Excerpt for Snowfall by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Copyright 2018 by McKenna Dean

Published by


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictionally in the writing of this story. Any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Any resemblance to events, businesses, or locales is likewise coincidental.

Cover art by Rhonda L. Duffy

Cover art is for illustrative purposes only and any person depicted in the cover is a model

All rights reserved. This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of international copyright law, subject to prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. Any e-book format may not be loaned, reproduced, or transmitted by any means, electronic or mechanical, without the written permission of the publisher.

They were calling it the storm of the century. As bad as the blizzard of 1993. The forecast called for up to two feet of snow, which was rare even up in the mountains of North Carolina. Predictably, everyone had stocked up on supplies, preparing for the siege. The shelves at the local grocery had been cleared of bread, milk, and eggs by the time Peyton Grant was able to swing by the store on her way home. Fortunately, she’d done most of her shopping the week before. She’d just wanted to pick up a few extras—yeast to bake bread, some ham for sandwiches, and a couple of bottles of wine.

The office had closed after she’d transferred her most critical cases to a twenty-four hour facility, where they would receive the care they needed for the duration of the storm. Snow had begun falling while she was still in town. She was lucky she’d made it home when she did; even with four-wheel drive she’d have trouble getting up the narrow mountain road now.

In the hours since she’d been home, snow had come down with such intensity that everything beyond her window was blanketed in white. Judging from the amount of snow piled on the roof of her car, at least eight inches had fallen already. The dull, pewter-grey sky of the afternoon had given way to a thick, insulating darkness, with snowflakes spinning out of the night sky, illuminated by the light from her windows.

All the chores were done. The horses were settled for the night. Stew simmered on the stove. She’d just taken a loaf of bread out of the oven, and the warm, yeasty smell filled the house. She had her books and her DVDs. Wood was neatly stacked by the stove and a fire blazed within. There was gas in the generator. Even if there was a power outage, she’d manage.

She was ready. Let Mother Nature do her worst. Time off was hard for her to come by and she’d been anticipating the storm with delight, mentally planning what she’d do with her time the way a miser fondled his gold. Reading. Watching movies. Staying up all night if she wanted. Sleeping until noon. Talking long walks with the dog in the snow or riding horseback. All of her favorite activities.

So why was she so damn restless?

Well, not all her favorite activities. Being snowed in was a whole lot more fun if you were snowed in with someone else.

She was smart enough to know that she wasn’t yet ready for a serious relationship. What she needed was a little…fling. Something to make her feel confident about dating again. Sexy. Desirable. Someone who would, as the old Pat Benatar song went, “love her and then go away.”

As the only veterinarian in the area, she was on-call twenty-four/seven. The local community was so small anything she did was subject to rumor and speculation. Despite being the only game in town, her job depended on her reputation; she had to protect it. Most nights she arrived home in a stupor of exhaustion after having worked impossibly long hours, and her farm was perched on the side of a mountain. Not exactly conducive to getting dressed up and going back out in the evenings. Staying in town after work, having dinner or meeting friends at the local bar wasn’t feasible either. Not when she had animals back at the house waiting for her to take care of them.

All of these factors together made for a lot of lonely nights in front of the television. And then there was the issue of being a shifter. Her brother, Andy, worked for a shifter agency, and when he wasn’t trying to get her to join him, he frequently attempted to set her up with dates. The ‘right’ kind of dates. Other shifters. She’d always said no. But it was beginning to look like she’d have to take him up on one of his blind date arrangements if she wanted to ever have sex again.

Until recently, it had been impossible to do anything more than meet the needs of her clients and feed her own animals. She’d been so disconnected from her life, walking around in an armor of numbness that not even her love of animals could pierce.

A wet nose tried to nuzzle her hand. Poor Ranger. The young yellow Labrador she’d adopted in the spring deserved better than her mummified attention. At least he had the benefit of going with her almost everywhere she went, even if most days she was on auto-pilot. It hurt sometimes to realize that even five years ago, she’d been a very different person.

But things were slowly getting better.

She’d packed up Peter’s things and taken them to the thrift store. On a whim, she’d given her honey-blonde hair a cinnamon rinse, and if becoming a redhead didn’t signal a desire for sex, she didn’t know what did. After years of putting off major renovations, she was looking at plans and talking with contractors. She made a point of really interacting with her animals beyond feeding them and cleaning stalls, deeply grateful for their infinite patience on the days she was little more than a zombie. More importantly, she was fed up with her sorrow. Ready for a change. It was as though she were a tree stripped bare of leaves, spindly and dried up to the point of death, which had suddenly sprouted several small buds.

One of first signs of returning life was the realization she wanted sex.

Wanting and achieving were two different things, however.

The online dating thing had been a bust. After having to fake an emergency call to get out of the worst blind date ever, she wasn’t so sure she was willing to try it again. Damn it, all she was really looking for was a good lay. A relationship was the last thing she wanted. The number of men keen to move in with her so she could give them free room and board, taking care of them in the manner they seemed to feel they deserved, was infinite. She deleted her dating profile.

Wanting sex was healthy. It meant she was alive. Maybe she should let Andy set her up with someone, another shifter like herself. But would her brother be as willing to introduce her to someone if he knew all she wanted was a one-night stand? Probably not. As uninhibited as most shifters were, she suspected Andy would draw the line when it came to his little sister wanting no-strings-attached sex.

She sipped from her tea and stared into the swirl of falling snow outside her window.

Ironically, had it not been for the heavy snow, the solution to her restlessness would have been simple. Shift into her hawk form and soar over the mountainside. It was one of the reasons she and Peter had purchased the isolated cabin. The fifty acres of homestead and forest had given them free rein to let their shifters out to play almost every day. But the driving snow had discouraged her from flying earlier in the day, and she didn’t have an owl’s night vision. Perhaps in the morning, when it stopped snowing but before the roads were cleared, flying conditions would be ideal. She could hardly wait. Unfortunately for her current mood, she would have to do exactly that.

