Authors: Meghan Malone
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To readers of romance novels
Every book I’ve written has been a team effort, and this one is no exception. First and foremost, I want to thank Ty Justice, my designer, publisher, and marketing guru, who has worked tirelessly to help bring this book to fruition. I also need to thank Angie Williams for her support, creative input, and for helping me find time to write. And to Jodi Justice, who helped brainstorm ideas for titles, each one more inappropriate than the last.
I would also like to thank my team of editors and beta readers: D. Jackson Leigh, Anne Rose, Daishonique Davis, Lisa Gebhart Longhurst, and Kris Ridste. And so many other people for their encouragement and support, including Toni Whitaker, my parents, my sister Kathleen Riek, and the readers of my lesbian fiction who have expressed interest in crossing over to read my work in a new genre.
Four days after losing control of her car and sliding into a mercifully shallow embankment during a Sierra Nevada snowstorm, Katie Connelly’s entire existence had been pared down to only one thought:
I don’t want to die
. Amazing, the way four days of freezing cold and hunger could change one’s priorities. Last weekend her biggest worry had been that she would grow old alone. Now it was that she would never grow old at all.
She’d started out optimistic in the hours after the accident. Despite the fact that her cell phone got no reception this far into the woods, she’d never dreamed that help would prove so elusive. Too far from town and without proper clothing to hike to safety, she’d told herself that a car would surely come along and spot her eventually. After all, she couldn’t possibly be the only idiot to ignore a winter storm warning and venture out onto the back roads. It might take a day, even two, but rescue would come. While she waited, she sang to keep up her spirits, read the bestseller that had been languishing in her backseat for the better part of six months, and rehearsed what she’d say to whomever freed her from her frozen prison. When that first night had fallen, she’d drifted off to sleep shivering but full of hope that she’d awaken to the sight of a clear sky and some sign of humanity.
The second day in the car had been more difficult—natural biological urges reared their ugly head and hunger set in. She started to worry about the snow that was drifting perilously high around her useless car. Day three consisted of a lot of crying, mentally cataloguing all her regrets, and cursing her lack of foresight in not packing more food. And now, day four: she was emotionally numb, starving, so cold she feared she might never thaw out, and quickly losing hope that anyone else was stupid enough to drive around in a raging blizzard.
Mostly, she really,
didn’t want to die.
And all because she’d left girls’ weekend in Tahoe a day early. If she’d waited until Sunday to head home, as planned, the storm would have already been in full swing. She wouldn’t have even made it out of town. Being snowed in would have pissed her off, but at least she wouldn’t be preparing for a slow, untimely demise. Spending one more day feeling lonely and pathetic among her happily partnered girlfriends sounded like a dream compared to a slow death inside a cheap economy sedan. One whose payment was now two days overdue.
This really was the perfect ending to a shitty weekend.
Sighing, Katie burrowed deeper into her sweatshirt and glanced at the window. It was completely covered in snow, so she couldn’t determine if the weather had started to clear. She hadn’t been able to see outside since yesterday morning. For all she knew, her car was buried to the point where it couldn’t be seen from the road.
That was a terrifying thought. This wasn’t a well-traveled route, to say the least. She couldn’t count on many people passing by even on a good day, so she desperately needed to attract the attention of anyone who did. She wasn’t going to get many chances.
She considered her options. She could try to dig out the car or else leave the possibility of rescue to ever-diminishing luck. Getting out of the car didn’t feel like a good idea, but neither was ignoring that the odds of being found were close to zero if nobody could see her. Pretty soon she wouldn’t have enough strength left to do anything about that problem. She had no idea how many more days she could survive with no food and only melted snow to drink. As it was, the idea of stepping outside into the frigid wind exhausted her—and it wouldn’t get any easier if she waited. This was truly a now or never kind of situation.
“Damn it. I don’t
to.” She’d been talking to herself a lot over the past few days. The sound of her own voice comforted her like nothing else could. Proof that she was still alive, she supposed. What could be more comforting than that?
Not going outside
, her brain supplied.
Staying in the car.
Her fingers were already frozen, she’d been trembling for what felt like weeks, and all the clothes from her suitcase couldn’t keep her warm even within the confines of her car. If she got wet or even lingered outside too long, she might never warm up. Hypothermia was a serious, persistent threat, and going out into the weather could mean speeding up the process of freezing to death.
Then again, doing nothing might easily lead to the same fate, if the starvation didn’t kill her first.
“Damn it,” she whispered again. Mustering the very last of her energy, she fumbled through the small mountain of clothing she’d piled on top of her body to stay warm. Her mind was cloudy and her movements felt sluggish, like she was a children’s toy that was slowly winding down. Worst was that she couldn’t stop shaking. “Focus.
” If she was going to clear off the car, she needed to get as much extra clothing on her body as possible. Anything to keep the heat she had left from escaping into the frigid Northern California air.
