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On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…
Foolish women got their crutches stuck in snowbanks.
Shea Walker tugged the rubber-tipped metal from the crusted pile of snow edging her parents’ driveway in front of the house where she’d grown up. A house she hadn’t visited in too many years even though the small ski resort town of Cloud Spin, Vermont was situated in the Green Mountains less than six hours from New York City where Shea made her home.
Well, six hours if it wasn’t snowing.
The last hour of tonight’s drive—just a week before Christmas—had taken twice as long as it should have. But she’d been following a plow doing thirty miles an hour up the interstate. And since she still had some anxiety issues leftover after a delivery truck had sideswiped her compact car on the West Side Highway three weeks before, she’d had no desire to pass. Fracturing her left leg and two ribs had incapacitated her more than she’d guessed they might, especially since the leg fracture required surgical repair.
And if that wasn’t the ho-ho-happiest way to spend the holiday season, she had called in sick to work only to learn she’d lost her dream job as a fashion buyer for a high-end department store in Manhattan. The company was filing bankruptcy in the New Year and promised they’d be in touch after they got their finances worked out. Although if she was still out of work by that time, she’d have a whole lot more trouble than just the loss of her frequent flier miles to worry about.
She tipped her face up into the moonlight, letting the snowflakes fall on her skin, trying hard to be in the moment and not worry about everything she’d left behind. She had made the impulsive drive up here to try and mend her strained relationship with her parents—an idea she’d gotten from listening to a radio call-in show while she’d been coming out of the anesthesia. One of her book club friends had been sitting with her since Shea hadn’t even told her parents about the accident. As the talk show host wound up his calls for the evening, he talked about the need to heal broken relationships before moving forward in life.
Maybe it had been the influence of the drugs or the hospital’s cheery, piped-in holiday music, but Shea had decided then and there to sublet her apartment for a couple of weeks to make some extra cash, and take a trip up north for the holidays to see her family. What if she’d been striking out in all her other personal relationships for years because she couldn’t even manage a good rapport with her own parents?
Now, she peered up at their painted brick, Colonial home and wondered why her mother didn’t have the front yard lights on. It wasn’t even eight o’clock, which was early even for her parents to shut down for the night. Not only were there no exterior lights. There were also no holiday lights glowing. The streetlamp was out and lacked the usual Christmas wreath with a red plaid bow.
No lamps burned inside either.
Thunking along the driveway on the crutches, she turned into the flagstone path that wound past the snow-covered flower beds and up the steps to a narrow landing. Balancing carefully on her good foot as she leaned an elbow on the doorjamb, she knocked on the door and promptly started digging through her purse for her spare key. There might be some tensions between her and her family, but nothing dire enough to warrant anyone reclaiming her house key. Shea had kept it on her keychain since she’d left home at eighteen.
But as she fumbled with it in the dark, she knew it didn’t even fit into the lock, damn it. At some point they’d installed a whole new steel door complete with wrought iron knocker and sidelights with windows into the inky interior, an upgrade from the simple wooden entrance of her youth.
Cold and cursing herself for an idiot, she slumped against the frigid brick. Her parents had obviously gone out and who knew when they’d be home. She should have called first rather than making a sentimental journey through the blizzard, spurred on by a radio show, a smidgen of misplaced holiday spirit, and a need to patch things up with family.
She blamed that too, even though she was perfectly clearheaded and off the pain killers now. But when the surgery drugs had first worn off, the hospital staff had kept her floating on a wave of “pain management” that had brought her back to happier times in Cloud Spin. Back to frozen winters spent skiing and skating. Back to the nights she’d chased her old teenage crush around the ice, desperate for him to notice her—until that one amazing night when he did. Her mind had wandered back to midnight hot cocoa parties behind her house where her father flooded a level meadow for a homemade ice rink that brought pond hockey players from all over town…
Straightening herself and her crutches, she mentally kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. What if she was up here feeling sorry for herself while her hockey coach father, his sports crazy older brothers, and half the town’s skating goons were having a blast down on that popular outdoor rink even now?
Unsure how to navigate the hill that led down to the ice, she steered the crutches down the steps and wobbled her way onto the flagstone path again to follow it around the behind the house where maybe she’d at least hear voices. Or see some light in the distance.
Breathing in the crisp, snowy night, she felt a moment’s holiday cheer again. She could be cupping a thermos of hot cocoa any minute now, happily installed by the outdoor bonfire.
“Who’s there?” a male voice shouted from directly behind the house, startling her so much she mis-planted one of the crutches.
Pitching sideways, she half-fell into a snow-covered boxwood hedge, straining her broken ribs as a motion-detector light blazed on overhead.
“Ow!” With a yelp, she caught herself against a downspout for the gutters, more worried that she was going to undo all her healing than she was about the possibility of facing a murderer in the backyard. Her parents’ house had always been a popular gathering spot. “It’s Shea.”
Chances were good it was someone coming up from the ice to get a snow shovel or a spare pair of skates out of the garage.
Except no one responded to her. All was quiet for a long moment while the sound of her harsh breathing filled the quiet night. A little shiver of worry squiggled up the back of her neck. When heavy boots crunched through the snow nearby, she swallowed hard and gripped one of her crutches tighter. If it was someone bent on hurting her, she would bean him in the head without hesitation.