That doesn’t mean I have to stay inside though.

It might be terrible weather for flying but it was practically perfect for a different activity. Only the kind of storm that happened once in twenty-five years would create the right conditions. As soon as she realized the heavy snow would allow her to do something she and Peter had talked about since the day they’d bought the property, her breath left her. It was crazy. At the very least, she should wait until daylight. But the snow was deep enough. Few people would be on the roads right now; in fact, all the main highways were probably closed. After putting it off for so long, of having never having the right conditions, she’d promised herself if the timing ever worked out she’d go for it. There was nothing to stop her now.

Peyton quickly changed into her outdoor gear and whistled up Ranger to join her.

The old sleigh had been there when they’d bought the place. Peter had argued for keeping it, saying that one day there’d be a snowfall deep enough that they could use it.

One more thing I never got to do with him.

She pushed the thought out of her mind.

Ranger threw himself enthusiastically into the snow, running in crazy circles that made her laugh as she walked towards the barn. Once inside, she felt a childlike glee as she uncovered the sleigh. The harness was still in good condition. Peter had repaired and oiled it in the hopes of just a night like this. She could do this. She would do this.

Ranger trotted alongside as she went out into the storm to find Robin. It had been years since the Belgian mare had been in harness but Peyton hoped she would still remember the basics. A little voice inside Peyton’s head whispered ‘You’re crazy, you know’ and she told it to shut up. She was tired of doing the sensible thing. It was perfect weather for a sleigh ride and who knew when she’d ever have the opportunity again? Her life was a list of missed opportunities instead of memories. No more.

Robin snuffled hopefully into her gloved hands, looking for a treat as Peyton put the halter on her head. Snow dusted her blonde mane and clung to her eyelashes. Together, they slogged their way back to the barn.

Peyton had a moment of hesitation when she’d backed Robin into the traces and finished buckling the harness. This was insane. It had been over a decade since she’d driven a horse in harness.

Do it. Just do it. If not now, when?

She quashed all her doubts, pushed open the big barn doors, and climbed into the sleigh, pulling a heavy blanket over her lap. Snapping the reins lightly across Robin’s rump, she clucked to the horse. The mare turned her head back inquiringly, looking over her cream-colored shoulder in confusion. Peyton clucked louder and slapped the reins again. Robin stepped into the head collar, pulling the sleigh forward as the bells on the harness tinkled with the movement. Ranger barked madly, trying to chivvy the sleigh into moving faster.

“Knock it off, Ranger.” The last thing she needed was for Ranger to spook the horse. Peyton whistled for him. He bounded forward and leapt inside the sleigh, excitedly hanging off the edge as they progressed down the drive, Robin plodding steadily through the heavy snow. Peyton tucked the blanket in tighter around her lap and relished the eerie quiet except for the hiss of falling snow and the occasional jingle of the sleigh bells.

I’m doing this. I’m really doing it. Peter would have loved this.

She squeezed her eyelids shut against the bright sting of tears, brushing them away with the back of a gloved hand. The cold bite of the wind made her eyes water, that’s all.

It took longer than expected to reach the main road. The magic of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh became tempered with the knowledge that driving along the road after dark with no lights was a terrible idea. She was committed, however. There was no room to swing the sleigh around in the driveway, not even if she pulled out onto the main road and looped around. The best place to turn would be at the top of Mrs. Beasley’s place, so Peyton pulled on the reins and carefully inched out on the road in that direction. Her eyes now adjusted to the dark, she could make out the faint outlines of where a car had traveled earlier. Surely, no one would be stupid enough to drive on these back roads in this weather at this point. They should be safe enough for a short run.

The sleigh moved smoothly along the main road. Growing confidence made her bold, and she clucked Robin up into a trot. The mare snorted but obliged, the tarnished bells sounding a merry jingle to the rhythm of her gait.

It was marvelous.

Peyton knew they needed to turn around and head back to the house as soon as possible, but the falling snow and jingling bells unlocked something inside that had been straining to get out for a while. Unfettered joy bubbled up from within, and she laughed as snowflakes plastered hair and eyelashes, rapidly coating the blanket in her lap. Tossing her head back, she sang the opening bars to “Sleigh Ride”, noting how the song’s rhythm was perfectly suited to match time with a trotting horse.

The road curved as it followed the line of the mountain down toward the valley below and dropped away precipitously on the lower side. Though she trusted Robin to stay on the road, Peyton checked her back to a walk. If they hit a patch of ice, it would be far too easy for the heavy sleigh to slide off the road into the ravine.

Ranger bounced up to the front of the sleigh and gave a short, sharp bark. Over the wind, Peyton heard the sound of a car engine. Alarmed, she leaned forward, straining to pinpoint the sound, searching for the telltale sign of approaching headlights. It took her a moment to realize the motor was stationary.

“Whoa, girl.” She pulled back on the reins until Robin came to a stop. Every muscle tightened as she listened. Yep. An engine was running, all right. Somewhere close by.

Ranger gave another sharp bark and bounded out of the sleigh.

“Damn it, Ranger, come back here!” Peyton shouted. She jumped out of the sleigh, telling Robin firmly to “Stand!” She’d be out of luck if the mare decided to head for home.

Peyton floundered her way to the side of the road, where Ranger stood barking excitedly. As she came abreast of him, the dog plunged down the embankment.

Something heavy had left the road, crushing bushes and small trees in its wake. Below, Peyton could see the red taillights of a car tilted precariously to one side. The odor of engine exhaust burned her nose in the crisp, cold air.

