In real life, snow was not nearly as delightful as it appeared in movies and on TV, Noelle Perkins thought as her spinning car finally came to a stop in a snowbank. She'd been driving up the side of the mountain, not making any sudden moves, when it happened. Although she wasn't exactly sure what the it was. There'd been a swoosh and a swerve and then the world twirling around her. There might have been a scream or two, but as she was alone, she wasn't going to admit to that.
She glanced around, noticing how the nose of her car was firmly planted in the wall of a surprisingly firm drift. The good news was she was pretty close to her destination. The bad news was she was going to have to figure out a way to get down the mountain when it was time to leave.
That was for later, she told herself as she turned off the engine then unfastened her seat belt. First she had a puppy to let out.
Noelle opened the door and started to stand, only to discover why her car had gone whirling around. Snow, it seemed, was slippery. Her feet started to go out from under her and she had to grab the door frame to keep from falling.
"This is so wrong," she murmured, finding her balance and carefully closing the car door. She started walking very tentatively toward the house at the end of the long driveway.
Snow had come early to Fool's Gold. There had been several inches in late October, then it had all gone away. More had fallen in early November and now this blast the following week. But it was different in town, she thought as she felt her left foot slowly sliding out from under her.
She waved her arms and managed to stay on her feet, then started forward again. In town, roads were plowed and sidewalks scraped. Someone put magical stuff down so it wasn't slippery. She never had any trouble in town.
Growing up in Florida, followed by a career move to Los Angeles, had not prepared her for a real winter, she thought as she made it to the porch. Her feet started slipping again. She lunged for the railing and managed to hang on as her lower body slipped and stretched until she was nearly parallel to the ground.
She dug her toes into the snow and ice, hoping to find some traction. At last she managed to get her legs back under her and straighten. It was like being a cartoon character, she thought grimly. Only with the possibility of breaking bones.
"This is so not what I expected," she said aloud, thinking that Felicia's request had seemed so reasonable. With everyone running around, Webster, her friend's eight-month-old puppy, had been left home alone. Could Noelle go and let him out?
Felicia had been a good friend to Noelle. When Noelle had opened her own store—The Christmas Attic—over Labor Day weekend, Felicia had been right there, helping stock the place and offering suggestions. When Noelle wanted to participate in town advertising with the other local retailers, Felicia had helped her navigate the maze that was local government regulations. When Noelle worried that she would never find a man for ... well, you know, let alone love, Felicia had reassured her that it would happen. So helping with the family puppy seemed the least she could do to pay back her friend.
"I am capable," Noelle told herself as she made it up the stairs. They were surprisingly not slippery. Whatever that magic stuff was, they must use it here, she thought.
She walked to planters on the railing and felt around for the spare key. Only there wasn't one. She checked all the planters, sure that was where Felicia had told her to look.
Unsure what to do next, she walked to the front door and heard a soft snuffling sound. "Hey, Webster," she called. The puppy yipped excitedly.
Noelle reached for the door handle and found it turned easily. She pushed it open.
Two things happened at once. A very excited fifty-pound German shepherd puppy bounded out toward her and she saw a duffel bag in the foyer.
Noelle automatically patted the enthusiastic dog. He licked her hands and wiggled before dashing down the stairs and heading for the trees on the side to take care of business.
"It's slippery," she called after him, only to realize he had magical feet because he returned at the same hy-perspeed with which he'd left and never skidded once.
"Good boy," she said, hugging him.
Problem one solved, she thought. Which only left the mysterious duffel and the open front door.
The bag could be Carter's, she thought, picturing Gideon's thirteen-year-old son. Or it could be the proof that some evildoer had broken into the house and was, even as she stood there, ransacking the place. Either way, she had to find out.
She stepped cautiously inside, the eager dog at her side. By the front door was an umbrella stand. She grabbed the biggest, most threatening umbrella she saw and held it in her hands like a club. She was tough, she told herself. After all, she'd taken a self-defense class earlier that fall. Of course her instructor had warned them all against walking toward trouble.
"If you're in here to steal stuff, I've called the police and I'm heavily armed," she yelled as she walked through the open area of the main floor. There was a big living room and a huge kitchen. She knew there were bedrooms at each end of the house and more living space downstairs.
Webster enjoyed the game, staying at her side, his wagging tail thumping against the wall at regular intervals.
"Just walk out with your hands up and no one will get hurt," she continued.
