Chapter Four

After the two hundred yard hike from Aelissm's cabin to June's through the snowy woods, Pat was grateful for the warmth and good traction of his new snow boots. They had followed a well-worn trail that was clear of the logs and rocks that made the steep terrain treacherous, but it was still slippery. When he and Aelissm finally reached level ground at the end of the old logging road, he had to stop. He prided himself on being fit, but his lungs burned from the exertion. The air at seven thousand feet above sea level was much thinner than he was accustomed to and he decided that if he could run a mile up here, he could run ten in Washington.

"Come on, old man," Aelissm remarked. She was breathing a little harder, but she wasn't panting. "I thought you were in shape."

"I am. At sea level."

"It's not much farther. Just around the bend."

Pat straightened and trudged after her through the snow, which was still knee-deep up here on the mountainside. He could feel the cold against his legs and wondered if he should have brought his ski pants. Aelissm was wearing jeans, like he was, and didn't seem the least bit bothered, but she was used to this. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to push his way through snow this deep. Probably the last time he'd made it up to a ski hill. He scowled briefly. The last time he'd gone skiing had been more than three years ago, with Sara. In the spring, before it had all fallen apart with her. "Fallen apart" was off the mark. Exploded was far more accurate.

At last, they reached June's cabin. It was log with a dark green metal roof and was about the same length and width as Aelissm's, but the utility room was connected on the left side and flush with the back wall. The deck was bigger and complete with a table and chairs that were still covered for winter. When he asked, Aelissm informed him that the bathroom and laundry were in the utility room.

"June lets me use her washer and dryer," she added. Without knocking, she opened the kitchen door and slipped inside after stomping the snow from her boots. Pat followed and was greeted with the mouthwatering scents of apples and cinnamon. The kitchen was similar to Aelissm's, including the woodstove in the right corner, the snack bar dividing the kitchen from the living area and the spiral stairs. The upper floor, however, only spanned two-thirds of the cabin's length, leaving the living room with a vaulted ceiling and a south-facing wall with windows looking out on the surrounding ridges and the Northstar Valley. There was another woodstove in the southwestern corner of the living room.

A very attractive blond woman stood at the sink washing apples. She was slightly taller than Aelissm with a lankier build and kind, dusky blue eyes. She smiled broadly at Aelissm and inclined her head to Pat. A small young boy with the same bright golden-blond hair as the woman was rolling out dough on the counter that jutted out from the end of the snack bar. There were two pies, already baked, cooling on the counter beside the sink.

"It's about time you got here. I hope you brought your pie plates, Aeli," the woman said. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and extended a hand to Pat in greeting. "I'm June Montana."

"Montana? Really?"

She laughed. "Really. I get that a lot."

Pat took the offered hand and shook it. "Patrick O'Neil. Pat. And yes, we brought Aelissm's pie plates."

"Good." She wrapped an arm around the boy's slender shoulders. "This is Luke McKindel, my foster son."

"Hi," the boy said shyly. He also offered a hand and Pat shook it.

"Glad to meet you both. So, we're making pies."

"Yep. Apple, as I'm sure you guessed. I thought we'd make ten pies, not that they'll last long tonight. We've already finished two and I have another two almost ready to go in the oven."

"I take it the Northstar Potluck is a well-attended event."

"Just about everyone in the valley comes." June thrust a bowl of washed apples and a peeler at Aelissm. When Pat asked how he could help, she told him he could mix the sugar, cinnamon and flour for the apple filling and when he finished that, he could help Aeli peel and slice the apples. She turned her attention to making the dough for Luke to roll out.

"So, Pat, how are you liking Northstar so far?" June asked.

"It's great."

"Pat thought I was lying last night when I told him it'd snow," Aelissm remarked. "Just wait until the trails clear enough and we drag him four miles up a mountain. Then he can have his first snowball fight in May."

"If he's here that long."

"What are you talking about?" Pat asked. "Four miles up a mountain?"

"Sawtooth. There's a trailhead a couple miles down the hill from here. The trail goes up to Sawtooth Lake. We hike it several times a year, about every third week or so. There are other lakes around to that we hike to, some with trails, some without, like the Hall and Hopkins Lakes."

