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Elias Walker drove his SUV into Sunset Ridge Lane just far enough to keep it out of the traffic on Riverview Road and pulled over to the right. He wasn’t in anyone’s way, tucked in next to the snowdrift that the county plow had created a couple of days ago, so he stopped and put the car in Park. The snowfall—seven inches that had drifted in a twenty-five-mile-an-hour northwest wind—had nearly kept him from keeping a promise he’d made to himself . . . and to her. To go back to the house before the end of the year.
Well, it was New Year’s Eve, so he was here just under the wire, although he wasn’t officially at the house yet. It was another half a mile away, up on the ridge overlooking the Ohio River, and damn the too-efficient county public works department anyway. They’d plowed all the way to the top of the ridge. So he had no excuse. He leaned his elbow on the steering wheel and rested his chin in his palm, staring out at the white landscape. God, how Amy had loved winter and snow—it had been her favorite season.
His heart was already pounding and his mouth had gone dry enough that he reached for the insulated cup of coffee in the console and took a sip of the hot brew. A cold sweat beaded on the back of his neck under his winter scarf, so he unwrapped it with rough, trembling fingers, then pulled off his knit cap and tossed it on the seat beside him. Closing his eyes, he dropped his head back and took deep breaths to ease his racing pulse. Every time he thought he’d made peace with Amy’s death, something came along and smacked him upside the head, reminding him of the vast hole in his heart and that he would probably never truly be “over it.”
His older brother, Jack, had been encouraging him to move on, to find someone new. But how? He’d dated a few times in the past year. It was always awkward, and he could tell the women Jack had fixed him up with didn’t know what to say to him. One had even thrown herself into his arms after he’d walked her to her door, kissing him with gusto. When he’d gently set her aside, she’d given him the Look—that pitying gaze that nauseated him.
Today, it was the snow that triggered the Amy memories and the knowledge that he needed to put his car in gear and drive up the hill to the house. This first trip back to the house was always going to be hard, that was a given, but if he got it over with, it would be another great hurdle he’d conquered. Or so the grief counselor had told him when she’d asked him to set a reasonable goal back in March. It didn’t matter that memories were washing over him like a tsunami or that his chest hurt or that his eyes were stinging, he should still get moving.
He sighed, a deep exhale from the depths of his soul. “I’m at the end of the lane, Snow Angel,” he whispered, using the nickname he’d christened her with that first winter they were together.
He’d never really been into wintertime, but Amy Sweetman had adored everything about it—the snow, the holidays, the brisk air, ice-skating, sledding . . . She’d even taught him the correct way to make snow angels the year they’d met, instructing him with great gravity that they couldn’t both lie down in the snow at the same time. No. One person had to remain standing in order to pull the other person up after they’d spread their arms and legs in the angel pattern. Otherwise, you ruined the angel trying to get up from the ground. God, how many snow angels had the two of them made together? Wings touching, and Amy always going to the top of the angels to trace halos above their heads.
He swiped at the tear that had escaped and was running down his cheek. “Okay, I waited until the last possible day to keep this promise, but now I don’t know if I can do it.” He pressed his lips together. “I need your help, Angel. Show me how. Give me a sign that going back up there is the right thing to—”
A thump and a jolt shook him, and when he looked in the rearview mirror, he saw a cream and blue ragtop sports car out his back window. Holy hell. Somebody had rear-ended him? Seriously? On this deserted lane that led up to maybe six houses? He turned off the car, jerked on his knit cap, and got out.
The woman in the little vintage Mustang was shaking her head as she pounded her gloved fists on the steering wheel. Her words weren’t totally clear through the closed window, but he caught enough of it to know that she was turning the air inside the car the same shade of blue as the exterior. The car looked familiar, and when he peered closer, so did the woman. Surely this couldn’t be . . .
She glanced up and jerked a thumb at him. The message was clear. Move your butt. So he did, allowing her the space to open the door, swing around in the bucket seat, and put her booted feet on the ground.
