It’s been five years since Andi McDermott lost her husband, and she's finally starting to feel like herself again, ready to live fully—she’s even started dating again. But when her holiday plans with her stepson and his fiancée fall through, she refuses to spend another Christmas alone while everyone is celebrating with their families. Impulsively, she decides to go up to her cabin in Lake Arrowhead, a place she used to love to visit but hadn’t gone to in years, not since the feud started between her husband and their nearest neighbor.
Andi starts to rethink her decision when being alone at the cabin proves to be more challenging than she expected—a heavy snowstorm hits the area, and Andi finds herself trapped there with no one to help except for her neighbor, Wolf Enders. A military vet who lives full-time on Lake Arrowhead, Wolf is as grumpy and intimidating as Andi remembers. But he’s also unexpectedly kind and uncomfortably sexy—his presence reminds Andi that she may be older, but her body still works perfectly fine, thank you very much. But can this good girl tame this sexy beast of a man, and will this snowy fling turn into a love of a lifetime?
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Rain splattered the kitchen window, while inside the house smelled of roast turkey and cinnamon and cloves from the simmering mulled wine. Andi McDermott peeked into the second oven, where the stuffing, potatoes, and various side dishes were keeping warm. It was December twenty-second and Andi was celebrating Christmas early, hosting her stepson, Luke, and his fiancŽe for dinner. She'd spent days cooking, decorating the house, even putting up a big tree-a first since her husband, Kevin, died five years ago.
It was the first Christmas since Kevin died that she felt festive. Maybe it was the cooking and baking that put her in a good mood. Or maybe she'd finally accepted that Christmas would be different, and she couldn't compare the holiday now to what it had been when Kevin was alive.
But it'd be lovely to see Luke, to have him here. Her stepson was a busy doctor living in McLean, Virginia, just outside DC, and when he returned to Southern California, there were so many people for him to see that it was hard for him to squeeze her in, but this year he'd accepted her Christmas invitation, and he and Kelsey were to arrive any moment.
Andi glanced from the rain-streaked window to the small TV. The local evening news was wrapping up with a feel-good story set at Lake Arrowhead's Santa's Village. It was snowing in the mountains and the pretty reporter kept batting away fluffy flakes as she laughingly asked Mr. and Mrs. Claus if the snow would hamper the delivery of gifts. Santa Claus gave a jolly chuckle, saying that the reindeer were experts, and Rudolph always led the way. The cameraman panned over the charming snow-dusted village and the reporter concluded with the reminder that Santa's Village would be open through five o'clock on Christmas Eve, inviting all to come enjoy the live entertainment, the scheduled light shows, and of course, meet Saint Nick himself.
Andi flashed back to the year she and Kevin had taken Luke to Santa's Village. It hadn't been a successful trip. California had been in the middle of a drought. There was no snow and the pine trees looked parched. The park hadn't yet been refurbished and nine-year-old Luke wasn't impressed, announcing to a line of children that Santa wasn't real, even babies knew that.
Andi smiled, remembering the horrified looks of the other parents. Luke had never been like the other kids. He'd known from kindergarten he wanted to be a doctor, and he'd done just that.
After brushing a crumb from the counter, she turned off the double ovens and tried to remember the last time she'd been to the cabin in Blue Jay. It had been years, two or three at least, and she'd only driven up because she'd been notified by her intimidating neighbor, Wolf Enders, that one of the big sugar pines on her lot had fallen. While it had missed her cabin, the tree had crushed the old shed and was blocking her driveway.
She hadn't been able to go to the cabin immediately due to work but drove up one Saturday morning to meet the tree removal service, paying them a fortune to cut up the huge tree and carry away the massive logs. Any moment she'd expected Wolf Enders and his German shepherd to appear, but thankfully, neither did. She'd escaped back to San Juan Capistrano without any uncomfortable scenes. To be fair, she'd never quarreled with Wolf herself, but Kevin had, and once Kevin sued Wolf for defamation of character, claiming Wolf was slandering Kevin in their mountain community; the animosity between Kevin and Wolf made trips to the cabin unbearable.
Andi had hated how Kevin obsessed about their "trashy neighbor," hated how prickly and uncomfortable she felt whenever Wolf Enders looked at her. Wolf made her feel naked and she didn't like it. She wouldn't call him trashy-she wouldn't call anyone trashy-but they definitely moved in different social circles.
The evening news ended. Andi glanced at her watch. Six thirty.