“Oh, no, no, no,” she chanted as she slid her way down to the car. The bright red Miata was nose deep into a thicket, the headlights showcasing a flurry of snow in its beams. There was no movement within.

In a panic, she wrenched open the driver’s side door.

The warm air inside the car struck her face even as the driver jumped and cursed. He twisted in his seat to look up at her, pushing the deployed airbag out of his way.

“Holy shit,” he said. “You scared the ever-living crap out of me.”

His reaction incensed her. Who was this idiot?

“Are you suicidal or just stupid? Don’t you know you can give yourself carbon monoxide poisoning running the engine like that?” Her sharp words hung in the air like the vapor of her breath. It was too late to take them back.

Impossibly, the man inside the car gave her a slow grin. The overhead dome cast a halo of light over him, illuminating boyishly handsome features. Light brown hair, fashionably cut. The suggestion of vacation stubble along his jaw line. Dressed in just a leather jacket over a black turtleneck and jeans, he reeked of expensive tastes and an appreciation of his own good looks. “I was being careful. I cleared the exhaust pipe and I only planned to run the engine long enough to get warm. Honest.”

He shut off the motor, killed the headlights, and climbed out of the car. Peyton took a step back.

“No signal.” He indicated his phone with a waggle of his hand before stuffing it into his pocket. “Boy, am I glad you came along.”

Ranger wiggled forward and pushed his nose up into the man’s hand. “Hey, buddy.” Delight was evident in his voice. He tilted his head up to smile at Peyton again. “This your dog?”

“His name is Ranger,” Peyton said abruptly, mortification welling up inside of her because unless she was mistaken, she had been rude to Nicholas Lang.

Lang. The guy who starred some years back in her favorite sci-fi series Starfall, and was now on another new show she adored. For some unfathomable reason, Lang was in her neighborhood, stuck in a ditch and possibly injured. Peyton’s face flamed despite the frigid temperature. She’d not only been rude, but unspeakably rude to a major celebrity.

It couldn’t be him. She had to be mistaken. That was still no reason to be rude, but being impolite to a random stranger was somehow marginally better.

“Are you okay? We should get you to a hospital.” She turned and began to trudge back up the embankment, only belatedly realizing that he might need help. God, she just wanted to smack herself. She looked back in time to see him grab a small bag and shut the car door, cutting off all source of light again.

“I don’t need a hospital. I need a hot drink and a phone that works. If you could manage that, I’d be eternally grateful. As much as I appreciate your concern, what I really want is a tow truck. I don’t want to be stuck here all weekend. I’m on my way to a friend’s wedding.”

“Cell service is unreliable up here. I have a landline back at the house. But I hate to tell you, you’re unlikely to get anyone to come rescue your car tonight.” No matter who you are. “I still think you should get checked out at a hospital.”

Though even that would be difficult to do.

“I didn’t hit my head. Scout’s honor.” He held up his fingers in the Boy Scout’s salute, hunching down in his jacket against the cold and snow.

She snorted inelegantly. “You were a Scout,” she said, disbelief plainly evident in her voice. He’s not Lang, she told herself again. Even though he does sound an awful lot like him. “Does that little-boy-charm thing you’ve got going always get you what you want?”

Not too surprisingly, given his reaction to everything so far, he laughed. “Hey, it never hurts.” He huffed a little behind her as they climbed the embankment. An abortive yelp made her look back. She could just make out his form lying prone in the snow.

Hastily she plunged back down the slope, just as he lifted his head. Ranger, tail wagging like a metronome, rushed up to lick the snow off his face.

“Are you all right?” Peyton put a hand out to his shoulder. Damn it, if she had to drive the sleigh all the way into town to get him to a doctor, she would.

He laughed again, a kind of helpless wheezing that made it easy to see the absurdity of the situation. “I’m fine. I just tripped. Can’t see where I’m going.”

She helped him to his feet, clutching at his arms when he slipped again and nearly took them both down. Still chuckling, he pulled out his cell phone. After wiping his fingers against jeans powdered with snow, it took several attempts for him to swipe his phone.

“Lumos,” he said into the microphone, activating the flashlight function. A surprisingly bright beam came out the back of the phone, enough to illuminate their path.

“Lumos? Really?” She fell into step beside him as they climbed the hill.

“I can’t help it if I’m a fanboy. Besides, it makes me laugh every time I use that command. I got my very own wand from a movie prop sale, only it doesn’t light up.” His teeth chattered slightly as they reached the top of the embankment. “If you could just give me a lift to the nearest…Holy shit.” He gaped at the sight of Robin shifting uneasily in her harness.

“Oh, man, that is so cool.” An incandescent smile wreathed his face when he turned toward Peyton, radiating little-boy excitement. “Is this yours?”

Irritation bloomed again and Peyton found herself once more speaking sharply as the mare snorted and tossed her head. “Don’t shine the light in her eyes.”

“Sorry. I didn’t think. It’s just I’ve never seen a real live horse-drawn sleigh before.”

His irrepressible sense of delight was really annoying. “Seems to me you should be upset right now, or at least a little angry. After all, your car is in a ditch.”

“I’m just happy to be alive. Nicholas Lang, by the way.”

Of course, there was no way he could know that by offering his hand with his introduction, he’d confirmed Peyton’s worst fear.

“Where are your gloves?” She stared at his bare hand in disbelief before shaking it briefly. His fingers were like icicles.

He looked vaguely around as though gloves might magically appear.

She rolled her eyes. “Come on then, get in the sleigh before you freeze to death.”

As she climbed into the sleigh, Ranger crowded in behind her. Robin started to pull forward as Lang was joining them. He gripped the sides of the sleigh and swung on board, laughing as he tumbled into the seat beside Peyton while she tried to steady the mare.

