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"When is this going to be over?" Melanie Bennett mumbled to herself as she adjusted her thick woolen mittens. If one more person shook her hand, hugged her or pressed a cold-lipped kiss to her frozen cheeks, she was going to scream.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the entire population of Hawk's Lake had turned out for the lighting of the Christmas tree, the traditional kickoff to the annual Snow Festival. This year Melanie and her son, Kyle, would be lighting the tree in her husband's memory.
She was grateful for everyone's support, but she didn't want to talk about Mike anymore. It was too hard trying not to remember.
And she dreaded having to be in such close proximity to Samuel LeDoux, former Canadian hockey star and alleged expert in disaster recovery operatives for the Red Cross.
Unfortunately for her, Mayor Lippert had asked him to be the grand marshal of the Snow Festival. He was the overwhelming favorite, because he'd helped out during the horrific ice storm that had hit upstate New York last winter, and everyone in the village thought Sam LeDoux was a hero.
Everyone except her.
Someone jostled Melanie, and then she in turn bumped into someone else. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a white foam cup flip in the air and hit the ground. When she looked up, she saw wisps of steam rising from a dark stain on the front of the red parka of the attractive man next to her.
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I made you drop your coffee." She pulled off a mitten, found a tissue in the pocket of her jacket and began blotting his parka. He looked down at her in amusement, his blue eyes twinkling.
And immediately she felt drawn to him.
Melanie could barely think. She was busy looking at his strong jaw with a hint of a beard, and the tan that made his teeth look whiter. His lips formed a perfect smile, and she could tell he was in excellent shape in spite of the bulky parka.
She dropped her hand before she wore a hole through him. "Sorry. It's the mother in me. I'm used to wiping up spills on an hourly basis." Her face flamed in spite of the freezing temperatures.
"No harm done." He chuckled. "It'll dry, and it'll wash out." His deep voice, with a hint of an accent, enveloped her like a warm blanket. "Big crowd here, isn't there?"
"I've never seen so many people in Hawk's Lake at one time. Must be a record."
The stranger bent over to pick up the cup just as a Boy Scout appeared holding out a trash bag. He tossed it in.
"I'm going to get another cup of coffee," he said. "Would you like anything?"
"It's on me," Melanie shouted, as the six-piece band from Moose Lodge #814 played a much too loud and painfully slow rendition of "Jingle Bells." The crowd huddled around the white octagonal bandstand burst into song, making it even harder to carry on a conversation. And for whatever reason, she wanted to talk to him more.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. He shook his head, leaned over and spoke into her ear, "It was nice bumping into you. Maybe I'll get to talk to you later."
She nodded, trying to calm her racing heart. The warmth of his breath on her skin made her shiver. She told herself she was only nervous about the upcoming tree lighting, but she knew it was more than that. She wanted to get to know the handsome stranger.
Watching as he walked away, she couldn't help but notice his butt, encased in snug dark jeans that outlined his muscular legs. She saw him wave to people and then stop to shake hands with others before he disappeared into the gingerbread tent.
How did he know so many people from Hawk's Lake? She'd lived here all her life and had never seen him before. She'd assumed he was a tourist who had come in for the Snow Festival.
To distract herself, she looked up at the bright stars sparkling in the black winter sky. They looked close enough to touch. When she was a little girl, her mother used to tell her that each star was a light for the people in heaven so they could see their way at night.
She grimaced. If that was true, her late husband Mike was plugged in to the nearest star watching a college football game and scouting for the next sensational player.
Kyle appeared at Melanie's side. She looked down at him and smiled tenderly. He'd been only five when his father had died in the devastating ice storm that had hit all of upstate New York a year ago.
Kyle grinned up at her. "When do we get to light the tree, Mom?"
Yesterday, she had explained to him that this year's tree lighting was in honor of his father and it was a special way for the people of Hawk's Lake to remember him and to thank him for helping out in the storm.
Kyle had simply said, "But we remember him all the time, and Daddy shouldn't have gone out in bad weather."
True on both counts.
"I miss him. I'm going to ask Santa Claus to bring him back." And then Kyle had criedsomething he rarely did.
It had been all Melanie could do to keep from crying for her son. How would they ever get through this Christmas with Kyle missing his father so much? Even thinking about it now threatened to bring tears to her eyes.
She was so angry at Mike. And although she still had difficulty remembering all the details of the storm, she knew that she couldn't bring herself to forgive him. Something was holding her back.
Last year, she'd spent the holidays in a hazy state of shock. Her father had told her that she'd slipped and fallen on the ice, but she only remembered waking up in the emergency room. Later she'd learned that Mike had died while helping to cut trees away from the power station, and that Sam LeDoux, a disaster response expert for the Red Cross, had stepped in to manage the volunteers, as well as the cleanup and recovery effort.
As far as she was concerned, he had done a horrible job of managing the volunteers.
But she had a son to think of, and this year, things would be different. She had to make this Christmas special for Kyle, to show him that it was okay to move on.
