Mine For The Winter First 3 Chapters
“Mom! Hey Mom!”
Kelly Fraser looked up from the bill she’d been staring at, to see her eleven year old son run into the kitchen, his cheeks flushed. He was holding his skates, the ones that had cost an arm and half a leg because his coach had told her that Cole had promise as a hockey player, but he needed the right equipment.
And she was all for that. Even if it meant making savings elsewhere. She loved that kid fiercely, and would fight to the ends of the earth for him.
“What’s up?” she asked, turning the bills over so Cole couldn’t see them.
“My feet won’t fit in my skates.”
“What?” She frowned. “Are they broken?” Did hockey skates come with a guarantee? They were only three months old.
He shook his head. “I think I’ve grown again.”
Somehow she kept the smile playing on her lips, even though it was early in the morning and she hadn’t gotten home from work until two a.m. and the bills she was hiding on the kitchen table were just some of many.
“Come here, let me look.” She tried not to show her dismay. Her son didn’t need to take on her adult worries.
Cole sat down on the chair next to hers and put his feet out. There were holes in his socks and she was pretty sure it was the same pair he wore yesterday, but she was learning to fight her battles.
And not to sniff when his feet were too close. He wasn’t a teenager quite yet, but he was getting there. The mood swings would show occasionally, and he seemed to grow an inch every other week. And yeah, personal hygiene wasn’t always at the top of his priority list, even if it was on hers.
He handed her the skate and she tried to slide it on his foot, but sure enough, there was no room. She let out a long breath.
“We’re gonna need to buy some new ones,” Cole told her. “I have a game on Saturday.”
Kelly ran her tongue along her dry bottom lip. She hadn’t had coffee yet. Hadn’t had anything to eat, either. She’d grab something later that afternoon at work, probably, if she got the chance. And if she remembered.
“Yeah.” She nodded, her lips pressed together. New skates didn’t come cheap. And even if she could sell these on eBay, it would take weeks for the money to come in. She’d have to find some space on a credit card, or call Cole’s dad, and if she was being honest, the credit card was her preferred option.
“What size are your sneakers?” she asked him. They’d bought those less than a month ago.
“Seven, I think.” He wrinkled his nose.
“Okay.” This time she was going to size up to give him room to grow. Another thing she’d learned in the past year. And if Cole needed some extra socks to fill the space so be it. She couldn’t keep buying skates every few months. Not if they wanted to eat.
“Oh, and Mrs. Grant reminded me about the trip,” Cole said. “The one to the ski center in January. She said we need to get the form in and pay this week.”
Kelly blew out a mouthful of air. She’d put the form in the kitchen drawer to forget about it for a while. “We have a couple of weeks before it’s due, don’t we?”
Cole nodded. “Yeah, but she likes us to be early.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll drop it in the next time I’m passing,” Kelly promised him. This one needed cash and that was a little harder to come by. She’d have to advance herself some wages.
Again. At least there were some bonuses to being your own boss. Or to your dad being your boss, technically, even if she was the one who ran the Winterville Tavern on a daily basis. Her dad had owned the place since she was Cole’s age, and she’d been working there on and off ever since she could remember. Once she left school she took up half of the slack, and now she did almost all of the work.
Not that she minded. She was kind of attached to the place.
Cole stood and gave her his other skate, then ran out of the room in search of his backpack and shoes. Kelly put his skates on the table and stared at them for a minute.
Okay. It was going to be okay. She’d survived much worse than a cashflow problem. What was it her mom used to say? ‘Never cry over money or men.’ Well, at least she’d learned to follow part of her advice.
“Do you have my lunch money?” Cole shouted from his room.
“I made you a lunch today, honey.” Kelly pushed herself up from the kitchen table and grabbed the brown bag from the refrigerator. Cole walked back into the kitchen, his sneakers and coat on, his bag dangling from his hand. “Cheese and ham. Your favorite.”
“Thanks.” He smiled at her and she couldn’t help smiling back. Cole was a good kid. Sure, he didn’t know the value of money yet, but he was learning, maybe too fast. She wanted to protect him from the realities for as long as she could. He was only a kid, he didn’t need to worry about money or work or anything else. That was her job.
“No problem, kiddo.” She ruffled his hair and he ducked away with a wrinkled nose.
“I just brushed that.”
“I thought it needed a little zhuzhing,” she told him, winking. And he rolled his eyes, but he was smiling again. “You have any after school activities?”
Cole shook his head, stuffing his lunch into his backpack. “Nope. Not today.”
“Then head straight to the Tavern. I’ll make you dinner there.” And then her dad would take him home and Kelly would work all night.
That was their agreement these days. Ever since her dad’s knees had started failing and he couldn’t physically stand behind the bar anymore. She ran the place and he did the accounts. Between them, somehow they were keeping the business going.
