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Two brokenhearted strangers stranded in a winter wonderland…

All she wants for Christmas is to be alone. He has other plans.

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                                                                                                                                                                Chapter One


December 23rd

The back wheels of Skylar Nightingale’s SUV skidded along the snowy driveway. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, and she gripped the steering wheel, willing the vehicle to stay on the road. “No. No. Nooo!”

     The hunk of metal had a mind of its own, plowing head-on into a snowdrift in front of the home of her potential new landlord.

     Skylar pounded her fists on the steering wheel. “Shit.” If she’d been thinking straight, she’d have checked the weather report before leaving the valley and driving up Pine Lake Mountain. But she couldn’t think. Not on the two-year anniversary of her daughter’s funeral.

     All she wanted was to get away from happy people spreading Christmas cheer. No more trying to act normal when all she wanted was to be left alone. Moving to an isolated cabin on top of the mountain seemed a perfect solution. First, she needed to inspect the cabin.

     She turned off the ignition. The wind howled an ominous warning, rattling the vehicle and her nerves. It was 3:57 p.m. and already dark. Not even Mother Nature could stop her now. 

     She zipped her parka and pulled the drawstring on her hood. Pushing the door open, she stepped out and sunk knee-deep in snow. A gust of icy wind whipped her face, stinging her cheeks. In her fifteen years of living in New Hampshire, she’d never seen a storm this strong. Bowing her head into the wind, she powered her way to the house and up the slippery porch steps.

     Through the frosty bay window, a fireplace blazed and colored lights twinkled on a Christmas tree. Her throat tightened. A cozy family home. Just what she wanted to avoid.

     She shoved her hand through the pine wreath on the door, fumbling for the door knocker. Wreaths blocking door knockers. Another reason to hate Christmas.

     The door cracked open, and a young girl with large brown eyes poked her head out. “Hello.” 

     A familiar ache bloomed in Skylar’s chest. The girl must have been about ten years old. A black velvet headband held back her long, wavy brown hair, reminding Skylar of a similar one Amelia had worn at that age. “Hello. My name is Skylar. Is Janet Monroe at home?” 

     The girl shook her head, opening the door a few more inches. “Grandma isn’t here. But my dad is.”

     Skylar glimpsed Christmas stockings over the fireplace and a bright-red poinsettia on the mantel. “Can he help me with the cabin rentals?”

     “I think so.” The girl opened the door wider and did a shuffle in her fluffy pink socks. “Want to come in? It’s freezing outside.”

     Skylar stomped her boots on the bristled doormat and stepped inside the foyer. The house smelled like burnt cookies. Christmas hell.

     The girl closed the door against the wind. “I’m Hayley, by the way. You can sit down. I’ll let my dad know you’re here.” She took off with a hop-skip-jump through the living room toward the back of the house.

     Pulling off her gloves, Skylar scanned the room. Straight ahead, French doors flanked the stone fireplace. A large, family-worn sofa and overstuffed armchairs nestled in front of the fire. To her left, pine boughs wrapped around the staircase handrail up to the second floor. 

     Colored LED lights covered the Christmas tree, which was decorated with shiny ornaments and family-treasures. She swallowed the lump in her throat, tugging the red scarf wrapped around her neck—her own family treasure. The only one left.

     A sparkle drew her eyes to an architectural model-sized village set up on a card table next to the Christmas tree. She crossed the room and leaned over the display, admiring the exquisite details. Glitter on the snow-topped houses. A Christmas tree in the village square. An ice skating pond with children blading on the glass. The steeple of a white church. Each building fit with the entire theme of the village. A perfect world existing only in imagination. Someone’s fantasy. 

     A man’s voice thundered from a room on the other side of the house. “Now you want to blame me for the blizzard?”

     Skylar’s heart thumped, and she took a couple steps back. Growing up in a cult had made her leery of angry men with sharp-edged tones, but she took a deep breath and reminded herself that was long ago, and she wasn’t trapped anymore.

     “This is the sort of thing I’m talking about,” the man said, his tone harsher.

     The front door called to her. Run. Run now. Escape while you can. 

     To hell with the cabin. She moved toward the front door. These people had their own problems. Her plan to rent a cabin up here was foolish to start with. As if she could run from Christmas and people. She reached for the doorknob.

     “May I help you?” a man said.

     Squeezing her eyes shut, she exhaled a sharp breath. Too late to back out now. She opened her eyes and swung around. “Hello, I’m Skylar—” The words disappeared and she lost her ability to speak. Good. Lord. Hayley’s dad was hot. Not medium hot. Ryan Gosling-hot and about her age, early thirties. 

     “I’m Ethan Monroe.” He held out his hand. “How can I help you? Skylar, is it?”

     She shook his hand and his firm grasp commanded her attention, drawing her to his sparkling blue eyes. Light brown waves of neatly cut hair framed his chiseled face. Stubble covered his chin. Her cheeks warmed and she let go of his hand.  Act cool. “I spoke with Janet Monroe about the one-bedroom cabin for rent—”

     Ethan raised a slow smile. “Was she expecting you?”

