Jill Churchill

From Here to Paternity

Chapter 1

'All we need now is a roaring fire and a bottle of wine,' Jane Jeffry said contentedly as she looked out the window at the snow.

'I've never found a rental car with a fireplace,' Mel VanDyne said, hunching over the steering wheel and glaring into darkness.

'I didn't mean 'now' now. I mean when we get there.'

'Which will probably be well into the next century at the rate we're going. Do you realize that we left Chicago at six o'clock and it's now almost eleven and we're still not there? We could have flown to London instead of Colorado in this time. And we probably wouldn't be stuck in a blinding blizzard, either.'

'Now, Mel. It's not exactly blinding. You can see all sorts of— Oh, my God! What's that thing?'

Mel slowed the car to a crawl. 'I think it's an elk.'

A herd of extremely large, hoofed animals were near the side of the highway and one had wandered out into the slow lane, apparently to amuse and alarm tourists. Fortunately, there was practically no other traffic on the interstate and Mel could slow down without being rear-ended. The big animal shambled off before Mel had to come to a complete stop.

'Wow! What a great-looking animal!' Jane exclaimed. 'It's a good thing we were going so slowly. Imagine if you hit something like that.'

Mel nodded. 'Yeah. It'd be like clipping the Sears Tower. Only bloodier.'

'Look, Willard! Wild animals,' Jane chirped over her shoulder.

There was a muffled dog groan from the backseat.

'Are you sure that dog's all right?' Mel said.

'It's just the tranquilizer the vet had me give him before we left. I knew he'd be scared by the plane ride, so I really doped him up.'

'If he were any dopier, he'd have to be reclassified as a vegetable. Why did you have to bring him?'

'Well, it was that or put him in the kennel, and he's never been to a kennel. He'd think we'd abandoned him, poor old guy. Watch it or I'll give you one of his pills.' She slipped into a bad Peter Lorre imitation: 'I have drugs and I know how to use them.'

'I've worked hard at nursing along this bad mood. Don't you dare try to take it away from me,' Mel snarled.

Jane waved this warning off. 'Until you've had a teenage daughter, you don't know what a bad mood really is. You haven't even got to the learner permit stage of tantrums. I think there's a town just ahead. There might be something open where you could get a cup of coffee,' she added.

They took the off-ramp and found a single, glaringly lighted convenience store open. Mel went in to buy coffee while Jane studied the map of Colorado. Yes, another twenty miles, maybe thirty, she thought, then cringed as she looked up and saw Mel talking with the convenience-store clerk. Lots of pointing. Hmmm. He was asking directions. Not a good sign. Men never seemed to resort to asking for help except when really stressed. And then they didn't listen anyway.

This was a side of him she hadn't seen in the year and a half they'd been dating. Well, dating in a manner of speaking. They'd first met when Jane's next-door neighbor and best friend, Shelley, found a dead cleaning lady in her guest bedroom and Mel was the detective assigned to the case. More often than not during that first year, Jane and Mel had met as witness and police officer. Or police officer and neighborhood busybody, as Mel would probably interpret it. He was always the cool, calm bachelor and Jane was the frazzled, widowed mother of three, trying to keep her whole life from flying off in random bits of car pools, PTA business, teenage fits of angst, and algebra homework. Being the one not going to pieces was rather refreshing!

When he got back with a pair of steaming Styrofoam cups, he said, 'I can't help but notice that you're taking this nightmare journey awfully well.'

Jane smiled. 'Well, I grew up a State Department brat. When you've lived practically everywhere in the world, you get used to travel catastrophes. And this one doesn't even qualify. Nothing's really even gone wrong. It's just taken a lot of time. That's nothing. I once had a camel eat my favorite doll. Even rental-car clerks seldom get that surly.'

Mel took a sip of his overcooked convenience-store coffee and grimaced. 'I keep forgetting that about you. Well, not forgetting, exactly—'

'You might want to explain that,' Jane said. 'I think you just wandered onto dangerous turf.'

Mel grinned. 'It's not an insult. At least I didn't mean it as one. I just meant that you're usually so — so domestic. So grounded in your family and house and pets and neighborhood. And then there's this other Jane — the one I've seen today — who can pack up an idiot dog, and a couple small suitcases and calmly take off. You didn't get rattled or nasty over the airplane seat mix-up, you just sorted it out. You seem to be able to read maps in the dark. You don't appear to be bothered by the fact that we're high in the mountains, in a blizzard, and likely to starve to death—'

Jane laughed. 'Us and the Donner party. Mel, we're parked in front of a convenience store. And my map- reading skills, which you admire so much, tell me that we've got another half hour at least and had better get going.'

'Tell me again why in hell we're doing this,' Mel said as he backtracked to the highway ramp.

'Because of Shelley Nowack's husband, Paul. He invests in things. And some group wants him to put a bunch of money into investing in this resort. Somebody or other — I'm not clear on whether it was the other investors or the current owners of the place— wanted to knock his socks off with what a great place it is and offered him and eight of his nearest and dearest a free extended weekend. Including airfare, which was really generous. You and I qualify as two of Paul's nearest and dearest.'

Mel grinned. 'That would probably surprise Paul Nowack to learn, being as he doesn't even know me.'

'But he knows of you. And for the sake of this trip, you count as part of my family.'

'I'm just a humble cop—'

'Hardly humble,' Jane muttered.

'— not a high-stakes real estate entrepreneur, but it seems to me that this place is likely to be a real hellhole if somebody's willing to go to all that trouble and expense to unload it.'

'Oh, no. I saw the brochures. It's a fantastic place. But there is something—'

Mel's eyes widened in alarm. 'Oh?'

'Well, it seems it's a ski resort without a mountain. That's what Shelley said.'

'Without a mountain? Jane, even in the dark I can tell we're surrounded by mountains. They're great hulking things with pointy tops and thousands of tons of snow poised to avalanche down on us. You can hardly miss them.'

'This resort's in the mountains, it just doesn't have one of its very own. But it has everything else you'd want for a vacation, they say. That was the point in inviting both our families. To show off all the fun stuff you can do at this resort.'

'Except ski.'

'Right. And you can ski, Shelley says. Just not right there. You take a shuttle bus that runs every fifteen minutes to a place just two miles down the road that's supposed to have terrific skiing.'

Mel was unconvinced. 'And we're not even staying together. You and I, I mean.'

'I told you, Shelley has to entertain these investors in the condo she's been given and couldn't have all the kids underfoot. And there's no way either of us would trust the kids to stay alone.'

Mel shook his head. 'So let me see if I've got this straight. We're going to a ski resort without a mountain to have a romantic weekend — except that you're bunking with your daughter and Shelley's and I'm in with the male

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