"That's a fun hike," Aelissm muttered. "Remember the first time we hiked up there? Grandpa said, 'at the bottom of the third rockslide, there's a trail that'll take you up to the lakes.' Ha!"

Pat glanced at June, who smiled.

"There's no trail," she explained. "We followed the creek up. There were game trails, though, that appeared and disappeared at random. It's three miles up and three miles down, but it's a harder hike than Sawtooth and it's higher, too."

"Sounds like fun."

"Fun?" Aelissm remarked. "If I recall correctly, you barely made it here. You should have heard him huffing and puffing, June."

"Like we used to?"

Pat was entranced. The friendship between Aelissm and June was borne of a lifetime spent together and it spiced the air as warmly as the fragrance of fresh apple pie. Even with the threat of Adam Winters hanging over them, Pat felt more relaxed than he had in a long time and was glad Bill had asked him to come. A place like this was just what he needed. He hoped Bill was right, that this vacation might finally help him get past Sara, because existing was tiresome.

Pat didn't realize the passage of time until all ten pies were cooling on the snack bar. When he glanced at his watch, he saw that it was already three o'clock in the afternoon, which meant they'd finished just in time to allow the last pies two hours to cool before the potluck.

"Thanks so much for coming to help, Pat," June said. "You didn't have to."

"I know, but I'm glad I did. It was really nice to meet the two of you."

Aelissm reached over to ruffle Luke's hair. The boy ducked away, but she grabbed him and rubbed until his shining gold hair was a mop. He squirmed away, his face twisted in chagrin, and hid behind June.

"We'll see you in a couple of hours," she said.

Pat discovered that the hike back to Aeli's seemed somewhat less strenuous, but just as he was about to congratulate himself, he realized that Aelissm's cabin, though it was farther up the road, was slightly lower in elevation. Even as his lungs burned with the lack of oxygen, he found the breath to laugh.

"Don't worry," Aelissm remarked. "You'll get used to it. Luke's from Seattle originally, and he can bounce all over these woods now like he was raised here."

"Yeah, but I'm pushing twenty-nine. Luke's only twelve." Pat's lips twisted thoughtfully. "He looks more like eight."

"He's tiny," she agreed.

"I doubt he'll stay that way for long. He's real lean and long-limbed, like I was at his age."

"That could be from malnourishment. I don't think he had a very good life before he came here." Aelissm's pretty face darkened with a frown, as if she wanted to add something, but she remained quiet.

"That may be, but I'll bet he'll be tall. Mark my words."

"How much would you bet?"

Pat's breath caught in his throat. He wouldn't be here long enough to see how the wager turned out and it might be a decade before the kid stopped growing, by which time this whole trip would be little more than a pleasant––he hoped––memory. Aelissm's challenging grin made his face lift in reply. "A hundred bucks. And I say he'll be at least six-two."

"You're on. If he makes it to six-foot-two, I'll give you a hundred bucks, but if he doesn't, you owe me a hundred bucks, Mr. O'Neil."

"No matter where we are?"

"No matter where we are," she affirmed.

Pat could only smile as he shook her hand to seal the deal.


An hour later, Aelissm was standing in the spare bedroom of her cabin, straightening things and helping Pat unpack. When they finished, she started to head into her bedroom to change clothes, but Pat's voice stopped her. She turned around to find him standing beside the stairwell. Beside her gun.

"I've been meaning to ask about this, Aelissm," Pat said, his long fingers toying with the barrel of her rifle. "And don't tell me it's for bears, because even this city boy knows it wouldn't do more than piss a bear off."

Aelissm eyed the gun and cursed herself for not putting it away. Supposedly, she didn't need it now anyway, since Pat was here to protect her. And a well-trained cop had to be better than her nervous, shaking fingers. "It's for gophers and badgers. Varmints."

The lie was sour in the back of her mouth and her neck warmed uncomfortably. From the stern shadow in Pat's eyes, she knew he didn't believe it any more than she did. "Look, Pat. If I was really worried about someone… I'd reach for a pistol first. It's easier to maneuver than a rifle."