“Gotta go,” Cole said, looking up at the kitchen clock. She could remember taking it down from the wall to teach him how to tell the time when he’d just started kindergarten. It made her feel wistful.
“Come here.” She pulled him close and kissed his cheek.
“Mom.” Another eye roll.
“You’re not too old for kisses from your mom,” she told him as he pulled away. “I’ll see you after school.”
“Not if I see you first.” He grinned and ran out of the backdoor, heading for the road where the bus would pick him up. She wasn’t allowed to walk him there anymore. At the start of the school year he’d told her with a serious voice that he was too old for that.
And it hurt, but he was right. Her son was growing up. A few more years and he’d have bristles, an attitude, and a deep voice.
She wasn’t sure she was ready for that. Maybe it was the time of year, or the fact that her son was growing up, but she could remember another boy turning into a man. Another voice breaking.
Her chest clenched.
She didn’t have time for stupid reminiscences. Didn’t have time for much except working, eating, and sleeping. Sighing, she pushed the memories away and grabbed her purse, walking down the hallway to the closed door at the front.
She put her ear against it but couldn’t hear a thing. So she rapped on the door with her fingertips.
There was no response for a minute. Then she heard the groan of the bedsprings followed by the slow pad of footsteps to the door. She’d had her dining room converted to a bedroom for him when he moved in with her a while back.
“Kelly?” Her dad frowned. His hair was messy, his face creased from sleeping. “What time is it?”
She smiled at him, because even though he was old and in pain he was still the man who’d brought her up single handedly. The one who’d been able to carry barrels of beer without getting winded and had made sure she had everything she needed, the same way she was trying to do for Cole.
“Just before eight. I need to head into town to pick up some things. Don’t forget you have your appointment at twelve.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” She could have swore he rolled his eyes. “Don’t see the damn point though. It’s not like I can afford to have the surgery.”
“You’re having it,” Kelly said firmly. “We’ll work out a payment plan.”
Her dad’s eyes caught hers. He looked tired. And she knew he was constantly in pain. He couldn’t even live on his own anymore, not when it hurt him to walk up stairs. Luckily her house was a bungalow and he had everything he needed on the ground floor. “Cole needs the money more than I do.”
“Cole’s absolutely fine. You don’t need to worry about him.” Her voice was firm.
“He needs new skates.”
Ah, so he’d heard them talking. Not a surprise, this place was too small for the three of them, and the walls weren’t exactly soundproof. “And he’ll get them. The same way you’ll get a new knee.” She shot him a smile. “I’ll see you at eleven-thirty to drive you to the doctor.” He couldn’t drive, either, thanks to his knees.
“I got a ride already,” he told her. “Charlie Shaw’s gonna take me.”
“Isn’t he working?” she asked. Charlie was one of her dad’s oldest friends. He ran the Cold Start Garage in town. They were poker buddies, the kind of guys who shot the breeze together regularly but never talked about anything meaningful. But Charlie was always somebody they could rely on.
“Not today. That young kid has taken over most of the heavy stuff. He’s a good worker, according to Charlie. He trusts him.”
She opened her mouth to tell him she’d take him anyway, but then shut it again. She already had a hundred things to do, or a hundred and one now that Cole needed new skates. “Okay. But let me know how it goes.”
“Will do.” Her dad nodded. “And sweetheart?”
“Yes?” She gave him a soft smile.
“I appreciate all you do. Me and Cole, we both do.”
Her stomach tightened. “I appreciate you, too.” She gave him a hug and he looked surprised, because the two of them had never been the hugging type. “Cole’s coming to the Tavern after school. I’ll drop him home later.” She lifted her brow at him. “You okay to take care of him tonight?”
“You know I am.”
“Thank you.” She blew him a kiss and headed to the front door. As soon as it was open, icy cold air enveloped her. She exhaled heavily, the vapor rushing out of her lips and dissolving into the air.
“It’s gonna be okay,” she whispered to herself. Because it had to be. She’d find the money the way she always did.
And if she couldn’t? Well there was always OnlyFans. Or stripping.
And she was only half joking when she thought that.
* * *
The skies were gray overhead, heavy with the kind of snow you only got in the mountains of Winterville. Kris Winter kept his hands on the wheel, music pumping from the stereo of his rental car as he passed the old wooden sign telling him he was back in his home town, proper.
How long had it been since he’d spent any real amount of time here? He blinked when he realized it’d been more than a decade. He’d left under a cloud just like the one in the sky now, even though it had been summer back then.
A bird swooped down and he pressed the brake, slowing enough so it had time to fly back up before it hit his windshield. He had the driver’s window open, the cold mountain air rushing in and clearing his lungs. He’d forgotten how it tasted different here, so very clean compared to the thick atmosphere of London where he’d made his home for more than a decade.
