One Snowbound New Year’s Night
Their last night as husband and wife, or the beginning of something new?
Their New Year’s Eve reunion…
…could make or break their marriage!
Rebecca Matthews has one New Year’s resolution: divorce Donovan Scott. So being snowbound with him at his mountain mansion is not part of the plan. Especially when it’s clear the sizzling chemistry that led to their elopement is still very much alive!
Van wants to know the real reason Becca left—it’s clear there’s more to tell. With only twenty-four hours before the snowstorm clears, it’s time for them to gain some much-needed closure. That’s if, of course, they can resist a final explosive encounter…
USA TODAY bestselling author Dani Collins delights with this passionate forced-proximity romance.
"You’re not going anywhere. We’re ringing in the new year right here."
— Van, One Snowbound New Year's Night
When my editor asked if I would like to do a ‘snowed in for twenty-four hours in Canada over New Year’s Eve,’ I said, “Sure!” That’s what I always say when she saves me the trouble of coming up with my own concepts. Besides, it sounds like a riot, doesn’t it?
Then I started to wade into the reality of writing two characters–*only* two characters–in a single setting for a single day and… (GIF of head exploding.) It was definitely a challenge to find those high-concept glamorous moments that Presents readers love so much, especially that global feel of visiting far-flung places.
At the same time, I had So.Much.Fun with Van and Becca. They got married too young and both had these messy back stories that kept them from talking to each other when it really, really mattered. If your pet peeve is the sort of story where you keep thinking, If only they would just sit down and talk things out, well, good news! This is your dream come true because there is nothing else they can do as they rattle around in the house that was their home until they fell apart.
And of course they have always loved one another and simply don’t see it. They’re flawed and hurt and good and deserving of the love they finally get around to digging from the deep freeze. I hope you adore them as much as I do!
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One Snowbound New Year’s Night
The sound of harp strings increased in volume, dragging Rebecca Matthews from a sound sleep to disorientation. It was daylight, the window blinds open to a view of falling snow on cedar trees. How—?
Oh, right. She was back in Canada.
She closed her eyes again and groggily reached to the night table to turn off the alarm. She didn’t even recall setting it.
Her hand couldn’t find the phone, but the sound abruptly cut off.
“Don’t scream,” a male voice said quietly.
She screamed, scrambling into a huddle against the headboard, snatching up one of the giant pillows to clutch it across her slamming heart, all while her brain processed that it was Van’s voice. She was perfectly safe. He wasn’t supposed to be here, but this was his house. Or would be, as soon as she signed it over to him.
Donovan Scott, her soon-to-be ex-husband, stood in the doorway holding his phone in a loose, dangling grip. He wore jeans and a cable-knit sweater and an even darker, more imposing level of sex appeal than she remembered. That quiet force reached out and wrapped around her like an invisible hand, squeezing the air from her lungs.
She hadn’t seen him in four years, not even stalking him online except for a handful of photos her sister had shoved under her nose. In appearance, he had changed only in small ways. He wore a fade on the sides of his hair and had shortened it on top so it no longer flopped rakishly toward one brow. His closely trimmed beard was now shaped with precision to accentuate his jaw and made his golden-brown eyes seem even more eagle-sharp. His mouth held the stern tension of gearing up for a race. All of him radiated that familiar bunched energy he’d always contained. He wasn’t competing any longer, so he wasn’t lean to the point of wiry, but his body was still pure muscle, all wide shoulders and long legs and power.
There was something vastly different in his demeanor, though. He had no easygoing smile for her. Rather, he exuded suspicion and hostility and harsh judgment as he held up his phone and drawled, “I didn’t want you to hear me downstairs and think I was an intruder.”
“Well done,” she said facetiously. “I told the lawyer to tell you I was coming in to pick up a few things. Did you not get that message?”
“I did. That’s why I’m here.” His cool, pithy tone made her heart thunk in her chest.
She closed her fist into the pillow. She wanted to bury her face in it. Could he tell she’d been crying? She was a train wreck. She’d had a few hours of sleep and a shower after she landed in Vancouver yesterday, but she wasn’t wearing makeup and her hair was falling out of its topknot. Oh, gawd. She inwardly cringed as she noticed the green-and-cream plaid on her arm. She’d pulled one of his flannels over her thin sweater and smelled it before falling on what used to be their bed for a hard, ugly cry. Jet lag had taken over and she’d pulled the corner of the duvet across her, escaping anguish and loss by falling asleep.
“I was cold,” she mumbled, straightening the collar of his shirt against her shoulder. Definitely not cold any longer. A hot, mortified blush rose from the pit of her stomach at being caught in his bed like Goldilocks. “I thought you were in Calgary?”
“Where’s Courtney?” he asked at the same time.
When the quiet dragged out and she realized he was waiting for her to speak first, she said, “Her, um, flight was delayed. She was going to miss her connection and I didn’t want her to spend New Year’s Eve stranded in Winnipeg, so I told her to stay home.”
