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Stranded with a Hero
A Bliss Anthology
By Karen Erickson, Cindi Madsen, Coleen Kwan, Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen, Kate Fall, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Karen Erickson
All rights reserved.
"But I thought it was your turn to have the kids this Christmas."
Mindy clutched the phone closer to her ear, fighting the sick, nervous feeling she'd been plagued with since early this morning when she'd received the call. "How could I say no?"
"Hmm, I don't know. Maybe you should've said, 'Hey jackass, we have a custody agreement and this year I get our boys for the holidays,'" Cameron McKenzie suggested, bitterness lacing his tone. He was terribly protective of her, so she guessed she couldn't blame him.
No, more like she appreciated all three of her brothers — and her sister — immensely. They were a close family and she was lucky she had them. Unless they were getting nosy, which was also a problem that came with big families. "He's getting married, Cam. That's a special moment."
She swallowed past the bile that rose in her throat and opened the oven, peeking in on the sugar cookies she was baking. Really, she didn't care that Marty had supposedly found true love. Again. She just hated calling her ex's impending marriage a special moment. Blech. They hadn't even been divorced very long, though the reason they were in the first place was because he'd taken up with his now fiancé. "The boys were so happy to go to Hawaii for Christmas. No way could I ruin that for them."
How long her ex-husband, Marty, had the plan in place to take his girlfriend Bobbi to Maui to get married, she didn't know, but he didn't even spring it on her until her oldest son Kyle called her bright and early this morning, sounding so excited it was a wonder he hadn't exploded.
"He could care less about your feelings and that makes me want to beat him to a bloody pulp," Cam muttered, making her smile. She'd always appreciated his violent streak in her defense. But she needed to change the subject quick before he went off and did something crazy, like really beat Marty to a bloody pulp.
That would make for most interesting wedding photos.
"How's Chloe feeling?" She asked, knowing that the topic of her pregnant sister-in-law would soften Cam considerably.
"Fat and tired, and those are her words exactly." The warmth in Cam's tone was unmistakable. He was madly in love with his wife and Chloe loved him right back just as fiercely.
If Mindy hadn't sworn off men forever, she'd be horrendously jealous.
"I saw her yesterday. She's not fat; she's radiant and beautiful." The baby was due in two months and they'd decided to keep the sex a surprise, which was driving every member of the McKenzie family crazy, especially her mother. She was dying to buy anything either pink or blue and was stuck with the neutral colors of green and yellow.
Mindy had a feeling Cam and Chloe loved every minute of the torture they were inflicting upon the family.
And if anyone was feeling fat, it was Mindy. The kids were gone and she was still baking sugar cookies in Christmas shapes. Plenty of trees, stars, snowmen, and candy-cane shaped cookies ready for her to frost and eat.
All by herself. She planned on gorging herself on those cookies, too. Drown her newfound Christmas blues in sugar.
Where were the Elvis holiday tunes when she needed them?
"I know. She's gorgeous. I tell her that every day but she's getting uncomfortable. Work is hard on her, being on her feet all day." Cam's protective mode had switched to full-on loving husband and Mindy smiled. Had Marty ever sounded like that when he'd talked about her?
Yeah. She'd married young and popped out two babies in quick succession to a man who'd claimed to be ambitious but had turned out to be rather dull and a complete workaholic. He traveled a lot — code for he'd had affairs all over the place. She'd stayed married to him far too long, thinking she couldn't get any better than Marty.
How pitiful did that make her?
"Chloe can relax now that winter break is upon us," Mindy said.
"Yeah. I want her to quit early but she won't budge. Stubborn woman," Cam said.
Mindy stifled a laugh, glancing out the kitchen window. The sky was a dark, foreboding gray, bringing with it a monster snow storm, of which she'd heard all about this morning on the news. "She'll be fine. And hey, you two better stay indoors and out of the storm. It's coming. The clouds are scary dark."
"When does Marty fly out with the kids?"
"They're already on their way to Sacramento. They left about an hour ago. The boys stopped by to pick up a few things and say good-bye." Marty had waited in the car with his fiancé, honking the horn when he felt Kyle and Chandler were taking too long.
"Unbelievable. He's had this up his sleeve the entire time, don't you think?"
"I think I'm done talking about Marty, Cam. I'm tired of him taking up space in my brain." She needed to focus on the positives of her life. Her future, not her messy, screwed-up past.
"Yeah, no kidding. He's not worth two seconds of our conversation. So ..." She could tell her brother was about to change the subject in a major way. "I heard a rumor Chris and Jane are trying to set you up with Josh."
Mindy closed her eyes and thumped her forehead against the kitchen wall. "The last thing I want is to be set up. I don't know how many times I've told Jane this."
"They are hell-bent on you giving Josh a chance. I mean, come on, you two have known each other forever. You danced around the flirtation table with him before, right? Before you had that big blow up or whatever? I'm sure you're over it by now."
"The flirtation table? Cam, I can't believe I'm even having this conversation with you." Clearly her brother had lost it. Or Chloe had domesticated him so thoroughly he now said crazy stuff that made Mindy roll her eyes.
