Authors: Karen Erickson,Coleen Kwan,Cindi Madsen,Roxanne Snopek
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #General, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors), #Collections & Anthologies, #friends to lovers, #playboy, #enemies to lovers, #sheriff, #firefighter, #opposites attract, #snowed in, #officer, #holiday romance, #Christmas, #rebel
Maybe because he’d always suspected what a jackass Marty really was. That leopard had certainly never changed his spots. The last few years of their marriage hadn’t been very good, yet that hadn’t seemed obvious to anyone Mindy was close to. She always put on a brave face.
But Josh had sensed things weren’t right in the Fenton marriage. There had been the one time he’d seen Marty with his little sidepiece, Bobbi, at some restaurant in another town over. He’d tried to brush it off as nothing but…
It had definitely been something. And Josh had been full of guilt for never telling Mindy about it. Not that they really talked.
A cat darted out in front of his truck, a bright spot of orange among the slushy snow, and Josh swerved left to avoid it, going right into the embankment with a solid
“Jesus,” he muttered, throwing the truck into park and killing the engine. The warm engine ticked noisily but otherwise there wasn’t any sound. Snow tended to muffle all noise, leaving everything in a peaceful quiet that any other moment, Josh would’ve enjoyed.
Not at this particular moment though.
He climbed out of his truck and went to the front to check the damage. The orange tabby cat he’d avoided sat in the middle of the driveway, blinking at him as snowflakes fell gently, clinging to his fur.
“Frickin’ cat,” Josh grumbled as he knelt down to inspect his dented bumper. It didn’t look too bad, but if he didn’t back out and take off now, the snow would bury him quick. Or the freezing roads would send his truck into a spiral.
He needed to get out of here stat.
“Spike! Oh my gosh, there you are!”
Awareness prickled over Josh’s skin despite the layers of clothing he wore, and slowly he stood to his full height, keeping his back to the woman with the sweetly familiar voice. And it wasn’t just anyone’s voice; it was Mindy Fenton’s.
“Joshua Powers, is that you?”
Taking a deep breath for courage, he turned to find Mindy blinking up at him, a black knit cap jammed on top of her head, her wavy, blond hair a curling mess around her face. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her green eyes bright, and damn if she didn’t look beautiful. “Hey, Mindy,” he said weakly.
She looked from him to the cat and back at him again. “Don’t tell me your truck is in the embankment because of Spike.”
Josh frowned. “Spike?”
“My cat.” She waved a hand at the orange tabby but he’d already moved on from their conversation, trotting up the driveway toward the house, his tail sticking straight up in the air. “Spike,” Mindy called but the cat ignored her.
“I, uh, swerved to avoid hitting him, yeah.” He brushed his hand across his face, wiping away the dampness left by melting snowflakes. “Sorry about that. I’m gonna head home.”
“Wait a minute.” She rushed toward him, fairly fast in the slush, and grabbed his arm. “Are you okay? Is your truck all right?”
His arm burned where she touched him. He didn’t try and get out of her grip either. “I’m fine. The bumper is dented but no big deal.”
Mindy frowned, releasing her hold on his jacket sleeve. “Oh, Josh, I’m sorry. I know your truck is relatively new. You should take it in to a shop and have it looked at. I’ll help pay for the repair.”
How did she know his truck was new? Did she keep tabs on him like he did her? Not like he’d talked to her lately and he’d only owned the Toyota for about six months. And no way was he going to make her pay for anything. “I appreciate the offer, Min, but I’m gonna have to pass.”
She smiled faintly. “You called me Min. I haven’t heard you say that in a long time.”
He was starting to sweat in the middle of a cold-as-hell storm. That made no sense. His reaction to Mindy made no sense either. Well, it sort of did but after all these years, he figured he could remain calm around her and not act like a fumbling boy. “I should head out. See ya around.”
“Bye.” Her voice was soft, as was her gaze, and she stood at the end of the driveway next to the mailbox, watching as Josh climbed into his truck. He thought she’d run back up to the house, considering the snow was starting to fall faster. Thicker. But she didn’t so much as move a muscle.
Was that wistfulness in her eyes? She looked…sad. And he hated to see her sad. That had been his soft spot long ago—Mindy in despair over some stupid guy. After a while, he’d wanted to tell all those guys to screw off and prove to Mindy that she belonged to no one but him…
Growling under his breath, he reached out and grabbed the keys, giving them a twist in the ignition. The engine chugged, as if it wanted to turn over but couldn’t quite make it, and then…
Josh leaned back in his seat, staring at the unlit dashboard. What now? He tried to start the truck again. And again. But it was no use.
