“I came home why again?” The view outside her front window did nothing to convince Leah coming back had been a good idea.
She’d exchanged green grass, rolling hills, and soft sea breezes for freezing snow, flat land, and chilling blizzard winds.
If she had to do it all over again, coming back here should have been the last option.
Who was she kidding? This had been her only option.
She ran home to lick her wounds and this…this cold, never-ending white stuff outside was the price to pay.
One freakish blizzard after the other. Almost as if Mother Nature herself was trying to keep Leah in Marietta.
A chilly burst of air from the crack at the bottom of the front door wound its way around her ankles and nipped at her skin. Her four pairs of wool socks were sitting in the washing machine along with her only comfy pair of Mukluks. Thanks to Dylan’s cat, Jack, all she had left were ankle socks. Who wore ankle socks during the winter in Montana?
Dang cat and his miserable temperament.
She’d been home for exactly twenty-four hours, but she’d forgotten how cold Marietta could get in the winter. She’d expected all her winter gear would still be here, but her brother gave it all away during a clothing drive last year.
Nice one, Dylan.
When she’d said she’d never return to Marietta, he’d apparently believed her.
He should know her better than that. She might say words she regretted in the heat of the moment…but that was all they were…words.
As if she could get Marietta out of her system.
She didn’t mind coming back to visit…but she preferred coming back in the summer—when it was sweltering hot.
Her favorite time to come back was during the rodeo. Not in March.
Southern California never got this cold. Ever.
Leah shivered and drew the ends of her cardigan closer to her small-framed body.
“Is today the day I’m going to face the world?” Leah tossed the question over to Jack, who laid on his bed in front of the floor heater, ignoring her.
“That’s what I thought. Licking my wounds a little while longer it is.” Leah went to lightly rub the cat’s head, but his deep growl had her pulling away. There were enough scratch marks on her hands to know he was an ornery old thing.
“One day, you’ll like me. I don’t care if it takes all the time in the world, either.”
She eyed the heavily blanketed sidewalk in front of the house and knew she needed to go out and clean it off before anyone from the retirement home down the street went for their daily walk. Dylan sent a message earlier saying he’d take care of it when he got home, but if she bundled up, no one would recognize her. Right?
Whether it was the cold draft snaking around her ankles or just watching the snow fall, goose bumps started to cover her body and Leah shivered. She’d turned the kettle on earlier for tea. Hopefully, it was still hot. She’d prefer hot chocolate, but after convincing Dylan to bring home a carafe of Sage’s delectable concoction last night, she’d never go back to the pre-packaged garbage her brother kept in the cupboard.
Leah reached for the tattered brown-and-blue knitted scarf Wade had made for her one Christmas, wrapping its softness around her neck before pouring boiling water into an awaiting mug of tea. The moment she wrapped her hands around the hot mug, she sighed with relief, enjoying the warmth as it seeped into her palms. Now, if only her fingers would de-ice.
Of all the places in this home she missed the most, it was this kitchen. So many sweet memories of her life had started here. Baking with her mother as a little girl, learning how to read recipes, create treats from scratch…she cherished those moments. Her mom would tell her stories about her past, of growing up and learning how to bake herself. She shared stories about how her and Leah’s father met, fell in love, and then stories about her and her brother, and then all those memories where her mother gave her advice about her friendships, her failed relationships, and then with…
No. Leah clamped down on all thoughts about that…stuff.
It made her miss her parents even more. They’d been gone for over fifteen years now, having died in a tragic car accident where they were forced off the road by a truck full of drunken teens.
Losing her parents at the age of eighteen had changed her life in more ways than one.
Leah dedicated her life to working with teens, speaking at assemblies, and even volunteered as a designated driver on the weekends…anything to do her part in making sure they were aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. Saving lives was her focus and goal.
She hoped she hadn’t screwed that up by her latest faux pas.
Leah picked at one of the fresh-baked chocolate chip oatmeal muffins she’d made earlier this morning. The plate of cinnamon buns she’d made in the middle of the night after not being able to sleep called out to her, but she’d save those as a reward for shoveling.
Food made for great rewards.
“Sorry about the blizzard, folks. Apparently, March is coming in like a lion this year and not the lamb I’d predicted.” Dylan, her brother as well as Marietta’s local radio DJ and weatherman’s voice, caught her attention on the radio she had playing in the background. “Keep those ice skates handy, though, as the weather should break by midafternoon. And remember, I may not always get the weather right, but I can make your mood better thanks to the sounds of our next music artist, Garth Brooks.”
Leah snickered at the apologetic tone to his voice. She could imagine the phone calls her brother was getting at the station. There was a running bet down at the local pub regarding Dylan and his weather guarantees.
Leah took a sip of her tea and enjoyed the scorching sensation as she swallowed.
By the time she was bundled up with her brother’s oversized hooded jacket, waterproof mitts, knitted hat, and his extra-large snow boots, she was sweating.
The street outside was quiet. The falling snow muted the sounds of traffic down the street. For a moment…a very brief moment…Leah relished the stillness. Until cold puddles of liquid soaked through the bottoms of the discarded boots she’d found in the front closet.
