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The familiar sound of the crunch of traction tires against packed snow filled the cab of Sean Hughes's truck. He inhaled the crisp air laced with the scent of pine and the smell of wet dog. Denali, his Siberian husky, panted on the seat next to him.
Winter on Mount Hood was their favorite time of year boarding, climbing and snowshoeing. Sean grimaced wryly. Too bad Thanksgiving and Christmas had to get in the way of all that fun.
A snowplow heading west passed him.
No doubt the early morning road crews working hard to clear the overnight snowfall from Highway 26. Portlanders would be driving up in throngs today to spend Thanksgiving on the slopes or eating turkey at Timberline Lodge's Cascade dining room.
Sean wished he could be one of them.
A well-cooked dinner served by an obliging wait staff at a nice restaurant where quiet conversation was de rigueur would be better than the chaotic holiday meal at his parents' house where everyone poked their noses into everybody's business. Especially his. No one listened to his "let's eat dinner out" suggestionnot even when he offered to pay for all thirty-eight of them. Make that thirty-nine. One of his cousins had given birth to another baby a couple of months ago.
"A good thing we don't have to be at Mom and Dad's until later." Sean glanced at Denali. "I'd rather spend this bluebird day on the mountain than be stuck inside listening to people tell me what's missing from my life is a wife."
Denali nudged his arm with her nose.
"They don't seem to understand you're my number one girl." Sean patted the dog's head. He had nothing against marriage per se, but he didn't have the time necessary to make a relationship work. He had too many other things going on in his life to make any woman a priority. In the past, he'd somehow given women the wrong idea about his commitment level so now he only dated casually. Much to his family's dismay. "No worries. We'll make the most of the time we have on our own this morning."
The dog stared out the windshield and barked.
At the base of the road leading up to Timberline Lodge stood a snowboarder. A large, overstuffed backpack set at his feet along with a board.
Around here, no one thought twice about hitchhiking up to the ski area or giving a skier or snowboarder a lift.
Sean remembered hitching rides up the hill from locals and strangers when he'd been a teenager. Back then he'd worked all summer for his dad to pay for a season pass. He'd pack a lunch since he couldn't afford to buy a cup of hot chocolate, let alone food. Times and his circumstances sure had changed since then. But seeing the kid made Sean remember the joy and freedom of those days.
Flicking on his left turn signal, he tapped the brakes to slow down. The image of the kid hoping for a ride made a great visual. He would have to mention that to the advertising firm his snowboard manufacturing company used. They were already talking about next season's promo campaign.
He turned off the highway, pulled over to the right and rolled down the passenger window.
A burst of frigid air rushed in. Denali stuck her head out.
The snowboarder straightened. "Hi."
Not a kid. A woman. Even better.
"Hey," Sean said to her.
A wool beanie hid her hair. The fit of her jacket made him wonder what curves lay underneath.
"Beautiful dog," she said.
"Thanks." The woman was pretty herself with pink cheeks and glossed lips. Her outerwear coordinated with the graphics on her board. Not one of his snowboards, but she looked like the type of rider more interested in fashion than in function. He didn't mind. Sean had a soft spot for snow bunnies, especially ones who boarded. "Heading up for a taste of the fresh powder?"
"I hear it's light and fluffy. My favorite kind." Hopeful, clear blue eyes fringed with thick lashes met his. "Have room for one more?"
She was young. Early twenties, maybe. But cute. Very cute. She'd be turning some heads on the slopes today the way she had turned his.
He shifted the truck's gear stick into Park. "I'll put your stuff in the back."
A wide smile lit up her face. "Thanks, but I've got it."
Independent. Sean liked that. Much better than the women who wanted him to do everything for them.
In the rearview mirror, he watched as she put her things into the back. He appreciated how careful she was to avoid his splitboard and the prototype bindings he'd been working on. She kicked the snow from her boots, climbed in the cab and closed the door.
"I can't tell you how happy I am you stopped." She pulled off her mittens and wiggled her fingers in front of the dashboard vents. "Oh, the heat feels so good."
She smelled good. Like vanilla. He wouldn't mind seeing if she tasted as good as she smelled. "Been waiting long?"
"It felt like forever." Her fingers fumbled with the seat belt until she managed to fasten it. "But it was probably only twenty minutes or so. There isn't as much traffic as I thought there'd be this morning."
