Harlequin Super Romance (February, 2013)
Outside, a storm is raging…
When a blizzard strands Fiona MacPherson and her students in Oregon's Cascade Mountains, their only hope of survival is to seek shelter at Thunder Mountain Lodge. Their host is John Fallon, a handsome, enigmatic war veteran haunted by secrets and scars—scars that may never heal.
John hadn't expected to be playing host to this captivating teacher and her eight teenage charges. But when his solitude is shattered by their arrival, his world shifts on its axis. He needs Fiona—but does she need him? There's only one way to find out. The ex-soldier must find the courage to reach out and open his heart to this remarkable woman who has transformed his life.…
Fiona MacPherson was starting to get scared.
The rhythmic thwap, thwap, thwap of the tire chains helped her shut out the chatter of the eight teenagers behind her. With the snow falling so hard, she felt as if she and the kids were in a bubble, darkness all around, the headlights only reaching a few feet ahead. Snow rushed at the windshield, a white, ever-moving veil.
She shouldn't have taken this route—a thin line on the map that promised to cut north of the projected path of the storm.
"This way's good," Dieter Schoenecker had said, when she told her vanload of students what she intended to do. "We cross-country ski at a place up near High Rock Springs."
Hadn't she been a high school teacher long enough to know better than to take a sixteen-year-old's word for anything?
Not fair. She was responsible, not Dieter, and she had had some doubts about whether the line on the map was too skinny. But it was a highway, it headed westbound, and they should have been able to make it across the Cascade Mountains before the blizzard arrived.
Only, they hadn't. They'd left Redmond, out in the high desert country of eastern Oregon, hours ago, right after the Knowledge Champs competition had ended. They should have been close to home in Hawes Ferry south of Portland by now, or at least descending into the far tamer country in western Oregon. Instead they were in the thick of the storm. Fiona was struggling to maintain twenty miles an hour. It had been at least two hours since she'd seen another vehicle.
We should have turned back when we stopped to put on chains, she thought. And when they realized they no longer had cell phone reception.
The voices behind her had died out, Fiona realized.
"You okay, Ms. Mac?" one of the boys asked.
Despite the fact that her neck and shoulders ached and her eyes watered from the strain, she called back, "Yep. You hanging in there?"
Nobody had time to answer. A jolt shuddered through the van as it hit something and came to a stop, throwing Fiona against her seat belt.
"What happened?" Amy cried.
"We probably went off the road," Dieter said.
Fiona made everyone but Dieter stay in the van. She and he put on parkas and got out. With the engine turned off, it was utterly silent outside, the headlights catching the ghostly, slow fall of the snow and the white world they found themselves in. Tree boughs were cloaked with white, as were rocks and shrubs and ground.
"Awesome," he said.
She opened her mouth to snap at him, then stopped herself. He was young. She should be grateful he didn't realize how frightening their situation was.
With the single beam of light from the flashlight that had been in the glove compartment, they could see that the van's right front wheel rested against a mound. Turning, she cast the thin beam in a semicircle and realized that the road—or what must surely be road—curved. She'd gone straight.
"Try reversing," Dieter suggested. "A couple of us can push, too."
Moments later, they were on the road again. Fiona waited until the boys clambered back in, bringing a burst of cold with them and shaking off snow. This time, Dieter got in the front seat.
"You know the rules," she began.
"Yeah, but maybe I can help you see."
After a moment, she nodded, then with a hand that had a fine tremor put the van in gear and started forward.
Where were the snowplows? she wondered in frustration, but knew—they would be working on the more traveled highways.
I've endangered these children's lives with my bad decision. She felt as if ice were running though her veins.
"What if we get stuck?" Amy asked, in a high, frightened voice.
"We've done fine so far."
Dieter said, "They don't close passes without sending, like, a state patrolman over it to be sure no one is stranded."
Fiona was momentarily reassured until she thought about how many roads there would be to patrol. And, because this snowfall was so heavy, anyone coming behind them might find the highway totally impassable.
Out of the van back there, she'd realized how bitterly cold it was tonight. If they got stuck, she could run the engine and the heater off and on, but none of them were dressed for more than a dash from the parking lot into a building. She, Dieter and Hopper were the only ones with real winter parkas.
"Tell me if you see any sign of habitation," she said softly to Dieter.
Leaning forward, staring at the same white kaleidoscope she was, he nodded.
Fiona blinked hard to ease the strain on her eyes.
Stay on the road, keep going and sooner or later they'd break free of the storm.
It was the staying on the road part that was the real challenge.
John Fallon hadn't intended this trip to be a race against the storm. Once he heard the weather reports, he'd decided to move up the shopping expedition to town he had planned for next week. But the storm wasn't supposed to hit until the middle of the night or the following morning.
