Read an Excerpt
Please, truck. Don't die on me.
Grace Bad-luck-is-my-middle-name Wilcox gripped the pickup's steering wheel tighter, as if willpower alone would keep the sputtering engine running in the middle of a blizzard on Mount Hood. A CD of cheery Christmas carols played, but frazzled nerves kept her from singing along.
The tire chains crunched on the snow. The wipers' frenetic back-and-forth struggled to keep the windshield clear of falling snow. The engine coughed, a croupy-seal-bark sound.
She raised her foot off the accelerator.
A gut-clenching grinding noise shook the cab, confirming her fear.
Forget reaching the Oregon coast tonight. The truck wasn't going to survive the drive over Mount Hood.
Stranded in a snowstorm with her three-year-old son.
Shivers racked her body, a mix of panic, fear and bone-chilling cold. The heater had stopped working an hour ago. Her fleece jacket and knit gloves weren't enough to keep her warm.
Grace pressed on the gas pedal, praying for a miracle. She glanced in the rearview mirror to the backseat of the truck's extended cab.
Liam slept in his car seat with his head on a blue stuffed elephant named Peanut, and his body covered with sleeping bags and blankets.
A ball of warmth settled at the center of Grace's chest. Liamthe one bright light in her otherwise dark life. The reason she kept going. "I hope you're having sweet dreams, baby."
Because reality sucked.
Except when you were a little kid and trusted your mom to keep you safe.
And she would keep him safe. That was her job. Though she was failing at being a good mommy tonight.
Liam must be exhausted. It was nearly eleven o'clock, hours past his bedtime, and they'd spent another long day on the road, their progress hampered by harsh winter weather.
"Looks like Astoria will have to wait one more day."
Her voice trembled from the cold, disappointment, fear.
If only we were there now.
The small northern Oregon coastal town, about a three-hour drive from Mount Hood, would be their home. She could make a new life for herself, and most especially, Liam.
With only one working headlight, Grace struggled to see the road due to the wind-driven snow.
The engine clanked and rattled and thunked.
She needed to find a place to stay the night before the truck gave out. She glimpsed something, a pole. No, a sign.
Grace made out the words Hood Hamlet. An arrow pointed right.
She had no idea what Hood Hamlet wasshe assumed not a Shakespeare character in a hoodiebut anything had to be better than being stuck on the side of the road in this freezing weather all night. She flipped on the blinker, even though no one else was crazy enough to be driving in these conditions, and turned right.
Deep snow. A foot more than was on the highway. No tracks.
The truck plowed ahead, slowed by the road conditions and her nerves. The snow muffled the sounds of the tire chains, but the disturbing engine noises increased in frequency and volume.
White-knuckled, she clutched the steering wheel as if it were a lifeline.
Hood Hamlet, please don't let me down.
The snow and darkness, pitch-black except for the one headlight, made seeing more than a foot or two ahead impossible.
She leaned forward, squinting, trying to see.
The windshield fogged on the inside. Frost built up on the outside.
A T in the road lay ahead. But no sign to direct her, nothing to let her know she was close to Hood Hamlet.
Right or left?
Grace chose right. That turn seemed easier to negotiate with the road conditions. She eased the steering wheel toward the passenger's side.
The truck skidded, sliding sideward.
Air rushed from her lungs. Her fingers dug into the steering wheel. "No. No. No."
Turn into the slide.
Hadn't Damon told her that when she was learning to drive? Wait. That was for front-wheel drive cars, not his truck.
She turned the steering wheel the other way.
The truck straightened.
Grace glanced back at Liam, who was still sleeping. "Maybe our luck's changing." The truck slid again.
She tried to correct, but the vehicle spun in the opposite direction. Round and round, like a merry-go-round with afterburners.
Her pulse accelerated into the stratosphere.
The world passed by in slow motion, appearing through the windshield wipers like blurry photographs.
Trees. Snow. More snow.
Round and round.
Grace couldn't tell what was real, what was her imagination. The roar of her heartbeat drowned out the music.
It'll be okay, babe.
Damon. Tears stung her eyes at the memory of his voice. Nothing had been okay since he'd died. A wall of snow appeared in front of her. Every muscle in her body tensed. Panic ricocheted through her. Grace closed her eyes. She screamed, clutched the steering wheel with all her strength. If only she could hold on to Liam
"Damon, help us."
A prayer. A plea.
The truck jolted with an awful metallic, crumpling sound. Something exploded, hitting her in the face. A horrible smell filled her nostrils. "Oh."
