Read an Excerpt
THE SNOW FLURRY THAT HAD BEGUN when Seth Hardin left Casper, Wyoming, was a thick swirl of flakes by the time he was within a half hour of Conard County. In the glare of his headlights, against the backdrop of night, the snow seemed to be all that existed in the world. The black pavement of the highway was nearly invisible, its wetness soaking up the light, and only the drifts to either side delineated the road.
Little by little, however, the snow was beginning to stick. Traffic had lightened until Seth felt his was the only vehicle traveling at this late hour.
The weather and the darkness suited his mood perfectly. Coming home to Conard County— which wasn't even his real home—wasn't something he especially wanted to do. But Seth Hardin wasn't a man who avoided the hard things. If he had been, he wouldn't be a navy SEAL. He had endured things that gave him a self-knowledge far beyond most people's.
This was different, though. This was an emotional trial he was facing. The birth parents he was still coming to know were awaiting him. That was okay, he liked them both. But in that same county, in that same town, resided his ex-wife Darlene, now, by all reports, happily remarried.
He'd warned her that life as a navy wife would be brutal, with long periods of separation. It had been more brutal than either of them had anticipated, given the situation in the Middle East. And Darlene hadn't been able to handle it.
Intellectually he could forgive her, even understand it. Emotionally the scar was worse, he sometimes thought, than the one he'd gotten from the business end of an AK-47. Of course, that wound had been the beginning of the end. Or maybe it had been the end. Damned if he knew anymore.
As he drove through the night in a swirling cocoon of white, heading toward an unknown that might prove painful, his thoughts seemed to be on everything except the coming Christmas holiday. It had been three years since he'd last returned to Conard County, and he couldn't help thinking that this was a mistake.
But all his buddies had families, and this year he just couldn't face being the extra person at one of their dinner tables. That and the fact that Marge Tate, his birth mother, had been working on him to come until he felt that it would be downright Scrooge-ish to say no.
Oh, hell, this drive couldn't end soon enough.
The quicker he was with other people, the sooner he could put all these self-pitying thoughts aside.
Bite the bullet. The thought popped into his mind the instant he first glimpsed the lights of Conard County through the thickening snowfall.
Surprisingly, though, he felt a burst of warmth in his chest, a true sense of coming back to a place he loved. Somehow, since the day he had stood on the Tate doorstep and told Marge he was her son, he had developed a deep connection to this place. For the Tate family. Much as he might have tried to deny it these past few years, it leaped up right now and reminded him that he had family.
As he pulled up he saw the familiar house, every light blazing. The family van, once necessary for carting six daughters around, had long since disappeared. Now the daughters had cars of their own, crowding the driveway and street. Janet wasn't coming, Marge had said, because her husband, an L.A. cop, had to work through the holiday. Seth wouldn't get a chance to see his niece or meet his new nephew.
But he believed the other five girls would be here. Certainly Wendy would, since she and her husband, Billy Joe Yuma—known to everyone except his wife as Yuma—lived here in town. And knowing the Tate family, there would be other guests, as well. Nate adopted stray people the way others adopted stray animals.
It would be a madhouse, just what he needed to help him get through his first Christmas here without Darlene.
He parked as near the house as he could, two wheels in a snowdrift to make room for passing vehicles. The night wind held a vicious bite, a cold, wet sting that went right through clothes better suited for Virginia Beach than Wyoming at this time of year. He might need to buy a parka if this kept up.
There were sharp ice crystals mixed in with the soft, fluffy flakes now, promising worse to come. He pulled his duffel out of the back seat, locked the car and began to walk up the sidewalk that led to the front door. Salt, spread to clear the ice, crunched under his feet. The cold was already numbing his nose, and the wind snaked into the collar of his light jacket, making him shiver.
The curtains in the front window were open, giving a beautiful view of an undecorated Christmas tree awaiting the glory of lights. The other windows glowed with the inviting warmth of lamplight.
Bracing himself for what was to come, he rapped on the front door.
Sounds of voices came from within, sounds of laughter and music, calling him to a family gathering to which he belonged. He just wished he were in a better mood for it.
Then the door opened, and Marge's arms flew around him, hugging him and drawing him inside all at once. "Seth!" she said with delight, holding him close as if she had missed him every moment he'd been away. It had been a very long time since anyone had hugged him that way, and for the first time he called her Mom.
He dropped his bag and returned her hug, then stepped back a little, in time to see the sheen of tears in her happy eyes.
A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned his head.
"Welcome, son," said Sheriff Nate Tate.
The two were as alike as peas in a pod, despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. With a few more lines, some gray hair and a few more pounds, Seth would be indistinguishable from his sire. Dark-haired, tall, well-built men both, with weathered good looks.
Nate embraced him, too, then took his duffel, saying, "I'll take this up to your room. Marge, get something hot into this boy—he's freezing."
Marge touched his jacket. "This isn't nearly enough for this weather."
"I know. But it's not exactly easy to buy a parka in Virginia Beach."
