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Hannah Ford had driven three hundred miles before she ran into trouble. Snow, lots of it, blurred white flakes lit up by her headlights and obscuring her windshield as she craned forward, knuckles white on the wheel, and tried to see through a blizzard. The defroster was on full blast and the inside of the car was warm, but Hannah shivered anyway. She was wearing a spangled, white slip dress, hardly appropriate clothing for a snowstorm, but then she hadn’t expected to be going anywhere.
She’d expected to be holed up in a country estate on the Hudson River, where she’d been invited for the long weekend over Christmas. Lazy days in front of a roaring log fire, hot toddies while looking out at all that pristine whiteness… that was what she’d been expecting. That was how Hannah Ford did winter.
But then Blake had been at the house party, and after four hours of everyone’s sly remarks and pointed digs Hannah decided she couldn’t take anymore. She wouldn’t. And so she’d walked out of the editor of Rustic Living’s lavish pile, climbed into her car, and started driving.
And now she was here, wherever ‘here’ was. A green highway sign flashed by and Hannah just made out the words on it: Creighton Falls, next exit. Creighton Falls. It sounded like a homey kind of place, a town where everyone knew each other, looked out for each other. A Mayberry meets It’s A Wonderful Life kind of place. Somewhere to find rest for the night, or at least to get off the road.
The exit came up sharply, hidden by a stand of tall pine trees, and Hannah swerved, wheels sliding in the snow, onto it. The world seemed to slow down as the rental car swung one way and then the other before thankfully evening out. Hannah released a long, low breath, her hands clenched hard on the wheel.
“That was a close one,” she murmured and pumped the brakes all the way to the end of the exit ramp. It wasn’t until the car had come to a stop that she realized the road the ramp led onto hadn’t been plowed. She peered through the gloom, her headlights barely piercing the endless darkness, now that she was away from the intermittent lights of the highway. She could make out a sweep of white on the other side of the road that was probably a field, and a stand of trees in the distance. No sign of civilization.
She glanced back up at the ramp but she knew she had a better chance of pushing the car up herself than actually driving it. Snow was gathering quickly, the thick, white flakes coming down fast, and the incline was steep. She was, Hannah realized with a hard pinch of panic, stuck. Stranded.
After a few seconds’ reflection she turned off the car to save gas, although why she needed to save gas she didn’t know, since she most certainly wasn’t going anywhere. And without the defrost blasting, the interior of the car quickly plunged into an arctic wintriness. Her cell phone, naturally, had no signal.
“This isn’t good,” Hannah said aloud. For the first time she genuinely regretted her impromptu flight from civilization. And why had she driven three hundred miles, for heaven’s sake? She was, she’d noticed on a sign along the highway a few miles back, only about ten miles from the Canadian border. And she didn’t even have her passport.
No, the truth was, she hadn’t been thinking at all. Just driving, the endless stretch of gray highway as soothing and numbing as an anesthetic. She’d been running away from Blake and his subtle sneers, and all of the guests of the party with their sly glances and knowing looks. At that moment, standing in the glittering foyer of Eloise’s house, she’d felt as if the world she inhabited was unbearable. She’d wanted only to escape it. Not just Blake or anyone else at the party, but the whole environment. Everything had felt toxic, from the murmuring guests to the elegant canapés to the sideways looks sliding her way.
But Hannah didn’t want to think about why or what she’d left now. She needed to think about how she was going to get out of this mess. In the few minutes that she’d wasted wondering and remembering, snow had started to pile up on her car. Without the wipers working, Hannah could no longer see out the windshield. In an hour or less her little rental car, practically a tin toy, was going to be completely covered in snow.
Another shiver ran through Hannah’s body as she realized how freezing it now was in the car. She’d taken her suitcase with her, but she didn’t think she could manage changing into warmer clothes in the confines of the car, and she wasn’t about to go out into that tundra. She grabbed her coat from the backseat, a wool, cherry-colored swing coat that definitely wasn’t the best choice for this kind of weather, but she’d bought it to be fashionable, not waterproof or even warm.
She hugged her coat around her, wondering whether she was supposed to stay in the car and await rescue or venture out in the arctic unknown. She felt that this was something she should know, something one read about in safety manuals, but the truth was, she had no idea what to do. She was a city girl, born and bred, and countryside meant Central Park. But she needed to do something now, because the alternative was freezing to death.