“God, it’s freezing.” He switched off the flashlight and slid under the blanket when Peyton lifted a corner to let him in. Turning up on his coat, he stuffed his hands in his pockets, but Peyton knew he was going to be bone-cold by the time they reached the house.

“I don’t live far. But we have to turn around first.” Slapping the reins sharply on Robin’s wide hindquarters made the mare flick her ears and surge forward into a snappy trot. The bells set up a delightful chorus in accompaniment.

“This is so unbelievably cool,” Lang said again, the smile warming his voice. He sat so close, Peyton could feel the heat of his breath against her cheek. “No one’s going to believe me when I tell them about this.”

“I could say the same,” Peyton spoke without thinking, and felt her face flame again.

She sensed he was looking at her but she kept her eyes steadfastly focused on the road. Ranger pushed up against Lang, begging for attention, and he slipped a hand out from his pocket to fondle the dog’s ears.

“You never told me your name.” His voice was somehow softer, more intimate, as though the two of them were seated on a couch in front of a roaring fire and not out in the middle of a storm.

Huh. Actors.

“Sorry. Everyone around here knows who I am.” Peyton could have bitten her tongue as she spoke; how impossibly arrogant did that sound? It wasn’t what she meant at all.

“Ah, let me guess.” He briefly held up his hands toward her as though looking through a camera lens. “Barbara Stanwyck?”

She easily made the connection. “Christmas in Connecticut? Because of the sleigh?”

“Not just the sleigh. You’ve got that whole feisty heroine thing going on as well.”

She felt the blush all the way to her toes. How could he know that she loved all those old movies? Or that being compared to one of those fantastic heroines was the greatest compliment she could imagine?

Don’t be ridiculous.

First Harry Potter, now old movies. He was hitting all her favorites. He had to be putting on some kind of act. Guys like him didn’t really exist.

She pulled back on the reins, adding a soft ‘whoa’ as they reached the Beasley driveway. “I guess you’d be Cary Grant.”

He certainly seemed to be playing that kind of charming, handsome devil role.

“That would make you Katherine Hepburn then,” Lang continued cheerfully. “And Ranger could be Baby.”

Peyton laughed then; she couldn’t help it. Bringing Up Baby was one of her favorite screwball comedies from the 1930s. She guided Robin in a careful turn at the bottom of the drive.

“No, no,” Lang added enthusiastically, realizing she’d caught the reference. “Ranger would be the dog that made off with the dinosaur bone!”

“Oh, then you know Ranger personally?” Peyton chuckled. Maybe it was relief they were finally safely pointed for home. Or maybe it was the thrumming excitement from meeting a Hollywood celebrity up close and personal. It could even be the high from doing something unexpected and reckless, like taking out the sleigh. Whatever it was, she felt bold enough to add, “Whenever vets get together and tell stories about the weirdest thing they’ve ever cut out of a dog, a Lab is always the star.”

“You’re a vet? That’s pretty cool. I thought about being a vet once. But then I thought about being an astronaut and a fireman. Or maybe a writer. Or a detective.”

“A telepathic detective? With an alien for your partner?” By alluding to his current television project, Peyton was revealing herself as a fan. She suspected his flirting was meant to set her at ease, nothing more. Well, he was an actor, after all.

“Something like that,” Lang agreed, obviously enjoying himself.

There was a brief silence and then Peyton said hurriedly, “I’m sorry I was so short with you back at the car. I thought you were dead.”

“Ah,” Lang’s voice filled with comprehension. “And that would have just ruined your evening, right?”

“Something like that,” Peyton agreed, deliberately echoing his words. She hesitated a second and then added, “I was in a pretty bad accident a few years ago and it brought back memories.”

From his movement, she could tell he’d shifted to look in her direction again. “I’m sorry.”

The seriousness with which he spoke forced her to glance at him. Though it was too dark to make out his expression, a warm rush of emotion washed over her just the same.

“Not your fault.” She hurried on, hoping to take some of the abruptness out of her words. “I wonder why we do that. We hear something terrible has happened and we apologize for it even when we had nothing to do with it.”

“I think when we say we’re sorry like that what we’re really saying is that we wish the bad thing hadn’t happened.” He paused. When he spoke again, the sympathy in his voice was palpable. “So, pretty terrible, huh?”

She nodded, astonished by the burn of tears once more. They rode in silence for a while, the sleigh sliding smoothly through the snow as it continued to fall around them, layering Robin’s rump, and gathering in the folds of the blanket covering them. Lang shivered slightly and edged closer to her again. She didn’t mind. His body heat was welcome in more ways than one.

It’s not just sex I miss.

It was a good thing the darkness masked her expression too.

The sleigh wallowed a bit making the turn into her driveway. Robin, knowing she was heading back to the barn, picked up a spanking trot. Ahead, the lights from the house shone in bright rectangles on the snow-covered ground. Robin had definitely made better speed heading home than going out.

Peyton guided the sleigh to a stop in front of the house. “Go on inside and make yourself at home. I’ve got to see to the horse.”

He opened his mouth but she cut him off. “I don’t need any help. You’re half-frozen as it is.”

She watched as he gave her a sketchy little salute and got out of the sleigh, swinging into an easy gait as he climbed the porch stairs. That was no act; that was simply the way he moved. For the first time, she appreciated his lack of suitable clothing because his jeans clung to his ass as though he’d been poured into them. It dawned on her she’d actually seen that ass naked in one of his movies, and she snickered to herself as she clucked to Robin. The sleigh swung round and headed toward the barn.

While she quickly untacked Robin and turned her out, Peyton imagined all kinds of impossible scenarios between herself and Lang, most of which involved them getting naked and sweaty together.

Yeah, right. As if.

It was like buying a lottery ticket. The odds of winning were impossible, but it was fun to pretend.