He was coming out of the country store with his arms full of groceries when he saw white flakes swirling from the sky. Given that he had an hour's drive deeper into the mountains and the blizzard, the sight wasn't welcome.
Nodding at townsfolk when he had to, he took the time to pick up his mail, go to the tiny liquor store and then to top his Toyota 4Runner's tanks at the Chevron station before setting out for the lodge. With the snow coming down harder, he skipped his usual stop at the library to pick out new books and check his e-mail.
Within half an hour, he was cursing under his breath. The snow was falling heavily—more like a midwinter storm than a pre-Thanksgiving one. Good thing he'd stocked up. If it kept on like this, the plows might take a week to get to his place. The Thunder Mountain Lodge, of which he was now proprietor, was the last dwelling on the west side of the mountains. Just past the lodge, the highway closed for the winter unless the snowfall was light.
If this storm was any indication, snowfall was going to break records this season.
He wouldn't mind. When he bought the lodge in December last year, John had intended to keep it operating, but he hadn't done much advertising and he found himself looking forward to midweeks when he had the place to himself.
Families were the most annoying. Cross-country skiers, snowshoers, hikers; they were okay. They tended to be out all day and come back tired. They'd eat quickly and gratefully, maybe sit in front of the blaze in the huge, river-rock fireplace that was the lodge's heart, then disappear into their rooms. But families… They were another story. The mothers always wanted to talk and the kids yelled and ran around and knocked things over. Families wanted suggestions for activities, baby bottles heated at odd hours, snacks for the kids after the kitchen was closed.
He'd had a particularly hellish group in August. Ironically a church group. Teenagers. They'd taken over the lodge as well as all five of his cabins strung along the river. They sang songs, they built bonfires, they flirted and wrestled and ate like there was no tomorrow. They swarmed.
John just wanted to be alone. Didn't seem like too much to ask, did it? He'd bought the damn place because it was about as isolated as you could get without roaming with Kodiaks in Alaska. Paying guests would give him enough income to get by, he'd figured. He would cook, serve, clean. Give him something to do. Otherwise, he'd keep to himself.
He just hadn't realized how busy Thunder Mountain Lodge was. One person after another told him, "We love the lodge. We come every year. It has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth." He also heard how refreshed they were after their stay.
They should have been here at the same time as the church group.
He had closed up the cabins for the winter, on the advice of the old curmudgeon he'd bought the lodge from, turning off the water and wrapping pipes. He'd done that just a few weeks ago. The lodge itself had six guest rooms along with his quarters in the back, plenty for the backcountry skiers and snowshoers who came in the winter. He had a couple scheduled to arrive tomorrow. Something told him they wouldn't be coming.
Wouldn't break his heart.
But he did wish he'd gotten down to town and back a few hours earlier.
The last half hour was a bitch, with the snow piling up at record speed and visibility close to zero. His mind kept flashing back to the sandstorms in Iraq, as blinding and bewildering.
Damn it, don't do this. Focus.
He knew every turn, every landmark. Even so, with the advent of darkness, he almost missed his turn. The massive, wood-burned sign that read Thunder Mountain Lodge carried a swag of snow and was already buried up to the bottom of the letters.
The lodge was half a mile farther, down a winding driveway that dropped toward the river. This privately owned land was heavily forested, the old growth here one of the attractions.
John had left the shed doors open and now drove right in. He was going to have to get out the shovel if he wanted to close them.
Making several trips, he carried the groceries and booze into the big, empty kitchen. Mail he left on the farmhouse table that sat in the middle. Once he'd put away the perishables in the restaurant-quality refrigerator, John put his parka and gloves back on and went out to shovel enough to close the shed doors. Having already worked up a sweat, he cleared a path to the front steps and the steps themselves, too, even though he'd likely have to redo them come morning if he needed to go out.
Then he stood for a minute in the dark, only the porch light and dim glow coming from the windows, and listened to the eerie hush snow brought when it wrapped the world in white batting.
For that brief moment, his soul felt at peace.
In back, at least two of the girls were crying, one quietly, one not so quietly. Fiona simply didn't have the energy to try to reassure them. In fact, she'd have liked to cry herself.
They'd gone off the road twice more. With all three boys pushing, each time they'd made it back onto pavement. This last time, the snow had been knee deep. That meant the undercarriage was pushing through snow. Clammy with panic, Fiona started forward again. Now even the sound of the chains was muffled. Thank God, the highway didn't seem to run next to a river or creek. If they slid down an incline.
Don't think about it.
