Authors: Sarina Bowen
Alpine ski champion Dane “Danger” Hollister does not do relationships, though he has an excellent reason. No woman would ever say “I do” to a guy whose faulty DNA will eventually cost him everything: his spot on the U.S. ski team, his endorsements and the ability to fly downhill at ninety miles per hour.
While Willow Reade moved to rural Vermont to get back to the land, that wasn’t meant to include a night stranded in her vehicle during a blizzard. Luckily, the hot ski racer she practically ran off the road has granola bars and a sleeping bag and is happy to share. Maybe it’s the close quarters, maybe it’s the snow, but soon the two are sharing a lot more than conversation.
Yet neither can guess how their spontaneous passion will uncork Dane’s ugly secret and Willow’s tentative peace with her own choices. Only their mutual trust and bravery can end the pain and give Willow and Dane a shot at hard-won happiness.
“A deeply romantic story that warms with slow-burn eroticism and genuine insight into loss and love. Sarina Bowen’s debut glows with intelligence and a lovely sweetness.” —Mary Ann Rivers, author of
Coming in from the Cold
Harlequin E Contemporary Romance
This book is dedicated to my late grandmother, who wrote romance novels but did not let me read them. I miss you, Gert.
I owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped me along the way. I’d like to thank Mollie Glick for tackling my change in focus with grace and style. And thanks also to Katie Hamblin and the rest of the fine folks at Foundry Literary + Media. You are my rock.
And thank you, Malle Vallik and Krista Stroever, for plucking this one out of the pile. Your words of encouragement have meant so much to me. I look forward to our next adventure!
Willow needed to keep the old truck on the road and out of the snowy ditch for just one more mile.
At six o’clock on a December evening, the sky over Vermont had been dark for two hours already. She had the heater cranking on the highest setting, but still the windshield was icing over, the heavy snow plastering itself to the top of her field of vision. Willow hunched in her seat for a better view of the road. Creeping along at fifteen miles per hour, she’d be home in five minutes.
She hadn’t meant to drive in blizzard conditions. She’d done her storm preparation—filling the old claw-foot bathtub with water, preparing herself for the inevitable loss of electricity. She put blocks of ice in her freezer and set the candles out on the kitchen table, with a box of matches at the ready.
gotten everything right.
And then, heading into the barn to tuck the chickens in for the night, she’d opened their feed bin to find it empty. If she were snowed in for two days, as the Weather Channel predicted, she would have nothing to feed them.
“Damn it!” Willow had said, startling several of her Buff Orpington hens into a nervous flutter. Only the most stalwart remained at her feet, still hoping she would produce a pocketful of raisins.
Instead, she had turned on her heel, latching the barn door behind her. Just because Willow had never intended to become a chicken farmer didn’t mean she wanted to kill off her stock. She and The Girls had a deal—clean feed for organic eggs. She meant to keep her end of the bargain.
The old truck had started right up, and she drove down her lengthy driveway and turned left, away from civilization, toward the country feed store. But snow had accumulated frighteningly fast since her outbound trip just a half hour before. Gripping the wheel, Willow saw another vehicle spotlit ahead—a green Jeep moving even more slowly than she was. Willow stepped on her brakes. But instead of stopping, she felt the sickening sensation of several tons of metal skidding to the right.
Time slowed to a crawl as the truck slid in an awkward direction toward both the Jeep and the ditch. The Jeep’s taillights grew brighter as they approached, and Willow held her breath. At the last second, the Jeep seemed to leap to the left, causing Willow a moment of confusion over which of them—the Jeep or the truck—had moved so quickly. Was she still on the road?
The cab tilted abruptly to the right, and Willow felt a scream catch in her throat. But then the truck stopped suddenly, heaving her torso against the seatbelt. The force pressed a gasp from her lungs, and she bounced backward against the seat.
And then all was still.
With her heart banging away in her chest, Willow took stock. The cab listed to the right. Her wheels must have landed in the drainage culvert beside her road. At the sudden stop, Willow’s feet had slipped off the pedals, and now the truck shuddered and died in place.
Immediately, the windshield began to fill with a white blanket of snow.
She took a deep breath.
You’re okay. You’re fine
. Thank goodness she’d been going so slowly when she lost control.
A tap on her door made Willow jump. Someone was standing outside. She grasped the window crank—the sort that dated her truck to the premodern era—and rolled down her window. A man’s face—rugged, with a chiseled chin—looked back at her. He gave her an anxious frown. “Are you okay?”
“Yes?” she replied, still stunned.
“Well, now we’re both stuck,” he said. “I veered across the road to get out of your way, and I’m over a stump.” Even in the dark she could see his handsome jaw flex with irritation.