Finally she made her way back to the house, stomping the snow off her boots on the porch as Ranger bounded gleefully up the stairs and barreled past her when she opened the door.

The smell of fresh bread wafted to her as she walked in. She took inordinate pride in its presence, as though she had planned it for Lang’s arrival. Short of apple pie straight out of the oven, she couldn’t think of a more welcoming scent. As she paused to shed her outdoor gear, she caught her reflection in the hallway mirror; cheeks pink with cold that brought out the green in her hazel eyes, the overhead light picking out the highlights in her now strawberry-blonde hair. The fact she’d been thinking about sex with Lang was written all over her face. She wondered if Lang would read that desire in her.

When she entered the kitchen, Lang acted as though she was the guest and not the other way around.

“’You were right about the tow truck. The guy actually laughed at me before he said to call back in the morning. So, which is it?” He handed her a bowl. “Katherine or Barbara?”

“Peyton Grant,” she replied. The aroma of beef stew hit her hard, reminding her of how hungry she was.

“Peyton. I like it. It suits you.” He flashed his boyish grin.

Don’t fall for it.

Obviously, charming was simply his default mechanism.

Seeing him now for the first time in full light, she cast an appreciative glance over him. He’d taken off his leather jacket, and abandoned his boots at the door. White athletic socks peeked out from under the edge of slim-fitting jeans that seemed molded to his legs.

“Something wrong? He spread his hands wide and looked down at himself.

“Just checking to see if you got soaked when you fell. I doubt I have a change of clothing that would fit, but you’re welcome to try my panda PJs.”

One eyebrow lifted along with the corner of his mouth, as though she’d made a sexual innuendo. “I’m a bit damp but not too bad. Thanks for the offer. Panda pajamas sound… interesting.”

The little smile and the suggestive pause had a sexual vibe to them, but she had to be imagining things.

They ate warm stew with buttered bread. Lang entertained her with his adventures of the evening. How, like an idiot, he’d gotten lost when he’d left the main highway. How coming around the corner to find a bunch of deer in the middle of the road had caused him to swerve reflexively, and he’d lost control of the car. How his friends would murder him if he didn’t show up for their wedding. His conversation was light and easy, and she sensed this was something he did no matter if it was only an audience of one. He was performing: the Hollywood actor playing the guy next door.

She’d been mentally complimenting him on his act—truly a subtle portrayal of a down-to-earth celebrity—when expectedly, he invited her to share an equal number of stories of her own.

He laughed when she told him about the angry woman whose Rottweiler came into the clinic wearing a car windshield around his neck. His mirth was barely contained at the man who’d insisted that the electronic fencing system installed at his home should have protected his dog from snakebite.

“What did he think it was, a force field?” Lang grinned as he helped her wash and put away the dishes. The mention of force fields segued into a discussion of Starfall. The light in Lang’s eyes bore testimony to how much he’d loved working on the sci-fi space opera, and he grew animated as he spoke of events behind the scenes. She had a weird moment of déjà vu as she watched him; he could have been Captain Jack, making dinner in the spaceship’s galley. His stories became less like mini-scenes acted for her behalf and grew into something more real, more personal.

When she led the way into the den, carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses, he looked around curiously at the set up. She tried to see the room through his eyes: the rustic paneling, the floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with every conceivable kind of book, the sofa covered with a blanket (and a little too much yellow dog hair), and the cheerful glow of flames behind the glass door of the wood stove.

“This is nice.” His gaze spanned the room, coming back to rest on her. His smile seemed genuine.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

“The house needs serious work. A kitchen pipe leaked, causing the floor to warp, and there’s dry rot in the walls. I’ve been putting off repairs but I’m going to have to commit to major renovations in the spring.”

He studied her with a slightly lifted eyebrow. “That may be true, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a nice place. I like it. It’s cozy. Inviting. I can think of worse places to be snowed in.”

“You might get your wish. At least for the next twenty-four hours—until they plow the roads.” If he wound up stuck at her place, she’d be unable to shift for a morning flight as planned. Not unless she rose before dawn and snuck out of the house. She heard the sour note in her voice and hoped he hadn’t picked up on it.

But he had.

“I’m sorry to be so much trouble.”

Damn it, he looked slightly hurt. It was the same look Ranger gave her when she came home irritable and tired, and yelled at him for doing something typically doggy. She felt just as guilty too.

“You’re not any trouble. I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s just that you’re probably used to staying in much nicer homes, and this one has quirks. That reminds me, I should show you how to jiggle the handle of the toilet when you flush.”

Somehow, without moving at all, he seemed to withdraw. “More expensive homes, yes. Nicer? That depends on the company.”

Damn, he was good. She’d always admired his acting, but that was partly because she’d enjoyed the characters he played. He brought a subtlety and depth to even the most typecast of roles. He was frequently accused of only being able to play a certain type of character, but if those critics could see him now, they would eat their words. Something she had said had hurt him, and she had no idea what. It was there in the tightening of the skin around his mouth, in the flash of expression in his eyes before his lids half-lowered, shutting her out.

Nothing she’d seen on screen had prepared her for seeing him in the flesh. She realized for the first time that actor or no, he couldn’t help but show all his emotions on his face. Maybe that was what distinguished actors from everyone else. At least the good ones.

He’d been comfortable and relaxed until she’d brought up his celebrity status. That had to be it. How wearisome it must be to always be ‘on stage.’

“I’m sure you’ve had better company too.” She tried for lightness, an implied apology in her words. “I’ve lived alone so long I’ve forgotten how to behave.”

His smile, so ready to make an appearance with the slightest cause, twitched at the corner of his mouth. Apology accepted. “A steady diet of caviar and champagne gets old. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m more of a Sloppy Joes and beer kind of guy.”

