Lil Reynolds pulled her red wool pea coat more tightly around her as she walked through the front door of her grandfather’s mountain cabin, aka her Christmas sanctuary. The air was colder inside the cabin than outside, but frigid or not, Lil was glad to be there, miles away from Cherry Lake and the well-meaning people who kept giving her concerned glances and reassuring smiles.
If battle lines had been drawn in the small town, the majority of the townsfolk would have been on her side of the line, rather than on that of her former fiancé, Curtis Lanigan and his bride-to-be, Sophia Whiting. But Lil didn’t want people to choose sides. She didn’t regret calling off her wedding to Curtis a little over a year ago, but she did wish that Sophia had not chosen to be married on Christmas Eve—the exact same day she and Curtis were supposed to have wed. That made for some awkwardness.
It was hard to tell if Sophia was making a point, staking a claim, or if Curtis simply lacked the cajones to tell her to pick another date. Regardless, the problem with Sophia picking the same date was that it led to Lil getting a whole lot of sympathy. Lil hated sympathy. Hated people feeling bad for her. Heaven knew she’d experienced enough of that due to the drunken antics of her father; she didn’t need to experience it again.
The idea of spending the holidays at the cabin had come after the final Community Christmas Decoration Committee meeting, which her Aunt Tilde chaired. Every time someone mentioned Christmas Eve and the fact that they needed to hold the Community Christmas Celebration a day early, due to the Lanigan-Whiting wedding, people had taken great pains not to look at Lil. To the point that she’d felt like shouting, “I don’t care! I’m good with this. Stop feeling sorry for me!”
But she didn’t, because she wasn’t one to make a scene or make people feel uncomfortable. Nope. She was the person who calmed people down when they became upset. Sweet librarian Lil.
She set down the cat carrier, hoping Miss Kitty didn’t freeze to death while she dealt with small matters such as heat and water. Miss Kitty, who was not a talkative feline, let out a small bewildered meow from inside the crate and turned in a circle. Lil knelt down to open the door and the long-haired calico who’d been her companion for the past ten years, crept out. She’d been to the cabin often during the summer months and knew the place well, but apparently not when the temperature was approaching zero. She lifted her nose, sniffed the cold air then turned around and walked back into her crate and curled up into a fluffy ball.
“Coming up,” Lil said, her breath showing white as she spoke to the cat.
She was lucky to have electricity at the cabin. After her great-grandfather built it in the 1940s, the power company had been hungry for customers and had run lines to all kinds of ridiculously remote places. By the time the Lanigans built their much larger cabin, two miles farther up the mountain on their patented mining claim in the 1970s, the power company hadn’t felt so generous. Their cabin ran on a generator.
But she wasn’t going to think about Lanigans.
Lil’s jaw tightened as she cranked on the small electric heater under the bay window, then walked into the kitchen to plug in the heater there. The cabin had electricity, but the main heat source was wood, delivered every fall by Milt Carlton, her down-the-hill neighbor, who lived at the turn-off at the base of the mountain. Not that Lil used a lot of wood. She only lit the stove during the early summer or late fall evenings, so half a cord was all she ever needed. She now hoped that half a cord would be enough for her week long sojourn into holiday isolation. It was cold.
She crossed the kitchen and pulled open the back door only to have a pile of drifted snow fall into the kitchen. Lil shook her head before brushing as much of it aside as possible and pushing the door closed again. Okay, so there might be a slight learning curve to cabin life during the winter months, but Lil was up for it. Anything but to be in Cherry Lake, putting on her brave face. Her Aunt Tilde and her cousin, Patricia, had been shocked when Lil had told them that, for the first time ever, she wasn’t going to attend the Community Christmas Celebration—that she planned to be at the cabin instead. She might as well have said that she was going to spend the holidays in a cave from the way they’d reacted.
In addition to convincing Tilde and Patricia that she didn’t want to stay in Cherry Lake for the holidays, she’d had to convince her mother and grandmother that she wasn’t about to travel to Spokane, crossing two Idaho mountain passes in the winter to get there. Traveling the freshly plowed road to the cabin—thank you, Milt—was all the scary driving she wanted to do this holiday season.
She swept up the snow from the worn linoleum floor—a floor she’d thought about replacing after inheriting the cabin five years ago, but had never gotten around to—and dumped it into the sink. Until she had time to shovel off the unprotected back porch, she’d have to bring in her wood by carting it to the front porch. Doable—especially since the only thing on her agenda for the day was to settle into the cabin and make it holiday cheerful. For herself. Being in isolation didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the season on her own terms. She realized too late, though, that she should have brought a different coat for wood hauling. But coats could be dry cleaned and she was determined to enjoy her holiday, come what may.
