Hazel’s flaming hair was the only thing that stood out in the immense desert of snow. Tendrils of red were flying around her head as the wind kept blowing with a fierceness that made her shudder and clench her jaw until it hurt. If the cold hadn’t frozen her brain, she would have wondered what had gotten into her when she left home wearing a short backless dress and high-heeled pumps.
Certainly, she had dressed up for a fancy New Year’s Eve party where freezing to death should have been her last thought. She had never imagined that she would have to step out of her car before she reached her destination, let alone that the damn thing would die in the middle of nowhere. She kicked the wheel and punched the hood one last time before she hissed furiously and leaned her forehead against the ice-cold frame of the car.
Pulling her thin coat tighter around herself, she circled the car in a fruitless attempt to find the issue that rendered her vehicle useless, solve it, then get going. But there was nothing suggesting damage, and since she was not a mechanic, there was nothing she could do on her own.
Hazel took refuge behind the wheel and rested her head against it, allowing herself for a long minute to be seized by desperation.
Honestly speaking, it wasn’t the cold that brought tears to her eyes, but the prospect of spending the night alone, and especially the last night of the year. It was only her luck that her phone didn’t have a signal at the same time she was stuck on the side of the road, among dunes of snow.
She had nearly resigned herself to the idea of being alone on New Year’s Eve for the first time in her life when a shattering sound made her jerk so violently that her knees bumped into the steering wheel and her teeth clenched around her tongue. Then her head turned where the noise had come from, and her eyes finally landed on him.
Max Karter was her worst nightmare and most irritating temptation. Although bending at the waist so he could peer through her side window and covered in a thick sheepskin that just for a second looked more tempting than the man himself, Hazel could remember clearly how he had always towered over her.
He was built like a mountain, hard and bulky and even tall like one. But it was neither his impressive height nor his mouthwatering muscles that lured Hazel time and time again. It was the way he studied her, with those jaw-dropping, gray eyes that could dig through all her defenses and enslave her very soul.
Groaning and struggling to ignore the pain in her tongue, Hazel reminded why she had always steered clear of Max Karter. Except for that long forgotten lapse in judgment, on Christmas Eve, three years ago…
“Get a grip,” Hazel hissed to herself and forced her eyes to meet Max’s through the window.
Apparently, he had developed a hobby out of being present to all the worst moments of her life. Tonight it was no different, and although Hazel wanted to convince herself that she’d rather be alone, than poorly accompanied, she was actually relieved to see him.
Acknowledging such a fact served only to aggravate her even more, but she promptly attributed her notion of relief to temporary insanity caused by her precarious circumstances. On any other day, she would have run him down, hopefully with a working car, probably repeatedly.
After the initial shock wore off and her sense of relief morphed into the usual irritation that Max always got from her, Hazel also recovered her sassiness. She unlocked her door and opened it forcefully enough to hit Max right in the hip, then stepped outside into the ever-present snow, drawing warmth from the pleasure of watching him flinch in pain and cradle his side.
“What are you doing on my property, you mad woman?”
“I am not on your property. I am on the side of a road as you can see!”
A significant part of her mind realized she needed his help, but she had never been able to treat him with anything short of superiority since he always did the same to her. There was a tacit competition between the two of them, and she wasn’t willing to be the loser. Nor was she ready to show weakness before him.
“And what are you doing on my property naked?”
His eyes ran over her nearly bare body and licked his perfectly red lips as if he was staring at a delicious treat. Hazel, however, ignored the flush that suddenly made her forget about the cold and focused all the peculiar emotions that Max was triggering in her into an intense and very annoyed glare.
“I am not naked!”
“Doll, in this weather the skimpy thing you are wearing doesn’t make a difference, does it?”
She hated that he was right, but most of all she hated that she couldn’t bring herself to kick him in the shin for gluing his gaze to her cleavage instead of meeting her eyes. Not that she harbored any desire of drowning in those exasperatingly beautiful eyes of his. In fact, she didn’t even like gray eyes. They were too light, too cold, too expressionless.
“I wasn’t supposed to end up here!” she cried in frustration before she could admit to herself that Max’s eyes were anything but expressionless.
She shivered involuntarily and almost kicked herself for it. It was evident she was turning rather quickly to an icicle, but she didn’t have to offer him the pleasure of showing it. Immediately, Max’s head snapped to her, and instead of displaying a triumphant smirk, he glared back at her and shook his head disapprovingly.
“So you simply teleported yourself here?” he asked mockingly.
“My car broke down!” she shrieked but stopped with a groan. It was becoming painful to speak since her jaw could hardly move anymore.
