North of Need
HEARTS OF THE ANEMOI - Book One - by Laura Kaye
Desperate to escape agonizing memories of Christmas past, twenty-nine-year-old widow Megan Snow builds a snow family outside the mountain cabin she once shared with her husband, realizing too late that she’s recreated the very thing she’ll never have.
Called to life by Megan’s tears, snow god Owen Winters appears unconscious on her doorstep in the midst of a raging blizzard. As she nurses him to health, Owen finds unexpected solace in her company and unimagined pleasure in the warmth of her body, and vows to win her heart for a chance at humanity.
Megan is drawn to Owen’s mismatched eyes, otherworldly masculinity, and enthusiasm for the littlest things. But this Christmas miracle comes with an expiration—before the snow melts and the temperature rises, Megan must let go of her widow’s grief and learn to trust love again, or she’ll lose Owen forever.
Title: North of Need (Hearts of the Anemoi, #1)
Author: Laura Kaye
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Romance
Length: 326 pages
Launch Date: May 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-937044-46-6
Print ISBN: 978-1-937044-87-9
Praise for North of Need:
★★★★ “This is a fascinating, magical tale of the way our loved ones can watch over us after they’re gone. An interesting group of gods and their subjects are introduced. The ending is a delight.”
- Susan Mobley, RT Book Reviews
“Using ancient winter mythology as an allegory for grief, Kaye has written a sexy story that packs a powerful emotional punch. With a heroine you can root for and a hero who is a dream come true, NORTH OF NEED is pure winter magic and Kaye’s sparkling talent warms the heart.”
- Stephanie Draven, author of the MYTHICA series
© 2011 Laura Kaye
The cold scorched Megan Snow’s throat, making it hard to breathe. Hard to think.
That was a good thing.
She tugged her scarf over her mouth, grateful for the expansive winter sky and crisp air, and set off on a trail walk. Four days alone in the cabin, and Megan was sure the walls were closing in on her. Outside, everything was bright and clean and open. Just what she needed.
She headed for the stand of trees off to the side of the house, hoping the snow might be more shallow under the thick canopy of branches that sheltered the woods. A creek sat a half mile in where, on warmer days, happier days, she and John had sometimes picnicked and made love. It would be iced over, of course, but having a goal burned off some of her restlessness.
Megan high-stepped through the snow until her thighs burned, gripping onto one tree after another. She tripped on buried branches and rocks until the trees were the only things keeping her upright. Hugging a hickory trunk for support, she glanced back over her shoulder and groaned.
The clearly visible cabin mocked her progress. Most of the twenty inches of snow blanketing the wide field in front of the house had made its way to the forest floor, too. She wanted a distraction, but she needed to be smart, safe. Damn. She retraced her path to the cabin.
But she wouldn’t go back inside. Couldn’t.
She grabbed the shovel from the covered porch of the story-and-a-half log cabin and dug into clearing the front sidewalk. You know you’re going stir crazy when shoveling backbreaking wet snow counts as entertainment.
Her family was right. It was probably time to stop coming out here for the holidays. But she just couldn’t give this place up. Not yet. Not when it was the only thing she had left of him.
Nope. Not thinking about that.
Sweat trickled down her spine under her cotton turtleneck and thick fleece with each scoop-and-toss. Blonde curls worked their way out from under her hat and hung in her eyes. She didn’t mind though, because with each newly revealed foot of sidewalk, the ache in her muscles made it more and more difficult to wallow in memories.
The shovel hit something solid and kicked back against Megan’s frozen hands. She groaned as the shock of thwarted forward motion rocked through her wrists and elbows. Gravel from the driveway spilled from the shovel blade into the snow. Huh. She turned and looked behind her, surprised to find she’d cleared the whole length of the twenty-foot path.
Without once thinking of him. Of the anniversary.
And proof that manual labor was her friend. There’d be no more sitting around with books or music or TV shows she couldn’t concentrate on. She’d just exhaust herself into a mindless oblivion.