Pat lifted an eyebrow in inquiry. The intensity of his gaze made her look away, but when he cupped her chin and lifted her face toward him, the sincere concern that softened his eyes snatched her breath away. Never before had she been read so intimately by a man, and it was as enticing as it was startling. For a moment, she couldn't look away and as he searched her gaze, she felt like an open book. It was the disgustingly girlish wobble of her knees that finally gave her the strength to turn away.

"Aelissm…. I need to know."

"You need to know what?" she asked, bracing her hand on the doorjamb. She stared blindly into her bedroom, her senses a little too in tune to subliminal signs of another being in her home. She could feel Pat's eyes on her back, worried and curious.

"I need to know everything I can about Adam Winters. Up to and including how you feel about the whole situation."

She snorted. "I thought that was obvious. I came here to get away from him."

A trail of shivers coursed down her spine when Pat gently touched her shoulder. She turned back to him again, guarded this time, ready to face him. Before her lips could form words, he pressed a finger to them.

"Not right now. But soon. When you're ready." He paused, then added, "When you can trust me."

I already trust you, she thought. Her heart fluttered. It had taken weeks before she'd been able to trust Bryce enough to let him kiss her, but she'd felt the temptation to find out what Pat's lips tasted like in front of the fire last night. If she was willing to be completely honest with herself, she wanted to do more than kiss him. It would be so easy to cross the distance between them in a step, stand on her toes and drag his mouth down to hers…. She didn't, though neither did she move away. What was he doing to her? Yes, he was attractive, there was no doubt in her mind about that, and yes, he was single. What harm was there in a kiss?

Before she lost the shaky control of her desire, she glanced at the gun. "We should probably head down. I need to be there early to set up," she murmured.

"Of course. It is your inn, after all."

"Well, it's not mine yet."

"But it will be, if you stay here."

If you stay here. At the moment, she couldn't imagine going anywhere else. She'd come to Northstar to escape and regroup. She hadn't stopped to consider what she would do if this mess with Adam was resolved. But Northstar was home and now that she'd come back, she didn't want to leave.

"I hadn't thought about staying here… or leaving, for that matter," she said. "I've been living in the here and now lately. Tomorrow just hasn't seemed important."

When she glanced at him, she saw Pat frowning.

"You talk as if you aren't sure there will be a tomorrow. Do you really think Adam would kill you?"

She shook her head. "No. I didn't mean it like that. I was just saying that since Seattle, I haven't been concerned with much else than staying one step ahead of him. There isn't a lot of time left over for thinking about anything else."

Pat nodded. "You're not living. You're existing. Surviving."

"Barely."

Aelissm watched his face for some clue as to what it was in his past that allowed him to empathize with her plight, but his expression was impossible to decipher. "Uncle Bill said you'd had a bad break up and that you've been losing yourself in work ever since."

"It's been three years, but I'm still not ready to talk about it."

His voice wasn't harsh. He was stating a fact, not snapping at her for prying and Aelissm was all the more curious. What kind of rocks-for-brains woman would turn a man like Pat away? What if there was a darker side to him she hadn't seen? What if the compassionate smile and the kind eyes with their shadows of heartache hid something sinister? She'd been wrong about Bryce. What if she was wrong about Pat as well?

No, she thought. Uncle Bill trusted Pat. He hadn't trusted Bryce.

"You said you needed to head down early to set up," Pat remarked.

She winced at the thread of cold distance in his voice. Then he smiled and the shadows passed from his eyes. With them went her apprehension.

"Probably ought to change into something that isn't covered in flour."

Pat glanced down at his flour-dusted clothing. "Good idea."

Aeli stepped into her bedroom and closed the door, then stripped down to her undergarments. She pulled on a soft, black v-neck sweater and jeans before studying her reflection in the mirror. The outfit showed off her shape nicely, she noted with feminine pride. After a few moments of indecision, she decided to leave her hair down and brushed it until it shone like a sun-gilded afternoon.

"Are you decent?" she asked Pat.

"Yeah," he replied. "Decent as I'll ever be, anyhow."