He took another breath, centering himself because this peace wouldn’t last for long. Not when his family realized he was back. North, his eldest brother would probably mutter something about it being good to see him, and Gabe, his middle brother, would throw his arms around him in excitement, any questions about why he was here or why he’d stayed away so long wouldn’t be vocalized by them.
They were as bad at emotions as he was. Three men who avoided them like they hurt to say out loud.
His cousins, however, would be different. Holly, Alaska, and Everley were all too free with their thoughts. Probably best to avoid being alone with them for too long.
He turned the corner onto the main road and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when he saw the town was already decorated for the holidays. Not that he should be surprised, from the moment his grandmother had founded the little town of Winterville she’d declared that it would be Christmas all year round.
Even now that she was gone, the family kept up the tradition. Or at least his brothers and cousins did. He steered the sports car he’d rented from the airport through the town square and past the huge tree in the center, that Kris knew had come from his brother’s Christmas Tree Farm. The traffic was slow – the town was full of tourists at this time of year – so it took him a few minutes to make it past the Jingle Bell Theater and the Cold Start Garage, and then on to the Winterville Tavern.
The familiarity of it all felt like a kick in the gut. A reminder of easier, happier times.
Times when he hadn’t been the black sheep of the family who never came home.
It was surprising how easy it had been to leave this place behind. How quickly he’d ended one life and begun another, far away, where the memories couldn’t find him. Sure, he’d kept in touch with his brothers. Sent gifts for their weddings, and to their kids when they were born. He’d even kept in touch with his cousins.
But he’d managed to forget about the visceral reaction this place and the people who lived in it gave him.
As though his thoughts were strong enough to conjure up a person, suddenly a woman walked around the corner. She was carrying two bags in her arms, her dark hair flowing out behind her. And the twist in his stomach turned into a knot that wouldn’t go away.
He knew exactly who she was, even though it had been more than ten years since he’d last seen her. His mouth was dry, but he couldn’t stop looking at her no matter how hard he tried.
Balancing both bags in one arm, she slid a key into the lock and opened the door to the Tavern, kicking it open and trying to step inside. But then one of the bags slid from her grasp and hit the ground, the contents – fruit and vegetables – spilling onto the sidewalk, apples and oranges rolling toward the gutter as she started hopping around and grabbing for them.
A better man would have gotten out and helped her. But Kelly Fraser had never been the kind of damsel who accepted assistance from a man like him. She opened her mouth but he couldn’t hear what she was saying, though he could take a guess. She’d known all the swear words when they were kids and wasn’t afraid of using them.
The woman still knew how to cuss like a sailor. Some things hadn’t changed.
The guy in the car behind him honked his horn, making Kris startle. The road ahead of him had cleared. The jarring sound made Kelly look up, and he turned his head away, because he didn’t want her to know he was back.
Not yet. Not until he was ready to talk to her. To beg forgiveness for what he’d done. But that wasn’t now. He’d deal with his family first and Kelly second.
Her image was still seared into his brain, though. Her glossy mahogany hair falling down to her shoulders, her eyes as wide and expressive as he’d remembered. And those lips. Damn those lips. The ones that had teased him as a kid, the same way he’d riled her up every time they met for lunch in the school cafeteria. The ones he’d lusted after as a teenager.
The ones he’d kissed that fateful night.
Putting his foot on the gas, he stuck his hand out of the window and flipped the car behind him the bird, then pulled away, pushing the memories down because sometimes they were sharp as a knife.
He’d go to the Inn first, and see if his cousin Alaska, who ran it, could find him somewhere to sleep. Then he’d call North and Gabe and admit he’d come home without warning them, because he’d been in a mental debate about his return and wasn’t sure he’d actually make it.
He’d almost got out of his seat before take off and walked back into the airport, after all.
But he was here now, and everything was about to hit the fan.
Kelly, age 11
All the other girls were wearing dresses. Okay, not all of them, but the popular ones were. The ones sitting in the center of the cafeteria laughing with their friends, the ones who looked at her like she was a complete weirdo when she walked into class at ten this morning.
Holding her lunch tray tightly in her hands, Kelly squared her shoulders and walked over to a spare chair next to a blonde girl who looked kind of friendly. If friendly came with a wrinkled nose and narrowed eyes.
“That’s taken,” the blonde girl snapped. Okay, definitely not friendly.
The girl sitting next to the blonde chuckled, as though she’d told the funniest joke. She was a redhead who was wearing way more makeup than the dress code allowed. The blonde turned her back to Kelly and leaned in, muttering something to her.
Kelly took a deep breath. It was okay. First days were always bad. Especially when you didn’t want to leave your old school in the first place. And especially when you left because your mom died and your dad couldn’t cope with staying anywhere near the house you grew up in, so he bought a tavern in a mountain town where everybody stared at you like you weren’t supposed to be there.