She looked to her left, down over the expanse of shimmering white to the distant forest that marked her property line. To her right, her now-hidden driveway formed a curving path two-thirds of a mile to the main road and civilization. Shoveling that mess certainly would require manual labor, but Mr. Johansson would be up here with his plow as soon as the weather broke. How would she explain to him she’d tried to shovel it by hand? She imagined the confounded look on his craggy face.
So, what next? After returning the shovel to the front porch, she stood and surveyed the Western Maryland landscape. The low peaks of the ancient Appalachian Mountains rose around her, the firs and hardwoods for which these forests were famous veiled by two days of nonstop blizzard conditions. The only sound besides her labored breathing was the occasional whistling of the wind through the snow-burdened forest. For all Megan knew, she was the only person in the world. Sure felt like it, these days.
What to do?
God, I’m so lonely.
She sighed and shook her head.
The wind moaned. Then do something about it.
Heart pounding, Megan jerked around, her right boot skidding against a slick spot, pink scarf fluttering out around her like a ribbon. Who’d uttered those last words?
No one, of course. The silence and stillness were complete, as was her isolation—exactly the qualities she and John had always loved about this place.
“Jesus, I’m losing it,” she murmured out loud, just to create the impression she wasn’t so alone. Her gaze returned to the snowy field in front of the cabin. Trimmed by a dense line of firs at the far edges, the clearing was big, clean, empty…
Do something about it, the mysterious voice had said. Oh, she’d do something about it, all right.
Back to the high-stepping routine, Megan trudged out into the front yard. Any spot would do, she supposed, so she stopped and mashed two mounds of snow into a sticky white ball. The lull in the storm had allowed the temperature to creep up into the high twenties, so the snow was good packing quality. She rolled the ball over the powdery surface, intent on making it as big as she could. After a while, the thing started to fight back when she pushed, but she wanted the exertion. Digging her toes in, she fought for every additional inch in diameter until, finally, she was done.
She stood with snow-crusted gloves on her hips and admired her work. “That’s one big ball ya got there.” She sniggered, then shook her head.
Now, for the next two. She set about the packing-rolling-grunting process again until she created a sizable middle and the head. Lifting them into place proved a challenge, but with a lot of grunting and a few choice expletives, she lugged the heavy masses where they needed to be.
“Now, to transform you from androgynous snow person into my snowman.” Megan jogged back to the house and didn’t even worry about tracking snow inside. Moments later, she reemerged with an armload of supplies she dumped at the foot of her creation.
“First, we gotta give you a face, mister.” Emptying the bag of buttons on top of the flannel shirt, she sorted through with glove-thick fingertips. She wanted bigger ones for the eyes, and found two. She frowned. They weren’t the same color, but she wouldn’t be able to tell from a distance. She plugged the biggest navy and chocolate-brown buttons into the face as eyes. A light brown button made a cute nose, and a row of mismatched reds made a friendly mouth.
The red and white plaid flannel shirt was a big don’t-even-let-your-thoughts-go-there, but she couldn’t allow the poor guy to go without clothing. Besides, she had a closet full of them. She wrapped the soft fabric around the middle section. The snowball was wide, but the shirt closed. After all, he’d been a big guy, hadn’t he? She tugged off her gloves so she could do up the front, then trudged to the oak tree on the corner and snapped off two branches. With cold, shaking hands, she threaded the twigs through the flannel sleeves until Snow Man was inviting her in for a hug. She finished him off with a blue tartan wool scarf and a thick black knit beanie she stretched down as far as possible.
Standing back, Megan admired her work. He was the best snowman she’d ever built. Tall. Well proportioned. Handsomely attired. “Now I’m not alone.”
