Read an Excerpt
Two years later
Max Mitchell slid the two-by-four over the sawhorses and brushed the snow off his hand tools, but more fat flakes fell to replace what he'd moved.
It was only nine in the morning, and the forecast had called for squalls all day.
Winter. Nothing good about it.
Of course, spending every minute of the season outside was a surefire way to cultivate his dislike of the cold. But lately, walls no matter how far awayand ceilingsno matter how highfelt too close. Like coffins.
The thick brown gloves didn't keep out the chill so he clapped his hands together, scaring blackbirds from the tree line a few feet behind him.
Even the skeleton structure he'd spent the past few months constructing seemed to shiver and quake in the cold December morning.
He eyed his building and for about the hundredth time he wondered what it was going to be.
It wasn't one of the cottages that he'd spent last spring and summer building for his brother's Riverview Inn.
Too small for that. Too plain for his brother, Gabe, the owner of the luxury lodge in the wilderness of the Catskills.
Max told everyone it was going to be an equipment shed, because they needed one. But it was so far away from the buildings that needed maintaining and the lawns that needed mowing, he knew it would be a pain in the butt hauling equipment back and forth.
Still, he called it a shed because he didn't know what else to call it.
Besides, the construction kept his hands busy, his head empty. And busy hands and an empty head stymied the worst of the memories.
The skin on the back of his neck grew knees and crawled for his hairline and he whirled, one hand at his hip asif his gun would be where it had been for ten years. But of course his hip was empty and, behind him, watching him silently beneath a snow-covered Douglas fir, was a little girl.
"Hi," he said.
"You by yourself?" He scanned the treeline for a parent.
Talkative little thing.
"Where'd you come from?" Max asked.
The girl jerked her thumb toward the inn that was back down the trail about thirty feet through the forest.
"Are you a guest?" he asked, although it was Monday and most guests checked in on Sunday. "At the inn?"
"You ah lost?" Max asked.
She shook her head.
"Can you talk?"
"Are you gonna?"
She shook her head and smiled.
His heart, despite the hours in the cold, warmed his chest.
"Do you think maybe someone is worried about you?"
At that the girl stopped smiling and glanced behind her at the buildings barely visible through the pines.
"Should we head back?" he asked, stepping away from his project in forgetting. At his movement she darted left, away from the trail, under the heavy branches of trees and he stopped.
She was a deer ready to run. And since beyond him there was a whole lot of nothing, he figured he'd best keep her here until someone came looking for her.
"All right," he said. "We don't have to go anywhere."
Amongst the trees, her pink coat partially hidden in shadows, he saw her pink-gloved finger point at the building behind him.
"It's a house," he said.
She laughed, the bright tinkle filling his silent clearing.
"You think it's too small?" he asked, and her head nodded vigorously.
"Well, it's for a very small family" he eased slightly closer to her where she hid "of racoons."
Something crunched under his foot and she zipped deeper into the shadows and now he couldn't see her face. He stopped.
Two years off the force and he'd lost his touch.
"Want to play a game?" he asked, and when she didn't answer and didn't run he took it for a yes. "I'm going to guess how old you are and if I guess right, we go inside, because it's too cold." He shivered dramatically.
Again, no sound, no movement.
"All right." He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples.
"It's coming to me. I can see a number and you are forty-two."
She laughed. But when he took a step, the laughter stopped, as if it had been cut off by a knife. He stilled. "What am Itoo low? Are you older?"
Her gloved hand reached out between tree limbs and her thumb pointed down. "You're younger?" He pretended to be amazed. "Okay, let me try eight?"
No laughter and no hand.
For one delightful summer of his misspent youth, Max had been an age and weight guesser on Coney Island. He had a ridiculous intuition for such things and that summer it had gotten him laid more times than he could count.
Ah. Misspent youth. "Am I right?" he asked.
She stepped out from underneath the tree, her face still, her eyes wary.
"Are you scared? Of going back?"
She shook her head and looked at the end of her bright orange and pink scarf, playing with the tassels.
"You just don't want to?" he asked.
The little girl's eyes lifted to his and he saw a misery there that he totally understood. She didn't like what was back there.
