Read an Excerpt
North of Need
Hearts of the Anemoi
By Laura Kaye, Marie Loggia-Kee and Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2011 Laura Kaye
All rights reserved.
The cold scorched Megan Snow's throat, making it hard to breathe. Hard to think.
That was a good thing.
She tugged her scarf over her mouth, grateful for the expansive winter sky and crisp air, and set off on a trail walk. Four days alone in the cabin, and Megan was sure the walls were closing in on her. Outside, everything was bright and clean and open. Just what she needed.
She headed for the stand of trees off to the side of the house, hoping the snow might be more shallow under the thick canopy of branches that sheltered the woods. A creek sat a half mile in where, on warmer days, happier days, she and John had sometimes picnicked and made love. It would be iced over, of course, but having a goal burned off some of her restlessness.
Megan high-stepped through the snow until her thighs burned, gripping onto one tree after another. She tripped on buried branches and rocks until the trees were the only things keeping her upright. Hugging a hickory trunk for support, she glanced back over her shoulder and groaned.
The clearly visible cabin mocked her progress. Most of the twenty inches of snow blanketing the wide field in front of the house had made its way to the forest floor, too. She wanted a distraction, but she needed to be smart, safe. Damn. She retraced her path to the cabin.
But she wouldn't go back inside. Couldn't.
She grabbed the shovel from the covered porch of the story-and-a-half log cabin and dug into clearing the front sidewalk. You know you're going stir crazy when shoveling backbreaking wet snow counts as entertainment.
Her family was right. It was probably time to stop coming out here for the holidays. But she just couldn't give this place up. Not yet. Not when it was the only thing she had left of him.
Nope. Not thinking about that.
Sweat trickled down her spine under her cotton turtleneck and thick fleece with each scoop-and-toss. Blonde curls worked their way out from under her hat and hung in her eyes. She didn't mind though, because with each newly revealed foot of sidewalk, the ache in her muscles made it more and more difficult to wallow in memories.
The shovel hit something solid and kicked back against Megan's frozen hands. She groaned as the shock of thwarted forward motion rocked through her wrists and elbows. Gravel from the driveway spilled from the shovel blade into the snow. Huh. She turned and looked behind her, surprised to find she'd cleared the whole length of the twenty-foot path.
Without once thinking of him. Of the anniversary.
And proof that manual labor was her friend. There'd be no more sitting around with books or music or TV shows she couldn't concentrate on. She'd just exhaust herself into a mindless oblivion.
She looked to her left, down over the expanse of shimmering white to the distant forest that marked her property line. To her right, her now-hidden driveway formed a curving path two-thirds of a mile to the main road and civilization. Shoveling that mess certainly would require manual labor, but Mr. Johansson would be up here with his plow as soon as the weather broke. How would she explain to him she'd tried to shovel it by hand? She imagined the confounded look on his craggy face.
So, what next? After returning the shovel to the front porch, she stood and surveyed the Western Maryland landscape. The low peaks of the ancient Appalachian Mountains rose around her, the firs and hardwoods for which these forests were famous veiled by two days of nonstop blizzard conditions. The only sound besides her labored breathing was the occasional whistling of the wind through the snow-burdened forest. For all Megan knew, she was the only person in the world. Sure felt like it, these days.
What to do?
God, I'm so lonely.
She sighed and shook her head.
The wind moaned. Then do something about it.
Heart pounding, Megan jerked around, her right boot skidding against a slick spot, pink scarf fluttering out around her like a ribbon. Who'd uttered those last words?
No one, of course. The silence and stillness were complete, as was her isolation — exactly the qualities she and John had always loved about this place.
"Jesus, I'm losing it," she murmured out loud, just to create the impression she wasn't so alone. Her gaze returned to the snowy field in front of the cabin. Trimmed by a dense line of firs at the far edges, the clearing was big, clean, empty ...
Do something about it, the mysterious voice had said. Oh, she'd do something about it, all right.
Back to the high-stepping routine, Megan trudged out into the front yard. Any spot would do, she supposed, so she stopped and mashed two mounds of snow into a sticky white ball. The lull in the storm had allowed the temperature to creep up into the high twenties, so the snow was good packing quality. She rolled the ball over the powdery surface, intent on making it as big as she could. After a while, the thing started to fight back when she pushed, but she wanted the exertion. Digging her toes in, she fought for every additional inch in diameter until, finally, she was done.
She stood with snow-crusted gloves on her hips and admired her work. "That's one big ball ya got there." She sniggered, then shook her head.
