Read an Excerpt
Carey Mooreland stared out at the highway, a frozen, four-lane blur, her gloved hands gripping the steering wheel so tightly her fingers ached. Snow that had begun falling a few hours earlier blew down even heavier now. Fat, white feathery flakes coated the windshield faster than the wipers could whisk them away.
The defroster on the old car wasn't working well and Carey reached up to wipe the foggy glass with her hand. It was the third car she'd owned in the past year, each model with more mileage and problems. But switching cars every few months had been another way to protect herself, to shield her identity and make it harder for Quinn to track her down as she moved from place to place.
She'd bought new snow tires in Vermont. An unexpected expense, but one she was glad of now. She had to think of her baby, Lindsay. The six-month-old little girl who slept snug in her car seat, covered from head to toe so that only her nose and a tiny portion of her sweet face showed as she slept.
Carey wanted to sleep, too. She wanted to turn around and go back to Blue Lake. She wanted to pull over and have a good cry. But like so many other times in the past year, she forced herself to do what she had needed to do to survive. To keep her baby safe. That was all that mattered to her now.
She switched on the radio, searching for some distraction from the rhythm of the squeaky wipers. A cheerful Christmas song filled the silence. It was Christmas Eve. She'd almost forgotten. Somehow during her desperate flight, the holidayand all its glittering warmthhad faded into the dark cold night.
The highway had narrowed to one lane, thick with snow. She bumped along with few other carsin sight. She spotted a jackknifed truck on the roadside, hazard lights blinking and she struggled to turn her eyes straight ahead again.
The small car swerved, despite the new tires. Carey finally gave up and decided to turn off. The car needed fuel and she needed some caffeine. She'd been concentrating so hard on her driving, she'd lost all track of direction. She knew she was somewhere on the coast of Maine. Somewhere between Blue Lake, Vermont, where she'd started, and Bar Harbor, where she hoped to board a ferry to New Brunswick, and from there, make her way to Prince Edward Island in Canada.
Canada was a big country. A person could hide there easily. After a while, even the obsessive Quinn McCauley would give up looking for her. That was her plan and her prayer. If he was put behind bars, he'd be forced to give up. Or would he still have his underlings pursue her? She'd seen the way he held grudges. It wasn't out of the question.
She turned down the exit ramp and found herself at a stop sign on a dark road. A sign read, Greenbriar5 miles. Gas. Food. Lodging. An arrow pointed to the right and Carey turned in that direction. It seemed the logical choice. She couldn't drive all night. Not in this storm. She needed to find a place to stay over and continue tomorrow morning. Hopefully the snowstorm would be over by then.
There might have been a few houses on the road, but Carey didn't see any. All she saw were tall trees and brush, covered with white. Not a single vehicle was in sight. It seemed everyone was staying in tonight. To celebrate. Or was just too wise to be out driving.
She and Lindsay would have been at a Christmas gathering right now, with her friends in Blue LakeRachel Reilly and her fiancé, Jack Sawyer, and their little boy, Charlie. Carey had left gifts for all of them and a note, explaining that she'd been suddenly called away to care for a sick relative, down in Virginia. She'd promised to get in touch in a few days.
She guessed they must have read her note by now. She tried to picture their reaction. She hated lying, especially to people who trusted her and helped her when she'd first arrived there. But she'd had no choice. She'd learned that Quinn's investigator had caught on to her trail again and if he traced her to Blue Lake, she didn't want her friends to point him in the right direction.
Someday I'll explain, Carey promised herself. Or maybe it was better not to. Better for everyone.
The Christmas song ended and the radio announcer started to report on Santa's flight, tracking his path from the North Pole around the entire world. Lindsay was too little know about Santa, but the sweet deception reminded Carey of the Christmas Eves of her past, when she was a little girl growing up happy and carefree. Feeling so safe and loved. Now her parents were both gone. And her husband, Tom, had died, too, in an accident last year on one of Quinn's construction sites.
She was all alone except for Lindsay. Her secret was like a wall around her heart, as thick as any prison, making it impossible to grow truly close to anyone, to make lasting friendships and connections. That might be acceptable for some people. Some people might be able to adapt to that kind of life. Even prefer it.
Carey didn't think she could live like this much longer. She felt that tonight, she'd come to the end of her rope. If moving up to Canada didn't solve her problems, she wasn't sure what she'd do.
She felt tears well up in her eyes and swallowed hard, struggling not to cry.
Carey wasn't sure where the animal had come from.
She'd been distracted, lost in her thoughts.
Suddenly it was just there.
Darting out from between the trees. Leaping across the road, right in front of her car.
It looked huge, with wide antlers and long powerful legs, yet it moved with fluid grace, as if in slow motion.