Becca’s first and best Canadian friend had offered to meet her in Vancouver and hold her hand while Becca closed out what remained of her life here in Whistler. It had felt like a horrific imposition to let Courtney fly all the way from Halifax for a handful of rough emotional days and a glass of champagne at midnight, but Becca really wished she had a wingwoman right now.
“I thought you were spending Christmas in Calgary with Paisley?” she asked, mentioning his sister.
“Her kids must be getting big.” She smiled faintly, wishing she’d had a closer relationship with his niece and nephew, but she and Paisley hadn’t gotten on.
“I only meant to be here a few minutes, but jet lag…” She trailed off, feeling as gauche as ever around him.
This was so stilted and awful. Latent adrenaline was burning through her veins, leaving her entire body stinging. This was why she’d wanted to come into the house while he was away, so she wouldn’t have to face him and the mire of memories between them.
“The lawyer initially told me February. I was surprised when he said you wanted access over New Year’s Eve.”
“This was when Courtney had time off work. She thought it would be fun to celebrate New Year’s Eve here like old times…” Becca’s voice faded as her throat constricted. Nothing about this was fun. “It was all organized at the last second.”
“You didn’t have to work through the holidays?”
“I—” A hard jab of inadequacy struck. Why did it make her feel like a poser to admit this? “I’m not tending bar anymore. I’m, um…” She cleared her throat. “I’m starting school soon. I worked until Christmas Eve, spent a few days with Dad and Ollie—he remarried—then I have a prep course I want to take before the actual classes start.”
“Oh? What are you studying?” His brows went up with interest that had to be good manners and little else.
“Lab tech?” She didn’t mean it to sound like a question, as though she wanted his approval. Maybe she did. She’d finally found something she felt remotely passionate about. It wasn’t particularly sexy, but it meant a lot to her.
“I told the lawyer I could send everything down to you. You didn’t have to come all this way.” His gaze flickered toward the empty suitcase she’d opened and left on the floor. So far there was only a cotton sundress inside it.
“I need to close out an old bank account and…sign the papers.” Finalize their divorce. Release the title on this house to him. Everything could have been done electronically, but, “I don’t actually want many of the clothes.” What was she going to do with designer gowns and high-end skiwear working as a lab tech in Sydney? “And I was…”
As she remembered why she was here, she pushed the pillow off her lap and hooked her heels on the far side of the bed. Her jeans rose up her calves as she dragged herself off the bed. She shook her legs and brushed her bottom as she got to her feet, then folded his flannel across herself, more from defensiveness than chill.
She didn’t want to admit she’d paid high-season airfare and come all this way to find a cheap gold locket her mother had given her. Wanda had started wearing hers after Mum passed and Becca was angry with herself that she’d left hers here.
It was Van’s fault. He’d started buying her earrings with precious stones and a tennis bracelet and art deco pendants on links of white gold. A modest gold locket didn’t go with the sort of upscale designer names his family wore. She would have told him to send the locket to her if she had known where she had left it, but she couldn’t recall the last time she’d worn it.
“I’m surprised you haven’t moved all of this into storage.” She glanced from the door of the closet, where her clothes had been zipped into garment bags to keep the dust off, but were otherwise exactly as she’d left them.
“I’m at the condo in Vancouver most of the time.”
Condo made it sound so modest. It was a penthouse with views of Stanley Park, Coal Harbour and the North Shore.
Van moved to the night table and tilted the bottle of wine she had spitefully opened and poured into a glass, bringing both up here with the intention of drinking it all herself.
“Are you mad?” she asked dolefully.
We can drink it on our fifth anniversary, she had said when he purchased the bottle. They’d been touring Okanagan wineries on their honeymoon. It had been one of the vineyard’s select vintages, meant to be cellared at least five years, and had cost two hundred dollars when it was released.
“Depends,” he said drily. “Is it corked?” He picked up her glass as if they had been sharing dishes all this time, sipped. Considered. His brows went up. “Worth the wait.”
The look he leveled at her put tension in her belly and a cavernous feeling in her chest.
“It dropped me like a tranquilizer dart,” she mumbled, and went into the closet where her drawer of accessories had already been mined without success. “Do you mind reaching that shoebox for me? I have a vague memory of putting my old glasses in there with some of my travel paperwork. I want to see what else is in there.”
“You kept your glasses?” He’d paid to have her vision fixed shortly after they married.
Her frames were cheap and outdated, the prescription completely useless. She should have donated her glasses after the procedure, but, “Growing up, I was threatened with slow and painful death if I ever lost or broke my glasses.”
Her family had been poor. She still was, compared to him. Her sister had told her to let Van ship everything to her so she could sell what she didn’t want on consignment, but his family had thought her a money-grubbing gold digger as it was.
No, she had decided. She would let him dispose of the jewelry and clothes however he saw fit. She would divorce him and sign over the house with only a nominal settlement. Irreconcilable differences had never seemed so literal, but they had always been far too unequal to find any middle ground—especially once Becca had learned she couldn’t give him the children he wanted.
After privately coming to terms with that hard news, she was working on envisioning a future where she was happy with herself and by herself, not thinking happiness could only be achieved by being a wife and mother.
She was here to draw a line at midnight. New year, new life, new Becca.
