by Wendy Sparrow
Seven years ago, Kate Finley fell through the ice into the Winter World and straight into the heart of its king, Jack Frost. Then cold feet set in and Kate ran from the one man who made her feel complete.
Jack let his queen go back to the mortal world to say goodbye but she escaped out of his reach to sunny Florida. Now time is short, and he must convince his runaway bride to give him a second chance to melt her heart.
Author: Wendy Sparrow
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Romance
Length: 117 pages
Release Date: January 2013
Imprint: Ever After
© 2013 Wendy Sparrow
Kate skirted the snow as if it were boiling, bubbling lava. Denver was covered with the stuff. It was piled thick on the sides of the road where the plows had shoved it. Kids were throwing it at each other. Cars were slip-sliding around on it. The only safe haven was the sidewalk they were walking down, and she kept skidding on the salt they’d used to get rid of the ice.
It was everywhere.
Not that she’d expected any different, coming here in winter. This was just a light dusting according to the locals. Everywhere she went people were complaining it wasn’t enough. She had to get out of here before it got worse. And it would get worse.
It could get so much worse.
Kate jumped over a patch of snow clinging to a crack in the sidewalk. It was like the world was icy at its core, and the snow was leaking through the cracks.
“Some people actually like it,” said the man walking beside her. “They come here for that foul, nasty, white stuff.” She could hear the smile in his voice, but she’d warned him she didn’t like the snow before he’d dragged her up here. It was a little hard to say no to Rick Hutton, partly because he was her boss, but a little because he was so charming. “The client just wants you here for a few days and then it’s back to beach weather in time for Christmas.” He made eye contact. “I swear I’ll get you back by Christmas. I’m sure you have family…”
Kate blinked back a sudden stinging in her eyes. It was the season. She only got emotional about her family, or lack of a family really, around Christmas. “No. Not family I’m close to or visit. I’m just anxious to be out of the cold.”
Rick smiled and gestured to a nearby restaurant. “I can help with that at least temporarily,” he said, holding the door open for her. The last seven years she’d practically been in cold storage when it came to men. The warmth from his hand on her back as they navigated through the waiting area didn’t feel…unwelcome.
It was easier to avoid attachments when no one was interested. Rick had been visiting their division of the company more than warranted, and especially more than anyone expected the CEO to visit. There’d been talk around her office, but she’d dismissed it, explaining he was just a nice guy.
Maybe she shouldn’t have disregarded it, because the looks he’d been giving her were heated—defrosting.
The restaurant had high ceilings and exposed wooden beams. It was meant to look like the inside of a ski lodge—and she certainly approved of the wave of heat that had welcomed her when they’d walked in.
Rick’s gaze never left her while they waited to be seated. A rush of awareness heated her cheeks and made her look away. It had been a long time since she’d gotten that look, and he was her boss. Her boss.
Rick’s shirt was probably a week’s salary for her, but he casually yanked off his tie and stuffed it in his pocket, unbuttoning the top button. Everything about him always radiated polish. Then he’d smile, and every woman in the company from the receptionist to upper management wanted to be the one taking that tie off. That smile that made every woman breathe a little faster was thrown about indiscriminately, but he always looked like he was wearing it just for you. The only one who seemed immune was Kate—maybe that was the draw for him.
Okay, she was mostly immune. It wasn’t just his smile, though that would have been enough—he was tall with dark brown hair that looked tousled, the art of a very expensive cut, and he had these brown eyes that reminded her of hot chocolate. Hot, hot, hot chocolate. She needed some of that—right away. The chocolate, not Rick. She couldn’t feel her toes in her wool-lined boots.
“I can seat you next to the window,” the hostess said.
“Near the fireplace. My friend is from Florida and doesn’t like the cold,” Rick said. “Please.” Rick’s smile really did it.
“Well, okay.” She gestured for them to follow her. “My name is Cami, by the way,” she tossed over her shoulder—for Rick.
Kate felt a little awkward and gangly in her layers of clothing—especially while following the young hostess in her painted-on dress, but she’d never stop shivering without all the layers.
The roaring fire they headed towards nearly brought her to her knees. The heat actually permeated clear to her skin. She could kiss Rick for that. She wouldn’t, but it’d been a long time since a guy had made her hot—even if only literally.
After seating them, the hostess lingered, unnecessarily, ridiculously. Rick gifted her with one last smile, and she asked him to come see her if he needed anything.
