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A Crazy Little Christmas Vacay (BWWM Novella)

 

 

 

 

A Crazy Little

Winter Vacay

 

 

 

A Novel

 

 

 

Rena Manse

 

 

 

 

© 2015 by Vizionstories

and Andrea M. Harris

 

Distributed from Canada and the United States of America

 

 

Shakespir Distribution Edition

 

 

All rights reserved. The reproduction of this publication in any form, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise is prohibited without consent of the author, and in direct violation of the copyright law.

 

 

 

 

2015

Toronto, Canada

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to events, establishments, or incidents is entirely coincidental or used fictitiously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 15

 

 

 

 

Thank you for downloading this book. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author. If you enjoyed it, please return and also encourage your friends to download their own copy from their preferred authorized retailer. Thank you for supporting this author’s work

 

 

 

 

Books by Rena Manse:

 

A Crazy Little Winter Vacay

Keir & Myah

Never Like This (The Revealing Series)

Then, There’s Love (The Revealing Series)

A CRAZY LITTLE WINTER VACAY

 

 

Just because something can go wrong, that doesn’t mean it should.

Jada Stanton and several other travelers are caught in the flash blizzard of the decade in the middle of Where, exactly? Montana.

Dr. Bretton Heathrow left behind a few bad memories to make his dream come true. Stranded motorists are the last thing he expects at dark-thirty in the morning. But one bright shining star may make the near-disaster a worthwhile inconvenience.

Like the blizzard, Jada Stanton is the one he never saw coming.

Christian Romance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

EPILOGUE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

“HELP ME!” In one second, everything changed. Jada Stanton jerked the steering wheel to avoid colliding with the vehicle in front. Headlights flashed, and the world around her vehicle went white.

Headlights? Had the car in front spun around? Guiding a ton of metal blindly through the swirling snow, she threw the lever to neutral. The car continued to sail forward on its original path. Hitting something out there was inevitable.

“Father, help me.”

Smash. Jerked forward on impact, her mind couldn’t linger on what she hit. Oncoming vehicles from behind were driving straight into the same whiteout. How many vehicles had decorated her rearview mirror? Five? Six?

Staring out at the wiles of the flash blizzard, she braced for impact. A hefty bump meant she wasn’t hit head on. She sighed. Probably just the back, right fender. At least the person behind displayed better maneuvering capabilities than she’d managed.

Her mid-sized Acura jolted with another impact. And another. She clutched the steering wheel and peered over her shoulder. Naturally, the weather’s fury showed the same view outside all windows. White, with a chance of white. She tried to find images, lights, gaps in the completely white shroud. Nothing.

Forecasts hadn’t predicted any of this severe weather in Montana. She’d listened to storm warnings since she set out from Seattle. Leave it to her to get caught in a freak storm when she didn’t know where she was going.

“Isn’t I-90 famous for white-outs?” Her sister had asked the ironic question when they discussed her making the trip over the phone. That would have been a good time to listen to Judith’s advice. But 20/20 couldn’t help her now.

“You live out there and you don’t know?”

“Hey, I’m smart. I fly.”

Jada had grinned from ear to ear. “I’m going to love this drive.”

“It’s eleven hours.”

“Stop being a worry-wart. The fourteen-day forecast looks great.”

“Whatever.”

“Oh, very articulate for a language post-grad.”

“A post-grad who’s going to Greece!” Judith’s voice screeched. Her sister probably did a happy dance in the process.

Jada pulled the phone from her ear and laughed before clearing her throat loudly in the receiver. “Yes, yes. Rub it in that you’re spending a month in Europe and see if I leave your condo standing by the time you get back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Are you kidding? Never be sorry about going away.”

“But this is our first Christmas apart.”

“What it is is an excellent opportunity. Don’t miss out.”

“Stop it. You’re a year younger than me. Why do you sound like you’re my mom?”

Despite not having their parents for most of their lives, Jada didn’t mind watching out for her older sister. Foster care hadn’t been easy, but they’d been kept together most of the time. If it hadn’t been for one God-fearing couple setting them straight, neither of them would have made it in life.

In all their years, Judith never gave up hope to reach out and educate children in their own languages. Jada watched her suffer setbacks, and ended up enrolling in every one of her courses years after everyone else. But at age thirty, Judith was about to complete that dream.

“I’m never standing in your way,” Jada told her. “Which doesn’t mean I won’t camp out at your place for my Christmas vacation to get away from my nosey roommate.”

“I keep telling you to move out here.” Judith’s voice took a sing-song “I told you so” tone.

“And leave everything I’ve worked so hard for? Everything in my world is in its place.”

“You said yourself you have two things. Church and work. I go to a decent church. And nothing’s so great about your job you can’t find one similar somewhere else. Boy did that ever come out like an insult.”

“I hope you don’t talk to your clients that way.”

“Whateva’.” Judith’s corny New York accent painted a picture of her trying to be cool.

“I don’t ever want to hear you try that again, worry-wart. Have fun. Talk to you when you get back.”

The calm and sweet moment evaporated.

The low wail entering her mind took its place as the center of Jada’s attention. She gasped at its significance. “No.”

Searching wildly around the car for some sort of cover, there was nothing left to do but brace again as the cries of the 18-wheeler she’d passed a mile ago, caught up to the scene.

She didn’t want Judith to come home to find out what happened to her. God, help whoever they hit first. The morbid sound of the domino effect of impacts pulsed through her. How many other vehicles were between her and the truck? They shielded her enough that she only suffered a bump and felt her car slide a few more feet.

Her hood sloped on an incline. Somehow, in the midst of all of this, she’d traveled from the left lane to the right shoulder. How was she going to get out of this mess? Or any of them, for that matter? Twisted, crunching metal had reached her ears during that last impact. Snow surrounded the car like a cocoon, and she didn’t recall spotting a tow truck among the rest of vehicles that had been unable to pass the transport truck up ahead. Great. They were probably sandwiched in between the two rigs.

Below the howls of blowing snow, the engine roared when her foot slipped. It was still running. Good. No need to worry about heat on her three-quarter tank. She pulled down the visor to check her face. “You’re fine. Just a setback. Wait for the snow to clear, assess the damage, and find a way out. Okay?” Pep talk over, she closed her eyes and sagged against the seat. “Thank you, God.”

Stuck in a multicar pile-up. What a story to tell her friends. The fact that she couldn’t think of anyone she wanted to share with aside from a few people at church, made no difference. She switched off the car and listened to the wind yowl. Tiny pellets kicked against the glass and metal. Stuck. Alone.

Generally a loner, this wasn’t too bad. At work, ate alone; went to restaurants alone—and lest she lose sight that she was on her way to Judith’s empty condo—vacationed alone. She never wanted a roommate, but after Judith moved out a year ago, the three-bedroom became too much to handle on her own financially. Two weeks of solitude at Judith’s seemed divine. Maybe look for her own place and find a job if she were to take Judith’s offer seriously.

First, she had to make it out of here. Wherever here could be

In unfamiliar territory, wind buffeted the car. She swayed when it rocked every so often. Wild gusts of snow whistled and whipped around, attempting to get inside. She felt like she was in the wilderness, but civilization couldn’t be too far away, could it? She opened her eyes to stare into their dark brown reflection. The situation worried her, but she knew she should keep her head. She had clothes and a bit of roadside supplies in the trunk. They could be reached through the back seat if needed.

“Good plan. Good plan.” Snow whipped against the windshield. “Just wait it out.”

After ten minutes, the violent sounds of wind and snow faded. The car must be buried in the stuff by now.

Jada released her seatbelt, no comprehension of why she kept it on during the past ten minutes, and tried to open the door. It didn’t budge. “You don’t say.”

Turning on the power, she eventually eased down the reluctant window, letting mounds of snow inside, and poked her head out. Snow flurries flew around her head, causing her hair to follow suit in all directions. Whiteness faded in and out in patches, but evening had started to set in, and the skies grew dark.

On the ground, a blanket high enough to cover half a foot of her car door lay outside. Forget a freak storm, the blizzard of the century just occurred in fifteen minutes flat. Unfortunately, the rest of the road, from the few meters she could see, appeared just as unforgiving. It didn’t help that she’d been pushed to the side of the road where the drift was higher.

“So, God, how do you expect me to get out of here?”

Voices filtered over from in the distance.

“Hello?” She looked around.

“Everybody okay?”

Help had arrived? She thought there would be flashing lights or the yellow strobe of a plow. A few men trudged through the snow piles from both directions. Within minutes she’d been freed by the transport and pickup truck drivers with their handy shovels. Their vehicles sat high enough to avoid being blocked in the first place.

Tucking her flyaway hair under her hat, she followed them to a few other vehicles. For the next hour, she learned of the nine-car accident, and the men, women, and children trapped with her. Everyone appeared to be okay, and they poked long sticks into suspicious looking mounds. No one held out hope the roads would be cleared any time soon. They’d stopped between two small, sparsely populated towns.

Ace and Doug took charge. Cell phones beeped or rang as people exchanged calls, but help would be a while getting to them. She replayed every horror story of commuters trapped on roads for days. This couldn’t be happening.

Mohammed, with his wife and four children—and one in the oven—huddled in their car to keep each other warm and the little ones from worrying. His had been the car to spin out in front of her. The vehicle was filled with luggage and little else. Not one to be without road equipment, she gave them one of her blankets and a few of way too many tea candles from her supply.

One of the truck drivers had a flare, but the continued low snow-cloud cover made him hesitate using it. As long as everyone was fine, they’d wait until the weather cleared up more. It would clear up, wouldn’t it?

Crouched in her car once again, she pilfered more supplies from her suitcases. Bible. “Yes.” Though not the same context, 2 Corinthians 4 never looked so appealing. “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed. We are perplexed, but not in despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.” She finished the chapter and rolled on top of the book, hugging it to her chest like a heat source. If she had nothing else, she had hope.

Snuggling in with extra sweats, socks, her flashlight, and one box of tea candles, she settled in the backseat of her cold car to wait out the night.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

BRETTON HEATHROW stood by the front window of the den staring out at the crisp, clear night that pretended it wasn’t a dangerous mix of deep snow and freezing temperatures. The picturesque setting of a true midnight blue sky, pin cushioned with stars and set with a full moon, was the perfect halo for the Rocky Mountains and evergreens at its footstool.