“I cannot believe this!” Her words rang out over the sound of cars speeding by on Riverview Road. “What the ever lovin’ . . .?” Her shoulders drooped. “Oh, what the hell? I mean, honestly, if this hadn’t already been the freakin’ holiday season from hell, I’d be more surprised, but, ya know? Why not? I swerve to avoid hitting a stupid deer who flew out across the road just as I came around the curve and I end up in the butt of a BMW SUV. Because I couldn’t hit an old beater, or turn into a deserted country road and simply land in a snowbank, or hit a fence. No, I had to rear-end a fifty-thousand-dollar automobile with my newly restored Mustang.” She stomped up to the front of her car without so much as glancing at him and glared at what appeared to him to be minimal damage to both vehicles. “And on New Year’s Eve! Seriously?”
Her front fender had grazed his rear bumper and left a light mark, while her car appeared to suffer a broader scrape to the blue paint. To absolutely no effect, she gathered some snow in her gloved hand and rubbed at the blue scuff on his bumper, then did the same to the mark on her fender, muttering the entire time. “I so do not need this. Not today, of all days.” She looked up into his face, but he was sure she didn’t even see him before she continued to pace and rant through gritted teeth. “In the past two months, I lost my job, broke up with my boyfriend of three years, and sold my house. I’ve been driving since six thirty this morning, and everything I own is packed into this car that I spent a fortune having restored last summer because I thought I had the best job in the world, and I was going to be in Washington, DC, forever. Ha! Hell, none of my friends back there even seem to be able to remember my name.”
She scowled over her shoulder at him, blinked, then her brow furrowed, and as she came closer, her tone softened. “Eli? Eli Walker? Is that you?”
Cripes! It is Jasmine Weaver!
Even after being away from River’s Edge for nearly fifteen years, Jasmine Weaver still took his breath away. Petite, in dark denim jeans and a toast-colored wool blazer over a creamy ivory sweater, and sporting a pair of tan suede, fuzz-lined boots, she was the picture of a successful career woman in spite of the fact that she was ranting and waving her arms at what he thought was a pretty minor accident. Her shiny dark hair was styled in a cut that curved just below her chin and bounced when she shook her head. He remembered it had been long, almost to her waist, when she’d been a cheerleader at River’s Edge High.
She was thin. Too thin. The Weaver triplets were all south of average height, coming to just below his shoulder, and all three of them had always been tiny, but delectably curvy—Jo and Jenny still were. He’d just seen them the other day when he stopped by the Tea Leaf Café for a to-go cup of Holly Flaherty’s Paris tea that fueled his days. This afternoon, Jazz’s jeans were a bit baggy in the behind, the knobs of her wrists stuck out below the cuffs of her sweater, and her watch slid around on her too-skinny arm.
She stood still for a few seconds, not speaking, allowing him a chance to also notice that although she was still gorgeous, she appeared . . . tired. Purple shadows smudged the delicate skin below her golden-brown eyes, and despite her red cheeks, she was pale.
He should speak. Say something intelligent, but his brain was still processing the fact that Jasmine Weaver was standing in the snow in front of him, so he simply smiled. “Yeah, it’s me. Hi, Jazz.”
With a moan, she leaned against the front fender of the Mustang and dropped her head. “Of course it’s you. Sure. Absolutely. What would cap this year off any better than landing in my hometown and slamming into the guy who dumped me three days before the senior prom—a guy I haven’t spoken to or even thought of in ages? But as fate would have it, here we are. Because my life has become a surreal nightmare that I can’t seem to wake up from.”
Suddenly, she spun around and jerked the car door open, nearly trouncing on his hiking boots in the process. After shoving the driver’s seat forward, she grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from a cloth wine carrier on the floor and unscrewed the cap. Throwing him a look that dared him to stop her, she tossed back a slug of whiskey in one quick gulp. Eyes watering, she coughed and swiped the back of her hand over her lips and then wordlessly held up the bottle in invitation.