"You should give him a chance. He's a nice guy. You used to be such good friends. And Chris works with him. Says he's single and alone for the holidays. Jane was just crying to Chloe how she didn't want Josh to be alone for Christmas."
"No way," Mindy said vehemently, wanting the subject to drop big-time, though she felt kind of bad for being so rude. But Cameron was right. She'd had a big blow up with Josh years ago, and their friendship had never recovered from it. She felt bad that he was spending Christmas alone but he was a big boy. He'd survive, just like she would. "I'm not interested in having a relationship. You know this."
She was so not ready for a relationship. She liked to say she'd sworn off men completely but her sister and sisters-in-law tried their best to change her mind, so Mindy kept her mouth shut.
"Aw, come on. Aren't you lonely?" the former king of sullen loner asked.
Yes. Terribly. I still can't believe my ex took my boys away from me on what should be my Christmas. But I won't dare admit it for fear I'll look like the bitch. "My life is pretty fulfilling. I have the boys. I have my job. I have my home."
"Cam, leave her alone," Mindy heard Chloe say in the background just before Chloe grabbed the phone from him and was talking to her instead. "I heard what happened, Min. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Mindy blew out a harsh breath. "Really. I'll survive."
"Marty's a selfish idiot," Chloe said.
Mindy laughed. "That he is, my friend. That he is."
"You should come over here and hang out with us. No one should be alone right before the holidays." Chloe paused. "I'll make up the guest room for you and everything."
Mindy felt a pang in her heart. She loved having Chloe as her sister-in-law. She was a terrific addition to the McKenzie family. "I appreciate the offer, but I think I'm going to stay right here. The wind is blowing pretty bad, and I'm making cookies." A particularly loud howl sounded outside, the walls of her modest home vibrating with the force of it. "In fact, I gotta go, Chloe. My cookies are probably burning, and I need to get my cat in before he gets caught in the snow."
Mindy winced. Well. That sounded like the lamest excuse ever. But it was true. No way did she want burned cookies. And yeah, Spike the cat was outside at this very moment probably freezing his tail off.
"Call us, Min, okay? Stay safe."
She hung up a few seconds later, her mind filled with thoughts of Josh. She didn't understand why Jane and Chris were so insistent she go on a date with him. Been there, done that, ruined a friendship over it forever. Considering they lived in the same town and she hardly ever saw him, she figured he did his best to avoid her.
Which was fine. Really. She preferred avoiding him too. It was easier that way.
Hitting the off button on the oven, Mindy grabbed two pot holders and opened the oven door, pulling the cookie sheet out and setting it on top of the stove. The cookies were shaped perfectly, the frosting already made and divided into three colors. The boys would've been beside themselves if they saw them. This was one of their favorite activities to do during the holidays.
And now she was going to frost cookies alone. All alone during Christmas just like poor Josh ...
Pushing thoughts of Josh firmly from her mind, Mindy went to her hall closet and grabbed her winter coat, pulling it on. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and shoved a hat over her head before slipping on her snow boots. Just past three in the afternoon and already the sky was growing dark. She needed to find that dumb cat before it got too dark and too cold.
As she headed outside, she squinted against the waning sunlight, the dreary gray settling its moody hands on her shoulders, weighing her down. The snow swirled, the cold air nipped at what little skin that was exposed, and she tugged the scarf away from her mouth so she could call her cat. But the little booger was nowhere to be found.
Could her Christmas get any worse? Her kids were gone, her ex-husband was about to remarry in freaking Hawaii, and the snowstorm of the season was descending.
Life sucked big-time.
* * *
Joshua Powers followed the curvy road around the lake, keeping his speed low since the asphalt was slushy with snow. The wind knocked against his normally sturdy truck and he gripped the steering wheel tight, regretting yet again that he'd gone to check on his parent's house.
His mom and dad were on a cruise in the Caribbean. Right about now he envied the hell out of them, sitting in the warm sun, surrounded by a bright blue sea.
And here he was, driving in hellish weather, being the dutiful son and checking on their house, making sure everything was ready for the storm. He should be at home, sitting by his woodstove and drinking a beer. His older sister had been harassing him to come to her place for Christmas day but forget that noise. He'd have to leave that night to make it back for his 8:00 a.m. shift the next morning.
He'd sit out Christmas alone and had no problem with it. Growing up, he'd been a bit of a loner. Not that he was ostracized in school or anything, but he had no problem doing his own thing and not worrying what others thought.
Unlike some people he'd known, who always worried about what others thought about her, always fearful of her image. Such as a particular girl who was still around, whose house he was about to drive past, though he'd never ever admit she still haunted his thoughts on random occasions.
Especially now that he knew she was single ...
Tightening his hold even more on the steering wheel, he forced all thoughts of Mindy McKenzie Fenton out of his head and focused his attention on the road. They'd been friends once upon a time, he and Mindy. Since grade school, when their families had lived in the same neighborhood and they were in the same class. He'd hung out with her older brother Patrick somewhat but more often than not, he was with Mindy.
