Tucker McTavish sat in the truck for a long time. No heat. Stared out the window at the bleak, shapeless drifts of snow that formed an indifferent mound blocking her view of Miracle Lake. Her arms draped on the steering wheel of the old Dodge Ram, the truck both she and her twin sister Tanner had learned to drive, felt awkward, as if she were borrowing them from someone, and they weren’t suited. Too long, too thin, too weak.
She needed to suck it up, do this thing. Get it over. Pull on her old ice skates and take a spin around the lake and make her wish because if it was one thing Tucker desperately needed it was a miracle. Her lips twisted in a faint smile. She was totally undeserving, but that was the point of a miracle wasn’t it?
The moon finally pulled its lazy ass from behind a cloud and lit up the snow enough so that it glimmered. Not invitingly exactly, but it was ten minutes to midnight and the families and teens of Marietta, Montana, had long gone back to their warm homes, the echo of their happy voices faded away. Thank God.
Probably a stupid idea. But still. Reinvention (or was it redemption she was after?) was a long, washed out, twisted gravel road riddled with weeds and broken beer bottles and trash, but she had to start somewhere. A thousand-mile journey begins with a single step, she mocked. Total irony for her to want to Gandhi it out and commit to a new path, or was it Confucius who had said that? Why hadn’t she paid attention in school like Tanner had?
No, she’d been too smart for that. She’d mastered the art of ditching and hooking up with boys under the bleachers, in empty classrooms, and once under the principal’s desk just because it had been the most outrageous thing she could think of at the time. And what had that gotten her? A lot of good times and laughs and a whole helluva lot of alone.
Time to do this. And if she didn’t haul ass, it would be tomorrow, no longer the witching hour of December first.
“Okay,” Tucker spoke into the chilled and silent interior of the truck when her life, the loss of several key sponsors to younger women, the loss of a part she’d been promised, public humiliation on social media, and now this latest fall from grace, was anything but.
Grabbing her ice skates from the floor of the cab and a thermos of hot cocoa laced with a miniscule bit of peppermint schnapps, Tucker slid out of the truck. She trudged one step at a time, slow and steady, just like the new version she wanted to see in the mirror—someday, maybe if she could stick it—up the small mound to the lake. Time to get real. Time to change. Time to…
“Holy fuck,” Tucker breathed as she crested the short trail to the lake.
Minutes from December first, Miracle Lake already had a good portion frozen over. It had been an early, slightly harsh winter but not by Montana standards and certainly not by Marietta cowboy and cowgirl standards. That was for sure. Her twin Tanner hadn’t even complained about the first snowstorm that had come a few weeks earlier than normal and that had dumped a couple of feet in a few hours. Nope, she’d saddled up with the boys and ridden out to gather the last group of cows and bulls from the upper meadows and brought them down to the valley when the storm had slammed over the mountains earlier and heavier than predicted.
Tucker shivered. She’d lived and competed in California rodeo events over the past ten years and when she did a flyby home, it was only a few days at most and never during the winter, even Christmas if she could help it. This year she could not help it. So she’d told herself she could be good. That she could stay the month of December, be a part of her family. Participate in the ranch chores, stand up for her sister’s small Christmas Eve wedding. Not mess anything up. Not try to seduce the groom or one of his two yummy brothers or one of the ranch hands. Blah, blah, blah. Like she was eight with no self-restraint or impulse control.
She could control. And she did. Her way.
But this was for Tanner, and she supposed she did owe her sister something after the rodeo drama in September that had had everyone talking. So here she was, the bad twin, prodigal daughter come slouching home, stopping off at Miracle Lake, to beg a miracle. And to do that, she hadn’t wanted any witnesses. And she definitely didn’t want to advertise her return. Judge. Judge. Hiss. Whisper. She didn’t give a shit, but Tanner would, and she didn’t deserve that. Tanner had her own cross to bear and that sucker was heavy.
Tucker had waited until a few minutes before midnight, expecting darkness, privacy, and a vast empty sheath of ice. Instead about forty candles flickered in mason jars that formed a spiral on the ice. Tucker felt her breath tangle in her tight throat. And something hot pricked her eyes. It was so beautiful and simple and unexpected that she felt a pang all the way through the walled-off fortress of her heart. It looked magical. Like the first time her dad would turn on the Christmas lights after he decorated the horse barn each Christmas.
She tugged on her skates, determined to be a part of the holiday magic even though she had come here to be alone. She tied her laces and pushed off onto the ice, feeling the same flush of excitement as she’d done as a kid when her dad would bring her and Tanner to Miracle Lake. Tucker entered the spiral and slowly began to skate through it, her eyes caught by the flickering lights and shadows. She felt like she was traveling back through time, to her childhood before her mother had left the family without explanation and her twin had been shattered by a barrel racing accident that stole her dreams along with her health and their tightness as sisters, leaving Tucker with nothing but a long, narrow, lonely road ahead she’d been ill-prepared to walk.
