* * *
Throwing the last load of firewood on the pile, Julia dropped into the comfy chair in front of the roaring fire, the heat from the flames not the only thing causing her face to flush. She tried not to think of that night, but every now and then it came creeping back to her.
She never saw Scott again, although she’d heard through the grapevine Ross had fired him. Asking Ross was a definite impossibility, as they had reached a tacit agreement never to speak of that night again and she, for one, was glad to avoid the topic. Discussing the biggest act of stupidity of her life with the man of her dreams was something she would never voluntarily do.
All she remembered after falling asleep in his arms that night was waking up the next morning alone in her bed, then managing to avoid him for almost a week before he stopped by with pizza and beer for their standing Thursday-night dinner. He carried in a large pepperoni and mushroom, cracked open a cold one and started talking about his week as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened at the Christmas party. Relieved by the reprieve, Julia followed his lead and avoided the subject.
Staring into the flames, she felt herself slipping back into the same melancholy that had taken over in the past few months. Her life was in the gutter and she had no one to blame but herself.
Her parents had been killed in a car crash her junior year in college. Blinded by the loss, she’d cut herself off from everyone close to her. She’d moved out of the apartment she shared with two friends, broken off her relationship with her boyfriend and buried herself in her schoolwork.
After graduation, she’d rented a small apartment with the little bit of money left to her by her parents, adopted Duke from an animal shelter and poured herself into her writing. By escaping into her romance novels she was able to exist in an exciting world with dashing men who loved their women no matter what.
And in the process, she was able to avoid feeling anything real. If you never truly loved, she reasoned, you never truly lost. Love in a fantasy world was safe and painless. None of her characters ever disappointed her by dying or leaving her.
Unfortunately, she was halfway through writing the third book when she realized her money had run out. Unwilling to leave her emotionless sanctuary, she mailed out her first manuscript to twenty different publishers. Nineteen rejections immediately returned.
Then her phone rang. Ross Phillips, a young editor with a struggling publishing company he was launching with a friend, invited her in for a meeting. He saw something special in her writing and thought she had what it took to make it big. The rest, as they said, was history. Her books were an immediate success and they helped to skyrocket Ross’s small company into a major contender in the publishing world. Ross was now the chief editor and controlling partner in the firm.
Shaking her head, she chastised herself for falling into the same black despair that had continued to hound her since Duke died. “I’m here to write,” she said aloud, desperate to hear a voice in the quiet of the cabin. At least when Duke had been around she’d never felt crazy for talking to herself. She could justify it by claiming she was talking to the cat.
A loud knock at the door had her jumping up. Suddenly feeling very isolated and unprotected, she scanned the room for some sort of weapon. Spying a big log in her pile of firewood, she grabbed it, cowering in the corner. The pounding on the door continued, louder this time, and Julia’s heart began to race.
Who the hell would be on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere on a day like this? It was a virtual whiteout outside.
“Jules, open the damn door. I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
Ross? She sighed in relief, rushing to unlock the door, and there in the doorway stood her very tall, very wet editor.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, aware her tone was distinctly unfriendly, but he had scared her half to death.
Eyes narrowed, Ross entered the cabin, his arms laden with packages, a large duffel bag thrown over one shoulder, a backpack over the other. “I tried to call, but the phone lines are down,” he answered gruffly.
“My cell?” she asked sarcastically.
“No service up here,” he replied with equal irritation.
“Is something wrong?” She couldn’t imagine what could be so bad it would compel Ross to leave the comfort of his penthouse apartment in New York City to drive for nine hours to the mountains.
“Blizzard.” He unloaded his bags on the kitchen counter. “Headed this way. I was worried you’d be snowed in without enough food.”
Secretly pleased at his incredibly sweet gesture, Julia smiled and helped him unload the soggy paper bags. “You’ve brought enough food for an army.” She gaped at all the meat, vegetables, fruit and snacks he carried in. “I hope you don’t think I need all this to survive. Hey, I didn’t hear a car. How did you get here?”
“By the grace of God and my four-wheel drive. I almost made it all the way to the cabin. The snow is already pretty deep. I got stuck about a mile down the road. Had to walk the rest of the way. Looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while.” Pulling off his drenched coat, he hung it on the peg by the door.
“My God,” she exclaimed, glancing out the frosted window, “it’s freezing out there and the visibility must be zero. You’re lucky to have made it at all. What the hell were you thinking? You could have been killed.” She put her hands on her hips, suddenly aware of the very real danger he’d just escaped.
“What was I thinking?”
“Yes. Good Lord, Ross, of all the idiotic things to do. What if you’d crashed the car? What if you’d gotten lost in the snow while looking for the cabin? You could have frozen to death.”
Ross shook his head. Clearly, of all the receptions he’d imagined, this nagging scold was not one he’d considered. “I guess, like the idiotic fool I am, I thought you’d be glad to see me. That you’d offer me a warm drink and some supper. I thought you’d be happy not to be stuck up here in this godforsaken cabin alone in a blizzard!”
Biting her lip, she said softly, “Well, I am. Happy, that is. I was feeling rather trapped—and alone.”
As quickly as his anger came, it left him. Smiling, he admitted, “It was a damn stupid thing to do. Unfortunately that fact didn’t occur to me until I was about halfway up the mountain and I realized it was too late to turn around.”
“Let’s get you out of those wet clothes,” she said, suddenly very pleased to have him with her. “I’ll put some water on for tea.”