Mesmerized, she sat back and slammed on the brakes. Her seat belt tightened around her body; her mouth hung open. She would have screamed, but there wasn't time. Barely time to take a gasping breath.
It was close. Too close
She yanked the steering wheel to the left and heard a hoof nick the hood.
The car bounced over the shoulder of the road, then slid down a snowy slope. Carey continued to slam on the brakes, even yanked the emergency brake lever to no avail. She finally shielded her face with one arm, glancing back at her baby daughter, who was still miraculously asleep.
Then the car slowly rolled to a stop, the front end coasting into a tree, the final impact hard enough to jerk her forward and crunch the bumper, but not quite enough to inflate the air bag.
Carey twisted in her seat. "Lindsay? Sweetie?"
Lindsay stared at her wide-eyed, then suddenly started to cry. Her car seat was secure and hadn't budged an inch out of place.
Carey sent up a silent prayer of thanks that they weren't hurt, then clawed at her seat belt, unfastened it and jumped out.
She stood knee-deep in snow, pulled open the back door and crawled in the back to comfort Lindsay. She took the baby from her seat and held her close. The feeling of her small, warm body pressed close was a comfort. She realized she was shaking from the shock. Lindsay soon stopped crying and relaxed against Carey's shoulder.
Carey took a calming breath and tried to remember what she should do. She leaned over and turned on the emergency flashers. Then she wondered if anyone would see them with her car below the embankment.
"We need to call for help," Carey told the baby. "Someone needs to come pull us out of here wherever here is "
She picked up her cell phone from the front seat and dialed 911.
An operator answered immediately.
"I've had an accident," Carey began. "My car skidded off the road and hit a tree. I'm alone with a baby. We need some help. Right away "
Carey tried to remain calm, but just explaining what had happened made her feel desperate and frightened.
"How old is your child, ma'am?"
"Six months, a little girl."
"Is anyone hurt? Any bleeding?"
"No, we're both fine. Just please, send someone to pick us up. I'm afraid that my daughter is going to get frostbite."
"We'll send help right away. Where are you located?"
"I I'm not sure I got off the highway at the last exit. Then I turned off the exit ramp The sign said Greenwood or Greenbriar " Carey sighed. "I don't live around here. I was lost and I got off the road to find a gas station "
"Okay, miss. I have some idea where you might be. Were you traveling north or south?"
"I don't know " Carey tried hard not to lose her temper.
"I went right at the stop sign I think."
"Is the car visible from the road ?"
The connection started to break up. Carey spoke quickly.
"I don't know I "
Then the phone went dead.
Carey stared at the screen. The battery had run down. She hadn't even realized it was low. She shook it, knowing it wouldn't help at all. She felt so frustrated, she wanted to scream.
Good Lord, this couldn't be happening
Had she given the operator enough information to find the car? She could hardly say for sure. It was snowing so hard. The windows of the half-buried car were already coated so that she couldn't see out.
It was a holiday. And such a small town. She didn't think there would be many police or EMS workers on duty tonight to come look for her.
It might take a long time. It might take hours.
What now? Was she stuck here with Lindsay? She couldn't start walking, not in this snow. And where would she walk to? She hadn't seen a single house since she'd turned off the highway.
Or a car or truck passing. She didn't want to leave Lindsay alone even for a few minutes, while she walked up to the road, but she realized she had to. She could tie her scarf to a tree or set out some other distress signal.
She pushed down a wave of panic. If they were stranded for hours, what would she do? She didn't even want to think that far.
Carey secured Lindsay in her seat again, closed the car and headed up the snow-covered slope toward the road. The hill was steep and she thought it was a miracle the car had made it to the bottom in one piece, without either of them being hurt.
That was one lucky break.
She had to tug herself up, pulling on a branch, to get to the road again. Her leather boots with thin soles and heels were not exactly ideal for hiking, but finally, she made it.
She stood at the shoulder of the road and gasped for air, then gasped with alarm as a man ran toward her through the snow. He was big. Very big. With broad shoulders and long legs. He wore a thick parka with the hood pulled up over his head and knee-high boots.
Backlit from the headlights of a car parked down the road, his face was obscured and she couldn't see anything more than his outline.
Carey felt frozen in place and swallowed hard, hoping he was help and not more trouble.
When he finally drew closer she could see from the patches on his jacket that he was a police officer and she breathed a deep sigh of relief.
"Gosh, you got here quickly. I didn't think the 911 operator even knew where I was. Then my phone went dead and "
He stared at her a moment. "I wasn't sent out to find you. I was just driving home and saw the flashers."
Home to his cozy warm house and a family, who was probably waiting for him to celebrate Christmas Eve, she added silently.