Hazel’s eyes widened, and her mouth was starting to gape in surprise when Max shrugged off his warm, inviting jacket and wrapped it around her trembling body. When the heavenly warmth of his coat filtered through her numb skin, she realized just how terribly cold she had been. And she started shivering even more violently than before.
“Goddammit,” Max growled, and Hazel started.
She had never seen him mad. In their twisted relationship, she was the one mostly being angry, primarily because he was always controlled, balanced, and frustrating. But right now, Max was shooting furious glares at her, and she had to fight the urge of looking down like a chastised, little girl.
In one fluent movement, Max bent and scooped her into his arms, cradling her to his broad muscular chest. She knew she should have struggled against his hold, or at least, she should have responded similarly to his furious glares, but in the end, Hazel was incapable of resisting the warm comfort of his embrace.
Max deposited her in the passenger seat of his car and retrieved a blanket from the backseat to cover her purplish legs. Hazel remained quiet for a while, with her eyes closed as if she could will herself to wake up from a nightmare, which was, in fact, the mere reality.
Yet, by the time Max circled the car and climbed behind the wheel, Hazel seemed keen on starting over their constant fight.
“Where are you taking me? I cannot leave my car abandoned on the roadside.”
“Doll, you are acting like I am kidnapping you when in truth I am saving you. Such a thoughtful, caring man that I am.”
“Oh, please,” Hazel scoffed and rolled her eyes. “You are making me nauseous.”
“You are plain ungrateful.”
Max started the car, and as soon as they were in motion, he rested his hand on Hazel’s knee with arrogant confidence like he expected her to accept his intimate gesture without blinking. But Hazel did blink and gnashed her teeth for that matter, but she was getting too comfortable beneath the combined weight of Max’s jacket and the woolen blanket to waste energy on moving.
“Look, I have to be someplace not far from here, and I would really appreciate it if you could give me a ride. I can pay you, but—”
“There’s no place ‘not far from here,’ doll, except my house, and as far as I can remember I haven’t invited you over.”
“Well, it might be a little far off, but—”
“But I am not taking the risk of getting stuck in the snow and spending New Year’s Eve locked with you in a freezing car, so as of now, I do invite you over.”
Max gave her a wicked, lopsided grin, but he didn’t seem particularly happy about having her as a guest in his home, as much as he seemed delighted about the opportunity of starting yet a new year tormenting her. Hazel suddenly forgot about the cold and the party she had been looking forward to for months. The only thought that crossed her mind and made her hyperventilate was that…
“I can’t come to your house!” she hissed or shouted or whimpered. She couldn’t quite tell as panic settled in.
There had been three years since the monumental mistake that led her to Max Karter’s bed and ever since she had sworn she would never be alone with him again. She didn’t intend on breaking her promise.
Max threw her a disbelieving glance and kept driving, navigating through the piles of snow as quickly as if he had been driving on a perfectly snow-cleared road. When Hazel opened her mouth for another round of protests, Max stopped the car without a word, leaned over, opened her door, and motioned her to get going.
“What are you doing?”
Hazel looked dumbfounded from Max to the open door, then back again, and for a minute she didn’t even feel the sharp cold eating at her flesh. Shock eventually faded and was replaced by genuine, intense anger. How dare he throw her out?
“I laid out my invitation, doll, since you are not willing to honor it, please be free to rejoice nature in its purest form. So shoo…I have a warm fire and delicious meal to return to!”
“It would kill you to be a gentleman for once in your life and offer me a ride. I told you I will pay for your services.”
Briefly, the ghost of aggravation flashed across Max’s features, but as it was his custom, he schooled his expression into neutrality. That was one of the central things that Hazel hated about him. While she was an open book for all to read, he had always been and possibly would always be an enigma.
“I neither need your money nor your orders. So make your choice!”
She wanted to slap him. There was no choice to make. If his graciousness didn’t want to honor her request, then she was forced to accept his invitation. She would not stray for another moment in the middle of nowhere, alone and on her sure way to getting frostbite like he had kindly indicated.
“I hate you,” Hazel muttered, and Max promptly slammed the door closed, releasing hoots of laughter while he put the car back in motion. His laugh was as annoying as the man himself, Hazel concluded and refused to meet his eyes or offer him the satisfaction of another argument.
When they finally made it to his God-forsaken cabin, after a rather long and silent ride, Hazel couldn’t believe that instead of having the time of her life at a posh party, she would be stuck with Max Karter in a small cabin that was probably poorly heated and had a nasty smell.
Max cast an odd glance Hazel’s way, which she promptly countered with a deep frown of her own. If he wasn’t pleased to see her, then she had no reason to feel otherwise. But who did she fool?
“Stay in the truck,” he grunted and made his way through the snow to the cabin.