“Golly, you’re in luck.” Droll dryness came easily to her. “That’s practically all I know how to make.”

When he laughed, it was as though she’d scored a goal.

“What’s this?” He moved over to the large table against the wall, looking down at the barely-started jigsaw puzzle as he sipped from his glass of wine.

Grateful for the change in subject, she suppressed her instinctive sarcastic comment and simply answered the question. “The Grand Canyon. Five thousand pieces. I find it soothing.”

She’d never seen the Grand Canyon, but she could imagine how lovely it would be to fly over it.

To her surprise, he sat down at the table, staring avidly at the puzzle. “Look at all those reds and oranges. Almost nothing to tell one section from another. Man, you like them hard, don’t you?”

You have no idea.

The sexy comeback popped into her mind but she quashed it firmly. “The day job is emotionally and physically demanding. Puzzles take my mind off things. I become so absorbed in the task, everything else fades into the background.”

He didn’t need to know there were times when she started a puzzle, only to look up as dawn brushed the sky with streaks of red and gold. Fortunately, the insomnia was much less frequent than it used to be.

He glanced up at her words just the same, with an intensity in his eyes that seemed to read her thoughts. Just as quickly, he shifted focus to the puzzle again, picking up pieces and sorting them in a line in front of him.

“You don’t have to work on this, you know.”

“Are you kidding?” He didn’t look up. “I love puzzles.”

He wasn’t faking it. He fondled the pieces, flipping them through his fingers as he studied the layout before him. After flicking a quick glance at the picture on the box, he went back to scanning the array scattered on the table. He seemed to see patterns where she couldn’t, snatching up pieces to fit them against the edges she’d already started, discarding rejects as rapidly as he selected another piece and spun it around for placement. As she watched, he correctly matched three pieces to the line that had taken her over three weeks to build.

She took a seat next to him. “Wow. You’re good.”

“I rank very high in spatial orientation. Ninety-ninth percentile.” The smile was there in his voice, but his gaze never left the puzzle. “But I just love problem-solving. If I hadn’t become an actor, I probably would have been a mechanical engineer.”

“Working for NASA?”

He looked up then, bright excitement shining out of his eyes. “I’d have loved that. Next best thing is playing a spaceship captain, I guess.”

She poured a glass of Merlot for both of them and sorted pieces alongside Lang.

They worked at the puzzle for several hours. Lang finished the borders and made good progress on filling in the center while Peyton’s contribution was to fetch another bottle of Merlot from the kitchen and top off their glasses whenever they got low. Unlike the chatty conversationalist of before, Lang spoke little, concentrating on task at hand. For every ten pieces Lang put in place, Peyton found one that matched.

At one point Ranger asked to go out, and she shivered at the door while waiting for him to do his business and come back inside.

At least another four inches of snow had fallen since she’d brought Lang home. The knowledge he’d be stranded with her for at least twenty-four hours filled her with a weird mix of dismay and elation. The more she observed his dedicated focus on the puzzle, the more she was attracted. There was something about his concentration that triggered a sense of déjà vu but she couldn’t pin it down. Watching his hands move over the pieces was mesmerizing, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d bring that kind of focused attention to bed.

She could clearly picture it. That bright, inquisitive gaze pinning her down, those marvelous hands seeking to solve the puzzle of her body. She couldn’t think of anything she wanted more.

Finally, Lang yawned widely, pushing his chest out and his shoulders back in a prolonged stretch.

Peyton licked her lips and pretended not to notice. For someone who professed he never exercised, Lang had impressive muscles hiding under that turtleneck.

“Sorry about that.” His smile was equally repentant and insufferably pleased. “I didn’t mean to take away all your fun.”

Peyton had viewed the puzzle as a kind of penance for having a brain that refused to shut itself off. While they were by no means close to completing it, Lang had made significant inroads on it. At least now, it would be less daunting to try to finish.

“Actually, I was afraid I’d bitten off more than I could chew with this one. You’ve made it manageable now. Thank you.”

If she’d thought his smiles charming and attractive before, this one blew the others out of the water.

She was toast. Time to move things into a less volatile situation. Though if someone had told her working on a puzzle could make her damp with longing, she’d have laughed her head off.

They drifted into the den, settling on the couch, each with yet another glass of Merlot in hand. Lang, his socked feet propped his feet up on the coffee table, basked like a cat in the heat from the wood stove. Ranger was sacked out on the floor by the foot of the couch.

Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the heat from the stove, or the lassitude setting in from a long day. Lang became nostalgic, speaking of the Starfall cast and how they still stayed in touch. How he’d like to work with them all again. Why he’d chosen to work on another science fiction show, despite the risk of typecasting. How much he liked going to sci-fi conventions. “There’s no fan like a sci-fi geek. When you’re at a con, it’s like being a rock star.”

As before, there was the hint of mischievousness in his smile, but it was imbued with something seductive as well.

Every word set up a thrum of attraction in Peyton, drawing an outline, laying the foundation for desire one piece at a time.

Idly, Lang played with his wine glass and spoke of how much he’d identified with Captain Jack, how depressed he’d been at the cancellation news. How he’d tried writing his own continuing adventures, and how he’d been in secret negotiations with the studio to buy the rights to the series, only it had fallen through.

The knowledge she had at least a million words of Starfall fanfic sitting on her computer made her grateful the dim lighting in the room probably hid her blush. With sudden clarity, she knew that she’d never tell any of her online friends about this evening. Most of it wasn’t anything Lang hadn’t said before in public, but it somehow felt as though he was sharing his innermost thoughts with her.

He seemed to run out of words when they ran out of wine. Somehow, they’d ended up side by side on the couch, Lang’s arm running along the top of the sofa so that when she sat back, they were touching.

It was tempting to lean against him completely, to turn her face into his collar, and smell the warmth of his clean skin.