Jack Daniels—Amy’s drink of choice, over ice and mixed with ginger ale. Jack and ginger. He only debated for a second before he accepted the bottle and took a swig, feeling the whiskey warm him from the inside out. Then it hit him with the force of the Ohio River at high-flood stage. “Oh my God! It’s you! You’re the sign!”
“Wh-what?” Jazz shook her head and stared at Eli, who was looking at her like he’d just been handed a pot of gold. “I . . . I’m what?”
He handed her back the bottle. “Come on, come with me!” He hip-checked the door of her Mustang closed. “Lock your car. Bring the Jack.”
Bewildered, but beyond curious, Jazz reopened the car, grabbed her coat, hat, and scarf, plus the leather bag that contained, among other important things, her wallet, iPad, and laptop, and then pocketed her phone before hitting the lock and slamming the door shut again. “Where are we going? Eli? I can’t just leave my car here.” She shrugged into her coat and scrambled after him, slipping slightly on the hard-packed snow.
“It’s out of the way. It’ll be fine, I promise!” he called over his shoulder and ran around to open the passenger door on his own car. “Get in.” He made an impatient little sound. “Please.”
He wasn’t scaring her . . . exactly, but she stopped at the back of his vehicle, too aware that this was a guy she basically knew nothing about anymore. It had been fifteen years since she’d so much as spoken to him, and the last time, she’d been so furious, she’d dumped a plate of cheese fries in his lap. She had no idea who he’d become beyond the bits and pieces her sisters had shared over the years. His urgency was concerning. “What are we doing, Eli? Tell me, because I’m not getting into that car with you without a few more details.”
When he huffed another little impatient sound, his breath came out in a cloud in the cold air. “Jazz, I promise you I’m not crazy. It’s me, Eli. You know me.” He smiled and bit his lower lip, a gesture that had always turned her on back in high school and dammit, it still made her heart beat just a little faster. Dimpled and gorgeous, he looked so much like that character Sawyer from the old TV series Lost that she shook her head. Nobody else had those incredible dimples, that still too-long luxurious mop of chestnut hair hanging over his collar, and a grin that damn near stopped her heart.
“Just tell me where we’re going.”
He pointed. “Up the hill to a house I’m . . . I was building.” He sighed, cast his eyes down for a moment, then met her gaze straight on. “Here’s the thing. I haven’t been up there in over two years, and I made a promise to . . . to myself that I’d go up there before the end of the year. I’m down to the wire here. It’s New Year’s Eve and it’s two hours until dark and I was sitting here waiting for a sign that I should just get my butt up there, and damned if you didn’t run into me.”
Confused and awash in anger and memories and frustration, she stared into those blue-gray eyes that had mesmerized her so many years ago, too aware of how much time had passed since the last time he’d said those words to her, Come on! Come with me.
He tramped back to where she was standing on the snowy road. “You’re hesitating.” He offered a cockeyed smile. “Don’t worry. I’m not that seventeen-year-old punk who ditched you two days—it was two days, not three—before senior prom. Sorry about that, by the way.”
Well, that was unexpected—even more than rear-ending him had been. What the hell? She stared up at him. “Huh?”
He lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. “I know it’s way too late for this, but I’m truly sorry. It was a shallow, douche move.”
His expression, contrite and embarrassed, set off something inexplicable in her and she couldn’t help herself. She giggled like a damn teenager. Quickly clapping her hand over her mouth, she tried to keep the laughter at bay, but it was no use. The more confused he looked, the more she chortled, until tears formed in the corners of her eyes and rolled down her cold cheeks.