Behind him, footsteps shuffled unsteadily from the back of his ranch-style home before his brother’s voice, in the throes of a yawn, loosely articulated, “What are you doing?”

“Can’t sleep.”

“Hggmmm.” Lance’s croak signified he may have fallen asleep where he stood.

Brett turned to head for the kitchen. Lance swayed with his eyes closed, hair in fifty directions, scratching his chest through his t-shirt. And the guy wondered why he was a bachelor at thirty.

“Stop dropping your fleas all over my hardwood floors.” He managed to swat Lance in the side of the head before the guy knew what hit him.

“Hey!”

He laughed, but maybe at thirty-three, he shouldn’t wonder why he was a bachelor either. He’d have been married by now if he hadn’t pushed the issue. Maybe forgiven more? Had an open mind?

He followed his nose to the coffee maker. The contraption was a godsend. It did everything but his laundry. The huge shiny red device had been a wedding gift from his fiancée’s best friend. Male best friend. The same male best friend who pulled Brett aside the night before the wedding and explained he knew Brett’s soon-to-be-wife biblically.

Too shocked to react, he’d let the man pat him on the shoulder and walk away before he even breathed again. Christina broke down when confronted. She’d cried and begged forgiveness. By the end of the longest night ever, she’d been the one to leave him with a dagger in his heart and a hundred guests in need of an explanation.

Ohio all of a sudden became too stifling. Any job offer that spelled his fastest ticket out of there became too good to turn down. He’d made his escape. Lock, stock, and kitchen appliance extraordinaire.

Reaching down a skillet from the overhead hook, he turned to the fridge for supplies, grabbing everything at once and taking the load to the counter. The coffee machine didn’t remind him of acts of betrayal one bit. It was a much useful and necessary piece of equipment which kept him functioning day to day. Yeah, he’d kept the gift. And anything else that came from Christina’s friends who’d covered up the friendship-affair one way or another.

The machine made a perfect mug of perk-me-ups. Gave him espresso, cappuccino, hot water for any occasion. Quite the deal for what he gave up.

While he busied himself with loaded eggs and toast, he checked the time. Five-fifteen a.m. Really? He’d have guessed two-thirty, three-thirty tops. Been there over a year and still moved on Ohio time whenever the holidays drew near. Maybe Lance brought the time shift with him. He glanced over his shoulder. Sleepy Head had his cheek balanced in his hand propped on the long wooden table.

The sight made him smile. He was glad Lance flew all the way out here to exercise his counseling degree. Branching out was difficult. His came from necessity, but Lance from the goodness of his heart. They both had a spirit to explore what life had to offer. Got that from their father. At least Dad passed on something other than his brown hair and gray eyes, because he sure didn’t pass on the love.

“Wake up, Einstein. Might as well get a move on if we’re going to have that cabin cleaned by sundown.”

“Huh?” Lance’s pillow-creased face fell onto his folded arms. “Don’t doctors sleep? I’m sure you slept once. There was sleeping going on when you were home.”

“You’re the one who wants his own place at the back of the ranch, so let’s go clear it out.” He slid their plates onto the table. “Don’t know why you won’t stay here. There are plenty of rooms.”

“Oh, right. The one where the guy died. The one across from where the guy died. The one beside where the guy died. Or the one adjacent to where the guy died.”

“You do know Mom buried the pet rabbit in the backyard, don’t you?”

Lance didn’t move. “And this is not a ranch. This is a big house on a lot of land. Only you would move into a place where the previous owner croaked in his bed. How can you afford it anyway?”

“I make loads of money.” Brett grinned and sat down.

Lance raised his head out of its nest far enough for one eye to squint up at him with a storm.

“All right, it came cheap because the previous owner croaked in his bed.”

“Not funny. Also why I’m not spending another night here. Thanks for sharing.”

He wouldn’t spook Lance further by saying rumor had it the previous owner died of a broken heart the week after his wife kicked the bucket somewhere conspicuous in this very home. He’d never see his brother again.

Sixty-three years of marriage gone. Poor man. Brett had never missed anyone enough for his heart to cry out to them.

He focused on the business at hand. “If you’re as gung-ho as you claim and want to help me run a clinic here, you need to get used to the hours.”

“You said you get up at seven. At the hospital by eight-thirty.” He pointed at the wall clock without turning his head. “Not one of those numbers is correct.”

Brett dug into his eggs with a smile. “Eat. You never know when you’re going to get a chance again, and we—”

A pop and whistle cracked the deathly still hills. Was that what he thought…?

Brett scrambled from the table and peered out the window. Seeing nothing, he ran to the mudroom and threw on his boots, grabbing his winter coat to shrug into as he pushed through the outer door.

Where…? Where…? His legs sank knee-deep into the fresh groundcover, making precious time slip away. Rounding the front of the house, he hiked forward to get a good look at the tail end of the streak in the sky. Witness to only one flare gun burst in his life, he scarce believed he saw one now. The trajectory appeared to originate from the north, but definitely from the direction of the interstate.

“Get the kit! And the snowshoes.”

Lance’s approaching crunches detoured to the front porch. He slipped inside, Brett following, neither bothering to remove their snow-ridden clothes. He should have known the unpredicted storm would leave somebody stranded.

Brett headed straight through the house and out the back door again to prepare the sled.

Well. Day one of his Christmas vacation certainly started with a bang.

CHAPTER THREE

 

COLD SEEPED through Jada’s bones. Her dreamless sleep—no dreams she could remember anyway—trapped her between unconsciousness and awareness. She’d commanded herself to wake, but not until the noises outside her car grew excited, did she decide to make the leap.

She sat up and sniffled, glancing around the dark interior at the blanket of thick snow on every window. The wilderness experience didn’t come with toilets. Last night she’d discovered the lengths she’d go for certain needs. She’d sipped water to keep hydrated all evening, then created a used-candle trail from her bumper to a particularly high snow drift against a tree to take care of business. Cold underwear and frozen jeans were the worst. She prayed they wouldn’t spend another night out here.

Stretching and getting used to the defrosting driver-side windows ushering in the beginning of day, she crawled to the front seat and fired up the engine to jumpstart heat circulation. Reaching back, she rescued her toiletry kit, and out of habit, she checked around for privacy and met the covered windows. The snow had insulated her car against last night’s winds, but may be worth the transparency to scrape it away to get some solar heating.

On the front passenger seat, she sat cross-legged and glanced again at the frosty driver window. She lowered it a few inches to peer outside. She was supposed to be headed north-east. The position of the rising sun suggested otherwise.

Not something to worry about now. She lit the next set of candles lined up in the foot-well, sloppily brushed her teeth using her dwindling water supply, and used her makeup remover to clean her face.

Remembering she had an extra pack of hand wipes, perhaps she should check on Mohammed and his family if they hadn’t packed similar provisions.

Raised voices drifted in from the distance. One in particular, a mix of calm and authority, caused her neck to strain as she tried to see beyond Mohammed’s car. “You’re all right? Ma’am? You, sir? … Pregnant?” Indecipherable conversation followed.

Minutes later, shadows and crunching snow came closer. Jada expected a policeman to round Mohammed’s vehicle, not a vision wrapped in a hefty hooded winter coat, and eyes as pale gray as the night was cold.

“I’m Jada.” Hello. What happened to ‘hello’?

No surprise his last step displayed caution.

What she wouldn’t give to relive the last ten seconds of her life. Okay, maybe a lot more other times than that. She attempted to lower the window further, but the glass refused to cooperate. Handsome must have been six feet, but the slope of snow angling her into the ditch made him a giant before he leaned down to peer inside.

“Uh.” Handsome’s gaze stayed on her for a long while before it wandered down the line of mangled vehicles. “Are you hurt? Injured?” His eyes, focused, came back. “Feel discomfort?”

“No. I’m okay.”

Gloved fingers poked through the window and dropped a couple of shiny packets. She looked down at her lap. Energy bars.

“Thank—” She looked up but he was gone. Butterflies collided in her stomach. Those eyes… She wanted to look into those eyes again. A younger version took his place. This one smiled and shoved a foil juice packet through the slot.

“Sorry, it’s all we have left.”

Left from what? When he moved on, she tracked their progress by the volume of their voices down the wreckage.

That was the strangest meeting ever. Checking her lap again, Jada ripped open the breakfast like a wild animal in a cage. It was a rescue after all.

 

 

BRETT made quick work of assessing possible injuries. As he made his way back toward the front of the line—Lance talking in his ear about sharing space—his gaze swayed to the black Acura.

“Nine vehicles. Sixteen people.” Lance made scribbles in a notebook.

Hard snow squeaked and crunched under their feet as they hiked the uneven, narrow footpath the group had trampled out over the time they’d been stuck here. Brett forced his gaze from the black sedan. The woman said her name. He’d gone and forgotten his. All he’d absorbed were sultry eyes and full lips on creamy dark skin. She was exotic looking, liquid dark irises, shapely eyebrows, all framed in the leopard print fur of her hood. Nothing special for him to lose his memory over though.

“…tight. But it’s only three days, tops, right? We’ll make it work.”

He turned to Lance. “What? Yeah. Three, four days. Yeah.” He forced his gaze to the vehicle ahead of Sultry Eyes. “We’ve got the kids and a pregnant lady. Let’s take them first.”

“This is a wreckage for the history books. Never knew you lived such an exciting life, brah.”

They stopped at the family’s car, and since it was at an awkward V-angle with the other one, he risked a peek into the dark interior. Darker eyes peered right back at him.

Turning, he knocked on the clear glass and waved at the folks inside before opening the door to lean in the gap. “Sir, my house is about a fifteen-minute walk from here. We can take you and your family over first so they can get warmed up.”

A cold wind whipped around him into the vehicle. Instead of the day getting warmer, the temperature had dropped.

“Can we get your family out of here, sir?”

The man seemed reluctant. The driver from the first rig approached. Ace was his name, who seemed to have a rapport with the bunch. “Hey, Mohammed. What’s going on?”

Brett stepped back with Lance to let them talk. “This is going to be hard. I don’t think he wants any of the other men near his wife.”

“You think?” Lance gave him an exasperated face. “Maybe we could take the men to the cabin. Leave the women the house. It’s about an even split.”