     “She said I could stop by any time before Christmas Eve.”

     Hayley sidled next to Ethan, and he wrapped a protective arm around her shoulders, his eyes fixed on Skylar. “Mom and Dad are stuck in Maine because of the storm. You a local?”

     Skylar squared her shoulders against his curious gaze. “I live in Pine Lake Valley.”

     “The valley?” Ethan’s eyes widened. “I’m surprised you made it up the mountain. Sheriff just called, warning us to stay off the road because a tree’s down on the south side. Road to the valley is completely blocked.” He cocked his head. “Do you have friends up here to stay with?”

     “No. I’ll have to rent a cabin for the night.”

     “Can’t do that. The cabins are half a mile down a road that hasn’t been plowed.”

     She put a hand over her rolling stomach. “What about the ski resort on the north side? What is that—five miles? Surely I could make it there and—”

     Ethan shook his head. “The resort is fully booked. Always is over Christmas and New Year.” A flicker of satisfaction crossed his face. “Looks like you’re our house guest for the night.”

     Hayley pulled Ethan’s arm and gave him a hopeful grin. “Skylar’s staying the night?”

     Skylar’s heart raced faster than her feet could ever run. She couldn’t let them see her broken self. “No way. I can’t stay here.”

     “There’s no choice. We have a guest room with a private bathroom, right here on the ground floor. You’re welcome to sleep there. Hayley and I have our own rooms upstairs.”

     “I don’t mind trudging through the snow to a cabin.” Skylar’s stomach churned. “I-I’ll pay double what you’d normally charge for one night.”

     Ethan laughed. “Remember the storm?  The road to the cabins is four-feet deep in snow. And the weather models predict things are about to get worse.”

     Heat spread across the back of Skylar’s neck. Clearly he thought she’d lost the plot, and maybe she had. The walk from her car to the house nearly blew her back down the mountain. Going into a blinding blizzard wasn’t a smart move. “Guess I’m stuck.”

     Hayley jumped up and down like she was on a pogo stick. “Yay! Skylar’s staying the night. Skylar’s staying the night.”

      Skylar didn’t share the joy. She was a Grinch stuck in a Hallmark Christmas house during a record blizzard, with a hunky man and his chirpy, prepubescent daughter who reminded her way too much of Amelia.

     Could she pretend to feel normal for just one night without having a meltdown?


     Ethan Monroe looked at the anxious woman standing in the living room. He’d worked five years as a courtroom attorney and was familiar with the look in Skylar’s green eyes. Fear. Desperation. 

     The sexy crease in her bowed upper lip was enough to make him almost forget about his own problems. His heart pumped hard, and he caught his breath. “All the cell-phone signals are down, and the Internet’s been spotty. We have a landline in the kitchen if you need to make a call.”

     “No, thanks.” Skylar’s eyes roamed the room but settled on nothing.

     Hayley yanked Skylar’s coat sleeve. “Want me to hang your coat in the closet?”

     “Sure.” Skylar pulled the red scarf off the parka and handed Hayley the coat.

     He imagined Skylar had a petite frame hid beneath her baggy sweats. The simple thought sent a shot of adrenaline from his gut to his scalp. What the hell compelled her to drive up the mountain during a blizzard? “Driving in these conditions is dangerous. You could have swerved off the road and been stranded.”

      “I’ve been driving these roads for fifteen years. I can handle it.” Skylar folded her scarf.

     “This Nor’easter is different. Unless it makes a quick shift into the Atlantic, the entire northeast of America will shut down.” He paused, scrutinizing Skylar. Had she been living under a rock? “Haven’t you been listening to the news?”

     Skylar blinked a few times. “I’ve been too preoccupied with work.”

     “Just like you, Dad,” Hayley said, hanging the coat in the entry coat closet.

     Ethan rubbed the back of his neck. “You’re right, kiddo.” Work had taken too much of his time in the past few days. He’d come up to the mountain to spend some time with Hayley and clear his head, not work his ass off. All due to the workload his boss had dumped on him at the last minute. Hard to say no when his boss was his ex-girlfriend’s father.

     “Can you show me the guest room?” Skylar twisted the folded scarf with both hands. “I-I’ll feel more comfortable if I can stay out of your way.”

     “You’re not in my way,” Ethan said. He looked at Hayley. “Is Skylar in your way?”

     A grin crossed his daughter’s face. “Not a bit.”

     “But I do need to make a couple of phone calls,” Ethan said. “Then I’ll start cooking dinner. Is there anything you don’t eat?”

     Skylar shook her head. “No. I—”

     “Good.” Ethan clapped his hands. “Roast beef’s on the menu, and we’ll eat around seven.”

     “Can I help?” Hayley tugged his arm.

     Ethan stooped to one knee to speak with his daughter at eye level. She nuzzled into his chest and looked at him with the same round, brown eyes as her mother.

     A shallow breath caught in his chest. His wife, Louise, had looked forward to raising Hayley, giving her brothers and sisters, a family. Twenty-four was too young to die. On her deathbed, she’d made him promise he’d fall in love again. Promise to give Hayley a family, as they’d planned before cancer fucked everything up.

