The sunlight glistened on the snow’s icy crust, creating a diamond shimmer that dazzled Leslie’s eyes. A frown of irritation crossed her usually smooth features as she made a one-handed search of her purse on the car seat beside her, looking for her sunglasses without taking her attention from the road. The snowplows had cleared the road two or three days before, judging by the melting piles of mud-spattered snow along the shoulders, but there were still slick patches where the plow blade hadn’t scraped all the way to the road’s surface.
Skidding on one of those icy patches was definitely not on her list of thrills she wanted to experience. Leslie Stiles had already had her fill of accidents for one winter. Her hand’s blind search came up with the sunglasses which she immediately slipped onto the bridge of her nose, her hazel eyes instantly feeling the relief from the sun’s glare on the sparkling white mantle of snow that covered the Vermont countryside.
A stop sign stood at the crossroads and Leslie slowed the car to a halt as she approached it. Melting snow dripped onto the car roof from an overhanging tree branch. The drops made a tinny sound as they landed. A dirty pickup truck that might have been green had the right of way. Her fingers tapped the steering wheel impatiently as she waited for its putting speed to carry it across the intersection.
The strain of the drive from Manhattan was beginning to show on her—the strain and her own physical pain. Leslie attempted to shift into a more comfortable position, but the thick plaster cast on her left leg severely limited movement and position. It was a lucky thing the car had a lot of leg room—and an automatic transmission. There was a steady throb of pain that tensed all her nerves and planted her teeth together. In her purse, Leslie had a bottle of pain pills, prescribed by the doctor, but they made her sleepy so she hadn’t taken any, certain she could grit her way through the trip to her aunt’s home. It was turning into more of an ordeal than she had thought it would be.
The pickup passed and Leslie made her turn onto the intersecting highway. She clung to the knowledge that she only had a few more miles to go. Already she could see the white spire of the church steeple poking above the tops of the trees.
There was a distinct New England character to the village nestled in the mountain fastness. There was something changeless and nostalgic about its steepled church and village green, and its old houses all in neat repair. Too many artists had captured towns like it on canvas, which gave even strangers the sense of coming home.
Leslie wasn’t a stranger, but neither did she view it as home. When she approached her aunt’s two story Victorian-style house on the outskirts of the rural community, she saw it merely as a refuge, a place to recuperate from this damnable broken leg, and avoid all of December’s holiday hoopla.
No attempt had been made to clear the driveway of snow, although there was a set of parallel tracks going in and out. Leslie slowed her car to make the turn, barely noticing the man pulling a red-suited child on a sled in the next yard. The car tires crunched in the crusty snow as she wheeled the vehicle into the drive, stopping short of the side door.
Relief sighed through her strained nerves as she removed the sunglasses and smoothed a side of her sand-colored hair where it was pulled sleekly back and secured at the nape of her neck to trail between her shoulder blades. As December went, it was a mild day with the temperature hovering above the freezing mark, so Leslie didn’t bother to put on the rusty-brown, fake fur jacket that lay on the passenger seat. It would only hamper her movements, and maneuvering her cast-rigid leg out of the car wasn’t going to be an easy task.
Her crutches were propped against the passenger door. She pulled them over, so they’d be within reach once she was outside, then opened her door. Scooting sideways, she managed to gain enough room to swing her left leg around and aim it out the door.
The sound of footsteps and sled runners cutting through the snow’s crust signaled the approach of the next door neighbor as she edged forward to test the footing before she made a one-legged attempt to stand up. It was something she hadn’t mastered too well as yet, so she regarded his appearance at that moment as ill-timed. Broken legs and graceful movements simply did not go together.
Her smile was a bit tight when he hove into view with the sled in tow. Leslie tried to keep the flash of annoyance out of her eyes as she glanced toward him. He was tall, easily six foot if not more, which forced her to tip her head back in order to focus her gaze higher. A network of smile lines fanned out from the corners of his icy blue eyes, framed by dark, male lashes. The winter sun had added the finishing touches to the tan the summer sun had started, giving a certain ruggedness to his leanly handsome features. Hatless, his dark hair had a black sheen to it, thick and attractively rumpled by a playful breeze.
If it hadn’t been for the strain of the drive and the nagging pain in her leg, Leslie probably would have found him physically disturbing. But her least concern at the moment was how good-looking he was. She just wanted to get into her aunt’s house, take a pain pill, and lie down.
His gaze glittered down on her with friendly interest, yet managed to take her apart at the same time. He observed the annoyance behind the polite smile she gave him, the high cheekbones that kept her features from being average, and the rounded right knee where her long skirt had ridden up higher than her fur-lined winter boot. A stretched-out woolen sock protected the bare toes that peeked out of her left leg cast.
“Let me give you a hand,” he offered and reached out to give her the steadying support of his grip while she held onto the door with her other hand.
