This week’s Romance Roundup includes an ad executive who MUST get into the Christmas spirit, a Marine who needs lots of love and hugs, and an independent seamstress who strikes a deal with a sexy duke.
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Present Day Somewhere in the Arctic Circle
"Heads are going to roll."
Sore, tired and chilled to the bone, Vale London dropped a ten thousand pound backpack, leaned against a wall of ice and scanned her surroundings — a sea of snow broken up by mountains and seracs that made her fancy that ocean waves had flash-froze just before they'd come crashing down.
Frigid wind howled, the sound of it somehow more glacial than the below zero temp, screams of pain and helplessness seeming to echo within.
"Are we talking literally or figuratively?" Her beloved foster sister Magnolia "Nola" Lee dropped her pack as well, sat atop it and drew a thick flannel blanket around her shoulders. "With you I never know."
Vale savored the flavor of sweetened brown butter that coated her tongue. At some point in her childhood development, wires had gotten crossed in her brain, leaving her with a severe case of synesthesia. She heard sounds, just like everyone else, but she tasted them, too. Letters also registered as colors, and numbers appeared as a three-dimensional map inside her head.
The more nuanced the sound, the richer the flavor.
"Figuratively ... maybe," she replied. "The next time I see our absentee guide, he'll be lucky to walk away. Or even crawl." She wasn't known as a street-tough scrapper for nothing! And the POS had ruined what was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime, so he had to pay.
Dang it, Nola hadn't needed this kind of stress, or danger. She'd needed a break. The girl worked two full time jobs. If she wasn't baking and selling the goods at local office buildings, she was writing How To copy for her dating column in Oklahoma Love Match magazine. And Vale ... Vale had needed a break from everything. Had hoped to enjoy one last hoorah — or maybe a first hoorah — before she and Nola settled down and opened a fancy-schmancy gourmet donut shop slash catering center slash speed dating and bachelorette party hub, with Vale on paperwork duty and Nola behind the oven and the counter.
Vale's biggest mistake? Booking each extracurricular activity with the cheapest company possible, in order to do more stuff on a limited budget. Quality beat quantity; she understood that now. So how about a break, world?
Three weeks ago, she and Nola had thought adventure awaited when they'd arrived in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. And it had. For five days. Then they'd road-tripped into Russia and hiked through the Khibiny Mountains with a thirty-something guide who'd promised a kick-A experience. Temperatures had proven frosty, but there'd been very little snow, and no ice. A plethora of trees had awed, their leaves plush and green enough to rival freshly polished emeralds, seemingly dusted with diamond powder. Here and there, rivers had babbled happily, and breathtaking waterfalls had cascaded into crystal pools.
Somehow, their little trio had veered off of a path and ended up in this icy wasteland. In a blink!
Backtracking hadn't helped. The ice had remained, and stretched on. A single set of footprints had led them to a cabin ... where they'd spent every day of the past two weeks. Well, Vale and Nola had spent every day of the past two weeks inside the cabin. Before the end of day one, their guide had taken off to scout the perimeter, hoping to stumble upon the cabin's owner, he'd said, but he'd never returned, and there'd been no sign of him since.
This morning, the sisters were forced to make a choice: remain in the warmth of the cabin and slowly starve to death, or set out to try to find help, and quickly freeze to death.
As Carrie — aka Care Bear, aka best foster momma ever — used to say, If you want to experience the miracle of walking on water, you gotta get out of the boat.
Better to try and fail than to never try at all.
In desperate need of a miracle, Vale and Nola had strapped on snow gear they'd unearthed in a trunk only a few days before. Oddly enough, the garments had fit perfectly, as if tailor-made for them. The coincidence had roused her suspicions, sure, but in the end she hadn't cared about how or why, only survival. They'd set out bright and early that morning, trudging through mile after mile of snow.
Now sunset approached. So far, no luck. They'd found no hint of life, and Vale was getting worried.
Getting? Please. She'd been worried every second of every day since the nightmare had started. She wasn't ready to die.
She'd put her life on hold for years, working various jobs while going to school full-time. Just when she'd completed a business degree from the University of Oklahoma — Go Sooners! — with zero student debt, she was going to kick the bucket? No! Completely unacceptable.
And die knowing she'd caused her sister's suffering? Never.
"I'm sorry," she said, guilt getting the better of her. Despite a top of the line face mask, her nose and lungs burned when she inhaled. When she exhaled, her goggles fogged.
"Don't you dare take the blame. It's mine, and I never share. You know that." Nola's breath no longer misted the air. A bad sign. Very bad. "I was feeling so good, I kept bugging you to add more stops to our itinerary."
Her sister suffered from fibromyalgia. On any given day, Nola's overactive nerves could cause extreme fatigue, total body aches, and swell each of her joints. A cocktail of medication helped alleviate the symptoms, but couldn't cure the disease.