Now, for the next two. She set about the packing-rolling-grunting process again until she created a sizable middle and the head. Lifting them into place proved a challenge, but with a lot of grunting and a few choice expletives, she lugged the heavy masses where they needed to be.
"Now, to transform you from androgynous snow person into my snowman." Megan jogged back to the house and didn't even worry about tracking snow inside. Moments later, she reemerged with an armload of supplies she dumped at the foot of her creation.
"First, we gotta give you a face, mister." Emptying the bag of buttons on top of the flannel shirt, she sorted through with glove-thick fingertips. She wanted bigger ones for the eyes, and found two. She frowned. They weren't the same color, but she wouldn't be able to tell from a distance. She plugged the biggest navy and chocolate-brown buttons into the face as eyes. A light brown button made a cute nose, and a row of mismatched reds made a friendly mouth.
The red and white plaid flannel shirt was a big don't-even-let-your -thoughts-go-there, but she couldn't allow the poor guy to go without clothing. Besides, she had a closet full of them. She wrapped the soft fabric around the middle section. The snowball was wide, but the shirt closed. After all, he'd been a big guy, hadn't he? She tugged off her gloves so she could do up the front, then trudged to the oak tree on the corner and snapped off two branches. With cold, shaking hands, she threaded the twigs through the flannel sleeves until Snow Man was inviting her in for a hug. She finished him off with a blue tartan wool scarf and a thick black knit beanie she stretched down as far as possible.
Standing back, Megan admired her work. He was the best snowman she'd ever built. Tall. Well proportioned. Handsomely attired. "Now I'm not alone."
Inspired, Megan fished a dry pair of blue gloves from the supply pile and collected more snow, beginning again before her brain could assess and refute her pronouncement. She packed, rolled, and lift-grunted until another, somewhat smaller, snow person stood beside the first. Back at the tree, she broke off more branches and gave the second person arms. She slid her soaked-through pink gloves on the end of each stick, then wrapped her own matching pink scarf around the snow woman's neck. Perfect.
Hands on her knees, Megan rested and struggled to catch her breath. Her lungs burned with the frigid air, her lips chapped and cracked. Her body ached from the heavy lifting. Definitely the route to a decent night of sleep. God, how she needed that. She plunged into her third creation.
The temperature dropped and the biting wind picked up. Big, wet snowflakes fell in a heavy blanket, darkening the afternoon sky. Her flagging energy and the deteriorating conditions made the work harder, and this snow person ended up much smaller. On her knees, with wet gloves and cold hands almost too numb to do the job, Megan set its little head in place.
Breathing hard, she staggered to her feet and studied her afternoon's labor with her hands on her hips.
She'd made a snow family.
A snow family. A snowman, a snow woman, and a snow child.
A sob tore up her throat and echoed into the stillness. What the hell was she thinking?
She stumbled, gasping at her own stupidity. The emotional scab ripped open. Hours of effort came undone. Her boot stuck in a deep drift and tripped her. Her body fell hard at the base of the snowman and her breath whooshed out. The sobs choked her as she crawled to her knees and slumped against the man. She yanked off a glove, needing to touch something he'd touched, something that had been his, but her frozen fingers could barely feel the soft cotton of John's favorite cabin-wear. She buried her face against the worn material. He'd been gone too long to be able to smell him on it, but that didn't keep her from inhaling deeply to try.
"Why did you leave me?" she wailed, her tears soaking through the cold shirt. "Why?" Her fists curled into the flannel. "I need you."
The wind swallowed her words and carried them away. John was gone. And they'd never have a family of their own. They never even had the chance.CHAPTER 2
"Merry Christmas," Megan murmured to the empty bedroom the next morning.
Gray light filtered through the two windows on either side of the king-sized bed, enough to illuminate the outlines of hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. She'd once remarked offhandedly that her favorite thing about spending time at their cabin was the huge glittered dome of the rural night sky. Up here, no city lights dimmed the stars' brilliance, so even the smallest, most distant ones beamed and twinkled. The next time they'd visited, John redecorated their bedroom ceiling. Just for her. He wanted her to have her stars, inside and out.
She didn't bother wishing on them anymore, though. Not in two years. Two years, today.
In spite of the circumstances, the holiday filled the air with a special, magical buzz that set her stomach to fluttery anticipation. A ridiculous reaction, of course, since she was alone. No surprise gifts or family-filled dinner awaited. Just a quiet, empty house.
Wallowing in bed all day sounded appealing, but a burning sensation on her cheek demanded attention. She patted the area. The skin felt rough, like a scab. Lovely. Turning back the cocoon of the thick down comforter, she slipped out of bed. She followed a path from one hooked scatter rug to the next, avoiding the cold, wide-planked wood floors.