Inspired, Megan fished a dry pair of blue gloves from the supply pile and collected more snow, beginning again before her brain could assess and refute her pronouncement. She packed, rolled, and lift-grunted until another, somewhat smaller, snow person stood beside the first. Back at the tree, she broke off more branches and gave the second person arms. She slid her soaked-through pink gloves on the end of each stick, then wrapped her own matching pink scarf around the snow woman’s neck. Perfect.
Hands on her knees, Megan rested and struggled to catch her breath. Her lungs burned with the frigid air, her lips chapped and cracked. Her body ached from the heavy lifting. Definitely the route to a decent night of sleep. God, how she needed that. She plunged into her third creation.
The temperature dropped and the biting wind picked up. Big, wet snowflakes fell in a heavy blanket, darkening the afternoon sky. Her flagging energy and the deteriorating conditions made the work harder, and this snow person ended up much smaller. On her knees, with wet gloves and cold hands almost too numb to do the job, Megan set its little head in place.
Breathing hard, she staggered to her feet and studied her afternoon’s labor with her hands on her hips.
She’d made a snow family.
A snow family. A snowman, a snow woman, and a snow child.
A sob tore up her throat and echoed into the stillness. What the hell was she thinking?
She stumbled, gasping at her own stupidity. The emotional scab ripped open. Hours of effort came undone. Her boot stuck in a deep drift and tripped her. Her body fell hard at the base of the snowman and her breath whooshed out. The sobs choked her as she crawled to her knees and slumped against the man. She yanked off a glove, needing to touch something he’d touched, something that had been his, but her frozen fingers could barely feel the soft cotton of John’s favorite cabin-wear. She buried her face against the worn material. He’d been gone too long to be able to smell him on it, but that didn’t keep her from inhaling deeply to try.
“Why did you leave me?” she wailed, her tears soaking through the cold shirt. “Why?” Her fists curled into the flannel. “I need you.”
The wind swallowed her words and carried them away. John was gone. And they’d never have a family of their own. They never even had the chance.
“Merry Christmas,” Megan murmured to the empty bedroom the next morning.
Gray light filtered through the two windows on either side of the king-sized bed, enough to illuminate the outlines of hundreds of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. She’d once remarked offhandedly that her favorite thing about spending time at their cabin was the huge glittered dome of the rural night sky. Up here, no city lights dimmed the stars’ brilliance, so even the smallest, most distant ones beamed and twinkled. The next time they’d visited, John redecorated their bedroom ceiling. Just for her. He wanted her to have her stars, inside and out.
She didn’t bother wishing on them anymore, though. Not in two years. Two years, today.
In spite of the circumstances, the holiday filled the air with a special, magical buzz that set her stomach to fluttery anticipation. A ridiculous reaction, of course, since she was alone. No surprise gifts or family-filled dinner awaited. Just a quiet, empty house.
Wallowing in bed all day sounded appealing, but a burning sensation on her cheek demanded attention. She patted the area. The skin felt rough, like a scab. Lovely. Turning back the cocoon of the thick down comforter, she slipped out of bed. She followed a path from one hooked scatter rug to the next, avoiding the cold, wide-planked wood floors.
The navy, mahogany, and white color scheme of the bedroom carried into the adjoining bathroom. Megan squinted against the brightness of the mounted light and leaned toward the mirror. Her left cheek bore the deep, dark red of frostnip. Her skin looked almost sunburned, except the angry mark was localized to the cheekbone. The spot where, yesterday, she’d leaned against the snowman, crying until the unceasing flow of her tears froze the wet flannel to her face. At least her nose and other cheek, pink from windburn, didn’t hurt.
She gently prodded the mark with her fingers again. Last night, it had been cold to the touch, but now it was hot, chafed. So stupid. She slathered moisturizer over her face and smoothed ChapStick over her dry lips, and brushed and clipped her loose blonde curls on top of her head in a messy pile. What did her looks matter?