Because reinventing herself had worked out so well in the past.
The closet was as big as her bedroom in her new, tiny leased studio in Sydney, but it felt like a broom closet when he entered and stood close, emanating his spicy, woolly, snow-fresh aroma all over her.
He brought the shoebox down and angled it away from them, blew the dust off and tilted the lid open. He looked at her expectantly.
There were her glasses in their cloth case along with a charger cord for a redundant phone, a handful of receipts, and some purple, green, and gold beads from a Mardi Gras party they had attended shortly after they married.
Flash me, he’d invited when they’d arrived home afterward, slightly drunk and very horny. She’d whisked off her shirt and bra, then sat across his lap on the edge of that bed while he twined the long necklaces around her breasts before cupping her butt and lifting her onto her knees so he could suck her nipples.
Did he remember—?
One tentative glance upward and she nearly melted under the flare of heat in his gaze. He remembered everything. Carnality hardened the sharp angles in his face and sent a golden spear lodging itself behind her navel.
Her skin tightened and she grew so hot she felt scorched. It was mortifying to have desire rise up like an apparition between them, but yearning pinned her exactly where she was. She couldn’t escape the way she had completely let him have his way with her that night. Many, many nights, but that one in particular. When he’d urged her to take him in her mouth, she had knelt at his feet and caressed him, listening while he petted her hair and told her in intimate detail what he wanted to do to her.
Then, before he lost control, he made good on his promise. He stripped her down to only those beads and gave her what he’d denied himself, going to his knees on the floor as he buried his head between her thighs and made her scream.
She’d still been panting in reaction when he had thrust into her. He’d been rough, but in a good way, making her climax again before rolling onto his back and bringing her astride him where she did everything she could to take him over the edge.
Van was ruthlessly self-disciplined, though. He was a world-class athlete with ridiculous endurance. In a gravelly voice he had told her how hot she was, how much pleasure she was giving him as he thrust up into her. How much he loved watching her succumb to pleasure.
She had shattered and he sat up, gathering his knees beneath himself while holding her with her legs twined around his waist. She had arched back so the beads sat as a collar-like weight across her neck while he bent to feast on her breasts, drawing forth a fresh, pulsating desire that completely overwhelmed her.
No one had ever made her feel like that—like a goddess. Irresistible. Pure and unashamed in the way she gave herself up to him.
As she grew wild and ready to explode, he brought her up into his lap, so she clung around his neck and kissed him with utter abandon. The beads had dangled down her back and her damp nipples had rubbed deliciously against his hot, hard chest as he rocked up into her.
She’d been mindless. Uninhibited and insatiable. Smothered by his kisses and writhing with him in a way that melded them as close to becoming one as it was possible to feel. Words were gone. In those throbbing, exquisite moments, they were completely attuned, speaking a primitive language all their own.
Culmination arrived, striking both of them at exactly the same time, propelling them into another world where reality didn’t exist, only heat and white light and exquisite pleasure. The kind that should have kept them sealed for all eternity.
But it hadn’t.
Her awareness came crashing back from that iniquitous memory to see his pupils had expanded so his irises were mere golden halos around black, depthless orbs.
With sensuality weakening her bones, and craving for lost passion snarling like a demon inside her, Becca absently licked her lips.
His mouth had finally softened from its unyielding line. There was a distant pair of small thumps, one barely heard, the other louder and accompanied by the spill of beads.
All she really felt or saw or perceived was the force that pulled them together. Magnets finding their opposite and snapping together in a way that resisted separation. Van’s mouth descended on hers as his hard arms drew her body into a firmer fit with his.
Longing and loss and sensory starvation acted like sparks on the kindling that was always there. Always. His mouth slanted and swept and stole. She loved it. She gave herself up to him with a roping of her arms around his neck and a mash of her breasts to his chest, dragging herself into him even as his arms closed so tightly around her they hurt.
She was glad for that ache. For those implacable bands that nearly cut off her breath. It was like being caught close after a near-death stumble at the edge of a cliff. Hold me tighter. Keep me safe.
His mouth was equally hard as he raked it across hers, plundering as though he’d been starving for years, exactly as she had been. His hands went down to her backside and angled her hips into his groin while his mouth consumed hers, tongue thrusting exactly as it had that night when he’d been buried inside her.
This was the sort of instant lust that had brought them together in the first place. It was wild and glorious—a crashing storm that roared and excited and blew down any obstacle in its path.
It was a storm that had left devastation in its wake.
With a gasp of alarm, Becca jerked back her head and fought free of his hold, shoving her arms between them and stumbling as she stepped on her glasses. They snapped in their case beneath her socked heel.
Van caught her arm long enough to steady her, then ran his hand down his face.
“I didn’t mean to do that.” He swore sharply and turned away. She saw him make an adjustment at his fly as he left the closet. He kept walking, disappearing out the bedroom door into the hall.
Shaking, Becca knelt to scoop everything back into the box. She closed the lid and set the box aside, moving in frantic shock, returning everything to the way it had been so she could pretend nothing had happened.
