Gina Wilkins

Make-Believe Mistletoe

© 2003

For the volunteers in the Rebsamen Hospital

Auxiliary, who do such a tremendous service in

our community and have been so nice to me.

Thank you and Merry Christmas.

Chapter One

Lucy Guerin had never quite understood the appeal of a white Christmas. After all, the holidays were traditionally a time for travel, and snowy weather had a way of seriously impeding travel plans. When Bing Crosby crooned about glistening treetops, he had probably not had anything like this in mind, Lucy thought glumly, staring out the rapidly icing windshield of her small car.

She had asked Santa for a man for Christmas, but she hadn't meant Jack Frost.

Ice storms happened fast and sometimes without much warning in the Ozarks. The weather guy Lucy had listened to had said that, depending on the temperature, there would be rain or snow or maybe ice. His own guess had been rain changing to light snow with little accumulation.

He had been wrong.

The ice on twisting, rural Highway 65 through north central Arkansas was growing thicker by the moment, causing Lucy's car to slide perilously. It was rapidly getting dark at 5:00 p.m. on this December 23. Between the heavy clouds and early sundown of winter, little natural light remained to guide her way. The beams of her headlights splintered off the falling ice. She was still several miles from the nearest town, and the only sign she saw warned that the next five miles of road were winding and steep. Great.

She wasn't going to make it much farther. Her back tires skidded, and it was all she could do to keep the car from sliding off the road. Though this highway was usually well traveled by Branson-bound tourists, the combination of the weather and the approaching holiday had the road almost empty now. Only one other vehicle was visible, an ancient pickup truck following at some distance behind her, also headed north.

Maybe all the other would-be travelers had listened to better weather forecasters.

It was quite a relief when she spotted a driveway ahead-a long gravel road leading to a rock and redwood house set at the foot of a rocky hill. She slowed her car to little more than a crawl to study the place. Evergreen and hardwood trees surrounded the area, but a fair-size yard had been carved out of the woods. The yard was surrounded by a chain-link fence with a gate that crossed the driveway.

A single security pole lamp sat beside the house, casting a dim glow over the place. There were no Christmas lights or other decorations visible, and the windows seemed to be heavily draped or covered with blinds, so Lucy couldn't tell if there were any lights on inside. For all she knew, no one was home. But she could at least park in the driveway and get off this dangerously slick road before she smashed her car into a mountainside.

She skidded again as she made the turn into the gravel driveway. Holding her breath, she brought the car to a stop in front of the chain-link gate. The old pickup truck slid in behind her, its driver obviously coming to the same conclusion she had about the hazards of traveling farther.

Now what? Lucy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel, staring at the house and wondering if the gate was locked. She could see now that there was another large building behind the house, a workshop, perhaps. No lights in those windows, either. She couldn't call for assistance from here; her cell phone wasn't picking up a signal. This, she thought, must be the very spot people referred to when they said “out in the boonies.”

It was getting darker by the minute, and the freezing rain and sleet were falling harder. She heard the distant crack of a tree branch snapping beneath the weight of accumulating ice. She had to do something.

A tap on her driver's side window made her start. She looked around to see an elderly African-American man huddled beneath a black umbrella that was having little effect against the pelting ice. She rolled down her window and he asked, “Are you okay, miss?”

He looked as though the strong winds would topple him right over-or carry him away by the umbrella like Mary Poppins. “I'm fine, but you should get out of this weather.”

“You think that gate's locked? Maybe if we blow our horns, someone in the house will come out to let us in. My wife wants me to keep driving, but I don't think I can get much farther in this.”

“Absolutely not.” He shouldn't have driven this far.

Lucy reached for her door handle. “You go back to your wife. I'll see if I can get someone in the house to help us.”

She slipped a little when she stepped out of her car, clutching at the door for balance. Ice bombarded her head and slid down the inside collar of her inadequate leather jacket. She had a heavy parka but it was in her trunk, as she hadn't expected to be out of her car long enough to need it before reaching her destination.

After making sure the older man was safely back in his truck, Lucy moved carefully toward the gate. The gravel driveway provided a bit more traction than a smooth surface would have, but the hard-packed rocks were still slick and wet. Thank heaven she had worn hiking boots with slip-resistant soles. She had selected them more because they completed her outfit of a heavy hand-knit green sweater and boot-cut jeans than because she had expected to do any hiking, but she was grateful for them now-not that even boots helped much in this weather.

The gate was latched but not locked, she discovered in relief. Cold seeped through her thin leather driving gloves when she lifted the latch and pushed the gate open far enough to allow her to slip through. Literally slip through. She nearly fell on her butt before she caught her balance.

Her curly red hair was wet and icy, and her face was so cold it hurt. She wouldn't have been surprised if an icicle formed on the end of her nose. Huddling into the fashionable leather jacket, she carefully climbed two slick rock steps to the covered porch that ran the length of the single-story house. It felt somewhat better to be under cover, but no less miserably wet and cold.

She was shaking so hard she missed the doorbell the first time she aimed for it, jabbing her finger into the redwood siding, instead. The second attempt was more successful. She heard a chime echo inside the house. And then she rang it again, hoping this wasn't the secluded hideaway of a paranoid, gun-toting, bigoted survivalist.

The door finally opened to reveal the most gorgeous man Lucy had ever seen in person. Around thirty. Thick, dark hair, navy-blue eyes, chiseled features, body to die for. What little breath the cold had left in her lungs escaped in a long, appreciative sigh.

Thank you, Santa.

She blinked ice-tipped lashes to clear her vision, just in case she was imagining this apparition of masculine perfection. But no. He was still there, and still fabulous-even if he did wear a less-than-welcoming frown.

“What is it?” he asked, and his deep voice was as beautiful as his face-if a teensy bit grouchy.

“We're stranded,” she said simply, motioning toward the two vehicles in his driveway. “We need shelter.”

He looked glumly at the ice growing thicker on the ground by the moment. “There's a motel about fifteen miles down the road,” he offered without much optimism.

“We won't make it fifteen more feet. It's treacherous out there-and the old couple in the pickup need to come in out of the cold. Surely you and your family would allow us to come in for a little while?”

“No family,” he muttered. “It's just me.”

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