First Chapter: Coming In From The Cold

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One

 

WILLOW NEEDED TO keep the old truck on the road and out of the snowy ditch for just one more mile.

At six o’clock on a December evening, the sky over Vermont had been dark for two hours already. She had the heater cranking on the highest setting, but still the windshield was icing over, the heavy snow plastering itself to the top of her field of vision. Willow hunched in her seat for a better view of the road. Creeping along at fifteen miles per hour, she’d be home in five minutes.

She hadn’t meant to drive in blizzard conditions. She’d done her storm preparation—filling the old claw-foot bathtub with water, preparing herself for the inevitable loss of electricity. She put blocks of ice in her freezer and set the candles out on the kitchen table, with a box of matches at the ready.

She’d almost gotten everything right.

And then, heading into the barn to tuck the chickens in for the night, she’d opened their feed bin to find it empty. If she were snowed in for two days, as the Weather Channel predicted, she would have nothing to feed them.

“Damn it!” Willow had said, startling several of her Buff Orpington hens into a nervous flutter. Only the most stalwart remained at her feet, still hoping she would produce a pocketful of raisins.

Instead, she had turned on her heel, latching the barn door behind her. Just because Willow had never intended to become a chicken farmer didn’t mean she wanted to kill off her stock. She and The Girls had a deal—clean feed for organic eggs. She meant to keep her end of the bargain.

The old truck had started right up, and she drove down her lengthy driveway and turned left, away from civilization, toward the country feed store. But snow had accumulated frighteningly fast since her outbound trip just a half hour before. Gripping the wheel, Willow saw another vehicle spotlit ahead—a green Jeep moving even more slowly than she was. Willow stepped on her brakes. But instead of stopping, she felt the sickening sensation of several tons of metal skidding to the right.

Time slowed to a crawl as the truck slid in an awkward direction toward both the Jeep and the ditch. The Jeep’s taillights grew brighter as they approached, and Willow held her breath. At the last second, the Jeep seemed to leap to the left, causing Willow a moment of confusion over which of them—the Jeep or the truck—had moved so quickly. Was she still on the road?

The cab tilted abruptly to the right, and Willow felt a scream catch in her throat. But then the truck stopped suddenly, heaving her torso against the seatbelt. The force pressed a gasp from her lungs, and she bounced backward against the seat.

And then all was still.

With her heart banging away in her chest, Willow took stock. The cab listed to the right. Her wheels must have landed in the drainage culvert beside her road. At the sudden stop, Willow’s feet had slipped off the pedals, and now the truck shuddered and died in place.

Immediately, the windshield began to fill with a white blanket of snow.

She took a deep breath. You’re okay. You’re fine. Thank goodness she’d been going so slowly when she lost control.

A tap on her door made Willow jump. Someone was standing outside. She grasped the window crank—the sort that dated her truck to the premodern era—and rolled down her window. A man’s face—rugged, with a chiseled chin—looked back at her. He gave her an anxious frown. “Are you okay?”

“Yes?” she replied, still stunned.

“Well, now we’re both stuck,” he said. “I veered across the road to get out of your way, and I’m over a stump.” Even in the dark she could see his handsome jaw flex with irritation.

“It’s my fault that you hit a stump on the other side of the road?” Willow knew she ought to focus on the problem at hand. But the handsome stranger in front of her was every bit as distracting as their fender bender. She couldn’t help but admire his sleek white jacket, of the sort of technical fabric sold at the fancy ski shops in town. He had a silver wool hat pulled down over his head, but brown curls escaped from the bottom of it, framing his eyes. He reminded her of a snow god. A slightly ornery one.

He threw up his hands. “I don’t know,” he huffed. “Never mind.” He walked away from her. The snow was falling so fast that the blizzard swallowed him up before he’d taken five steps. He was a big man, she noticed—tall, with long legs and a tight backside.

Nice work, Willow. She had just run the most attractive guy in the county off the road.

Snow blew into her car, so Willow cranked the window closed again. Then she pressed down on the clutch and brake, turning the truck’s key.

Nothing.

Damn.

Willow pumped the gas pedal a couple of times and tried the key again. And again. But the engine wouldn’t even turn over.

“Oh no,” Willow said aloud. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” She needed to call roadside assistance. Digging a hand into her purse for her phone, she turned it on. Willow already knew what it would say, but she looked anyway.

Searching.

She stared. “Come on.”

No signal.

It was just so typical of her recent troubles. Calling for help was like so many other things in her life—an escape hatch that worked for people who weren’t Willow. Other girls might have family to fall back on or catch a break financially, but she had to go and fall hard for a man so inappropriate, so uninterested in her continued happiness that he’d sealed off the exits. Her money was sunk into their old farmhouse; her credit was maxed out by his plans. And he had gone to California with another woman. There Willow sat, in a fifteen-year-old truck that wouldn’t start, chicken feed in the back.

