About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The car hit the snowbank with enough force that the air bag deployed. But at least it had stopped after what seemed like an eternity of swerving and fishtailing on the maple-tree-lined two-lane highway.
Caroline Franklin Wendell peeled her fingers from the steering wheel and ran one shaking hand over her face. It wasn't her life that had flashed before her eyes during those seemingly endless moments of terror. It had been her son's. She'd nearly failed Cabot by dying and leaving it to his father and grandmother to raise him. That thought had her shivering.
Caro gazed out the windshield. The front end of the subcompact was buried to midhood in a snowdrift. But she knew her life had gone off track long before she'd hit that patch of ice. It had been skidding out of control ever since she'd foolishly married Truman four years earlier. She'd just refused to believe it. She'd refused to believe that the mistake she'd made couldn't be fixed.
Even that morning, heading back to him in defeat, she'd held out hope that she would find a way out of this nightmare. Not for her sake, but for Cabot's. Her son was the only good thing to come from her marriage to the heir of one of New England's most affluent and powerful families.
Now, with her heart hammering and her limbs still shaking, she laid her forehead against the faux-leather steering wheel and finally accepted the truth. Truman was right. There was no way out.
I'm doing this for your own good. You need me, Caroline.
Caro wasn't sure how long she'd sat there, only that the last of the heat had leaked from the inside of the car. She could see her breath each time she exhaled and, even through her cashmere-lined leather gloves, her fingertips pinched and prickled from the cold. She fished her cell phone from her purse. Eventually, she would have to call her husband to report her delay and, if need be, beg him for more time. She wasn't above begging when it came to her son. First, she needed a wrecker for her car and someplace warm for her to wait for repairs.
She flipped open her phone and stared for a moment at the photo of her son on the display. He was smiling, happy and free of cares, just as every toddler should be. She ran the tip of her index finger over his cherubic face and then frowned as she realized that her phone had no service.
After forcing open the car door and stepping into the knee-deep snow, she raised the cell high in the air and turned in a semicircle.
She stuffed the phone into the pocket of her parka and cursed. The mild oath floated away on a puff of white air.
She could wait for help, she supposed. Although it was doubtful another driver would be foolish enough to be out in these conditions. Only desperation had forced her to be. She glanced down the road in the direction she'd come. She'd passed a gas station when she'd unwisely decided to leave the interstate, as road conditions there had worsened. That was three miles back or maybe four. She was wearing boots, but the supple leather and three-inch heels weren't meant for this kind of weather, much less a rigorous hike in it.
She gazed in the opposite direction. What lay ahead on the road she'd been traveling?
Her luck it would be miles of nothing but more maple trees and snowdrifts. She'd survived the accident but, quite literally, she wasn't out of the woods yet. Tears stung her eyes and her breathing grew labored as panic kicked into high gear. What was she going to do? She had a deadline to meet.
Caro thought she heard bells, a rhythmic jangling from off in the distance. She dismissed the sound as the product of the wind and her own imagination. A moment later, though, a man on horseback appeared at the bend in the road. The rim of his hat was covered in snow, as were the broad shoulders stuffed inside a tan shearling coat. He looked like something out of a dream. A fantasy, she amended, as he drew closer and his ruggedly handsome features came into focus: deep-set eyes of an indiscernible color, angular cheekbones and a shadow of a beard on the lower half of his face.
Caroline's heart knocked out an extra beat at the same time her knees gave way, and she sank into the snow.
Clearly, she had died.
Jake wiped a gloved hand over his eyes after he spotted the woman. She was a vision. Had to be. No one in her right mind would be out in this godforsaken weather. The only reason he was out was to work off the worst of his temper. And he'd had the good sense to tramp about on horseback. The big animal knew her way back to home and shelter even better than he did.
When he saw the woman collapse, he was out of the saddle before his horse came to a stop, trudging the half-dozen steps through a knee-deep drift to reach her. He crouched beside her, resisting the urge to scoop her up in his arms.
Protect and serve.
A lifetime ago, those words had been part of his daily mantra. No longer.
"Lady, hey, lady!" His words sawed gruffly through the wind. "Are you okay?"
She gazed at him with glazed eyes and a look of terror and revulsion. He wasn't insulted. He'd had that effect on people before.
But then she did something that shocked him to his core. She raised one shaky hand to the side of his face and asked, "Are you an angel?"
The question took him by surprise. Jake had been called a lot of things during the past year. Angel wasn't among them.
"Not even close."
"I thought "
"Are you hurt?"
She blinked, frowned. "I guess not."
"You're sure you didn't hit your head or anything?" He glanced past her into the car and noted the deflated air bag. It had saved her from greater impact, but that didn't mean she hadn't sustained injury.
"I'm okay," she insisted. As if to prove the point, she struggled to her feet.
Jake rose with her. The woman was taller than he'd first thought she would be, given her otherwise delicate appearance. Not delicate, he decided. Fragile. There was a difference.
The top of her head came even with the bridge of his twice-busted nose. He couldn't see her feet through the snow, but he'd bet she was wearing heels, something high and impractical to go along with the rest of her fashionable, if nonfunctional, wardrobe. It was a good thing he'd come along. She wouldn't have lasted another hour out here on her own.
People need you, Jake.
"My car is another matter," she was saying. "I'm not sure the extent of the damage, but it will need to be towed to a garage for a look."
People are counting on you, Jake.
He banished the words as he surveyed the small vehicle. It probably got great gas mileage, but that was about all it had to recommend it. His tone was more gruff than he intended when he said, "You call that a car? It looks more like a toy."
The woman laughed, but the sound verged on hysteria rather than mirth. Make that half an hour that she would have survived without his intervention.