She smiled and opened the door between the rooms. I could watch him for hours, she thought, taking in every line of his six-foot-four-inch frame. He too wore a black sweater and jeans.

"You know, the tongues of Northstar will be wagging tonight," Aeli remarked playfully. "I can hear them now. 'Who's that handsome man Aeli has with her? There must be something going on, because they dressed to match….' Joy."

"As long as you don't mind, I don't."

"You say that now. Just wait."

They headed out to her truck and Pat climbed in the passenger side. When she passed her grandparents' cabin, she noticed that neither their truck nor their old navy-blue and white Bronco were in the drive. Concern flickered, but she decided they were probably taking it slow. It had snowed, after all, and in Montana, there was no knowing which areas had gotten how much of the white stuff. She told Pat he'd have to wait a little longer to meet them. Grandpa wouldn't miss putting in an appearance at the potluck, no matter how tired he was from traveling.

The ride down the mountain was quiet, though occasionally Pat asked where a trail led. When they reached the intersection with Clark Creek Road, Aelissm turned left instead of right. A quarter mile up the road was a gravel loop with places to park.

"This is the Sawtooth Trailhead," she said. She glanced at Pat to find him staring around at the steep hillsides.

"How long until we can hike up?" he asked.

"A month and a half, maybe longer."

"I hope I won't need to be here that long."

Aelissm's heart dropped like a rock, hard and fast. When she looked at him again, his face was unreadable. There was a light smile on his lips, but there was a tiredness in his eyes, the same exhaustion she'd noticed last night by the fire. Curiosity sliced her, but she couldn't find her voice to ask what he meant. Hadn't they just made a bet little more than an hour ago that was years away from fruition? She wanted to slap herself for letting a man she barely knew jerk her emotions around like this. What was wrong with her?

Pat's gaze settled on her and his eyes widened. When she glanced at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she saw what had startled him. Her expression was one of wounded pride.

"I didn't mean it like that, Aelissm. I just meant that I hope your problems with Adam will be taken care of by the time the trail is clear to hike. That's all."

Oh, for crying out loud! It had taken less than a tenth of a second for her heart to do a one-eighty from hurt to overjoyed. Pat hadn't been here a full twenty-four hours yet. She didn't want to contemplate how she would feel if he were here for weeks.

"Ah," she said at last.

Aelissm was glad when she finally pulled in to the parking area in front of the Bedspread. For a moment after she turned off the ignition, she stared out the windshield. Then she turned to Pat. "I'm sorry. I'm not usually this emotional, but my nerves are a little raw."

"I understand, Aelissm. It's perfectly reasonable, considering what you've been through in the past year. If you were as steady and unmovable as one of those boulders along the road back there, I'd be worried."

"Well, I have been called as stubborn as one before," she replied.

They walked into the inn together. There were already a few people inside, holding dishes, and Aelissm made a mental list of who was there. The Struthers brothers and their wives were accounted for, and she also spotted the Hammond twins at the bar. Craning her neck a little to the side, she saw Nick and Beth sitting beside Nick's brothers. Though she normally hated social gatherings, the Northstar potlucks and get-togethers were an exception. The people of this valley were her friends and neighbors and she genuinely adored their open, honest company. If Pat was as smart as Uncle Bill had led her to believe, he'd let them help soothe and repair his bruised heart.

"I know we're early," said the younger Mrs. Struthers. Aeli smiled at her and nodded a greeting to her husband. "So, Aelissm, who is this handsome young man?"

"Patrick O'Neil. He works under Uncle Bill. Pat, I'd like you to meet Mary Struthers and her husband Marvin. They own the Ramshorn, where June works when she's not teaching. This other gentleman here is Steven Struthers, Marvin's older brother, and this is his wife Caroline. They own the Circle S Ranch."

"Pleased to meet you," Pat said, shaking each of their hands. "I apologize in advance if I can't remember everyone. From what Aeli tells me, the majority of Northstar will be here."

"You can count on it," Marvin remarked.

"Say, Aeli, you and June baked pies, didn't you?"

"Of course, Steven. June's bringing them down."

