Authors: Donna Alward
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Todd Ricker felt the back end of his SUV slide as he took the turn at barely more than a crawl. He was heading north toward Jewell Cove, a hot meal, and a warm bed. Goddamn if this wasn't the worst nor'easter they'd seen in years, with crazy high winds that took the heavy snowfall and whipped it around so you could hardly see. He had his four-way flashers on, and his headlights slashed through the snow, but it was getting harder and harder to see where the road met the ditchâand if he wasn't careful he was going to be in it.
He might be off duty right now, but he'd gone into the station anyway, volunteering to help. The SUV skidded a little and he eased off the gas, slowing to barely more than a crawl. His job was to help stranded travelers, not become one of them. And to do that he had to stay on the road. A road filled with lots of curves and turns, as it happened. But this was his last run. Once he returned to town he'd check in at the office and then head home for the night. Thank God the road so far was clear of vehicles in the ditch.
The thought had just run through his head when he saw a dark lump on the right. Tire tracks led down the embankment to the ditch. “Shit,” he muttered, and carefully slowed. He pulled as far over to the side as he dared and left his headlights on to show him the way and his hazard lights flashing.
He hopped out of the truck and made his way through the snow to the car. From four feet away he could see a person inside. “Please don't be hurt,” he prayed, pushing forward to knock on the window. Hopefully the driver had simply slid off the shoulder and into the ditch, because getting an ambulance out here would be a real challenge. He rapped on the glass. “Hello? Are you okay?”
The window rolled down to show a very anxious middle-aged man who was clearly glad to see him. His face sagged with relief at being found. “Oh, thank the Lord! I ran off the road a few minutes ago and I don't have any cell service and everyone says that you should stay in your vehicleâ¦”
“So you can be picked up safely,” Todd said, nodding. He knew the man couldn't have been there long since the tracks leading to the car were still visible. “I'm Officer Todd Ricker with the Jewell Cove Police Department. I've got a four-wheel drive up there, and I can give you a lift into town. You can make arrangements to come back for your car later.”
The man nodded briskly. “That sounds wonderful, Officer. I just have a few things with me, can I bring them?”
Todd looked inside the car. A small overnight bag and a briefcase sat on the passenger seat. At least the guy traveled light.
“I don't see why not. Let's go, though. It's getting worse out there instead of better.” He helped the man get out of the car.
“You don't have to tell me twice. I'm Jacob Sewell.” The man introduced himself as they struggled up the embankment. “I was headed here on business and thought I'd beat the storm up the coast. Stupid of me, really.”
Todd wanted to agree with him, but there wasn't much sense in making the guy feel worse. “Well, Mr. Sewell, my guess is you'll be stuck in Jewell Cove for a day or two while this gets cleaned up. Hope you're not in any hurry.” He reached for the man's arm, giving him a firm tug to get him to the top of the bank. Overnight bag and briefcase shuttled forward and bumped his arm, then settled back again. Stupid man had driven up the coast in December in nothing more than a pair of leather dress shoes and a peacoat.
“Here's my truck. Hop in and we'll see about getting you a place to stay in town.”
Thankfully Mr. Sewell wasn't too interested in talking on the drive. Todd looked over once and noticed that the man's fingers were gripped together so tightly, the knuckles were white. Not much wonder. The roads were a mess, they were barely crawling along, and Sewell was probably still reliving the sensation of sliding into the ditch and being stranded. It didn't help when the back end of Todd's truck skidded from time to time, even with the four-wheel. For some reason a line from an old animated Christmas special popped into Todd's mind: It wasn't a fit day for man nor beast.
JEWELL COVE, 1 MI
. sign appeared, Todd started to relax a bit. Once they got to the town limits, hopefully the roads would be plowed and in a little bit better shape. The next question was where to go. He knew that the motel on the main drag was already full. When he'd left for this last run, the lot there and across the road at the service station already housed a few transport trucks where even the truckers had pulled off for the night. The best chance would be the Evergreen Inn. His chest tightened a little at the thought. Lainey Price ran the inn now. She'd always been beautiful, but now she was beautiful and successful and Todd found that even more intimidating. Not that he'd ever own up to it, of course. Still, it wouldn't exactly be a hardship to see her tonight.
The roads in town weren't much better, and Todd turned left off Main and up the few blocks to connect with Oceanview Drive, the tires grabbing in the snow that was getting deeper by the moment. The clock on the dash said eight forty-nine. Surely anyone else would be off the roads by now if they had any sense at all.
