She peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn. She wasn’t likely to get much further until this storm let up.
Lizzie Carmichael eased her foot off the gas pedal of the small rental car as she rolled down the exit from Vermont Route 30 and into the parking lot of the Green Mountain Motel. It didn’t look promising. The single-story roadside structure didn’t appear to have been updated at any point during the past fifty years, but every parking space was full, even though it was only early afternoon.
She pulled to a stop in front of the covered entrance and turned off the engine. Grateful for her faux fur-lined boots and long, down-filled coat, she braced herself against the wind as she locked the car and struggled toward the double glass doors. As soon as she dragged one open, a strong gust shoved her inside.
The lobby was small, with dark-stained pine paneling and flat turquoise carpet, worn through in some spots and unraveling in others. However, the middle-aged woman behind the desk greeted Lizzie with a friendly smile. “Do you have a reservation?”
“No, I’m sorry. I was on my way to meet friends in Sugarbush for a few days, and the storm caught me by surprise.”
The woman nodded. “Happened to a lot of folks. The worst of it wasn’t due until tonight.”
Lizzie crossed her fingers inside her knit driving gloves. “I don’t suppose you have any extra rooms.”
“I’m sorry, but we were full even before the storm. It is Christmas Eve, you know.”
She tried to tamp down her rising panic. Agreeing to drive from Brooklyn to the mountains of Vermont to join her friend Angela and her family for a skiing holiday just to avoid having to face Christmas this year might not have been the smartest decision. “I know, but I’m afraid my car won’t make it in this weather. Are there any other motels in the area?”
“Sure, but my guess is they’re full, too. It’s been a good year for winter visitors—lots of snow, you know.”
Lizzie nodded miserably. What was she going to do? She didn’t relish the idea of spending the night camped out in the car in the motel’s parking lot.
The desk clerk pursed her lips, tapped her pen against the big green reservation book, then picked up the phone. “Let me make a few calls and see if I can find anything for you.”
Lizzie leaned against the counter, resting an elbow on the smooth, well-worn Formica top, and listened to the woman make one fruitless call after another. Maybe she should just park herself in the lobby until the worst of the storm passed then drive back to the city. Then the image of her lonely, undecorated apartment flashed into her mind, pushing her spirits even lower. Mom had always filled it with leftovers from her exuberant holiday preparations—a few extra yards of evergreen garland here, the nutcracker collection she no longer had room for there, platters of “extra” Christmas cookies. But not this year.
“You’re in luck!”
Lizzie raised her gaze to meet the desk clerk’s cheerful smile.
“The Maple Creek Farm Bed and Breakfast is normally closed for the holidays, but under the circumstances, the owner is willing to make an exception for you.”
The pressure in her chest eased a bit. “That’s great. Is it close?”
“About five miles up Route 30. You take the exit for Paxton Falls, and the farm is three miles down the main road, on your right. They put up a pretty new sign a couple of years ago—you can’t miss it.”
Even in this storm she should be able to make it five miles if she drove carefully. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Lizzie turned and headed for the door.
“You’re welcome, and have a merry Christmas,” the woman called after her.
A Merry Christmas. As if.
Thank goodness for the slab of roof that sheltered the entrance. The snow was coming down harder now, and the wind buffeted her as she pushed the glass door open and raced to her car. She backed out cautiously, although there were no other signs of life in the parking lot. Snow squeaked and crunched under her tires as she drove slowly toward the highway on-ramp. There must be at least six inches of the stuff on the ground already.
Visibility was poor and there was no sign of a plow, so the traffic moved along at a slow crawl. Lizzie kept one eye on the odometer, one eye on the road signs—she didn’t want to miss her turn—and one eye on her fellow motorists. No, wait, that made three eyes. Oh, well, whatever. The short drive quickly became an exhausting ordeal.
She released a short huff of relief when a white-encrusted green sign that read Paxton Falls appeared. Tapping the brakes lightly, she eased off the highway onto a country road. Trees lined both sides almost to the edge of the pavement, and there wasn’t a building in sight. The motel clerk had said the B&B was about three miles ahead.
Lizzie dropped her gaze to the odometer. When she glanced back up, she let out a shriek. A huge moose stood in the center of the road, staring at her, unconcerned. She braced her arms against the steering wheel, and mashed her foot into the brake pedal as hard as she could. The car skidded off the road and slid nose-first into a tree. Fortunately, she hadn’t been going fast enough to trigger the airbag. As she sat stunned, the moose ambled over and peered at her through the window before disappearing into the woods.
What should I do now? She shook her head to clear the brain fog.
The car had gone off the road at an angle and was tilting downward and to the right. The first order of business was to see if it was drivable. She shifted into Neutral and gave the engine a little gas. Nothing. She tried again. Still nothing.
Incipient tears clogged her throat. Could this holiday get any worse? Now, she’d broken the rental car and would have to call a tow truck.
Unbuckling her seatbelt, she leaned over the center console to snag her purse from the floor of the passenger seat, only to find it squashed under the box of grapefruit she’d picked up at Ferrini’s Market as a hostess gift for Angela. Lizzie tugged and maneuvered until she finally extracted her bag, but when she pulled out her phone, she discovered the heavy box had smashed the screen.
It might still work, right?
She held her breath and pushed the button. No friendly little glowing icons appeared. Instead, the cracked black screen seemed to mock her. It looked like she wouldn’t be calling for help after all. She should probably get out and try to flag down a passing car.
There were just two problems: the car door was jammed shut—probably from the impact—and the road was completely deserted. She could only hope someone would drive by soon and spot the wreck.
Shoving up the sleeve of her coat, she glanced at her watch. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and this appeared to be the only road into Paxton Falls. Somebody was bound to come by soon…weren’t they?
She sagged back against the seat and tried to find a reasonably comfortable position for what she hoped would be a short wait. After several minutes of fidgeting, she checked her watch again. The cold was beginning to penetrate her boots and coat, and she wished she hadn’t put her knit ski cap in her suitcase in the trunk.
Come on. Somebody. Anybody.
But the snow continued to fall, and the road remained eerily silent. Anxiety gnawed at her stomach. Another hour or two and she and the car would disappear until the spring thaw.
She was drowning in a mire of self-defeating speculation when the door beside her jerked open and she found herself staring into a familiar pair of brown eyes framed by tortoiseshell glasses. The fur-rimmed hood of his olive-green parka had fallen back, revealing wavy dark hair and a lean, square jaw.Her heart skipped a beat. It couldn’t be. “Ryan?”