“Thank you,” Leslie murmured when she was upright and precariously balanced on one foot.
“You must be Leslie,” he guessed and kept a light hold on her arm until she was more sure of her footing. “Your aunt said you’d be arriving today. I’m Tagg Williams and this is my daughter, Holly. We live in the house next door.”
“How do you do.” It was a polite phrase with little meaning behind it. Leslie wasn’t intentionally trying to be rude or unfriendly. She was just tired and plagued by the dull pain of her injury.
The little girl had climbed off the sled and waded through the hard snow for a closer look at the white cast on Leslie’s leg. She was all of six years old. Her beguilingly innocent face was framed by the red hood of her parka trimmed in white fur. She was wearing a pair of matching red snow pants and white boots, and a pair of white, furry mittens. Her eyes were a darker blue than her father’s and blessed with long, naturally curling dark lashes.
“Holly, get the crutches for her, will you?” Tagg Williams took it upon himself to make the request of his daughter, so Leslie wouldn’t have to make the hopping turn to reach them.
“Sure.” The young girl half-climbed into the seat to drag the metal crutches out by their padded tops and gave them to Leslie.
“Thank you.” She managed to keep her balance long enough to maneuver the crutches, one under each arm, and let them take her weight.
“Did you have an accident skiing?” the little girl asked.
Her mouth slanted wryly. “Nothing so glamourous, I’m afraid,” Leslie replied. “There was a patch of ice on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building. I slipped and fell and broke my leg.”
“I bet it hurt.” She gave Leslie a wide-eyed look of sympathy.
“It did. It hurt a lot.” Leslie didn’t believe in downplaying the harsh facts of reality, especially with children. In the long run, honesty would do them more good than pretence or white lies.
Hinges creaked when the storm door to the house was pushed open. A fairly tall, gray-haired woman stood in the opening, dressed in a pair of loose-fitting brown slacks, a heavily knitted tan pullover with an orange and brown blouse underneath.
“She’s here, Mrs. Evans!” The little girl named Holly hurried toward the side door to announce the arrival to Leslie’s aunt. “I saw her car drive in!”
“And you guessed right away that she was my niece. That’s very clever of you, Holly.” As a former schoolteacher, it was an ingrained habit for Patsy Evans to comment on a child’s observation, which he did warmly, but not effusively. Then she greeted her niece. “Did you have a good trip up, Leslie?”
“Yes. Thankfully there was very little traffic.” The rutted tracks in the snow made by previous vehicles made it difficult to negotiate with the crutches when Leslie tried to keep her balance and open the rear car door where her bags were.
“I’ll bring your luggage in.” Tagg Williams moved effortlessly to intercept her and eliminate the need for the attempt.
“Thank you.” This time her smile was much more genuine in its show of gratitude. His alert gaze seemed to notice that, too, and lingered on the curving movement of her lips. But Leslie was already busy making the turn toward the house, so she wasn’t aware of his heightened interest.
“Most of the traffic comes during the weekend when the skiers descend on the area,” her aunt replied to Leslie’s initial remark and watched with sharp concern while Leslie awkwardly approached the house.
The concrete steps leading to the back door were clear of any snow or ice, although they were wet. Icicles dripped water from the eaves overhead, plopping and splattering when the large droplets hit the ground. Leslie paused in front of the bottom step.
“Can you manage all right?” her aunt asked, ready to go to her aid if she couldn’t.
“Three steps I can manage,” Leslie replied with a short, dry laugh. “It’s the three flights of stairs to my apartment that were impossible.” Then she remembered. “Damn. I left my purse in the car.”
“Holly will get it for you.” Autocratically Patsy Evans motioned to the young girl to fetch Leslie’s purse.
“It’s in the front seat.” She called the information to the blue-eyed girl in the red snowsuit who was already dashing toward the car.
With her aunt holding the door open, Leslie mounted the steps one at a time and swung across the threshold to enter the house. It had been five years since she had last visited her aunt, yet time hadn’t seemed to change anything.
The large kitchen with its birch cabinets looked just the same. The pussycat clock on the wall was still swinging its pendulum tail, marking off the seconds. Even the plaid curtains at the windows were the same pattern if not the same curtains that had hung there before. It was funny that she remembered these little details after all this time. It wasn’t as if she’d grown up in the house, or even been a frequent visitor to her aunt’s home.
Actually, it had only been during her college years that Leslie had become really acquainted with her aunt. It was a case of liking the person, rather than a relative. Patsy Evans had a keen sense of humor and a ready smile, but Leslie was drawn more by her aunt’s no-nonsense attitude. Patsy was her father’s sister, and it was difficult to imagine two people with more divergent personalities.
As her scanning gaze finished its sweep of the kitchen and stopped on her aunt, Leslie smiled. There was contentment in her otherwise tired expression.