She couldn’t even call 9-1-1. He’d taken that away, too. It had been his dream to move out to the middle of nowhere together.

And then he’d split, leaving her holding the feed bucket.

Damned Vermont. Damned snow. Damned truck. Damned cheating ex-boyfriend who’d fled to California. Damn. Damn. Damn.

 

* * *

 

Back in his Jeep, Dane Hollister smacked the steering wheel. Then he pulled the stick into reverse and tried again. But the wheels spun without catching. Whatever was holding him off the ground must be something quite large, because the Jeep had good clearance, four-wheel drive and sturdy snow tires. Only very bad luck could put him in a snowbank.

But Dane was used to being unlucky.

Calm down, he ordered himself.

He had snapped at that girl. It was true that he’d still be driving toward the town of Hamilton if she hadn’t come along. But the blizzard wasn’t her fault.

Dane rested his hands in his lap and analyzed the last few minutes. He’d seen the truck coming too fast. He’d turned the wheel a little too hard, and the new snow had slicked against the salted road, causing the Jeep to spin.

He probed the incident like the ski team doctor fingering tendons for an injury. But in this case, it could have happened to anyone. He had not experienced any unusual muscle reflexes. The incident was just a fluke.

It had not been caused by a symptom.

Dane blew out a breath, and then focused his thoughts on the real problem at hand. He was stuck about eight miles from the crappy little room he rented on Main Street. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and the forecast was for much more.

And he needed to apologize to the pretty girl in the ugly black truck.

He put his gloves on. Leaving the engine running, he got out. Christ. The snow was coming down fast and furious. His own headlights did little to illuminate the road, but he knew where she was—kitty-corner to him. He pointed himself in a diagonal line away from his headlights and found her. Again he knocked on her window. The cab was dark and he couldn’t see inside.

“Hello?” he called.

There was no answer.

“Are you okay?” he asked again. There was only silence. Had she vanished? It was even a little creepy. But there was really only one thing in the world that Dane Hollister was afraid of, and it wasn’t standing there on the road.

He grasped the handle and opened the truck’s door, and there she was again. Only now there were tears drying on her face.

Nice, Dane. Good work, asshole.

The girl wiped her face quickly with her hand, embarrassed.

“Hey!” he said, in a voice that was much warmer than before. “Christ, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to flip out on you. Can I help?”

She tried to pull herself together, clearing her throat. “The truck won’t start.”

“Do you want me to give it a try?”

She looked up at him then, one eyebrow raised cynically. “Because I might have forgotten how to do it myself?”

He laughed. “Right. I get it. But I don’t know what else to offer.”

She slid across the seat, swinging her legs over the gearbox. “Go ahead. And if she starts, I won’t even hold it against you.”

He swung into the cab and closed the door. Then he tried to start the engine. Since the seat was set for her petite frame, his knees were jammed up against the steering column. Not that it mattered. When he turned the key, there was only silence. “She won’t even turn over? Not once?”

“Not once.”

He leaned back, or tried to. “Sorry. Our options for getting out of here aren’t very good.”

“I’ll just walk it,” she said. “My house is about a mile away.”

“Hmm,” he said quietly. He didn’t want to insult her again, but unless she had a snowmobile with floodlights on it, she’d be lost before you could say nor’easter. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” He groped for the high beams. “Look, the road is gone.” The lights illuminated all of about four feet in front of the truck, a deep flurry of falling snow, punctuated by only blackness beyond.

“Wow,” she whispered.

“Do you know any of your neighbors? I didn’t see any lights….”

She shook her head, silky hair sliding over her shoulders. “There aren’t many houses out here. This land is held in conservation.”

“Okayyy…” he said. “I’m out of ideas. I guess we’re going to have to call 9-1-1.”

She tipped her head back and let out a musical laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Not for years,” Dane admitted. He’d grown up two towns away, but that felt like a lifetime ago.

Reluctantly he turned off her headlights, saving her battery, yet plunging the cab into darkness. He’d been enjoying the sight of a pretty girl laughing, cheeks flushed, perfect pink lips smiling up at the ceiling. Just because Dane planned never to get involved with a woman didn’t mean he didn’t like looking at them. (Especially the occasional naked woman between his legs.) And this one was really quite extraordinary. Late twenties, slender, and with a long graceful neck. Even with the bulk of her down jacket he’d noticed a full bust that heaved as she laughed.

“There’s no reception anywhere on this road,” she said, “until you’re almost into Hamilton.”