"Good." Steven clapped Pat good-naturedly on the arm. "Great to meet you, Pat."

"That's all he cares about," Aelissm grumbled fondly. "Damned pies."

"If they taste half as good as June's kitchen smelled, I can understand why."

Aeli dragged Pat over and introduced him to the Hammond twins, who regarded her new guardian with unveiled cynicism and envy. Her lips twitched with amusement. Aaron, at least, was professional, and told Pat he was on the lookout for Adam Winters and offered to sit down to discuss the matter at Pat's earliest convenience. Before Pat could suggest they do it right then, Aelissm pointedly reminded them that it was supposed to be a fun evening. She wasn't about to let thoughts of Adam intrude, so she distracted Pat by introducing him to the eldest Hammond brother and his wife. Nick and Beth were much more welcoming. They warmed to Pat instantly and Nick even invited him to come down to the Hammond spread for a ride.

"Horses, I assume?" Pat asked. His tone was playfully self-mocking.

Nick laughed. "Or four-wheelers, if you'd rather."

"I haven't been on a horse in years. I'll have to take you up on the offer." Pat inclined his head to Beth. "So, boy or girl? Or are you going to be surprised?"

"Boy," Beth replied, beaming. "I swear it's the Hammond curse. Nick's grandfather had three brothers, his father is one of four boys and Nick has only his twin brothers."

Aelissm's fingers tapped a rapid rhythm against her arm in irritation. It wasn't the way Pat was fawned over the parents-to-be that disturbed her; it was something entirely more unsettling. If he was so kind and attentive to Beth and Nick, she could well imagine how devoted he'd be to the woman who carried his child. Pat's future wife would be a lucky woman. The rush of envy curled Aelissm's lip, though none of her companions seemed to notice.

I don't even want kids, she reminded herself. Looking at Pat's tall, lean body and listening to the warmth in his entrancing voice, the vow didn't feel so strong or solid. "Maybe" hovered in the back of her mind like smoke in the valley on a cold, still day. Maybe, with a man like Pat…. No, not a man like him. She'd want Pat. With him, she could see herself in the role of wife and mother, though she was damned if she'd ever play the happy-little-housewife for any man. Bryce had wanted that of her, but she could never be something so unnatural and untrue to herself. Her ex-fiancé was all the more a fool if he'd honestly believed he could turn her in to that. She'd majored in industrial arts, for God's sake.

"Beth, can I steal Nick's muscles for a minute or ten?" she asked, forcefully redirecting her thoughts. "Pat could use the help bringing tables up from the basement. He's not used to this altitude, after all."

"Hey!" Pat retorted. "I just got here. Give me a couple of weeks and I'll keep up with even Luke."

"Go ahead and take him," Beth said, laughter in her voice. "Better watch yourself, Pat. Aeli's a hellion."

"I think I can manage."

Aeli was about to tell him just what he could manage, but Nick beat her to it.

"Then you probably haven't met the real Aelissm Davis yet."

"Thanks, Nick," she said flatly.

"Take it as a compliment, Aeli, as I meant it. You'd keep a man on his toes, make life a never-ending adventure. Just like Beth does for me."

"Fine. C'mon, then, gents. Let's get this done. I don't think it's wise to make the mob that is Northstar wait too long."

As Pat and Nick hefted the second eight-foot, folding banquet table, Pat inquired why they were bringing them all up when there was a dining room full of much nicer tables just above them.

"Where do you expect people to eat?" Aelissm replied. "On the floor? We may be behind the rest of the country, Mr. O'Neil, but we're not that far behind."

The men laughed and she trudged up the stairs ahead of them with some folding chairs. She was greeted at the top by her grandmother and grandfather. Setting the chairs down, she embraced them both and asked how their flight and drive back were.

"Long," Marge replied. "The interstate between Bozeman and Butte was terrible."

"It wasn't much better until just outside of Devyn," Roger added.

"We probably won't make it up to the cabin tonight," Marge said, looking around. "Tell me, where is this Patrick O'Neil your Uncle Bill sent over?"

"Trying to come up the stairs with a table," Aelissm heard Pat grunt.

