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Christmas on the Run by Louise Behiel

Chapter One

Snow swirled in the headlights and covered the windshield of her red Toyota faster than the blades swept them clear. Adelina Ramirez searched for the line on the middle of the highway, her hands aching from gripping the wheel so tightly.

She couldn’t see a thing. The whiteout blanked out everything beyond the hood.

Damn weather. At this rate she’d never get through the mountains. Or arrive in Seattle.

At least Sadie was still sleeping. Her six-year-old was full of questions and comments and driving in this blizzard on a mountain road was hard enough without trying to pay attention to her non-stop chatter. A speed limit sign came into sight and slid by her car. Too bad she didn’t dare drive that fast.

What the hell?

A truck parked on the highway, taking most of her lane. Between the snow, the dark and the looming mountains, she couldn’t see the road on the other side.

She touched her brakes. The rear end of her car swung around, and her stomach fell. She pressed her fingerprints deeper into the steering wheel and narrowed her gaze as she turned the wheel into the skid, then turned it the other way, pumping her brakes slowly when she wanted to jam the pedal to the floor.

“Mommy?”

A corner of her mind registered her daughter’s question but she was concentrating on slowing on the icy road. Focused on the pavement, the skid and the truck parked in front of her, she heard the tires hit every piece of pea gravel on the shoulder. The car slowly slid into the darkness on the side of the road. A wall of rock popped up in front of her. She watched, frozen, as they slid closer.

Bang!

The car shuddered to a stop. The airbag exploded from the steering wheel, driving her against the seat and dusting everything with powder. She pushed the bag out of her way and spun to the back seat. “Are you okay, Baby?”

“Mommy. I’m scared. I don’t like this.”

Her lungs finally took a breath. “Are you hurt? Did you bump anything?”

“No, Mommy. My belt held me in place. It got really tight.”

Forcing calm into her voice, Lina said “That’s good, baby.” Her lungs dragged in another breath.

“How are we going to get out of here, Mommy?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going to take a look at you and then I’ll check the car.” She pushed the airbag aside, then twisted in her seat. Relief swamped her, making her weak. Sadie was fine, still belted into her car seat.

She traced her hands over her face and looked at her fingertips. No blood from being smacked by the airbag, so she wouldn’t scare Sadie. Unlatching her seat belt, she looked at the boulder blocking her view.

Between the falling snow and the noise coming from under the hood, she was sure getting out of this mess wasn’t going to be easy. Silence settled over the night as the motor stopped.

She would bet her few remaining dollars that her car wasn’t going anywhere tonight. Or anytime soon.

“Mommy?” Sadie whimpered from the back seat.

Lina swivelled again to look at her sweet six-year-old little girl. She might be scared to death but they were alive. “Yes, baby.”

“Why’d you hit that rock?”

She looked over her shoulder at the lumberjack coming their way. “Because that man doesn’t know where to park.”

***

Todd Black’s heart almost jumped out of his chest as the car slowly slid over the edge of the road. What kind of idiot drove on mountain roads, at night, when they didn’t know how to navigate snowy roads?

He half-ran and half-slid down the ditch to the car, ripped open the door of the puddle jumper and pushed the airbag out of the way. “Are you all right?”

“We’re fine.” She turned to step out of the car.

She wasn’t going anywhere until he had time to check her out, just in case. “What were you doing out here at this time of night?” He reached for her, running his hands up her arms.

She pushed him away. “Move. I need to check on Sadie.” She stepped out of the car and spun to open the back door, saying over her shoulder, “I drive just fine, if people park where they’re supposed to.”

There was a kid in the car? Could it get any worse? All because he was in no hurry to get home. “No one is ever on this road at night. Especially in a snow storm. When I heard something under the hood, I decided to pull over and take a look.” He looked over her shoulder and saw a little kid in a car seat. “How is she?”

“Sadie, how are you?”

“Monkey and me are very scared.”

The woman reached into the car and ran her hands over the little one strapped in place. She slid her palms around the girl’s cheeks. “Thank God you’re not hurt, pumpkin.” She laid her cheek against the little one’s hair.

“Mommy, you swore.”

“I know I did, darling, but I won’t do it again.”

“All right.”

Todd stood watching the two of them, his guts clenching tighter and tighter. Just his luck. A woman and a kid needing help. The temperature was below zero, the snow was still falling, the heat in her car wouldn’t last for long, and they would freeze to death if they didn’t get find a warm place for the night.