"Most people won't head up until later." He shifted gears, pressed on the gas pedal and drove up the curving road to Timberline Lodge. "The lifts don't open until nine."
"That explains it." She rubbed her hands together. "I'm Zoe."
"Sean Hughes." Walls of snow from the plow lined each side of the road. "This is Denali."
"Nice to meet both of you."
Denali rubbed her muzzle against Zoe's cheek.
"Off," Sean ordered, his gaze focusing for a moment on Zoe's high cheekbones. The dog obeyed. "She's very friendly."
"I see that." Zoe glanced at the window behind them. "I noticed an OMSAR sticker on the window."
"Oregon Mountain Search and Rescue."
She fiddled with her mittens on her lap. "You guys are on TV a lot."
"When something happens on the mountain, the media flock to Timberline, but otherwise they pretty much leave us alone."
"I suppose really bad things happen up there."
"Sometimes." He thought about fellow OMSAR member and good friend Nick Bishop who had died almost seven years ago climbing on the Reid Headwall. "Accidents can happen to the best climbers."
"I'd like to climb a mountain someday."
"There isn't much in this world that beats standing on a summit," he encouraged. "But it's all about getting to the top and back down safely. You need to be ready, prepared."
With a nod, she rested her left hand on a contented-looking Denali.
Sean noticed her bare ring finger. He'd bet she had a boyfriend. Still, awareness buzzed through him.
"Before I forget," she said. "Happy Thanksgiving."
"Same to you." At least Thanksgiving was only one day. That made the holiday a hundred percent better than Christmas, when the chorus of "When are you settling down?" questions drowned out the carols from the stereo. "You're not from around here."
She stiffened. "Why do you say that?"
"A local would know what time the lifts open."
Her cheeks remained pink, even though it wasn't cold in the truck. The women he went out with rarely blushed, but Sean found it charming.
"I got a ride up from Portland yesterday and spent the night at the Hood Hamlet Hostel. I wanted to get an early start this morning." She rubbed Denali. "Spending the day on the slopes before Thanksgiving dinner is a family tradition, but I think I may have started a little too early. I suppose getting up before the sun should have been a clue."
He smiled. "Are you meeting your family later?"
"No." She stared out the window. "I'm on my own this year."
Interesting. Maybe there wasn't a boyfriend in the picture. At least not a serious one.
"Lucky you." Sean negotiated the truck around a tight curve. "I wish I were on my own today."
Zoe turned toward him, her eyes wide. "But it's Thanksgiving."
He smiled. "Exactly."
"The holidays are a time to spend with family."
"I know," he admitted. "That's why I'll be at my parents' house this afternoon with more than three dozen extended family members. Picture total chaos with cooking in the kitchen, football blaring on the TV in the living room, kids running around screaming and my uncle Marty snoring in the recliner. It's so crazy, you can't keep track of the score of the game."
"It sounds wonderful to me."
Zoe sounded wistful, a little sad. Maybe she wasn't as keen on spending Thanksgiving by herself as he would be. Sean couldn't deny his attraction. Truth was, he wouldn't mind spending time with her. "You want to come?"
Uncertainty filled her eyes. "I don't know you."
"You want references? I can probably get 'em for you."
He looked at her, not understanding what she meant.
"The OMSAR sticker," she explained. "And you gave me a lift. Obviously you're used to rescuing damsels in distress."
"Rescue is my specialty." That earned him a smile. "So dinner?"
She shook her head.
"Is it my family? Because my relatives make me nuts, but not in an ax-murderer kind of way. The rugrats are pretty cute, and the pies are really good. Ask anyone at the ski area about the Hughes family. We've lived in Hood Hamlet forever."
She laughed, as he hoped she would. "No, I meant You can't spring an unexpected guest on your mother at the last minute."
Pretty and polite. Not too shabby. "My mom lives for holidays. She makes enough food to send leftovers home with everyone, including Denali."
"That's really kind of you, but"
"You have other plans."
"No," she said. "I wouldn't want to impose."
"Last-minute guests are always impositions."
Sean should let it go, except he didn't want to. He could tell she was considering his invitation. She obviously didn't want to be on her own for the holiday. He didn't want her to be alone, either.