That long-past episode, which still embarrassed her, was firmly etched in her memory, even though she hadn’t caught on to his apology immediately. She was over prom, though. Had been for years—or so she thought. Catching her breath, she finally said, “It’s just that you took me by surprise, that’s all. This is the first time in ages I’ve thought about that night.” She put her hand on his arm, not in the least surprised at how firm his muscles were. He was a carpenter, after all. “I forgave you long ago, Eli. We were kids, just stupid kids.” Suddenly, she realized she still had ahold of his arm. Releasing it, she gave him a nod.
His brow smoothed out and he gave another little shrug. “For what it’s worth, being prom king sucked. I was miserable, guilty the entire time, I hated seeing you there with Max Lange, and I ended up spending the whole summer after graduation hiding from Kimberly Frost. Until she went to Ball State and I went to Purdue.”
“Ah, Kimberly.” Jazz half smiled at the memory of Eli and willowy, blonde, gorgeous Kimberly side by side, king and queen of the senior prom. “No less than you deserved.”
“True enough. Will you come with me?” He fidgeted, shifting from one booted foot to the other.
What had happened two years ago that stopped him from building? She closed her eyes for a second, a vague memory returning. Something Jen had told her about Eli Walker . . . oh, God, his fiancée had died . . . or been killed . . . or something. “Eli, is this about the woman you . . . you lost?”
His eyes widened and he glanced up the hill, clearly seeing more than snowdrifts and ice-covered pine trees. “Yes,” he replied simply, and gestured to the open car door.
Oh, what the hell? It was New Year’s Eve, she was exhausted in every possible way, and whatever he was up to, it beat the heck out of knocking on her parents’ door like a lost puppy. The longer she could put that off, the better. She slid into his SUV, dropped her bag on the floor at her feet, but clutched the whiskey bottle in her lap. A day that had started out crappy enough in Washington was turning flat bizarre.
Just breathe. So she did.
Several cleansing breaths later, she gazed at Eli as he started the car and headed up the hill on the snowy road. The trees sparkled in the late-afternoon sun, and even though she noted a house here and there along the way, the landscape was mostly old forest, reminding her of hikes through the state park back when she and Eli were dating.
Her mind sorted through other snippets of news she’d heard about him from her sisters over the years—he’d gone to Purdue and came back after graduating to work in his family’s construction company. Seemed like she’d read online in the Evening World—River’s Edge’s twice-weekly newspaper—that his dad and uncle had retired a few years ago and made Eli the CEO of Walker Construction. Hmm . . . She took a breath, the kind of breath you took if you were preparing to ask a lot of questions, but then changed her mind and asked only one. “So you think me hitting your car was a sign from . . . her? The universe? God?”
He blushed. “You don’t believe in signs?”
“I don’t believe in much these days.” The words sounded too cold even to her own frustrated self, so she shook her head and amended, “I mean, I dunno. I’ve never thought about signs.”
“They’re everywhere”—he tossed her a smile—“if you’re open to them.”
She shrugged. “Maybe. I’ve always depended on my own instincts.” She laughed grimly. “And yet, look where I am. Unemployed, single, pissed off, back home with my tail tucked ’tween my legs, and once again in a car with my high school boyfriend. Maybe I need a sign.”
“Maybe.” Eli’s lips drew into a thin line when he finally turned onto a narrow drive that appeared not to have been plowed. The snow wasn’t horribly deep, although it was completely unbroken. “Hang on, this drive is kinda rough.”
“Will your car make it through?” Jazz wasn’t certain his BMW X model had four-wheel drive, and there was no way they’d make it up the snowy drive without it.
“Yeah, we’ll make it. I’ve got four-wheel drive.” He gripped the steering wheel with both hands. “But I have to remember where the deepest potholes are under this snow. I don’t want to bottom out.” He jerked the car to the left, then back to the center while Jazz gripped the grab handle above the door.
A few more treacherous yards later, he stopped in front of an unfinished log structure and released a long breath. “We’re here.” He stared out the windshield for a moment before giving her a brisk nod. “Come on.”
End of Excerpt