“Come on, let’s get you out of the cold.” He motioned toward his beastly truck. “Your chariot awaits.”

Mama Bear looked at him. “We’re not going anywhere with you.”

If he had any skills reading people, she looked like she was working to keep the contents of her stomach in place

She pulled out her cell and dialed nine-one-one. Then noticed the blank screen.

“There’s no service out here.”

She looked up at the road.

“No traffic either at this time of night. Look, you can’t stay here. I guarantee no one else is going to be on this road in this snow storm.”

She looked up the mountain road and he could see her mind working “How far is Bandit Creek?”

“It’s up the road about five miles.” She looked down at her runners then at the kid. “There’s going to be a lot more snow tonight. In case you didn’t know, the road to Bandit Creek isn’t exactly an interstate; so it won’t be plowed for a day or two. Which means no one else will be along to help. At this temperature, you’ll freeze to death before the plows find you.”

She slid her palms over her temples, and into her black hair. Then pushed out a breath. She only came up to his chin, but she looked like she’d rather take her chances on the road than go with him. Until she looked inside the car.

There had to be a reason she was on this road at this time of night.

He didn’t want to know what it was.

***

Lina didn’t see many choices, other than the obvious. He was right—it was cold and getting colder and at the rate the snow was falling, her car would be covered before anyone else arrived. Without a cell signal they would be stranded here.

She looked from him to his truck and back again.

“If it’s running, why were you parked on the road?” It made no sense to stop in the middle of a storm.

He shrugged. “I stopped to check a noise under the hood.”

“What?” She could hear her voice getting screechy. “You risked my daughter’s life for a noise?”

He shrugged. “Never anyone out here at this time of night.”

She swung her arm in a wave in the direction of the car. “We were.”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry about that. But I’ll take you into Bandit Creek and make arrangements for your car in the morning.”

If he’d wanted to hurt them, they’d already be suffering.

Neither she nor Sadie were dressed for a walk in the cold and snow. Besides, what choice did she have? Freeze to death in the middle of nowhere or risk it all on a man who had offered to help.

“Are you going to Bandit Creek?”

He nodded. “Only place this road goes.”

She was taking a hell of a chance. She wouldn’t be in this situation if she’d been able to identify a risk, but there weren’t any other options

“Thanks. A ride to Bandit Creek would be great.” She turned to the back seat, opened Sadie’s safety harness and lifted her out of the car seat. “Can we take our stuff? I’d hate to lose it.”

He nodded. “There’s room. Pop the hatch.”

She balanced Sadie on her hip, reached into the front seat and opened the back hatch.

“Is there more?”

She shook her head. “No. That’s all.” It was pitifully little to start a new life on, but it was all they had.

He clamped Sadie’s Princess duffel under one arm and grabbed her carry-on in his hand and then reached for the door with his other hand. He took one last look around before pulling it shut.

“Anything in the back seat?”

“Just her booster seat.”

“Come on. Grab my arm. I’ll get you both in the truck where it’s warm and come back for that.”

Lina swiped her purse from the front seat and followed directions. Together they slipped and slid up the steep embankment to his truck.

As he opened the front passenger door, heat assailed her. Then he opened the smaller back door and deposited their bags. After slamming the door shut, he looked at the two of them and swung Sadie into the front seat. Turning to Lina, he motioned toward the truck. “Do you need help?”

She shook her head and stepped on the running board, holding on to the door for dear life. Before she lifted her other foot, she heard him muttering then big hands grabbed her waist and lifted her to the front seat.

“Stay put. I’ll go get the booster and secure your car.”

The door slammed but he grabbed something from the box before he walked away.

She grabbed Sadie and pulled her onto her lap and wrapped her arms around the most precious person in all the world then turned to watch him.

He was big. Tall and broad across the shoulders. He’d lifted Sadie as if she weighed nothing. His knuckles were skinned. A ball cap covered his hair but his eyes and brows were dark. Straight nose. Square jaw. She narrowed her eyes remembering his features. If she needed to, and got the chance, she’d be able to describe him.

He slid out of sight. The snow would have been beautiful if they were inside by a fire. No wind, but heavy. Bad enough her car would probably be covered by morning.

She’d have to ask his name.

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