Luke said he and Kelsey should arrive sometime between five thirty and six, depending on traffic. They were coming from Newport Beach, where Luke's mom and grandparents lived, and traffic could be a bear, especially this time of year. The drizzle of rain just made it worse.
Andi drew a short breath, anxious, excited. The house looked wonderful. The brandied cranberries and green salad were already on the table. A bottle of red and white wine had both been opened just in case Luke and Kelsey didn't want the mulled wine.
Muting the TV, Andi wandered into the formal living room to fluff a couch pillow. The tree glowed with lights and shimmering ornaments. Candles glimmered on the stone mantel. A fire crackled brightly in the hearth. She'd forgotten how pretty the house looked decorated for the holidays.
Back in the kitchen she adjusted the cake stand on the marble island, then smoothed her dark green beaded sweater over her hips. She felt a little too solid-thick in the middle-but the beaded sweater had been one of her last gifts from Kevin and she'd never had a chance to wear it before he died, so she was wearing it tonight. Tonight was a celebration. Luke would be here, and they'd be a family, and being ten or fifteen pounds overweight wasn't the end of the world. Being twenty pounds overweight wasn't the end of the world. Her weight wasn't important.
Suddenly Andi's phone rang. It was Luke. She quickly picked up. "Hi," she said, breathlessly, leaning against the island. "Where are you? Have you hit some traffic?"
"We haven't left Mom's yet." Luke's deep voice was so very much like his dad's that it gave her a pang. "We got to talking and the time slipped away from us."
She pushed a loose tendril from her warm cheek. "That's okay. I've got everything in the oven. Just give me a buzz when you're a few minutes from the house and I'll dish up. That way we can sit down straightaway-"
"Something has come up," he said in a rush. "We're not going to be able to make it. I'm sorry. I know it's last-minute to cancel."
Her heart fell. For a moment she couldn't speak. "Kelsey's not sick, is she?" Andi asked, grateful her voice didn't quaver.
"No, she's good. We're all good. Mom surprised us with tickets to Segerstrom for the Holiday Organ Spectacular tonight. She forgot we were supposed to be going to your house for dinner, and Kelsey is an organist, she played all through school, music being her minor at Johns Hopkins, and . . ." He stopped talking, waited a split second before adding, "You don't mind, do you?"
Andi blinked hard. Her throat thickened with emotion. She minded. Oh, how she minded.
But she'd never tell him. She was his stepmom, not his mom. She couldn't afford to make a misstep.
Luke filled the silence. "I hate doing this last-minute. It's hard keeping everyone happy-"
She wasn't going to cry. She wouldn't be difficult. "I understand."
"Kelsey does want to meet you."
"Drop by tomorrow." She glanced to her double ovens, filled with turkey and casseroles. "I'll have plenty of food."
"Maybe. That could work," he said.
Her heart fell again. A maybe from Luke was never a positive thing.
He cleared his throat. "Next time we're home, we'll get together. I promise. You'll meet Kelsey before the wedding. Maybe at the bridal shower in February?"
Andi heard the maybe again. Maybe meant nada. Nothing. She hated the ridiculous pain making her chest burn. She'd always been the stepmother, never mother, never mom, never needed or wanted; at least, not by him. "Maybe," she echoed, brushing a tear from her lashes before it could fall. "Give your family my best."
"I will. Merry Christmas, Andi."
"Merry Christmas, Luke."
Hanging up, Andi set the phone down on the island and rested her hand on the cold marble, throat aching, chest tight. Don't think, don't feel, don't get emotional. Things happen. Life happens. Roll with the punches. You're good at that.
But her chest was on fire and she wished she were anywhere but here, in this big empty house, with a big tree that no one but her would see.
This wasn't how Christmas was supposed to be.
This wasn't how she wanted to spend the holidays anymore.
The house was too big for her. She'd been widowed too young. The memories were hard. She missed Kevin and knew he wasn't coming back. She'd even begun dating, but if she was brutally honest with herself, it wasn't going well.
Friends had invited her to join them for Christmas, but being a plus-one at Thanksgiving was a different thing from being a plus-one at Christmas. Christmas was about family, intimacy. It wasn't a party like Halloween or New Year's Eve. It was quiet, personal, sacred.
Heart aching, Andi turned and looked at the three-layer Christmas White Cake on the pale pink cake stand-an heirloom in the McDermott family. The Christmas White Cake could have been plucked from Santa's Village with its dusting of sparkling sugar and miniature forest of edible pine trees. It was an old Southern Living recipe, something Andi's mother had made when Andi was growing up, and when Andi made it the first time as a newlywed, Kevin asked that she make it every Christmas, and she did. The three-layer cake was a labor of love, and she regretted the afternoon spent making all the delicate sugar decorations.