“Cabin?” Mohammed stepped from his car. “We’ll take your cabin.” He gestured to his family.

Brett laughed. “No. No. It hasn’t been used as housing in…over a year. Everything works, but there’s a lot of storage junk. Not a lot of space. The kids—”

“We’ll take it!”

He exchanged a look with Lance. “Mr.—”

“No. It’s good. We’ll take it.”

“Um.” Beside him, Lance consented with a nod. “Okay.” Maybe it would be for the best. Neither Mohammed nor his wife and kids presented any symptoms of injury. “We’ll take you to my place first. Then when everybody’s in, one of us will take you out back. Fair enough? We want to make sure all of these people have a place to stay tonight.”

That brought a smile to Mohammed’s face.

Settled. He turned to his dark interest. “Jada, is it?” He knew good and well her name. “You go with them. We have an extra pair of snow shoes. Or skis.”

“Did you just order me?” The level of her head and the frosted glass left him with only her humorous tone and view of her squinted eyes.

He was too used to giving orders in high-trauma situations, but glad she didn’t take his routine in offense.

Lance walked by and knocked him on his back. “He’s always bossy. Don’t take it personally.”

Brett’s gaze remained on Jada. Hers moved with Lance as walked away, but narrowed in what looked like a smile. The door opened and Sultry Eyes stepped out in boots, jeans, and an interesting mix of shirts and sweats bunched up under her half open winter jacket.

She pointed a red mitten with white polka dots at him. “I’m watching you, bossy. All you have to do is say please.” The black wool cap on her head kept her shoulder-length hair in place during the next gust of wind, before she clambered up the small step of snow from the ditch.

Well, there was a problem. Jada stood at least six inches shorter than him. He had no idea why he thought she’d be as tall as Christina. His ex’s unused wedding gift skis would be too long for her to use.

“Wear the snow shoes. It’ll be easier.” He gestured her to follow him to the sled.

“Did you just boss me again?”

He glanced over his shoulder to where she trailed behind in all her mix-matched garb. “I can’t help what you infer, Miss.” Switching to walk backwards a couple of steps, he gauged her face to ensure his words weren’t taken in a mean spirit.

Brett had to face front again, smiling to himself at her receptive smirk. He couldn’t get over the amazing dark chocolate of her eyes through thick curtains of lashes. She captured his attraction more and more every passing second. Impossible.

Some of the men unpacked what was left of the emerg kit, and loaded on Mrs. M. and the luggage. When he turned, Jada was nowhere in sight. She backed out of her car a minute later hefting a mid-size suitcase. “Oh.” More luggage.

“How long will we be gone?”

“The Interstate’s closed.” He checked out her car from where they stood beside Ace’s jack-knifed rig. The first few vehicles were trapped in the ditch. “None of you are going anywhere for a few days.”

The corner of her mouth quirked. “I have a couple of these. But this’ll do.” She dragged the case closer.

“Um. Going far?” Two suitcases, plus the overnight bag slung over her shoulder? This lady was on a journey.

“Headed to my sister’s for my Christmas vacay. First day.”

He laughed. “Mine, too.”

“You don’t say.” The surprise on her face and bright smile…aww, he could just as well remember his name tomorrow.

He found his manners when saw her heft the case. “Here. Let me get that for you.”

“Ooops. Sorry.”

She’d let go before he got a hold, and he chased it to the ground… Her face…it appeared right there…close enough to kiss. Not that he would.

Why was a kiss his first thought?

He reached for the handle again as she did the same, coming in way to close at the halfway point for two strangers. She tried to straighten while he leaned over once again, the body dance as awkward to live as it must have been to watch for anyone who glanced in their direction. But boy, if that little exchange didn’t bring them closer. Her hair, the only veil between his lips and her cheek, saved them a little embarrassment as the last up and down motion brought them a skin’s breadth away.

“Please. I’ll get it.” He lifted the suitcase packed with bricks and loaded it onto the sled. Now he only hoped the snowmobile could move the thing. To his utter surprise, after Jada strapped on the last pair of snowshoes, she bent down and grabbed hold of the securing rope as if to help pull.

Lance rushed in. “Why don’t you just make sure nothing falls off while we’re moving it?”

She looked around. Her gaze fell on him, and Brett heard nothing, saw nothing but the bright sun on this glorious crisp, cold morning. Her eyes drew narrow—loved it when she did that—but, yeah, he’d begin to wonder what he was staring at, too.

“Sure you can manage?”

Since her question came directed at him and not in response to Lance, Brett smiled to know he wasn’t the only one caught in this curious web. He wouldn’t fly into a snare like Christina’s again though. The thought sobered him as he walked forward. A part of him wanted to jump in with both feet, while his rational side explained this was no more than friendly exchange with a nice looking woman. Leave it there.

Unfortunately, Jada’s peepers didn’t get that memo. Her gaze never wavered in their innocent question and challenge. They did him in. As he continued closer, he couldn’t break away. Behind the dark eyes, something called him in to search deeper. Gave him permission to go there.

But the reason he remembered mistakes was so he could learn from them. He had a challenge of his own fortified by a shot of boldness that had hidden away since leaving Christina behind. “Philippians four, thirteen.”

The surprised confusion on her scrunched face, the blink, and soft snort with perplexed shake of her head, disappointed him. But when she burst out in a hearty laugh that drew the attention of everyone, he knew he got it right.

“Go in this thy might.” She stepped back and waved a hand with a flourish for him to continue.

He paused and checked out the kids at play around the sled. They still displayed no signs of distress. Neither did Mohammed’s wife. He turned back to Jada.

“Thanks, but I’m staying here.”

She glanced at the lineup of vehicles. “Why?”

“It’s a miracle no one is seriously hurt, but I need to make sure everyone’s all right before they move.”

Her head shook slowly side to side. “Who are you?” she asked with enough humor to belie the awestruck trace in her voice.

“Just someone who sees people need help.”

Her lips pursed as she checked out the sled. “Maybe I should stay, too, then? You might be one of those people who need help.”

Nice comeback. “Naw. Mrs. Mansouri may want the company.”

“Do you remember everybody’s name?” She looked once more down the line. “Neat trick, but you still haven’t told me who you are.”

“Doctor?”

Brett glanced around Jade to the approaching older woman and her husband. They’d avoided getting hit by other vehicles and seemed to be fine. At the moment, they carried skis.

“We’re on our way from the resort, but if we can use these, it would help with the migration.”

“Great idea.” One more glance at the sled told him it carried more than enough weight. “We may have to take your luggage on the next round.”

The woman, in a bubblegum pink ski suit, chortled as her husband passed her his skis and started jogging back to their Buick. “We travel light. Chuck’s getting our backpacks, then we’re all set.”

“Excellent.” Two less people to worry about. That made nine of the sixteen stranded motorists. More than half. Chances were good they’d have everyone back at his place in two trips. Smiling and nodding at the prospect of a warm home and a warmer fire sooner rather than later, his attention veered back to Jada to share the delight.

Raised eyebrow in question, those eyelids narrowed again as she posed with crossed arms. “Doctor?”

“Yeah. I never mentioned?”

The second eyebrow rose to meet the first. Guess not.

“Wow. That must have made me seem extra bossy.” He held out his hand.

“No. Still regular bossy.” Arms folded, she didn’t do the automatic reaction of also extending her hand. Her gaze dropped to his waiting winter glove before returning to his.

“Brett. Heathrow. At your service.”

She smiled like he’d done the right thing. Glove met mitt in a muffled handshake. “So, more than just a Good Samaritan, Doctor Heathrow.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” He waited, but no return introduction loomed on the horizon. “And you?”

She huffed a laugh and dropped his hand as she started to walk. “You kept me waiting. You can find out my last name later.”

“Ah…” He set his voice at a low timbre, loud enough for her alone to hear. “So conversation is forthcoming. I like.”

Where did that confident growl come from? Mighty proud he’d managed it, he didn’t wait to find out her reaction when he strode in the opposite direction.

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

THE PROMISE of continued conversation loomed out of reach. By early evening, Brett had squirreled through both fridges, the deep freezer, and the pantry to find suitable foods for the Mansouris, but gave up hope of ever entering his kitchen after Peggy, Claire, and pink-clad Windy commandeered his counter space.

His back muscles ached from chopping additional firewood, and he could do with a soak in the tub. His fellow woodchoppers eased onto the couch with heavy sighs. By the time Lance returned from organizing the Mansouris in the cabin, the large house smelled of chicken stew and some kind of sweet dessert, roared with conversation, and showed no sign of Jada.

He suffered a few minutes engaging the other guests before he wandered down the side hall toward the five bedrooms. Quieter. Only one of the three guestrooms was closed. A snap of linen echoed from an open door.

At the far end of the previous owner’s newer additions, Brett peeked in the last room and found Jada working a sheet onto the queen-sized bed. Hair pinned in a sloppy loop on top of her head, her half-sleeve sweater covered to mid-thigh over faded jeans.

He leaned against the doorframe. “Hey.”

She turned with a start, then laughed it off. “Hi. Sorry, I didn’t hear anyone coming down the hall.” She ran her hands along her hips and shrugged, then gestured to the bed. “There weren’t any…”

“I don’t keep them made up. No one ever comes here.”

Her curious smirk made him stare for an extra second.

Clearing his throat, he straightened and raised his foot to take a step into the room, but detoured to the door to rest his back against it and cross his arms. “I’ve been here fifteen months. From Ohio. I took a job at the West Montana Hospital running the outpatient clinic. Aside from my parents blowing through for a weekend, Lance is my first visitor.”

Her face turned thoughtful. He waited for her to process his hemorrhage of information while he regretted babbling on. She didn’t need to hear his life story in a single breath.

Introspective face still turning thoughts over, she reached for a pillowcase and snapped it open. “This is a lot of space for a single man. Family back home?”

“No. You?”

She smiled and turned away to grab a pillow. “No.”

“Where are you from?”

Her gaze flitted his way, not catching his eye. “Seattle. My sister moved last year, too. To Havre. She’s thirty years old in a class full of nineteen-year-olds, but having the time of her life. It’s just us. We’re our only family.”

“I’m sorry to hear.” He dropped his arms and hooked his thumbs in his pockets. “Maybe she can come for you when the road’s cleared since your car will take a while. Internet works if you need to tell her you’re stuck.”