Megan slipped a pink fleece robe on over her flannel pajamas and threaded her way across the large great room, past the grouping of buttery leather couches and the floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, to the open kitchen. Coffee was a must. She tapped her fingers on the counter as she waited for it to brew. Giving up, she walked around the long breakfast bar to the one concession she made to Christmas.
There, next to the raised stone hearth, a small potted Douglas fir stood in darkness. She reached behind and found the plug. A rainbow of colored lights shimmered to life, brightening the dim gray that still dominated the room despite the number of large windows. She stepped back and gazed at the small tree. Plain balls of every color mirrored the riot of lights, but the basic ornaments also spread an impersonal cast over the tree. She hadn’t unpacked their collection of ornaments—where every one had meaning or told a story—since her last Christmas with John.
She turned away, sucked in a deep breath, and promised herself she wasn’t going to think about that. Not until she had to. And she had almost eleven hours.
She curled into a wide armchair with a warm chenille throw and a mug of strong coffee. The ringing phone startled her and she almost spilled it in her lap. “Oh, hell,” she murmured as she unburied herself and rushed for the cordless.
She knew who it would be before she answered.
“Merry Christmas, dear.”
“Hey, Mom. Merry Christmas.” She settled on the edge of her seat and dragged the blanket over her lap.
“How are you doing up there? The weather looks bad.”
Her mom wasn’t really worried about weather, today of all days, but Megan permitted her the ruse. “I’m just fine. It’s been snowing steady. We’ve got well over two feet, I’d guess.” An earlier peek out the front window revealed the storm had undone all her hard work from yesterday, reburying the stone sidewalk she’d shoveled. The snow family still stood there, though.
“I wish you weren’t up there alone. You should be with us. Especially today. I mean, who’s going to keep your father and brother from sneaking bites of ham and stealing cookies while I’m trying to cook?” Her chuckle sounded forced.
Restraining her emotions made Megan’s throat tight. “I just…I’m not ready.” Not ready to walk away from the annual holiday tradition of a cabin getaway she and John had created, even before they were married. Not ready to be around people actually happy it was Christmas. Not ready to pretend so others could be comfortable.
Her mother’s sigh made its way down the line. “I know. I know you have to grieve, and I know how hard this has been. But, damn it, it’s been two years. You’re twenty-nine, Megan, so young, so much life ahead of you, so much to offer. You can’t spend the rest of your life mourning John.” She paused. “Nor would he want you to.”
Megan forced her eyes to the ceiling to pinch off the threatening tears. “I’m trying, Mom. I am. But, please, I can’t do this. Not today.”
“I’m sorry. I told myself I wasn’t going to say anything. I’m just so worried about you.”
Megan nodded and swallowed around the lump in her throat, unable to do much more in the face of her mother’s emotional outpouring.
“Oh, shit,” her mother muttered.
“That was uncharitable, wasn’t it? Mrs. Cooke is tottering her way up the front sidewalk, annual fruitcake in hand.”
“You need to go?” Their neighbor had been dropping by the inedible bricks since Megan was a kid, though this was probably the first time Megan felt grateful for it—Mrs. Cooke’s timing provided the perfect distraction from this line of conversation.
“Yeah. I’m sorry, dear. Let me go help her. Your father hasn’t been out to shovel yet, and God help me if she falls and breaks a hip on Christmas morning.”
“Okay. Enjoy your fruitcake.”
“Keep it up, smarty. I’ll save you some.”
Megan managed a small smile. “No, please. Don’t do me any favors.”
“I’ll be thinking about you, Megan. I’ll have Dad give you a call later.” The squeak of her mom’s front door sounded in the background. “Hello there, Mrs. Cooke.”
Their quick good-byes overlapped their neighbor’s high-pitched chatter. Megan could so easily imagine the scene unfolding at her parents’ house. Christmas there was comfortably predictable. An enormous real tree filled the living room with the scent of fresh-cut pine. More decorations than a Hallmark store. Mrs. Cooke’s visit. Her dad’s buttermilk pancakes for anyone who had stayed the night before. The savory aroma of baking ham. A small army of visitors—Megan’s older brother and sister with their spouses and kids, occasional aunts and uncles with their families, and even a few neighbors without other plans. Enough food to feed said army, and then some. A mountain of presents. More food. An evening of games around the big farmhouse table.