The engine died.
Adrenaline surged. Her face stung. She coughed.
He screamed louder. The soul-piercing sound stole her breath and her hope.
Hands shaking, she struggled with her seat belt. The air bag had deflated and lay on her lap. She had to get to her son. "Be right there, baby."
He sobbed, alternating between hiccups and cries, each stabbing her aching heart. "P-nut. Where P-nut?"
"I'll find him." Grace unfastened the belt, turned, reached back. Her face burned. It hurt to breathe. She couldn't see anything, but felt around. "Fleece blanket, cookies, jacket. Peanut has to be here."
She hit the switch on the cab lamp above her.
Light flooded the truck. The engine might not work, but thankfully, the battery still did.
Crocodile tears streamed down Liam's cheeks.
Grace glimpsed blue fuzz stuck between the front and back seats. She pulled out the stuffed animal.
Pushed the elephant into Liam's mitten-covered hands.
The tears stopped flowing. He cuddled his favorite toy. "Mine."
"Do you hurt anywhere?"
"No." He kissed the elephant. "I fine. Peanut fine, too."
A lump clogged her throat. The relief was shortlived. If she didn't do something fast, they were going to freeze.
She tucked blankets and sleeping bags around him again in between coughs.
"Mommy needs to check the truck." And get help. She grabbed her cell phone. Dead. Of course it was. She hadn't been able to find her charger since driving through Utah. "Stay here and keep Peanut warm. I'll be right back."
Grace pulled on her handle. The door wouldn't budge. "Come on."
She tried again. Nothing.
She crawled to the passenger seat and tried that handle. On her third attempt the door opened, pushing away a drift.
Thank goodness. She stumbled out of the truck. Her canvas sneakers sank into the soft snow. Her toes curled from the icy cold.
Wind whipped. Freezing air stung her lungs. Fear doubled with every passing second.
Crossing her arms over her chest and tucking her gloved but trembling hands beneath her armpits, she closed the door with her hip. She needed to keep Liam protected from the cold.
The truck was stuck in a seven-feet-tall snowbank. The shell over the back of the pickup looked fine. She couldn't see the damage to the driver's side, but based on the impact sounds she expected it to be crunched.
"Help," Grace yelled, though she doubted anyone was around. She couldn't see anything in the darkness with snow falling. "Can anyone hear me?"
The wind swallowed her voice. A weight pressed down on her.
She couldn't give up.
Her son needed her to be strong.
If Grace hadn't had Liam, she would have given up the night the army rang her doorbell to tell her Damon, her Ranger husband, a man she'd loved since she was fifteen, had been killed in Afghanistan. Damon had saved three soldiers before dying, but the word hero could never fill the gaping hole his death left in her and their son's life. A hole still present two and a half years later.
Damon had always said, "It'll be okay, babe."
She repeated his words. "It'll be okay. It'll be okay."
All she had to do was find shelter. Get Liam out of the cold. Everything else could wait until daylight.
Grace looked around.
Snow and trees.
That was all she could see.
Stupid snow and stupid trees.
Driving across country from Georgia to Oregon two weeks before Christmas had been stupid. Sure, she'd finally graduated college, but she should have stuck it out another few months until the weather improved. What was I thinking?
Making new Christmas memories, not dwelling on old ones. Ringing in the New Year in a different place, not wondering what might have been. Meeting new people instead of saying goodbye to old friends transferring out of the Rangers or heading downrange on another deployment, not knowing who wouldn't be coming home this time.
Snow coated her jacket and jeans. Her hair, too. Her gloved hands tingled. She shoved them in her pockets.
"I'm sorry." Her teeth chattered. She blinked away tears. "Should have stayed in Georgia."
It' ll be okay, babe.
Grace wished she could believe things would be okay. She glanced back at the truck. At the light illuminating cab. At Liam.
No giving up.
The snow helped the burning sensation on her skin. She wasn't coughing. It no longer hurt to breathe. All good things. And this road had to lead somewhere, to people, right?
She forced her tired legs forward to find help, her feet completely covered in snow. Wetness seeped into her shoes, sending icy chills up her legs.
Grace glanced back at the truck, not wanting to lose sight of her son. Looking forward again, she shielded her eyes from the snowflakes coming at her sideways like miniature daggers. She scanned right to left.
Snow, trees and.
She blinked. Refocused.
A lit-up Santa beckoned in the distance. Beyond the figure was a house strung with multicolored Christmas lights.
It' ll be okay, babe.
It was going to be okay. At least for tonight. Grace looked up into the swirling snow. "Thank you, Damon."
