Trusting Love

 

Chapter One

“Oh, crap!” Josie Kline tightened her mittened hands convulsively on the steering wheel of her aging sedan as it started to slide off the snow-packed highway—again. “Salt, people!” she yelled at the absent road crews, who apparently thought a late-October surprise blizzard wasn’t worth the effort. “Salt is our friend! And some freaking snowplows might be nice, too.”

Shoulders tight with tension, she guided the car back onto the road. Well, where she thought the road should be. It was kind of hard to tell exactly where the hell you were driving when all you could see was snow whipping into your windshield by a gale force wind. Heck, in this ocean of white, the only reason she was pretty sure she was still on the highway in the first place were the occasional mile markers.

“I mean, I get that it’s not even freaking Halloween yet, but this is the freaking Pocono Mountains, you jerks! Pennsylvania! We get freaking snow, for Christ’s sake.”

Yelling at the nonexistent road crews didn’t help much. She felt like a rubber band wound too tight and ready to snap.

And yes, yes, yes, she shouldn’t have been driving in these conditions in the first place. She’d meant to get an earlier start, but it had taken her longer than she’d expected to pack up her things, get the car out of the garage where it was stored, and leave New York City. Even so, the stupid weather forecasters she’d listened to before heading out had all insisted the storm would only drop a couple of inches of snow, even in the Poconos. Josie had grown up in this part of Pennsylvania. Driving in snow and avoiding deer were two of her best life skills. She could make her car dance through a couple of inches of snow without even breaking a sweat.

Too bad this was not a couple inches of snow.

Once she’d realized the storm was going to be a lot worse than anticipated, she should have stopped and found somewhere to spend the night. Even the truck drivers seemed to be giving up. But it hadn’t gotten really, really bad until she was about ten miles away from Hardy Falls. And since Hardy Falls, Pennsylvania, was her ultimate destination, she’d kept going. Ten miles, she’d reasoned, would be nothing at this point.

Wrong!

She tapped the brakes gently as the car rocked in an especially strong gust of wind. All this wind was bad because the trees still had most of their leaves, and the wet, heavy snow was weighing them down. Broken branches and falling trees would take down wires and block roads, just a few of the many reasons why storms like this could be deadly in the mountains. Her mother was the chief of police in Hardy Falls, so Josie had heard lots of stories about what could happen.

She shouldn’t have trusted the forecast. She should have stayed in New York. But who knew they’d be this wrong?

“Not like I had an apartment to stay in, anyway,” she muttered, hands gripping the wheel, giving the car more gas so it could get up an incline, and praying when she felt the tires spin, the tail shimmy. “Or a job. Or anything except this stupid car.” She breathed again when the road leveled out.

“Kicked to the curb, remember?” The sound of her own voice was soothing, even if what she was saying sucked. “Laid off and thrown out of the apartment. Way to go, Josie.”

In fairness, she knew that if she’d asked, her former roommates would have let her stay another night. The girl they were replacing her with wasn’t due to move in for a couple of days, anyway. But Josie had just wanted to get home. After the blows of the past week or so, she needed to reinvent her life—needed to see where she was going and where she wanted to go. She needed to think, goddamnit, and home was a good place to do that. A safe place to start over.

Assuming she could get there.

Drawing in another deep breath, she put her car in the lowest gear possible and crept down a hill that felt like a ski slope. She wished she could see landmarks so she’d be able to tell how much further she had to go. On this wooded, lonely stretch of highway, everything looked the same in the unending, swirling whiteness.

This was not a snowstorm. This was a snowpocalypse. Beware, the end of the world is nigh for it is covered with frozen precipitation.

Giggling a little hysterically, Josie struggled to keep the sedan under control.

Maybe she should stop. Pull over and wait it out. As much as she hated to give them any credit, the crews would be through sooner or later. This was a major road, so they’d be out tending it when they could. But she couldn’t be that far away from Hardy Falls, and if she stopped, she’d never get started again. Besides, she might get hit by someone else stupid enough to be out driving in this insanity.

