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Officer Joey Frost raised her voice to be heard over the noise of the wind tunneling through the bridge structure. “Town’s secure and deserted. I’m heading out to check conditions on the highway.”
Only an idiot would be out on a night like this, but she’d learned that skiers didn’t always assess risk at the same level as ordinary people. Which was why she would take this risk at least as far as the ramp to I–89.
As the minutes ticked by, the strong gusts howled down the open highway nearly blowing her vehicle off the road as they whipped past her. She rolled her fingers on the wheel to ease their stiffness and squinted at the black ribbon extending into the darkness ahead of her. It made her feel like she was launching into outer space. Her back and neck were beyond pain from the long, tough shift and her head screamed at her to call it a night. She was ready to listen when a shadow streaked into the road ahead and froze in the beam of her headlights. Two red eyes glared at her.
Joey jumped on her brakes, fishtailing despite her slow speed. Her heart pounded for a few seconds and then settled. When the animal didn’t move, she rolled the patrol car to the shoulder, and carefully stepped out. Sleet shocked the warm skin of her cheeks, like the simultaneous stabbing of hundreds of sharp pins. In one smooth movement, she pushed her parka out of the way and unsnapped the holster on her duty belt. She approached the animal with her hand poised over the butt of her weapon. In weather like this, it could be a coyote looking for prey. The pack might not be far behind.
She squinted as she closed in on it, and finally determined it was definitely a dog. A Labrador retriever, maybe with some border collie mixed in. And the poor thing was wet and very cold from the way it was shivering. A chilled cloud formed when she puffed out the breath she’d been holding.
“What are you doing out here tonight, buddy?”
The poor beast sat on its hind haunches and hung its head in misery. She could sympathize as the tip of her nose tingled, warning her it was about to freeze. The dog was almost all black, although some patches of his wet fur had frozen into gray clumps. Ignoring the discomfort, Joey dropped to a crouch.
“Not feeling too happy are you, buckaroo,” she said softly. If her brothers saw her now, they’d kill her for taking such a chance, but she had a feeling about this furry guy. “If you’re cold, I have a nice warm car over there with a blanket to curl up on.” Normally, she’d report the sighting to Animal Control in Waterbury, but they wouldn’t come to Carol Falls in this weather. She couldn’t leave it to die from the elements. Or worse, risk an accident the next time it ran onto the road.
The dog inched forward and offered his paw. She shook it and then rubbed his ears, and finally, slid one hand down his neck to look for a collar. No luck, he’d slipped it in a moment of foolhardiness or was another dumped dog. People thought they could abandon a domestic animal in the country and they’d somehow return to the wild. Most times, they didn’t survive.
“Okay, buddy boy. Let’s get out of this weather.” She eased to her feet. “Come!” she commanded.
The dog didn’t need a second invitation to settle into her heated vehicle. By the time, she was behind the wheel again, he had rearranged the woolen emergency blanket, which she’d spread out to protect the back seat upholstery from his wet coat, into a cozy nest and fallen into an exhausted sleep.
Poor baby. She wondered if her mother would be willing to take in another one for the holidays. Although Sylvia Frost wasn’t allergic to human babies, the canine variety was another matter. Thinking of babies, of course, reminded her she’d recently missed out on the biggest case to hit Carol Falls—well, ever. “Figures, stray dogs are all that show up when I’m on duty.”
She glanced back at the sleeping mutt. “No slight intended, big guy.”
With her focus back on the road, she continued to vent to her new partner. “I leave town for a training course and suddenly an infant shows up in the manger of a nativity scene. On my family’s farm, no less.” She’d laugh if the disappointment wasn’t still so fresh.
Frosty Frolics was the town’s kick-off event for the Christmas holidays and was hosted by her family at the Frost Family Maple Syrup Farm. The event two weeks ago had been the first one to ever feature a live—and totally unexpected—infant in the manger. Another police officer, Erik Wedge, caught the case that night. He’d arranged with state family services for the baby to stay at the farm with her parents, under foster care, over the holidays. All before she got home from her training course. She was going to be really ticked if that case gave him an edge over her for the promotion to the new deputy chief position when, and if, the funding ever came through.