"Yes, well, do you know if there is a garage nearby? And a working phone? My cell isn't getting a signal out here. I need to call for a wrecker."
"You can call from the inn."
"Inn?" She sighed and her expression turned hopeful. "There's an inn nearby?"
He nodded. "It's about a half mile up the road."
"Do you know if it has a vacancy?" She grabbed his arm. "Please tell me yes."
Jake swallowed and for just a moment found himself lost in a pair of wide hazel eyes. "I'm sure there's something available."
In truth, the inn was a broken-down husk of its former self, much like the man who'd purchased it a while back. It was closed to the public, but he did have guests this Easter weekend. He was, begrudgingly, entertaining his entire family, a fact that explained why he could be found out in a snowstorm at the moment.
His parents, brother, sister-in-law and their kids had arrived unannounced the day before. Already he and his younger sibling were at odds. He'd left to avoid saying something he was bound to regret. Well, regret more than what had already passed through his lips.
"Thank God," the woman was saying. "I I don't suppose you could take me there?" Her gaze cut to his horse. Despite the nasty conditions, Bess stood patiently a few feet away. The Clydesdale normally pulled the inn's sleigh and she'd been thrown in with the sale. As angry as Jake had been when he stomped out of the inn, he'd had the presence of mind to take the big animal rather than stalk off on his own. "Be happy to."
He didn't sound happy, a fact that wasn't lost on her if her expression was any indication.
"You said it's only half a mile. I I can walk." She took an awkward step forward in the snow.
"Right." He snorted and motioned with one gloved hand. "In those impractical clothes? Hell, lady, you'd be lucky if you didn't freeze to death before you made it ten yards."
She whirled back to face him. Those hazel eyes snapped with heat now, and the color in her cheeks wasn't all the result of the bitter wind. "I'm not helpless! I refuse to be helpless!"
The shouted words echoed off the maple trees, sending some snow down from their branches. Not helpless maybe, Jake thought. But she was desperate. He'd seen that look in the faces of people whose loved ones were caught up in the drug trade. In their cases, he knew exactly what had put it there. But what did a woman who looked like a walking advertisement for the life of the idle rich have to make her desperate?
He dismissed the question, squelched the old urge to offer to help. Not my problem. Jake was officially out of the hero business not that he'd had much choice in the matter.
Even so, he heard himself saying, "Come on. I'll give you a boost into the saddle."
The woman eyed the big animal. This time it was fear rather than pride he heard when she said, "I really don't mind walking."
"Yeah, well, I do. It will take twice as long. At least." This time he tempered his tone. "Don't worry about Bess here. She's a gentle giant."
The woman pointed back toward her car. "What about my bag?"
It was all he could do not to roll his eyes. "How big is it?"
"I don't need the luggage that's in the backseat if that's what has you worried. But I'd appreciate the toiletries bag that's on the floor on the front passenger side."
He glanced through the window and grimaced. It was small enough to fit the definition of a carry-on at the airport, but since this short trip was going to be precarious enough without adding baggage, he said, "I'll have to come back for it."
He expected her to argue, but she didn't. Instead, she trudged through the snow to the horse. Over the howl of the wind, Jake thought he heard her chant, "I can do this. I can do this. I can do this."
He helped her into the saddle before swinging up behind her. Bess shifted, unaccustomed to accommodating one rider on her back, much less two. He knew how she felt. He wasn't accustomed to riding alone, much less with a beautiful stranger all but seated on his lap.
"Steady now, girl. It's all right," he said, reaching around the woman to give the mare's thick neck a reassuring pat. "Just give us a chance to get settled."
The woman turned toward him. "I just realized that I know your horse's name, but not yours."
"It's Jake. Jake McCabe." He braced for her reaction. For a while his name had been synonymous with Satan, at least back in his hometown of Buffalo. But her expression never changed.
"I'm Caroline Franklin." Her tone sounded oddly defiant when she added, "My friends call me Caro."
"Well, Caro, are you ready?"
She nodded and they set off.
It took longer than he'd expected to get to the inn and not only because he went a little slower than he would have if he'd been in the saddle alone. The conditions definitely had worsened. The wind had nearly erased the horse's earlier tracks.
He let out a sigh of relief when he spotted the inn, dilapidated as it had become. The place had a soothing effect on him, nestled as it was in a stand of towering trees and out of view of the main road. The wide porch was covered with several inches of snow, even though he'd shoveled it off not long before leaving. In the summer, he envisioned it dotted with the rocking chairs he'd been making in his workshop.
He'd always enjoyed woodworking, and he was pretty good at it thanks to his father's patient tutelage while he was growing up. Where some cops turned to alcohol to unwind after a bad day, Jake had turned to his band saw, sander and other tools of the trade.
He credited them with saving his sanity last year while he'd awaited the outcome of the internal affairs investigation that had followed the fatal shootings of a woman and her child. They'd been killed during a raid on a house where a major drug dealer was believed to be hiding. Jake hadn't pulled the trigger, but he'd been the one in command.
His team had gone to the wrong address.
Before the investigation was complete he'd crafted two chairs. He'd taken more care with his design and workmanship than ever before, determined not to overlook any detail. He didn't need the department's shrink to tell him it was about regaining control. In the end, he was satisfied with the chairs, but left reeling by the department's findings.
They claimed he'd been given the correct address, but had misread it. No way, was his first reaction. He'd done no such thing. But certain paperwork went missing and, haunted as he was by the tragic deaths, he could no longer be sure. After the inquiry, an official reprimand went into his permanent file, but he was allowed back to work. No other action was to be taken, but then things took an even uglier turn.
The rookie cop who'd fired the shots committed suicide, unable to handle having the blood of two innocent people on his hands. In the court of public opinion, Jake was responsible for that, as well.