Something was wrong with it. He was freaking stuck. In front of Mindy’s house.
A loud rapping sounded on the driver’s side window, startling him, and he looked to find Mindy peering at him through the glass, her eyebrows furrowed in concern. He rolled down the window—hey, at least that worked—and she took a step back as if she needed the distance.
“Your truck won’t start,” she stated rather obviously.
“Clearly.” Leaning in, he pulled the lever to pop the hood and climbed out of the cab, going to the front of his truck to try and figure out the problem. Vehicles were too damn smart nowadays, hooked up to computers or whatever. He couldn’t see what was wrong, so he let the hood drop with a loud
, and turned to find Mindy watching him.
She rolled her eyes. “Call a tow truck and come inside until it gets here.”
He slowly shook his head, his gaze never leaving hers. Her eyes were beautiful. They got him every time he looked into them. He was such a sucker. “I can sit out here.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Josh.” She rested her hands on her hips, looking pretty despite the bulky jacket and thick scarf wrapped around her neck that made her look like she was wearing some sort of bright red brace. “It’s freezing. Come up to the house with me.”
“Are the boys there?” He’d always liked Kyle and Chandler. They were good kids. Took after their mom.
“No. Um, Marty has them for the holidays.” She bit her lip, looking distinctly uncomfortable and he decided to drop the subject. No way was he about to get into the middle of a discussion about their divorce. “I have sugar cookies though.”
If they were her mom’s recipe, then he couldn’t turn them down. “Well, if you’re making the offer, then I’m taking you up on it, Min. I’ll call a tow when we get inside.”
The very last place he wanted to be.
“So the tow company said they can’t get anyone here for another three hours,” Josh said after he ended the call, setting his phone on the dining table beside him.
Mindy almost dropped the cup of coffee she was bringing him, the liquid sloshing over the rim and dripping onto her otherwise-pristine kitchen floor. “Three
? Are you serious?”
Noting she didn’t sound too happy about it, he nodded grimly, taking the cup from her when she offered. Their fingers grazed each other’s in the transfer and a zing went straight through him at the innocent contact—unbelievable. “The dispatcher said they’re the only company working at the moment since the other tow truck is helping with the snow plow. I guess everyone’s calling. The roads are a nightmare. Frankly, I think her three-hour estimate was being generous and kind.”
Meaning he had a feeling he’d be here a lot longer than three freaking hours. All alone with Mindy in her big ol’ house, sans kids, during the year’s worst snowstorm. Whatever could they do to fill the time?
Yeah, he could come up with quite a few ways to make the hours go by…
Don’t go there, dude. She’s probably not interested, and don’t you forget it.
“Wow. Sounds awful.” She turned to look out the kitchen window but it was already dark outside, so she couldn’t see anything. “I’m guessing it’s coming down pretty good.”
The kitchen was small but looked like it had been completely remodeled within the last couple of years, filled with the latest appliances and granite countertops. The house was old, had once belonged to Marty’s parents before they gifted it to their son and his wife when they retired and moved to Florida—or so Josh’s mom had told him.
It still blew his mind that Marty had been so hot to get away from Mindy, he’d given up his childhood home just so he could divorce her. The jackass.
Pushing all thoughts of Marty Fenton from his brain, Josh took a swig of coffee, impressed with how delicious it was. He took another sip, savoring it. Damn, Mindy made a good cup of coffee. The stuff he brewed at home was usually complete swill. “The operator did mention the snow was piling up on the roads at breakneck speed, direct quote.”
Mindy didn’t say a word as she moved to the back door just off the kitchen, cracking it open and letting in a whoosh of chilly air, the wreath hanging on the door rattling with the wind. She flicked on the light switch, illuminating the porch and he stood, moving to just behind her.
“The wind is so loud,” she murmured, opening the door wider so she could venture out onto the porch.
“Maybe you should stay inside. It’s freezing out there,” he said, standing in the doorway and squinting into the darkness. From what he could see, the snow fell in heavy sheets and was already piled a few feet deep on the ground.
Hell. He was never going to get out of here at this rate. Stuck at Mindy’s house, probably for the night. Back in high school, he would’ve killed for this opportunity. One night, all alone with Mindy, so he could show her how he really felt? A fantasy come to life. Now, he’d rather run.
Liar. You still wish you had a chance with her.
“Yeah, it’s bad.” She turned to face him, her brows wrinkled with worry, her arms wrapped around her middle. She was wearing jeans and a heavy sweater and her teeth were starting to chatter.