Another breath. This one felt more difficult. She wasn’t going to cry, she just wasn’t. There was an empty table in the corner. She’d sit there for the lunch hour. She had a book in her bag, it was all good.
She’d almost made it when somebody brushed past her, his shoulder bone sharp as it bumped against hers. He reached out for the chair she’d been aiming for and in her haste to walk somewhere else, she tripped over her beat up sneakers and flew into the air, sending her food and carton of chocolate milk flying.
As soon as her head hit the cold tiles she could feel the tears stinging at her eyes. She hated this school. Hated this town. Wanted to close her eyes and disappear so nobody was laughing at her.
“You okay?” Bony shoulders asked her.
“I’m fine,” she muttered, even though she felt as far from fine as it was possible to be.
Ignoring her, the boy started gathering her food, putting her banana back on the tray, along with her milk carton, and the sandwich she’d chosen from the counter. He turned it over and she could see dust and hair collected on the bread.
“Yeah, you probably don’t want to eat that,” he said. “Come on, you can share mine.”
“It’s fine.” She finally lifted her head, taking in his dark messy hair and black Green Day t-shirt. She was pretty sure the hand holding a grenade printed on the front of it wasn’t dress code either, but he had a flannel shirt over the top. Probably buttoned it up when he was in class.
He put her tray on the table and held out his hand. For a moment she stared at it from her vantage point on the floor. It took her that long to realize he was offering to help her up.
“It’s fine. I can do it myself.”
“Do you know any other words?” Green Day asked.
“Like what?” She stood and brushed the dust from her shirt.
“Anything other than fine would be a start. I mean it’s a good word, don’t get me wrong. But a different one might be useful occasionally.”
She looked at him carefully, not sure if he was being an ass or trying to be funny. He was half-smiling, his hair falling down over his eyes.
“Kris Winter,”he said.
His smile widened. He had the kind of face that looked too young for his taller-than-her frame. Like his legs had grown but his face hadn’t got the message. “My name is Kris Winter. What’s yours?”
He nodded, looking pleased at her answer. Like she’d given him more than she had. “Want to sit with me for lunch? I’ll share my sandwich. Since it looks like you also like cheese.”
“It’s okay, I’ll just eat my banana.”
He pulled a chair out and she waited for him to sit down. Then he gave her a look and she realized it was for her. What kind of boy held chairs out? She frowned but took the seat anyway. And then he sat down next to her and put half of his sandwich on her tray. “Eat it. It was my fault you fell over.”
Her stomach growled and she did as she was told, even though it bruised her pride some.
“You’re new,” he said.
“Yep.” She bit into the sandwich and her stomach growled again. She’d been too nervous to eat breakfast. Too worried about having to meet with the principal and then meet kids she didn’t know.
“That’s a first. You didn’t say you were fine.” He was grinning now. He had these little dimples that puckered his cheeks. “So where are you living?”
“In Winterville.” She put the half-eaten sandwich down and took a better look at him. He had a straight nose, the kind of nose she’d always wanted because hers had a bump on it and she hated it. His eyes were blue, and his hair was annoying because it kind of dangled into them. She wanted to wipe it away.
“Ah, you’re the tavern girl.”
She tipped her head to the side. “How’d you know that?”
“The tavern has a new owner. He has a daughter. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that’s who you are.” He was still smiling. And he’d spoken more words to her in the last two minutes than anybody else had all morning. Even the teacher in her first class had just pointed at a desk and then carried on with teaching the lesson. Any hope she’d had that she’d at least get somebody assigned to her as a buddy had drifted away.
When the lunch bell rang she’d followed everybody else, her purse clutched in her hand because her dad had given her exactly two dollars to pay for a sandwich. He’d looked hopeful when she left. As hopeful as he did since her mom had died.
Even if she had the worst day today, she’d tell him it was fabulous.
“Do you live in Winterville?” she asked Kris.
His grin widened. “Yeah. My grandma owns the town.”
And now she felt stupid. He was related to Candy Winter. Of course he was with that last name. Her dad had bought the tavern from Candy, and he’d talked about her the whole drive here. Told Kelly about how famous Candy Winter had once been. How she’d moved back to her hometown after a Hollywood scandal and had purchased the whole town, throwing money at the place until there were jobs for everybody she loved.
Kelly opened her mouth to ask Kris about his grandmother when a voice from behind her interrupted her thoughts.
“What’s the sitch?” She turned to see a sandy-haired boy grinning at them both. He sat down heavily next to Kris. Then he looked over at Kelly, his brows lifting. “Who’s this.”
“Kelly. Her dad bought the tavern,” Kris told him. “And she’s fine, so don’t ask.”
