into himself.
What was wrong with being single? Nothing. It was just that it was Christmas Day and all the emphasis seemed to be on families.
That was why he'd chosen to go for a walk instead of returning home to his big, empty house. He could have driven to the hospital and spent the day at work, but why would he want to do that when he'd already spent too much of the year working? In fact, work was probably one of the reasons he was on his own. It was hard to get out and meet people when you were trapped in a hospital day in, day out.
His spirits lifting as he walked, he forced himself to count his blessings. He was healthy, he had a great job at the hospital and he loved his work with the mountain rescue team. He had nothing to complain about.
And if his life sometimes felt a little empty—well, he'd never had trouble filling the void before now.
He walked upwards, enjoying the snow-muffled silence and the cold sting of the air in his lungs.
The visibility was reducing by the moment and he knew he probably ought to turn back. He was familiar with the path and he was well equipped, but he also had a healthy respect for mountains and didn't want to be the one responsible for dragging his colleagues in the mountain rescue team away from their Christmas gatherings.
He was just about to turn back when he caught a flash of colour through the thickening snow. With a quick frown he narrowed his eyes and looked again but it was gone.
It had been so brief that it would have been all too easy to have dismissed the vision as nothing more than a figment of his imagination, but twelve years on the mountain rescue team had honed his instincts and sharpened his brain. So he didn't turn. Instead, he walked forward a few more steps and the stopped dead.
A small figure, half covered in snow, was huddled against a rocky outcrop. A child?
And then the snow-covered figure lifted her head and he saw that it wasn't a child. It was a woman.
And a very beautiful woman.
He couldn't remember ever seeing eyes so exotic. Dark as sloes and framed by thick, lush lashes, they simply accentuated the pallor of her skin. Wisps of damp, ebony hair framed an almost perfect bone structure and the only colour in her face was her mouth—a rich, generous curve of soft pink that might have been designed with the sole purpose of driving a man to distraction.
She looked delicate and feminine and just about the last person he would have expected, or wanted, to find in the mountains in a blizzard.
Snow clung to her hair and her whole body was shivering, and it took just that one glance for him to realise that the situation was serious. This wasn't a seasoned walker, prepared for a hike in the mountains. She looked like a woman who should have been somewhere else entirely.
The shivering was a good sign, he reminded himself grimly as he swung the rucksack off his broad shoulders and delved inside for the equipment he knew he was going to need. When the shivering stopped it meant that the human body was no longer able to produce heat. Still, he didn't need his medical degree or his mountain rescue skills to know that the girl was seriously cold.
He needed to warm her up, check her over and then decide whether he could get her down by himself or whether he was going to need the assistance of his colleagues in the mountain rescue team.
He hoped they'd all enjoyed their Christmas dinner because he had a feeling that he was going to be calling on their services very shortly.
"What are you doing here on your own? Where are your friends?" Dispensing with pleasantries, he selected various items from his rucksack, his movements swift and purposeful as he spoke to the girl, assessing her level of consciousness, knowing that her answers would give clues as to just how cold she was. "Where are the rest of your party?"
Had the others left her and gone for help? Didn't they have the sense to know that someone should have stayed with her? Or were they in trouble, too?
For a long moment she didn't answer him and he wondered with a flash of concern whether she was too cold to speak. Had his first judgment of the situation been wrong?
"What's your name?" His tone was urgent now and he crouched down to her level and took her face in his hands, forcing her to look at him. "Tell me your name."
Speak to me. Say something.
Drowsiness and confusion were signs of the onset of hypothermia and he didn't like what he was seeing.
Her dark eyes slid to his and he saw something in her gaze that twisted his insides. An empty hopelessness.
"Miranda." Finally she spoke and her voice seemed tiny in the huge emptiness of snow and ice. "No friends. No party.'Her arms were huddled round her waist for warmth. "Just m-me." 'Here, sit on this." Jake pushed a thick pad underneath her, reminding himself that there would be time enough later to talk to her about the dangers of walking alone in winter weather conditions. "It's insulated and it will stop the snow seeping through your clothes. Then we need to get you something to eat."
Mentally he ran through the various stages of hypothermia. He knew that the most effective warming of the casualty came from the inside. She needed glucose and fluid and he needed to stop her losing any more heat.