“Come inside. You’re getting cold.” He stood to the side just as she entered, the scent of her hair lingering in the air as she walked past. Breathing deep, he inhaled her smell, feeling a little high on the essence of Mindy.
Ridiculous but true.
“So we need to make the best of this,” she said as she shut the door and flipped the lock. She turned to face him, resting her hands on her hips, drawing his attention to her curvy figure. Stick-thin women had never done a thing for him. He’d always wondered if that was Mindy’s fault. “I know we haven’t been…close these last few years, so I feel bad that you’re stuck with me for most of the night.”
“There’s no reason to feel bad, Min,” he said, keeping his voice soft, not wanting to freak her out. She looked a little upset and he wondered why. “We’re adults. We can handle this, right? Besides, as soon as the tow truck shows up, they’ll haul my truck back home and we’re out of each other’s hair.”
“Right. Three hours. Five hours—however long they take we can handle it. Waiting for them. Together.” She nodded once, as if she needed to convince herself.
“Yeah.” He glanced at the clock that hung on the wall above the sink. Just past five. Meaning he wouldn’t get out of here until late into the evening, if at all tonight.
A thought he couldn’t linger on because he
get out of here. He had to. What with Mindy’s nervous pacing and the way she was gnawing on her lower lip, clearly someone wasn’t happy to be with him.
He hadn’t realized she still didn’t like him after all these years. He would never say it out loud, but that hurt.
“Well, I do have the cookies that still need to be frosted.” She waved a hand toward the stove, where a stack of sugar cookies in various holiday shapes sat on a cookie sheet. She’d made dozens of them from what he could tell. And there were bowls sitting on the counter, plastic wrap covering the tops. He figured that was the frosting.
A memory came at him, one he hadn’t thought of in years. “We used to frost cookies all the time when we were kids,” he said.
She smiled. “Yeah, we did. You used to eat as many as you frosted though.”
“You were just as bad.”
“Maybe, but I ate two to your twenty,” she pointed out.
“I was a growing boy.” He patted his stomach, noted the way her gaze dropped to where his hand rested on his belly, her cheeks turning pink when she jerked her gaze up to meet his again.
“Do you want to help me frost them? Maybe after dinner?” She glanced over at the stove, a little huff of laughter escaping her. “I might let you take a few home.”
“Wow, really? I don’t know, Min. Will you have any to spare?” He teased her and damn, it felt good. From the way her smile brightened, he figured she enjoyed it too.
“I think I could let a few go,” she said, amusement lacing her tone.
They stared at each other for a moment, the kitchen gone silent, the moment heavy with that warm, familiar tension that always used to brew between them. He’d felt it so strongly the last year or so they hung out together, and he’d figured she’d never noticed.
But had she? Maybe she hadn’t wanted to ruin their friendship by taking their relationship further. He’d been so full of hormones, he’d not really cared…
“Are you hungry? It’s a little early for dinner, and I sound like a senior citizen who prefers the early bird special, but, you know…the power might go out. And I don’t want to take that chance, so maybe we should eat now?”
She was rambling. A definite sign she was nervous. “Sure. I can always eat. Want some help?” He approached her and she sidestepped him, going for the pantry.
“I’ve got this handled. Let me rummage around and see what I can come up with. Trust me, I’ve been making meals for a bunch of hungry males for years,” she called from within the pantry.
And for years, Josh had been a pro at avoiding her. Her big brother and his friend, Patrick, had moved out of Lone Pine Lake years ago, which made it incredibly easy for him to avoid the McKenzies. Yeah, he, Mindy, and Marty had graduated from the same small class, but Josh had left right after high school. He’d become a seasonal wildland firefighter and worked at a ranger unit in northern California. He’d transferred all over the place until he ended up back home a few years ago.
Facing his past hadn’t been easy, but he’d dealt with it. Not like he had a lot of old demons here. His childhood had been pretty awesome if he was being truthful. Just the usual screwed-up teenage angst stuff, like pining for his best friend who had no interest in him beyond friendship. Who’d ended their friendship because she’d been too far gone over a guy who ended up hurting her.
How he regretted that.
That he still let this sort of thing bother him made him feel immature. But being around Mindy made him revert to the age of seventeen, all hot and horny for the one girl who didn’t seem to realize he had a major crush on her.
If he was being honest with himself, he could admit that he
had a crush on her. She’d grown prettier with age. Curvier, too, and his hands were itching to touch her. But she wasn’t interested in him. She seemed like she wanted him out of here as fast as possible.