Kelly started to roll her eyes, but she stopped when she felt the smile tug at her lips.
“And this is Lyle. General asshole. My best friend.”
“Pleased to meet you, Kelly.” Lyle reached out his hand and she shook it. “So your dad bought the tavern. You think you can get us some free beer”
“No.” This time she did roll her eyes. It made Kris smile.
“That would not be fine,” Kris said, deadpan, looking at Lyle.
“Completely un-fine,” Kelly agreed.
Lyle looked from Kelly to Kris and then back again. “You two are weird,” he muttered, then grabbed his own sandwich and bit into it, still looking at her. “Wanna hang out with us after school? We’re going to my place to play some Legend of Zelda.”
“Sure.” She shrugged. “Sounds good.” Her dad wouldn’t mind. He’d told her she needed to make friends. She’d just have to call him from the payphone before she caught the bus.
“Excellent.” Lyle stuffed the rest of his sandwich in his mouth and she peeled the skin off her banana.
It wasn’t exactly paradise, but maybe school wouldn’t be so bad. At least there were two people here that didn’t hate her.
* * *
“Hey sweetie!” Dolores said to Kelly as she pushed the door to the Tavern open, bustling inside. Her face was flushed and she still had her apron on, Cold Fingers Café emblazoned across the front. She was wearing Christmas tree earrings, and there were gingerbread men printed on her apron. Dolores loved Christmas, especially when it brought in all the tourists.
Dolores had run the café for as long as Kelly had lived here. As a kid, she’d go in there with Kris and Lyle and they’d rifle through their pockets to get enough change to buy a hot chocolate with all the toppings. She could still remember their orders. Kelly had insisted on having it straight up, because the chocolate was sweet enough. Kris would have extra whipped cream and Lyle would get the whole hog. Whipped cream, marshmallows, and dustings of shaved chocolate.
The boy had been a sugar freak.
“What’s up?” Kelly asked her, looking up from where she’d been scrubbing the counter with a spray and cloth. The Tavern had been busy all afternoon, and she knew it would be crowded this evening, so she was using the lull between services to make sure everything was spotless. She was still a little annoyed at herself for tripping earlier and spilling groceries everywhere. This took her mind off of it.
“I’ve been waiting for you to come into the café. Don’t you want a coffee?”
Kelly hadn’t been into the café for weeks. She was stashing the money for her daily caffeine injection into Cole’s Christmas gift fund. “I’ve given up coffee,” she told Dolores.
Dolores blinked as though Kelly had told her she was giving up on life. “You? Giving up coffee?” She shook her head. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“I’m trying to get healthy.” Kelly shrugged. “I’m not getting any younger.”
“You look pretty healthy to me,” one of the guys at the counter growled. Kelly lifted a brow at him and he physically shrank back.
She’d worked at the Tavern before she was legal to be serving alcohol. First as a kid helping her dad out during the weekends and holidays. Then when she left school she started working here full time. It was her second home. One of the constants in her life. Like her dad and Cole, and Winterville itself.
And now she ran the place. And she didn’t take shit from anybody. Even ones giving back handed compliments.
“Anyway, that’s not why I’m here,” Dolores said, breathless. “Have you heard?”
Dolores looked to the left and then to her right, as though she was a spy and needed to make sure the coast was clear. Then she lowered her voice enough that Kelly had to crane her neck to hear her.
“Guess who’s back in town?”
“Who?” Kelly asked.
“I just told you.” Dolores frowned.
“No you didn’t. You said ‘guess who’s back in town?’” Kelly said, trying not to smile. Dolores loved to gossip and though Kelly loved it less – especially since she’d been the object of Winterville gossip for years – she still loved Dolores. Everybody did. She was the town’s grandmother now that they no longer had Candy Winter around. She knew everyone and everything that went on here in town. The only thing she didn’t gossip about was herself, or her supposedly secret relationship with Charlie Shaw.
“I said Kris is back in town,” Dolores said pointedly.
Kelly stopped cleaning, her hand frozen as it grasped onto the cloth. She looked up, trying to keep her face expressionless. “I’m sorry?” She must have misheard.
“Kris Winter,” Dolores said slowly, like Kelly was hard of hearing. “He’s back in town.”
Kelly’s heart slammed against her chest. “He’s here? Now?”
“Yes, now. He’s at the Inn with his family. I heard one of the waiters talking about it when he came in after his shift for coffee.”
Her heart wasn’t slowing down. If anything it was faster now, a constant hammer against her ribcage. She hadn’t seen Kris Winter in more than a decade.
Not since that day. The one she never wanted to think about again.
Her hand shook as she picked up the spray again, pressing the trigger to moisten the cloth. “That’s nice,” she said, keeping her voice even. “I bet North and his family are happy.”