She smiled, a beautiful smile, and took his hand. "Come into the kitchen and warm up before I unleash the rest of the family on you."
He was glad to follow her, not sure he was ready yet for the absolute uproar that was the Tate family and their husbands, boyfriends and family friends. It was like belonging to a small village.
His own childhood had been solitary, as the only adopted child of an older couple. Families of this sort were something he'd only seen on television programs. En masse they could still overwhelm him.
Marge sat him at the kitchen table. "Hot chocolate? Hot cider? Or something stronger?"
"Coffee, please. Coffee would be great." There was a pot already made, and she brought him a cup. Black, just the way he preferred it. He slipped off his jacket, letting it fall back against the chair, and cupped his hands around the generous mug. Marge sat across from him, still beaming.
"I'm so glad you could come," she said gently.
"We've missed you, Seth."
He didn't know quite how to respond. Surely she had to understand he'd stayed away for a reason.
Marge didn't pursue the issue. Apparently she had said all she needed to on the subject.
"Nearly everyone's here," she said warmly.
"Except for Janet, of course. I think I told you she couldn't come. Mary pulled the holiday shift at her hospital. Apparently someone got sick, so she couldn't get away. She might be here the day after Christmas. Other than that, we're all going to be here. Even, would you believe it, Krissie's fiancé."
"She has a fiancé?" The thought startled him.
He still thought of Krissie, the youngest of his sisters, as a child in high school.
"She's growing up, Seth." Marge shrugged.
"You send your girls away to college and then next thing you know they're engaged."
A look of almost-sorrow passed over her face, and Seth asked impulsively, "Don't you like him?"
"Oh, it's not that at all," she hastened to assure him. "It's just that...my last baby is leaving the nest for good." She laughed softly. "I'm starting to feel old."
He didn't know what to say. These were all things he was utterly unfamiliar with.
"Anyway," Marge continued more briskly, "the girls are all doing well, and the men in their lives seem to be very nice—in fact, I love most of them like sons, so why am I getting all misty about it?"
"Because it's Christmas?" he suggested tentatively.
She nodded. "Probably." Surprising him, she reached out and squeezed his hand. "There's something I never told you, but I want you to know."
She looked down a moment, then met his gaze straightly. "I almost died from the pain of giving you up for adoption. Don't stay away anymore, Seth. Please."
He didn't know how to answer that, either. He wasn't sure he had an answer just yet.
"Anyway," she said briskly, rising to get the coffeepot and top off his mug, "we also have a houseguest."
"So what's new?" he asked, drawing a laugh from her.
"It's Maria Hoskins, one of the schoolteachers here in town. She has no family here and we didn't want her spending the holiday alone."
Seth nodded. "I would have expected that." Marge laughed. "You're getting to know us, I see."
"Some things are fairly predictable, yes."
Just then, a feminine voice outside the door called, "Marge? I was wondering..."
The words trailed off as a lovely young woman appeared in the doorway. It was as if something inside Seth suddenly hushed and went still.
She was of average height, her figure slender but not too much so. Her hair was a warm chestnut brown that caught the light and seemed to reflect fire, while her eyes were the deep blue of a calm sea. Her face was pretty, but just ever so slightly akilter, making it interesting rather than beautiful.
She froze in the doorway like a startled deer. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to intrude."
"You're not intruding," Marge insisted. "Come in and meet our son, Seth Hardin. We managed to pry him away from the navy for a few days."
"The navy?" The young woman came into the room smiling. "Really? I've been talking to the recruiter about joining. Maybe you can give me the real skinny. I'm Maria Hoskins."
Seth, who had sprung instantly to his feet at the sight of her, a courtesy so deeply ingrained he wasn't even aware of it, took her offered hand and shook it.
Delicate bones. Skin as smooth as satin. Warm. His own hand probably felt like ice to her.
"A pleasure to meet you," he said.
"Sit, sit," Marge insisted. "What did you need, Maria?"
Maria laughed. "I was just wondering where you disappeared to. Everyone is getting ready to start a game of charades."
"Well, they can go ahead without me. Go back if you like, or stay here and have coffee with us."
The vision in blue jeans and a flannel shirt decided to stay and have coffee. "I'm terrible at charades," she confided to Seth as Marge brought her a cup of coffee with cream. "At both ends of it. I can't act things out, and I can't figure out any of the clues. They'll all do better without me."
Seth felt a smile crease his cheeks, such a rare expression of late that it felt awkward.
Marge laughed and patted Maria's hand. "Feel free to hide out with us."
Nate joined them then, taking a seat at the table with the announcement, "The weather forecast is getting worse. We might have two feet of snow by morning, and the winds are going to stay strong and gusty."
Marge answered him. "In short, a blizzard."
"Sounds like it. I'm going to need to warn my men. Unless there's an emergency call, I want them all safely at home or at the office, not stranded in a drift somewhere we can't find them fast enough." He looked at Seth. "You got here just in time, son."