“I'm going to park at the back lot of the church, and we'll walk over,” Todd said to Mr. Sewell. “I don't imagine the inn has much space for vehicles at the moment and there's no parking on the streets tonight.”
“Thank you so much, Officer Ricker.” Mr. Sewell sighed heavily. “I'm just so relieved to be here safe and sound. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't come along.”
“You were doing the right thing,” Todd replied, nodding. “And no need to worry about what might have been.” In Todd's view, life was too short for that.
The wind was so sharp that the little snowflakes bit at their faces as they crossed the parking lot and then the street to reach the inn. At some point, someone must have shoveled the front walk and steps, because the snow wasn't as deep there as elsewhere. Regardless, it still drifted over the path, and they had to stomp their way through. When Todd reached the front door, he tried the knob and found it locked. He knocked then, good and hard. Someone would hear, surely. But he was worried that the locked door meant they were full for the night.
The second knock got results. The door opened and Lainey stood to the side, leaving the door open only a crack. Even so, he was able to get a glimpse of her face, dominated by heavily lashed brown eyes.
“I've got a stranded motorist out here, Lainey. Any room at the inn?”
She knit her brows. “Not really. But come inside out of that weather while I help you sort something out.”
He and Mr. Sewell stomped their way inside, out of the blowing snow. Sewell looked so utterly relieved to be somewhere warm and dry that it was almost comical. Todd half expected the man to kneel and kiss the ground. Todd merely stayed on the welcome mat and removed his gloves. He had to get this guy settled and get home. His time on the roads wasn't quite done yet.
“This is Mr. Sewell.” He performed a basic introduction. “Found him just the other side of Fiddler's Rock, car in the ditch. He needs a place to stay for the night is all.”
“Of course. We're packed in pretty tightly here, Mr. Sewell, and I'm not sure I can guarantee you your own room,” Lainey said as she hurried around the desk to look at the books. “The only motel in town is full up, though, so even if you did want to go somewhere else, there's not much chance of it. It's only supposed to get worse out there before it gets better. We'll find a way to squeeze you in somewhere.” She smiled reassuringly.
Lainey looked up at Todd. “You've been out on patrol?” Her pretty face showed concern as her brows lifted and her smile faded. “The roads must be terrible.”
“They are, but I'm done now. If anyone was out there, we've picked them up.”
“And not much chance of anyone starting out. They've closed the highway, you know.”
Damn. That put Todd in a bind, but he'd have to get Sewell situated first. “Busy night for you, I take it,” he said, noticing a little strain behind her warm cinnamon eyes. Lainey was simply stunning. Her ancestors had come to Jewell Cove as freed slaves during the Civil War, but in the 1960s her grandfather had married a white woman from New Brunswick, giving the town gossips plenty to talk about. Mixed marriages were not the done thing back then. Now, two generations later, her heritage showed in her caramel skin and her jet-black hair.
Tonight she was dressed in black trousers and a soft gray sweater, her curly hair caught up in a ponytail. Always professional on the job, he thought, admiring the way she took Sewell's information and smiled in a welcoming way. When they'd been teenagers, Lainey had been a bit of a party girl. Not lately, though. He tucked his gloves in his jacket pocket. No, for the last few years they'd all calmed down and taken on real-life responsibilities.
She took Mr. Sewell's coat and hung it in the closet. “Lots of people are stranded, that's for sure. Mr. Sewell, can I offer you a cup of coffee and something to eat? I'm afraid we don't generally serve dinner, but today's a special circumstance. Most of what I have on hand is for breakfast, but I can whip up some eggs and toast or offer you muffins and fruit.”
“I'm not fussy,” Mr. Sewell replied. “Whatever is easiest is fine.”
“Then please, head into the parlor and make yourself comfortable. I shouldn't be long.”
A grateful Mr. Sewell disappeared into the parlor. Lainey sighed and looked up at Todd. “Phew. Well, the storm is causing a sensation. No shortage of conversation topics in there tonight. But I hope no one else shows up. I was already full when you knocked on the door.”
“I can try to find another place for him to stay.” It was a polite offer; they both knew that going anywhere now was impossible.
“There is no other place, Todd.” Lainey reached for his coat, her reassuring fingers touching his shoulders. “Come on, take this off and have a coffee. You look dead on your feet. It had to be nerve wracking, out there on the roads.”