“Already have. Sent an email. You really shouldn’t leave your laptop out with so many strangers in the house.” Her pointed look of warning still held humor. “I thought I’d make sure we all have a place to sleep tonight. This room is for the men. I figure men on one side of the hall, women on the other. Easy not to get confused.” She smiled. After tossing the clothed pillow onto the bed, she gave him his favorite narrow-eye look. “Why the big house if no family?”

“I have a dream.”

“Do tell, Doctor King.”

It took a second for him to catch her meaning. She’d started on a second pillow, and though he wanted to share his desire on what he’d do with this land, he decided he wanted something first. “You can find out after you tell me your last name.”

“Holding information hostage. You learn fast.”

He laughed. “Hang out with me, you’ll find I love to learn.”

“All that learning didn’t teach you not to be bossy?”

Somehow, he’d wandered into the room, hands resting in his back pockets, his penchant to learn at its peak. Love to learn all about her, is where he was headed. “Can’t take an order? Have an aversion to authority?”

“I’m a clerk with the Seattle police, I’ll have you know. Maybe the problem is you.”

He rubbed a hand over his head. “I don’t think so. This is my house and I can’t even get into my own kitchen. Thanks for starting dinner, by the way.”

“No problem. And yeah, Windy and Claire kicked me out as soon as they arrived.” A wisp of hair fell when she shook her head, giving him a tiny smile. “But all the better for me. I got to shower and take a nap. Say, you must be exhausted. I got this. You can rest if you want.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe you took us all in. You’re incredible.” She turned to him, her smile fading under his gaze.

A moment sealed them into a vacuum of stillness before he found speech. “Lance and I were going to clear out the cabin for him to live in. We were already prepared for a hardworking day.”

His voice had come out too quiet for a normal conversation. The room followed suit, save the homey laughter and conversations billowing from the kitchen and den. He didn’t know why they surrendered to the sudden pause, but didn’t want to break it. Now-familiar dark eyes stared at him. Into him. Bare lips gave a small smile before Jada turned away, a hand scratching behind her ear as she stared down at the chair as if to consider what to prepare next, when only the cover remained.

Unfolding the spread, she moved closer to stand at the foot, and waved the sheet open. “So…Lance is here for how long?”

“Indefinite.” He moved where he knew he’d stay in her peripheral vision.

“Oh? What’s the occasion?”

“Can’t tell you.”

Her eyes stayed glued to the bedspread while his pulse raced copious amounts of blood through his system. The magnet that was his entire being begged him to stand next to her, while only respect and manners held him at bay. If they were familiar, he’d just reach out and curl his palm around her cheek and neck, tilt her head to stare into those bottomless eyes all night. Was she feeling this? She had to be feeling this.

“Keeping secrets, bossy?”

Her light humor not lost on him, he moved further up the side of the bed to stay in her line of sight. He wouldn’t let her cut the tension between them. “Ties back to my dream. I believe you pay a toll if you want to hear that information.”

Lips twisted like she tried to hide a smile. “Bossy and demanding. You need to work on those.”

“First chance I get.”

Those lips curled inward before she straightened the covers at the foot before she moved up the opposite side. “My sister wants me to move out there. Tough decision. I don’t know if I can do what the two of you did. All my life I wanted roots, now I have them. I like my job, love my church. I’m worried I won’t find anything as comfortable.”

“Comfort is stifling.”

Her lips tightened as if she wanted to refute his statement.

“I learned not to stay put out of comfort. You never know what good thing is around the corner. There’s a great church I’m getting used to out here. I’m sure you’d adapt.”

Quiet closed in again. Jada bounced on the balls of her feet while he secretly wiggled his toes. He didn’t just offer an invitation to join his church. He’d meant she’d adapt to change if she moved in with her sister. The more that time dragged on, the more awkward it became to explain his words.

An invitation to church. That’s how it had all started with Christina. To this day he didn’t know if she pretended for his sake, or if she was serious about a godly commitment. Either way, she made a mistake. The worst part was deflecting blame to him when she tried to cover it up. He never considered her to be a mean person, just misguided and not ready for a relationship. She certainly wouldn’t be making up a stranger’s bed.

His gaze dropped to Jada’s hands in their task. She’d sure made herself at home; starting a lunch, making up the beds—although that was a task he’d told Lance to do. But Brett was intrigued that she took it upon herself to make sure everybody had a place to sleep.

Despite his desire to stay, Jada was one of a houseful of strangers to accommodate, all of whom had families and destinations to notify. Well, Jada already took care of emailing her sister.

“Wait. Did you say you’re traveling from Seattle to Montana State University Northern? In Havre?” His face must have looked as confused as he sounded.

“Yep.” Leaving the top end of the bed half made, she looked at him. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“How did you end up here?”

“Trick question?” She pointed at the window.

“The next town is Drummond.”

“I don’t remember seeing that on my map.”

“You wouldn’t. Not if you’re traveling from Seattle to Havre.”

Her eyebrows wrinkled. “Run that by me again?”

“You don’t use GPS?”

Her face went slack. “Are you telling me I’m lost?”

He smiled. “I know exactly where you are, Miss…?”

There were those lovely slit eyes. “Nice try.” The eyes instantly widened. “Are you serious, though? I’m lost? Where am I?”

“Red Main.”

“Red what?”

“Red—”

“I heard you. Red main? Who gets lost in Red Main? Where is Red Main? How far off course am I?”

“You missed the fork in the road about forty-five minutes back.”

“Aahhhh.” Her head fell back to tilt toward the ceiling. “The weather started getting heavy around that time. I paid more attention to the road than the signs.”

“Usually good at reading the signs, are you?” He hoped she picked up on the direction he was taking.

“Usually.” She glanced at him, did a double-take. “Yeah.”

He chuckled and nodded, stared a second longer than normal before starting out of the room to shower after the sweaty day. “Good. That’s all I need to know.”

 

 

THAT’S ALL he needed to know, huh? Jada pinched her lips in the midst of a smile as the tall, handsome man left the room. Did she just stand there and flirt with a stranger? She’d never done that sort of thing before.

In truth, Brett Heathrow made her crave his nearness, as if he wasn’t a stranger at all. That kind of drive was dangerous and absurd.

Jada went to the linen closet in the hall and pulled out more bedding for the next room. A nice man, mid-thirties maybe? And the house was huge.

She’d done a little exploring after Lance told her to help herself to bedding. After her nap, she decided to prepare all of the guestrooms. The master room boasted a king-sized bed, and a simple dark brown and black color-scheme. She’d lingered only a few seconds outside the door, but thought the space was well used and attractive. It somehow matched how she thought Brett would be; interesting layers beneath what met the eye.

He claimed to have no family of his own, but what about a girlfriend in the next snow pile or in Ohio? Red Main. How did she end up in Red Main? She had another five hours to get to Havre if the roads were good. And leave Dr. Grey Eyes behind? Don’t get any ideas.

Jada spread out the sheets and tugged on the covers.

She mustn’t misconstrue his actions tonight, or their conversation. Surely he was this…flirty…with everyone? Jada sighed to herself. Flirty. Friendly. Fabulous. Facilitating. Claire and very plain Regina could receive the same rapt attention.

Rather than buy into his friendliness as something more, she cut off that flow of thinking. The kind doctor rescued stranded motorists. The end.

And he’d quoted that verse. Alone in the room, she laughed at the reference. He’d laid out where he was coming from. Well, left it up to her to interpret his meaning. That was the clincher. Glimpsing a Bible on the nightstand in the master bedroom…

Snap out of it. Falling for her rescuer like a fainting damsel in distress? Pl-ease.

Jada went out to prepare the last room.

“Hi.” Claire, mid-thirties and the only other black woman, scurried past. “I need the restroom. The other one’s taken.”

Jada laughed as Claire threw up her hands in mock desperation and hurried inside. She watched the door slam as she turned into the last room, and was half way in before she was met by narrow waist, sinewy arms, and bare, bare chest. Eyes scrunched shut, she stopped short. “Sorry!” She switched directions with the sheets in her arms and headed blindly toward the door when Lance called her back.

“You can stay. I’m just cleaning up the place. Wasn’t expecting company. Like, ever.”

Just cleaning up in bare feet, loose jeans and that great chest. Eyes still clamped shut, she didn’t turn around. “No. I should have known this was yours. The door was closed earlier, I think. My head’s all jumbled up.” Thinking about your brother.

“No biggie, Jade.”

“Jada.” Opening her eyes, she stared out into the hallway.

“Jada.” His voice drew closer, mixed with a chuckle. “You ladies can stay in here. It has an en-suite, so I’m sure it’s more convenient.”

Soap and dampness filled the air when he reached her side. He was finished dressing, and leaving. Thank goodness. When she turned, the bare chest with water droplets from his hair encompassed her vision. Not finished dressing.

She found his eyes. “Where will you stay?”

“Camp out on the floor of my brother’s room.”

“A king-size bed and you choose the floor?”

“You try sleeping with him.”

Both of them paused.

“I mean…” Lance’s chuckle sounded nervous. “We shared a bed once when we were kids visiting friends. Ended up on the floor anyway. Just taking the shortcut.”

She grinned. “You two have to be the nicest men I’ve ever met.”

“Share the wealth.” He shrugged, turned to the rustic wardrobe, and yanked out a sleeping bag. “Brett says it’s his calling. Some people give, some people pray, some do administrative work. He heals and helps. It gets tiring being the selfish brother sometimes.”

Chuckling at his back, she watched him rummage through the wardrobe, thankful for this amazing pair of siblings. If it sounded too good to be true, though, was it? She glanced at a movement that caught her attention through the door, found Bossy Brett, his eyes glued to his brother as Lance finally pulled on a shirt. They swung back to her, but she didn’t know what to make of the look; surprise, confusion, like she’d been caught up to no good with the town bad-boy.

She didn’t need that type of drama.

Shaking her head, she turned and stripped the bed.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

“YOU MESSED up.”

“I didn’t mess up.”

“Awwwwww.” Lance’s croaky scoff irritated Brett to no end.

The den was crowded. Twelve people packed themselves on every chair and throw cushion, the fire roared, and Jada sat alone on the opposite couch since Ace kept jumping up to yell at the MSU defense line. He’d pace, hold his jaw, then come back and watch the next scrimmage.

