Haylie, once an Olympic figure skater, is afraid of more than just Ethan's dog. She lives in constant fear due to threats from a stalker, but one day Ethan's dog chases the danger away, so Haylie decides to try to lose her fear of dogs...But then the stalker's plans expand to include revenge toward Ethan as well. If they are to remain safe and live to see a happily-ever-after, Haylie and Ethan must put aside differences and learn to trust each other. This Christmas season promises to be the most challenging and the most meaningful of their lives.
Read an Excerpt
Hailey's pulse raced with a combination of fear and excitement as she parked her car by the gully. She got out and swung her skates over her shoulder. The ice on Destiny Lake appeared as smooth as the screen of her laptop. In this corner of central New Jersey, a cold front swept in only one week before Christmas. The lake froze solid.
Not another soul appeared to have ventured out yet on this early morning and that was perfect. Hailey didn't want anyone else to witness her halting, miserable performance on the ice — not that anyone she knew lived here anymore. When Superstorm Sandy destroyed billions of dollars' worth of property, many — like her parents — left their destroyed homes. New people with money, bought the property at rock bottom prices and built new homes raised on tall pilings.
She walked down the hill through the gully along the well-worn, easy sloping path formed by generations of Fortune Beach youngsters. It warmed her to discover the old trail survived the storm's devastation.
At the edge of the lake, the blackened evidence of a small fire touched a sad place inside her. Memories of the times she sat by a fire in the same place rushed into her mind. Those days, which were filled with promise, would never return.
She pressed her lips together. She was here to conquer the old memories and build new, hopeful ones that couldn't be crushed or broken — or washed away.
A large, convenient log lay nearby. Hailey sat, put on her skates, and pulled the laces tight. Though aware her ankles would ache after a few turns, she didn't care. Seven years ago her world fell apart, but she intended to put it back together as much as possible — and that included skating on this lake. She wasn't going to skate in an arena and win awards anymore, but she came to realize she needed to skate as much as she needed to breathe.
It all started at Destiny Lake. She glanced toward the new red house sitting at the top of the hill, and her eyes misted. That house stood in the same spot where her family home used to be until the storm came and the water undermined it. The house was condemned and torn down. Her parents now lived in subsidized senior housing because they had lost everything.
She turned her gaze back to the frozen lake. She now lived in an apartment two miles away, and if she was thrifty, she could save for a down payment on a house. She hoped to buy one overlooking the lake where her own skating arena would always be available as long as the weather cooperated. She dreamed of placing floodlights on the house so she could direct the beams toward the lake and skate after dark.
When Christmas came, she intended to host a skating party. She'd put lights in every window of her house as well. She would plant a fir tree in the yard and string lights on it. She'd invite friends to join her in singing Christmas carols and she'd serve hot chocolate and cookies.
Her glorious fantasy crumbled. The problem with her grand scheme was her lack of friends. There were none from her skating days. After her accident, they all disappeared. The rest of her school friends vanished after years of neglect when she became a virtual prisoner living in a state of perpetual panic from the stress of being stalked by Bret Rounder.
She inched onto the ice muttering. "I'm over it now." She studied the surface to make sure there were no obstacles — nothing that would catch the blade of her skate and trip her. One broken femur in her life was enough, but she refused to stop doing what she loved. She would skate again. Not professionally, but for fun. For the joy it evoked once upon a time before her life became one long disaster.
She pushed off and warmed up by gliding along, not going very fast, but seeking a smooth even stroke. The stinging air bit into her cheeks, but she didn't care. She focused on her balance and the path ahead of her. The lake wasn't large, but several smaller coves made it much more interesting than going around in circles at an arena.
A small amount of confidence restored her earlier trepidation. All the skill remained despite her years away. She didn't intend to try anything daring or dangerous. No jumps. She wanted to slide along as she did when she was young. To be as free as one of the gulls that whirled in the sky.
She swung around and dug in the toe pick of her skate to stop. She almost laughed as she recalled how her coach continually reprimanded her over and over about the proper and professional way to stop. But even her coach had abandoned Haylie after the accident.
"I'm here to have fun," Haylie spoke out loud to the wind. Her words echoed in the still air. A shiver ran along her shoulders. She turned around. Was someone watching her?
She shook herself mentally. What nonsense. If someone stared at her from a window it didn't matter. She was nobody now.
Her ankles protested after several more minutes, so she headed back to the gully, but she promised herself she'd do a backward crossover for a short distance before quitting. Taking in a calming breath, she held out her arms and pushed off. She smiled as her soul filled to the brim with the glory of the morning. The ice was all hers and hers alone.
That's when the loud bark of a dog startled her.
"Rufus! Come!" The deep voice of a man echoed over the lake.
She stopped and turned. A large black dog ran towards her. Her pulse jumped. She didn't trust dogs. Bitten on the lip when she was young, she shied away from dogs ever since. Could she skate faster than the dog could run?
She glanced at the hill where a man climbed down, grabbing handholds on bushes and trees.