For the thousandth time, she told herself, if we keep going, we 'll eventually come out of the mountains. Studying the map all those hours ago, she'd noticed a couple of little towns dotting the line of the highway once it crossed the pass and descended toward the Willamette Valley and Portland. There would be lights. Heat. Food and safety. Although it had been scarcely noticeable at the time, they must have gone over the pass an hour or more ago, because the road was definitely descending now, although not steeply.
But it seemed, if anything, that the snow was falling harder. Or perhaps her eyes were just so tired, she was less capable of seeing through that driving veil of white. Her neck and shoulders and arms were rigid. Somebody would probably have to pry her fingers from the steering wheel.
Her frozen fingers, she thought morbidly. After the van disappeared into a snowbank and its tracks filled in. Or perhaps her fingers wouldn't be frozen anymore, if nobody found the missing teacher and her pupils until spring.
"Wait a minute!" Dieter jerked. "Did you see that?"
She braked. "What?"
"I think…wait. Let me get out." He reached back for his parka, grabbed the flashlight from the glove compartment and sprang out, disappearing immediately in the dark.
Fiona just sat, too exhausted to move. Too exhausted to worry, even when he didn't come back for several minutes.
"Where'd he go?"
"Why are we stopped?"
One of the girls, voice high and rising, "Are we stuck?"
Fiona was too exhausted to answer, as well.
The passenger door opened again, and Dieter said exultantly, "There's tire tracks. And a turn here. I think there's a sign. I bet it's Thunder Mountain Lodge. Remember how I told you my family comes up here?"
"What if whoever made the tracks came out?" Kelli asked. "And they're, like, gone, and even if we find the lodge it's cold and dark?"
A lodge. Fiona's mind moved sluggishly over the idea.
"We could build a fire," she said.
Voice pitched so only Fiona would hear him, Dieter said, "If this is Thunder Mountain, the next town is something like another hour. And that's when the road's plowed. I don't remember much in between."
The others were offering opinions, but she ignored them.
"Okay," she said. "I'm going to back up. Can you guide me?"
He left the passenger door open and talked her through backing up ten yards or so. Then he shone the flashlight on the tracks in the snow. Now Fiona could see them, too. A vehicle had come from the other direction and turned into an opening between trees.
Please God, she thought, let the driver have known where he was going. Don't let me follow someone else as desperate as we are.
"See?" Dieter turned the beam on a dark bulk to the right as she turned into the road or driveway or whatever it was. "Let me go look."
She watched as he plowed his way through and took a swipe at whatever it was with his bare hand. Clumps of snow cascaded down, exposing writing that the dim beam picked out.
He yelled, "It is Thunder Mountain Lodge. Cool!"
When he got back in, Fiona asked, "Please tell me it's not another five miles."
He laughed exultantly. "Nope. It's like…I don't know, a quarter of a mile. Half a mile?"
"Okay," she said. "Here goes."
Whatever vehicle had gone before her had obviously passed by a while back; it was a miracle that Dieter had spotted the tracks, vanishing fast under fresh snowfall. She kept losing sight of them in the white blur.
The kids in back were talking excitedly now that salvation was at hand. Dieter started telling them about this great old lodge, the ancient trees and the river just below.
"There's this huge fireplace," he was saying, when the van lurched and the front end seemed to drop.
One of the girls screamed. Fiona braked, out of instinct—they had already come to a dead stop. Dieter jumped out again, coming back to shake his head.
"I don't know if we can get it out."
"Can you still see the tire tracks?" He looked. "Yeah."
"It can't be that far. We'll walk." She turned. "Everyone, bring your stuff, especially if you have any food left over from lunch or dinner." They had stopped at a hamburger joint on the way out of Redmond. "Put on all the clothes you brought."
She took her purse, but left the tote that held only the schedule for the day, competition rules and her notes on questions she would drill students on in the expectation they'd be asked the same ones again someday. Once everybody was out, she made them line up single file behind Dieter, bringing up the end herself. Then, feeling silly, she locked the van.
"Lead on," she called.
Her face felt the cold first, then her feet. Was this the right decision? she worried, as they stumbled through the dark and falling snow led by—God help them—a sixteen-year-old boy's memory of a winter vacation.
Well, she had no choice—not after she'd gotten the van stuck. Within minutes, she was almost too cold to care.
"I see lights!" Dieter exclaimed.
Fiona blinked away the flakes clinging to her lashes and peered numbly ahead. Was that a dim glow, or a mirage?
"Keep going," she ordered, her face feeling stiff.
Gradually she saw them: golden squares of windows. Not brightly lit, but as if there might be lights on deeper inside the lodge. Or maybe firelight was providing the illumination.