It was true, she thought. The feel for the skates, the ice, the push and glide came back. Tucker tucked her left foot up behind her ankle, reached her arms up to the spangled sky and then spun in a tight circle. Not as fast as the spins when she’d been a kid and preteen, and it sure was wobbly, but for once the imperfection didn’t grate at her and cause her to nearly jump out of her skin.
She came to a full stop and stared out across the lake. The stretch of white would thin out, get darker toward the middle like a glazed donut with a vociferous black hole that would suck her in and down under all its black emptiness. Once she’d loved to skate. The Triple T Ranch where she’d grown up had had a pond where she and Tanner had often spent the winter weekends after chores skating. She hadn’t skated since Tanner’s accident except for a breath mint commercial she’d shot a few years ago.
She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the edges of the vast white darken, fall away into black beckoning her in. Sometimes she would have these random and impulsive urges to jump, to steer her car into the guardrail, to slice her finger instead of the bell pepper, to… She bit down on her lip, concentrated on the pain, and counted her breaths. Breathing in on a slow count of seven; seven for luck right? And then out through her nose, slow exhale, seven again. Double luck. She could control it. The impulse would pass. In on seven. Out on seven. Seven times.
She opened her eyes and forced herself to look again at the ice in the middle. No panic. No mad impulse. See? Control. Just as she turned back, she heard music—what sounded like a sexy, but slow and dreamy, bass guitar. Intrigued, Tucker skated back into the spiral, moving through it and letting her body feel the beat. A melody line joined the bass. It was jazz, she thought, but maybe not. She knew country artists and definitely pop and rock but this was different. It had an indie vibe, and she wondered at the quality of the sound at the small outdoor skating area.
Then she saw someone walking swiftly from the tree line carrying a large backpack. Tall was all she could tell with the heavy longish dark coat swinging open with each step. He moved fluidly and, as he got closer, “sex on a stick” came to mind, but no. She had come to Miracle Lake to beg and plead and rationalize for a miracle, and would not succumb to temptation before she’d even gathered up the nerve to ask for self-discipline. He had a knit cap pulled low, darkish stubble at least three days old, and cheekbones that would make a modeling rep orgasm.
Ugh! She glanced at her phone. Three minutes to midnight.
“Are you the big bad wolf my mother warned me about?” Tucker couldn’t quite help herself.
He stopped and looked up, startled, and she realized with a bump in her chest that he hadn’t realized she was there.
“Just one,” she retorted, stung. She was not the type of woman anyone ignored, especially hotties. “Although there are probably dozens of sleeping squirrels if that’s your preference.”
“Hardly,” he answered coolly. “But I came here tonight to be alone and to get myself together.”
Tucker looked him up and down nice and slow. He definitely looked together to her. Not a cowboy. Something else. But her sexual appraisal had always worked wonders with cowboys and non-cowboys over the years, although she reminded herself she was not doing that tonight, even though he wasn’t her sister’s fiancé Luke or one of Luke’s brothers.
“That might take a little longer than tonight.”
She expected him to laugh or at least smile.
“One month,” he said and dropped his backpack by the side of the shed where the ice skates were stored and then proceeded to jimmy the lock on the door.
“Are you breaking and entering?” she demanded, a little shocked despite the fact that she had spent time with more than a few bad boys over the years, and enjoyed almost every minute.
“Breaking,” he said easily popping the lock quickly. He shone his flashlight in and then grabbed a pair of skates. “But not really entering.”
“You don’t really strike me as the skating type.”
He wasn’t local. At least, he hadn’t grown up here, she corrected herself. Marietta had changed and grown over the years she’d been away. Tanner kept her up with most of the news, but more new families and new businesses seemed to move in each passing year. She had a love-hate relationship with her roots and always felt uncomfortable coming home. Uncomfortable with the familiar and the new.
Maybe he ran the skating rink, although that seemed like it would be a waste of his time. He had an edge that she couldn’t quite place, but small town retail? No.
“Already judging and we have yet to say hello,” he said softly as he deftly laced one skate.
“Hello,” Tucker said, then she struck a pose and made some silly jazz hands. “Surprise.”
He laced the other skate and looked up at her, and she felt the air whoosh out. Well, not out of her body, exactly, but out of her soul. Ridiculous. She didn’t think about souls. She hadn’t been to church since she’d left home at seventeen to join the California rodeo circuit and to try her hand at acting in the off-season.
His direct, assessing look felt like a hard jab that pinched like when she’d had her nose pierced, or her first prick of a tattoo needle. She felt as if his eyes popped a hole in the dark place she kept locked away and part of her hissed out in a trail of thin black smoke, and part of him had rushed into the void.