“Right,” he said. “I’d forgotten. The mobile phone companies have no love for the forty-ninth most populous state.”

Dane had spent the past ten years traveling on the World Cup skiing circuit. This was his first time back in Vermont in years. Elite skiers didn’t train in Vermont—the mountains weren’t tall enough, and the snowfall was unreliable. Instead, they trained at the big western mountains, in Colorado or Utah.

But this year, Dane and his coach were making an exception. They’d camped here for the season—between races—to be close to Dane’s latest family tragedy. In Vermont, he was able see his sick brother every week, yet keep his troubles far away from the prying eyes of the ski association.

“So…” the girl took a deep breath. “That leaves us waiting for the plow to come by. The driver can radio in for help.”

Dane shifted on her uncomfortable bench seat. With the cab listing to the right, he had to hang on with the heels of his boots to avoid sliding into her. “Okay,” he said. “Look, my name’s Dane, and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry I barked at you before.”

Her head turned in the dark. “It’s okay. Skidding is scary, and it made me a little cuckoo too—I actually felt drunk for a minute there.”

“Are you going to tell me your name?”

“Sorry, it’s Willow Reade.”

Willow. He cleared his throat. “Willow, your truck is ferociously uncomfortable. Do you mind if we wait for the plow in my Jeep? I left it running.”

“Oh!” she said. “Um, sure. If that’s okay. I’m kind of up against the door here.”

He forced open the driver’s side door. “I don’t know how long we’ll be waiting. Do you happen to have any emergency supplies in your glove box…whiskey? Chocolate?”

She laughed. “Sorry. I am a completely useless human.”

The way she said it was bitter. As if she believed it.

Anyhow, Willow followed him toward his Jeep, which was lit by his running lights. But in every other direction it was utterly dark. “Ladies first,” he said. “Do you mind climbing across? You could go around to the passenger door, but I don’t know what you’d be walking into over there.”

He held the door while she slid inside, climbing carefully over the automatic gearshift.

Dane closed the door behind her and walked around to the back, opening the tailgate. He saw her spin around to watch him. Quickly, so as not to let too much heat out of the car, he dragged a half dozen pairs of skis out of the back and then slammed the door. He set the skis against the back of the Jeep, in a lean-to formation.

When he opened the driver’s side door again, her worried face looked up at him. He closed the door, plunging them into darkness. “I cleaned all the snow away from the tailpipe, and tented skis over it,” he explained. “We should be able to run the engine for a while before the exhaust gets clogged.”

“Oh!” He could hear her shiver beside him. “Thank-you, Boy Scout. It crossed my mind that you were making room for my mutilated body. But I forgot to worry about accidental asphyxiation.”

“Christ,” he laughed in what he hoped was a non-threatening way. “The only thing I’d like to mutilate is a cheeseburger, medium rare. And a side of onion rings.”

“Good,” she said. “Because it’s been a pretty crappy day already.”

“Has it?” He leaned back against the headrest. “Let’s name all the shitty things about this day. You start.”

“Well, okay,” her voice was tentative. He wished he could see her face. Her tone suggested a frown across that pink, kissable mouth he’d spied earlier. “My truck may have breathed its last. And I can’t afford a new one.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Your turn,” Willow pressed.

“Sure. I was supposed to drive to Keene tonight. And I have a flight out of Boston tomorrow. But the roads are trashed, and the Jeep is stuck. Your turn.”

“That is inconvenient. I shouldn’t have been on the road at all. I drove out because I needed chicken feed, which seemed important. But now I realize that I didn’t check their water, and the chickens are far more likely to die of thirst than hunger. Go.”

We might die of thirst first. Go.”

He felt her turn toward him in the dark. “I have to throw a flag on that one, mister,” she said. “We’re not trapped in a barn like them, we’re surrounded by water. How about this: I left a pot of chili cooking in my kitchen, and it might burn. Go.”

“New rule,” he announced. “Let’s not talk about food. I’ve been working out since five-thirty this morning, and lunch was five hours ago. Your turn.”

“All right…” Willow sounded as if she was running out of complaints, at least the ones she was willing to tell a stranger. “There is going to be some world-class shoveling to do tomorrow.”

“Well, I have to flag that one,” Dane said. “Because shoveling means snow, and I live for snow. So here’s the real bummer. We’re getting two feet of freshy, and I can’t ski on it tomorrow. I have to travel.”

“The snow will still be here when you get back,” Willow pointed out.

“You aren’t a skier, are you? There’s nothing like first tracks. Flying down a slope in un-tracked powder is the best thing there is. It’s better than sex.”

Willow burst out laughing. “You did not just say that.”