“It’s my fault that you hit a stump on the other side of the road?” Willow knew she ought to focus on the problem at hand. But the handsome stranger in front of her was every bit as distracting as their fender bender. She couldn’t help but admire his sleek white jacket, of the sort of technical fabric sold at the fancy ski shops in town. He had a silver wool hat pulled down over his head, but brown curls escaped from the bottom of it, framing his eyes. He reminded her of a snow god. A slightly ornery one.
He threw up his hands. “I don’t know,” he huffed. “Never mind.” He walked away from her. The snow was falling so fast that the blizzard swallowed him up before he’d taken five steps. He was a big man, she noticed—tall, with long legs and a tight backside.
Nice work, Willow
. She had just run the most attractive guy in the county off the road.
Snow blew into her car, so Willow cranked the window closed again. Then she pressed down on the clutch and brake, turning the truck’s key.
Willow pumped the gas pedal a couple of times and tried the key again. And again. But the engine wouldn’t even turn over.
“Oh no,” Willow said aloud. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.” She needed to call roadside assistance. Digging a hand into her purse for her phone, she turned it on. Willow already knew what it would say, but she looked anyway.
She stared. “Come on.”
It was just so typical of her recent troubles. Calling for help was like so many other things in her life—an escape hatch that worked for people who weren’t Willow. Other girls might have family to fall back on or catch a break financially, but she had to go and fall hard for a man so inappropriate, so uninterested in her continued happiness that he’d sealed off the exits. Her money was sunk into their old farmhouse; her credit was maxed out by his plans. And he had gone to California with another woman. There Willow sat, in a fifteen-year-old truck that wouldn’t start, chicken feed in the back.
She couldn’t even call 9-1-1. He’d taken that away, too. It had been
dream to move out to the middle of nowhere together.
And then he’d split, leaving her holding the feed bucket.
Damned Vermont. Damned snow. Damned truck. Damned cheating ex-boyfriend who’d fled to California. Damn. Damn. Damn.
* * *
Back in his Jeep, Dane Hollister smacked the steering wheel. Then he pulled the stick into reverse and tried again. But the wheels spun without catching. Whatever was holding him off the ground must be something quite large, because the Jeep had good clearance, four-wheel drive and sturdy snow tires. Only very bad luck could put him in a snowbank.
But Dane was used to being unlucky.
, he ordered himself.
He had snapped at that girl. It was true that he’d still be driving toward the town of Hamilton if she hadn’t come along. But the blizzard wasn’t her fault.
Dane rested his hands in his lap and analyzed the last few minutes. He’d seen the truck coming too fast. He’d turned the wheel a little too hard, and the new snow had slicked against the salted road, causing the Jeep to spin.
He probed the incident like the ski team doctor fingering tendons for an injury. But in this case, it could have happened to anyone. He had not experienced any unusual muscle reflexes. The incident was just a fluke.
It had not been caused by
Dane blew out a breath, and then focused his thoughts on the real problem at hand. He was stuck about eight miles from the crappy little room he rented on Main Street. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and the forecast was for much more.
And he needed to apologize to the pretty girl in the ugly black truck.
He put his gloves on. Leaving the engine running, he got out. Christ. The snow was coming down fast and furious. His own headlights did little to illuminate the road, but he knew where she was—kitty-corner to him. He pointed himself in a diagonal line away from his headlights and found her. Again he knocked on her window. The cab was dark and he couldn’t see inside.
“Hello?” he called.
There was no answer.
“Are you okay?” he asked again. There was only silence. Had she vanished? It was even a little creepy. But there was really only one thing in the world that Dane Hollister was afraid of, and it wasn’t standing there on the road.
He grasped the handle and opened the truck’s door, and there she was again. Only now there were tears drying on her face.
Nice, Dane. Good work, asshole
The girl wiped her face quickly with her hand, embarrassed.
“Hey!” he said, in a voice that was much warmer than before. “Christ, I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to flip out on you. Can I help?”
She tried to pull herself together, clearing her throat. “The truck won’t start.”
“Do you want me to give it a try?”
She looked up at him then, one eyebrow raised cynically. “Because I might have forgotten how to do it myself?”
He laughed. “Right. I get it. But I don’t know what else to offer.”
She slid across the seat, swinging her legs over the gearbox. “Go ahead. And if she starts, I won’t even hold it against you.”
He swung into the cab and closed the door. Then he tried to start the engine. Since the seat was set for her petite frame, his knees were jammed up against the steering column. Not that it mattered. When he turned the key, there was only silence. “She won’t even turn over? Not once?”
He leaned back, or tried to. “Sorry. Our options for getting out of here aren’t very good.”
“I’ll just walk it,” she said. “My house is about a mile away.”
“Hmm,” he said quietly. He didn’t want to insult her again, but unless she had a snowmobile with floodlights on it, she’d be lost before you could say
. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” He groped for the high beams. “Look, the road is gone.” The lights illuminated all of about four feet in front of the truck, a deep flurry of falling snow, punctuated by only blackness beyond.