That was why she hadn’t wanted to do this while he was here. Her skin was tight and hot and prickling. Her heart knocked clumsily around the hollow space in her chest. A lump rose to her throat. Feelings were meant to be felt, she reminded herself, but why did they have to hurt so much?
Van had never deliberately inflicted pain upon her, but being with him had been one hurt after another and still was. It hurt to look at him, to feel herself come alive as though leaning on atrophied muscles. It hurt to feel the sharp pleasure of his touch and it hurt to kiss him with such intensity and watch him walk away.
It hurt to be apart from him while still wearing his name.
That’s why they were divorcing, she reminded herself. That’s why she had planned to slip in, find the locket, and leave him a note that wished him well. She had spent an hour picking out the right card to do exactly that.
She wanted bygones to be bygones. She would quit nursing what-ifs and disappointments and blame. She would not take fresh recriminations home with her.
Still shaken, she moved out of the closet to the night table and lifted her wineglass in a hand that trembled. She set her lips where his mouth had been.
Don’t think of it.
But it was too late. Her mind and body were already alight with the memory of all of the places his mouth had been. All the places she had nearly let him go within minutes of seeing him again.
Hot tears pressed against the backs of her eyes.
Damn you, Van!
Damn you, Becca.
Van stepped into the bracing cold of the veranda off the kitchen, trying to slow his racing blood so he could think about something besides the way Becca had just dismantled his self-control as effortlessly as she always had.
He’d forgotten how easily she took him from zero to sixty and kept him there.
Maybe he’d deliberately blacked it out because it was so lowering to lose a fight so quickly and resoundingly. Against himself.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, thinking it felt like a weakness that he’d come here at all. Their divorce was long overdue, and he was ready to finalize it, but he had gotten February into his head and had been blindsided by the email from his lawyer that she was slipping in while he was away.
As he’d packed and climbed into his SUV, he’d told himself he was protecting what was his, ensuring she was only taking what genuinely belonged to her. He was no longer the gullible fool who believed people who were close to you wouldn’t screw you over.
He and Becca weren’t even close any longer. It had been four years, but unlike his father, Becca didn’t come from a long line of people who took things that didn’t belong to them. She had never capitalized on his wealth, always seeming uncomfortable with it.
That’s what she wants you to think, he could hear his father saying about her.
How ironic that Van had vehemently defended Becca to a man who had ultimately betrayed him far worse than she had.
Actually, it was still a toss-up which knee to the stomach had been harder to get up from. When Becca had told Van their marriage was a mistake and stayed in Sydney, he’d walked away thinking no one could have sucker punched him quite so devastatingly.
Within the hour, however, he’d learned his father had cleaned out the family vault. Van had rushed home to deal with that, allowing his marriage to finish dying of neglect while he raced to save hundreds of jobs, multimillion-dollar housing projects and the corporate dividends his mother and sister relied on.
He had managed to keep a lid on the scandal for a week until he could control the narrative, but the fact that Becca hadn’t reached out when it was announced that his finances had taken a tumble spoke volumes about why she had married him in the first place.
The entire thing had been a scathing reminder of something he’d always known, but had begun to think was pure cynicism on his part—that anyone could betray you. In fact, trusting people was an open invitation to be deceived.
Since then, Van had been waiting for Becca to show her true colors, expecting another knife in the back at any moment.
There’d been a whole lot of crickets. Years of silence when he regularly considered starting the divorce proceedings himself, but why shake that can?
A few months ago, the request had finally arrived. She wanted him to buy her out of this house. That’s all. She wasn’t staking any claim to his various family or personal business interests. She wasn’t asking him to ship all her belongings down to her. She would come and take what she wanted before the paperwork was finalized.
It had all sounded too easy and, sure enough, she’d tried to get in here while his back was turned.
To take what, though? The jewelry he’d given her? The art that was valuable, but not priceless? The sexy convertible that was in her name and would cost twice as much to ship to Australia as he’d paid for it in the first place?
He’d ruminated on all of that while driving through ever-worsening conditions, foot heavy on the gas in his urgency to get here.
When he arrived, he’d been sure he had missed her. There hadn’t been any tire tracks in the long, steep driveway, only a trail of footsteps that were so filled by the steadily falling snow it was impossible to tell which direction they were headed. He had fishtailed his way down to the house and slid the SUV into a drift of snow that would have to be shoveled away from the garage door before he could put the vehicle away.
Entering the house, he’d seen the envelope on the dining room table and crossed to read…nothing. The card was completely blank. It didn’t even have a lame, preprinted platitude about everything having a season or some other greeting card BS.
He didn’t understand how a lack of words had scratched hard enough to leave a mark on the granite where his heart was supposed to be, but as he’d stood there feeling as empty as this card, his gaze had caught on the jacket and shoes in the alcove by the door.
She was still there.
He had removed his snow-covered boots to look for her, calling her name. The door had chimed when he had come in, but she hadn’t heard any of it. She’d been dead asleep when he got to the bedroom.
The sight of her struck like a kick in the chest. Lower. Hell, if he was honest, his libido had started revving before he’d left Calgary.