“What?”

“I feel sorry for your girlfriend,” she giggled.

“I don’t have one.”

But that only made her laugh harder. “Sorry, I’m no expert on skiing, so it’s possible that you know something I don’t. On the other hand, it’s also possible that you’re meeting the wrong girls.”

He grinned in the dark. “Fair enough. I think it’s your turn.”

“Ah.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, my ex called today and asked me to sell his motorcycle and wire him the money. As if that would take no effort on my part. Even though he left me in debt.” Her voice quavered a bit at the end. Their little game had turned into a peculiar little confessional. “Your turn.”

“My brother is dying,” Dane bit out. “And I’m supposed to be driving to see him right now.”

Christ. He had no idea what made him tell her that. To say that he wasn’t a sharer was putting it mildly. But the dark and the warm sound of her voice had loosened up his tongue.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

He shook his head in the darkness. “It’s been a long illness. I’ve known it was coming.”

“What’s his name?” she asked.

Her choice of questions made him like her even more. It wasn’t a nosy what’s wrong with him? Instead, she’d asked something much more relevant, something which honored his brother the way Dane thought of him—a happy, laughing man. The father that Dane never had.

“He’s Finn,” he answered. “We’re Finn and Dane. My mother had a thing for Scandinavia.”

Poor Finn.

For almost fifteen years, Dane had known Finn would die. When Dane was a teenager, his brother sat him down and explained it. “It killed mom, and it will eventually kill me, too. But maybe not you, Danger man, you just keep skiing fast, and maybe you’ll outrun it.”

He and Finn were ten years apart. His brother had been twenty-five at the time he received his diagnosis. Poor Finn had started showing symptoms a good decade earlier than most people with the disease. Now Finn was not quite forty, and Dane was about to turn thirty.

And eventually, the symptoms would come for him, too.

No matter what his brother said, Dane was sure of it. He had spent the last fifteen years trying to accept it. And this was Dane’s true secret. The fact that his brother was sick could slip out, sitting next to a silky-haired girl in a dark car…that didn’t matter—not really. But nothing could shake that other truth from his lips. If anyone ever found out about the genetic time bomb that awaited him, Dane would lose his place on the ski team, his endorsements. Everything.

“It can’t be easy,” Willow said, her voice low. “Watching somebody die.”

He lifted his arms behind his head, grabbing the headrest with both hands. “We all go someday, right?” How many times had Dane said that aloud—a million? And always with the unfortunate knowledge that while there are many ways to die, he’d seen one of the ugliest. First his mother, and now Finn.

“I guess so,” she said softly.

“Including your chickens?”

She laughed. “Don’t say that. They’ll probably be fine. I’m just mad at myself for driving out through the storm. I’ve tried to become a country girl, but it just never quite stuck.”

“So you’re not from around here either, like you accused me of a little while ago….”

She laughed again, and it was a musical sound. He decided he wanted to hear that laugh a few more times before the plow truck showed up. “No, before we moved here, I lived in Manhattan for seven years. I went to NYU, and then did most of a doctorate.”

“So…then you decided to move to the sticks and raise chickens?”

“Ugh. Do I have to tell this part?”

“No,” he said quickly. “Not if it’s painful.”

“It’s just painfully stupid,” she sighed. “I followed a guy here two years ago. He was very interested in the back-to-the-land movement. Unfortunately he was also very interested in a twenty-one-year-old folk singer. So now I own a hundred-year-old farmhouse on fifteen acres, which I cannot sell. I can’t get a decent job, and I can’t finish my graduate degree. I’m kind of stuck, and there’s nobody to blame.”

“Except for the asshole.”

“Except for him. But if I’d been smarter, it wouldn’t have happened. Now he’s in California. He’s gotten smarter, too, I think. She has a trust fund.”

“Christ,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

A silence fell between them. “Excuse me for a minute, I’m going to check the tailpipe,” he said. He opened the door, which brought the dome light on again, and he got another look at Willow’s face. This time she smiled at him, and her big hazel eyes shone. God, she was pretty. In a perfect world he could run his fingers through that hair, taste those perfect lips. Hell, if he was going to dream big, in a perfect world he could go home to something like that every night.

But not this world. Never in this one. He shut the door.

The wind whipped his face as Dane walked to the back of the car. For a moment, he couldn’t see at all. The gust pushed on his chest so fiercely that he put a hand out, his fingers finding the Jeep’s frame. He followed it around to the back, where his taillights revealed that snow was drifting everywhere, accumulating in spite of the wind block he’d tried to make with the skis. He kicked as much snow away from the rear of the Jeep as he could. But it was falling incredibly fast. So much for the comfort of the heater.

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