Much as she had always loved it, she couldn’t face it. Not yet.
By ten in the morning, she’d talked to her sister Susan, amazed to learn her two nieces had been done opening presents for hours already, and her brother Aaron, who quickly handed her off to his wife. She liked Nora well enough and enjoyed talking to her, but knew her brother’s cursory greeting stemmed from his continued discomfort around her. He didn’t know how to make things better for her, and his instinct, as a man, as the big brother, was to fix it. Not being able to help her put him at a complete loss. Megan didn’t hold it against him.
As noon approached, Megan talked herself into getting dressed and having a bite to eat. She was about to dig into a bowl of chili and homemade cornbread when the phone rang again.
“Megs! Merry Christmas!” came her best friend’s voice.
Megan smiled. Kate always did that for her. “Merry Christmas to you, too. You just wake up?”
“Damn straight. Well, Ryan woke me up with some yuletide cheer earlier, but we fell back to sleep after.” Kate snorted.
“Aw, too much information, woman. I don’t need to know about his little yuletide cheer.”
“Who said it was little?”
“Argh. La-la-la, so not listening.”
“All right, all right,” Kate said. “So, how are you? The truth.”
“That good, huh?”
“Oh, Megs, what the hell are you doin’ way up there by yourself?”
“Honestly? I couldn’t face Christmas at my parents’. I know they want me there, but I hate feeling like the elephant in the room. Everyone tiptoeing around me. It sucks.”
“Big hairy balls.”
“Exactly.” Kate’s goofy side had often been a lifesaver, but not today. Megan sighed. “I can’t believe it’s been two years.”
“Me neither. It’s so hard to imagine.”
“They say the first year is the worst, because every sunrise represents the first time you experience that date without the person you lost.” The first Valentine’s without him, the first birthday without him, the first summer alone, the first Thanksgiving without him to be thankful for. The first Christmas. Megan stirred her cooling chili and struggled to put her thoughts into words. “But, honestly, the only thing different about the second year is you feel like you can’t talk about it anymore. Everyone expects you to move on.”
“You can always talk to me. You know that, right?”
“I do. Thanks.” She huffed. “Jesus, I’m sorry to be so damn morose. Maybe we should talk about Ryan’s yule log again.”
Kate barked out a laugh. “Hmm…yes, that is a big, happy subject.”
“Shit, on second thought.”
They hung up with promises to talk later in the day. After.
Despite their joking, the honesty of the conversation chased away Megan’s appetite. She wrapped the bread and chili for later and wandered around the cabin, relocating from one seat to another without any real purpose. A lull in the storm brightened the afternoon. Needing fresh air and a little distraction, Megan bundled up and shoveled the sidewalk for the second time, estimating perhaps ten new inches covered it.
She was officially snowed in.
As she stomped back up the cleared path, her eyes looked where her mind told them not to. The snow family remained, though the constant snow had weighed so heavily upon the woman’s arms that they’d collapsed to her sides, her pink gloves presumably buried somewhere beneath the new snowfall. Megan frowned when she looked at the man. Both his hat and eyes were gone. Blown away or, like the gloves, buried.
Back inside, her eyes drifted where she didn’t really want them to go, to the clock on the microwave. Little after four. Her stomach clenched. About two and a half hours until the anniversary came and went, until John had officially been gone for two years. She found herself glad she hadn’t eaten that chili.
