by LuAnn Nies
Architect Jeffrey Thornton worked his way to the top of one of the largest architectural firms in the United States and didn't care who he had to step on to get there. He has no time for romance and doesn't believe in love. However, when he decides to visit his parents for Christmas a shortcut through the mountains turns his life upside-down and takes him on a ride he'll never forget.
JoAnna Walker lives a quiet simple life on her farm in northern Wyoming. After a snowstorm she finds herself snowbound with an unconscious, handsome stranger. Deceived by the man she thought loved her and faced with the threat of having to sell all she owns, her only salvation may be seducing the one man she had years ago sworn to hate.
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Razor sharp cold air sliced at JoAnna’s red cheeks, the sting bringing tears to her eyes. Leaning into the wind, she struggled to put one foot in front of the other as she fought her way across the yard. Wyoming winters were known to be dangerous and unpredictable. Without warning, the weather could shift and change, causing the temperature to drop thirty to forty degrees within a matter of hours.
Earlier when she awoke, it had been sleeting, and the thermometer read thirty degrees. By late afternoon, the temperature had dropped, and large white flakes obstructed her vision. It wasn’t uncommon to be snow-bound for days in the mountain area.
JoAnna trudged through the building snowdrifts onto the back porch and switched on the light. The warmth and familiar smells of the old farmhouse gave her comfort. Cold and tired, she longed for a large cup of something hot and a warm flannel nightgown.
As the evening grew late, the howling wind whipped through the darkness, causing the snow to swirl in tiny tornadoes, reluctant to land in any particular spot.
She snuggled under a layer of quilts on her bed and watched the local TV weather and nightly news channel.
“Sleet turning to snow, falling temperatures, high winds, and zero visibility are the causes for a winter storm warning and a driver’s advisory. Stay tuned for the snow predictions and road closings.”
Thoughts of all the things that still needed to be done outside roamed through her mind, and she sighed. There always seemed to be something. Running the farm alone was something she thought she could do, but lately everything seemed to be going wrong. Her father’s old tractor would no longer start, and she had run the old pickup truck into the corner of the wood shed, causing part of the roof to cave in.
In addition to the numerous repairs outside, the old two-story farmhouse needed its share of repairs, too. The painted trim around the windows and doors had faded, chipped, and cracked.
The farm and remaining land had been in her family for several generations. But being the only one left, the threat of losing everything made her sick to her stomach.
After her father died, she’d been forced to sell most of the herd plus three hundred and twenty acres of land to help pay the monthly bills and taxes. She feared that sooner or later she would have to sell more of the land or the rest of the herd.
She sighed and snuggled deeper under the covers. She wasn't sure which had run out first, time or her energy. She had planned on having more accomplished before cold weather set in and the snow fell. However, with the gardening, yard work, housework, farm-work and her basket business, she hadn't the time or money to attend to the larger things that needed repair.
Hoping the water pipes wouldn’t freeze, she had turned down the thermostat as low as she dared. Even with the wood cook-stove in the kitchen stoked-up, the old farmhouse still felt cold. Hoping to keep all the heat on the main floor and stretch the fuel oil a little further, she had placed plastic over the windows and closed off the stairway leading to the second floor.
When she had checked the fuel oil tank in the basement that morning, the gauge read nearly empty. Maybe with the sale of her Christmas baskets and goodies, she would be able to order more fuel soon.
Her mother, Grace Walker, had passed away just after the previous Christmas. For almost a year now, JoAnna had been on her own. The doctor said her mother’s death resulted from pneumonia, but she knew her mother had really died from a broken heart.
Four years earlier her father, Robert Walker, had suffered a stroke. JoAnna and her mother took care of him at home as long as they could. Although it had been hard, they did the best they could. Thankfully, JoAnna had been physically strong enough to move him around. But it wasn’t long before they realized that Robert needed to be moved into the nursing home in Pine Ridge. JoAnna noticed how lonely her mother was and how her health faded over the next couple of years. It was only a matter of time before Grace became too frail to work, leaving all the responsibilities to her daughter.
“Two to three feet of new snow is expected to fall during the night with temperatures dropping into the low teens before morning. All roads are closed in the mountain area including County Road 68 through Walker’s Pass. No driving is advised at this time.”
JoAnna poked a hand out from under the mountain of quilts, reached for the remote and turned off the TV. With the amount of snow that had already fallen and what was expected tonight, it didn't look as if she was going to make it into town tomorrow.