“You messed up.” Lance’s sing-song voice grated on Brett’s nerves.

He failed to duck when Lance’s arm wrapped around him. A neck spasm lingered when his brother squeezed. Starting a wrestling match like they used to do as kids was a tempting idea, even with company around, because Brett would crush this guy and then nurse him back to health to crush him all over again.

“Will you get off me?” His harsh whisper had no effect in the football-induced chanting crowd.

“Did I tell you that you messed up? She came into the room to make the bed, dummy.” The arm squeezed tighter. “What did you think, brah?”

“I’m not interested in discussing this.”

“Jealous—”

“No! Get. Off.” His brother was so going to pay for this even though their sibling scuffle appeared to go unnoticed among the moans and cheers of the others. “Lance, this is childish. Let go.”

“You weren’t jealous?”

No. Maybe. Somewhat. A little. It wasn’t too long ago that the image of the woman he was about to marry and another man finally faded. “Lance. I mean it.”

“Look. She’s all by herself again. Go on over there.” Lance released him and landed a heavy, stinging slap on his back.

“I don’t care.”

“Yeah, you do. You like her. Or…” He scratched his ribs through his shirt. “I can show her my abs again and see…”

Brett leveled him with a stare. Nevertheless, he stayed put, staring around the room at his ten guests having a grand time despite their difficult circumstance.

Lance bowed his head to pinch his nose bridge and sigh. “You are so much work. I can see you’re going to need a little help here.” Grabbing his Christmas-themed plastic cup, he waved it in front of Brett. “Cheers!” He frowned. “Uh, no, I’m out. Brett, get me something to drink, will ya‘? Please?”

Brett didn’t know his endgame. Didn’t care. What he saw was an opportunity to escape. He snagged the cup as he rose and made his way to the kitchen. Inside, he laughed. They’d missed Christmas together last year, and the wild antics hadn’t changed one bit. He loved Lance, even when he wanted to cause him bodily harm.

Keeping with their Christmas mischief, Brett didn’t rinse the one-inch remnants of soda from the cup, but proceeded to fill the container with tepid tap water. When he returned to the den, he understood how low Lance could stoop.

Ace sat in Brett’s vacated seat. He and Lance working up to a Montana State University “fanmanship” frenzy during the commercial break. Brett eyed the opening beside Jada. She seemed different after he’d caught her and… Not caught. It was an innocent encounter. History did not repeat itself.

Hiking his jeans, he breathed deep and stepped over to the couch. She didn’t look up from her conversation with Windy, who sat in the chair at a right angle to the couch. The both of them perched on the edge of their seats talking about something or other in Seattle.

He hoped he hadn’t just embarrassed himself by coming over here. Good thing he had payback for the great manipulator. Brett stretched over the coffee table and handed Lance the drink. “Bottoms up. I know you’re thirsty.”

Jada’s head swiveled in his direction. Brett peered down into a face that seemed to have lived in his memory for years. Narrow for me. Go ahead. And they did. Those thick curtains of lashes slit until her irises looked as black as the bottomless pupils.

“You going to stand there all night, bossy, or are you secretly trying to get me to move over?”

He sank to the seat. “Look who’s all lippy now.”

Her gaze stayed on him, and he noted her soft smile, like relief that they’d returned to stable ground. “Watch it.”

Her conversation with Windy resumed, the two of them perched on the edge of their seats, but her frequent peeks at him telling enough. He settled into the cushions and draped his arm behind her.

Good grief, what was that goof up to now? With a smug leer, Lance mouthed, ‘you’re welcome.’ Brett checked out the full cup of grossly watered-down soda on the coffee table, and figured he best sleep with one eye open tonight. Just to be safe.

“What are you grinning at?” Jada’s question pulled his attention to her.

In the middle of the crowd, she was the only one who belonged.

His response jammed in his throat as her eyes moved back and forth between his. Hopefully reading how he wanted a deep conversation but didn’t know how to guide them there. Only one thought came to mind. “Tell me your name.”

A growing smirk died. Instantly he knew his connection with this woman had just clicked and locked again.

“Why?” she asked.

“I want to know who I’m talking to.”

“That’s not in my name.”

“To me it is. I feel like I know only half of who you are.”

Looking puzzled, she glanced around as if searching what to do.

Despite his rapid heart rate, his breathing slowed. Inexplicable calm washed over him. “Follow me.”

“Where?”

Since they’d regained their friendly-fire, he took some leeway. “Did I tell you to ask questions, or did I tell you to follow me?”

“Fine line.” She made a quick zip motion with her finger before jabbing the finger at him. “You’re walkin’ it.”

He jerked his head. “Let’s go. It’s too noisy in here.”

Grunting, she stood.

He had no idea if she’d like the final destination, but took her through to the mudroom where everyone’s coat lay or hung in disarray.

As he pulled on a boot, he watched her face. “Well?”

“Outside? I hate to break it to you, but black women are allergic to cold.”

His foot dropped with his boot only half on as he staggered a step to laugh. “I’m going to remember you said that.”

Finishing a chuckle, he searched the winter-wear and spotted her black hat poking out from a coat pocket hanging on the wall. He stomped his foot into his Sorel Conquest and reached for the hat. Holding it up, he twirled it around his hand as he approached, glad she didn’t move or protest. Her chin inched higher when he pulled the hat over her head, perfect for him to smooth her hair on either side of her face.

Boy, her skin felt soft and warm. Brett took a chance. He didn’t pretend to find stray hairs to shoo out of the way. Instead, he chose to dispel any doubts of his attraction through the single stroke of the back of his finger down her face. He watched the skin he touched, then her eyes, steady, serene. Surrendering a budding smile of thanks for the moment, he stepped back.

When he pulled a jacket from the hook, she frowned. “That’s not mine.”

Paying no mind, he wrapped her in the jacket, knowing the fit would be too long, but would hang nicely as a coat. “My gloves are too big, but you can wear your own.”

Her brows lifted. “This is yours?”

Next, the scarf. He looped the thick crocheted wool once, then tucked it in and zipped her up snug. Grinning at his awkward masterpiece, he returned to his other boot and was ready by the time she struggled into her own boots and waited by the door.

“Where are we going?”

“Less talk, more follow.” He grinned down at her fake scowl as they went out.

Snow fell sparsely, but the ground had frozen enough that they didn’t sink during their trek to the front. Worn areas showed where everyone unloaded the sled and trampled about before coming in. Brett led her up the porch steps to view the expanse of the quiet, snow-blanketed hills, aglow under the moon.

“This is beautiful.” Her breath billowed into the air, her smile bright in the ethereal blue lights of the house and moon. “All of the land is yours? How big is it?”

“One hundred and seventy-six acres.” Brett rested one hand against the post, the other on the railing, enclosing her within. “Too small for a rancher. Just right for me.”

“No cowboy dreams? That would have been my first guess.”

She shuffled out of his circle to lean against the left post. He followed suit on the right, waiting. He curled his bottom lip between his teeth. And…waiting. He didn’t mind. Drowned in the oversized jacket, she looked like she owned it. He admired the view. Most important, he knew she was warm. That fashion winter jacket she had wasn’t made for prolonged exposure.

“Jada Maude Stanton.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“I know. Don’t say anything.” She waved her hands. “I’m Jada Stanton.”

His laugh rang across the front acre, entwined with her groan.

“You’re laughing at me.”

“I’m not.”

“Then what do you call this?”

“I recognize who I’m talking to. The rock or the safe place or the…” He gestured his hands like a house. “… castle. Something like that. I used to work with an oncologist by the name of Stanton. The rest of his family was in the quarry business, hence the pun.”

Her face told him nothing.

He nodded. “You know, like stone or… Never mind.”

“Ah-kay, I get it. So what’s Heathrow?”

“Nothing.”

“Everything means something.”

Avoiding her gaze, he smiled out to the snow. “Heathrow is uncultivated. It’s wastelands.”

“No wonder you’re so overbearing. Ha! Hey, does that mean I’m the stone castle on your wasteland?”

While she snickered at his expense, he glanced back to her, noticed how her vibrant eyes reflected a beam of moonlight in her merriment. Brett reached out and grabbed the jacket collar, dragging her close.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

HEARING JADA’S softer chuckle, it resonated with acknowledgement and denial of how near they stood. Her face, bright with joy and flushed with cold, gave him another aspect of her to admire. But…did he seriously aim to seal their joke with a kiss? At odds within, he gently released her and stepped back, gesturing to the land.

“All right, Miss Jada Maude. If you must know, the place is mine, but I have funding for a special project. I’m starting a recovery clinic.”

A curious tilt of her head accompanied a crease in her brow. “What type of medicine do you practice?”

“Me, I’m a family practitioner. Lance is a certified youth counselor. He’ll be on-hand if anyone needs immediate help, but the long-term therapy is conducted at the hospital and covered through them. This won’t be so much a medical clinic, as a therapeutic facility. But here, this place already has the space, barn, corral. The minute I saw it, I knew I couldn’t put off my dream any longer. Patients meeting certain criteria will visit for animal therapy. A few dogs, a couple of horses.”

His face ached from his grin, and he turned away, embarrassed at all the babbling he’d done.

“Sorry. Can’t shut up sometimes.”

“No, no. I can see the enthusiasm in your face. I like that you’re excited about it.” Her evaluating gaze softened. “I would be if I sat on the edge of my dream. Thanks for sharing. But…you can do all that? How will you even care for a horse?”

He laughed. “We grew up around horses. Our father…” Well, he’d enjoyed the stables until his late teens when he discovered his father spent quality time with his twenty-year-old instructor. Over the years, he found out how many twenty-somethings Dad liked to spend time with. Mom stayed. He’d never understand. Not for lack of money. She had a deep enough purse to never need alimony. “Never mind.”

“It would have been nice to have a dad.” Jada’s statement pulled him from his thoughts to hers. She looked to be miles away.

“Right. Only your sister. How old were you?”

“One. Judith two. I fantasized about having one.”

“A dad? I have a dad. From my experience you didn’t miss much.”

She glanced at him while she turned to fold her arms on the railing and lean over it with a shrug. “I’m sorry about that. Not everyone has a good experience, I suppose.” She looked out to the snow-covered expanse. “Is this your favorite spot?”