Mismatched picture frames drew her to the mantle. Smiling faces shined out from the past. A candid of her whole family. Her and Susan kissing Aaron’s cheeks at his wedding. Mom and Dad’s portrait from their twentieth anniversary. And half a dozen shots of her and John—their wedding, skiing, her sitting on his lap. Happy and healthy. Alive. She turned away, but he was everywhere. In the rustic moose throw pillows he insisted they had to have, despite the fact no moose resided in these mountains. In the beautiful Mission lamps they found at an antique store outside D.C. In the stars on the bedroom ceiling, in the closet full of his clothes.
By five o’clock, the snowstorm returned with a vengeance, dumping more white fluff while the wind whipped through the surrounding trees. When the lights flickered for the first time, Megan groaned. No way the electricity would hold against the storm’s relentless onslaught. At least she’d stocked the firewood rack when she first arrived. She built a strong fire, providing a blazing source of illumination should the lights fail completely.
The flickering continued at uneven intervals. She’d never seen the electricity falter so much without simply failing altogether. Despite the crackling heat of the fire, the great room air chilled. She tugged on a fleece hoodie and checked the thermostat. The LED screen flashed. She frowned as she reset the program, but the screen just kept flashing. Jeez. First the Freon leak in the air conditioning unit and now the heat was on the fritz. Not much she could do about it with this storm, though. She’d have to schedule a repairman before she headed back to D.C.
A fresh pot of coffee would ward off the chill. She wandered to the kitchen and froze. “What the hell?” All the LED screens—on the microwave, the oven, the coffeemaker, the digital alarm clock on the counter—blinked. Odd. Especially since the clock had a battery backup and, like the thermostat, the coffeemaker wouldn’t reset.
A high-pitched tinkling, like a small ringing bell, sounded from somewhere outside. Goose bumps erupted over her arms. She didn’t have a wind chime, and the next nearest house was over a half mile through the stand of trees to the west.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled.
She dashed to the entryway and peered through the glass panes on both sides of the door. Without light, her effort was useless. A wall of darkness swirled beyond the glass. She reached to the side and tripped the light switches, then turned back to the window.
A strangled scream stuck in her throat.
Out of the darkness, from the heart of the howling snowstorm, a hunched-over man staggered up Megan’s front steps. She wrenched back from the door, her heart pounding in her chest. Panicked, she skittered behind a couch.
Who the hell could he be? Nobody could have walked or driven here in this weather. Her breath came in fast rasps. The lights flickered again, then again. Her eyes trailed to the fireplace tools on the hearth. Maybe she should grab the iron poker. Just in case.
The lights wavered, struggled to hold on. From outside, a solid, deadweight thump startled a gasp from Megan.
The words were so quiet they might’ve been a thought, but in her current state she still whirled, fully expecting the impossible—that someone else was crouched next to her behind the sofa. Of course, she was alone. She peeked around the corner of the couch, her panic subsiding into a feeling of absurdity.
Help who? The man. Just a regular, ordinary man. Who must be in trouble. She remembered how he seemed to stumble on the steps and the thump. He’d fallen. She rushed from her hiding place like a sprinter at the sound of the gun. Peering through the sidelight, she whispered, “Oh, shit.” She was right.
She tore open the door. Jesus, he was big. No one she knew from the neighborhood, though there were always tourists renting surrounding cabins to take advantage of Deep Creek Lake and the Wisp Ski Resort. God, he wasn’t dressed to be out in this weather. No coat. No shoes. What the hell was she going to do with him?
Cold wind buffeted her and nipped at her skin, making her nearly frostbitten cheek tingle uncomfortably. Her hesitation wavered, then dropped away completely. What choice did she have? She couldn’t leave him out in this blizzard.
The bitter wind sank into her bones as she stepped shoeless and coatless—like him—onto the porch. She didn’t have to check for a pulse. Each shallow breath sent up a small fog from his mouth. Megan crouched behind his shoulders and wedged her hands underneath. Two fistfuls of red plaid flannel in hand, she pulled. He barely budged as she grunted and tugged. She tried two more times.
Shit, but it was mind-numbingly cold. “Come on, dude. Work with me, will ya?” she muttered, her hair whipping around her face.