"Thanks for stopping."
"No thanks necessary. Are you all right?" His voice was deep and even, soothing her ragged nerves. He took a step closer, staring down at her. "What happened to your car? Did you skid in the snow?"
"An animal jumped out from the woods. I guess it was a deer. I turned, trying to avoid it."
"Are you traveling alone?"
A logical question. Though the way he said it and the way he was looking at her now made her swallow hard. Made her feel even more isolated and lonely.
"I have my baby with me. She's down in the car, but she's fine. I left her for a minute so I could put out a distress signal."
The word baby had barely left Carey's lips and the officer was in motion. He skidded down the hill easily in his heavy boots, taking the last few yards on his side, without a thought for the snow. He reached the car in a few long loping strides and pulled open the door.
Carey ran behind him. She didn't come down the hill nearly as gracefully and rode most of the way on her bottom.
By the time she reached the car, he had Lindsay out of her seat and handed her up to Carey's waiting arms.
"She looks okay. You bundled her up well."
Then he picked up the extra blanket on the backseat and tucked it around the baby. Carey was surprised. She hadn't even asked him. It was an unexpected, tender gesture.
Lindsay was crying, but he didn't seem to notice. There was something about him, a centered, calm air that seemed as un-shakable as a mountain. The complete opposite of how she felt.
"Need anything from the back?" he asked.
"That blue baby bag" she pointed it out "and the black duffel and the car seat, too. I guess."
He scooped up both heavy bags and slung the straps over his shoulders as if they were empty. Then he picked up the car seat. He locked up the car and they headed back toward the road.
When they reached the snowy slope, he put the bags down and turned to her. "Let's leave the bags and seat down here. I'll come back for them. I'll hold the baby if you like and we can go up together."
Carey considered his plan for a moment, then remembered going up the hill the first time and nodded. "All right."
She handed Lindsay over, feeling a tiny, instinctive twinge of concern. It vanished in an instant once she saw the way her rescuer cradled the baby protectively to his chest.
His strong, gentle embrace was reassuring and a much safer way for Lindsay to travel than if she had carried the baby herself.
He stood by and let her go up first. She started to slip and he was instantly at her side, one strong arm cradling Lindsay to his chest and the other suddenly wrapped around her waist, catching her close before she fell.
He looked down at her. Just about all she could see of his face, covered by his parka hood, were his eyes. Brilliant blue of a summer morning, defying the dark night and falling snow.
She focused on getting up the hill, one slippery step at a time. It was hard to ignore the man beside her. His face was suddenly so close she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. She quickly turned away and stared straight ahead. This was the closest she'd been to anyone in over a year, since Tom had died.
"Careful now, I've got you. Just go slowly."
"I can make it." She tried hard to keep her mind on getting up the hill. The feeling of his arm around her waist and his hard strong body so close next to hers was both distracting and energizing.
When he reached the top, she gave out a sigh of relief. She was sure he thought she was just happy the trek was over.
He carefully handed the baby over, then went down for the rest of her belongings. She wasn't sure how he could manage the two large bags and car seat in one trip, but moments later, he emerged on the roadside, with the entire load, not even winded.
She followed him to a dark green SUV that was parked down the road. He tossed her bags in the back then secured the baby's seat in the backseat. Carey placed Lindsay in the car seat and fastened the strap.
Then she softly kissed the baby on her forehead and stroked her cheek. Carey was sure she must be hungry and need a diaper change. "Poor sweetheart. I'll take care of you very soon," she promised.
Moments later, she sat up front and the police officer started the vehicle. He pushed back the hood of his parka and she finally had a good look at his face.
He was handsome. Very handsome. The eyes had been a hint. The rest was even better than she'd expected.
His dark hair was cut short, close to his head though not a crew cut. He'd pushed it back, wet from the snow, off his forehead with his hand, emphasizing his lean cheeks and the strong lines of his face, set in a serious expression, as he steered the SUV away from the side of the road and then made a wide U-turn.
They were once again headed in the direction of town, she realized, the same way she was going before she drove off the road.
She pushed back her own hood and ran her fingers through her long golden hair, damp from the snow and feeling even curlier and wilder than usual.
She put her hands up to the air vents to warm them and realized he was watching her, his glance lingering in a way that made her feel self-conscious.
It was a classic male-female glance, a taking inventory sort of look. The same she'd just given him, though he hadn't caught her at it. Or had he? she wondered.
"Feel cold? I can turn up the heat."
Considering the direction of her thoughts, she had to hide a smile. She didn't need it any hotter in here.
"Thanks, I'm okay." She pulled off her wet gloves and stuck them in her pocket. "I don't think you ever told me your name, Officer."