A big, powerful presence neared, his shadow falling over her moments before his face became visible in a swath of moonlight and the flickering fluorescent glow of the motion-detection light.
“Shea?” The man’s voice was hoarse, probably from the cold and not the same kind of shock to the system that she was feeling.
Because the man in her backyard had been the teenage love of her life. The same man who’d broken her heart when he abandoned her without a backward glance ten years ago to become a hockey superstar.
“Hello, J.C.” She bit out the words with as much icy indifference as she could muster since she hadn’t parted on good terms with the man who chose hockey over her. “Did you lose your way to your team’s private plane? Or perhaps confuse my parents’ house with the site of a celebrity fundraiser?” She attempted to stand tall since wounded pride didn’t take kindly to slouching in the boxwood hedge. “As you can see, there are no adoring fans here.” She wished she didn’t look like a woman who’d driven six hundred miles in the snow. After surgery. “Only me.”
“What happened to you?” He seemed to have ignored her whole diatribe, his blue eyes narrowing as he took in her crutches and the fracture boot that kept her left ankle immobilized.
A colorful poncho with a southwestern motif covered her midsection where her rib belt held the rest of her battered form together.
“I might ask you the same question since only a serious injury would keep you from your team in the middle of the season.” She’d stopped following his career after the first few years when he’d broken record after record, thriving in the sport that meant more to him than she had.
She heard things, certainly. Like that he’d married. And, more recently, divorced. But she’d quit pausing on his games when she cycled through the television stations when looking for shows to watch. Although she still might have a “behind the scenes” interview with him saved on her DVR somewhere. Because he was seriously hot, all past history and broken heart aside, and that interview had been a special about his intense workout regimen.
And she did not need to remember those sweaty and sexy images right now.
Unlike her, he certainly didn’t appear injured. At six-foot-four, he loomed over with an abundance of muscle. His face had acquired more character since she’d seen him last—a scar through one eyebrow, another crook in his nose and a thin white line that slashed through the bottom of his lower lip. But none of that took away from his innate attractiveness. He still wore his dark hair a little too long and spilling out of the back of knit ski cap. Strong features anchored by high cheekbones and a heavy slash of dark eyebrows were offset by a soft, sensual mouth that smiled or frowned easily.
“The league’s getting tough on concussion treatment,” he explained, his brow furrowed as he leaned closer and brushed snow off her poncho with one Gore-Tex glove. “The team doctor referred me to a specialist in Burlington that I’ve seen in the past, so I’m staying up here for a few weeks to work with him.”
“You don’t need to travel with the team?” She almost fell over again from that bit of shocking news. Both her father and uncles had played in the NHL back in their prime and they’d barely gotten a night off after a hard hit, let alone a respite from the team’s rigorous travel schedule.
Not to mention, J.C.’s team was based in Chicago—far from this little corner of the world. That was one of the reasons she’d risked driving up here. She’d never guessed he would be visiting their hometown this Christmas, too. She couldn’t be in Cloud Spin for twenty-four hours without running into half the population.
“There’s been too much concussion research and too many lawsuits for them not to adjust their stance on treatment.” He stared at her for a long moment and they were both so still the motion-detector lamp turned off, casting them in darkness while the snow fell softly all around them.
The flakes made the tiniest of sounds as they floated past her ear to land on her shoulder, am almost imperceptible rush of air, while she wondered if he was okay. If his brain would recover from all the hits he’d taken over the years. Her father still battled severe headaches, and he’d been away from the game for twenty years after a career that ended early due to injury.
One of many reasons she’d once hoped J.C. would choose another path.
“But I’m not so concussed that I don’t remember I asked you a question first,” J.C. pointed out when she made no reply. “What’s with the crutches? And what are you doing out here alone in the dark?”
He craned his neck, she realized, to get a view of the driveway. To see if she really was alone? Or had he been expecting someone else?
“I had a collision with a delivery van a few weeks ago.” She tried to look past him down the hill where her father’s ice rink resided. “Since I’m not working right now, I drove up to spend the holidays with Mom and Dad.” She sure wasn’t going to admit her life had fallen apart, and she’d been following the advice of a life coach with a popular call-in show. That she’d driven all that way in the snow because she craved a hug from her mom. “Are they down on the ice?”
“No one’s here but me, Shea. I told your father I’d try recreating the rink this winter since he hasn’t done it the last two years.”
She frowned. She hadn’t known that. And it bothered her to think that J.C. Royce had a better relationship with her family than she did, although why should she be surprised? Part of her own rift with her parents had been her frustration with all things hockey and her father still ran a school and coached youth teams.
Her father had also urged J.C. to enter the NHL draft early, knowing full well Shea had hoped for a different life for them. Even then, her father had sided with J.C. over his own daughter. And J.C. hadn’t bothered to mention it. She’d overheard the news at the pizza parlor when a group of guys watching the draft on TV had gone nuts to see a local kid’s name called.
“So, where’s Dad?” she asked, her patience wearing thin and the last remains of her energy draining away in the frigid cold.
She’d left her hat and gloves in the car, never picturing this strange scenario for her homecoming.
J.C. shifted, shoving his fists into the pockets of his ski jacket. “I drove them into Burlington for a flight out this morning. They’re spending Christmas in Hawaii.”
End of Excerpt