Once the wood was hauled and the fire built, Lil closed the faucets she’d left open last fall, flipped the breaker on the pump and heard the satisfying sound of the hot water tank and toilet bubbling and burping as they filled. A few minutes later she turned on the kitchen faucet. It gave a couple coughs, then water started flowing.
Water. Heat. A couple boxes of food and holiday decoration, a small potted Christmas tree, a bottle of champagne to celebrate her Christmas and near-miss wedding. What else could she possibly need?
At the moment, all she could think of was what she didn’t need.
Looking at the leaden sky outside, she didn’t think that was going to be a problem.
Casey Lanigan strode out of his ground floor apartment at the end of Second Avenue and headed toward his truck, which was idling in the driveway. Lanigan Greenhouses, where he’d been employed until about an hour ago, were located closer to Polson than Cherry Lake, but he’d chosen to live in Cherry Lake when he’d returned to Montana, rather than room in the giant new house his father had built near Polson. He’d told himself it was because he’d been raised in Cherry Lake and because his brother was still there, living in the house they’d grown up in…but perhaps he’d also sensed how things would ultimately go down between himself and his father.
Sensed, but not consciously acknowledged.
Selling his business and returning home to help manage the family greenhouses after his dad’s bypass surgery five months ago, had been a huge step, but he’d thought he was ready to come home. To redeem himself. To build a new relationship with his father. Unfortunately, Daniel Lanigan had a long memory; judgments made years ago still held, and Casey finally understood that he wasn’t going to be able to change his father’s perception of him. He’d also discovered that his father hadn’t wanted him to come home to help in the first place. That had been something his stepmom, Deb, had engineered.
Deb. Ever the peacemaker. Ever the optimist.
Casey no longer bought into her optimism. Things weren’t going to work out between him and his father no matter what—at least not on a professional level—so in an effort to preserve any hope of a personal relationship, as tenuous as it might be, and to keep from giving his father yet another heart attack, he was going back to work for his former business partner. As soon as his brother got married and his duties as best man were over, he’d be on his way. He’d leave today if he could.
Eight years, and still paying for the sins of his youth.
It pissed him off…but there wasn’t much he could do about it. That pissed him off more.
A gust of unseasonably warm wind hit him as he crossed the snowy lawn, the result of a cold front moving in from Canada, pushing warm air in front of it. He wouldn’t be seeing a lot of cold fronts where he was going—at least not for several months, since it was now summer in Chile, where he’d soon be back on a drill rig.
Casey got into his truck and put it in gear, backing out onto the snowy street. Although the wind was blowing, the snow wasn’t coming down that hard. He should be able to get to the cabin, where he’d stowed all of his field gear due to lack of space in the tiny place he’d rented, and back into town by evening. Then he had to contact his landlord, explain that he was moving out. That meant abandoning his cleaning deposit and last month’s rent, but it was worth it to get out of Montana before things got worse between him and his old man.
Given their history, Casey had fully expected to have to prove himself when he’d returned home. His father had been in poor health and dealing with anxiety that had followed the unexpected heart attack, so having his work double-checked for the first month or so was a given. It’d gotten pretty damned insulting when the double-checking continued and showed no signs of abating. Ever. When his father seemed happier to take his secretary’s advice than Casey’s.
Casey had tried to be patient. He’d given his parents a lot of grief in his younger years, but he’d also turned himself around and started a successful exploration drilling business. He’d sold his half of the business for a healthy profit last summer so that he could come home and go to work managing the hydroponics as well as the flower, shrub and vegetable starts. When he’d brought that up, his father has insinuated that one successful business startup could well be a fluke.
How the hell was he supposed to fight an attitude like that? An attitude so deeply engrained that his father refused to examine it?
Easy. He couldn’t.
The last straw had come only a half hour ago when his dad had shit-canned a proposal he’d worked on for weeks without giving it a proper review. The very last straw.
Casey shifted into a lower gear as he approached the stop sign at the end of his street and turned onto Main. He should have followed his gut and told his father that Curtis had come up with the plan. At least then the old man would have looked at it.
Hours and hours of work…
Leave it. Let it go.
Casey drove through town, his jaw so tight that his temples were throbbing, barely noticing the holiday decorations which made the small town look like something out of one of those table top Christmas scenes his grandmother loved so much. The citizens of Cherry Lake went all out with their Christmas celebration, wrapping each lamppost with evergreen garlands and lights. All the storefronts were similarly decorated and large, brightly painted wooden cutouts of holiday characters graced the street corners. Even in his most bah-humbug mood, Casey appreciated the efforts of the local committees and business people, but at the moment he was beyond bah-humbug. He was getting the hell out of Dodge. If it wasn’t for his brother’s wedding, he’d be on the road today, just as soon as he got his gear.