Besides, he was the last unmarried cousin. His relatives close to his age, some much younger, were all chasing after kids or holding babies now. He didn't have anything in common with them anymore. It had been his choice to remain single, and he really did enjoy his lifestylerunning a successful company, boarding, climbing, mountain rescue. But a part of Sean felt as if he'd been left behind, and his cousinsmake that all of his relativeswere trying to get him to catch up.
Bringing home a pretty girl in need of a family Thanksgiving dinner tonight would not only help her, but deflect the personal questions about his sex life from male relatives, and questions about who he'd been seeing from the female ones.
"It'll be fine." Dinner at his folks' would be good for Zoe's morale. His, too. "You can ask my mom yourself."
"No, I couldn't."
"Then I will."
Zoe stared at him. "Do you really feel comfortable inviting a total stranger to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family?"
He didn't want to explain how her presence would take the heat off him or how being with Zoe might actually make tonight fun instead of a chore. If things went well during dinner, maybe they could spend more time together afterward. At his house. Alone. "I can take you if you pull any funny stuff."
Sean's blood pressure spiked. He'd been around the block enough times to know when a woman was interested. Zoe was. Her flirting suggested tonight would turn out way better than he'd thought when he woke up this morning.
"Definitely." He flashed her one of his most charming smiles, the one that had melted his share of female hearts. "Besides, one of my cousins is married to a sheriff's deputy, and another is a martial arts instructor. You wouldn't stand a chance against us."
She laughed. "No funny stuff, I promise."
"So you're in."
"Only if it's okay with your mom."
Sean didn't want Zoe to change her mind. He hit the button on his cell phone and called his parents' number. His mother answered on the second ring with a cheerful "gobble, gobble." "Hey, Mom, I'm bringing someone with me to dinner tonight. Okay?"
"Honey, you know your friends are always welcome," she said. "We have more than enough food."
"Thanks. I'll tell her."
"Her?" His mother's voice shot up an octave. "You're bringing a girl?"
"Her name's Zoe. She's going to be boarding at T-line while I'm up on the hill trying out a new binding."
"And then you're bringing her home for Thanksgiving dinner. That's wonderful, Sean. Of course Zoe's welcome to come."
Something about his mother's tone set off alarm bells in the back of his head. "I don't want you making a big deal out of this and scaring her off, Mom."
His mother laughed. "Of course not. I'll be discreet, I promise. Let me talk to her."
He frowned and looked over at Zoe. "She wants to talk to you."
A puzzled expression crossed Zoe's face. "Me?"
"Maybe she wants to give you references," he joked.
"Hello? " Zoe said into the phone, almost shyly. "Yes, this is Zoe Zoe Flynn Thank you, Mrs. Hughes. Okay, Connie No, my family isn't I've been out here on my own for a while. "
The way she spoke made Sean smile. He knew his mom's interrogation skills all too well, but Zoe was holding her own when she could get a word in. He was curious to see how she handled everyone at the dinner tonight.
"Yes, holidays are hard alone," she said. "I appreciate it I understand. I just didn't want Sean to spring an extra guest on you at the last minute. Yes, he is. Thanks again. I look forward to meeting you, too. Yes. Yes, I'll tell him."
Zoe handed the phone back to him. "Here you go."
He was about to say goodbye, but the line was already disconnected. His mother had hung up. That was odd.
He tucked the phone in his pocket, both relieved and puzzled. "What are you suppose to tell me?"
Zoe drew her eyebrows together. "Your mother wants me to remind you about your grandmother's present. It's in the safe-deposit box. She said she could pick it up from the bank for you on Monday morning."
His grandmother's present. His grandmother's
"Oh, hell," Sean said.
"What is it?" Zoe asked.
His grandmother's engagement ring, intended for Sean's future bride. And now his mother thought His mother planned
"Damn. She thinks it's serious."
"Your grandmother? Is she ill?"
"She's dead," he explained. "No, it's my mother. She thinks we're serious. You and me. That I invited you to dinner because we're in a relationship."
Lines creased Zoe's forehead. "Why would she think that?"
Because his mother was a hopeless romantic who wanted her son to get married so she could have grandchildren. "Because I'm bringing you to Thanksgiving dinner."
"That doesn't make any sense."