"Tough one," he muttered.
"Josie!" The cry split through the quiet forest. "Josie! Where are you?" It was a woman's voice and she was panicked. Scared.
"You Josie?" he asked the little girl, and her guilty expression was enough.
"She's here!" he yelled. "Stay on the trail and"
A woman, petite and fair, erupted from the trees and nearly tripped into the clearing. Her wild eyes searched the area until they landed on Josie, small and pink and looking like she wished she could vanish.
"Oh my God!" the woman cried, hurtling herself through snow to practically slide on her knees in front of Josie. "Oh, Josie. I was so worried." She checked the little girl, cupped her cheeks in her own bare hands. The woman didn't even have a coat on.
"What did I say about wandering off?" the woman asked, snow gathering in her red hair. "What did I say? You can't do that, Josie. You can't scare me that way." Finally the woman hauled Josie into her arms but stayed on her knees, her blue jeans no doubt getting soaked through.
No coat. No gloves and now she was going to be wet.
He cleared his throat. "She's been with"
Before he could even finish, the woman was on her feet, Josie sequestered behind her. The woman was braced for battle, a bear protecting her cub and Max had serious respect for that particular facet of motherhood and had no desire to screw with it.
He took a careful step away from the two females and lifted his eyes to look into the woman's in an effort to calm her down. He opened his mouth to tell her that he meant no harm, but the words died a quiet death in his throat.
There was a buzz in the air and under his jacket all the hair on his arms stood up.
I know you, he thought, looking into her radiant blue eyes. I know all about you. Her stiff shoulders and trembling lips told the tale more vividly than anything she might say. This woman was terrified of more than just losing her daughter momentarily. This was a womana beautiful womangrappling with big fears.
And the big fears seemed to be winning.
Her eyes narrowed and he looked away, suddenly worried that she might see him as clearly as he saw her. Though he didn't know what she would detect in himcobwebs and dark corners, probably.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Max Mitchell," he answered calmly, despite the fact that his heart was pumping a mile a minute.
He needed this woman to get out of here. Take her silent daughter and leave.
"Your brother is Gabe? The owner?" He nodded and she relaxed, barely. "He said you were in charge of operations."
"I mow the lawn." He shrugged. "Shovel snow." Not quite the truth, but the fact that just about everything would grind to a halt these days if he wasn't here didn't seem like the kind of thing to discuss at this moment.
"You better head back. You" He pointed at the wet patches on her jeans and the snow scattered across her bright blue sweater. Her tight, bright blue sweater. A mama bear in provocative clothes, Lord save him. "You are gonna get cold."
And my clearing is getting crowded.
The woman and girl were a pretty picture, surrounded by white snow and green trees. They were bright spots, almost electric seeming. He found it difficult to look away.
"I'm Delia," she said, her accent flavored by the south. Texas, maybe.
A redhead from Texas. Trouble if ever there was. And a woman from Texas without a winter coat or gloves, in a Catskill winter, had to be a guest.
The girl tugged on her mother's hand and Delia wrapped an arm around her.
"And this is my daughter, Josie."
Josie waved a finger at Max and he smiled. "We're acquainted."
Delia didn't like that. Not one bit. Her lips went tight, and her pale skin, no doubt cold, went red. "We'll head on back. Don't bother yourself showing us the way."
He nodded, knowing when he'd been told to stay put. They turned toward the trail and Max forced himself not to stare at the woman's extraordinary behind as she walked away.
"What did I say about talking to strangers?" Delia asked.
"I didn't say a word, Mama," Josie said, her voice a quiet peep with enough sass to indicate she knew what she was doing.
Max couldn't help it, laughter gushed out of his throat, unstoppable.
Trouble, the two of them.
DELIA DUPUIS'S mother was French, her father an oil rigger from the dry flatlands of West Texas. Depending on the situation, Delia could channel either of them. And right now, her daughter, her eight-year-old girl who was way too big for her britches, needed a little sample of Daddy's School of Tough Love.
"This isn't funny, Josie," she said. "I don't know that man and he could have been dangerous."
"He was nice," Josie protested.