It wasn’t like she was naked and lying there all enticing, either. She was wearing one of his flannel shirts, but aside from a socked foot and the ash tips in her hair, he couldn’t see much more than the tan across her freckled cheeks. Summer Girl, he’d called her sometimes, when she burrowed into him complaining she was cold. She’d playfully called him Jack Frost and squealed at cold hands sliding under her shirt.
We’re too different. It was a mistake.
It had been. He’d come to see that they’d been children when they eloped five years ago, too naive to know better. He should have known better. His family’s failed marriages had taught him that marriage needed a lot more than an impulsive “I do” in order to go the distance.
Van could live with making mistakes. They happened. He caught an edge or misjudged a turn. The important thing was to learn and recover and do better next time. Making a mistake didn’t mean it was time to quit. As long as you were trying, you weren’t failing. Maybe he hadn’t won every single race he entered, but he didn’t fail. He always kept at something until he mastered it and won.
Looking at Becca sleeping for the last time in his bed, however, he’d tasted the bitterness of failure.
Turn it around, he had chided himself. End this on a good note and call it a successful divorce.
Maybe it could have been if they hadn’t sucked onto each other like a couple of lampreys. His erection was still stubbornly pressing against the fly of his jeans despite the fact that he stood on the porch with a biting wind gusting icy snowflakes straight into his face.
That was how he’d wound up marrying on a whim and earning an F for failure. Becca pulled him off keel with a single, smoky look. It was time to put that firmly behind him.
Except… He swore under his breath as he took in the fact that he could hardly see the lake through the blowing snow.
A sixth sense had him glancing back through the windows as Becca appeared at the bottom of the stairs. She’d removed his flannel and now wore a belted cardigan over her jeans and snug pullover. The soft cashmere in raspberry pink followed every curve of her knockout figure.
He swallowed and pulled his collar away from his neck, releasing a fresh rush of randy heat.
Inside, Becca glanced around. Her shoulders heaved with an annoyed sigh as she spotted the grocery bag on the floor by the door. She moved to snatch it up.
The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. Milk wouldn’t spoil sitting out for five minutes, but she couldn’t stand it when he forgot to put it away.
Van slid the door open and stepped inside only to have her squeak and dance her feet, nearly dropping the groceries.
“You knew I was here,” he insisted. “That’s why I woke you, so you would know I was here and you wouldn’t do that. I live here,” he said for the millionth time, because she’d always been leaping and screaming when he came around a corner.
“Did you? I never noticed,” she grumbled, setting the bag on the island and taking out the milk to put it in the fridge. “I was alone here so often, I forgot I was married.”
“I noticed that,” he shot back with equal sarcasm.
They glared at each other. The civility they’d conjured in those first minutes upstairs was completely abandoned—probably because the sexual awareness they’d reawakened was still hissing and weaving like a basket of cobras between them, threatening to strike again.
Becca looked away first, thrusting the eggs into the fridge along with the pair of rib eye steaks and the package of bacon.
She hated to be called cute and hated to be ogled, so Van tried not to do either, but come on. She was curvy and sleepy and wearing that cashmere like a second skin. She was shorter than average and had always exercised in a very haphazard fashion, but nature had gifted her with a delightfully feminine figure-eight symmetry. Her ample breasts were high and firm over a narrow waist, then her hips flared into a gorgeous, equally firm and round ass. Her fine hair was a warm brown with sun-kissed tints, her mouth wide, and her dark brown eyes positively soulful.
When she smiled, she had a pair of dimples that he suddenly realized he hadn’t seen in far too long.
“I don’t have to be here right now,” she said, slipping the coffee into the cupboard. “If you’re going skiing tomorrow, I can come back while you’re out.”
“I want to make some of that.” He reached for the coffee before she closed the cupboard.
She snatched her hand back and staggered away a few steps, glowering an accusation.
You kissed me back, Becca.
Their gazes clashed before he turned away to dig into a drawer for the coffee scoop.
“Would you like a cup? You’re not coming back because you’re not going anywhere. We’re ringing in the new year right here.” He chucked his chin at the windows that climbed all the way to the peak of the vaulted ceiling. Beyond the glass, the frozen lake was impossible to see through the thick and steady flakes. A gray-blue dusk was closing in.
“You have four-wheel drive, don’t you?” Her hair bobbled in its knot, starting to fall as she snapped her head around. She fixed her hair as she looked back at him, arms moving with the mysterious grace of a spider spinning her web. “How did you get here?”
“Weather reports don’t apply to me,” he replied with self-deprecation. Otherwise, he would have turned away from many a race before getting up the mountain to compete. “Gravity got me down the driveway and I won’t get back up until I can start the quad and attach the plow blade. Even then, I’ll have to throw down some gravel for traction. I don’t know if I have any.” He scratched beneath his chin, noted her betrayed glare at the windows.
Believe me, sweetheart. I’m not any happier than you are.
He thought it, but immediately wondered if he was being completely honest with himself.
“How was the road?” She fetched her phone from her purse, distracting him as she sashayed back from where it hung under her coat. “I caught a rideshare to the top of the driveway and walked down. I can meet one at the top to get back to my hotel.”