The navy, mahogany, and white color scheme of the bedroom carried into the adjoining bathroom. Megan squinted against the brightness of the mounted light and leaned toward the mirror. Her left cheek bore the deep, dark red of frostnip. Her skin looked almost sunburned, except the angry mark was localized to the cheekbone. The spot where, yesterday, she'd leaned against the snowman, crying until the unceasing flow of her tears froze the wet flannel to her face. At least her nose and other cheek, pink from windburn, didn't hurt.
She gently prodded the mark with her fingers again. Last night, it had been cold to the touch, but now it was hot, chafed. So stupid. She slathered moisturizer over her face and smoothed ChapStick over her dry lips, and brushed and clipped her loose blonde curls on top of her head in a messy pile. What did her looks matter?
Megan slipped a pink fleece robe on over her flannel pajamas and threaded her way across the large great room, past the grouping of buttery leather couches and the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, to the open kitchen. Coffee was a must. She tapped her fingers on the counter as she waited for it to brew. Giving up, she walked around the long breakfast bar to the one concession she made to Christmas.
There, next to the raised stone hearth, a small potted Douglas fir stood in darkness. She reached behind and found the plug. A rainbow of colored lights shimmered to life, brightening the dim gray that still dominated the room despite the number of large windows. She stepped back and gazed at the small tree. Plain balls of every color mirrored the riot of lights, but the basic ornaments also spread an impersonal cast over the tree. She hadn't unpacked their collection of ornaments — where every one had meaning or told a story — since her last Christmas with John.
She turned away, sucked in a deep breath, and promised herself she wasn't going to think about that. Not until she had to. And she had almost eleven hours.
She curled into a wide armchair with a warm chenille throw and a mug of strong coffee. The ringing phone startled her and she almost spilled it in her lap. "Oh, hell," she murmured as she unburied herself and rushed for the cordless.
She knew who it would be before she answered.
"Merry Christmas, dear."
"Hey, Mom. Merry Christmas." She settled on the edge of her seat and dragged the blanket over her lap.
"How are you doing up there? The weather looks bad."
Her mom wasn't really worried about weather, today of all days, but Megan permitted her the ruse. "I'm just fine. It's been snowing steady. We've got well over two feet, I'd guess." An earlier peek out the front window revealed the storm had undone all her hard work from yesterday, reburying the stone sidewalk she'd shoveled. The snow family still stood there, though.
"I wish you weren't up there alone. You should be with us. Especially today. I mean, who's going to keep your father and brother from sneaking bites of ham and stealing cookies while I'm trying to cook?" Her chuckle sounded forced.
Restraining her emotions made Megan's throat tight. "I just ...I'm not ready." Not ready to walk away from the annual holiday tradition of a cabin getaway she and John had created, even before they were married. Not ready to be around people actually happy it was Christmas. Not ready to pretend so others could be comfortable.
Her mother's sigh made its way down the line. "I know. I know you have to grieve, and I know how hard this has been. But, damn it, it's been two years. You're twenty-nine, Megan, so young, so much life ahead of you, so much to offer. You can't spend the rest of your life mourning John." She paused. "Nor would he want you to."
Megan forced her eyes to the ceiling to pinch off the threatening tears. "I'm trying, Mom. I am. But, please, I can't do this. Not today."
"I'm sorry. I told myself I wasn't going to say anything. I'm just so worried about you."
Megan nodded and swallowed around the lump in her throat, unable to do much more in the face of her mother's emotional outpouring.
"Oh, shit," her mother muttered.
"That was uncharitable, wasn't it? Mrs. Cooke is tottering her way up the front sidewalk, annual fruitcake in hand."
"You need to go?" Their neighbor had been dropping by the inedible bricks since Megan was a kid, though this was probably the first time Megan felt grateful for it — Mrs. Cooke's timing provided the perfect distraction from this line of conversation.
"Yeah. I'm sorry, dear. Let me go help her. Your father hasn't been out to shovel yet, and God help me if she falls and breaks a hip on Christmas morning."
"Okay. Enjoy your fruitcake."
"Keep it up, smarty. I'll save you some."
Megan managed a small smile. "No, please. Don't do me any favors."
"I'll be thinking about you, Megan. I'll have Dad give you a call later." The squeak of her mom's front door sounded in the background. "Hello there, Mrs. Cooke."
Excerpted from North of Need by Laura Kaye, Marie Loggia-Kee and Heather Howland. Copyright © 2011 Laura Kaye. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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