One Frosty Night
Harlequin Superromance #1956 (November 1, 2014)
Unexpected Christmas plans
Olivia Bowen would rather avoid this holiday season. Even her satisfaction at improving the family business doesn't make up for the loss of her beloved father and the sudden tension with her mother. Olivia questions how much longer she can live in her hometown. And her decision is further complicated by Ben Hovik.
She should keep her distance—he broke her heart years ago. Yet his compassion and their still-sizzling attraction are seductive. Could she be falling for him again? When she spends Christmas with Ben and his teenage son, she wonders if this might be the first of many more….
Snippets of conversation from surrounding tables in Guido's Italian Ristorante came to Olivia Bowen as she waited to find out why her mother had wanted to have lunch with her.
Lunch out, when they'd sat at the breakfast table this morning without exchanging a single word. Dinner last night, too, without anything important being said. And, yes, status quo the day before that. They were living in the same house, and she had been trying to get her mother to talk to her for weeks. Months.
"…can't believe a film crew was here again." Arnold Hawkins, his self-important voice unmistakable.
"…don't understand why the police…" A woman's voice.
"At least, thanks to this town, she has a respectable resting place." Claudia Neff, an insurance agent. Also sounding smug.
Olivia was glad the town of Crescent Creek had cared enough to raise the money to bury the still-unidentified girl found dead in the woods. She just wished they'd been motivated by genuine philanthropy rather than the self-conscious awareness that they were acting on a world stage for the first time in their lives. The mystery of the girl who had seemingly appeared from nowhere, died for no apparent reason and been buried by a community of people who had tenderly taken her to their collective hearts was still an internet sensation.
Jane Doe's death was a watershed for this town, one that made Olivia uneasy more than anything.
Maybe because her father had died only a month later, as if—
There was no as if, she told herself firmly. What possible connection could there be? They all knew Dad's heart had been damaged by the first attack. It had only been a matter of time. She'd come home to Crescent Creek to take over Dad's hardware store and lumberyard to give him peace and to spend time with him.
Listening to the receding footsteps of the waitress who had taken their order, Olivia decided she'd been patient enough.
"So, what's up?" she asked, looking questioningly at her mom.
Marian Bowen's mouth firmed and her eyes met Olivia's. "I've decided to sell the house."
Olivia gaped. "Dad hasn't even been dead two weeks." Or in the ground for one. They had buried Charles Bowen on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, and today was only Thursday.
"I know what I want to do, Livy. Please don't argue."
Her mother's face softened. "I know it was. But that doesn't mean I have to stay in it for the rest of my life."
"You know it's too soon to be making decisions that big."
"I can't stay there. I won't."
The misery that had been balled in Olivia's chest for three months now—the same three months when she had seen her parents' marriage failing—intensified into active pain. "Mom, what's wrong? Please tell me."
"Nothing's wrong that you need to know about. I'm a widow now, and I'm ready to downsize. Is that so bad?"
"But…where will you go?"
"I'm considering a house at The Crescent."
The Crescent was a new and very nice senior citizen housing development. Technically, they were condominiums with the outside maintenance handled by the association. Olivia had been surprised to see anything like that in Crescent Creek, a small town nestled deep in the Cascade Mountain foothills, but the homes seemed to be getting snapped up as fast as they were built. Lloyd Smith, who managed the lumberyard side of the Bowens' business, had even mentioned that his wife wanted him to take a look at them.
If Mom had suggested the move six months from now, Olivia might have thought it was a good idea. But as it was—the decision had been made purely out of anger, not practicality. Her husband had died before she could leave him, but she was determined to go through with it one way or another.What's more, it occurred to Olivia that this felt an awful lot like receiving an eviction notice, given that she lived in the family home right now, too.
"Does that mean you intend to sell the business, too?" she asked. The one she'd thrown herself heart and soul into revitalizing?
"I don't know. I can't expect you to run it forever."
"Apparently you have made up your mind."
"You sound mad."
"A little taken aback," she said truthfully. "When do you want me to move out?"
Her mother's expression changed, showing a hint of shock and some vulnerability. "But…you know it's going to take time to make decisions about everything we have. I hoped you'd be willing to help."
This had been a really lousy few months. Mom and Dad suddenly, overnight, refusing to talk to each other. The house seething with everything they wouldn't say aloud, at least within Olivia's hearing. Dad's face, tinted blue. The oxygen tank kept beside the big chair in the den. The slow way he moved, struggling for breath. The shock of Marsha Connelly finding a teenage girl frozen to death in the woods. Dad insisting on going to the funeral despite his fragile health. Mom's angry absence obvious to anyone paying attention.