“Plows will be busy doing the main roads. And it’s New Year’s Eve,” he reminded. “Drivers will be making surge rates moving drunks between hotels in the village. They won’t risk ditching their car by coming all the way out here.”
“So what am I supposed to do? Stay here? All night? With you?”
What was he? A serial killer?
“Happy New Year,” he said with a mocking smile.
Bloody typical. Nothing ever went her way. Nothing. Her best friend had canceled, her almost ex-husband had turned up, and now she was snowed in here with him? Who wrote this script? Someone with a taste for the absurd, that’s who.
“Please do not make me watch you do that wrong,” Becca blurted as Van started to tear the sack of coffee beans rather than cut it neatly.
Van set it down and lifted his hands into the air.
“Is this what we’re doing? Bickering until the snow stops? You could stay in the carriage house if you’re so offended by my presence. The heat and water haven’t been turned on out there since—Actually, is the water turned on in here?” His lofty arrogance dried up as he tried the tap.
“I’ll be back.” He detoured to the front door for his boots and jacket and disappeared.
Heaving a sigh, Becca ground the beans. She was desperate for a coffee after her nap. Her head felt stuffed with cotton. When water began dripping from the open tap, she filled the reservoir on the coffee maker and set the first shots of espresso to brewing, then started milk to steam.
As she scouted through the cupboard for chocolate flakes, she took a quick inventory of the freezer and pantry. There was a bag of stir-fry veggies and she could use that jar of pesto to make the noodles Van liked. That would go well with the steak. There were crackers and caviar, olives and gherkins for an appetizer. The cake mix was only a few weeks past its due date, so dessert was sorted… And she was doing it again.
Her mother had catered endlessly to her father. Despite swearing she wouldn’t become just like her, Becca had slipped on a 1950s apron with her wedding ring and had fallen into the same pattern with Van.
Is this shirt ready for the wash?
Of course I’ll pick up something for your mom’s birthday.
You bring home the bacon, darling. I’ll fry it up in the pan.
The sound of stomping feet approached the side door.
“Only you could walk sarcastically,” she said as Van entered and bent to unlace boots that wore traces of snow.
“I went out to start the sauna.”
“So we can have a sauna if we want one.”
They used to do that naked. Was that what he was imagining would happen again? Probably, seeing as she had practically jumped him in the closet.
She turned away, embarrassed, but it had always been that way when he returned after an absence. He would disappear to train for a couple of weeks and they would barely say hello when he walked in the door, preferring to crash into each other naked on the sheets. Only then were they ready to talk.
She missed that. She had missed him, she acknowledged with a searing ache in her throat. She had missed this house and feeling snug while snow fell and the excitement of being alive because this one particular human was close enough for her to touch.
“You have that,” he said as she finished making his coffee and reached for the sprinkles. “I’ll make my own.”
A jumble of emotions instantly clogged her throat. Rejection, because he didn’t want the coffee she’d made, and a wash of vulnerability because he was being considerate and she had never known how to take it when he did that.
Like her mother, Becca’s whole life had been orchestrated around service of some kind. If she wasn’t cooking a meal for family, she was pouring drinks for strangers. Becca had gone back to Sydney to help get her mum to doctor appointments and had arranged her sister’s wedding because Wanda had been in the middle of finals. She had done the very hard, painful work of ending her marriage both initially and legally so Van wouldn’t have to.
One cup of coffee hardly made up for that and it wasn’t as if Van had even made it. She had, but she said a humble, “Thank you,” and sat down on the far side of the island, thumbing her phone to hide how affected she was by such a small gesture.
A text from her sister Wanda wished her a happy new year and asked, Did you find it?
Becca texted back, Not yet.
She could have told Wanda she was staring at Van’s extremely nice butt and long legs, but she set the phone aside, never able to ignore him. She should continue sorting through her clothes upstairs and search out the locket, maybe ask him if it was in the safe. Instead, she asked, “How is your family? Is your Mom still with Werner?”
“She is,” he said with a note of marvel at the achievement. “They stayed here this summer with his kids.” He set the fresh grounds with a firm twist of his wrist.
“Stella and Morgan,” she recalled. “How are they?”
“Stella was caught shoplifting in the village.”
“Oh.” Now she couldn’t even mention the locket because that could implicate his adolescent stepsister. Becca had only met Stella twice. The girl had struck her as starved for attention, but sweet. She had a soft spot for kittens and secretly wrote poetry. Honestly, if Stella had taken Becca’s locket, Becca was inclined to let her keep it. She knew all about feeling un-special and more of a bother to one’s parents than a gift.
As she studied the tension in Van’s spine, she tried to make herself ask about his father. She only knew what had been reported online, that Jackson Scott had skipped off to an island in the Caribbean with the company’s chief financial officer, taking pension funds and other liquid assets, nearly bankrupting the family real estate corporation in the process.
The story had broken shortly after Van left Sydney. Becca had wanted to reach out to him, but she’d been in a very dark headspace at the time.