The dog, Rufus, didn't stop or pay any attention to the shouted command but dashed toward her at a mad pace. She willed herself to be calm. She thought of possible ways to avoid an attack. She wore a thick down jacket and a pair of heavy leggings beneath her jeans. If the dog bit her, he'd get a mouth full of fabric first.
Ten feet away from her, the dog lost his footing on the slick ice. He let out a cry as he fell on his side and slid — and kept sliding. His couldn't pull himself up. She moved in time to avoid a collision as the dog went sailing past her.
The dog cried pitifully as he drifted toward the opposite shore of the lake. She hoped he wasn't injured but helping a wounded animal could be dangerous.
Meanwhile, the man descending the hill reached the bottom and started running and sliding across the ice.
"Hey! Miss! Could you grab Rufus's collar for me?" he called out.
"Does he bite?" she shouted out the question. It echoed in the air. She guessed what the answer would be. The owner of the dog who bit her when she was young claimed her dog never bit anyone. But he bit her.
"Of course not!" The minute the words were out of his mouth, both of his feet went out from under him and he landed flat on his back.
Shocked into action, Hailey pulled the phone from her pocket and skated toward him. When she reached him, he was staring up at the sky with eyes as blue as the heaven above. She'd never seen a man with eyes of such an intense color. She gazed in surprise for a moment until he turned his head toward her.
"Sir, should I call 911?" she asked.
"No." He squeezed his eyes shut. "Please don't. I'll never hear the end of it."
"Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?"
He opened his eyes and held up a leash. "Would you please fetch Rufus? He won't hurt you. I promise."
"What if he's injured? Wounded animals bite."
The man's mouth turned down in a frown. "You're afraid of dogs."
"Yes," she admitted.
He sighed, rolled over, and gingerly managed to get to his feet.
"Don't run," she advised. "Walk slowly."
"Did you see which way he went?"
"He slid that way." She pointed in the general direction. "There's another little cove there with lots of marsh reeds."
"Would you mind accompanying me in case I fall again." His penetrating blue eyes gazed into hers.
She swallowed hard. Tall and handsome, the man's chiseled features spoke of strength, but a touch of gentleness lingered around his mouth. Usually, meeting any stranger would put her on edge, but this man did not cause that reaction in her. Had he hypnotized her with his eyes?
She switched her gaze to the distant marsh reeds. "Actually, I was afraid I would fall when I came out here. It's been a while since I've been skating."
"You seemed to be doing fine." He took firm but cautious steps on the ice.
"Were you watching me?" Her pulse began to race with anxiety. She'd skated in front of thousands of people in countless arenas, but this was different. This man could be some sort of stalker — like the one who drove her half crazy. She sensed someone was watching her and she was right. It was him!
"Rufus was watching you." He shrugged his shoulders. "He barked and insisted I come to the window. I watched for a minute until I remembered I forgot to put out the garbage can for pickup. When I opened the door, Rufus ran out. I guess he really wanted to meet you."
"Oh." She whispered. Her suspicions were groundless. Once, countless adoring fans cheered for her. Now the only one intrigued with her was a dog. "I hope he's okay."
"Me, too." With a somber note in his voice, he continued. "I need that dog far more than he needs me."
Haylie couldn't understand why anyone would need a pet. Pets involved a great deal of time and expense. She never owned a pet — of any kind. Not even a goldfish. Her parents' biggest expense was her and all that expense came to nothing. Guilt remained heavy on her shoulders.
"I got bit once — right on my lip. The scar is here." She stopped skating and pointed to it.
His very cold finger touched her lip. Despite his icy skin, a little spark ignited inside her. "Plastic surgery?"
"Yes," she admitted, a little shaken with the odd sensation coursing through her. Her coach had recommended the surgery. Everything needed to be perfect. Her face, her hair, her outfits, her routine. The pressure was constant. She didn't miss that at all. But she missed skating. Without it, even on sunny days, clouds hovered in her thoughts.
As they rounded the corner, they spotted Rufus. He cried and struggled weakly to right himself.
Guilt pricked her conscience. Still, dogs couldn't be trusted due to their large teeth. Some men couldn't be trusted either, but the majority of them were as ordinary as her dad. At least, that's what the counselor tried to drum into her head.
"Probably hypothermia." The man knelt beside his dog, whipped off his coat, wrapped the dog in it, and hoisted the animal in his arms.
"Hey," Haylie warned. "You'll be an icicle in minutes."
"He's disoriented. I'll get him to the vet right away."
"I'm really sorry." There wasn't much more she could say.
"Please stay with me until I get to solid ground."
"Of course." It was the least she could do. "By the way, there's an easier path through the gully to get up the hill."
"Thanks. I'll try that. Rufus weighs sixty pounds."
"Should a dog weigh that much?" The memory of all the treats she'd been denied in order to compete never left her.
"It depends on the breed."
"I never owned a pet. They're expensive and time consuming." With her rigorous schedule, she never had time for anything except skating. Yet, she was the one who wanted it. She enjoyed the competition — then.