She did none of those things. Having a real one-on-one conversation with one of her favorite actors was a dream come true. Imaging it would go further than that entered cray-cray territory. It would never happen.

Just as she’d just opened her mouth to suggest they turn in for the night, the lights went out. The room plunged into darkness, save for the glow behind the glassed-in door of the wood stove.

“Uh-oh.” Lang didn’t sound particularly concerned, only startled. “Does the electricity go out here often?”

“No, but given the nature of the storm, there could be a branch on the powerlines somewhere. It might take a while before it comes back on.”

“Oh.” This time a hint of concern entered his voice. “Guess I should have charged the phone when I could. Are we going to get cold tonight?”

“Not to worry. The wood stove will keep things warm.”

“What about food? Coffee? Hot water for a shower?”

She couldn’t clearly make out his smile in the dim lighting, but she could hear the humor in his voice. There was something reassuring in knowing that even if he pretended to be a hopeless baby in the face of a prolonged power outage, the reality was he’d be cool about it.

“I have a gasoline-driven generator. I can fire it up when I need it. Like in the morning for coffee or when we need to cook some food. I’ve got flashlights for use in the house tonight.”

“As long as you’ve got coffee covered, we’re good.” His voice dropped in register, layered with a rich velvety note that sounded remarkably like a come-on. Something about the darkness that made his voice sound more intimate and personal.

Her body responded with a flutter deep in her belly. Followed by a reality check.

“You must be exhausted,” she said abruptly, feeling guilty for keeping him up so late. “I’m so sorry. Look at me, talking your ear off like this. Let me show you to your room.” Opening the home screen on her cell phone, she spoke into the microphone, “Lumos.”

If she could hear the amusement in her voice, so could he.

He followed her down the hall, taking note as she pointed out the bathroom, solemnly listening as she explained the trick to flushing, and waiting patiently as she fussed over finding extra blankets.

“Hey, I want to thank you,” he said as she hesitated in the hallway, no real reason to linger any longer. “For rescuing me, for taking me in and feeding me. This has been one of the best nights I’ve had in a long time.”

“Working on a puzzle in the middle of a snow storm?” Incredulity made her sound sharp again, which she instantly regretted.

“Especially that.” The easy smile flashed in the light from her phone but faded as he stared at her.

He leaned toward her, resting his shoulder on the wall. “Are you… I mean, is there…?” Uncertainty swallowed the rest of his sentence, but she could guess what he wanted to know.

“Someone else? Not any more.” Peyton’s heart skittered sharply in her chest, like a bird trapped in a room full of windows. There was a time when she’d wished she had died in the accident as well, but not tonight. She thought Peter would understand.

Lang studied her face for a long moment. She’d seen him do that on Starfall and his new show as well, stare at his co-star with such a wealth of subtle emotion crossing his features. It was one of the things she loved about him as an actor.

She hoped he wasn’t acting now.

“When I leave here, I won’t be coming back.” A small frown furrowed his forehead.

She said the first thing that popped into her mind. “Well, duh. I mean, seriously. Why would you?”

He chuckled as he acknowledged the truth of her statement. “I have a strict hands-off rule when it comes to fans.” He winced briefly, an apology mixed with regret in his expression.

“You know what they say about rules.” She leaned into the wall beside him, feeling very much like Lauren Bacall. “There’s an exception to every one.”

She expected the boyish grin, but instead he solemnly reached out and cupped her face, his thumb stroking her jaw. Involuntarily, she turned her face into his hand, taking a deep breath as she did so.

She was never sure who moved first, but suddenly they were kissing. Soft, gentle explorations that quickly became heated when Peyton moaned and opened her mouth for more. Inhaling sharply as their tongues came together, she took in his strong, masculine scent, reveled in the rough burn of stubble against her cheek, tasting the hint of wine in his kiss. He thrust his tongue alongside hers as though he was making love to her mouth, and she let him in, showing him in every way she could that she wanted this and more.

The power came back on, flooding the hallway with light.

They parted, both of them out of breath. His pupils were dilated until just the barest rim of blue was visible. He started to speak, only to stop and shake his head slightly.

She could understand; he was a goddamned Hollywood star, for crying out loud. She could be a crazed fan for all he knew. She had her doubts as well. God knows she was no starlet and she didn’t have the body of one.

Screw that.

She pulled him by his shirt into her bedroom.

Once inside the room, there was no hesitation. Mouths found each other once again, and hands tugged at clothing, searching for warm skin underneath.

She had to have more. When his fingers roamed under her sweater, she came to life beneath his touch. Skin hunger. She’d read the words before and knew intellectually what they’d meant but she’d never fully realized how they applied to her until now. She was starving, and only his touch could keep her alive.

Backing up a fraction so she could jerk her sweater off over her head, she ruthlessly shed her clothes. She knelt on the edge of the bed as he came closer, his trademark little boy-grin in evidence now.

She reached for him, running her hands up under his shirt, smoothing her way over his back as she peeled his clothes upward. He lifted his arms obligingly for her to tug his turtleneck over his head and shoulders. His hair stood up in startled disarray with the action and they both smiled when she kissed him again. When he dropped his lips to her neck, she tipped her head back and sighed, carding her fingers through his hair and shuddering at the brush of stubble against her skin.

He cupped her through her panties, fingers pushing against the fabric. She knew they both could feel the wetness there. She moaned and bent her lips to his shoulder, kissing and sucking gently until she’d left a mark, her hands fumbling at his fly. When she could work her way into his jeans, she felt his cock move at her touch. She wanted nothing more than to feel him push that hard, lovely length into her heat and wetness, to thrust and pound his way to orgasm inside of her.

“Oh, crap.” She suddenly wrenched her mouth away from him and sat back on her heels. “Tell me you have some condoms.”