Twisting around in her seat, Hannah unzipped her suitcase and pulled out a pair of skinny jeans. She kicked off her stiletto heels and wriggled her way into the jeans, heaving them over her hips. She grabbed a cashmere pullover and a pair of ankle boots that owed more to fashion than sense, inwardly cursing her foolish clothing choices. But then she hadn’t expected to encounter a blizzard.
What had she been thinking, driving this far?
Too late for regrets or recriminations. Right now, she needed to find a solution. Taking a deep breath, Hannah pulled on her boots and then stepped out of the car.
The cold air hit her like a slap in the face, a shock to the system. Her breath froze in her lungs, in her nose. Her cheeks stung with the snowflakes that looked soft and white from behind the windshield but when hitting her face they felt cold and sharp.
Her heels crunched in the snow and her feet were instantly soaked. The jeans and coat were scant protection against the elements, and Hannah knew she had about five minutes to figure something out before she froze to death.
She raised one hand to shield her eyes from the steady snow and squinted into the darkness. Everything was still and silent, as if the whole world was holding its breath. Hannah felt like the only person alive on earth, and that was definitely not a good thing in this situation.
Her feet were already going alarmingly numb when she saw two headlights pierce the darkness. Relief crashed over her so hard and fast she swayed with the force over it. She didn’t care who was in that car; it meant at least she wasn’t alone.
She clambered to the side of the road, waving her arms to attract the driver’s attention. Hopefully she wasn’t flagging down an axe murderer.
As the vehicle came closer, Hannah saw it wasn’t a car; it was a huge truck with a set of lights across the top of the cab. The truck came slowly to a halt alongside hers, and she sagged for a moment, so thankful to have been found. Then the door opened and a body slid out, a tall, big body. A man. She tensed instinctively, although she wasn’t really surprised. It had definitely looked like a man’s kind of truck.
The man stood before her, swathed in a snow parka, a hat with earflaps jammed low on his head and hiding his face. His voice, when he spoke, was a low rumble.
“Reckon you need some help.”
“Yes.” Her voice sounded thin and quavery. “I’m stuck.”
He nodded towards her car. “Can’t do much about that now, but I can give you a lift.”
“That would be great,” Hannah said. She’d have to take her chances and assume this huge man wasn’t a criminal. She wished she could see his face, but in the darkness and with his hat pulled down she couldn’t see much but the square line of his jaw. “If there’s a hotel…”
“There was once, but now there’s only a B&B.”
He nodded again towards her car. “Need anything from that?”
“Oh, yes—” Hannah wrenched open the back door and yanked out her suitcase; she hadn’t zipped it properly after getting her jeans out and clothing, ridiculous, frothy clothing, floated out onto the snow. She cursed under her breath, reaching for the scattered items.
She thought she’d gotten it all but then the man walked towards her and plucked a white lace bra from where it had landed on a snow drift, and then handed it to her silently. Despite the freezing temperature, Hannah felt her face warm.
“Thank you,” she muttered, and stuffed the rest of the clothes back into her suitcase. She grabbed her purse and keys from the front seat.
“Here, let me.” The man took her suitcase from her and tossed it to the back seat of the cab before opening the passenger door. Hannah eyed the distance from the ground to the seat uncertainly; the truck was monstrous.
The man held out a hand for her to grasp and after another second’s uncertainty she took it. He wore rawhide gloves that were surprisingly soft although his grip was firm. He hoisted her into the truck and she practically fell into the front seat; the cab smelled like wood smoke and coffee. She righted herself as the man came around to the driver’s side and climbed in.
“Thank you for this. I really appreciate it.”
He gave one slow nod. “Glad to help.”
“I’m Hannah Ford.” Awkwardly she held out a hand and after a second’s pause the man took it. He was still wearing his gloves.
The name, Hannah decided, suited him. Plain and no-nonsense. He didn’t say anything else, just released her hand and started the truck. Hannah buckled her seatbelt and let out a shaky breath. Maybe this was going to turn out okay.
The truck’s headlights cut through the snowy darkness as Sam drove slowly down the road, the huge truck managing to plow through the snowfall.
“Another couple of hours and we wouldn’t make it down this road,” he observed. “It’s snowing that hard.”
“What were you doing out in the storm?”
“Clearing a driveway.” He glanced out the window with a wry grimace. “Not sure there was much point.”
“Are we near Creighton Falls?” Hannah asked, remembering the name of the town that had prompted her to leave the highway.