An icy northwest wind rattled the old windows, and a cold draft wound its way through the cracked plaster walls. Pulling the covers up around her neck, she settled in for the night. Gabby, her old gray cat, jumped on the bed and curled up close. The farmhouse grew quiet; the only sound was the soft ticking of the antique cuckoo clock in the living room. Tomorrow would be a long day, but tonight she was safe and warm.
* * * *
For the past two years, Jeff had spent Christmas alone in his New York apartment. Returning each year to his parents in Pine Ridge, Wyoming had been unappealing to him. Conflicting memories, both pleasant and unpleasant, haunted him. Yet this year, due to work, he found himself in Billings at Christmas time, and since he was only a few hours from his childhood home, he decided it was time for a visit.
Jeff half-heartedly listened to the forecasts and was aware of the approaching snowstorm. He rented a four-wheel drive Jeep and didn’t anticipate any trouble getting home before the worst of it hit. He had just a few things left to clear up at the office, and he would be on his way.
“Alyssa,” Jeff hollered through the open door. “Did you put the Pine Ridge papers in my briefcase?” He shuffled a pile of files on his desk. “I can't find them!”
Alyssa entered his office and handed him a file. “Here they are. I just finished making the copies you asked for.” She settled on the corner of his desk and replied with a note of irritation in her voice. “I would have gotten them done sooner if I’d had more notice.”
Jeff glanced up and treated her to his boyish grin, which almost always put him back in her good graces. “Sorry, but this vacation is turning into a business trip. Since I’m already going to be there, I thought I would take care of this matter at the same time.” He took the papers, placed them into his briefcase, and flipped the latch shut. He then took one quick glance around his office to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything. “There. I think I have everything. Will you drop me off at Jerry's Car Rental? My car’s in the shop getting snow tires put on it.” Jeff grabbed his jacket from the back of his desk chair and headed for the door.
“Are you sure you want to drive down to Pine Ridge today?” Alyssa asked, switching off the lights and pulling the office door shut. “There’s a big storm coming tonight. It sounds pretty ugly.”
“Don’t worry. I rented a four-wheel-drive. It should only take me about three hours to get to my parents’ house. I’ll be home long before the worst of it hits.” He closed his eyes and smiled with contentment. “I'll be drinking a brandy in front of a warm glowing fire by seven o'clock.”
Best laid plans or Murphy's Law, whichever one you want to pick, the quick trip to Jerry's Car Rental wasn't so quick. Jerry's niece/secretary had accidentally deleted his application from the computer, and Jeff needed to fill out all the paper work again. After what seemed like hours, he was finally out the door and on his way.
The second half of his drive would have been nice had it been done in the daylight and minus the sleet. The headlights on the Jeep cast an eerie glow, making the road appear black and slick, which caused Jeff to drive slower than he would have liked. He had planned to take the highway all the way home, but at the last minute he decided to take the short cut through Walker's Pass.
“This will shorten my trip by at least an hour, and it will give me a chance to get a look at the Walker’s place,” he said, turning off the main road. He hadn't been by the Walker’s place in years, and he wasn’t sure how he was going to react at seeing it again.
Timothy Walker had been a good friend of his. They’d played football and basketball together in school. In the summer they hunted, fished, and camped out in the hills that lined the pass. They were inseparable.
Fond memories of all the trouble they had gotten into over the years engulfed him. Once when they were in seventh grade, Tim's dad Robert caught them smoking in the barn. He’d been furious and had made the boys clean the cow lot using only shovels and wheelbarrows. He recalled the time they devoured a bushel basket of apples Tim's mother, Grace, had spent the whole morning picking. He laughed, remembering how sick they both had gotten.
Then Jeff remembered Tim's little sister, Little Jo. How they teased that long-limbed, freckle-faced girl. It never failed whatever he and Tim were doing she had been right in the middle of it with them. Jeff couldn’t recall just how much younger she had been, but recalled how they had tried blaming whatever it was they’d done wrong on her. The only problem was that Robert never bought it.
Jeff glanced out the side window. It always astounded him how pretty the route from Billings to Pine Ridge was, even covered in snow. In the spring and summer, the buffalo grass grew tall, and wild flowers bloomed and covered the rolling hillsides. He realized that he missed the smell of jack pine and sagebrush. No matter how beautiful the mountain pass was, he never forgot how dangerous the road could be in the winter. The road curved, and he soon came up behind a snowplow. He slowed and waited for a chance to pass.
Memories surfaced of an auto accident that happened so many years ago…an accident that had claimed the life of his friend. He hadn't thought about Tim or their auto accident in years. Jeff had forced the painful memories to the far corners of his mind. Had it really been fourteen years ago that he and Tim hit an icy patch on this very stretch, which threw their vehicle off the road? Jeff’s mouth felt dry, his head ached, and he started to perspire. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
Snow started to collect on the windshield. He reached forward, turned up the defrosters, and increased the speed of the wipers. “Keep your mind on the road, old man,” he told himself. “The last thing I need right now is to go over the side.” He glanced down at the seat to insure his cell phone was within reach. “I’m in no mood to get stranded out here.”