“I always did like this house,” she declared. “It’s so strong and solid.”
“Yes.” There was a musing quality about her aunt’s agreement. “It’s what you look for in a home, isn’t it? Yet those same traits are regarded as unflattering in a person.”
The rattle of the doorknob interrupted any reply Leslie might have made. Then a small hand succeeded in turning it and little Holly Williams came into the house, followed by her father with Leslie’s suitcases under his arms. Both stopped on the large rug so they wouldn’t track on the floor.
“Here’s your purse.” Holly stretched to hand it to her, careful not to overbalance and step off the rug with the snow-wet boots.
“Thank you, Holly.” Leslie rested her weight on the crutches and leaned to take it from the girl. “And thank you, Mr. Williams, for bringing my luggage in.” It seemed she had been thanking the pair ever since she had arrived.
“You had your hands full. It was the least I could do.” The corners of his mouth deepened in a smile as he glanced pointedly at her crutches. Then his attention was swinging to her aunt. “Where would you like me to set them, Mrs. Evans?”
“There by the counter, is fine,” she nodded and turned to Leslie. “I don’t believe you’ve met my new neighbors, have you Leslie?”
“We more or less introduced ourselves outside,” Tagg Williams inserted, flashing another smile at her.
“Good,” her aunt stated in her typically decisive voice. “I was just going to put some water on to heat for tea. Would you like to stay and have a cup with us, Taggart?”
“Another time, perhaps,” he refused as his astute blue eyes skimmed Leslie with another thorough glance. “Your niece looks tired after her journey.” With one hand, he was reaching behind him to open the door and steering his daughter in that direction with the other. “Enjoy your stay.” The last was directed to Leslie.
Something in his final look touched her feminine core that had been too tired to care about anything before, and attracted her interest. She managed to assimilate a few impressions like the width of his shoulders under the heavy winter jacket and the lean-jawed strength of his profile, then the inner door was closing behind him, followed by the storm door.
The corners of her mouth were pulled down by a dry smile as she glanced sideways at her aunt, busy at the sink filling the teakettle with water. “Why is it the good-looking ones are always married?”
Patsy Evans laughed, a low sound that came from her throat. “I’m not so sure he is.”
“Oh?” Leslie opened her purse and took out the prescription bottle, then hobbled on her crutches to the sink for a glass of water.
“Unless he has locked his wife in the attic, I haven’t seen a sign of anyone except Taggart and the little girl since they moved in the first of November.” She set the teakettle on the stove’s gas burner and lighted the flame with a match. “I really can’t tell you whether he’s divorced or widowed. Since he has never volunteered the information, I have respected his privacy and not asked.”
“His daughter certainly seemed happy and well-behaved for the offspring of a single parent.” Leslie made the observation almost absently as she took the prescribed dosage of medicine and washed the pills down with water. Being the only child of divorced parents herself, Leslie had firsthand knowledge of what that was like. “How old is she?”
“Holly is six years old now but she’ll be seven the day after Christmas. She was obviously named for the season.” Patsy Evans didn’t pause from her task to answer the question as she took a set of cups and saucers from the cupboard and placed them on the counter.
“What does he do?” Leslie wondered, again aloud.
“You mean for a living?” Her aunt stopped to think. “I don’t believe he’s said. He doesn’t talk about himself very much. For all his outward friendliness and charm, he seems to be a private person.” She slid a glance at Leslie, curiosity gleaming in her shrewd, brown eyes. “Are you in the market for a husband with a ready-made family, Leslie?” she chided, and let the affection in her voice take any sting from her words.
“Hardly.” Leslie pushed away from the sink and gripped her crutches. “I’ve seen enough bad marriages to keep me single for the rest of my life.” Not just her parents, but those of her friends as well.
“You’ll change your mind someday,” her aunt declared with certainty.
Leslie glanced at her, then laughed. “You’re probably right. What is it they say about ‘famous last words?’ ” It was a rhetorical question that trailed off tiredly at the end.
Patsy Evans took a closer look at her niece and suggested, “Why don’t you go into the living room and get that leg propped up? I’ll bring the tea when it’s ready.”
The prospect was too inviting for Leslie to refuse. “I think I’ll do that and give this pain pill a chance to work.” As she pivoted on her good leg and swung the crutches around to start for the living room, one of the crutches banged into a kitchen chair. “I’m like a bull in a china shop with these things,” she grumbled in irritation. “I’d like to know why it’s more difficult to maneuver on four legs than it is on two.”
“Coordination will come with practice,” her aunt assured.
“I’ll be a pro with these things by the time this cast comes off in five weeks,” Leslie agreed and clumped out of the kitchen.
