She’d never seen a Santa suit used in quite that way. Red velvet trimmed in white flowed out from beneath the rear end of the four-wheel-drive pickup stuck in the snow miles from the main road. Either the occupant of the cab failed to bring along a shovel and had turned to more creative means of freeing his vehicle from the shallow ditch—or he’d just run over Kris Kringle.
A string of expletives describing exactly how the driver felt about the sudden snowstorm that had hit the High Sierra hard and fast carried over the whirring of the spinning tire. Finally he cut the engine, and with one last four-letter comment, got out and slammed the truck door.
“Kitty litter works a heck of a lot better than a Santa suit.”
A tall man wearing a dark green down jacket and a knit hat rocked to a stop and pressed a gloved hand to his chest. “Good God, give me a heart attack. Where did you come from?”
Shay eyed him up and down. Broad shoulders and a wide chest sure filled out the jacket. She was no wimp when it came to self-defense but guessed this guy could take her down in a heartbeat. If he could catch her. Still, despite the swearing—and she didn’t blame him considering the circumstances—his deep blue eyes reflected an even temper. She was pretty sure the ax tossed on top of the noble fir in the bed of the truck had only been used on the tree and not the former owner of the red suit.
She glided closer on her cross country skis. “I was heading home from visiting friends when I heard you yelling to wake the dead. I figured someone needed help.”
His cheeks colored as he blew out a puff of breath in the frosty air. “Sorry about the language. I was a little frustrated.” Plowing through knee deep snow, he rounded the back of the truck and held out a hand. “I’m Fritz, by the way, Fritz Erickson.”
After dropping her pole, she gripped the gloved hand as best she could through her mitten and gave it a firm shake. “Shay Ballard.”
“Nice to meet you, Shay. I don’t suppose you have any kitty litter in your backpack.”
She grinned. “Afraid not. A thermos of hot spiced cider and Christmas cookies aren’t going to be much help, but I do have a suggestion. If we cut some tree bows to place beneath the tire, they might work better for traction than the Santa jacket.”
“I’m willing to try anything at this point. The suit was a last ditch effort after everything else failed.” He lifted one shoulder. “I knew I was taking a risk using this track when it started to snow, but I saw the perfect tree out here when I was visiting last summer.” Even teeth flashed in a smile. “Live and learn. The ultimate Christmas tree might cost me a frigid night spent in the wilderness.”
“I could always come back to get you with a second pair of skis, but I think this method will work if I drive and you push.”
“I’m willing to try anything once.” Hefting the ax, he cut branches from a nearby pine tree. After she pulled out the red jacket and tossed it in the truck bed, he spread the boughs beneath the rear tire.
“Maybe place a few more limbs in front of the tire to get some momentum onto firmer ground. Looks to me like you just got too close to the edge of the road and slipped over the side. The new snow is only about eight inches deep, but there’s a layer of ice at the bottom of that ditch.”
“Figures.” Fritz crawled out from beneath the truck and jerked off his hat to run a hand through pale blond hair before wiping melting snowflakes from lean, tanned cheeks. “A blast of wind sent snow cascading across my windshield, and for a moment I couldn’t see where I was going. I guess it would have been smarter to stop.” He raised one brow. “Ready?”
With those piercing blue eyes topped by a wide brow and hair the color of champagne, he resembled a Norse God. She’d be willing to bet beneath the layers of clothing, he was sporting a physique his Viking ancestors would have killed for.
“Oh, right.” Her face heated despite the chilly temperature as she snapped out of her skis and leaned them against a tree along with her poles then crossed to the cab. “I’ll ease the truck forward while you push.”
After starting the engine, she gave the truck a little gas then let off the accelerator, trying to create a rocking motion. When the spinning tire caught on the branches, she pressed harder, and the pickup lunged forward. Driving a few yards farther to make sure she was back on the road, she eased to a stop then glanced in the rearview mirror. A laughing snort escaped as Fritz picked himself up off the ground. He was caked in snow from the knit cap all the way down to a pair of sturdy boots.
Leaving the engine idling, she climbed out. “What happened?”
“I was pushing so hard I fell face first when the truck jerked forward.”
He glanced up from brushing off his jacket. “I’m not. You saved me from a long, cold night.” His gloved hands wiped down the sides of his jeans. “Uh, can I give you a lift home? It’s starting to get dark, and the snow’s falling faster again.”
Long shadows from the towering evergreens blended with the encroaching darkness. Though it couldn’t be much past four, with the heavy cloud cover she’d be lucky to make it back to her cabin before the last of the daylight faded. “Thanks, I’d appreciate that.”
He strode closer. “Just so you know, I’m not an ax murderer or anything. Getting into a car with a stranger in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly smart, but—”
Shay held up a hand. “I’m not worried.”
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Why not?” He sounded almost offended.
A little smile curled her lips. “Because it suddenly occurred to me I know who you are.”
“You do?”“Sure. You’re my date for Christmas Eve.”
Hope you'll stop by tomorrow for Part Two of Christmas Destiny!