At least he had a place to go. He’d contacted his former partner, Eric Prichard, as soon as he’d walked out of the greenhouse office, told him he was ready to come back on board as an employee. Eric had done him one better and offered him a vice-presidency…but he’d also have to man a rig for a while. In Chile. Eric was short one driller on an exploration project and until the contract was done, Casey would be working shoulder to shoulder with the guys he’d formerly managed from a cushy office.
Casey told Eric to warm up the rig. It might have been a few years since he’d run a crew, but he was ready to drill. Ready to sit in the blazing sun and fight steel into the ground. He was good at drilling and people appreciated his skills. He was also good with the numbers and that was why Anchor Mountain Drilling had done well. Eric was the front man and Casey had been the guy who crunched the numbers, which would have shocked his high school math teacher—as would the fact that he’d aced most of his classes while completing his business degree. He might have started taking life seriously a little later than everyone else, but he eventually figured things out. Now if his dad would just do the same.
He continued south from Cherry Lake on Mission Range Road, turning left toward the mountains a few miles after passing the Jackson Orchards. Twenty minutes later, he turned again at Milt Carlton’s place. Seven more miles and he’d be at the cabin. The road was plowed, meaning that Milt had gotten bored again. The guy had retired from the road department almost fifteen years ago, and filled his time now plowing roads and delivering wood.
Casey was damned glad Milt had been bored, because the way the snow was now driving at his windshield, he might not have made it to the cabin. If this weather kept up and he’d waited until tomorrow, he might not have made it period, unless he could have talked Milt into plowing again.
Not making it wasn’t an option. Replacing his gear would have cost him at least a grand, and he didn’t feel like wasting that amount of money at this point in time. Casey reached down to put his truck into four-wheel drive as the rear end slid out from under him. In a week’s time he’d wonder what snow looked like. It would be cold where he was going, due to altitude, but summer all the same. And he’d be doing something he was good at, heading a drill crew that either respected him or hit the road.
As the road curved up the mountain, the snow started coming down in earnest. It’d been a dry December, but Mother Nature was now doing her best to rectify the situation, ignoring the fact that she was off course. The storm that was now swirling around him was supposed to have traveled down the east side of the Missions, but apparently it’d edged to the west after traveling past Cherry Lake proper. Well, it wasn’t like this was the first time he’d driven in the snow or like it would take long to load his gear. It was stacked in one spot and he’d probably have it stowed and be on his way back down the mountain in less than ten minutes after arriving at the cabin. If all went according to plan, he’d be in Cherry Lake well before the wedding rehearsal scheduled that evening.
At least the old man would probably ignore him there, which would be a relief after the hellacious argument they’d had that day. That was his dad’s modus operandi, anyway. Ignore his eldest son in public and take him to task in private. His dad was the only one in the family who knew that he was leaving, but Casey was fairly certain he’d spread the word, letting everyone know that his son had failed yet again.
Casey was finally old enough not to see it that way. He’d tackled what had turned out to be an impossible situation. He’d given it a shot. He couldn’t force his father to change.
The wipers beat madly as he crawled around a corner. Ahead of him he saw a weak light cutting through the snow and automatically slowed some more, thinking that someone was driving down the road toward him, but no. The lights weren’t moving. They seemed to be coming from the Reynolds’ place.
Sure enough, as he crawled past the cabin, he could see warm light spilling out of the windows and there was a rig of some kind in the driveway.
Had Lil rented the cabin out? Because as far as he knew, she never set foot in the place after the last weekend in September, when she and Curtis customarily winterized the place. Although this year Curtis most definitely hadn’t helped. He’d been busy with Sophia, picking out a china pattern.
He’d made it just past the cabin when the cleared road abruptly ended. Milt had stopped plowing at this point. Casey considered for a moment, then shifted down into 4-low and eased into the deeper snow. The tires took hold and he continued on, squinting through the windshield. Only two miles separating his place from the Reynolds’ cabin, but it took more than half an hour to churn his way through the snow. He unlocked the padlock on the door, let himself inside. In a matter of minutes he had the back seat of his truck heaped with gear, turned around without getting stuck and was on his way back toward civilization. By this time it was obvious that he was not in the peripheries of a blizzard tracking down the east side of the mountain. He was in the blizzard proper and he needed to get his ass off this mountain.