Megan rethought the problem and stepped around to his bare feet. How could someone walk to this cabin without shoes? She shook her head and crouched, back facing him, between his legs. Securing an ankle under each armpit, she cupped his heels and pushed herself into a standing position. This time, when she moved, he moved. The guy was so big and heavy, she felt like Rudolph pulling Santa’s sleigh without the help of the other eight reindeer.
The warm air from inside the cabin embraced her body, its comforting tendrils drawing her over the threshold and into the slate-covered foyer. The lights flickered again, sending out a quiet electrical hum that raised the hair on her arms and the back of her neck. She tried to drag the man carefully, but his head still thumped as it crossed the shallow ridge of the doorjamb. She winced. “Sorry.”
As soon as he was clear of the door, she set his feet down and ran to close it. The indoor temperature had probably dropped twenty degrees while she’d been outside figuring how to lug his sorry butt in. She engaged the dead bolt, and the lights died. She gasped and pivoted, flattened her back to the door. He lay, right where she left him, melting snow all over her hardwoods.
Knowing he needed warmth, she recommenced with the lift-and-drag routine until she had him right in front of the fireplace. The crisis of his exposure to the elements behind them, she looked him over more closely. The first thing her eyes latched onto was the shirt and scarf—John’s clothing. The pieces she’d used on her snowman. Was it possible this guy had walked here…in what? The pair of faded jeans he wore and nothing else? And then…he’d grabbed the clothes in desperation before collapsing at her door? Everything about that was two kinds of strange.
Well, she wouldn’t know anything for sure until he woke up and could tell her what had happened to him, so for now she’d concentrate on warming him back up.
She grabbed the thick chenille throws from the sofa and draped the first over his torso, tucking it as far under his body as she could. His crisp, clean scent, like snow on a spruce, filled her nose. Long as the blanket was, it still didn’t reach below mid-shin.
With the second blanket, she started at his feet. Amazingly, while his feet were red, they didn’t seem to suffer any of the telltale signs of serious frostbite. She wrapped his legs completely, trying to give him a little extra cushion against the floor’s hardness. While she was at it, she sacrificed her comfy down pillow to the cause, flattening it out with her hands before sliding it under his head. His hair was a mess of longish strands that hung onto his forehead and down to his collar. It looked pitch black, but then it was also sopping wet.
Maybe she should call 9-1-1. Could an ambulance even get here in this weather? She shook her head.
Megan stood and stretched, admiring the man’s surreal good looks. Even asleep, unconscious, whatever, the guy was ruggedly handsome. Mop of shiny black hair, strong brow, square jaw, fair skin, full red lips. A male Snow White.
Her eyes traced down. Very male. No wonder she hadn’t been able to lift his shoulders. They were broad and well muscled, which the tight wrap of the blanket emphasized.
Jesus. She hugged herself. What was she doing? She was all alone, stranded in a blizzard, with a strange man in her cabin. A why-this-was-stupid ticker ran through her mind.
But did she have a choice?
Hot. Too damn hot.
Sweat soaked into Owen’s shirt and jeans, making the latter rough and heavy against his sensitive skin. His hair was heavy and damp where it covered his forehead. He tried to lift a hand to wipe his forehead, but it wouldn’t move. Something restrained him. He struggled, moaned.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
Owen’s eyes snapped open at the sound of her voice. An angel hovered over him in the darkness. He sucked in a breath and flew into a sitting position, tearing out from under the tight blankets. She gasped and yanked herself back from him.
“Where am I?” He looked down at his hands, turned them over, practiced flexing his fingers and making fists. He wiggled his toes against the weight of the blanket.
“You’re at my cabin. I found you on my porch.”
