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Riley Keenan felt foolish, and he was not a man who enjoyed feeling foolish.
Even in the Calgary International Airport, with its distinctive Western theme, he knew he stood out as the real thing.
Six feet two inches of real cowboy. Rugged. Scarred.
People swirled around him, holiday joy in the air. It was December 21, the busiest day at the airport, a parking lot attendant had informed him, as if this was a happy event.
Women wore Christmas corsages, and men struggled with bags and boxes stuffed with brightly wrapped parcels. Little girls were proud and pretty in overly frilly red dresses and leotards, and babies were stuffed into ridiculous green elf suits.
The intercom blared out tinny renditions of carols and every transaction with a skycap or a counter girl ended with Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
There was no escaping it, so Riley stood like a rock, grim and unyielding, in the middle of this untidy wave of people filled with optimism and good cheer.
But it was not the fact that he didn't fit in that had made Riley Keenan feel foolish. No, he was a man who had no interest in fitting in.
He belonged in the wild, high country of the Rocky Mountain foothills and the Kananaskis country located to the west of Calgary. He belonged to high peaks, and to tall trees, to rushing streams, to rock faces and to the untamed meadows, and he knew it.
He was a hard and lonely man and he belonged in those hard and lonely places where few men went, and fewer stayed. He was used to silence, and his own company. He was used to the sounds of cattle and the companionship of horses.
He felt foolish, not because of who he was. He had long ago accepted who he was. No, he felt foolish because he was standing here, entirely out of his element, doing something entirely against his nature.
He hated the fact he was in this airport, surrounded by people who cared about Christmas. But most of all he hated the fact he was holding up a cardboard sign, roughly lettered, with the names of two people he did not know, and truth to tell, did not particularly want to get to know.
Bethany and Jamie Cavell.
The flight from Tucson via Denver was supposed to be in, finally, after being delayed three times and four hours. They were supposed to have arrived at eleven this morning, and it was now going on three in the afternoon.
"Merry Christmas," a lady said, smiling at him after she had hit him in the shins with her suitcase on rollers.
He glanced at her, and whatever was in that glance she recognized was not about Christmas cheer. She scurried away. She would have scurried away a lot quicker and without the Christmas salutation if she could have read his mind.
He was a man entertaining black thoughts directed at his own mother.
And a sweeter woman had probably never been born. No, Mary Keenan was the quintessential little old ladywhite-haired, tiny, bespectacled. She was quiet-spoken and she had a heart of pure gold.
But, sweetness aside, it was his mother's fault he was standing here with the stupid sign, and the next time she asked him to paint her house or rearrange her furniture he was going to disappear onto the range for a good long time.
Mary's sweetness was at the heart of this problem. When some flaky lady had phoned her from Arizona and told his mother about wanting to give her nephew snow for Christmas, his mother should have hung up the phone. No need to be polite. That was the logical way to handle crazy people.
But, oh, no. Not his mother. His mother had offered complete strangers use of his hunting cabin for Christmas. Not that he was hunting. And not that he was using it. It was the principle of the thing.
The hunting cabin was for hunters. Riley guided for bear in the spring, deer and elk in the fall. His mother looked after the bookings because he was rarely close to his phone.
The fact of the matter was that a hunting cabin for hunters meant a cabin for men. A rough place where cigars were smoked, and whiskey drunk and nobody took off their shoes or complained about mice.
"The cabin is not a place for anyone in search of a postcard Christmas," he'd said, firmly.
"Nonsense," his mother said, equally as firmly. "I would have spent Christmas there myself if I'd thought of it. It's beautiful at the cabin in the winter, the trees dripping with snow, the deer and elk feeding on the meadow, the mountains snowcapped in the distance"
"The water isn't even running," he'd sputtered. "There is nothing like an outhouse to take the romance out of a cabin in winter."
"I'll look after everything," his mother had said cheerfully, unflinching in the face of his disapproval.
"Be sure and get a seat warmer."
His sarcasm was ignored.
"New curtains, and a little scrub here and there and it will look like something out of a storybook," his mother said dreamily.
A storybook! Hunting cabins were not supposed to look like they came out of storybooks. They were supposed to look like they had been stuck together with whatever was lying around, which pretty well summed up his little refuge in the hills.
"How did some lady from Arizona find out about my hunting cabin? No, don't tell me. It must have been the feature Better Homes and Gardens did on it, right? 'An Old-Fashioned Christmas Complete with Outdoor Facilities.'"
His mother chose to ignore his sarcasm, again. "One of your hunting buddies is married to a friend of hers who heard she was looking for a cabin. Isn't that the nicest coincidence? She had tried everywhere."
Well, that's what happened when you left finding a place to spend Christmas until only two weeks before the big day.
So, Riley did not think it was the nicest coincidence. That's not what he thought at all. He thought it was a downright nasty coincidence. And the hunting buddy who had sicced Lady Arizona and the Kid on him could put a "former" in front of buddy the next time he was looking for a little hunting holiday in Canada.
"Riley, don't be so hard. That woman was desperate. I could hear it in her voice. I'm sure you would have done the same thing if you had talked to her instead of me."