“Hi,” he said and stood up and fluidly took to the ice.
She watched him skate away. Men did not move away from her after a quick look and a “hi.” What was his deal? Tucker watched him, puzzled, intrigued, and then when he continued to ignore her, pissed.
He moved beautifully, circling the candle pattern, push, glide, push, glide, his legs long, extended, and his posture erect. God, he would look beautiful on a horse. She stood there watching him, forgetting about why she’d come here, why her heart felt so withered in her chest, why she was scared of the rest of her life beyond her sister’s wedding, and why she felt like a stranger in her hometown and in her home.
Christmas and weddings were a time of joy, right? Yet her eyes felt hot, her skin tight. And she felt like she needed every ounce of control to not fall to the ice and weep for everything she’d thrown away so heedlessly.
He flashed by her not seeming to notice her at all and wove through the candles, not making a path like the spiral but cutting a completely different pattern and Tucker felt a twinge of curiosity. “Perspective is a funny thing,” she remembered a teacher saying once in a class when she’d probably been bored and inattentive to everything but what boy was trying to get her attention. She didn’t remember the rest but she wanted to now. Had it been an art or science class?
She walked out on the ice, her eyes swallowing the candles’ glow and the dark figure cutting so lithely in between them.
Definitely athletic. Hockey. She bet he also skied. And with those long, effortlessly strong, lean legs, he definitely could ride a horse. She could just picture him galloping full out beside her. And since it was her fantasy, his shirt was off.
“Montana born,” she whispered under her breath, but he wasn’t a cowboy. She would have bet money on that, but he could be.
Beautiful bone structure, jaw granite strong and cheekbones as sharply cut as the peak of Copper Mountain jutting up from behind Miracle Lake. He was completely focused on some inner thought. Tucker didn’t like being ignored. And even though she knew she should turn away from the hot man skating because she’d come up to beg for the power of good behavior, she continued to stare and to speculate. So what? She could have a little fun and still behave for the next three weeks and at her sister’s small ranch wedding. Hell, she’d even make it through the month of December.
Shrugging out of her lime green fitted ski parka so that her insulated stretch yoga-style pants and tightly cropped cashmere sweater could show off her figure better, she skated out a bit more and waited for him to circle back. He whisked by her, just a puff of cold air, and even though she had layers and a fleece-lined knit cap that she’d made and a matching scarf, she’d ice her tush if she didn’t get moving. He whisked by her again, and it was then she realized his eyes were closed.
Uncharacteristically Tucker hesitated. She didn’t want to get mowed down, but she didn’t want to stand out on the ice like she was an awkward preteen either.
“Gonna skate?” His voice held a challenge.
Tucker didn’t like that. “That was my plan.”
This was the part where she should skate off, dis him, but she felt off balance. Not quite sure what to do. Was he going to ask her to skate with him? Were they both going to skate on their own? If this were a movie, and it really should be with the candles and sultry guitar melody and underlying thump thump of the base, his eyes wouldn’t skim over her with a total lack of enthusiasm.
And he glided away.
And she was freezing without her coat. Tucker recklessly pushed off, passed him, and cut in tight. She’d done the move hundreds of times when racing Tanner or later, boys when she was flirting, cutting them off to show them who was better—her, always her—but this time she wanted to cut close so he’d get blasted with ice and maybe fall, but she was out of practice so her blade clipped his, and they both ended up on their backs. Black sky. A candle tipped and spilled wax on her hand.
Her and him.
They sat up at the same time, and she found herself looking into eyes that glittered and a face that was mostly expressionless, but the mouth was bracketed by fine lines that indicated that he spent a lot of time outdoors and often smiled although he was not smiling now. He had long, thick brown hair liberally streaked with gold that spilled out from under his cap. Was he a hippie? A hipster? What was he?
Her pride. But Tucker righted the candle that was still burning and laid the back of her hand, where the wax had splashed, on the ice.
He stood up with remarkable ease. Definitely athletic. She too knew how to fall and pop up. You had to do that with flying hooves coming at you, but already he was there, hand out to pull her up.
She wasn’t used to that. Help. She was tough. A cowgirl.
Not an actress. She pushed the thought away and stared at his hand as if it were a suspect gift, but it was so beautiful. Large, defined. Tanned and not the spray-on kind in LA because everyone was worried about wrinkles, and even she had been advised to start Botox. Ugh. His nails short but cleanly clipped. Calluses like a cowboy. His fingers were long and squared off and she, who had always had a thing for hands and could tell within minutes of meeting a man if those hands would or would not bring her to an orgasm, found her stomach flipping. Definitely a big O. Many of them. And even though she’d come here wishing for exactly a different type of miracle, she took his hand.