"Sorry, sis, but the hike was my idea." Apparently, relaxing wasn't her thing. Any time she'd had a quiet moment, she'd considered the avalanche of responsibility headed her way, and panicked. Which made zero sense. She'd dreamed of opening the donut shop for years. And yes, okay, her dreams revolved around Nola's happiness rather than her own, but come on! Making Nola happy should make Vale happy. Still, in an effort to hide her panic, she'd made sure she had no quiet moments. "The blame is mine, and that's final."
"Fine. I'll go halvsies with you." Nola pretended to fluff her hair. "If we die, we die, but at least we look cute."
"Dude. We do look cute." They both wore a sleek coat, a downy jacket, thermals, fleece tights, a pair of goggles, a face mask, a hat and gloves. On their feet were multiple pairs of wool socks and hiking boots with ice cleats. "We could charm the flannel off a snow-biker gang."
"Or a yeti with a Southern girl fetish. I bet we could win his heart no problem."
"If he doesn't want to eat our hearts first ... battered and deep-fried, with melted butter on the side." Her mouth watered. "I wonder what sautéed yeti tastes like."
"If you start licking your chompers when you look at me ... I won't feel so guilty for debating whether your liver would pair better with a nice red or a six-pack of cheap beer."
"You've seen my hangovers. Avoid my liver and go for the rump roast." She gave her butt a little slap.
Nola chuckled, only to lapse into silence when a bitter wind nearly knocked them both off their feet. "D-distract me f-from the cold, and I'll l-l-love you forever." Her lips were tinted blue, her teeth chattering with more and more force.
"You already love me forever." Just as Vale loved Nola, the greatest person in the world, living or dead, real or fake. Would move heaven and earth for her. "But I'm awesome, probably the awesomest, so I'll take on this herculean task. Tell me your favorite part of the trip."
"Only e-everything." Nola shifted atop her bag, unable to stifle a whimper of pain. Then she continued as if nothing had happened. "Well, except f-for the abandonment, starvation and h-hypothermia, of course."
"Such trifling matters." Helplessness pelted her insides with bullets. Rub some dirt on it and keep going. "We did everything on our BA lists." BA — before adulting. Extending her index finger, she said, "We marveled over the northern lights."
The chattering slowed, and Nola said, "We went on an overnight dog sled expedition that made me want to adopt a rescue pet as soon as I get home."
"We ice sculpted. FYI, my blob was better than your blob."
"It's true. Oh! We also hot tubbed while drinking champagne."
"Lastly, we hiked through the Arctic Circle."
"Only one item remains unchecked."
"Fall for a handsome local," they said in unison.
Nola grinned and added, "I thought I had a connection with our guide ... until he left us to die and all. But even then, he was better than my most recent online dates. Would someone please explain why modern guys send strangers unsolicited pictures of their genitals?"
"Because of course we women are catapulted into a foaming-at-the-mouth sexual frenzy the instant we catch sight of some rando's man-junk. Duh."
"They are so proud of their peens, aren't they? Meanwhile I'm over here like, congrats on your average-size erection, dude, it's maybe not quite as hideous as everyone else's."
"But," Nola added.
"Oh, no. No buts." Her sis was a hopeless romantic. A hopeless optimistic as well. Nola believed everyone deserved a second, third and fourth chance — which was why she wrote such an excellent How To column. How to intrigue your crush blah, blah. Vale, however, was a realist.
She wasn't closed off to relationships, per se, but she wasn't open, either. People were intrinsically flawed. At some point, they were going to disappoint you — leave you. So, she lived by a code. Always be the leaver, never be the leavee. And yes, she knew her code had roots in childhood abandonment. So what? Issues were issues for a reason. Intrinsically flawed, remember? Most people sucked a nut.
Nola and Carrie were exceptions. Her mom and baby bro were as well ... until they'd died in a tragic accident that forever altered the course of her life. Her dad would have been wonderful, too, if he hadn't taken off, leaving her to bounce from home to home and wonder what was wrong with her, why no one wanted to keep her.
Avoid, avoid! That thought train had only one station: Depressionville.
So, moving on. Vale had a low tolerance for BS, and she believed happily-ever-afters were an illusion because — let's be honest — the longer couples were together, the more time they had to get to know each other, dig deeper, dig past all the pretty smiles and lies they told to make their choices seem okay, to finally see the garbage heap inside. More time to deceive each other, lash out and inflict pain.
Get in, get out.
Fact was, something was going to get broken or stolen if you let down your guard and finally trusted someone. Most often you were left bleeding internally.
Vale had dated around for a while, but she'd never gotten serious with a guy. Mainly because she'd had to spend an enormous amount of energy pretending to be something she wasn't: sweet and gentle. It had stressed her out, which had made her even more prickly, blunt and abrasive, and ultimately she'd given up.
At least, that was the reason she embraced. Otherwise she'd have to admit there wasn't a man alive willing to put in the work and fight to be with her.
"Lately, my love life has been exactly like a private jet," Nola said, pulling Vale from her wayward thoughts.
"Oh, yeah? How so?"
"I don't have a private jet."