Looking back, Becca could see she had probably been suffering depression brought on by all she had been going through. She hadn’t been the most secure person in the first place and had become very down on herself during her marriage, feeling like a fish out of water as Van’s wife. When she learned about her mother’s failing health, guilt had smothered her over being away from home for so long. Learning that she couldn’t get pregnant had filled her with anger and self-blame and living with her parents had had its own challenges. Anyone who had moved back home after living away understood how hard that was.
Maybe it hadn’t been fair to Van to only give him half the story when he came to see her, but it had all felt too heavy and humiliating to unpack, especially when she’d been convinced their marriage was doomed anyway. She had honestly believed she was doing what was best for both of them. What was inevitable.
Or course, she had second-guessed herself by the following morning, but he’d been on his way to the airport by then. They’d both been caught up in family stuff after that. Time had marched on and now here they were, forced to make awkward small talk while pretending they hadn’t locked lips a few minutes ago.
She blew across her coffee, lungs burning.
Van finished making his and sprinkled it with chocolate. He turned to lean against the sink. He eyed her as he said gravely, “I was sorry to hear about your mom.”
She looked down, unable to bear his seeing how raw she still was a year later or how affected she had been by his small act of condolence.
“I got the flowers and the card about the donation. Thank you.” It had been the last thing she expected. Not so much the generosity of his donation to cancer prevention, but the fact that he’d gone to the trouble when they’d been officially separated and firmly estranged.
“I would have come to the funeral if you’d told me.”
“It was family only.”
Did that make him flinch? His expression shuttered so it was hard to tell.
“There were all those travel restrictions,” she reminded him. And funerals were expensive even when they were small. Honestly, she had feared he would see her reaching out as some kind of effort to get him back. If he hadn’t responded, she would have been devastated, so she had thought it best to let him find out through social feeds. “To be honest, we were kind of done with accepting sympathy by then. That sounds terrible, I know.”
“No, I get it. It’s exhausting when people keep asking how you’re doing and the truth is you’re terrible, but you have to say, ‘fine.’”
“Yes.” She lifted her lashes, surprised he understood so well, but she supposed he did. His father wasn’t dead, but he was gone. She couldn’t imagine people had been as charitable in expressing their feelings about Jackson Scott as they had been about her mum.
Becca started to ask if he’d tried to find his father, but he said, “And your family? You said your father remarried. How is your sister?”
“Also married. Wanda and Cliff had their wedding in Mum’s hospice room so it was very small, but it was a bright spot. They’re in Bali now as an anniversary celebration. Dad married Ollie back in July. Ollie was their neighbor, always coming over with meals while Mum was in treatment. She and Dad got closer once she was gone. They’re a good fit.” Ollie nagged Dad to take his blood pressure meds and Dad drove her to her hair appointments, exactly as things had been with Becca’s mother.
“And you? Are you seeing someone?”
“What? No.” Did he remember that kiss in the closet? “Why would you think that?”
Something flickered across his expression, but he only said facetiously, “We’ve covered weather and family. ‘Are you seeing anyone?’ comes next, doesn’t it? I thought that might be why you asked for the divorce.” He looked aside to find the sprinkles.
“No. I thought it was time. Don’t you?” She held her breath.
A cavern opened in her chest. She dropped her gaze back to her coffee, refusing to ask if he was involved with anyone. It would hurt too much to hear, especially on the heels of that kiss they’d shared upstairs.
Van had forgotten how sensitive she was. He was only speaking the truth and had learned the hard way that secrets and lies were far more harmful than honesty, but Becca felt everything twice as much as anyone else.
“I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t made a priority of starting the proceedings,” he said by way of softening his blunt agreement. In fact, when he’d sent the card after her mother’s death, he’d half expected it would at least start them talking again, but he had only received a thank-you card signed by “the Matthews family.” “But you’re right. It’s overdue. Thank you for getting that ball rolling.”
Her nod of acknowledgment was solemn, her mouth still holding that injured pout. “I thought I should do it since I kind of cornered you into our marriage. You were trying to help me stay in Canada and I left anyway.”
An unexpected pang hit his chest. He had thought they had more between them than some inconvenient immigration paperwork, but okay.
“I wanted to believe that eloping with someone I barely knew was romantic, but we were foolish babies who married in secret, like we were committing a crime. We kind of were,” she said with a wry smile. “That’s how we should have known we were doing something wrong.”
It hadn’t felt wrong. Maybe his libido had been the one doing all his thinking at the time, but Becca had seemed different from everyone else around him. Refreshingly honest without any hidden agendas.
Perhaps that had been wishful thinking. He’d become far more cynical since, able to see she had used him even if he’d willingly allowed it. At the time, he’d only seen what he wanted to see and she’d kept a lot from him.
His mind leaped to what he’d learned shortly before he had hugged his niece and nephew goodbye two days ago.
“Paisley told me she was the one who dented your convertible.”
“What? Why on earth would she bring that up?” Becca picked up her coffee mug and shoved her nose into it, earnest brown eyes sliding away from his.
His ire dug in with deeper talons.
“I told her you were here, that the divorce was going to be final. She asked if you were selling the car and asked if she could buy it. She couldn’t believe you had never told me. Neither can I.”