Melanie looked around, trying to spot the handsome stranger again, but he was lost in the crowd.
The villagers were holding lighted red candles pushed through holes in the bottom of waxed cups. Others held their children's hands and swayed with the music as the Moose Lodge Band jauntily played "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The frosty breath of the crowd hung in the air like smoke.
She figured that the increase in attendance had a little to do with Mike, but it probably had just as much to do with the grand opening of the new Santa Claus House, directly across from the bandstand on the east end of the square.
Santa's House was her father's brainstorm. Ed Hawkins had designed the little cottage, and Mel-anie and her two brothers had built it in their spare time in the back of their garage.
Melanie had painted the house a bright white and the gingerbread trim in Christmas red and forest green. Later, Santa Clausplayed by her brother Jackwould sit on the porch of the bright little cabin on a regal chair that used to belong to their Aunt Betty, and listen to the kids' wishes. Jack loved Santa duty, probably because he was still a kid at heart himself.
But the house was more than a labor of love for all the children in the village to enjoyit was therapeutic for her, too. With each brush stroke, she'd thought that if not for her family, Kyle wouldn't have had any Christmas at all.
She shook her head, straightened her shoulders. No more sadness, she reminded herself. It was time to move on, and the first step was to make Christmas a happy time again.
Leading Kyle toward the bandstand, Melanie turned her attention to the bronze statue of her stern great-great-grandfather Ezra Packard Hawkins, standing proudly in the middle of the square. Ezra had founded Hawk's Lake in 1865, opening a smithy when his horse threw a shoe.
Ezra looked about as happy as she felt.
The chairman of the tree-lighting event took her hand and Kyle's. They were both shuttled up the steps and onto the bandstand. There she saw the mayor, Calvin Lippert, standing with him.
The handsome stranger. The man she'd been admiring. That unsettling warmth flooded her veins again.
Mayor Lippert gestured for her to come closer. "Melanie Bennett, I'd like you to meet Sam LeDoux."
The instant warmth turned into a chill that went right to her bones. This was Sam LeDoux? The man responsible for Mike's death?
And she'd been attracted to him!
LeDoux raised a black eyebrow. "Melanie Bennett?" He looked just as shocked as she felt.
LeDoux's gaze met hers and she thought she saw a touch of sympathy in his dark blue eyes. Well, she didn't want his sympathy. Sympathy wouldn't bring her son's father back. Disappointed, she looked away, and then moved to Cal's other side with Kyle. The whole village would probably shun her for snubbing LeDoux, but she didn't really care.
As the mayor addressed the crowd, she searched for her family so she wouldn't have to look at LeDoux.
She spotted Jack with his latest girlfriend clinging to him like a piece of lint. He smiled at Melanie and gave her a thumbs-up for support. Her brother attracted women like this elevation attracted snow, and Melanie had given up trying to remember their names.
Next to Jack was their older brother, Brian. He met her gaze and sent her an encouraging nod. He was the most serious of the Hawkins clan.
Standing next to Brian was her father. He just smiled and winked at her. Ed didn't do serious very well.
Melanie swallowed the lump in her throat and squeezed Kyle's hand. They were her family. In good times and in bad, the descendants of old Ezra Packard Hawkins were always there for each othermeddling in one another's lives, of course.
As Mayor Lippert rambled on, she couldn't help but steal a glance at Sam LeDoux. He was looking at her again. She frowned. He arched a perfect black eyebrow.
She hated that she found him attractive, with his pitch-black hair and blue eyes and the masculine way he stood with his hands in the pocket of his jeans. His now coffee stained coat was open, as if the cold didn't even bother him.
He brought her conflicted feelings to the surfaceanger, hurt, loneliness and more than a little guilt. Feelings she'd successfully buried for a year.
She shivered in the frigid mountain air when she caught a bit of Cal's speech. "Mike Bennett was a good father and a good neighbor, and could always be counted on to do the right thing."
The right thing.
She and Mike had married when she'd become pregnant with Kyle. It had seemed right at the time. Their brief marriage had been comfortable for the most part, but in truth they'd both been far from content.
She heard Mayor Lippert's voice grow louder. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, please give a warm Hawk's Lake welcome to the grand marshal of our Snow Festival, Mr. Samuel LeDoux. Let's hear it for Sam!"
A cheer went up from the crowd as Cal handed LeDoux the microphone. Sam looked at it for a moment as if deciding what to do. The crowd grew silent. Melanie's stomach churned. She didn't want to hear a thing he had to say.
"Thank you for inviting me to this wonderful event. I'm honored to be here." His voice was deep and it vibrated clear down to her toes. "But I have to disagree with Mayor Lippert. I am not a hero. Mike Bennett was the hero that day."
LeDoux handed the microphone back to the mayor as the crowd applauded.
Cal passed Melanie the microphone, and she tried to protest, but he wouldn't hear of it. Her mind went blank for what seemed like an eternity, and then she tried to find the words, the right words.