Read an Excerpt
When the oven bell dinged, Rosemary sprinted for the kitchen faster than the sound of a fire alarm. She'd added a ton of amenities to the old MacKinnon lodge in the past six months, but a new stove never made the budget. The temperature gauge in the oven could be downright cantankerous.
This time, thankfully, the old monster behaved. She grabbed a hot pad and pulled out a tray of cream puffs, all swelled up, their surface a golden-brown. Perfect.
While the puffs cooled, she headed outside to cart in an armload of peachwood. Outside, a blustery wind bit her face with needles, but considering it was December 19, Rosemary figured she was lucky. There could be snow or a serious ice storm on top of Whisper Mountain by now. A little wind was nothing.
Back inside, she knelt in front of the massive field-stone fireplace. The grate already had a huge bed of snapping, orange coals, just needed a stir and a poke and fresh logs. Moments later, she had a sassy crackle of fire back, warming the whole living room.
She stood up and stretched, dusting her hands. The MacKinnons had spent a lot of Christmases here when she was a kid. She couldn't remember the last holiday when the place hadn't been a complete wreck. By now, there should be a giant Christmas tree in the corner, already dropping needles. Dusty Santas and holiday tchotchkes should be cluttering every surface. Instead, there was no tree, no winking lights, no tinsel or glitter, no wrapping paper and crushed bows anywhere in sight. The place was fabulously tidy and clean.
Truth to tell she hated it. She had no problem working alone, being alone. But darn it, at this time of year she loved the chaos, the clutter, the razzle-dazzle, the messes, the feasts and for darned sure, the time with her family.
This year she just couldn't do it. So she'd decided to ignore the holiday altogether. She'd work, and when she got sick of work, she planned a heap of silly distractions.
Like wasting time on Judge Judy and old sappy movies.
Like having cream puffs for dinnerwith vanilla bean ice cream and hot, dark chocolate sauce. And cherries.
She foraged for a big spoon, and had just pulled the steaming-cold container of ice cream from the freezer when the front door suddenly blasted open. She went to the kitchen doorway, figuring she must not have adequately latched the front doorbut that wasn't the issue at all. Over the wheeze and whistle of wind came the unmistakable sound of screams and cries. Human screams and cries. Girls. Children. Dozens of children, judging from the volume of cries.
She dropped the spoon, dropped the ice cream, peeled out of the kitchen.
There were children. Not a herd of them, just two girls, red-faced and shaking and crying.
They spotted her, and as if identifying a woman was all it took to let go, thundered toward her in a nonstop sputter of tears and words.
"You have to help us! There's a bear chasing us! A huge grizzly bear! He wants to kill us!"
"He's right out there. We ran and ran. I ran so hard my side hurt and I still kept going"
"We didn't know where we were going. Anywhere. We just had to keep running because it kept coming after us!"
"It's still out there! It could still get us!"
"You think it could break windows? It was huge! I thought we were going to die!"
"And what if there's more than one? What if that bear was married and there's a wife, too, and he has baby bears only they're all big like that?"
Rosemary raised her hands, and finally managed to squeeze in a few words. "Hold it. You're both safe. No bear is getting in here. Let's get your coats off, sit down by the fire. I want to hear the whole story, everything you want to say, but let's calm it down a few octaves, okay?"
They'd closed the front doorslammed it, actually, and she bolted it. The front closet had a shotgun, locked on the top shelf. The girls' jaws dropped when they saw it.
"Are you going to kill the bear?"
"Afraid I'm not much on killing anything. But I'm going to shoot a couple blasts in the air. There's a good chance he'll scare off."
"Oh. Can we watch?"
"You can watch from the window. I'm guessing neither one of you are in a hurry to go back outside this minute, right?"
She looked outside, both north and east windows, before opening the door. If a bear had been closeseriously closeshe would have smelled it. Nothing smelled quite like a wild bear. She didn't want to steal the girls' thunder by telling them grizzlies didn't live anywhere near Whisper Mountain, South Carolina. Besides, black bears definitely did. They usually snoozed through the cold months, but never went into total hibernation. She stepped outside, clicked off the safety, and aimed a shot at the sky. Then a second one.
She was only gone for a minutemaxbut when she stepped back in and relocked the door, the girls were sitting on the old leather couch, staring at her openmouthed.
"Something tells me you girls weren't raised in the country," she said wryly.