“You could say that. I hear there was a huge rumpus at the Inn when he walked in. The whole family rushed there, even though they’re all crazy busy at this time of year.”
That was true. North ran the Christmas Tree Farm, and Gabe ran the ski resort that had opened recently thanks to their first layer of snow. Kris’ cousins were also immersed in the family business – Everley ran the Jingle Bell Theater, Alaska headed up the Inn, and Holly was the business woman who kept an eye on the whole town.
The door to the Tavern opened again, and this time it was Amber, Kelly’s best friend and North Winter’s wife. Amber looked at Dolores, her brow crinkling. She was huffing, as though she’d run from wherever she’d managed to park her car.
And when her eyes caught Kelly’s, Kelly knew her friend was there for only one reason.
To warn her that Kris was back. But she was too late.
“Dolores,” Amber said, walking over and putting a winter cooled hand on the older woman’s arm. “There’s a huge line forming at the café.”
Dolores’ mouth fell open. “Oh my. I should get back.” She flashed a smile at Kelly. “Sorry, honey, gotta go.”
As soon as she’d bustled out, Amber leaned on the counter, cupping her swollen stomach with her palm. She was pregnant with her second child, her stomach as round as a basketball.
“You okay?” Kelly asked her, concerned for her friend. She and Amber had become close friends over the past few years.
“I wanted to be the first to tell you.” Amber’s eyes met Kelly’s. “Damn Dolores.”
“It’s okay,” Kelly said, keeping her voice light. “We all know Dolores would run a four minute mile to spread some gossip.”
Amber laughed softly. “North said he turned up this morning. Just walked into the Inn like he hadn’t been away for over a decade. Alaska threw a fit, of course, and then called everybody and told us all to get there ASAP. North’s kind of annoyed with him for not giving us notice, but he can’t say anything because he’s so happy to see Kris.”
Kelly nodded and took a deep breath.
“Did he say how long he’s here for?” Kelly asked her.
Amber shook her head. “No. I think everybody was too afraid to ask him. I never thought he’d come back.” Amber hadn’t known Kris well before he left. She knew he and Kelly used to be friends, but that was it.
“I guess we’ll find out at some point,” Kelly said. And she had no idea how to feel about that. He’d once told her he would never come back. Promised it, even.
Although back then it had felt more like a threat than a promise. And now? It just felt a little sad.
The door to the tavern opened for a third time, and for a second Kelly’s heart rate shot up. But this time it was Cole, his backpack slung over his shoulder, his jacket nowhere to be seen.
“Hey sweetheart,” Kelly said, lifting a brow at the way he wasn’t wearing a jacket despite it being freezing outside. When had kids stopped wearing coats in the depth of winter? She’d never left home without being warm when she was younger, but now they walked around like it was the middle of summer in December. “How was school?”
“Boring.” Cole shrugged his backpack off and put it on the stool next to Amber. “Hey Auntie Amber.”
“Hey Cole.” Amber ruffled his hair the way that Kelly had this morning. This time his cheeks pinked up. He was too polite to protest when Amber did it, unlike when Kelly annoyed him.
“I’m gonna have to love you and leave you,” Amber said, shooting Kelly a look. “I’ll call you later.” She ruffled Cole’s hair again and this time he wrinkled his nose. “Be good for your mom.”
Kelly watched her friend leave, then looked back at her son. “You got homework?”
“Yep.” He wrinkled his nose. “Math and English.”
“Grab the table in the office,” she told him, lifting the counter for him to walk behind the bar. “You can start working, and I’ll bring you some dinner. Grandpa’s expecting you home at six.”
“Thanks Mom.” He smiled at her, and she felt herself relax. Cole was the important one here. Nothing else mattered. Not her memories, not her emotions.
And definitely not Kris Winter. Any feelings she had for him were in the past. If she saw him around town she’d nod and walk on by.
She was certain he wouldn’t want to talk to her anyway.
“To Kris,” his brother North said, holding up a glass of champagne. Everybody repeated North’s words, beaming at Kris with pure happiness. Kris tried to smile back at everyone, but he felt like an asshole.
As soon as he’d walked through the door of the Winterville Inn, it was like he’d climbed into a rollercoaster car that was never going to stop. Alaska had been at the reception desk and it had taken her a moment to recognize him, but then she’d squealed and run over to him, insisting on introducing him to everybody.
Before he knew it, North had arrived from the Christmas Tree Farm, along with his other brother Gabe, who ran the ski resort on the outskirts of Winterville.
And now his whole family was here. The ones of his generation, anyway. His cousins and their husbands, his brothers and their wives. And kids. So many kids. The last time he’d been here they were the youngest generation, and now there were little people everywhere.