And then Olivia waking up in the morning to her mother telling her Dad had died sometime in the night. Mom didn't know when, because she had been sleeping in the guest bedroom, which meant he'd been alone.
Another funeral, held only eight days later.
Olivia had been hanging on by her fingernails since.
Those same fingernails were biting into her thighs right now. Yes, Mom, I am mad.
"I don't know what to say." She sounded a thousand times calmer than she felt. "You've hardly spoken to me in weeks. You don't care about the business. I'm not so sure you care about Dad dying. Now you're rejecting everything that represents our family and my childhood." She blew out a breath. "What do you expect me to say? Gee, Mom, that sounds like fun. Let's dig right in. How about a garage sale? Ooh, I love garage sales."
Marian Bowen sat so utterly still, she looked like a wax effigy. Only her eyes were alive, with a whole lot more than a hint of shock now. Apparently Olivia had betrayed more of her own pain and anger than she'd realized. In fact, out of the corner of her eyes she could see that other diners had turned to look. And, oh God, the waitress was bearing down on them with a tray holding their entrees. Bad time to jump up and say, "I'm not in the mood for lunch."
Instead she kept her mouth shut until the waitress had come and gone again, probably wondering why neither woman so much as glanced at her, forget thanking her.
Then she said, "We need to talk about this later," and reached for her fork. She wasn't sure she could so much as put a bite in her mouth, but she could pretend.
Ben Hovik didn't know what had possessed him to take a long detour by the cemetery.
Until a few weeks ago, he hadn't given it a thought. Growing up in Crescent Creek, he'd been as oblivious as any child was to the reality of death. Yeah, Grandma Everson was buried there, but he hardly remembered her. However, after the two recent funerals, the cemetery held a grim fascination to him.
He felt good about the first funeral. Not the death, of course, because that still left him stunned. How was it possible that a kid no more than sixteen had been too sick or injured or just plain scared to seek help on a freezing cold night? Why had she wandered so far into the woods, lacking even a coat? Then just lay down and died, like an animal that had lost hope?
And how was it that a girl that age could go missing with, apparently, no one who cared enough to be looking for her? The police had been unable to identify her, despite nationwide interest in her life and death. She was entered in missing persons databases that could be accessed by law enforcement from any agency. A drawing of her face had appeared in newspapers, on Seattle television news and even on the internet. There'd been calls, tips; none led anywhere.
The fact that the community had come together to pay for her burial was the part he did feel good about. It saddened him that she'd become theirs too late, when all they could do for her was give her a headstone, but at least they'd done that much.
Having Charles Bowen die so soon after Jane Doe, that hit hard, too. Ben had gone to his funeral because he'd known Mr. Bowen his whole life and had once loved Olivia Bowen. It had been all he could do to see her grief and not be able to do more than shake her hand at the end of the service and murmur condolences, the same way everyone else was. To see how blindly she looked at him, as if he were a stranger.
That was the moment when he'd given up.
His decision to apply for the job of principal at Crescent Creek High School, a return to his hometown, had awakened the seed of hope that he would see Olivia. That maybe they could reconnect.
The first time he saw her after the gap of years had been like a hard punch to his belly. She was only home on a brief visit that time, but she must have gone into work with her dad, because when Ben walked into the hardware store, Olivia was mixing paint and laughing at something a customer said. And, damn, she was even more beautiful than she'd been when he'd so stupidly broken up with her. At five foot ten, Olivia had gotten her height from her dad. That and her natural grace had made her a star on the girl's basketball team in their small high school league. She still had the most amazing legs he'd ever seen—long, slim, but strong. And, man, he knew what it felt like to have those legs wrapped around his waist.
Thick, shimmering hair the color of melted caramel was from her mother, as were those hazel eyes, a complex of colors that changed depending on the light or what she was wearing.
He had stood, stupefied, a few feet inside the hardware store, seeing only her. Inevitably, she'd turned and seen him. Her eyes had widened; there had been a flash of something remarkably intense, then?nothing but a pleasant, slightly puzzled smile. "Ben. Goodness. It's been forever. Do you need some help?"