Junior high decimated their friendship, being that it was junior high and full of early teen angst. By high school they'd struck a tentative relationship once more, one built on asking each other for advice or information on the dating scene and studying for chemistry. Josh had started to believe there was some real chemistry between them, so he'd taken a chance and asked Mindy out. When she'd hesitated, he'd blurted out how much he liked her. How he'd always liked her and wanted to take it further. Hell, he'd even gone in to hug her and possibly kiss her, too.
And had been immediately shot down. She'd dodged him, nervous laughter escaping her as she told him she was already seeing Marty Fenton and that Marty didn't like the two of them hanging out together. So she had to stop spending so much time with him.
After everything they'd had, the deep friendship they'd shared, she'd pushed him away because of some punk dude who told her she couldn't be friends with Josh any longer. Josh had been devastated. He'd been so angry at the time, he'd quit talking to her, which she'd never understood. He knew that because she'd asked Cameron about it, who in turn told him. Clueless woman.
It was ridiculous. That had been years ago, but they'd never really reconciled. They rarely spoke to each other beyond polite pleasantries at the very occasional social function where they ran into each other. He hated how tattered their friendship was.
But he didn't know how to fix it.
They'd gone on with their lives, but he'd always secretly cared about her. Had kept tabs on her through her family, though he'd always been casual about his inquiries in regards to her. Mindy was divorced with two kids. And Josh had had his fair share of relationships, though none of them had lasted for too long. He was married to his career.
Being an arson investigator for the state of California was a heavy-duty job that involved him in undercover investigations he couldn't tell anyone about. His mother called it secret squirrel investigations.
His mother was a big dork, but he loved her, so he could forgive her for the dorkiness.
He slowed down as the truck approached Mindy's house. She'd kept it after the divorce, what with Marty moving into the tiny cottage his now fiancé lived in. The two-story structure sat high above the road and the driveway was steep, the front yard virtually nonexistent save for the giant deck that served also as the porch. The view of the lake was amazing.
Despite the contention between him and Mindy, he'd been to the Fenton household for a few social functions over the years. He was an old family friend. And usually he'd gone with a woman in tow. Something about being there alone while watching Mindy with Marty had always set Josh on edge.
Maybe because he'd always suspected what a jackass Marty really was. That leopard had certainly never changed his spots. The last few years of their marriage hadn't been very good, yet that hadn't seemed obvious to anyone Mindy was close to. She always put on a brave face.
But Josh had sensed things weren't right in the Fenton marriage. There had been the one time he'd seen Marty with his little sidepiece, Bobbi, at some restaurant in another town over. He'd tried to brush it off as nothing but ...
It had definitely been something. And Josh had been full of guilt for never telling Mindy about it. Not that they really talked.
A cat darted out in front of his truck, a bright spot of orange among the slushy snow, and Josh swerved left to avoid it, going right into the embankment with a solid thud.
"Jesus," he muttered, throwing the truck into park and killing the engine. The warm engine ticked noisily but otherwise there wasn't any sound. Snow tended to muffle all noise, leaving everything in a peaceful quiet that any other moment, Josh would've enjoyed.
Not at this particular moment though.
He climbed out of his truck and went to the front to check the damage. The orange tabby cat he'd avoided sat in the middle of the driveway, blinking at him as snowflakes fell gently, clinging to his fur.
"Frickin' cat," Josh grumbled as he knelt down to inspect his dented bumper. It didn't look too bad, but if he didn't back out and take off now, the snow would bury him quick. Or the freezing roads would send his truck into a spiral.
He needed to get out of here stat.
"Spike! Oh my gosh, there you are!"
Awareness prickled over Josh's skin despite the layers of clothing he wore, and slowly he stood to his full height, keeping his back to the woman with the sweetly familiar voice. And it wasn't just anyone's voice; it was Mindy Fenton's.
"Joshua Powers, is that you?"
Taking a deep breath for courage, he turned to find Mindy blinking up at him, a black knit cap jammed on top of her head, her wavy, blond hair a curling mess around her face. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her green eyes bright, and damn if she didn't look beautiful. "Hey, Mindy," he said weakly.
She looked from him to the cat and back at him again. "Don't tell me your truck is in the embankment because of Spike."
Josh frowned. "Spike?"
"My cat." She waved a hand at the orange tabby but he'd already moved on from their conversation, trotting up the driveway toward the house, his tail sticking straight up in the air. "Spike," Mindy called but the cat ignored her.
"I, uh, swerved to avoid hitting him, yeah." He brushed his hand across his face, wiping away the dampness left by melting snowflakes. "Sorry about that. I'm gonna head home."
"Wait a minute." She rushed toward him, fairly fast in the slush, and grabbed his arm. "Are you okay? Is your truck all right?"
Excerpted from Stranded with a Hero by Karen Erickson, Cindi Madsen, Coleen Kwan, Roxanne Snopek, Wendy Chen, Kate Fall, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2013 Karen Erickson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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