Like the house itself, the furniture in it was strong and solidly built, some of the pieces bordering on antique. The thick cushions on the gold corduroy sofa were firm, indicating to Leslie that the upholstery was new, but the sofa wasn’t. She sat at one end and lifted her casted leg onto the cushions, plumping handmade crewelwork pillows behind her back for additional support. Closing her eyes, she let the quiet of the old house spill over her. Peace was something she had always appreciated, and it was no less precious to her now at twenty-five.
A reflective expression stole over her features in repose. It was true that, despite all her antimarriage remarks, she secretly desired a lifelong partner to love, and to be loved by him. There had been moments in her life when she had thought she had found him, only to discover fundamental differences of opinion. Those relationships, like most others, had died an early death. Leslie knew she was wary; sometimes she wondered if she wasn’t expecting too much, but she wasn’t prepared to settle for less.
A sigh broke from her lips. An instant later, she heard her aunt’s footsteps entering the living room. She opened her eyes, smelling the fragrance of freshly brewed tea. A cup was set on the table within easy reach for Leslie as her aunt took a seat in the matching armchair that faced the fireplace.
“How’s your father? I haven’t heard from him lately.” Her aunt asked to be filled in on the family.
“He and Millie and the kids are spending the holidays at their condominium in Hawaii. They’re all fine.” Both of her parents had remarried after their divorce when Leslie was fourteen. Each had stepchildren.
Having wanted brothers and sisters all through childhood, she had been disillusioned when she had finally acquired both. The sibling rivalry and setting parent against stepparent were painful things for her; almost as painful as the way her parents had tore at her, trying to be the sole object of her love and depriving the other of her affection. Her parents’ marriage and divorce had both been fought with Leslie as the battleground. Growing up had been unpleasant, dimming what few happy memories she possessed.
“Hawaii,” her aunt repeated. “It must be wonderful to escape all this snow and cold.”
“As soon as Daddy was notified about my fall, he had prepaid tickets waiting at the airport for me to fly over there and stay with them.” Her grimace showed her opinion of that invitation. “You know what it’s like at Christmas—everyone trying to outdo the other and complaining if their present isn’t as expensive as the one they gave. The endless parties. Decorations all over the place.” She shook her head to show her dislike for such things. “Needless to say, Daddy was upset when I told him I wasn’t coming.” There was no humor in her laugh. “He was convinced I was going to Mother’s for the holidays. She drove into New York from Baltimore just to take me home with her. Then she got angry because she thought I was going to Hawaii.”
“Why didn’t you tell them you were coming here?” A dark gray eyebrow was lifted in puzzled amusement.
“I did, but they didn’t believe me.” Leslie shrugged. “They thought I was just saying that to avoid hurting their feelings.”
“Your mother and father are too much alike. Both of them are too intense, too quick to anger, and too possessive,” she pronounced with a degree of sadness. “A marriage of opposites is better than that. One has a stabilizing influence on the other.”
“Do you really think so?” Leslie was skeptical.
“You need to have the basis of love and common interests, but with two different personalities involved,” her aunt elaborated on her initial statement.
“I suppose that makes sense, as long as one didn’t try to change the other,” she conceded. “Either way, I’m glad I’m here. And I’m really grateful that you’re letting me stay with you.”
“It’s a big, old house. There is always plenty of room for you to come anytime you want,” her aunt insisted. “Besides, I had no plans for the Christmas holidays, except to spend it quietly here. I suppose we could get a tree if you want.”
“No. I don’t believe in that nonsense,” Leslie stated firmly. “I’ve been called a female Scrooge, but I think Christmas has lost its meaning. It’s all decorations and gifts and parties. It’s an excuse to celebrate rather than a reason.”
“That’s a cynical attitude.” The remark was almost an admonition.
“It’s true,” she insisted. “It used to be Christmas merchandise was never displayed in stores until after Thanksgiving. Now it’s on the shelves before Halloween. Personally, I think they should ban Christmas.”
“Unfortunately the economy would suffer if that was attempted,” Patsy Evans murmured dryly and changed the subject. “How’s your job? It was certainly understanding of your employer to grant you a leave of absence until after New Year’s.”
“Mr. Chambers had planned to be gone most of the month attending a sales conference anyway, and he always takes off a few days before Christmas, so there wouldn’t have been much for me to do at the office except handle the mail and answer the phone. The receptionist can do that.” She knew her boss too well to believe he had been motivated solely by compassion. He had given her a leave of absence because it was both practical and economical.
“Then both of you are benefiting from it since you don’t have to worry about going back and forth to work in bad weather. You’ll have a chance to rest while your leg heals,” her aunt reasoned.
“Yes.” It just seemed bad luck that she had broken her leg at this time of year, presuming there was a good time for an accident like that. She had an aversion to the holiday season, a holdover from her childhood probably. Usually she could escape it with work or physical activity. Both those were taken from her.
She sipped at her tea and tried not to think about it.