Slowly, he moved closer, mindful of the personal space barrier. “How did you know?”

“Anyone would love it. It’s fantastic, like a Christmas card.” Mischief filled her eyes. “Tell me about your wasteland.”

He chuckled at the phrase, but thought of his houseful of people. “I prayed to make this place a comforting haven. Guess I got my wish.”

Jada returned his grin, and he shared a quick overview of the animal therapy clinic; simple, but life-impacting. He got close to crossing the barrier while he pointed out landmarks, told her he’d take her around to view the barn and corral in the morning, and found himself speaking in a low rumble of a voice answering her questions until he stopped talking altogether. In time, the two of them were gazing out at nothing.

Quietly, she turned as if coming awake. “Did you grow up on a farm?”

“No. My father’s a surgeon.”

“Ahh, following in his footsteps.”

He huffed. “Hardly. Dad’s a cold type of personality. Mom follows the social calendar. Lance and I were raised by a lot of nannies, and one got us hooked on Bible stories. Church became an escape from our superfluous life at home.”

“That answers my next question. Your parents aren’t saved.”

“They take the quote about loving money to the extreme.”

“Sorry. No more dad questions for tonight. Promise.”

“You know. One dad’s doing a pretty good job, and we can help him out. Interested?”

“What did I tell you about elaborating?” She rolled a hand in the air. “Interested in what? Going where? Is this how you impress your patients?”

He leaned forward. “Jada Maude, look around. The only person I intend to impress is you.”

She turned, smiling.

“Come on. I promised Mohammed I’d bring firewood and check on them around seven.” He moved around her toward the steps.

“Now see, that I understand. Why is that so hard to say in the first place?”

He stopped and turned to her. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“I have one. It doesn’t understand you.”

“It needs tweaking.”

Her arms rose like she tried to cross them in the oversized coat, but they wouldn’t fold. “Fine. What do I have to do?—and don’t say, ‘Follow me.’”

Brett paused. That’s exactly what he was about to say. He took hold of her hand and backed down the steps. “Think you’re smart.”

“I know I am. What counts is, you do, too.”

His thick glove around her clumpy mitt fit. Smiling down at the smart-mouth, he pulled her along. Yeah, he liked that quick sense of humor. He liked her company after only hours of knowing she existed. The simple act of holding her mitted fingers made his pulse accelerate, didn’t want to let go. He needed to come to his senses.

Brett slipped inside the back door to alert the others they’d be gone a while. A disgusted eye-roll from a couple of the ladies told him he should have given that bit of news to his brother alone. Sled already loaded, thanks to the other men, they jumped onto the back of the snowmobile and headed off.

The trip was short. The Mansouris, grateful for the privacy, thanked him over and over. He hadn’t done anything, but glad he had a place where they were safe and satisfied.

“Step on it, doc!” Jada screeched above the motor when they started the short journey back.

He’d laughed most of the ride. Jada howled at the moon, leaning back with amused sounds and carefree shrieks. He wished he could have seen her. Her arms were slack, but then hugged tight if the mobile hit the smallest dip or bump. At the house, she slid from the low vehicle to the ground, a starfish staring up at the sky. What a grin.

Neither of them were eager to get back inside.

Brett swung his leg over the seat and leaned on his elbows to observe her. “Not cold?”

“Not yet.”

“Um.” He chipped at snow with the toe of his boot. “I know it’s only Day One, but when are you expected at your sister’s? I mean, when the roads are cleared, will…”

Her head slanted to view him from a straighter angle. “Trying to get rid of me so soon?”

He swayed his knees, his mind in search of an answer that didn’t come. But he offered a somber smile to tell her just the opposite.

“How about I answer that question in the morning? I’m a little out of sorts right now.”

Could he ask her to spend her morning with him? “We’ll play it by ear. No pressure.” Yes, pressure.

“That works for me.”

 

“ARE YOU warm enough?”

Jada smiled at Brett’s apparent concern. She’d been sprawled in the snow for a couple of minutes, a sweet silence between them, though she couldn’t believe she’d allowed him to intermittently stare down at her for so long. His insulated jacket made her feel at home. “The only thing cold is my nose.”

She covered it with her hand to help transfer some heat. A star twinkled. She let her hand fall away to marvel at the sky. How peaceful it was here. Never mind waiting for canine and equestrian, the skies and snow-covered terrain worked their therapy on her.

No following romantic notions though. She and Brett would never see one another again after a few days. She wouldn’t even entertain the notion of being online friends, and subject to witness what joy he would eventually find without her.

Cold shivered through her.

“That’s it. I can’t let you stay down there any longer.” In one smooth motion, Brett positioned himself above her. A knee at one hip, his right foot beside her other.

Before she knew she could be handled like a rag doll, he’d grasped around her middle and pulled. Instinct set her feet beneath her. Her hands found his shoulders for purchase and out of pure surprise of the swift move. He remained on bended knee before her as if ready to propose.

She gave his shoulders a pat. “Thanks.”

His face was shrouded in the shadow she cast over him from the house behind her, but she could guess the haunting insistence in his gray eyes as neither of them stirred from their positions. Everything in her knew what his face said, why his breathing slowed, why she insisted on keeping eye contact neither one of them could define in the dark.

Was she the only one who experienced them sucked into a vacuum? A stasis of moments unique to them and this place?

Jada’s hands slid an inch closer to his collar. Was this her? Taking responsibility for her actions, she glided her hands up the raised jacket collar to cup his face. His stubble scratched against her mitts.

He was real. This was a real moment. And she could live in the vacuum or return to practicality.

Aside from the slow motion of her hands, neither of them budged. Then…subtle…she felt Brett apply pressure on her waist through the layers of coat and clothes. Come forward. Forward in the moment. But their moments already moved too quickly to process

She wouldn’t tell him she had two weeks free. She wouldn’t share sentiments and open her emotions to a relationship that had no future beyond a few stranded days. But she sure had a hard time defending why she wasn’t about to respond to his prompts and kiss him in a few seconds.

Remember who you are in Christ. Her foster mother’s parting sentiment floated like an echo in her head. She wouldn’t forget, though it was hard to think straight. Or was she? There were too many thoughts in her head. Thoughts that made her slide her thumb on Brett’s jaw, then lean over to press her face and lips there. Her blood swooshed in her ears. His skin, cool; and the stubble, an inviting contrast.

Holding his face with her other hand, she acknowledged a slice of denied attraction. She pressed her lips harder into the stubble. “Thanks again,” she whispered, but let go immediately, and found her way up the back steps to the house.

The door opened before she reached for it. Doug and a couple of others spilled out to light up cigarettes.

“What’s a‘ matter, doc? Fall off your tricycle?”

Doug was hilarious. She tittered, but a little curious Brett hadn’t moved. A glance over her shoulder caught the blissed-out gleam and loose smile as Brett rose from his knee.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

NO WONDER Brett set to realize his dream the moment he moved here. The land, the hills, the mountains, called Jada to live free. When had she gotten such an appreciation for the wilderness?

The noon sun glistened off the snow. Jada tried to remember why she hadn’t brought her sunglasses for the group outing.

Sighing, she glanced behind to Mary Jo who’d crept a little too close to Brett. Only a handful of travelers and the Mansouri kids decided to pile onto the 8-foot long, deep sled to view the property, and MJ had to be one of them? What was she? Twenty-one? Her father didn’t seem to realize her antics bordered on vixen.

“Come on, Jada. This will be fun! We’re going to take the sled down the slope over there. All aboard.” Windy ran to the small hill with some of the others, abandoning her skis in favor of a tumble with new friends. The woman must be mid-sixties with energy to spare.

Jada declined with a smile and shake of her head as she waved them away to have fun. She kicked and brushed snow off of a wide tree stump by section of the fence, and sat to wait for them to tire out.

After detaching the snowmobile, Brett glanced at her, then the others, and she waved him off, too.

He took the sled over to the hill while she closed her eyes. “God, what am I feeling?” she asked aloud. “Why do I want to see what happens with this man? Instant attraction I understand. This is… I can’t explain this one.”

Maybe God knew why she kissed Brett, even if only on the cheek.

“And what do you want me to learn in all of this confusion?” Confusion? No. But she couldn’t afford her own will to take over due to attraction of an ideal man. Her eyelids fluttered open to see the object of her desires—could she call him that—and current problem halfway over to her. “God, don’t let me lose myself where I shouldn’t. Direct me,” she added quickly between her lips so Brett wouldn’t think she was talking to herself.

Jada cleared her throat, glancing behind Brett’s approaching frame to view MJ looking at him like she wanted to follow.

“Tobogganing not your thing?” She squinted with one eye open by the time he stood several feet away.

He squinted back, out of necessity given how the snow reflected off of his clean-shaven face. Boy, she’d thought he was good looking yesterday, nearly had a heart attack when she came for breakfast this morning.

“I’m not finding this sense of adventure we talked about.” He kicked snow with this boot and grinned. “But someone once told me that black women are allergic to cold. Thought maybe you’d caught something. Came to see if you’re presenting any symptoms.”

“I can’t believe you said that!” She laughed so hard she nearly fell off the stump. “You are outrageous.”

The non-colored men she associated with weren’t bold enough to meet her where she was racially. She understood that came with a comfort level they didn’t share. Which was fine, and normal. Yet Brett came already there. How was it they’d entered the comfort zone across their races?

“I don’t have anything a hot cup of cider can’t cure. Know where I can get some?”

“As it so happens…” He didn’t wait for an invitation, but trudged up beside her, and she made room on the stump. “There’s a house not too far from here. The owner wouldn’t mind making you a mug when we get back.”

“Sold.”

His eyes roamed her face, his look on the verge of a question before he turned his attention to the far away group. His shoulder leaned into hers. She bumped back, returning his amused look.

“I like you in my jacket.”

“Yeah?” She looked down at the dark gray winter gear. Glancing back to his face, his eyes stayed on hers before doing a sweep from her hat to her lips. A jolt ran through her, and she rolled her lips. “What do you like about it?”

He smiled, turned away, came back. “It really doesn’t fit,” he laughed, “but you wear it like it should. Like it has to conform to you.”

“I do?” Why did the strange comment make her voice go high with happiness?