She paused, listening. There was a sound from the hallway. She turned, umbrella poised. If necessary, she would hit the guy, then run. She was pretty sure Webster would run with her, thinking this was just more happy puppy fun.
The bathroom door opened and a guy stepped out. A tall guy wearing nothing but jeans. He had a towel in one hand and was using it to rub his just washed hair. In fact, staring at the tall, well-muscled man, Noelle would guess he'd just washed the rest of himself, too.
She paused in the middle of the hallway as several thoughts moved through her brain. First, few burglars bothered to shower while on the job. She didn't have actual working knowledge of that as fact, but was willing to assume it was true. Second, while she knew she'd never seen the man before, something about him was familiar. Third, he was really handsome, with light brown hair and dark blue eyes. And had she already mentioned the body to her brain? Because it was good, too.
They stared at each other and she remembered her list. Right. Fourth ... Her gaze dropped and she swallowed. He had a nasty-looking cut on his left hand—complete with raw flesh, black thread from stitches and—
"Oh, no," she whispered as the edges of her consciousness seemed to fold in on herself. "Not blood. Anything but blood."
For someone who had been through what she had, it was pretty funny that the sight of blood made her woozy, but there it was. Life with a sense of humor. Her stomach roiled, her skin got clammy and she knew she was about an eighth of a second from crumpling to her knees. If that happened, she didn't think Webster was up to saving her.
She bent down to shorten the distance to the floor and hopefully save herself from a lasting brain injury.
Gabriel Boylan stared at the half-collapsed blonde. "This is why I hate the suburbs," he told her as he dropped his towel and moved toward her.
"Can you hear me?" he asked, speaking loudly.
She waved toward his hand. "Keep that away from me."
Her voice was weak and she seemed to be swaying. He swore under his breath, noticing even as she started to go down that she was still brandishing that ridiculous umbrella in his direction. Great. His brother had fallen for someone insane.
He grabbed the umbrella and twisted it out of her grip, then lowered her the rest of the way to the floor.
She groaned. He took in her paleness and rapid breathing and figured she was close to fainting.
The annoyed, I-really-don't-like-people side of him wanted to let it happen. At least unconscious she would be less trouble. But the doctor in him knew that wasn't the right decision. He shifted her so she was on her knees, then pushed her head down.
"Head lower than the heart," he told her. "Slow your breathing. You're fine."
"You can't know that," she managed to say.
"Want to bet?"
When it seemed like she was going to stay conscious, he returned to the bathroom and quickly wrapped his left hand. The deep cut was still tender and oozing. He was lucky—he'd been stupid to get injured in the first place, but while it was ugly, no permanent damage had been done. A good thing considering he needed his hands to make a living.
When the tape was secure, he shrugged into a clean, long-sleeved T-shirt, then walked back into the hallway.
The woman had straightened and was staring up at him. Her gaze dropped to his hand, then darted away.
"Thank you for covering up," she said, her voice low.
He assumed she meant the wound and not his chest. "You're welcome."
The puppy settled next to her, leaning heavily on her, ready for the next round of whatever it was they were playing.
"You're sensitive to blood," Gabriel said.
The woman winced. "I know. It's ridiculous. I always have been. You'd think I would get over it, but no. Oddly, I can deal with getting a shot, as long as there's no bleeding. Otherwise, I have to close my eyes." She drew in a breath, then looked at him. "Who are you?"
Gabriel frowned. "Gideon didn't tell you?"
"I haven't talked to him recently." She paused, as if trying to remember how long it had been. "I guess I've seen him in town but we haven't spoken."
Now Gabriel was confused. "You're not Felicia?"
The woman scrambled to her feet. She was a tall blonde—too skinny for his taste, but pretty enough. She wore black jeans and a ridiculous sweater decorated with tiny Santa heads. Like he'd said before—the suburbs sucked.
"No, I'm Noelle," she said. "Who are you?"
He was going to say more but her blue eyes widened. "Gideon's brother?"
He nodded, unable to figure out why someone he'd never heard of was chasing people with an umbrella in his brother's house. Not that there was an appropriate place for that sort of thing.
She smiled. Whatever else he was going to grumble about faded as her mouth curved. Because the second she smiled, he felt a whole lot better about nearly everything. His hand hurt less, he wasn't as tired and the avalanche of regret he felt at showing up in Fool's Gold reduced itself to a small rock-slide.
Talk about a trick.
