Megan Carter stared at the blank window open on her laptop screen. She’d returned to Valentine, Colorado to be inspired, so this was supposed to be easy. She sucked hard on a chocolate Tootsie Pop, the white paper stick jammed in the corner of her mouth like a skinny cigarette.
“What was I thinking? Oh, wait. I wasn’t thinking. Idiot. It’s February. In the Rockies. I hate snow.” She pushed back from the desk and rose to pace the confines of her luxury cabin at the SweetHart Lodge.
The cell phone on the desk buzzed, dancing across the polished surface like water on a hot griddle. Megan didn’t bother to answer. The caller was either her editor or her agent. Both were panicked about her deadline.
“Which is why I freaking came up here!” Her frustrated shout echoed through the empty room.
This trip was supposed to be all about inspiration. She’d lived in Valentine for a couple of years in high school. Until her mother got wanderlust, picked up everything they owned, and moved to San Diego. It doesn’t snow in San Diego. But it snows in Megan’s unfinished romance novel. Hence her trip back to Valentine for inspiration. Her hero was a hunky ski patrol member and her heroine a reckless downhill skier. The whole idea was ludicrous. She knew nothing about skiing. What had she been thinking? Oh, yeah. Back to that again.
She poured a cup of coffee, lacing it liberally with cream and sugar before moving to stand in front of the picture window. Fat snowflakes drifted down and she experienced a moment of vertigo like she’d been caught in a snow globe, held upside down and shaken, not stirred. She’d have to bundle up soon and trudge over to the main lodge. Maybe that whole après ski thing would soak in as guests schmoozed around the fire. She could eavesdrop to get her Muse into high gear—and get an Irish coffee at the bar.
Jesse Travers ducked his chin to his chest and hunched his right shoulder as he turned away from the couple strolling along the sidewalk he’d just shoveled. Holding hands and making goo-goo eyes at each other, they passed him like he was invisible. Just as well. He’d hate to give the woman nightmares.
Wiping the sweat off his brow, he knocked his hood back. If it kept snowing, he’d have to get out the snow blower to keep up. He hated the noise and oily stink of the engine fumes when it was running. The sound and smell reminded him of things that gave him nightmares.
Seemed he hated a lot of things these days. This place. The people who vacationed here. Life. He’d ended up back in Valentine by default after his discharge from Walter Reed Hospital in D.C. His old man had finally died and Jesse had to return to pay off the bastard’s debts. Val Hart offered Jesse a job and a place to stay in one of the old cabins on the back of the property. He hid out, doing odd jobs and repairs around the place. Come spring though, he and Sarge were leaving.
A woman’s terrified scream raised the hairs on the back of his neck. Without a second thought, Jesse dashed toward the sound. He rounded the corner of one of the cabins and slid to a halt. Sarge had someone cornered on the ground. The woman was curled into a tight ball, still screaming even as she tried to fend off her furry attacker. Jesse waded into the fray, wrapped his fingers in Sarge’s collar, and yanked the big idiot back.
“Stop screamin’, ma’am. He won’t hurt you.” The dog lunged at the woman’s face and she screamed again, right before the damned dog licked her face.
“Jeez, Sarge. Release.” Jesse barked the order and the dog, with one final lick which dislodged something from the woman’s mouth, obeyed.
She stared into amazing blue eyes—as hard and bright as aquamarine glinting under the summer sun—the same blue eyes she saw whenever she dreamed up a new hero. She recognized those eyes. Megan gasped.
Jesse flinched at the sound she made. He flipped up his hood and shifted his face into the shadows. Only then did she realize he thought she was upset by his scars. She wasn’t. This man—who’d once been a boy as furtive in the shadows as he was now—had both rescued and humiliated her. She remembered the boy Jesse Travers had once been—the son of the town drunk—and a brutal man. She’d seen the bruises and cuts the boy tried so hard to hide. He’d been proud, even then, wearing his lost-and-found clothes like they came from an upscale store at the mall. He’d had a lean and hungry look in those days, much like his current expression.
Megan peered around her. The dog had knocked off her glasses and now that both man and animal had backed away, she couldn’t see them as plainly. She patted the snow and rolled to her knees to check underneath her. Jesse just watched, silent and sullen. The dog—wolf—ravenous monster—decided she was playing a game. He jumped on her back, knocking her face first in the snow. She whimpered and tried to fend off the crazed animal.