“I vote we have a very long lunch,” Kate said, watching the fire in the gigantic stone fireplace beside her. It took up nearly the entire wall of the restaurant, and they were at the closest table. The flames licked upwards, tasting the air, and for a moment she could believe she was warm inside. Heaven. This was heaven. “We should order appetizers and something slow-roasted. I’ll even order dessert for no reason other than being able to sit here.” She pulled off her gloves—something she hadn’t believed she’d be doing the entire time she was in Denver.
“See, I can keep you warm even in Denver, but it took DeWinters’ insistence on speaking with you in person to get you up here.” He smiled at her, and dimples appeared in both his cheeks. She fought a reaction to that smile, willed her heart to keep beating at normal speed.
She shrugged, nicely casual. She could resist the lure of Rick. “I like Florida.”
“Yes, but I’ve offered you a great opportunity in upper management—you’ll get out of that dark, dusty office of yours. I swear it looks better suited to a troll. I should have it remodeled over the holidays, but I’m hoping the thought of going back there makes you consider my offer.”
On their last phone call, just before she’d come up here, he’d offered her a position she wasn’t entirely qualified for, but would be a brilliant career move.
She’d just have to move. Physically. Here.
A shiver vibrated down her spine at the thought of staying here. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She’d stayed out of his grasp for these seven years, but she could feel him in the bite in the air, hear a distant whisper on the frigid wind. He would come for her.
“You might become acclimated.” Rick sounded skeptical even as he said it. “You can’t avoid the cold forever.”
“I can damn well try. Besides, you have more qualified people up here.” Kate tucked her gloves away and glanced up at him in time to see the twitch of his lips in a smothered smile.
Okay, she’d have to be blind to miss his interest. She had her own reasons for not acting on it, but even as it was flattering, it was confusing. Sure, she’d lost all that college weight while managing to keep her curves, and she’d had a lot of guys tell her that her waist-length black hair and deep green eyes drove them crazy. None of that added up to the kind of ex-model trophy wife she’d assumed Rick would end up with. She was just Kate Finley, the girl who couldn’t wait to get back home to Sarasota, Florida, land of retirees, where nothing ever happened—where there was no snow.
Wars had been won by the cold. You could defend against a lot of things, but the driving chill got inside your veins and never left you, freezing you from within until you just gave up. Anything to stay warm. Anything. She never should have come to Denver.
Kate shivered again—a full body shiver that bumped her arm against their table, making it rattle.
Rick laughed. “You know, for someone who works for a ski supply company, you could really never appreciate the product.”
“Water skis. I live in the land of water skis. I don’t even know why I’m here.”
“DeWinters was willing to throw a ridiculous amount of money into accomplishing this, and you are inventory manager for that line.”
She wrinkled her nose. Something felt fishy about all this. “And they couldn’t come down to Florida to talk about water skis?”
Rick slid his gaze up from the menu. “I might not have negotiated as strenuously as I could have.”
She shook her head with a sigh. He couldn’t have known—even if her refusal to travel north was a source of amusement among the rest of the company. Besides, he might not even notice she was in his territory.
After the waitress took their order, Kate pulled off her outermost layer of clothing—the huge parka. She still had another jacket underneath, but the parka could at least come off.
The waitress delivered their drinks. Kate wrapped her hands around the mug of hot chocolate, brought it to her face, and inhaled the aroma. Oh, yes, this was the stuff. It was heavenly. Beautiful, decadent, and dark. It almost made the whole blasted trip worth it. It was impossible to get a decent hot chocolate in Florida. Warm places just didn’t have enough practice. She sipped and moaned.
“Careful. You might just find something you like about Denver.” Rick leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “So, what sends a beautiful girl from Michigan to Florida, and what makes her hate snow?”
Kate gave him a look.
He shrugged. “I looked in your personnel file. I knew from your lack of accent you weren’t originally from the South and it made me curious.”
She wrapped her fingers tighter around her mug. “Seven years ago, I was skating on a frozen pond, and I fell in. It took them nearly an hour to get me out. They thought for sure I was dead and gone for good.” She winced. “On the winter solstice.” She could feel it approaching, this anniversary of hers.
Rick raised his eyebrows. “You’re making this up.”
“No. Profound hypothermia. My heart stopped even. It froze me through. The doctors said the cold killed me and saved me.” She took another sip and sighed in relief. Even talking about it made her cold.
“So…,” he gestured at her. “So…”
It was a common reaction. No one knew what to say.
“Well, you seem fine now.”
“They tell me I am, but I’ve never been warm since. My body temperature is ninety-five degrees all the time. It freaks out doctors.” It freaked her out. It had been seven years, but she knew why it persisted—she just didn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. Every morning she woke up knowing it was impossible. “It’s like I have ice in my veins,” she whispered, staring at the fire.