Lang’s eyes widened and he began slapping around his jeans pockets as though they might be there. Snapping his fingers, he abruptly left the room.

He returned with flattering speed.

Waggling several foil wrappers in his hand, he came back to her with a sly smile. She tossed the condoms on the bed so she could pull him by the waistband of his jeans towards her.

“These. Off. Now.” Her directness surprised her.

Thank God the lights had come back on. She wouldn’t have wanted to miss a single moment of seeing him like this.

She watched with approval as he shed his jeans and socks to stand before her in maroon briefs, the snug material outlining his package very nicely. She wasn’t surprised at the light dusting of hair on his chest; she’d seen enough episodes with him shirtless to know what he looked like. But the tattoo! She’d forgotten about the dragon tattooed on his right hip, the one he wouldn’t talk about in interviews.

He moved forward and she rose up on her knees to meet him. “Bastard,” she said lightly. “That bit about not working out is all a lie, isn’t it?” She ran a hand appreciatively over his chest and out over his shoulder.

“Exaggeration,” he admitted with that famous smirk. “For effect.”

She traced the line of hair from his abdomen to his groin, marking the path down to his cock like a perfect landing strip. When she cupped his package, his cock lifted once more as though begging for her touch. Unable to wait any longer, she carefully pulled down his briefs, freeing his dick to stand up straight, bobbing towards her with his movement. He placed a hand on her shoulder for balance and stepped out of the briefs, letting them fall to the floor.

He was gorgeous. She’d always known he would be, in that same effortless way that made him fun to watch no matter what role he played. Grinning with delight, she encircled his cock with her hand, holding it steady as she leaned forward and closed her mouth over the end. The slightly bitter taste of precome left a welcome tang as she slid her mouth up and down, enjoying the heat and the feel of him. His hands were in her hair; it was a bad angle but she looked up and saw him watching her with a look of intense fascination. She smiled, humming a little as she went back to licking and sucking.

“Peyton,” he said softly, his hand resting lightly on the back of her head.

Suddenly he lifted her up by her arms and they were kissing again, hot, messy, and wet. She wondered if he could taste himself there in her mouth.

“I wasn’t done,” she protested.

“Another couple of seconds, I would have been. And that’s not how I wanted to finish the evening.” His sultry smile sent a jolt of electricity straight to her innermost depths. She could scarcely believe it. Nicholas Lang wanted her. Right now.

He unhooked her bra with practiced ease and then his lips were there on her breast.

Crying inarticulately, she helplessly thrust herself up into his mouth, her hips pushing towards him, seeking contact, any contact. He smiled around her breast and pulled his lips away with a slight graze of teeth, pushing her down toward the mattress. Mouthing her once more, he brought his fingers into play as well, pinching a nipple and giving it a little twist.

“Harder,” she breathed. “Yes!” She cried out when he obeyed her commands. It was as if her nipples had a direct connection to her clit and each squeeze of his fingers pulsed between her thighs. Between them, they managed to take off her panties. Her thighs opened as his fingers slid into the wet warmth surrounding her clit and he moved them rhythmically up and down as she writhed under his touch.

When his fingers entered her, she thought she would almost burst out of her skin with the sensation. She opened her eyes and found him smiling at her. As though he’d been waiting for a cue, he leaned down and took one of her nipples in his teeth, gently rolling it, while drawing his fingers up until he found the little nub of her clit.

She felt the tension building, the slow mount towards orgasm like roller coaster climbing that first, big hill. Her breath came in little, short gasps. She heard her small, wordless cries as her thighs tightened and her hands fisted the bedcovers. And then it escalated, the glorious pull from within, until her orgasm roared over her with a thundering rush. She shuddered and trembled as Lang gentled his touch but continued to stroke her, watching her with a satisfied smile on his face.

She pulled him down on top of her, moaning into his mouth as they kissed. His cock pressed against her thigh and she spread her legs in invitation. She watched avidly as he sat up and tore open a condom, deftly rolling it on. His cock bobbed, dark with arousal. Impatiently, she grabbed at his waist to tug him closer.

He grinned, raising an eyebrow as he shifted to cover her. At last, she felt his cock seeking her entrance. She let out a little ‘oh’ of pleasure as he filled her up, and tucked her hips so that he could sink into her fully.

Her hands damp from the thin film of sweat on his back, she tried to pull him in deeper. He braced himself on either side of her shoulders and began a slow rhythm: a long, excruciating pull back, an exquisite slide in. His thrusts became stronger, and with each movement, something deep inside her sang out until she was chanting, “Yes, yes, yes.”

Driven by her cries, he snapped his hips forward in earnest, his rhythm becoming erratic as he murmured a litany of his own under his breath.

Shuddering, he stilled, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open, the muscles of his neck and arms in taut relief. She could feel the pulsing jerk of his cock within her until he gradually sank down, his face next to her cheek, breathing hard, the weight of him anchoring her to this life.

She could stay that way forever.

Eventually, he began to shift. She could feel the drying sweat on his skin and the goosebumps on his arms. His exposed skin had to be freezing while she was deliciously warm.

He lifted his head to look at her, a lazy, sleepy expression in his eyes. “Sorry, I must be getting heavy.”

“No,” she said. “You’re fine.”

He made a small snort of disbelief and carefully withdrew. She felt the loss of him immediately and she reminded herself sharply that she was damned lucky to have had this one shot.

He rolled over on his back, one arm flung over his head, a relaxed smile on his face, legs spread. His still-erect cock looked satiated, though starting to flag a little. She rolled up on one elbow to face him.

“So,” he said. “Was that, um, okay?”

“Was that okay?” Peyton repeated, poking him in the arm. “Did you have any doubts? I wasn’t exactly shy about how I felt.”

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