She hated how she looked after the man, like a lost puppy, or worse, like a ridiculously smitten girl. Because no matter how many times she reminded herself that she hated Max, her heart still trembled at the mention of his name, her cheeks still warmed up when he watched her with that piercing gaze of his and all her female parts still erupted in wild flames when he was near.
She might fool her mind, but she could not fool her senses. She wasn’t as upset to miss the New Year’s Eve party as she was scared to spend a night alone with him. Because God knew, he could make her do things she had never thought she would.
The door of the truck was abruptly yanked, and Hazel let out a soft yell that made Max roll his eyes as he threw a bigger, fluffier blanket around her body and pulled it tightly closed. The temperature must have dropped another few degrees, and if she hadn’t gotten frostbite already, that was only by some merciful miracle.
Or maybe ice queens don’t get frostbite, he thought bitterly.
He wasn’t happy to see Hazel, and his displeasure grew the more his lower parts begged to differ, making him shift uncomfortably in his cold jeans. Hazel was danger and heartbreak like he so well knew it. She belonged to a world he did his best to stay away from, so why in hell couldn’t he stay away from her?
“What are you doing?” she shrieked as soon as his arms enfolded her in a secure embrace.
The woman was an infuriating minx, and that’s how she had always been, but Max couldn’t deny that she fitted perfectly to his chest. And he was afraid that she would fit just as well in his home.
“I’m carrying you inside, what does it look like I’m doing?”
“I can walk, Max, I’m not an invalid.”
“Oh, so you do remember my name now?”
“Put me down!”
Max came to an unexpected halt and stared deep into Hazel’s eyes. He knew she didn’t mean what she had said, so that’s precisely why he did put her down—in the knee-high, glacial snow.
“You bastard, you just dropped me in the snow. It’s freezing!”
Max threw his head back and laughed, a laughter that sounded somewhat like a nervous release. He considered himself a patient man, but this woman tested him in ways nobody could.
“I might have done something horrible in another life, and I am finally punished for it.”
Hazel scoffed and glared at him as if she was the punished innocent in this equation. Max watched her with an arched brow, wearing an expression of both amusement and impatience
“How is it possible that you bear such a sweet name, but you are such an irritating woman?”
Rolling her eyes, she didn’t deign to answer him, but while seeking his warmth, she found herself almost back in his arms. And the closeness affected her, whether or not she deigned to accept it.
“Max, please,” Hazel begged and put her arms around his neck, inviting him with her body to pick her back up, but as she moved, the blanket almost dropped.
Max’s hands instantly grabbed Hazel’s hips to keep her steady, then tightened the blanket around her shoulders, trying but failing to avoid noticing the sultry way her lips parted or the rapt quality of her gaze. She pushed up on her tiptoes and assessed his reaction as the distance between their mouths was reduced to mere inches.
“What are you trying to do, Hazel?” Max breathed and his lips scrapped against hers as he spoke. He could taste her warm breath and the deep feminine scent that was purely Hazel. He could smell her out, and his control ran thin.
“Are you trying to stay warm by kissing me, doll? Because you need only ask.”
Max saw the heat in Hazel’s eyes turn once more to ice. He was very skilled at doing that, at irritating her the same way she irritated him. It was a game, a tricky one at that, but one that they still played and refused to lose.
Although truth be told, irritating Hazel was the only way Max could keep himself detached and his heart whole.
“Argh, why do you always have to ruin everything?”
“I’ve learned from the best, doll!”
“I’m just going to find my way back to my car! That’s what I wanted to say.”
Hazel turned around, furious, but not wholly senseless, so she didn’t discard the blanket as she turned around to follow the path Max’s truck had left in the snow. She was stubborn, and like any other woman, she didn’t take well a blow to her ego and Max had just bruised it thoroughly.
“What the hell do you think you are doing?” he hissed and locked an arm around her waist before she even took five steps away from him.
“Leaving, or what does it look like I’m doing?”
“You are crazier than I thought if you think you can survive the night out on your own in this weather.”
“I’m crazy because I trusted you to take care of me for one ni—“
Max’s mouth smashed against Hazel’s, and their teeth clinked together as he fisted his hands in her long, red mane. She let out a startled gasp, but Max swallowed it while his tongue explored the dark pleasures of her mouth. She was sweet and sour and hot and cold and gentle and angry, all rolled into one exquisite bomb of a woman.
He bit her tongue, and she bit his lower lip. He tightened his hold on her hair, and she dug her sharp nails into the skin of his throat. He pulled her against him, punishing her with the warm length that thickened in his trousers, and she climbed him with furious ease.
But before their supremacy contest was over they were already inside the cabin, toppling to the ground. Still holding each other, still not having enough.