Whatever that intense something was had kept his hope alive, even though she wasn't receptive on the few occasions he managed to meet up with her during her visits home. When she had moved in with her parents ten months ago, to take over her dad's business, he'd thought, Now I have a chance.
But apparently he'd been fooling himself, because she kept treating him like the merest acquaintance, not someone who'd once been a friend, never mind her high school boyfriend and first lover.
His fault, he knew, but still he kept thinking—
Didn't matter. It was time he quit thinking about Olivia. Unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life alone, maybe he should start noticing other women. Much to his mother's dismay, he hadn't so much as gone on a date in the two and a half years since he'd come home to Crescent Creek with his stepson.
I should change that.
He gave a grunt of unhappiness and took one more look at the cemetery in his rearview mirror. A fresh bed of snow covered the graves, new and old. Only the headstones showed. The one he pictured most vividly said, "Jane Doe, Much Mourned," and gave the date of the girl's death.
Usually he ate at his desk or in the cafeteria with the kids. The one student he stayed far away from was his stepson. Most students likely knew Carson's dad was principal, but the two didn't share a last name, and Ben figured it was just as well not to remind anyone. Today Ben had felt the need to get away. Ever since Marsha Connelly had found the girl dead, he'd felt unsettled. No, that was putting it too mildly. He'd felt a gathering sense of foreboding, as if the one tragedy was a harbinger of worse to come. His worry increased with the second death following so soon, even if it was unrelated. He didn't like the atmosphere at school. Sure, he'd expect kids to be disturbed about the death of a girl their age, but— This felt like more. Not whispers, he wasn't hearing those. More like silence, unnatural for hormone-driven teenagers. Especially such sustained silence.
He frowned. Foreboding?
Slowing when he reached downtown, he thought with near amusement, Right. He was dramatizing his own depression. Call a spade a spade.
And then, right in front of him, he saw Olivia and her mother come out of Guido's, the town's one Italian restaurant. His foot lifted from the gas. The hesitation was enough to make him miss the light, which allowed him to watch mother and daughter walk side by side for a block without speaking, if he wasn't mistaken. Both backs were stiff. They stayed a good two feet apart, careful never to so much as brush arms. Then they parted, with Marian Bowen looking both ways and crossing the street to her car, while Olivia continued on toward her father's hardware store.
No, her mother's store now, he supposed.
And there was a parking spot a half a block from the store. It was meant— He put on his signal, pulled into it and jumped out, his timing perfect to intercept Olivia.
Well, shit. Maybe he hadn't given up hope after all.
Head bent, she walked fast. Her eyes burned, and she thought seriously about not going back to work at all. Except?where would she go? Not home, that was for sure.
Home for how much longer?
Oblivious to her surroundings, she smacked right into somebody, who then grabbed her arms and kept her upright when she bounced back. Even before she lifted her head, Olivia knew who it was. Her body knew.
Ben Hovik. Tall, dark and handsome. The lanky boy who had, to her dismay, acquired muscles and matured into a man who would turn any woman's head.
Except hers, of course. Been there, done that.
He was also the one person in town she went out of her way to avoid.
"Olivia." His deep, slightly gritty voice was as gentle as it had been at her father's funeral when he'd taken her hand in his. His expression was kind.
"I?excuse me. I wasn't paying attention to where I was going."
"You looked upset."
She smiled weakly. "It hasn't been the best of days."
Her feet should be moving, but they weren't. He stood there looking down at her, apparently in no hurry even though it was the middle of a school day.
Her heart cramped, as if she hadn't already felt like a walking advertisement for Prilosec. Why did he have to look so damn good?
She had always noticed Ben. Mostly from a distance, until her first day as a freshman at the high school. He'd turned away from his locker and smiled at her, and she'd stumbled, dropped the backpack she'd just unzipped and spilled everything in it on the floor right in front of him. Lunch, pens, new gym clothes and athletic shoes. The rings on her binder had sprung open, compounding the mess. Her finest moment. When he'd helped her pick everything up and asked if she was all right, her crush metamorphosed into something a lot scarier.
The amazing thing was, he seemed to feel the same. He asked her out, she went. They fell in love. Made love. Talked about the future. Only, of course, she still had two years of high school left when he graduated, so he went off to college first, where there were lots of pretty girls his own age. She should have expected it, but she'd been stupidly naive and hadn't. He'd broken her heart, and, nope, seeing him right at this particular minute in time was not making her feel better.
"I need to get back to work," she said. Feet still not moving.