It was notoriously difficult to judge distances in a blizzard, but Casey figured he was getting close to the Reynolds’ cabin when the road all but disappeared ahead of him in a swirl of white. He slowed, then came to a stop, hoping he’d be able to get going again.
He opened the truck door and it nearly ripped off its hinges in the wind. Dropping to the ground, he did his best to get his bearings, then stomped a path forward on the road, got into the truck and drove all of twenty feet, before he got out and did the same thing again.
By the third time, his bumper was pushing snow. He continued on until the wheels started spinning. For the first time in his life, he’d literally been snowed in as he drove.
And now he was well and truly fucked. What now? Night in the truck? Try to make it to the Reynolds’ place?
The one saving grace was that the road was bordered by a high bank on one side and a drop-off on the other. He’d be able to keep to the road for the mile to the Reynolds’ cabin. If he ran into a bank or fell twenty yards into the frozen creek below, then he was off course. A thirty-minute walk and he’d be there, which seemed a much better choice than spending the night in the cab of the truck.
Lil fed the fire and then went to the window, staring out at the snow piling up on the porch. At least a foot had fallen during the past hour. Her stomach twisted a little. She had plenty of food, but when she’d planned on spending several days in isolation, she’d assumed that escape was a possibility. The storm that was dumping this snow hadn’t been supposed to track anywhere near the cabin. It was supposed to travel well down the east side of the Missions.
So much for weather prediction.
She turned away from the window. She was a Montana native and should have known better.
“Doesn’t matter,” she said to Miss Kitty, who was now stretched out on her back on the sofa enjoying the warmth of the fire. The cat opened her lovely pea-green eyes and blinked. “It’s our holiday. Right?” She’d filled the cast iron kettle on the wood stove with water and added cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg and a few slices of orange. Cider simmered in the slow cooker in the kitchen and an evergreen-scented candle burned on the window sill. She’d yet to decorate the small tree, but had placed it on the table at the sofa and watered it. Even without decorations, it was a nice holiday touch.
The tea kettle whistled and Lil went into the kitchen to make her tea. It didn’t matter if she was in the middle of a blizzard that hadn’t been forecast. She was warm and dry. The cabin smelled wonderful and the fire burned brightly.
Actually, the fire was burning a little too brightly, despite the fact that she’d closed the damper to a mere crack. Her stove was not double-walled and not an efficient burner—a fact she hadn’t considered when she’d planned this holiday—and the wood was disappearing more quickly than she’d anticipated. But if worse came to worse, she’d plug in the heaters and pay through the nose when the electrical bill came in.
Lil set down her tea and turned up the volume on the portable CD player. Bing Crosby’s smooth voice filled the cabin as she settled on the sofa with the afghan she was in the process of crocheting for her grandmother. Miss Kitty yawned and rolled over onto her side. Lil smiled and focused on her stitches. This was good. No self-consciousness, no bitterness, no regrets. Just a feeling of peace and satisfaction that she was comfortable enough in her own skin to spend Christmas alone.
Miss Kitty raised her head suddenly and stared unblinkingly at the cabin door. Lil frowned at the cat, then slowly lowered her crocheting to her lap. Miss Kitty only did that when someone approached her house.
That wasn’t possible. Who would be approaching her house? Milt? It had to be a false alarm.
Except that Miss Kitty did not relax as she usually did after being startled. If anything, she was more alert than she’d been a few seconds ago and Lil’s heart rate bumped up as she put the afghan aside and got to her feet.
A muffled thump on her porch and both she and the cat jumped. What the heck? An animal maybe?
Bears should be hibernating and wolves, cougars or bobcats wouldn’t be out in a blizzard…would they?
More muffled thumps and then Lil shot to her feet when a rap sounded on the door. Human. Whatever was outside was human. She went to the side window and pulled the curtain back. Sure enough, there was a snow-covered man standing on her porch.
She swallowed dryly, told herself that marauders didn’t walk around in blizzards…then ruined it by reminding herself that anyone could get caught in a blizzard. Good, bad or dangerous.
The voice was muffled, but sounded oddly familiar.
He knew her name. Picking up the poker, just in case, Lil went to the door and cautiously opened it a crack. The man pushed it the rest of the way open and stumbled into her living room, tripping over her rug and almost going to his knees. Lil ignored the wind that swirled around her and raised the poker halfway as the guy fought to regain his balance.
“Easy there,” he said when he turned and found himself on the business end of a fire-tending implement. His lower face was covered in a snow-encrusted scarf, but Lil would have recognized those startling green eyes anywhere. They’d haunted her in a number of different ways over the years.
Casey Lanigan. Her almost brother-in-law.
End of Excerpt