     He stood and exhaled, putting on a smile for Hayley. “We’ll make dinner a team effort.” He exchanged a fist pump.

     Hayley grabbed Skylar’s hand and pulled her toward the guest room on the opposite side of the house. “Come on, Skylar. I’ll show you where your room is.”

     Watching Skylar walk away, Ethan let out a slow breath. He’d dated plenty of women over the past five years, so what was it about Skylar that hijacked his attention? Besides being a natural beauty, she had a guarded confidence that lured him in for a closer look.

     The five-o’clock chime of the grandfather clock brought him back to reality and the phone conversation he needed to finish with his ex-girlfriend, Danielle.

     She’d gone bat-shit crazy since he’d ended their relationship two weeks ago. Not that he blamed her. But spending Christmas with Danielle when he’d fallen out of love with her didn’t sit right. He was certain the extra work Jim McIntosh emailed him on the day he arrived on the mountain was no coincidence, but rather a consequence of breaking up with his daughter. Regret clenched his gut. If only it hadn’t taken two years to figure out he’d never marry Danielle.

     He went back into his dad’s office and plunked down in the leather chair. From behind the mahogany desk, he swiveled around and looked out the floor-to-ceiling window. Outdoor lights illuminated the heavy snowfall quickly accumulating on the deck.

     With all the worries on his mind, Skylar was a pleasant distraction. The inquisitor in him wanted to know more, and only his mother could answer his questions. He turned to the desk and pressed the numbers on the landline. “Hello, Mom,” he said the moment she answered.

     “Ethan.” Janet Monroe laughed with a mother’s love, deep and warm. “You and Hayley getting bored with no TV or Internet? You rarely call.”

     “We’re good. I’m calling because a woman stopped by to look at a cabin. Skylar something-or-another. Do you remember talking to her?”

     “Oh, yes. Skylar. She has an interesting last name. Nightingale. I did tell her it was all right to drop by. That was before your dad and I got stuck here in Maine.”

     “Well, she’s here now. A tree fell and is blocking the road back to the valley. I had no choice but to let her stay the night.”

     “Did she see the cabin?”

     “Can’t get to the cabins, Mom. I’ll need to plow the road once the snow stops.” He picked up a pencil and tapped the eraser on the desk. “I’m more interested in what you know about her.”

     “She did fill out an application online. Let’s see if I remember. She’s single…works from home…no pets…”

     “A single woman looking for a cabin up on the mountain. Must want to stay low on the radar.” Ethan tossed the pencil in the air then caught it. “What about a criminal record?”

     “Does she look like an axe-murderer?”

     Not an axe-murderer. Nothing felt dangerous about Skylar, but something was off. “No. She’s just…uptight.”

     “What do you expect? She’s a young single woman stuck in a house with a strange man. Why wouldn’t she be uptight?”

     “True. But it’s something deeper than that.” His gut instincts had him worried. Was she in trouble, or running away from someone? Something had her on edge.

     “You’re overanalyzing. I’m more concerned about whether the roads and airports reopen tomorrow so we can all be together at Christmas.”

     He dropped the pencil on the desk and sunk deeper into the chair. “I hate disappointing you guys, but I need to get back to New York and deal with some problems at work.”

     His mother didn’t speak right away. “How’s Danielle handling the break up?”

     “It’s all good, Mom. It’s more to do with an emergency situation at work. Really.” His folks never said anything bad about Danielle, but they’d never said anything good, either. Part of him understood, because they’d loved Louise. But Ethan had let go of any notion that another woman could replace Hayley’s mother. No human being could replace another, and he had moved on long ago.

     “I suppose we’re all at the mercy of this storm,” she said. “The most important thing is for you and Hayley to stay safe.”

     “We will. But right now, I better check on Hayley and our guest.”

      “Give Hayley a hug for me. And show Skylar the cabin. It would be great if you could help us get them all rented out by spring.”

     Ethan cringed. His family had big development plans for Pine Lake Mountain and never missed an opportunity to hint how much they’d like having him involved in the project. But he’d left the mountain and its small-town mentality twelve years ago, and though the place held nostalgia, he’d become more of a city slicker than a mountain man. “I’ll do my best, Mom.”

     He ended the call knowing he couldn’t show Skylar the cabin with this amount of snowfall. But after four days of being cooped up in this house, he’d been going stir-crazy, and Skylar sparked up his night.


Thank you for reading the first chapter of my debut novella, Christmas at Pine Lake Mountain: A Pine Lake Novella (previously published as Three Snowy Nights: A Pine Lake Christmas Novella). Time is valuable, and I appreciate that you took the time to read this excerpt. If you’d like to read more, the novella is available on Amazon and you can order your ebook here.

I’m working on other books in this series. If you’re interested in reading excerpts from my upcoming books, you can sign up for my newsletter here. I promise not to inundate you with emails. You’ll only hear from me when I share excerpts, short stories, or notify you of my latest book being released.    

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