“And that’s why you live in Florida.”
“That’s why I live in Florida and never leave.”
Another shiver shook down her spine. This time not just from the cold. This was taking a huge chance. Being here.
Rick took her shiver as an answer. “Well, I hear Florida isn’t all bad.” His tone was warm and low, intimate. It wrapped around her like the heat from the fire.
She gave him what she hoped was a friendly smile. “It’s not. You can walk outside in shorts year round.”
“Well, maybe I should come visit more often.”
Kate glanced up from her mug and met his eyes, and then something pulled her gaze away, a magnetic force dragging her vision from Rick’s attractive face. Over Rick’s shoulder, a man with blond hair and icy blue eyes sat at a table alone. He was staring at her. Staring into her. She trembled, not from the cold, but from the intensity of his gaze. His face and physique could have been carved from ice, he was so pale and his bones so sharply defined.
He was here.
The man she’d spent seven years avoiding was beautiful in a way no man had a right to be—slender, tall, pale, like the statues of Roman gods. Not bulky, just smooth flesh and tight muscles. Her fascination ran deeper than his outward appearance, though. She knew him. And, yet, she’d never seen him before—not here, not in this world. This was exactly what she’d worried would happen if she came to a snowy place, if she stepped back within his grasp.
He looked so calm in the cable-knit, steel-gray sweater and black cords. Almost casual, like he belonged here. He hadn’t been there when they sat down, though it appeared as if he was just finishing a meal. Not even the draw of a crackling fire could have kept her eyes off him. If he’d been within a mile of her that day, she’d have known. He had that kind of presence. She knew he’d simply appeared, just now. As ridiculous as it was, that was what had happened.
He smiled—just smiled—and a roar beat through her veins, a freight train of heat so at odds with how frozen he always made her feel.
When she saw him, all she could think about was sex. Cold, frozen sex in a bed with sheets as white and as cold as snow. Sex that left her hungry, dissatisfied, and immeasurably chilled.
The kind of sex they had every night in her dreams.
She craved his presence as much as the warmth surrounding her but, at the same time, he terrified her. This terrified her. His ability to grab her attention, to hold her captive—was frightening. Like an unpredicted blizzard, he rushed in and buried her under this avalanche of awareness, of feelings.
Jack. Jack was here.
“Kate? Kate?” Rick prompted before looking over his shoulder. The two men’s eyes met, and Rick’s jaw tightened as his body froze.
Jack inclined his head and got to his feet, leaving a large bill on the table. He was tall—over six feet. The way he moved on a slow glide was almost otherworldly. No, it was otherworldly. Jack had one foot in a magical world and one in this one.
As he walked by, his hand brushed hers where it rested on the edge of the table. His skin was freezing, but electric—like that first moment when she’d plunged through the ice. His touch felt as sharp as the frigid water. She heard the whispered words in her head, “at last…” on a long slow exhale. She couldn’t take it as anything less than a promise. She was his again. She’d stepped into Jack’s world, and she was his. She rubbed at her skin, but it was no use, every touch was as imprinted as a heavy winter boot in the snow.
Her eyes followed him as he wove his way out of the restaurant, and it seemed to her that time had slowed and maybe even stopped—that the crowded restaurant was silent and still. She blinked, and he disappeared.
She blinked again. Where had he gone? She looked around and tipped back in her chair to look for him. He’d been right next to the hostess’s podium then he’d just melted away. The noise. The crowd. It was all back to how it was before.
“Where’d he go?” she whispered, already knowing how he’d disappeared. Magic. He’d appeared by magic and disappeared just the same.
“Kate.” Rick reached across the table and grabbed her hand. The warmth of his skin on hers was jarring. It felt…wrong. She withdrew her hand from Rick’s and wrapped it around the mug. “Sorry.”
She was imagining things. She had to be. She hadn’t seen him. He hadn’t touched her. None of that made sense. It didn’t. There was no such thing as magic. The dreams were just dreams. Her memories were just hallucinations from the cold and its long-term effect on her body.
Even as her brain fought a good fight with logic, her heart knew. Her body recognized the man she’d been with thousands of times. Her heart had fluttered in her chest at the sight of him and he took her breath away, even after all this time. Jack had just reasserted his claim on her and she felt it to her very core.
She glanced up, prepared to pay just the right amount of attention—enough to be friendly, but not enough to encourage Rick. The greater part of the population might dream of someone just like the man in front of her, but her dreams were icy and cold and full of a man who wanted her back in his frozen world.