He felt like Rip Van Winkle. He’d gone to sleep for years and when he woke up everything had changed.
North had insisted that they have a party to welcome him home that evening, so here they were. His family. The ones he’d run from. And they were welcoming him home with open arms.
“I still can’t believe you’re here,” Everley said, hugging his waist. She’d arrived late because she wanted to make sure the revue at the Jingle Bell Theater had started without any problems. Her son, Finn was asleep in the corner in a little chair, his thumb stuck in his mouth. Next to him was North’s daughter, Willow, who was as cute as a button. “How long do we get to keep you for?”
Kris swallowed a mouthful of champagne. He’d been expecting that question all day. But it was like they were all too scared to ask except Everley. “A few weeks.” Truth was, he wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to make promises he couldn’t keep.
He’d learned that much over the years.
“Are you staying for Christmas?” she asked, looking hopeful.
“Maybe.” It depended. He wasn’t exactly popular around here. Especially with certain town residents.
“Oh, please stay. Imagine us all together for Christmas.” Everley’s hug got tighter. “When was the last time that happened?”
“When Grandma was alive.” He lifted a brow. He’d been back since, once, for the funeral, but that was in the summer, nowhere near the holidays.
The funeral had been a big enough affair to get lost in. An ex-Hollywood darling, Candy Winter’s name brought in the crowds from all around. It was easy enough to avoid her then.
But not now.
“Gabe, tell Kris he has to stay for Christmas,” Everley called out to his middle brother. Gabe walked over, an easy-going smile on his face. His four month old son was in a papoose on his chest. Gabe looked pleased as hell to be carrying him.
“You are staying, aren’t you?” Gabe asked.
“He says he’s not sure.” Everley pouted. She always had been the drama queen of the family. She took after their grandmother that way.
“I’m just gonna play things by ear,” Kris told them. Gabe gave him a look. The kind of look he used to give Kris when they were kids and he knew he’d been up to no good.
They’d all had their roles to play growing up. North was the strong one, the leader. Gabe was the chilled out middle son. And Kris was the black sheep. The one who always caused problems and got into trouble.
“It’d mean the world to us all if you were here,” Gabe said, stroking his son’s downy head.
“How’s he doing?” Kris asked, nodding at his nephew.
“Ah, he’s having a ball. Sleeps when he should be awake, screams when we all want to sleep, and shits as soon as we put a new diaper on him.”
Kris bit down a smile.
“We got your gift by the way,” Gabe continued. “Wyatt loves it.”
“I know.” Kris nodded. “Nicole sent a thank you card.”
“She did?” Gabe looked surprised. “Well okay then. Thank you again.”
Kris smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Wyatt snuffled against Gabe’s chest, then turned his head, his pale blue eyes looking at Kris. Kris lifted a brow at him and Wyatt tipped his head, tiny lines appearing in his brow.
“He likes you,” Everley whispered.
“Of course he does. I’m eminently likeable.” And he’d had some experience with babies. Been a stepdad to one for as long as you could blink an eye. But he’d messed that up the way he messed up everything.
Leaving a trail of broken lives behind him.
“And you’re staying for Christmas,” Everley said firmly. “Or I’m going to chase you to the airport and drag you back.”
His eyes met Gabe’s. His brother gave a shrug which Kris knew well. It meant just go with it. Be chill. Everything’s going to be okay.
“I’ll probably stay until Christmas,” Kris told her and Everley let out a squeal of pleasure.
“Yes! I’m so happy.” She hugged him even tighter. “This is going to be the best Christmas yet.”
* * *
Kris woke up at a stupidly early hour the following morning. He’d stayed in one of North’s guest rooms at his brother’s insistence, while Alaska arranged for his cabin at the Inn to be ready.
Pulling some clothes from his suitcase on, he tiptoed into the kitchen, being careful not to wake up North or his family, because Amber was pregnant and she deserved some sleep. Grabbing his coat from the hook by the door, he slid his feet into his engineer boots and decided to walk into town to grab some coffee.
It had snowed overnight. Enough for his feet to make imprints in the sidewalk as he passed the Cold Start Garage. There was a guy sitting in his car outside the garage drinking a coffee and eating what looked like a breakfast burger. He glanced up at Kris and looked away, uninterested. That made a change, at least.
A few cars passed him as he made it into the town square. And then his phone buzzed and he grabbed it out of his pocket, his brow lifting when he saw who was calling.
“Hey. You’re up early.”
“I’m on the first shift,” Alaska said. “Just wanted to let you know your cabin should be ready by lunchtime. The cleaners are already in this morning, and the electrician will go in later to make sure that everything’s in working order.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” Kris protested. “I could have done it.”
“I know, but you’re our guest. And I have a vested interest in making your stay as cosy as possible,” Alaska told him.
“How did you know I was awake anyway?”