That started them talking again. They came from Charleston. Their dad had taken them out of school a little early and rented this place on the mountain. They were doing the whole holiday here. It was because their mom had died about a year ago. Just before Christmas. She'd been Christmas shopping with them. A big truck hit her. Their mom died and both girls ended up in the hospital. They'd missed a heap of school, and Pepper had two casts, and Lilly really wrecked her left foot and had some scars, but not so much now. Anyway, their dad thought it'd be hard to have Christmas at home this year, because it was like an anniversary from when their mom died, so they were here. Having fun mostly. Until the bear.
Rosemary took in this information between handing out drinks and waiting through bathroom breaks.
At some point, one of them wandered toward the kitchen, and that started them on a different track. One picked up the dropped ice cream container, the other honed straight for the cream puffs. They immediately confessed that they'd never had a cream puff and didn't think they could live another minute before trying one. They were desperately hungry. It was from all that running away from the vicious, angry bear.
One of them abruptly realized that they should have phoned their dad right offand promptly took out a cell. The line was busy, but that wasn't a problem, because their dad never talked on the phone long, and rather than leave him a message that they'd been in terrible danger because of the bear, they figured they'd just call him in another couple minutes.
Rosemary's ears were ringing by then but she'd more or less sorted them out. They were twins. Eleven. Lilly and Pepper. They were both blonde, both coltish and lanky. They both had straight, fine hair, shoulder length, but one had a red streak and the other had a green one. They had purple jackets that matched, skinny jeans, blue eyes but not identical blue eyes. Lilly's were uniquely blue, with a dark ring around the light blue iristhe effect was mesmerizing and striking. Pepper had a tendency to scrunch up her nose and prance around, restless, curious, irrepressible.
They were both cute.
They were both going to be breathtaking.
Rosemary figured once they left, she was going to need a long nap. After they'd finished talking, they started on her with questions. How come she lived here? She really studied orchids? What was a university grant? So was she wearing a Duke sweatshirt because that's where she got the grant? She really had her own gun? Oh, my God, was that a dark room, and could she develop pictures by herself? Could they see? Was she married? Well, if she wasn't married, what was she doing for Christmas?
"Wait a minute. You can't spend Christmas alone," Lilly said firmly.
Right about then Rosemary suggested they call their father again.
Pepper grabbed the cell phone from Lillythey only had one cell phone between them, which apparently caused arguments several times a day. This time their dad promptly answered, and Pepper went on a long rendition of the walk, the bear, the bear chase, the house, Rosemary, the cream puffs.
"Can you come and get us, Dad? We really got lost when we started running. And now it's already dark, even though it's so early . I told you, we're at Rosemary's. Oh. Well, no, I " Pepper lifted the phone and arched her brows to Rosemary. "Could you tell my dad where we are?"
Rosemary was almost laughing as she pressed the cell to her ear. Pepper had a ditsy side, for sure. She'd sounded as if she assumed her dad had some magical ability to automatically know where she was.
"Hi I'm Rosemary MacKinnon," she said immediately.
"And I'm Whit Cochran."
She took a quick breath. He just had one of those unique guy voices, a clear tenor, that put a shiver in her pulse. It didn't matter if he was ugly as sin or plain as a slothshe had no way to know, and didn't care. It was just that his voice made her think of sex and danger. Preferably together.
"Just tell me quick," he started with. "Are the girls hurt in any way? And are they okay now?"
"They're fineexcept for conning me out of ice cream probably before they've had dinner."
"There really was a bear?"
"I didn't see it myself, but black bears regularly wander around here. Normally they don't bother humans, but they'll venture close when they're scrounging for food. At this time of year, it's pretty rare to come across one."
"I like your voice, Rosemary MacKinnon."
The comment was so unexpected, she got an inexcusable warm fuzzy feeling in her tummy but obviously, she'd relieved his mind about his girls and he was just getting his breath back, not thinking clearly. "I'm guessing you'd like my address," she said quickly.
"Yes, of course."
"You're not far. There aren't that many places near the top of Whisper Mountain. I'm on the east side, and most of the land up here is MacKinnon property. I'd guess you're either in the Landers place or the Stewarts they often rent out at Christmas. The Stewarts' place is brick, double kitchen, double deck"
"That's the one."
"So. If you're driving a car, you're going to have to go down the mountain roadthere's only one, as you probably know. Where it ends in a Y shape, turn left. Give or take a half mile, you'll see a wood sign for MacKinnonsthat'll lead to the house here. Take you ten, fifteen minutes. On the other hand, if you have some way to go cross-country"
"Okay, so it's your choice with the Gator, you go up that same mountain road you'll run into a gravel road, turn right, then zip along that way until you run into a battered old MacKinnon sign, turn in."