Visions of another snowy night surfaced, and Jeff remembered sliding through the guardrail, careening over the embankment and then being swallowed up by the snow. He’d never forget the trapped feeling of being pinned behind the wheel. It had been hours before anyone found them. He and Tim hadn’t been hurt badly, just a few bumps and bruises. They talked for a long time before Tim told Jeff to wake him when help came and closed his eyes and went to sleep. Tim had suffered internal injuries, and by the time Robert found them it was too late: Tim was gone.
“BANG!” Jeff hit the brakes out of reflex as a rock hit the hood of the Jeep then bounced up and hit the windshield. “What the hell was that?” He pulled over to the side of the road and reached into the backseat for his coat. Opening the door, he stepped out and zipped up his jacket.
The frigid wind bit his flesh and stung his eyes. It felt much colder than when he’d left Billings. The road was covered in snow, and the sky was a massive gray cloud. In the distance, he couldn’t distinguish where the sky ended and the ground began. He traipsed through the snow to the front of the Jeep. “Great! This is all I need, a busted headlight and a cracked windshield.” Jamming his cold hands deep into his pockets, he turned to judge the distance between him and the snowplow up a head. A faint glow of the taillights disappeared into the grayness. The driver obviously hadn't noticed that he had pulled over.
Jeff trekked back to the driver’s door and got back in the Jeep. He was cold and shaken up. Thinking of the accident that had happened so long ago and how it had changed so many people’s lives had taken his mind off his driving. He raked his hands through his hair. “Get a grip on yourself and pay attention to the road.”
He wiped the condensation from the windshield and cursed the heavy snowfall. He checked the dashboard clock. “Damn, so much for the short cut through the pass or getting home by seven. At this rate, I'll be lucky to get there by midnight.”
The only radio station that came in was an easy listening station, yet the soothing music did nothing to calm his irritation. White knuckled, he gradually made his way along the narrow pass. In the open areas where the wind blew the snow away a sheet of ice covered the road, and where rock walls lined the pass, snow accumulated in deep drifts. As a kid, he recalled how fun it used to be to hit the deep drifts and watch the snow fly up over the hood. However, at the age of thirty-two, he felt a little too old for that kind of fun.
When Jeff came to the hairpin curves, he knew he’d reached the area where both sides of the road dropped straight down into deep, dangerous coulees. “Easy does it, Thornton. Mother and Father wouldn't be too happy if you showed up for Christmas—dead.”
Visibility was close to nothing when Jeff came upon the next curve. “What the hell was I thinking to come this way?” He spared a quick glance at the dash; the bright neon green numbers on the clock read nine-fifteen. He figured if he was where he thought he was, he was still a good thirty miles from town.
Jeff glanced back to the road just as a patch of ice sent him fishtailing. He cranked the wheel in the opposite direction, which sent the Jeep out of control and into a spin. Everything happened so fast. He spun, and everything blurred together as a gray cloud swallowed him. The vehicle emerged from the fog, bounced over the side of the bank and descended down into a rocky-edged coulee.
“OH SHIT!” He flew past a clump of large jack pines, missing them by mere inches. “SHIT!” The Jeep sideswiped a rock, which released the air bags. Frantically, Jeff pushed the airbag out of his line of vision, while trying to steer the vehicle out of the path of other rocks and trees.
The vehicle plowed through the snow. In the clouded darkness, the lit-up dashboard resembled the cockpit of a doomed plane. Jeff plunged the brake pedal to the floorboards and prayed the runaway vehicle would stop. This can’t be happening, he thought as time rewound, taking him back fourteen years.
The same conditions, the same stretch of road.
When the Jeep crashed into a large rock and came to an abrupt stop, Jeff flew over the steering wheel. His head hit the windshield and bounced several times before he regained minimal control of it. The crack was deafening.
Warm blood and broken glass dripped from his face. Snow blew through a large hole where the windshield had once been, blinding him. “Tim, are you okay? What a ride!” Jeff tried to focus. “Tim? Can you hear me? Tim! Tim?”
Jeff's head fell back to the seat. “I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry.” Reliving the nightmare was too much, and Jeff slipped into unconsciousness, murmuring his friend's name over and over again. “Tim! Tim!”
“It'll be okay Jeff. You’ll see,” a gentle voice whispered.