“My name is Tucker McTavish,” she said coming up flush with his chest, and even though he must have at least two layers on under his open coat that she could now tell was a serious North Face—expensive—coat, she could feel the firm definition of muscles. “And you’re on my lake.”
“It’s Miracle Lake, not Tucker Lake.”
He dropped her hand but didn’t take a step back.
“This town called Marietta Tucker too?”
So he would play. Her interest stirred.
She smiled. “Actually, most days it is.”
He cocked his head.
“Skate or put on your jacket. Your nipples are distracting me from my moment of Zen.”
“‘Moment of Zen’ my ass. You are so not Trevor Noah or John Stewart.”
He laughed and Tucker gulped at the unfettered sound. To her surprise he retrieved her parka.
“For your info, Trevor,” she gave the comedian’s name three syllables as he handed her her coat, “I was cold. Not happy to see you.”
She thrust her arms in the coat and zipped it up like she was in a race. Covered, she faced him feeling uncharacteristically embarrassed.
“Definitely the dumbest male move of the decade,” he commented, his voice low and amused as if mocking himself and, Tucker felt, her. “Men all over the planet would boo my dumbass request just now. Alone time and then when that didn’t work, a jacket.”
She caught her breath. Lust was going to make her dizzy. His eyes were so alive as if one of the candles had been lit within them. Up close now she could tell they were a warm caramel brown. His lips quirked and practically taunted her to kiss and bite and lick them and lock on for a long, hot, sweaty ride. “And it’s Laird, not Trevor. I’m not that funny.”
“Laird? Really? Like the Scottish nobility kind?”
“Yeah, my mom,” he winced and paused. Sucked in a breath.
Oh no. She’s dead. Just died. He’s going to cry. I need to get the hell out of here. Crying men are…
“She, ahhh, how shall I put this, enjoyed a lot of historical romances.”
Tucker laughed in relief. “Phew! It could be worse,” Tucker said.
She began to skate, and he followed and she felt a little bit of a thrill, which she should so not be feeling… but it wasn’t quite December… but a quick glance at her Fitbit told her it was… but no need to go total cold turkey. She could flirt a little. Right? She was making the rules. Besides, she hadn’t even officially gone home yet. She’d taken a cab, walked the last mile up the drive and took the truck, which always had the key in the ignition.
“Going to turn into a pumpkin?”
“Too round,” Tucker said. She worked too hard on her horse and in the gym and watching calories to keep her curves in perfect luscious alignment to settle for a round anything except her breasts. “If I must turn into a squash make it a zucchini.”
“Light green or dark green or yellow?”
“Dark to match my eyes.”
Ugh, most obvious flirt ever. What the hell? She hadn’t even stopped to get out of practice, and she felt the look he sliced her all the way to her bones. “And you?” she said quickly. “Plant? Animal or vegetable?”
“Roar?” She made fake claws with her fingers.
“You’ll have to tell me later.”
“That sounds promising.”
She expected a quick comeback. Instead his face shuttered a bit although with the shadowy candlelight and the moon, she could be tumbling into melodrama.
Internal sigh, she mocked herself. Why was she going to behave all December again? Oh yeah. Tanner. Sisterly love. Self-flagellation and all that. Miracle Lake, skating with a hot guy she couldn’t touch, which perversely made him hotter. Of course.
“Have you lived in Marietta long?” he asked after they had made two quiet turns around the makeshift ice arena.
Tucker thought about that. “Yes and no. I grew up here and barrel raced and some other rodeo events but moved to California to compete. So I haven’t been local in a while but still, I know most of the families around town. Here you’re a newcomer if you’ve only been here five years so probably the fact that I left about ten years ago has barely registered.”
Why am I talking so much?
“You?” She was so stiff and awkward. She would have handled him better at thirteen.
“Are you competing for blabbermouth of the year award? Because I gotta be honest. There are four people ahead of you, and you only have a month left.”
“A month,” he slowed in his skating. “I was thinking in those terms. A month.”
“Me too,” Tucker stopped, faced him.
The moonlight puddled on his high cheekbones casting them stark white, and the hollows seemed to swallow the bottom of his face. There were two puncture wound scars along one of his cheekbones and more scars lower, lost in his groomed stubble that added to his mystique and the dream-like atmosphere of the night. She preferred clean-shaven cowboys, but she longed to reach out and touch him, see if his stubble was rough or silky. Would it upbraid her skin if she were to stroke it? Her thighs if she let him do the things to her that she absolutely adored? And what about the scar? It was a lure she couldn’t resist.
Her fingers trembled as she reached out. He held himself really still. She sensed he wanted to pull away, like a wild animal, and the fact that he stayed stirred something inside her and she settled just a little. She dropped her hand back to her side.
“I have a personal challenge,” she felt breathless with her first confession. “For a month. That’s why I’m here.”
End of Excerpt