"So the girls really weren't far."
"I don't know they could have circled and backtracked a zillion times if they were trying to outrun a bear. Speaking of which until you get here, I'll be talking bear defense with your girls."
"Maybe you'd better have that talk with me, too."
She laughed, so did he but when she clicked off the phone, she found both girls sitting side by side on the leather couch, staring at her.
"Your dad'll be here in two shakes." When they kept up with the stare, she cocked her head. "What?"
"You laughed. And we thought we heard Dad laughing."
Rosemary didn't understand. "He did laugh. But not because he thought your bear was funny. He had to hear that you two were safe. So he was relieved, and naturally he got in a happier mood."
Lilly said, "Our dad hasn't done a whole lot of laughing since Mom died."
She didn't know what to say. The girls had already spilled a lot of information about their personal circumstances that was none of her business. She didn't want to prybut actually, she was relieved to understand their circumstances. She could have said something painful or insensitive accidentally, if she'd never known the girls had lost their mom, and that they were trying to have a different kind of Christmas to keep the grieving memories at bay.
"Hey. Should we call you Mrs. MacKinnon? Or Miss MacKinnon? Or Rosemary? Or what?" Lilly was clearly the one who wanted to know the rules.
"You can call me Rosemary. And I'm a Miss, not a Mrs."
"How come?" That was definitely Pepper. No boundaries on Pepper's tongue.
"Because I was happy being single."
"Oh. Okay. Can we look around, while we're waiting for my dad? It's about the most beautiful house I can remember."
"Yes, you can look around except in the first room down that hall. For a long time it was a utility room, but I turned it into a dark room to develop photographs. When that door's closed, you'll see a red light next to the knob, and that means you shouldn't open the door."
"You really develop pictures? Yourself? Right here?"
It had been a while since she'd "awestruck" anyone much less had anyone treat her like a goddess. Her familyat least her parentsrarely had a pleasant word to say to her. Since June, whenever they called, it was invariably to make sure she knew her Terrible Mistake hadn't been forgotten, and probably never would be. Her two brothers would have defended her against the worldand always hadbut even they skirted around the question of why she'd done such a "damn fool thing."
The girls talked her ears offand asked more questions than a teacher on a test. But after being raised with two brothersand working alone all these months since JuneRosemary didn't mind. She inhaled all the girl talk.
She never heard a knock on the door, never heard anything until the girls both squealed, "Dad!"
They'd ended up in the kitchenboth girls had chosen to ignore the table, and instead sat on the counter with their legs swingingsome body part always seemed to be in motion with them. They'd somehow conned her into wrapping up three more cream puffs to take home with them. Possibly she'd been easily conned. Besides, she'd made the full recipe, and even sugar-greedy as she was, couldn't possibly eat a dozen.
"Dad! We're having so much fun! Can we stay a little longer?"
And then, "Dad, this is Rosemary. Rosemary, this is Dad"
"He's not Dad when you're introducing him, dummy.
He's Whit. Dad, this is Rosemary. Rosemary, this is Whit. Wait until you taste these cream puffs! Rosemary's giving us some to take home."
"She has a darkroom, Dad. And she has a gun. A big rifle. That she owns. It's all hers. Everything!"
Over the bouncingly exuberant girls, their eyes met. She was both laughing and rolling her eyesthere was no shutting the girls up, no chance to temper their exuberance. And his eyes were filled with humor, too .
But somehow she'd expected the girls' father to be well, fatherly looking. A lot older than her twenty-seven. Sure, she'd expected him to be reasonably good-looking, because the girls were adorable, but he'd been married awhile. He should have looked more staid, the way settled down guys tended to get, more safe, less how would a woman say it?.less hungry.
Whit radiated all the safety of a cougar just freed from a cage. He was tall, rangy and sleek. He had the shoulder and arm muscles of a guy who was physical and exceptionally strong. He wore an old canvas jacket, jeans and country boots.
His hair was sort of a dusty blond shade, rumpled from the wind, a frame for the rugged bones in his face. The haircut was the choice for a guy who didn't waste time on grooming. Straight eyebrows set off his eagle-shrewd eyesshrewd, except when he looked at his daughters.
Then his gaze turned into a helpless puppy's.