Joey allowed herself one heartfelt sigh and pushed it from her mind so she could concentrate on her driving. She didn’t get far before the headlights again caught something in their beam—this time on the side of the road ahead.
Flipping on the flashers, she coasted along the shoulder until she was close enough to confirm a dark-colored sedan angled in the ditch with its front wheel up to the axle in snow and mud. Was this where the dog had come from? Was the owner hurt? After a quick radio call to report her location, she was out of the patrol car, using her flashlight to scan the area for signs of life, human or wild. No movement inside the car, as far as she could see. Hopefully, the driver hadn’t disregarded the cardinal rule of survival—never leave your vehicle—and wandered off looking for help. If so, in a storm like this, whoever it was would be an ice cube by now. She picked up her pace but that didn’t mean much when she had to fight the suction of the ankle-deep snow pulling on her boots.
Suddenly, a series of colorful profanities exploded from the car’s rear. The driver, looking more like a black bear due to his heavy winter parka, popped into view and threw an evergreen bough off to the side. He must’ve been trying to use it for traction. At least, he’d had the sense to dress for the severe weather. Joey stopped in her tracks, clutching the flashlight more tightly. She pulled her scarf away from her mouth and yelled for his attention, “Carol Falls Police. Do you need assistance?” The wind snatched her words before they reached the stranger. She trudged forward as he leaned into the wind and worked his way around the uphill side of his car. When they were a couple of feet apart, and he still hadn’t looked up, she waved her arms to get his attention, afraid he’d bump right into her.
He immediately caught her movement and closed the rest of the distance. Even face to face, she couldn’t see his features with his head buried deep inside his hood. He tried to say something but she still couldn’t hear over the howling storm. She pointed to the patrol car.
His hood moved up and down, and he jogged back to pull a large canvas duffle bag from the trunk of his car. Despite the slippery footing, he moved with surprising agility for such a big guy—over six feet tall by several inches and with broad shoulders—even allowing for the bulk of his outerwear.
She took the lead back to the patrol car, following the path left by her earlier footprints. After her first few steps, it occurred to her that her back seat, where she’d normally put a passenger, was already occupied by the dog, who might be dangerous if disturbed. If it was his dog, it would be okay but she couldn’t be sure of that at this point.
She considered her options as she listened to the stranger’s footsteps crunching through the snow behind her, closing the distance. If he’d wanted to highjack her car, he would have tackled her by now, she decided, although she’d keep her guard up. When she popped the trunk for him to stow his gear, she noticed his parka and the canvas bag were military issue. He might have survived the storm without her help.
Once she was back in the driver’s seat, she stretched across the bench seat to push open the passenger door. The dog sat up and barked, probably saying, Forget him. Turn on the darn heat.
Good idea. She unwound her scarf, pushed back the hood of her parka, jammed the keys into the ignition and got the engine going. Even in the short period, she’d been out of the vehicle, the outside temperature had dropped the interior temperature below freezing again. A thin layer of frost coated the inside of the windshield.
She felt the seat sink as the stranger got in with a heavy sigh, so she turned to get a good look at him. He raised his hand, pushed off his hood.
Joey choked. “Fletch?”
She hadn’t seen him for ten years, but he didn’t appear much different. His hair was shorter, but the same ink black of her memory. And that aquiline nose and strong jaw were unmistakable. But the lines etched on his forehead and around that beautiful mouth, hadn’t been there before. Evidence of a harsher life, telling of things he’d seen and done since leaving Carol Falls that had seasoned him. It made her want to ask him about that life, where he’d been, had he thought about her at all.
His startling, glacier–blue eyes scanned her face, widened, and she caught a flash of something more than recognition in them. “Hi, Joey. It’s been a long time.”
Yes, it had been a long time. What was he doing in Carol Falls now? Joey wasn’t sure she was ready for the answer. Maybe she should have left him and his car stuck in that snowdrift.
* * *