She laughed. Funny girl. "Come on. Let's travel a little farther before we settle in for the night." Their bodies needed heat, and movement would add logs to the fire.
Nola lumbered to her feet. They helped each other strap on the packs before marching forward. Vale hauled the bulk of supplies while her sis had blankets and medications, but even still, guilt robbed her of breath every time Nola grunted or groaned from exertion.
Another distraction, coming up. "I miss Carrie," she said.
At thirteen years old, both Vale and Nola were assigned to the woman who handled "difficult" cases — young girls with a disability of some sort. Carrie had done more than open her home and heart; she'd taught her charges how to love themselves, and how to thrive.
Vale, honey, do you think a twenty-dollar bill is worth any less if it's dirty and wrinkled? No way in heck! You might be a little rough around the edges, but you are still priceless.
Carrie and her words of wisdom. She'd loved the adage about the potato, egg and coffee beans most of all.
In boiling water, the potato softens, the egg hardens, but the mighty coffee beans change the water. Don't let difficult times weaken or harden you, girls. Get up and change the situation!
Eyes gleaming with fondness, Nola nodded. "If she were here, she'd cook up a feast. Snowcakes. Slush omelets. Ice bacon. Hail biscuits and blizzard gravy."
Vale grinned, even as hunger gnawed her empty stomach. But the grin was quickly shaken off by a trembling chin. Last year, Carrie had suffered a massive heart attack and, over the ensuing weeks, she'd only weakened. Finally, she'd slipped away.
Her death left a hole in Vale's heart. "I vividly remember the day I moved in. Back then, I lived by prison rules. You know, show them who's boss on day one. So of course I destroyed Carrie's living room, toppling furniture and breaking anything glass. When I finished, she calmly asked if I'd like my sweet tea iced or steaming."
Mimicking the prim and proper Carrie, Nola said, "Always be a lady, until you need to be a land mine."
Carrie had only ever exploded when it came to the protection of her girls.
A sense of homesickness tightened Vale's chest, which flattened her lungs. Great! Now she needed a distraction from the distraction.
As they continued trudging through the snow, she asked, "What are we going to call our donut shop, anyway?"
Nola had suggested The Donut Bar and Drunkin' Donuts, since their sweet treats paid homage to different alcoholic beverages, but both names had been taken already.
"What about Tricks and Treats? Oh! I've got it." Nola clapped her gloved hands. "Happy Hour Donuts."
"Cute, but neither one says high end. Or revs my motor. I'm sorry!"
Frick — Carrie's favorite "curse" word. "We could simplify and go with Lee and London," Vale said.
"I love it, but no one will know what we're selling."
"Maybe not at first, but we can leverage social media to spread the word."
"True. What about Lady Carrie's."
Excitement instantly sparked. "Duuuude. Lady Carrie's is perfect."
"Well sprinkle sugar on my butt and call me a gourmet donut. Did we just name our shop?"
Vale was just about to reply — Our timing is impeccable, as always — when she spotted an ice hill up ahead. There was something about it ... something odd. But what, exactly? Her eyes and brain said Nothing's out of place.
Heart and legs picking up speed, she crossed the distance, gasped. A perfect six-foot hole had been cut into the side, leading to a perfect hollowed-out tunnel with a perfect upward tilt. Definitely man-made. What was inside? Or better yet, who was inside?
A whimper of anticipation broke free. If the tunnel led to a cavern — occupied or unoccupied, it didn't matter — she could get Nola out of the elements sooner rather than later.
"Wait here," she said when her sister reached the hill. "I'll check out —"
"Nope, sorry. We go in together."
"If there's a wild animal squatting inside, only one of us should be its dinner." Mmm. Dinner.
"You're right. The other one will be dessert."
Stubborn girl. "Fine." Vale withdrew a long coil of rope from her pack, knotted one end around her sister's waist and the other around her own. Nola isn't falling to her death on my watch. Next, she withdrew ice axes. Two for each of them. "We'll find a cavern, or drop. Whichever comes first."
After zipping and adjusting her bag, she swung an ax, walked her spiked boots up several jagged steps, then swung the other ax. Rinse, repeat. Again and again. Nola did the same, below and to the right of her.
The higher they climbed, the darker the enclosure became, and the more her muscles protested.
Drip, drip. Drip, drip.
Ironically enough, the steady chorus of water drops tasted like melted vanilla ice cream on a hot summer day. Like hope. Hope gave her strength. Up, up. Higher still.
"I'm not sure ... I can go ... much farther," Nola said heaving from exertion.
"You can. You will." If they stopped now, they'd end up right back where they'd started. When a soft, warm — well, warmer — breeze caressed a patch of exposed skin, she gasped. "There's something ahead, so move your butt!"
The tunnel curved to the right and —
A small pinprick of light caught her attention. "I see something!" Vale climbed faster, closing in.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadow and Ice"
Copyright © 2018 Gena Showalter.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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.
Table of Contents
SHADOW AND ICE, 7,
LIST OF COMBATANTS, 481,
KILL TALLY (contains spoilers), 487,