Laughing, Aelissm stepped out of the way so her workhorses could get by. They set it up beside the other against the east wall of the dining room before coming over to greet Aelissm's grandparents.

"Nick, Beth told me Aeli put you to work," Roger remarked. He extended his hand to Pat. "Roger and Marge Davis. Aelissm's grandparents."

"Glad to finally meet you. Aelissm's told me some very fun stories about you." Pat shook the offered hand.

"How're you liking Montana so far?" Marge asked.

"It's great. I tell you, I haven't felt this good in… months."

Aelissm noticed the hesitation in his voice. From what little she knew, he probably hadn't felt this good in three years. Her grandparents, however, moved on without so much as a pause to consider the distance in her guest's eyes. They launched into a lengthy description of all there was to see and do in the Northstar Valley. By the time her grandfather was finished, he had enlisted Pat to help him work on the shed for his Model-T as soon as it warmed up a bit. She doubted it would be the only project Pat would end up helping with. She thought about intervening and rescuing Pat, but decided an afternoon with her grandfather would probably be good for him. Aelissm excused herself and ventured back down to the basement to grab some more chairs.

In another quarter-hour, June and Luke arrived with the pies. Aelissm stationed June beside the dessert table to stand guard over them and sent Luke into the kitchen for her serving knives. A short while later, the people of Northstar were streaming through the double glass doors of the inn's dining room and the eight tables Nick and Pat had set up were soon laden with a widely varied, deliciously scented fair. Relaxed chatter filled the room and children's shouts and laughter drifted up from the game room in the basement. As she surveyed the scene from the door to the kitchen, Aelissm knew she was home, where she should have been all along.

"That's a good song!" Aaron Hammond cheered. "Hey, Aelissm! Turn it up!"

With a smile, she did as he asked. Several members of Northstar's younger generations stood to dance while their parents and grandparents watched, shaking their heads in bewildered amusement.

"Can we let them at the pies yet?" June asked, walking over to join Aeli beside the kitchen door.

"I suppose so. Pat's already in to them. Hey! Pat!" Aeli barked. "Oh, it's hopeless! He's as bad as they are."

"At least he helped make them." June laughed. "He does seem to fit in well here, doesn't he?"

"Mmm. Grandpa already has him volunteered to work on the shed."

She watched him, spellbound. He worked his way through the room, greeting people and introducing himself to the people of Northstar––who were, by tradition, politely standoffish to outsiders––as if he were a valley native. His smile was quick and engaging and the way he concentrated attentively on each person he addressed had even stubborn Old Matt Carlyle chatting freely.

"He's quite easy on the eyes, isn't he?"

Aelissm glanced at June, surprised by the surge of possessiveness she felt. It slipped away just as quickly as it had come when she saw that her friend wasn't looking at Pat. June's steady blue gaze held hers, probing deep into Aelissm's innermost thoughts in a way only June had ever been able.

"I don't think I've ever seen you look at a man like that," she said after a moment. "Be careful."

"Why?" Aeli asked, curious. June was an insightful woman, very adept at gauging people and she wondered if her friend saw something dangerous about Pat. The thought made her shiver. "He's not Bryce."

"No, he's not."

June started to add something else, but instead only shook her head and smiled reassurance. Aelissm tried to read her friend's thoughts, looking for some clue as to what June saw in Pat. She glanced at him to find him making his way back across the room toward her, an inviting grin on his face. When he held out a hand, she cocked her head, realizing that a slower song was now playing on the radio, one that had even the old married couples on their feet and swaying. She saw Beth and Nick in the corner of her eye, and each of the Hammond twins similarly engaged with other young Northstar women.

"Dance with me?" Pat asked.

There was a tremble in her knees as she laid her hand in his. "I wouldn't want you to be the only man here without a partner," she replied. The softness of her voice belied the teasing edge of her words.

Aelissm was acutely aware of the strong hand resting on her waist and the quiet grace of the man who led her so steadily in the slow, rocking dance. God, he was tall, she thought, staring up into eyes that were such a captivating blue-flecked hazel. She'd never before believed those passages in books or scenes in movies, about the rest of the world falling away, leaving only the man and woman and the moment, but the faces of her neighbors blurred into oblivion and all she could hear was the music.