Why had she gone to so much trouble? Why didn't she learn? Why hadn't she just bought a cake? Why had she thought Luke would show?
Luke had tolerated her, but never loved her.
He was the only child she'd ever have, and she'd tried and tried, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. And now she was fifty-seven, almost fifty-eight, with no children of her own, no husband, and another Christmas alone.
She couldn't do it. Not here. Not like this.
But the cake wouldn't be wasted. Knocking away tears, Andi reached into a drawer for a knife, cut a huge slice from the cake, and fed herself a humongous bite. The cream cheese frosting clung to her lip. The cake was moist. She cried stupid tears as she chewed. She took another bite, and then another.
The cake was perfect.
The house looked perfect.
Dinner would have been perfect.
The tears fell harder. Cake eaten, she tore off a strip of paper towel, wiped her mouth, dried her eyes, blew her nose. She couldn't do this. Couldn't fall apart just because Luke had bailed on her.
She needed to rethink the holiday, come up with a new plan, one that didn't require her rattling around this huge house on her own.
Maybe she should drive up to Lake Arrowhead and open the cabin, have Christmas there. With all the fresh snow, it'd be a white Christmas. She'd always loved the cabin. It'd be magical once she was there.
Of course there was Wolf Enders, but maybe he'd be gone. And if he was home, so what? She wouldn't be intimidated. She was tired of being stepped on. Tired of accommodating everyone else.
She was going to create new memories. Start new traditions. She'd drive to Lake Arrowhead early in the morning and have a memorable Christmas all on her own.
The distant, rhythmic thudding wouldnÕt stop, the dull sound irritating, interrupting WolfÕs focus.
Wolf set his drafting pencil down and listened. There was a pause and then the thudding resumed. Someone was chopping something, and very close by.
But there were no neighbors close to him. He lived high on the mountain in a gated community. He was one of the few people who lived here year-round. Wolf had a small house in San Juan Capistrano in the historic Los Rios District, but he rented it on Vrbo, and thanks to its proximity to the mission, the ocean, and Disneyland, it was booked most of the time, providing steady income.
When Wolf had bought the cabin ten years ago, it was a wreck, having been on the market for over a year, the asking price-as well as the condition-discouraging other offers. But Wolf wasn't discouraged, and he'd made a low offer, aware of all the work he'd need to do, and ready to do it, as he'd just retired from defense contracting work after a long career in the Marine Corps and had time on his hands and a burning need to stay busy.
The owner rejected Wolf's offer, but when five months passed, and no other offers came in, he reached out to Wolf's real estate agent and indicated he was open to a decent offer. Wolf followed up with an offer even lower than his initial price. The owner countered. Wolf countered again, and this time his offer was reluctantly accepted. The bank wouldn't approve the loan after the home inspection report came in. Between termites and wood rot, the inspector said the 1927 cabin should just be scrapped. Tear it down, clear the lot, build again. But Wolf liked the big old logs, the vaulted ceiling, the scarred hardwood floor, and he was able to get a VA loan, allowing him to purchase the place and do the work himself. Over the next three years he fixed the foundation, replaced logs, reroofed, scraped peeling paint from original windows, put in a new furnace and water heater, and replaced the chinking. His cabin might have been rustic on the outside, but it was comfortable inside. It was Wolf's haven, and with Jax for company, he was rarely lonely.
The chopping sound stopped, but Wolf was now curious. He rose from his drafting table and stepped outside. His dog, Jax, followed, always close to his side. Wolf had only two real neighbors-the McDermotts and the Olsens-and neither had been up to Blue Jay for years. The Olsens were in their eighties and lived in a retirement community in Palos Verdes, and after self-righteous Kevin McDermott died five years ago from a heart attack, his widow didn't visit anymore. Who would be cutting what? And where?
Jax whined and Wolf touched the top of Jax's head. "Should we go check it out?" he asked.
The dog nudged his hand.
Wolf went inside, put his heavy boots on, and grabbed his winter coat from the hook by the door before heading back out. The chopping sound echoed through the trees. Wolf crossed the shoveled walkway to stand at the top of his property. He could see a faint light glowing from one of the McDermott cabin's upstairs rooms. Someone was there.
The slope between his place and the McDermotts' was fairly steep and thickly wooded. Wolf had been adding cedars and dogwoods each autumn for the past several years, wanting more privacy, enjoying his seclusion.