“Sarge, fuss.” Jesse’s voice crackled with command. The word sounded like “fooss,” German for “heel.” The dog seemed reluctant to leave her alone but he responded, dutifully returning to his master’s side. “Platz, Sarge.”
A moment later, Sarge was belly down in the snow but his shining eyes tracked every move Megan made as she searched the snow again.
“Yes. My glasses.”
Jesse kicked at the snow around his feet then bent from the waist and retrieved her heavy black frames. He hesitated then pulled out the tail of his flannel shirt and dried them off before handing them to Megan.
She took them, settled them on her face, and gazed up at him. “I know you.” He shook his head and backed away. “Wait. Please? Jesse, right? Jesse Travers. You…I…we…” She inhaled and blinked a few times. “You saved me in high school. Down under the bleachers at the football field.” She held out her hand and offered a smile. “I think you just saved me again.” Megan wasn’t about to mention what else they’d done, or how he’d broken her heart.
Jesse stared at her face before his gaze traveled to her outstretched hand. He wiped his palm down the side of his thigh before taking hers and pulling her to her feet. He didn’t say anything but his shadowed eyes glinted like gemstones under the soft streetlamps lining the pathway. Once she was on her feet, he jerked his hand away, like contact with her skin burned.
“I remember. Megan Carter.” He turned on his heel and slapped his thigh for the dog to follow him. They left her standing there.
If it hadn’t been so cold, Megan would have butt-planted in the snow. As it was, her knees barely held her upright. “Well, damn.” She exhaled on the oath, softening the sound of it.
Jesse Travers. The boy of her dreams. The slayer of her dragons. And the man who’d broken her heart.
His heart pounded in his chest and he fought the adrenaline surging through his body setting his fingers and toes on fire. He wanted to hit something. Or run. Megan Carter. She hadn’t changed a bit. Big doe eyes blinking behind the veil of her thick glasses. Full lips begging to be kissed. And he had. Despite everything, he had. Kissed her lips and more back then.
Sarge whined at his side and Jesse automatically dropped his hand to the big dog’s head. He’d dreamed about her, hunkered down in a dozen different war zones. He’d pretended she was still his, that she’d be waiting for him when—if—he returned. He didn’t deserve her, but he’d wanted her. What the hell was she doing here? Especially now.
The dog whined again as Jesse gripped his ruff so tight he was pulling fur. He relaxed his hand and breathed. In. Out. Thinking about the action until the pressure in his chest eased.
Another couple approached, arms wrapped around each other. Jesse turned away, burying his face against the rough wool of his coat. He was still the invisible man. Just as well. He couldn’t stand to look in the mirror so how could he expect anyone else to look at him. Except Megan. She’d watched him. Even though she gasped—he knew he’d frightened her—but she didn’t turn away. She didn’t hide from the scars on his ruined face.
Sarge crunched something in his teeth. Jesse bent to take whatever it was away, only to pull out a sticky mess wrapped around a wad of paper. He laughed. Sarge’s penchant for sweets was legendary. That’s why the dog went after Megan. She’d been sucking on a chocolate Tootsie Pop. The muscles of his face stretched and felt odd. Then he realized he was smiling. He hadn’t smiled in…he couldn’t remember.
Megan cupped both hands around her Irish coffee and stared at the flames leaping in the massive fireplace. Her view was blocked momentarily as Tina Hart, one of the owners of the SweetHart Lodge plopped into the chair next to her.
The grandmotherly woman didn’t waste time with small talk. “Val and I saw you talking to Jesse.”
Blinking a few times, Megan considered what to say. Her jaw finally loosened so she could speak. “Is there a problem with that? Is he not allowed to speak to guests?” She snarled the questions.
Tina arched one brow. “Jesse can speak to whomever he pleases. I just—”
“You just what? If he’s allowed to speak to guests then there is no problem with me talking to him, is there?” Megan clenched the glass coffee mug so tightly the whipped cream on top threatened to slosh over the edges. What had gotten into her? She inhaled, relaxed her hands, took a sip, and then exhaled. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hart. That was rude of me. I just…Jesse and I were in high school together. Things were… Well… His life back then…I mean…” She inhaled deeply. “I just want things to be okay for him.”