The smile widened. "Oh, wow. I didn't know you were coming for sure. You're the doctor, right? Felicia mentioned she'd asked you to stay for the holidays, but I thought you'd said you couldn't make it. I'm Noelle Perkins. Felicia and I are friends. I have a store in town and I know Gideon, of course. And Carter."
The son his brother hadn't known he had, Gabriel thought. There was a situation.
"Gideon and Carter are shopping in Sacramento. Felicia got stuck in town and asked me to come and let Webster out." Her smile faded. "Oh, no. I attacked you. I'm really sorry."
"It's okay," he told her. Mostly because it was and partially because he wanted to see the smile again.
"I couldn't figure out why the door was open and the spare key wasn't where she'd said."
"Gideon told me about the key, too, and I used it."
The smile returned and his breathing relaxed.
She bent down and collected the umbrella. "I took a self-defense course a few weeks ago. Just a Saturday afternoon of basic stuff. My instructor would so kill me if she knew what I'd done, so if you could not say anything I'd appreciate it."
"Not a problem."
She glanced quickly at the bandage, then away. "Um, what happened to your palm?"
"I was an idiot."
"It happens to all of us."
"I should know better."
She flashed the smile again. "And the rest of us shouldn't?"
"Fair point," he told her.
She waved the umbrella. "I'll put this back." She started down the hall. "Do you want some coffee?"
She went into the kitchen and pulled out mugs and two small pods filled with coffee as if she knew her way around the place.
He was still having trouble wrapping his mind around the fact that his brother was engaged and had a son. Not that the two events were related. Carter's mother had died a couple of years ago. As for Felicia ... Gabriel frowned as he realized he didn't know how she and his brother had met. The fact that he hadn't spoken to anyone in his family in over a year might have something to do with that.
Webster followed Noelle and looked hopeful as she collected spoons and started the coffeemaker. She eyed him.
"I'm pretty sure you've already been fed," she told the dog.
He wagged his tail.
She sighed. "You're so demanding. Fine. I'll give you a cookie."
Webster woofed at the word and followed her to the pantry, where a plastic container of bone-shaped treats sat on a shelf.
"But just one," she told him, waiting until he sat to give it to him.
He took it gently and bolted from the room.
Gabriel watched him go. "He's not much of a guard dog. He let me in without a growl."
"He's a puppy," Noelle said. "Felicia wants him to be friendly rather than aggressive. He's supposed to be Carter's dog, but she's the one who takes care of him. He's been to a few obedience classes but they don't seem to be taking."
She motioned to the large table, and he moved forward to take a seat. Noelle added the first pod and pushed the button, making sure the mug was positioned underneath.
She leaned against the counter. "So, you're here for the holidays. To be with your family. That's nice."
"I haven't seen them in a while," he admitted, trying to remember the last time he'd joined his parents and brother for Christmas. More than a decade, he thought. Fifteen years? Longer than that? Maybe it had been before he'd left for college. "Feel free to fill me in on what I've missed."
"I've never met your parents," she said cheerfully. "I know Gideon, of course. He moved here before me. It was last year. I just got here in the spring." She wrinkled her nose. "It was before the whole snow thing. I'm going to have to take some lessons or something. It's a lot more slippery than I realized. I know there's an ice element, but I didn't think it was, you know ... fee." She made air quotes as she spoke the last word.
He chuckled. "You have a lot to look forward to."
"You mean aside from warmer weather?" She turned back to the coffeemaker and pulled out the mug. "How do you like it?" she asked, already moving to the refrigerator.
"Black is fine."
"That's such a guy thing."
She pulled out a container of flavored coffee creamer, then handed him his mug and returned to the counter. She obviously knew her way around the kitchen. Because of Felicia, he told himself. Women who were friends hung out a lot doing stuff like having coffee. He supposed it wasn't that different from going out and having a drink.
She stuck in a second pod, put a mug in place and hit the button.
"You know Gideon bought a couple of radio stations," she said.
"He does an oldies show every night. Lots of songs I've never heard of but most of them are good. Felicia runs the festivals in town. She's very organized. Carter's in school, of course." She glanced at Webster, who sat with his tail wagging. "What about you, young man? Any career plans?"
The puppy barked.
"Impressive." She glanced up at Gabriel. "Sorry. I talk to everything."
She got her own coffee and poured in the flavored creamer then set the container back in the refrigerator. She took a seat across from him and tilted her head.
"What else can I tell you?" she asked. "I have guilt about trying to attack you."
Excerpted from Christmas on 4th Street by Susan Mallery. Copyright © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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