“Tsk.” Becca sat up straighter, shifting in a way that denoted guilt while asking dismissively, “When would I have?”
“When it happened?” he suggested with pointed sarcasm.
“Did she tell you why she left the kids with me that day and took my car?”
“Yes.” And he was outraged that Paisley had involved Becca in her infidelity, if completely unsurprised. Everyone in his family seemed to think promises and integrity were really more of a guideline than values to live by. “She also told me she tried to pay you not to tell me she was having an affair.” He’d been about to tear a strip off Paisley for that one, but her son had come in the room. “What the hell, Becca? You don’t even like Paisley. Why would you lie to me to protect her?”
“It wasn’t my place to start a family row and put her children through a divorce, was it?” She wrapped both hands around her cup, as if they were dishing at a tea party, when she asked with gently raised brows, “Is she happy with John?”
“No. They’re separated. That’s why she wanted me there for Christmas.” His family had more divorces than gold medals and that was saying something considering his mother’s career and his own. “Tell me what happened, Becca.”
Her mouth tightened and she sent him a glower that was impossible to take seriously because she looked like a kitten pulled off a curtain, indignant and injured at being scolded even though she was clearly in the wrong.
“It’s not even interesting.” She balanced her cup between two hands and let the steam rise to warm her nose. “Paisley asked me to watch the kids and took my car so I’d have the car seats if I needed to go out. I didn’t ask her where she was going, but she came back and said the car had been dented while it was parked. She didn’t want you to start asking her questions about it so she asked me to report it and say it happened while I was running errands. I said, ‘Why? Were you at a hotel with someone?’ It was a tasteless joke, but she got very stroppy and said she’d pay me to keep my mouth shut. I got stroppy and told her what she could do with her money. So it’s not that we don’t like each other, it’s that I had something on her and kept it in my back pocket so she wouldn’t be such a cow to me.”
“What do you mean?” He folded his arms, having a feeling he already knew.
“Come on, Van. Your whole family thought I married you for your money and they made sure I knew it. That’s why Paisley thought she could offer me money to stay quiet.”
“Who else treated you like that?”
“Everyone. Your mom loved to remark on the way I dressed and how that reflected on you. Paisley said it was nice that you didn’t mind my not working, but…ew, no. I couldn’t go back to being a bartender or a liftie at the ski hill. That wasn’t a real job. Your dad was constantly giving me career suggestions, but what were my options? Tuition here is obscene, especially for an international student. How could I train for a ‘real’ job without asking you to pay for it? If I did, that would only prove I’d married you for your money. There was no winning.” Her profile was stark as she looked toward the windows where snow and dusk were growing thicker.
“They knew I didn’t like the idea of you working late in bars, coming home to an empty house, when I could easily support you.” Guilt sat thornily in the pit of his gut. He’d shot down any of those sorts of digs when he’d heard them, but it hadn’t been enough, obviously. “You could have told me they were being rude.”
“No, Van, I couldn’t,” she said tiredly. “Any time I brought up any sort of problem, you said I needed to hang on until after the games. Then you would say you had to train and walk away.”
“I thought you understood—”
“Oh my God,” she cried at the ceiling. “Yes, of course I understood. I saw how hard you were working. Even if I hadn’t, it was drilled into me by every single member of your family that you had to be supported and protected. Do you want the real reason I didn’t tell you that Paisley was having an affair? Because I wasn’t allowed to tell you anything that might cause you the slightest distraction. Paisley laid a guilt trip on me. She said I had to keep quiet because we didn’t want to be the reason you failed to win gold. Did we?”
Nothing could have lit the fire of his temper faster. At a distance, he heard the layer of support beneath her actions, but he still grew raw with contempt.
“You’re no better than the rest of them,” he accused. “For years, everyone else decided what information I had a right to know. Paisley knew Dad was sleeping with his CFO. Mom knew something was funky with the numbers. No one told me.” He jabbed at his chest. “Iwasn’t fit to be informed until the coffers were empty and a payroll needed to be met.”
Then, yes, it had been expected that he would hurry home to sort that out.
His anger wasn’t all directed at Becca. From the time he had started to show promise as an athlete, his mother had begun putting up shields around him until his whole family had been keeping him in the dark for months and years at a time. The fact that Becca had played right into that game was galling.
“Secrets matter, Becca. They blow up lives.” He clapped his cup into the sink so hard, it cracked. He braced his hands on the far side of the island as he confronted her. “So tell me. What else have you kept from me all this time?”
There must be something, given the way she’d sneaked in here when she’d thought he would be away.
She held his gaze for so long, the air in his lungs began to incinerate and turn to ash. Her eyes dampened and his heart lurched.
He thought, Wait. I don’t want to know.
“Nothing that matters,” she finally said in a voice that was frayed thin.
“Liar,” he accused, but there wasn’t any heat in it. He dropped back on his heels and crossed his arms, feeling as though he was courting the sort of tailspin that left him tangled in a snow fence, worried he’d snapped a tendon.
“It’s true,” she said in that awful, emotionless voice. “Our marriage is over so nothing that happened back then matters anymore.”