The woman leaned closer and patted her knee. “My grandson went to school with Jesse, too. It’s okay, hon. I understand. And I’m glad to see he has a champion. Afghanistan was…”
Megan winced. “Is that how he was injured?” She was relieved, though, as she’d worried his father had scarred Jesse’s face with one of his beatings.
Tina nodded and spent a few minutes explaining about the IED explosion, Jesse’s injuries, what Sarge meant to him, and why he was back in Valentine. The longer the innkeeper spoke, the more Megan’s heart broke.
That night in bed, she tossed and turned. Every time she closed her eyes in an attempt to sleep Jesse’s eyes pierced the darkness. He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen and he was the most handsome man she’d ever known. Even with the scar. She wanted to kiss it, kiss him. Hold him. Her body ached with the memory of their one time together. It had hurt and been uncomfortable and she’d cried but Jesse held her and kissed her and told her everything would be okay. Only it wasn’t. He disappeared the next morning and a week later, her mother was packing them up to move.
Megan knew what she wanted. She’d always loved Jesse and she was positive her feelings were more than the lingering effects of a schoolgirl crush. No other boy had ever affected her like he did. And now he was a man—a man still confined to the shadows. Her stomach lurched at the thought. He must be so lonely. She wanted to bring him out into the light, to prove he didn’t have to be on the outside looking in. Never again.
With her mind made up, she rolled over and drifted off to sleep.
Jesse greeted the dawn without ever seeing his bed. He’d been too restless, but he’d come to a decision. He couldn’t stay. He couldn’t face Megan, or the pity he knew would be in her expression whenever she looked at him.
Sarge was curled on the rug, his muzzle resting on his front paws, eyes never leaving his master. He occasionally whined and offered a gentle thump of his tail on the worn wooden floor of the cabin.
“We can’t stay, Sarge.”
The dog’s gentle woof sounded chastising. Ignoring the dog’s censure and the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Jesse got ready for his day. A couple of the snowmobiles needed maintenance. He’d take care of those and then tell Val Hart that he was moving on.
Chores came hard and fast and before Jesse realized it, the sun dipped behind Valentine Mountain. Lights blinked on in the gathering shadows even though the sky looked like someone had painted it with pastel pinks and purples. Mr. Hart would be in the office. It was time to say goodbye. As he turned the corner of the building, he found the parking lot full of vehicles, including the sheriff’s SUV. A crowd gathered near the front doors to the Lodge.
“There he is, Sheriff Landers!” Brian Benjamin, the Lodge’s ski instructor, pointed toward Jesse.
He slowed and hunched lower under his hood.
Val Hart waved him over, calling, “Jesse, we need you! We have a missing guest.”
He relaxed a little but kept his chin down. There were a lot of people and lights and he wasn’t comfortable with either.
“We don’t know when she went missing,” Mr. Hart explained to the sheriff. “One of the maids saw her headed toward Cupid’s Creek Trail. Nobody saw her come back, her room is empty, and with weather moving in, we’re worried.”
The old man gave a quick description but when he said the guest’s name, Jesse stopped breathing. Megan was missing? Sarge quivered at his side, picking up on the tension in the group.
The sheriff split the searchers into groups and gave terse orders. Sarge did his best to pick up the scent but the area was muddled with tracks, people, and too many odors for the dog to winnow out the right one. Hard dark and a fast-moving winter storm had the sheriff calling off the search around ten p.m. Disheartened people tramped into the Lodge looking for food, drink, and warmth.
Jesse wasn’t ready to give up. He’d run away from her in high school. He wouldn’t abandon her now. “We’ll find her.” He turned on his heel and gave Sarge a sharp command. “Fuss. Heel.” They started up Cupid’s Creek Trail and Jesse issued another order. “Such, Sarge.” The word sounded like tsuuk and meant track. “Such Megan.”
The dog raised his muzzle, lifted one front foot then he lowered his nose to the snow and took off. Jesse followed close behind, his breath catching in his chest as his heart hammered. Within minutes, a curtain of snow cut off view of the lodge. Jesse didn’t stop. Megan was out there, lost and alone, and she wouldn’t survive the night if he didn’t find her.
Midnight arrived. And left. The military watch on Jesse’s wrist glowed. Two a.m. The sharp wind abated but still swirled and drifted snow so that he had to struggle forward. He was so cold. And so afraid. Then Sarge’s bark echoed through the night. And he heard a faint shout.