He laughed and bumped her shoulder again. They spent a minute watching the group before he looked at her, cheer fading. “Did you hear the report earlier?”

That didn’t sound good. “What report?”

“The roads will be cleared by tomorrow morning.”

Jada couldn’t speak. Their time had a clock on it. Weak, she rested her head on his shoulder before censoring the move. Now that she knew without a doubt the end was in sight, why did she choose to hold onto their vacuum of moments? “I wish I didn’t know.”

“Hey.” His hand on her back encouraged her to sit up, and they shared a nervous look. “I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position, but…is it just me?”

A vague sentence that she understood perfectly. She wanted to look away but wouldn’t deny him the truth in her soul. “No.”

“People meet and connect in an instant all the time.”

“We’re Christians. I don’t want to make the mistake of being involved with someone and be wrong about what we feel because we’re strung out on emotions. We don’t know each other.” She chuckled and looked around, her heart bumping out of her chest. “Insta-love. Doesn’t happen.”

“My pastor and his wife met and married in three months.”

She jerked her eyes back to him.

“Not that I’m saying we’re…I can’t say that either. Point is, why not try?”

What if it was all a waste of their time? “The day before yesterday, you didn’t exist. Now I’m sitting here.” The sweep of the back of his warm bare fingers made her cold cheek tingle. She closed her eyes. “I’m here by accident. I made a mistake on the road.”

“Call it divine intervention.”

While they exchanged a sad laugh, she opened her eyes to find his face closer. He placed his forehead against hers.

“Jada.”

“I love it when you say my name.” Her whisper slipped out without permission, but oh, how she meant it. He was made to say her name.

“I kind of wish I didn’t promise not to pressure you. Pray about it. I’m good, but if—”

“I have been.”

“And?”

“I haven’t heard a ‘no’. But what if that’s my wishful thinking?” Where was the great sign she awaited? Maybe no great sign was to come. Maybe it was the small still voice of Brett’s laughter, the first sound she heard when awaking this morning. Maybe it was the fact that she didn’t consider she’d taken his jacket when preparing for the outing.

Maybe it was his smooth jaw pressed against hers before he drew away and stared at her. “Waiting for a sign?”

He couldn’t have known those were her thoughts. “Waiting for an answer where my spirit feels release.”

“What does it feel now?”

Strangely enough, “At ease. At peace.”

“Then it’s your head getting in the way.” His finger tapped her nose. “If your head needs to clear, I’ll wait. I know where your heart is.”

“That simple?”

He released a long breath, his eyes never leaving hers. “I’ve been in a relationship where it wasn’t that simple. Someone who jumped at the chance to date a doctor, own a big house, live in the false glitter of the prestige and the in-laws. You’re weighing your options about what your heart and your God want. I think I like those odds.”

“You’re a strange man, Bretton. But I like you.” At his raised eyebrow, she laughed. “Yes, Bretton. I went exploring yesterday. Found your office while you were out back with an axe, shouting, ‘Timm-berrr!’” Her mock manly voice cracked.

“I think that was Doug,” he mumbled turning away.

“Yeah?” She tried to get in his face to tease him as he playfully hid. “Doug had an uncanny resemblance to your voice on several occasions.” She pushed her scrunched up face to his, not noticing how close she was until his smiling eyes came back to rest on her. The sweet scent of him, the uncanny likeness of love and admiration and fun in the beautiful gray windows to his inner joy. Did she cause that? Sitting back, she bumped his leg. “I saw your credentials, read a few journal articles you wrote. You’re a pretty big name for a young ’un.”

His humble laugh melted her emotions. That ex-girlfriend must have been off of her rocker. Probably pursued everything about him but his heart.

“What happened to the woman? You were more than dating, I take it?”

His lips twisted. He watched the others. “I like to say she just didn’t know what she wanted. We were engaged, but she cheated on me with a friend. Her friend. It may have been a one-time thing when I found out, but everybody saw it coming. Except me. I should have though. Should have questioned their relationship more. They’ll be married next spring.”

Jada didn’t know what to say. Slipping off her mitt, she slid her fingers between his. This was the first time they’d truly held hands. His fingers were cold, they held on tight, and she would hold just as tight for as long as she could take in the chill. Too comfortable for words, she let her head fall again on his shoulder. Her new favorite place.

“Do you miss her?”

The motion of his body said he shook his head. “Inside, it’s like a switch flipped. I look at her as a person. I didn’t like how she left our situation. There was a lot to clean up that she hid away from at first, but she came round afterward. I wish them the best.”

Their conversation from last night, when he asked about her leaving for Judith’s place, whirled around in her head. She didn’t have to leave. She didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to for the next two weeks.

What if what held her back truly was logic trying to interject itself into this new adventure? Her heart and spirit being free, she couldn’t follow her mind on this one.

“My sister is in Greece.”

No movement came from Brett, save his thumb caressing hers.

“The course offered some of the students a month-long trip. Greece, Paris, England, Portugal I think. They left three days ago.”

“So, you weren’t going to spend Christmas with her?”

“At her place, not with her. That’s the extent of my great Christmas getaway.”

“Alone?”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds. I don’t mind solitude.”

“I’m uncomfortable with the idea of anyone spending Christmas alone. Especially you.” He released her hand and slipped her mitten over it before donning his glove. He clasped her hand again. “Come spend it—let me rephrase. Stay here.”

“Christmas is four more days away. I can’t intrude on you and Lance. Besides, with him moving out, just you and me in the house? No can do, bossy.”

“Hmm.” His wisecrack tone deviated from the topic at hand. “At least I know you considered it.”

Chuckling, she turned and buried her face in his shoulder. Yes, she considered it. Spending a lot of time with him.

“I’m taking the snowmobile to town later to get some supplies. Mohammed’s not going anywhere, his car’s shot, so they’ll stay a few more days. Chuck and Windy are coming back Christmas day rather than spend it in their retirement community. And Claire’s kids are with her ex until next week. She was going to spend Christmas with friends, but when I invited her to stay, she said she’d think about it, so long as Chuck and Windy are here. So what do you say? You’ll have food, and friends, and Lance. You can even check out the church on Christmas Eve.”

The church he was enjoying? She breathed into his jacket.

“Jada.”

Her moment of truth. He’d asked her to stay. His other hand touched her face while heat gouged a line from her belly to her chest. She raised her head to look at him. Could she? What would her sister say? What would the others here think?

“Stay, Jada. We won’t do anything but get to know each other. My brother is an annoying chaperone when he needs to be.”

With an agreeing smile, she formed her mouth to say yes, right when an ill-timed movement interrupted.

“We’re ready to go. Are you two finished?” MJ stood with her arms crossed, in a much too mature swimsuit centerfold pose.

Jada turned to Brett to find his eyes on her not the snow bunny.

“Okay. Tell the others I’ll take you all home. But no.” The corner of his lips lifted in a smile. “Jada and I are far from finished.”

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

EVERYONE PITCHED in for groceries, and Brett and Windy completed the food list, and his focus turned to finding something suitable to offer as a Christmas gift for Jada.

He left Windy to fulfill the feminine products list, and settled on a hope-themed charm bracelet for Jada, along with red gloves that almost looked like her mitts. She may laugh at the gloves, that was partly the point, but the gift was part-practical/part-selfish. With gloves he could knit their fingers together.

Satisfied, he stood in line, then waited for Windy to finish.

Like yesterday, the afternoon and evening were spent in the mixed company.

“You’ll be glad to see us go,” Claire had told him when he was allowed into his kitchen.

With a pat on his full belly, he shook his head. “And give up your chili? I’m missing it already.”

She took his bowl and paper plate. “You planned a quiet Christmas vacation, I bet. But thank you for being such a hospitable host.”

“Think nothing of it.” He waved off undue gratitude. “I’m warm in my own home. You’re the ones put out. Growing up, we were surrounded by people, but never on a personable level. They were rich donators to one charity or another. Not one of them were good friends to sit down with and laugh about nothing. I like this.”

“Being with people who care is important this time of year. You know, since I live only half an hour away, I think I will come back Christmas day.”

“Good to hear.”

A DELUGE of voices floated around him from the other room. Everyone calling him, “Doctor. Doctor.” One voice came up with “Bossy,” and that’s the one he listened to.

Jada strolled in with Peggy in tow, the two of them sharing a joke that lit up her face. “Brett, some of them wanted to watch a movie. They said you have a ‘very regimented’ movie collection.”

“I don’t watch them often.”

“Right. Too busy reading.” She smiled at him.

“Hey. I have some good action flicks. Where’s Lance?”

“Go on in there. Peggy and I will wash up.” She came close and used her body to shove him out of her way to get to the sink.

“That makes it my turn to dry.” He grabbed for a dishtowel and nodded to Peggy that it was okay to take off.

Claire’s hand squeezed his shoulder as she passed him on her way out of the kitchen s well. “Not glad to see us all go.”

He laughed. They hadn’t made it a secret today that they enjoyed each other’s company. If he had his way, Jada wouldn’t go. He didn’t mind the looks they’d received. The strangest one came from Mary Jo today. That little girl needed a talking to.

Jada rinsed out the sink and filled it with suds to do the pots and pans. They loaded the dishwasher and discarded the disposable wear. The chore didn’t seem overtly domestic, but routine. A task they’d performed many times before, and Brett liked that they worked around each other with ease.

“I’m glad you’re staying.” There was no need to whisper, but he liked the close-knit atmosphere they’d created in the kitchen.

“Me, too.”

“Glad you can’t read a map and ended up lost. My gain.”

“You have a strange way of showing gratitude.” She smiled at him before pulling the sink plug and rinsing the dishcloth.

“No, I mean it. If you’d taken a plane, we never would have met.”

“Well, that’s an easy one. I don’t fly.”

“You don’t…fly?”

She glanced at him and shook her head, then turned back to the draining sink and wiped the counter.

“Never?”

“Had a rocky experience once.” Counter clean, she turned to lean against it and fold her arms. “The plane landed without its wheels on the runway. I’ve been driving ever since. Always traveled that way on my own.”

Brett dried the last pot and hung it on the overhead hook before setting aside the towel and moving to stand in front of her. “When did this happen?”

She frowned, thinking. “Six, seven years ago?”

“How do you feel about it? Does the memory cause you anxiety, or—”

“I thought therapy took place at the hospital.”