Now she knew why they’d been buried at the back of the closet.
Leah bit back a groan, pulled up the scarf around her neck to cover her mouth and nose, reached for the shovel that rested just inside the small alcove of the front porch, and started the arduous process of clearing away the fluffy, yet dense snow.
She hated winter. Hated it with a passion. Every year since moving away, she’d send Dylan photos of her enjoying the warm sun whenever she checked the weather and saw it’d snowed in Marietta. Every photo she sent, Dylan would reply with a warning that karma had a nasty temperament. Of course, Leah ignored that.
Karma loved her. Karma would never turn on its heel and kick her in the butt. Karma was her best friend.
Until she did something to piss karma off.
With that in mind, Leah bent down and pushed her shovel along the sidewalk. When it was full, she lifted it up, aiming the snow to go flying over the curb and onto the road in front of her. Except a gust of wind hit her and carried the snow behind her. A muffled gasp caught her attention. Leah spun, her eyes widening in dismay as her grandmother wiped snow off her face.
“Oh my…Grams! I’m so sorry.” She dropped the shovel. “I didn’t realize you were behind me, and the wind—” Leah rushed over and brushed snow off her grandmother’s coat and scarf.
Grams brushed her hands away, relinquished her hold of the man’s arm beside her, and smoothed her bright red winter coat. “I always did like a good snowball fight.” Her eyes twinkled while the color in her cheeks matched her coat. “Wade, be a dear and finish clearing Leah’s sidewalk?”
Leah froze. Her mouth flapped like a gasping fish.
“Close your mouth, Leah, it’s unbecoming.” Grams tapped her on the sleeve.
Leah’s hand tightened around the shovel but did as she was told, like a little child.
Wade Burns. Damn the man. Karma must really have it out for her right now.
“I’m not ready for you. Not yet.” The words made their way out of her mouth before she even knew she thought them.
The way his eyes softened at her words made her want to scream.
Not fair, Karma. Not fair.
Wade Burns was her best friend. Her soul mate. The one person she trusted more than anyone else in the world. Until last month, not a day went by when they weren’t talking via text message, sharing a laugh on Facebook, or even messaging on Twitter. This was the one man who knew her inside and out, who loved her without prejudice. She treasured his friendship more than anything in the world, which was why seeing him here, now, when she wasn’t ready…
Not fair, Karma. Not fair.
Exactly five days ago, she’d blurted out her love for him on national television.
It had been the five longest days of her life.
The five roughest days in the past few years.
Did he know? Was she living in a dream world by hoping he didn’t?
The nail that’d been hammered deep into her heart after that humiliating episode twisted, reopening the wound Wade himself had placed there, and she was surprised she was still standing.
She’d told him how she felt one night about a month ago, and he’d turned her down. Not just turned her down, though; he completely obliterated her by acting as if the words hadn’t popped out of her mouth at all.
I love you.
Gah. She couldn’t even look at him now.
“Well, kiddo,” Grams nudged her out of the way, “ready or not, here I am.” Her grandmother headed to the front door and climbed the steps. “Leah? Give the shovel to Wade.”
Leah wordlessly handed the shovel over to the one man she’d hoped to avoid for a little while longer.
His soft, insanely gorgeous smile and wink confirmed he knew it, too.
“It’s good to see you, Leah.” His voice, the audible version of smooth butterscotch rum sliding down one’s throat, had her weak in the knees. “I’ve been waiting for you to call or text…” He watched her with those kind, gorgeous eyes of his, and her heart started to tap-tap-tap against her chest. She rubbed at the spot, as if it actually ached, before dropping her hand, hoping he hadn’t caught that little response.
“Something you need to get off your chest?” His low voice rumbled all the way through her.
“What? No…no…I just…” The words were all twisted up inside of her.
For Pete’s sake, she was acting like a love-struck teenager, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Child, get in the house.” Grams’ voice was full of laughter, leaving Leah wishing that dying from embarrassment was actually a real thing.
“Grams, you don’t play fair,” Leah hissed as she climbed the steps and opened the door, moving to the side so her grandmother could walk in first. She cast a quick glance down at Wade, who caught her looking and gave her one of those heart-thumping smiles of his.
The edges of her lips started to curl into something she hoped was a smile, but feared might actually look like a grimace. The sudden frown on his face confirmed that fear.
“I never have, love,” Grams teased. Leah tore her gaze from Wade’s and looked at her grandmother. “Why start playing fair now?” The saucy grin on Grams’ face told Leah more than she needed to know.
She’d brought Wade here on purpose. Damn the woman.
“Do you have any salt or rock chips?” Wade asked before she could close the door.
Leah pointed to the round white container just off to the side of the front porch. “There’s salt in there. Careful though. Dylan filled it last night, so it’ll be…” Her jaw dropped for a few seconds as she watched Wade lift it with one hand. “Heavy.” She shook her head as Wade winked at her once again.
Damn the man and his winks. And strong arms. And knowing smile. And…
She was honest when she’d said she wasn’t ready for him yet. She wasn’t. She needed another few days at least to work up the courage to talk to him. Weeks even.
Heck, make that months…and only after there were at least a thousand miles or more separating them.
End of Excerpt