"No worries. I have power, Mom." Bill Paulson walked out of the kitchen holding a bottle of beer in one hand and the phone against his ear in the other. "This is your third call tonight. It's late. Go to bed. I'll be by in the morning to plow your driveway. I have to check the rental properties, too."
"Unless the snow keeps falling."
Her hopeful words were not unexpected. His mom preferred him stuck inside and safe, rather than on another outdoor adventure. She seemed to forget he was thirty-three, not thirteen. Though, admittedly, sometimes he acted more like a kid than an adult.
"It better stop snowing." He sat in his favorite chair, a big, comfortable leather recliner. Sports highlights played on the TV, with the volume muted. Flames danced and wood crackled in the fireplace. "I don't want to lose another day on the mountain."
A drawn-out, oh-so-familiar sigh came across the line, annoying him like a tickle in the throat before a full-blown cold erupted. He loved his mom, but he knew what was coming next.
"There's more to life than climbing and skiing," she said.
"You don't climb or ski."
"No, but you do."
"My life rocks," Bill said. "There's nothing like helping people in trouble get down the mountain, or carving the first tracks in two feet of fresh powder, then crawling into a comfy, warm bed after a day on the hill."
Especially if he wasn't alone. Which, unfortunately, he was tonight.
"You're headstrong like your father. Always off doing your own thing."
Bill knew that disapproving-mother tone all too well. He'd grown up hearing how much he was like his dad, a man who was never around to support and love her. But this was different. His mom didn't understand the pull of the mountain. The allure of the adrenaline rush. The satisfaction of a successful mission. She was too worried Bill would end up hurt or dead. That could happen one of these days, but still.
Time to change the subject before she laid on another guilt trip. He didn't want to end up letting her down again. "This morning I put up the Santa you brought over. Got the lights strung on the eaves, too."
"Wonderful. How's the tree coming along?"
Two ornamentsa snowboard and a snowshoehung from the branches of a seven-foot noble fir. Bill had a box full of more ornaments, but he'd gotten bored trimming the tree. Decorating with a sexy snow bunny for a helper would have been more fun. "The tree's coming along. I've even got a present under there."
He wasn't about to tell his mom the gift was a wedding present for Leanne Thomas and Christian Welton, two firefighters getting married on Saturday. Soon Bill would be the only member of their crew still single.
He didn't mind.
Marriage was fine for other people. Somehow his parents had remained together in spite of spending so much time apart. Maybe when Bill hit forty he would reconsider matrimony as an option. Then again, maybe not. He didn't need another woman dependent on him, like his mom. A woman who would think he wasn't a good enough man, husband, father, and kept waiting for him to screw up.
"I'm happy to finish decorating your tree," Mom said.
He had no doubt she would happily show up to decorate his whole house, wearing an embroidered Christmas sweater and jingle bells dangling from her earlobes. With her husband away most of the time, she focused her attention and energy on Bill. Always had. After she'd miscarried during a difficult pregnancy, she'd turned into a hovering, don't-let-the-kid-out-of-your sight, overprotective mom. His turning eighteen, twenty-one, thirty hadn't lessened the mother hen tendencies. "Give me another week."
"We'll talk tomorrow." She made a smacking sound, her version of a good-night kiss over the phone. "Sleep well, dear."
"Will do." Too bad he'd be sleeping alone. Stormy nights were perfect for going to bed with a hot woman. But the December dating deadlinethe second Monday in December, when men stopped seeing women, in order to avoid spending the holidays with themhad passed. Even friends with benefits expected more than he was willing to give this time of year. "'Night, Mom."
He placed the phone on the end table, sat in the re-cliner and took a long pull of beer. This year's seasonal brew from the Wy'East Brewing Company went down smoothly.
He glanced at a photograph hanging on the wallof Jake Porter, Leanne, Nick Bishop, Tim Moreno and himself at Smith Rock during a sunny day of rock climbing in central Oregon. He raised his bottle in memory of Nick, who'd died during a climb on Mount Hood's Reid Headwall at Christmastime nine years ago.
Wind rattled the windows.
Storm, storm, go away. Billy Paulson wants to play.
He downed the rest of the beer.
Game highlights gave way to a sports talk show.
He flipped through the channels, not bothering to turn up the sound. News. Chick flick. Syndicated comedy. The same boring shows.
Bill heard what sounded like a knock.
No one would be out tonight. Must be a branch against the house.
The knocking continued. Rapid. Loud. Not a branch. More like someone in trouble.