Layering shirt-upon-shirt, she stopped only when it became too difficult to move her arms. Pants were even harder to manage. She tugged on a pair of pajama bottoms over her jeans, but she couldn’t fit another pair of jeans over those. The final touch to her ridiculous outfit was the adorable blue hat and gloves set that she’d purchased especially for this trip. At the time she’d thought the snowflake pattern was darling. Now she no longer cared how well the color complemented her auburn hair and fair complexion. If she never saw another snowflake, it would be too soon.
Girls’ weekend had been a bust in every way—this was just the icing on the cake. She’d arrived full of pride about her booming web design career and excited to catch up with college friends, but by the end of the first night, it had become clear that she was the pathetic old maid of the group. At least that’s how the rest of them treated her. Stripped of the vibrant, unique personalities she remembered from school, now each of them seemed singularly preoccupied with alternately bitching and waxing poetic about the men in their lives. And when they stopped talking about their love lives, they’d start in on Katie’s. After just twenty-four hours, their repeated, well-intentioned reassurances that she’d find someone, too, threatened to drive her crazy. None of her many accomplishments mattered to those people. Just the fact that she was thirty-three and perpetually single.
Katie tugged the snowflake hat onto her head, then scowled at the gloves. They were totally impractical for this situation. Knit wool was adorable in the store, but it would never keep her hands dry. Leave it to her to buy stupid, girly, useless gloves.
“Worst weekend ever.” She took a deep breath and opened the car door. Or tried to, at least. It moved less than an inch, then got stuck in the snow that had blown and drifted over the past few days. She grimaced as a stream of powder fell over her hands and onto the car seat. “Shit!”
She pulled the door closed with effort. The car was covered, all right. And she was trapped inside.
Katie lay back against the seat and closed her eyes. Every bit of her energy went toward not bursting into tears. She didn’t want to cry. It wouldn’t help, and even if the hot tears felt good on her skin for a moment, they would quickly freeze and make an uncomfortable situation even worse.
Exhausted by the effort she’d just exerted, Katie struggled against the seductive pull of sleep. The last time she’d roused from a nap, hours ago now, she’d promised herself she wouldn’t fall asleep again. Not until she was rescued. She’d worried that next time, she wouldn’t wake up. But now she was so tired and so very powerless, making it difficult to hang onto her resolve.
A sudden sense of calm washed over her. Things were well and truly out of her hands. There was nothing she could do except sit and wait. The thought freed her somehow, and she sank down into the peaceful oblivion of sleep once again.
Eventually time ceased to have meaning. Katie didn’t know how long it had been since she tried to open the car door—probably hours, maybe days. Each time she drifted into consciousness, she was less tethered to reality. Her perceptions were muddy and it was painfully difficult to stay awake. So she slept whenever she could. Her lucid moments came less frequently, then seemed to stop altogether.
She dreamed—of rescue, of not being able to find her classroom on exam day, of being in love. The last one was her favorite. It made her feel safe, like everything would be okay no matter what happened. Waking from that dream was particularly disappointing, and she immediately yearned to float away again into the refuge of her own mind. Reality had nothing to offer her anymore.
At some point her dreams took a strange turn, and in a moment when she’d actually thought she was awake. But she couldn’t be awake, because she saw bare hands begin to clear away the snow on the windshield, and that was impossible. The hands were attached to muscular arms—also bare—that worked furiously to dig her out.
She managed a weak chuckle. Naturally she would imagine a rescuer who wore even more impractical winter clothing than she did. She closed her eyes and listened to the muffled sound of digging, the moving of snow, then the startlingly loud crunch of a fist crashing through the frozen windshield. A frigid blast of air stole her breath, violently shattering her numbness. She curled away from the icy wind on instinct.
Then she was floating, cradled against solid warmth that barely penetrated the chill that had settled into her bones. She tried to get closer to that heat, to cuddle up to it, but she just couldn’t get enough. The cold surrounded her, she was drowning in it, and no matter how badly she wanted to claw her way out, she lacked the strength and, sadly, the will.
Was this what it felt like to die?
Katie surrendered. Relieved, she sank into the strong arms that cradled her and waited for the cold to abate. Surely she wouldn’t be forced to endure this icy chill for eternity.
Images came in disjointed flashes. Snow. The trees. Impossibly warm, bare skin against her frozen cheek. Then a cabin lit by a golden glow from within. Perhaps that was heaven. All she wanted to do was get inside that glow, to bathe in it. To forget that she had ever frozen to death alone.
The next time she came to, her body hovered between intense pain and razor-sharp ecstasy. Her skin tingled as though a thousand bees were stinging her at once. She wanted to scream, but a heavy pressure building low in her belly caused her to moan instead. Waves of incredible pleasure nearly overwhelmed the agony of whatever was happening to her body, leaving her breathless and disoriented. The sensation was like teetering on the edge of orgasm, and she wanted nothing more than to tip over into oblivion and leave the pain behind.