Nervously, she looked at June, who watched them from the bar with Luke perched on the stool beside her. There was a matching grin on both their faces that went far deeper than the amusement they took from Aelissm's predicament and Aeli realized that Luke's place in the valley had just taken the first step to becoming legally permanent.

"Welcome home, Luke," she murmured.

She glanced up at Pat, who also gazed at June and Luke with a smile of happiness for them on his face, and again she felt that unfamiliar warmth spread through her. June was right. Pat really did fit in well here and it wasn't just that he could work a crowd. He genuinely cared about the people, even though he'd only just met them.

She rested her head against Pat's chest, noting with a smile that the beat of the song perfectly matched the beat of his heart. Why did everything have to feel so perfect? It would all just fall apart when he had to leave. His career, his life was in Washington. The dull ache of loss coursed through her even as she stood wrapped in his embrace. She thought she understood now what June hadn't said and knew her friend was right in telling her to be careful. Pat was dangerous, she thought, but not in the way Bryce had been. He was dangerous because he'd already woven himself into her heart and she stood to lose more than she ever had with her late fiancé if she got in too deep.


"What are all these cars for?" Adam wondered as he drove past the Bedspread Inn. "There can't be more'n a hundred people up here."

The looped driveway of the inn, which had been vacant but for four cars the other day when he'd driven up this way, was lined now with vehicles all the way out to the main road. Most were trucks and all had local plates, he noted. Something was going on. He pulled off the road into the short driveway of the Northstar Volunteer Fire Department, which was a glorified garage that might have parked a couple of smaller fire trucks, if such a thing existed in this remote valley. He pulled his recently purchased truck up beside the building, out of sight from the inn. Aelissm wouldn't know the vehicle, but Adam didn't want to chance her getting suspicious. He'd even checked into the hotel in Devyn under a false name and paid cash. The forty-some-mile drive up here was a pain, but seeing Aelissm again after six months was worth it. She'd better be there this time. He didn't want to have wasted another night without seeing her. The last time, someone else had been working and he'd since learned that she'd had class down in Devyn. He'd probably passed her going one way or the other.

Yanking on his coat, he stepped out into the night. Damn it was cold here. He walked the quarter mile to the inn, careful to stay out of sight as he snuck around to the back door of the dining room, where he'd stood the other night. It was a potluck, he decided, glancing at the multitude of home-cooked dishes.

What a happy little picture, he thought, sneering. Aelissm was out of her mind if she really enjoyed this life. There was nothing here but snow and a bunch of cows and a room full of country bumpkins. Irritation flared when he spotted June Montana sitting at the bar beside a young boy. Of course she'd be here. He recalled Aeli saying that June had come out here and stayed, even after college, that she'd built a cabin on Aelissm's family's land. He'd met her a couple of times in Washington, when she'd returned to visit her family and Aelissm, and after his initial, fleeting attraction to her, he'd come to realize he didn't stand a chance with her. Bryce had mentioned feeling the same, but she'd seen right through him. At the thought of his friend, guilt stabbed him, icy and vicious. Adam shrugged. Bryce shouldn't have hurt Aelissm like that.

Adam's annoyance only grew when he saw his beloved Aeli. The sight of her stunning body and that rich golden hair should have thrilled him, and it did, but she dancing with a tall man with dark auburn hair who looked a little familiar. He couldn't recall where he'd seen the man before, but it was something he was not at all pleased to see. When the man glanced out the window, Adam rolled against the wall. A few moments later, he chanced a peek inside and exhaled in a white haze. The man hadn't seen him, but he'd have to be more careful.

Again cursing the snow, he turned and trudged back to his truck. He wanted to stay longer, to watch her, but he restrained himself. She'd be his soon enough and he could watch her all he wanted. Until then, he needed to be cautious. Aelissm was too easy to spook these days and he didn't want her to run off again. It had taken him far too long to find her this time and he knew that if he scared her away this time, he'd never find her. And that was intolerable. His life would be worthless without her.


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