How could his mother not know him at all?
"I sure as hell wouldn't have done the same thing! Desperate women are to be avoided, not invited into your life. Or your hunting cabin."
"You know what she said?" his mother said softly. "She said she was beginning to think there was no room at the inn."
He snorted at that. "Flaky," he said out loud. But inside he felt the tiniest little shiver of apprehension. Because the cabin was no inn. Many years ago, when he was still a boy, he remembered he and his father working side by side, harvesting the gray timber logs out of the old horse barn his grandfather had built, to make that cabin.
He realized, with grave discomfort, that would make the building more like a stable than an inn. Now who was being flaky?
Flaky people had a tendency to do that. Eccentricity was a malady that was contagious, a computer virus that invaded the normal thought processes of ordinary people and infected them. The hunting cabin was more like a stable than an inn. Jeez. The Seeker of Snow, whoever she was, was doing it already, infecting his rational mind, and she wasn't here yet. And hopefully never would be.
"I don't want her here," he said, firmly. It was his cabin, after all.
"Have you no Christmas spirit?" He had tried not to flinch, but he had felt every muscle in his body tense under the reprimand. And then his mother had turned, and caught the look on his face before he had time to hide it. "Oh, Riley, I'm sorry. But it's so long ago. Can't you"
But he couldn't.
"You do what you want," he said to his mother, as if she wouldn't do exactly what she wanted, anyway. "But I'm not having any part of it."
The hunting cabin was located in the hills, in the far southeast corner of his property on a piece of timbered land. It was in the shadow of the Rockies, and bordered Kananaskis, an Alberta Provincial Park. It was in a remote and wild place. The road was barely a road, and on a good day, if it hadn't snowed, it took half an hour to get there from his house. The road was tricky, too. It had soft spots and switchbacks and drop-offs. It was not a road for the faint of heart.
Which his mother had never been. Still, it should have made him feel guilty that his sixty-something mother drove from her own place in town every day, to that cabin, her little four-wheel drive that looked more like a toy than a truck loaded down with clean sheets and new curtains, and all kinds of other stuff that hunters didn't require.
His mother seemed to be having the time of her life fixing up that decrepit little cabin for her mystery Christmas visitors.
He did his best to ignore her enthusiasm, even when she would drop by his place on her way back into town and try to win him over with cookies.
But then the call had come.
"Riley, you won't believe what's happened!" his mother said in that breathless, excited voice that he should have recognized as a harbinger for disaster.
What had happened was that Myrtle Spincher's husband had the gall to up and die just two weeks before he and Myrtle's annual trip to the Bahamas. His mother's friend Alva had come into the tickets.
"Riley, what would you think if I went? I wouldn't be here for Christmas, though. You'd be all alone."
He managed, barely, to refrain from saying Thank God. It would be a relief to have Christmas to himself.
Then he could ignore it completely.
No cozy Christmas dinner at his mother's place where he had to choke down the turkey, and make small talk with whatever twittering old girls she had rounded up for the festivities this year.
Where he had to smile and unwrap his gifts just as if he was the same man he had been before.
He'd actually encouraged her to go the Bahamas, convinced her, overcome every one of her objections and doubts.
And then, after she'd done everything except pack her bag, she'd reminded him, ever so sweetly, that there was a teeny-tiny complication.
A complication named Cavell arriving from Arizona.
And so while his mother sipped dark rum cocktails on a beach in the Bahamas, Riley stood in the Calgary International Airport for the second time in less than a week, only this time his humiliation was complete.
Because this time he was holding a stupid cardboard sign, feeling foolish and thinking black thoughts toward his own mother.
A new wave of people was coming out through the frosted doors of Canada Customs now, and he scanned them unhappily, mentally eliminating those it wouldn't be.
Nope, not that young family. And not that white-haired couple.
And definitely not her.
She was cute as a button, a little sprite of a thing with loose honey-brown curls protruding from under a red Santa hat. She was nearly hidden behind a cart that held more luggage than most people would need for a year.
Despite the Santa hat, he decided she looked like the woman least likely to do anything impulsive. She had obviously packed everything but a parachute, the kind who thought over every possibility carefully, and who would never hop on an airplane in search of snow.
She was with a little boy, and Riley thought it looked like she was trying desperately to look like she was happy for him. Underneath the smile, she looked tired and anxious.
She was the kind of woman who made a man's protective instincts stir uncomfortably. She looked vulnerable as hell, and like she would spit like a kitten if anyone suggested it to her.
He should be looking for the Cavells, but something about the woman held his attention, even when he ordered himself to look away. He tried to dissect what her pull was.
She was cute but unremarkable. Her clothes, aside from the ludicrous bright-red furry hat, looked like they had been deliberately chosen to downplay her assets. She was wearing a beige slack suit, the color of porridge, and the slacks were now wrinkled. The outfit made her look like a kid trying to appear more mature than she was, or a librarian on winter excursion.
Neither of which warranted a second look.
He shook his head, realizing he was not going to unravel her mystery in a single glance, shocked that he had even wanted to.
Maybe he'd spent just a little too long by his lonesome.