Well. Great. He felt the same exact way.
Mindy rummaged the shelves of her pantry, thankful she’d pulled out some chicken early that morning and defrosted it. She could make something decent with the chicken. Rice maybe? Potatoes? She needed something quick and easy and that would taste good so she could impress Josh with her cooking skills…
Closing her eyes, she let her head fall so her forehead pressed against the edge of the pantry shelf. She was being ridiculous. Who cared what Josh thought of her cooking? In fact, when they’d been kids, she’d cooked for him plenty of times. Rather terribly, though he hadn’t complained whatsoever. She used to take care of him a lot when they were in their teens. Until she met Marty and he swept her off her feet, made her think that they could really have something amazing.
She’d been such a fool. Falling for a smooth talker who always told her what she wanted to hear. Instead she could’ve had Josh. She’d always liked him. He’d always been there for her no matter what. He’d finally worked up the nerve and confessed to her how he felt—right after Marty told her he didn’t want her hanging around Josh anymore. She’d been so confused by Marty’s demand, so shocked that Josh would say he wanted more, that he’d actually tried to kiss her, she’d crushed his dreams and told him she only liked him as a friend.
God, she’d been so stupid. Josh had been right there for her all along and she’d taken him for granted. Thought she needed the new and shiny versus the quiet and dependable. But that’s what happens when you’re young…
Opening her eyes, she grabbed what she needed from the shelf and emerged from the pantry to find Josh standing in front of her open refrigerator, peeking inside. She stopped and admired him for a little while, holding in the sigh that wanted to escape. He was so tall, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, long legs and a strong build. Dark brown hair, matching brown eyes, and always with a ready smile.
Well, that smile had made an appearance tonight, though not as readily as in their past, not that she could blame him. He looked awfully grim most of the time, but he
wrecked his truck all because of her stupid cat and was now stuck with her for hours.
Good Lord, what would they do? Could they even hold a civil conversation? So far, it had been okay, but they might run out of idle polite remarks quick. Would the evening end up being filled with broody silences and old resentments rising back to the surface?
She really, really hoped not.
“Looks like you have salad stuff,” he said as he shut the fridge door, turning to face her. “Were you planning on cooking the chicken?”
Her cheeks heated. It’s like he knew she was standing behind him checking him out and that was beyond mortifying. “I was. I’m going to bake it. Special parmesan chicken recipe that I can always count on.”
“Sounds good.” He nodded, shoved his hands in his jeans’ pockets, not moving from where he stood directly in front of the refrigerator.
Which meant she’d have to approach him and make him move out of her way. Great.
“Listen, this feels super-awkward,” she blurted, wishing she could slap her hand over her mouth to stop herself. Too late now. “I know you don’t like me much after what…what happened between us so long ago. I get it. But maybe we could pretend for the next few hours that none of that ever went down? That we can go back to how we got along before? Like a retro Josh and Mindy, the early teen years?”
He stared at her like she grew three heads. “You make it sound like a corny TV show.”
“Those times had been sort of idyllic.” She shrugged, then waved her hand at him, deciding that keeping busy was the best way to hide her utter humiliation. “Could you move, please, so I can get to the fridge?”
Josh didn’t move a muscle as she grabbed hold of the door handle, making like she was going to open the refrigerator. He wasn’t intimidated in the least, studying her with that particular way of his. As if he could see right through her and knew exactly what she was thinking.
It was disconcerting.
“You thought our teen years were
?” He sounded incredulous.
“Well, before all the drama, yeah I did.” She rested her hands on her hips, glaring at him. “Are you going to move or what? You’re like a damn tree, blocking my way.”
Chuckling, he stepped away from the fridge and she opened the door, grabbing everything she needed before shutting it with a nudge of her shoulder. She carried all the items to the counter and then preheated the oven.
Josh went to the counter and settled his big body on a bar stool, looking perfectly comfortable with watching her cook.
So she pretended he wasn’t there and went about her usual routine. The television in the living room was on with the local news playing, and she focused on that. Talks of the biggest snowstorm of the decade and a true white Christmas, though that was normally the case around these parts.
But this year was an exceptional one, they were saying. Nothing but heavy snow was in the weather forecast from now through the twenty-seventh. Considering it was only the twenty-second of December, they were in big trouble.
If this meant she’d be snowbound with Josh Powers for the next five days, she didn’t think she could stand it.
“Where are your boys?” Josh asked out of the blue.
Mindy slipped the baking sheet with the prepared chicken on it inside the oven, then set the timer for twenty minutes. “I told you already. They’re with their father.”