by Laura Hamby
Elayna Rudyard stretched, rubbed her eyes and opened them slowly. The warmth of the sun beat in through the window. Oh, she loved winter in Southern California. Sure beat the frozen far north of Minnesota where nothing thawed until summer. Nothing could entice her to return to Norway, Minnesota.
She didn’t even own a coat any more.
She intended to keep it that way.
The phone rang. "‘Lo?"
"Lanie? You answered! Mom’s in the hospital." A sob punctuated the sentence, followed by a deep breath. Elayna’s sister continued. "Gary phoned the airline. There’s a ticket waiting for you at the counter. Keith Garrett offered to meet your plane and drive you to the hospital."
Elayna waited a moment, uncertain if Kellie had more to say. There were more important things to worry about right now than her ride. Trust her sister to send the man responsible for Elayna’s flight from Norway in the first place.
"Send him with a coat. What’s the prognosis?"
Kellie drew another shaky breath. "The doctors are still conferring. I’ll call you as soon as I know. Are you leaving right now?"
"Right after I pack, shower and dress. Half an hour."
Guilt ate at Elayna as she tossed necessities into a carry-on bag. Would it really have hurt her to have gone home for Christmas? What a way to ring in the New Year, racing home to be at her ailing mother’s bedside.
An hour later, she walked barefooted through the metal detector, after the indignity of a troll-like security guard pawing through her bag. She called her sister from the gate, and left a message.
Keith Garrett stuck out in the crowd. Blond, blue-eyed, standing at six feet, six inches, his Nordic heritage couldn’t be denied. Just as she couldn’t deny from the way her heart lurched that he still had the same effect on her. Instead of feeling like the confident, successful woman she knew herself to be, Elayna flashed back to being a gauche, insecure high school girl.
She rushed to his side. "How’s Mom?"
"She broke her leg."
"I flew across the width of the country, thinking my mother hung onto life by a thread, and it’s a broken leg? Did Kellie know this when she called?"
Keith’s eyes twinkled at her. "I’d imagine so. You know Kellie’s a drama queen. Puts all others to shame."
"I’m going to kill her with my cold, bare hands," Elayna vowed. "I should turn around and get back on the next plane flying to L.A."
"If you leave now, you won’t get to strangle Kellie. Plus, your mother would love to see you. I bet she’d stop pestering you to visit if you stayed for the New Year."
"It’s New Year’s Eve today."
"Short visit. You won’t turn completely back into an icicle. Speaking of which, Kellie sent this along. Why didn’t you bring a coat?"
"Don’t have much need for this kind of Eskimo wear in sunny California."
"No, guess not. Might help thaw that inner Ice Princess of yours." Keith took her carry-on and headed for the parking garage, leaving Elayna to follow or lose him in the crowd. After that last comment she was tempted, if not for one thing. He had her bag.
"Ice Princess? That’s rich. You should hire yourself out as an automatic ice cube maker."
"May be, darlin’, but I recall a time when you possessed enough heat to thaw me into a puddle at your feet if you’d wanted to. Get in the truck."
"It’s snowing." She glared out the window, still angry at having been tricked home. Annoyed at Keith’s high-handedness.
"Does that frequently during winter."
"I’ve only been gone for two years. I know a blizzard when I see one. We’ll never make it home."
"You’re right. Good thing I got the last motel room off the interstate on my way to the airport."
"One. Lucky to get it, too."
"Hope you won’t freeze in your truck."
Keith laughed. "Darlin’, I have no intention of spending the blizzard in my truck while you’re toasty warm in my room. Be nice and I’ll let you inside."
Elayna snorted. "Good ol’ status quo Keith."
"Look who’s talking, girl. Still got ice around your heart."
Ouch. Direct hit. She blinked tears back, averting her face lest Keith noticed he’d hit his target. Sure, they’d ignited the sheets together. But that hadn’t stopped him from reminding her how cold-hearted he found her. The reason she’d fled. Her heart couldn’t take any more of his bitterness. She’d been unable to soothe the scars his mother had inflicted.
"Maybe the heat in L.A. thawed you a bit. Those real or crocodile tears?" Keith pulled his truck into a parking space, leaving the engine idling while he tugged Elayna around. "I’ll be."
"We’d better go inside while we can still see the motel." She pulled away from him. The lobby would be warm. They wouldn’t begrudge her space in the storm. She grabbed her bag from under the seat and jumped out, not waiting to see if Keith followed.
It wouldn’t matter to him where she spent the storm. The couch facing the TV would do very well. Ice cubes, after all, didn’t have feelings. Or hearts. Or the ability to love.
"What do you think you’re doing?" Keith stopped before her, glaring down at her as she settled herself for a long stay.
"You said the room is yours. As you can see, I’m not the only one camping—"
"Darlin’, it’s a wonder to me you’ve managed to get this far in life unscathed for all the use your brain gets."
Elayna gasped when Keith tossed her bag over his shoulder and grabbed her by the hand, yanking her to her feet. "You can’t do that."
"I just did. Hush now, girl. You’re making a scene when there are much better things you could be doing with your time."
Keith’s expression changed from irritated to mischievously sensual. "Like remembering what fun being snowed in can be, with the right person."
"I don’t see any such critter here." Elayna glanced around, exaggerating her efforts. Keith’s low laugh informed her he wasn’t falling for her shenanigans. She made the mistake of looking at him. Bad Elayna. She’d seen that look in his eyes two years ago— like he loved her.
Then he’d broken her heart.
"Don’t run away from me again, Elayna. I can’t take another rejection. There are worse ways to bring in the New Year." His voice cracked emotionally.
Heaven above knew that something was missing from her new life in L.A. He stood beside her now, watching her with an intensity that should’ve scared her—had scared her in the past—but didn’t now.
"Let’s ring in 2008, shall we?"
Keith answered her with a toe-curling kiss.
Copyright 2008 by Laura Hamby
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