Megan! He pushed through the snow, running hard now, no longer exhausted. Sarge’s excited barking guided him and he found her halfway submerged in a pond at the bottom of a short slope. The ice had broken, dowsing her legs. The dog had her coat sleeve in his mouth and was tugging even as Jesse slid down the slope.
After dragging her up onto the bank, he noticed her blue lips. Her teeth chattered so much she couldn’t talk. He didn’t have a radio. Staring around him, wild-eyed and panicked, he realized they were trapped in white-out conditions. Even if he had a radio, no one could find them. It was up to him to get Megan to safety. He wouldn’t fail her again. He’d die first. He pushed away the very real possibility that neither of them would make it.
“Megan? Megan, you have to hang on, baby. I’m going to get you out of here. I’ll get you home and safe.”
She nodded mutely.
“Sarge! Home, boy. Take us home.” With a happy bark, the big dog followed an overflow trough below the pond. Jesse wanted to carry Megan but she’d be better off moving, getting the blood to flowing.
After what seemed like hours, the area around them looked familiar. A few minutes later, Sarge led them straight to Jesse’s cabin. Inside, Megan collapsed on his ratty old sofa while Jesse stoked the fire.
“I’ll start the shower. We need to get you out of those wet clothes, Megan. I have to get you warm, baby. Okay?”
Once in his bathroom, Jesse discovered Megan didn’t have the strength to stand on her own. He stripped her and then, after a moment’s hesitation, he stripped as well. Taking her in his arms, he stepped into the shower, under water as hot as Megan could stand it. The small room filled with steam but he knew she could see his scars—every last ugly one of them.
Megan gazed up at him, her eyes tracing the scar that ran from his forehead and down around his left eye to slash across his cheekbone. The tip of her finger followed the same path a moment later. Her touch felt almost reverent. Her teeth had stopped chattering and color flooded her cheeks.
“You’re always saving me, Jesse.”
He shook his head, denying where the conversation was headed. “I’m no hero, Megan.”
“You are to me.” She rose on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his. “You always have been,” she murmured against his mouth.
With a groan, he wrapped her tighter in his arms and kissed her back, his tongue tracing her lips before they parted and let him in to taste the sweetness of her mouth. The bands constricting his chest and heart eased.
Later, after he’d called the sheriff to let everyone know Megan was safe, they lay curled together under a pile of blankets in front of the fire. He told her about his life. About what had happened the night after he’d pledged his love to her and she to him. About the Army. About Afghanistan. About Walter Reed. Sarge lay beside Megan, adding his warmth.
“I loved you, you know,” she whispered when he finished his story. “I still do.” He opened his mouth to protest but she stopped him with a gentle finger laid across his lips. “Shh. All I want is the chance to get to know you again.”
Jesse closed his eyes. “There’s not much to know. Not much worth knowing.” He mumbled the words and moved to roll away from her. She’d have none of it.
“I love you, Jesse Travers. Period. Just the way you are. I have since that day under the bleachers when you scared those bullies away.” She snuggled into his arms and within a few minutes, her misadventures caught up with her and she drifted off.
When Megan awoke, she was alone. The fire radiated heat and looked liked it had been stoked not too long before. She found a neatly-folded stack of her clothes—jeans, sweater, socks, and dry boots. She dressed in front of the fire, still chilled to the bone from her ordeal. She’d been terrified but never once doubted that Jesse would find her. She knew all she had to do was hang on until he came. He didn’t disappoint.
Something scratched at the door. Curious, Megan opened it. Sarge sat on the porch, the handles of a bag from Serendipity Bakery in his mouth. She retrieved it and peeked inside—chocolate, flowers, and… She glanced up at the man who stood in the shadows of the porch. He’d always been an outsider. She refused to let him remain one.
“Are these for me, Sarge?”
The dog woofed and she rubbed his ears as he nosed the bag. Megan smiled at Jesse and stretched out her hand. He took it and moved into a small patch of sunlight. He wasn’t wearing his hood. Her eyes glistened with tears as she twined her arms around his neck.
“I love you.”
“Yeah…I…I love you, too.”
Be sure to return tomorrow for the next story, CHOCOLATE, FLOWERS, AND...CHAMPAGNE by Anna Kittrell. If you missed a story, you can use the Older Post button below or the archive list on the right to go back and catch up. Happy Valentine's Day!