It would have been nice if she could have called her mother to get some advice. Jacqueline Kline would at least know what the road conditions were like ahead. But cell service, which was never great, had already been knocked out.

Well, it was probably for the best. She’d wanted to make her explanations in person, so nobody knew she was on her way. If her mother found out how idiotic she’d been, she’d come riding to the rescue and then they’d both probably get stuck.

Josie suddenly noticed a different quality to the snow and stared in amazement as a squat, square building sitting at the side of the road came into view. It was a bar, with lights glowing in the windows and neon beer signs flashing red, blue, and yellow out front.

What the hell? They were open?

Most importantly, she recognized the place. This was the Country Time Bar and Grill, a tavern on the outskirts of Hardy Falls, owned by her best friend in the whole wide world, Hannah Frederickson.

Josie was home.

Home.

She blinked hard to keep from breaking down in tears of relief and gratitude and, distracted for one crucial moment, stepped on the brakes way too hard.

“Oh, God. Oh, crap. Oh, shit.”

Hands clenched on the wheel, her stomach knotted as she felt the tires slide into a slow motion turn. The brakes did nothing to halt her forward momentum, as the car did a graceful, inevitable 400-degree spin and came to a stop in the middle of the highway pointing directly at the Country Time.

So, that was a sign. Stop, you moron.

Wheezing a little from the adrenaline, Josie decided that she wasn’t going to argue with the universe any longer. She was done. There was determined, there was stubborn, and there was bone-deep stupid. No way in hell was she going to make it, regardless of how few miles it was across town to her mother’s house. For whatever unknown, harebrained reason, someone was obviously inside the Country Time, and she had a hunch that someone was Hannah. More than likely, Deacon Black, Hannah’s bartender-boyfriend, was there too, and that was fine. Heck, they could be having sex on top of the bar for all Josie cared. She was getting off this hell-road and waiting out the rest of the storm with her friends.

Sadly, the universe did not appear to be impressed with her decision because when she hit the gas, the wheels of the car spun uselessly. For a few moments it slid back and forth, but it never actually went anywhere.

Great. Now she was going to have to slog her way through the snow and get Hannah to help push her off the road.

Not willing to face the cold just yet, she put the car in reverse, then in drive, repeatedly rocking it back and forth. A thrill of triumph washed through her when she felt the wheels finally gain traction and the vehicle lurched forward. Weaving like a snake, she slid into the Country Time’s parking lot.

Then she tried to stop again.

“No!”

For one breathless moment, she was sure she would crash into the brick building. The irony of totaling her car in the parking lot of her best friend’s business flashed through her mind, along with most of her life. In the end, it was close, but the old sedan finally came to a stop with its bumper kissing the wall.

“God.”

Panting, Josie let herself slump over the wheel before raising her head to look around. Murphy Lanes, the bowling alley next door to the Country Time, was dark, as was the gas station across the street. Why in the hell was Hannah open? Surely she wasn’t expecting any customers.

On the other hand, what did it matter? Someone was in there.

Suddenly and irrationally terrified that her friend would leave before she got inside—where the heck would she go?—Josie braced herself, grabbed her purse and a duffel bag from the backseat that contained more of her clothes, and opened the driver’s door.

The cold slap of wind knocked the breath right out of her body, but she managed to stand and muscle the car door shut behind her. Forcing her way through the wall of the storm to the front entrance, she pushed open one of the wooden double doors, stumbled inside in a whirlwind of snow, and wrestled it closed again.

Then she was inside the Country Time’s taproom.

And it was warm.

And bright.

And not snowing.

Josie felt weak from the sudden release of tension she’d been carrying for miles—days, weeks—and for a moment she was a little afraid she’d faint. She shook her head to get her brain working again and immediately regretted it when ice rained down from her knit cap.

“Are you nuts, lady? Why are you out in this?”

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