He curled his lips in and released them with pop. Right.

“That’s the first time you’ve slipped into doctor mode with me.”

True. “All my life I wanted to be in medicine and healing. But with you, I don’t need to be a doctor, just a man.” Still, the man in him cared. A lot. “All right. But just answer me this. Would you fly if you had to, or it’s totally out of the question?”

“Why? Planning on taking me to Turkey?”

“No.”

“Then probably not. If there’s land, I’m driving.”

Leaning forward, he bowed his head and pressed his lips to her forehead. When he stood straight, he nodded. “Thank you, Jada Maude.”

“For?”

“Sharing.”

“I guess there’ll be a lot of sharing happening between us.”

“Guaranteed. I see more of you now. Who you are. I’d like to see a lot more.”

Lowering her head and looking nervous, she rested against the counter and closed her eyes. Her head stayed bowed for a few seconds before she faced him. “It’s not easy opening up.”

“I know.” He ran his hands down her arms, hoping to chase away whatever daunting fear just surfaced.

“I’m pretty closed off most of the time. Aside from Judith, there haven’t been many people I’ve been close to. Not close enough to trust them with certain things about me.”

“You’ve done all right with me. I sensed you’ve been careful with what you shared, but that’s typical for a single woman. And you’ve let me know about you by more than your conversation.”

Her forehead wrinkled in question.

“You care about people. You looked after everybody here by preparing food and making the beds, and half of them don’t even know it. You hate the cold but braved it, probably because you knew the Mansouri kids wanted to go out. In fact, you watched out for the family from the start. The little boy told me you gave them candles after the crash. I’ve seen what I needed to see, and you told it to me.”

“I did what needed to be done. Someone had to.”

He chuckled at her humble outlook. “You may not talk a lot, but you have shared with me.”

“That’s a first, then. I’ve never done that before.”

“Never opened up to anyone? Not even a boyfriend to add to the list?” Hard to believe. They’d gone over abstract and personal things for the past forty-eight hours. When Jada didn’t reply, he stopped caressing her arms and leaned down to look into her eyes. “You’ve never done what?”

She glanced past his shoulder and shrugged like it wasn’t important. “Never really had a boyfriend.”

Did he hear right? “You never…as in…never had a boyfriend?”

“I liked a couple of guys, they liked me. Never went beyond that.”

“Oh.”

The words turned over in his mind to find some sort of semblance. An attractive woman, fun to be with, easy to talk to, why would anyone want to miss out? He supposed foster care played a part, but never open up to anyone before? He couldn’t jump to conclusions about what type of experience she had with men. Discounting friendships and working relationships where it was clear her interaction was fine, that confession spelled virgin on a whole lot of levels.

“Uh.” He bent down to look at her again. “Really?” His voice rose an octave higher than he’d hit since high school.

“Don’t sound so surprised, guy. Not what you were expecting?” Her shoulders hunched. “Not what you want.”

“What? You think I’ll lose interest? Why, you’re putty in my hands, lady.”

A budding smile morphed into a snort, and she pushed him away. He bounced right back to wrap her in his arms.

“Nope, not getting rid of me. Aww. Come on. I at least have to wait until I decide whether or not you can cook. The chicken stew doesn’t count, Claire and Windy had way too much spin on that one.”

She tried to shove him again, so he held on, grinning down at that smart face that eventually broke out in a smile and moaned laughter. “I can cook decent enough. And you’re not going to complain about it.”

“We’ll see.”

“You’re also not keeping me in the kitchen. I’m a natural office organizer.”

Did she realize they discussed the future? “I’m going to have an office here. I take my coffee with one cream, two sugar.”

She gasped in a hearty laugh, and her hand slapped his arm to hold onto his shirt as she tipped to the side in her amusement. Her irises were so dark but sparkled in the kitchen’s track-lights. Glowing cheeks bunched in fun as those irresistible lids and thick lashes lowered to shutter her eyes.

“Jada Maude.”

“Hmm?”

“I’m going to kiss you.”

Her face stilled. They’d stopped moving. That heavy dark gaze made a quick dash to his mouth. Heaven help him, he couldn’t not kiss her.

Brett loosened his hold around her waist to glide his knuckles up her throat and chin. The motion carried the tilt of her head to the perfect angle. Checking her eyes, he liked their strength, their unwavering hold on his. He was going to kiss her. He’d declared it, and now heat and a flurry of activity bounced around his insides. He never moved this fast. Once he crossed this threshold, there’d be no turning back. That didn’t frighten him one bit. There’d be no turning back with Jada.

He raised a finger and traced the curves from the corner of her eye, over her cheek, to the corner of her parted lips.

When those lips responded to his light touch, he moved in and claimed them. Finally. The kiss confirmed what he knew would happen. Jada made him melt into her. Their mouths moved as one. It was a light, simple, unrushed sip of honey. And when she slowly pulled away, he snuck in two more nips before letting her lips go.

Smiling, Brett touched the tip of his nose to hers, then kissed her there. “Let’s go find out what movie they’re watching.”

Her face fell into his chest, her breath warm, and he gave her a few seconds to collect herself. After a minute, she leaned up and shared a peaceful smile before nodding and allowing him to lead her out.

Yep. More stares. He kept hold of her hand and navigated around bodies, cushions, and chairs to the spot Claire kept open for them. Not bothering to let go, he studied the different shades of their locked hands, meeting her with a wink when she glanced his way. Jada released a smile, her head finding his shoulder. He liked her there, like she claimed him as hers. She’s the one who belongs. Stifling a yawn, he settled in and watched the movie.

 

EPILOGUE

 

Six months later…

 

“LAST ONE!” Jada ran the tape gun over the box flaps, then set it on top and placed her hands on her hips to look around.

Who knew she had so much junk in her place? Old place? Her eyes lifted to the rays of the June sun streaming through the living room balcony windows.

“Where did all of this come from?” Judith swept into the room, her eyes, large saucers, taking in all of the mess. “I did not leave you with all of this garbage.”

Jada stretched her back. “Yeah, you really did.”

Her sister’s face wrinkled before she started pointing at boxes. “No, no, no, no, and no. Winter gear? Double no. These are not coming to my place.”

Jada rotated the bracelet on her right wrist. Every time she caressed the different patters spelling HOPE, she couldn’t withhold a smile. “They stay with me.”

“Are you taking any boxes to the ranch?”

“Sure. Those.” She pointed to the cluster marked Dishes, Living room, and Kitchenware.

Judith threw up her arms, flapping them on her thighs as she marched toward the bedroom. “You know you’re going to have us crawling over boxes for the next month.”

“Month and three days,” Jada corrected. Her heart did a happy somersault just thinking about spending the rest of her life with Brett.

“Where is the great fiancé with the truck, anyway? He’s late.”

“He called. There was an accident coming into the city. And stop being so grouchy, I thought you warmed up to him.”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s all a bit sudden, wouldn’t you say?”

“No, that’s what you say. And it’s actually not.”

Judith appeared from around the corner, rolling a couple of suitcases. “Engaged after two months is sudden.”

“This is how Brett and I are meant to be. Some things fall into place. Granted, it’s not for everybody, but it is for us. Besides, you’re one to talk. Who goes to Europe for a month and comes back with an American recording artist as a boyfriend? I thought you went there to study.”

Pressing her lips together, Judith put her nose in the air and marched out of the condo.

“Yeah. I thought as much,” Jada yelled after her. Laughing, she stared at the glitter of her engagement ring in the sunlight. As beautiful as the stars of the open sky where she would soon call her home.

Another laugh bubbled up as she slid items onto the dolly to cart them out. She wouldn’t be surprised if they were packing up her sister’s place within the year.

A shuffle at the door had her look up to a gorgeous smile, and the most amazing pale gray eyes that surveyed her with open love. Every time she saw him, he made her insides come alive. He was a humble man who didn’t need the spotlight, yet carried out such amazing work behind the scenes. Perfect for her.

Not waiting for him to take another step, Jada shrieked with glee and ran to toss herself into his waiting arms. He caught her, holding her off of her feet, and smiling into her eyes.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

She didn’t take that to mean timing. She was about to leave all she knew behind for a man she met from a wrong turn in the road. Jada touched his brow, ran the tips of her fingers through his hair. Ready more than ever.

Leaning in, she kissed his smiling lips. “Yeah, bossy. Let’s get this crazy adventure started.”

 

—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Rena doesn’t have a dog or a cat, a husband or kids to distract her like so many other writers. Nor does she live on a farm to glean the fresh air and cowgirl life. Hmm…

 

As an ethnic female, Rena enjoys realistic and relatable characters. She uses everyday multicultural interaction to help form characters’ backgrounds and personalities

 

A lover of all forms of communication, she holds a certificate in copy editing, a Degree in Christian Studies, a Marketing Administration Diploma, and an Advanced I certificate in sign language.

 

(But that’s the boring stuff.)

 

Rena is a musician, songwriter, singer, and consummate computer geek, so no matter what type of keyboard you put in front of her, she’ll compose a masterpiece. Stop laughing, we are talking about someone with a wild imagination…

 

Thinking outside the box, she is published independently while bringing her work to the next level.

 

See Rena on:

Amazon

Facebook (Rena Manse – Interracial Christian Romance Author)

Kobo

Lulu.com

Shakespir

 

Connect with Rena

www.renamanse.com

[email protected]

www.facebook.com/rena.manse

 


A Crazy Little Christmas Vacay (BWWM Novella)

Just because something can go wrong, that doesn’t mean it should. Jada Stanton and several other travelers are caught in the flash blizzard of the decade in the middle of Where, exactly? Montana. Dr. Bretton Heathrow left behind a few bad memories to make his dream come true. Stranded motorists are the last thing he expects at dark-thirty in the morning. But one bright shining star may make the near-disaster a worthwhile inconvenience. Like the blizzard, Jada Stanton is the one he never saw coming. (Christian Romance) **Friend and fellow writer, Jackie Zack, more or less issued a challenge, "wondered if you'd like to write a Christmas novella." With only four weeks on the calendar, what's a girl to do?

  • Author: Rena Manse
  • Published: 2015-12-23 06:50:12
  • Words: 16732
A Crazy Little Christmas Vacay (BWWM Novella) A Crazy Little Christmas Vacay (BWWM Novella)