"What do you do?"
"I'm a physical therapist."
"Even a physical therapist has the time and money for a pet."
She clenched her teeth to prevent herself from blurting out her life story. This was her new beginning. While circumstances forced it upon her, despite the obstacles she managed to succeed.
She struggled for calm. He didn't realize all she endured.
When they reached the gully, she stopped. "I need to change back into my shoes, but I'll pray for Rufus's recovery."
"That won't do any good," he muttered as he hurried up the path with his burden.CHAPTER 2
By the time Ethan and Rufus returned home from the veterinarian's office it was way past lunch. While Rufus didn't have frostbite, he did suffer from a mild case of hypothermia and needed to be kept warm. Ethan placed his old-fashioned hot water bottle next to his pet, and Rufus snuggled up to it in appreciation.
"You take it easy, old pal. You sure gave me a scare." Ethan wrapped a blanket around his buddy.
Rufus licked his hand with gratitude.
Ethan couldn't understand why that young woman on the ice piqued Rufus's interest. She skated well — far better than the neighborhood kids. However, Rufus never took any interest in the kids out on the ice. Of course, she was the only one on the lake that morning. Everyone else was at work or at school. Or out Christmas shopping.
Ethan sighed and glanced at the corner of the room where he'd originally thought a Christmas tree might fit. That was when he decided to buy the house — before his mother died. She passed away six months ago but he continued to mourn. The week after the funeral, he threw out all her holiday decorations along with his faith.
"Bah humbug." He rubbed his temples and thought about all the worry he caused her when he was in high school. He'd asked her forgiveness for all that but sometimes the memory of it stung.
He'd grown so lonely in his empty house, so he had adopted Rufus.
His thoughts returned to the ice skater. To be truthful, she piqued his interest, too. She was graceful and pretty, but there were plenty of women with those attributes. Maybe it was her voice that drew him in. Or maybe it was something else — that old sixth sense of his that always dug deeper. A vulnerability lingered about her and something else, which intrigued him, and made him want to learn more about her.
"I should mind my own business. Right, boy?" Rufus simply sighed.
"Next time you see her, ignore her. For my sake."
Rufus put a paw on his hand.
"It's a deal." Or at least, he thought it was. He could never guess what ran through his pet's mind. The dog had his own opinions on everything. Still, he'd been a good buddy, and Ethan was grateful he'd adopted the rescue.
He warmed up Rufus's food as per the vet's orders. After that, Ethan made a sandwich for himself — his favorite comfort food, grilled cheese — like Mom used to make. A swirl of sorrow wrapped around his heart.
Why should he decorate for Christmas? What did it matter? Who would even care? What was the point of it?
His mother's words trailed through his mind. Light came into the world in the darkest season. To save us so that we might have joy.
"Joy," he muttered. "Bah humbug." He glanced at the time. He ought to speed things up if he expected to make it on time for tonight's late shift. He packed a somewhat healthy meal by adding an apple. He tossed a batch of clothes into the washer and went through his email.
By that time, Rufus appeared more like himself and raring to go for a walk. Ethan bundled the dog in a warm coat. A bunch of kids were playing hockey on the lake, but Rufus didn't give them a second glance.
"All this time, I thought your girlfriend was sweet, little Fluffy. How will she feel when you tell her you're in love with a skater?" Ethan asked.
Rufus barked an answer.
"I wish you were better at communicating — or at least listening to me." Ethan sighed. "I feel sorry for Fluffy. She's going to wind up with a broken heart."
They didn't go far, only to the edge of the cliff where the wind chill made it feel like minus ten degrees. From that vantage point, Ethan glanced out at the bay. A thick edge of ice coated the shoreline, reaching far out into the water, which made it necessary to cancel the ferry service.
Don't you worry. Christmas will come no matter how cold it is. One of his mother's happiness phrases sang in the back of his mind. She'd raised him by herself, but she never stinted on celebrating Christmas, no matter how little money was available — and no matter what trouble he managed to get himself into. When he wound up in the hospital, she sat beside him every day and prayed him to health.
But his prayers for her went unanswered.
Rufus whined and barked. They hurried back to the house where the warmth inside contained a taste of the tropics after being outside in the bitter cold.
Ethan donned his uniform and grabbed the bag of Rufus's things. After dropping the dog off at the sitter's house, he blasted one of his favorite tunes from the classic paramedics' playlist through the speakers of his aging sport utility vehicle. The driving beat got him pumped up for a full shift of nonstop action.
The repeated mention of heaven in the lyrics made him pause. He switched off the music. That young woman promised to pray for Rufus. When his mother was alive, she believed in prayer. She even relied on it to ease her through her final days, but her prayers didn't save her. She died far too early. He wanted to give her a few grandchildren. He wanted her to be happy after all her hard work. He wanted her to retire, sit in the sunshine on his deck, and gaze out at the lake.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Clear as Ice"
Copyright © 2019 Penelope Marzec.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.