He dragged his gaze over her. The fire illuminated the halo of loose golden curls that framed her face and covered her shoulders, made her inquisitive blue eyes sparkle and dance. He frowned at the crimson puffiness of her cheek. His fingers itched to trace the wound. His lips puckered as he imagined kissing it. Her beauty reminded him of the first snowfall of winter—clean and new and bright. Full of possibility. Far from diminishing her, the injury highlighted her fairness by contrast.
“It’s Christmas,” he said.
She eyed him and nodded. “Uh, yeah.”
He pushed the covers off his lap and yanked the suffocating wool from around his neck, relieved to be rid of their warm weight. The fire crackled beside him, drawing his gaze. He shrank back and swallowed thickly.
“How about something nice and warm to drink?” She rose to her feet, words spilling out of her in a rush. “I’ve, um, I’ve got a Coleman coffeepot just, uh, out in the garage. Operates on batteries, so—”
“I’d like something cold. If you don’t mind.” He followed her movements with his eyes. She was tall and thin. Too thin.
“Oh, okay. No problem.” She turned and strode into the kitchen.
Following her lead, he stood, testing his body, getting his bearings. He took a few tentative steps, enjoying the chill of the floor against his bare feet. He rolled his shoulders, twisted his neck from side to side. His muscles came to life as his body made its first halting movements.
He glanced to the kitchen and found her watching him. Her gaze lit on him like a caress.
“Want water, juice, or soda?” she called.
She returned with the glass immediately. He downed the whole thing in one greedy gulp.
“May I have another? Colder, if you can?”
She gaped at him. “Ice?”
A blush bloomed on her face. Curious. He liked it. Wanted to touch the flushed skin.
She handed him his second glass and gestured to the couch. “Would you like to sit down?”
He took a smaller drink, his eyes following the sway of her hips as she walked around the sofa. After a moment, he joined her. The leather was cool and comfortable.
“So”—she clasped her hands together in her lap—“why were you out in this storm?”
He frowned. Tried to think. “I don’t know.” He couldn’t remember much before waking to the vision of her over him.
“What? You mean, you don’t remember?”
He dragged a hand through his wet hair. Concentrating made his head ache. “Uh, no, I guess not.”
“Oh. Well, are you hurt anywhere?”
He looked himself over, moved the parts of his body in sequence. “I don’t think so.”
“You collapsed on my porch. No shoes or coat.”
The image of a swirling snowy nightscape flashed behind his eyes. He blinked, tried to hold on to the image. “I did?”
She nodded. Fidgeted with her fingers. Stuffed her hands between her thighs. “So, uh…”
He watched, fascinated by all her small nervous movements. Such a pretty woman. “Why are you here all alone on Christmas?”
She paled, her mouth dropping open. Then she gasped. “Oh, my God.” Her eyes cut to the dark components under the TV. She cursed and flew from the couch. More curses came from the kitchen. He rose, regretting his question, and went to where she was rooting through a bag on the kitchen counter. She pulled out a small cell phone, pushed some buttons, then groaned. “Why is nothing working?”
“Can I help you?” A pit of guilt took root in his stomach. Though he didn’t understand the urge, he would’ve done anything to ease her apparent panic.
“The time. Do you know the time?”
He shook his head. “Sorry.”
“I can’t have missed it. Please tell me I didn’t miss it.” She ran across the broad open space and disappeared into a dark room, then returned moments later carrying a small glass-domed clock with a shiny brass pendulum. She placed it on the stone hearth, face toward the undulating flames, and settled onto her knees.
Something stirred deep in his gut, niggled at the back of his mind. A feeling like déjà vu gripped him. His forehead ached as he struggled to concentrate, to make sense of the odd sensation.
A low moan yanked him out of his thoughts. The woman curled over the stone hearth in front of the clock, her head buried in her arms, her shoulders shaking.
Her tears called to him. Down deep, on some fundamental level of his psyche.
Just as he stepped toward her, images and words flooded his consciousness. The panel of gods, the pleading man. He sucked in a breath.
All at once, he remembered his purpose. He remembered himself.