“Amber called. She said your coat and boots were gone. Just wanted to make sure you didn’t skip town while everyone was sleeping.”
Of course. You couldn’t do anything around here without somebody noticing. He wasn’t sure if he liked that or not yet.
“I’ll pay you back,” Kris promised. He’d always had time for Alaska. The quietest of the cousins, she was the kindest, too. And they’d once almost lost her as a kid.
It was hard to forget that.
“Actually, I was hoping you’d say that. We could use some help on the Christmas Trail.”
She laughed. “We’re building a trail around the Inn for the kids. Lots of twists and turns and things to find. A little bit of fun. It opens soon but we need some extra hands to get everything set.”
“Happy to help,” Kris said. “You can tell me all about it later.
“It’s a deal.” She sounded happy, and that made him kind of happy too. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yes you will,” Kris promised. “And thanks. For everything.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Alaska told him. “I’m just glad you’re home.”
When she ended the call, he pushed the phone back into his pocket and walked into the warmth of the Cold Fingers Café. The place was decorated for the holidays, garland and ornaments covering every surface, with a large tree adorned in sparkling lights in the corner.
He headed straight to the counter because he needed caffeine like he needed oxygen right now.
“Kristopher Winter,” Dolores said, a huge smile splitting her face. “I heard you were back and I was wondering how long it’d take you to come by to say hi. I was about to pull your scrawny behind out of North’s place and demand a hug.”
A smile quirked his lips. “Dolores, you look more beautiful than ever.” He had no idea how old she was, though she had to be past sixty. But she had one of those smooth faces that never really aged.
Before he could say anything else, Dolores lifted the counter flap and bustled through to pull him into her arms. At six-three he towered over her. He could remember a time when they were all scared of Dolores.
Now it felt like cuddling a teddy bear.
“What can I get you?” she asked, patting his cheek. “You look tired, honey. Don’t they make good coffee in London?”
He shook his head and that made her smile again.
“I’ll have an Americano, please.”
“Cream, no sugar, right? Or have you changed your order since you left?”
“You remembered.” He needed the caffeine hit. Just in case he decided to do what he’d come here to do.
“You drinking here or would you like it to go?”
“I’ll take it to go.”
While Dolores filled the machine with coffee, he looked around the café. There were a few early birds at the tables. And a few more workers who’d come in behind him to get their start-of-the-day caffeine hit. He knew from experience that the tourists wouldn’t arrive until later. Those who were staying at the Inn would be eating breakfast in the restaurant, and the ones who came for the day wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours.
This time of day was for the locals. The ones heading for work, clearing the roads, and serving food to the tourists. He used to savor it when he was a kid.
It was funny how quickly the memories came back. He’d spent the last decade trying to forget this place existed.
But it had been here all along, waiting for him.
Five minutes later he was walking into the square, a Styrofoam coffee cup in one hand, a bag with a muffin in the other – courtesy of Dolores, even though he insisted he didn’t want anything. He reached a bench and dusted the snow off of it, shrugging off his jacket and putting it between his ass and the wooden slats so his jeans wouldn’t get wet.
A car pulled up about twenty feet away from where he was sitting. He looked over, taking in the rusty hunk of junk that was coughing out exhaust into the cold air, and his heart slammed against his chest because he knew exactly who it belonged to.
It was the kind of death trap Kelly had always driven.
The door opened and sure enough she climbed out. She was wearing a cream padded coat and brown boots that hit just below her knee. Her hair was flowing out over her shoulders, tamed only by a wool hat she’d pulled over her ears.
She hated being cold. He could remember that. All those times he’d built a fire in his cabin to stop her from shivering. Or leant her his coat because her own wasn’t enough.
He shifted, lifting his cup to his lips and checked the time. It was almost seven. Too early for her to be opening. But she pulled a set of keys out of her pocket and slid one into the lock on the tavern door, but instead of turning it she suddenly froze.
And slowly turned to look at him.
Had she sensed he was there? Was it weird that he hoped she had?
Her eyes caught his, but there was no expression of surprise on her face. So she knew he was back. That wasn’t a surprise. The grapevine worked hard in Winterville.
Her lips parted and he could see her breath hit the air. She was even more beautiful than he remembered. Creamy skin and doe eyes that he hadn’t been able to forget no matter how far he’d run. He couldn’t see the color from here but he could pick it out from a chart if you asked him to.
Brown with hazel flecks. And just one blue fleck in her right eye.
Sure, she was older. He was too. But she wore it better. Keeping his gaze steady, he took another sip of his coffee.
Then instead of opening the door, she pulled the key from the lock and turned on her heel, her eyes narrowing as she hurried across the road toward him.
Damn, she looked furious. And she should. He took a deep breath, readying himself for the onslaught.