He was. He was more than nice, and her instincts echoed Josie's statement. But Delia was not on speaking terms with her instincts these days. She had to shake off the strange sensation that she knew Max. Really knew him. For a moment there she'd felt a spark of something, like being brushed by electricity, and when she looked into his eyes all she'd thought was, I can trust this man.
She'd seen such sadness in his eyes, manageable but there, like a wound that wasn't healing. That sadness and the way he held his head and how he talked to Josie, the way he didn't crowd Delia, the way he had shown her more respect in those five seconds than she'd received in the last year of her marriage, had her whole body screaming that he was one of the good guys.
Which, of course, was ridiculous. She couldn't tell that from a five-second conversation, from a quick glance into a pair of black eyes. And the fact that her instincts told her the compelling, handsome and mysterious man was a good guy was a pretty good indication that he wasn't.
Her instincts were like that.
Delia turned and despite the cold and her aching hands and misleading gut reactions she crouched in front of her daughter. "Listen to me," she said, hard as nails. The smile and spark of defiance fled from Josie's brown eyes. The response killed Delia, ripped her apart, but she didn't know what else to do. "When I say you stick close, it means you stick close. It means I can see you at all times. I'm not telling you again, Jos. You know how important this is, don't you?"
Josie nodded. "How important is it?" Delia asked. She would repeat this a million times a day. Delia would tie Josie to her side if she had to.
"It's the most important thing," Josie repeated dutifully.
Delia arched an imperial eyebrowanother trick from her daddy, who could act like a king despite the black under his fingernails. "Got it?" she asked.
After a moment, Josie nodded, her lips pouty, her eyes on her boots. "Got it."
"I love you, sweetie. I'm just trying to keep you safe." Delia pulled Josie close, but the child stood unmoving in the circle of her arms.
She just needs more time, Delia told herself, blinking back tears caused by the cold and the unbearable abyss between her and her baby. She doesn't understand what's going on. She'll come around.
That's what all the books she'd been reading about raising children after a divorce said. Time, patience and a little control over their own lives were what children needed when growing accustomed to a new divided home life.
And if something in the back of Delia's mind insisted that it couldn't be that simple, she ignored that, too. No one was forking out the big bucks for her thoughts on child rearing, so what did she know?
Only that Josie was too young to comprehend what was happening, all the dangers out there that wanted to tear her away and hurt her. It was Delia's one jobher only mission right nowto keep the dangers away.
"I want my daddy," Josie whispered, her voice filled with tears.
Delia's eyelids flinched with a sudden surge of anger. It was growing harder and harder to control this anger, this ever-bubbling wellspring of rage she had toward Jared.
"I know you do, sweetie," she said, and stood, holding her daughter's small hand in her own.
It was too bad that Daddy was the biggest danger of all. "Are we going to stay here?" Josie asked as they approached the rear of the beautiful lodge. "If they give me the job we will."
"Why do you need a job?" Josie asked. "You said we were on vacation."
Delia shrugged. "It's a working vacation. We won't be here very long." Not that the Mitchell family would know that. They were looking for someone long-term and these days her version of long-term was decidedly shorter than it used to be.
She watched Josie taking in the sights with wide eyes. This was a different world from where they'd come. Snow, pine trees, the towering escarpment of the CatskillsJosie had only seen these things on television. "Do you like it here?"
Josie humphed in response. "Where will we sleep?" Josie asked, and Delia swallowed hard the guilt that chewed at her. They'd slept in terrible places in the past week and a half. After leaving her cousin's place in South Carolina, she'd been on a slippery slope downward. Afraid to use her credit or debit cards, she'd been forced to use the small amount of cash she had. And small amounts of cash bought them nights in places with bad odors, scratchy sheets and too thin walls.
"In there." Delia pointed to the lodge. "We'll have a room all to ourselves, and we'll each get a bed. And a nice big bathroom with a huge old tub."
And solid locks on the doors. "How does that sound?" Delia jiggled her daughter's arm, needing just a little help, just a little support, in the brave-face department.
"Good," Josie said, and Delia smiled, the bands of iron that constricted her chest loosened.
"Can I call Dad tonight?"