“Yep.” He didn’t elaborate and they rode in silence for about five minutes, until they came to the outskirts of the town. Hannah peered out the window; she could see a ramshackle gas station with a lone pump, shuttered for the night, and a fire station that was locked up tight as well.
It didn’t take long to get to the town center; Creighton Falls clearly wasn’t a big place. Hannah made out a town green, a few shuttered stores, a church, and a couple of big Victorian houses with wide porches and lots of gingerbread that were set back from the road.
Sam slowed to a stop in front of one of them, frowning as he took in how dark the house was.
“Do you think someone’s home?” Hannah asked. It was after eleven, and while it was likely most people were asleep, the house looked a little too empty for that. Curtains drawn on every window, no porch light to welcome the weary. No car in the sweeping drive.
“I forgot,” Sam said, “the Wests are on vacation in Australia this Christmas, visiting their daughter.”
It took a second for his meaning to penetrate. “So there’s no B&B?” Sam shook his head. “There must be another one in a town this size…” Another shake.
Hannah took a deep breath. With the snow falling steadily, the flakes lit up by the occasional halo of a streetlight, the town looked completely empty, almost abandoned, and as if it were on the edge of the world.
“So no room at the inn for Hannah Ford,” she joked feebly. The relief that had just been starting to creep over her like a warm, comforting blanket left in a cold rush. What on earth was she going to do? Where was she going to go?
“You can stay at my place,” Sam said after a pause. He didn’t sound particularly thrilled with the idea. Hannah didn’t reply; her mind was spinning with the impossibility of the suggestion. She didn’t know this man. “I have a spare bedroom,” he continued with a shrug. “And there’s a lock on the door, if you’re really worried.”
She flushed, biting her lip. “I’m sorry. It’s just that you’re a stranger…” A strange man. A strange, big man, but one who had helped her.
“I understand,” Sam said. “But I’m not sure you’ve got many options. Creighton Falls isn’t the liveliest of places.”
Hannah almost asked if he knew someone else, a woman, preferably a nice, grandmotherly type, but considering it was nearing midnight and he’d offered his own place, the question seemed ungrateful and unnecessary.
“Okay,” she said at last, her breathing coming out in a rush. “Thank you.”
Sam drove on, and Hannah leaned back against the seat. “Do you live in the town?” she asked, a quaver of nervousness in her voice, for they’d left what looked like Creighton Falls’ one main street for a narrower road that was lined with pine trees on either side, their boughs blotting out both sky and snow.
“I live right up here,” Sam answered, and turned into a rutted dirt drive, now covered with snow. A ramshackle-looking clapboard house squatted, snow-covered, at the end of it. Hannah’s heart had started thudding sickly as she realized what she was doing. She did not know this man at all. She hadn’t even seen his face.
“Miss Ford, I understand you’re nervous,” Sam said, and Hannah realized she must look terrified. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll wait out here while you go inside. The bedroom is up the stairs, second door on the left, and, like I said, there’s a lock.” Hannah didn’t answer, and he continued, “Just let me unlock the front door and turn the lights on first. I’ll come back out here and you can go in.”
Suddenly, Hannah felt ridiculous. “No, it’s okay,” she said, even as she wondered if he was simply lulling her into a false sense of security.
“Are you sure?” Sam gazed at her seriously, and now Hannah could see a bit of his face. Warm hazel eyes, a straight nose, surprisingly full lips. He was good looking, in a craggy, unaffected, normal sort of way. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Yes, I’m sure. You’ve been more than kind.”
He studied her for another moment, long enough for color to creep into Hannah’s cold face. She kept his gaze with effort; she wondered what his hazel eyes saw. What on earth did Sam Taylor think of her, a woman who had appeared out of nowhere on a snowy road in the dead of night, clearly and utterly out of her depth and needing to be rescued?
“All right then,” Sam said, and he opened the door of the truck, letting in a cold gust of air, and then crunched across the snow-packed drive to the house and, after a second, Hannah slipped out of the truck and followed. The night was still, save for the gentle thud and thump of the snow falling, and Hannah shivered slightly, awed and a little intimidated by the lonely beauty of the place.
“Come inside,” Sam said, and unlocking and opening the door, he stepped aside to let Hannah in first.
Taking a deep breath, Hannah moved past, breathing in the scent of leather and wood smoke and coffee, and into the house.
End of Excerpt