She was in Hell—and it had well and truly frozen over. Already exhausted from her cross-country flight, Wynter slumped from the weight of her misery as she stared at the two-story farmhouse. White clapboard and white wraparound front porch with tall white columns acted as sentries guarding the gates of Hell. And all of it blending in quite hideously with the snow that blanketed every blessed surface of the postage-stamp sized dot on the map that was Braeden, VT.
The only color breaking up the monotonous white was the bright stain of red that served as the front door. Under other circumstances, it might have been considered cheerful, bright even. But Wynter was tired and more than a little nervous. In her current state, all she could think of was blood. She shivered, thinking to herself that she should not have come.
A cough alerted her to the cab driver, waiting to be paid. Wynter closed her eyes, her trembling fingers reaching for the small fold of bills in her coat pocket—the last of her money. By stiffing the man his tip, she could keep the last precious twenty-dollar bill. Quickly, she handed the entire amount across the front seat to the driver, unable to meet his eyes for that uncharitable thought.
Cold air sucked away what little warmth the old car’s heater had generated when the driver opened his door. He whistled an off-key tune, pulling her meager possessions from the trunk before he came back into view, setting her bags beside the neatly plowed walkway. He disappeared again, slammed the trunk closed and came around to help her exit the vehicle.
“Careful, it’s slipperier than it looks.” The older man gripped her gloved hands, steadying her when her travel weary knees and top-heavy frame made her pinwheel first toward the snowbank on her left and then toward the one on her right.
“You sure you ought to be travelin’ by yourself at this point?” He looked down at her very round belly.
“Got the all-clear from the doctor just yesterday.” Wynter smiled brightly through the bald-faced lie.
The airline had tried to give her a hard time. However, they didn’t have an actual rule that she couldn’t fly at 36 weeks. When Wynter had pointed out that it was a one-way flight and she promised to check in with her OB (another lie, as she didn’t have a doctor lined up in Vermont), they let her on her flight.
“Well, good luck then. You go on in and sit down. Tell them to fix you up something warm to drink.” He tipped his hat, sparing a final glance at her protruding middle and got back into the cab.
He’d driven away before Wynter could remember to ask if he’d carry her bags up to the front door. Gritting her teeth and cursing her own brash decision-making, she slung her duffle bag over her shoulder and picked the other two up by their handles. The driveway wasn’t long, but in her current condition, she was panting by the time she reached the covered porch.
Now came the hard part. Sam wasn’t expecting her. More to the point, he’d been avoiding her for the last twelve years. She knew the reception she’d get wouldn’t be a welcome one. But that was okay. She had her trump card—a promise Sam had made years ago. Her baby’s future depended on him honoring that promise. Her means of escape having driven away, Wynter took a deep breath and knocked at the big red door.
She shuffled her feet, wishing she’d had enough money to purchase a thick pair of winter boots for her impromptu cross-country adventure. Okay, to be fair, there really hadn’t been much time. One minute she held a one-way ticket to Florida, purchased by her parents, the next she had changed her destination, and hopefully, the overall direction of her life.
At one time, too long ago for her taste, Sam had been her rock, one of her closest friends and someone she could go to in a moment of crisis. Now Wynter was newly widowed, about to raise a baby on her own. She could no longer afford the apartment she had shared with her husband in California. And, at thirty years old, she was forced to consider moving back in with her parents—an option she’d desperately like to avoid. If ever there was a moment of crisis, this was it.
Why wasn’t Sam answering the door? Wynter’s eyes flew to the curtain-covered window beside the door, looking for movement. Did he know who was out there? Had he seen the ugly green and orange cab pull up and dump out the last person on Earth that he expected to see? Was he hiding on the other side of the door, willing her to turn around and walk the five miles or so to town? Well, it wasn’t going to happen. Wynter swallowed hard, past the lump forming in her throat. Her Sam wouldn’t leave her out on his doorstep to freeze. His mom had raised him right. Even if he didn’t want her there, he’d invite her in to warm up and rest. She rubbed her arms and stamped her sneakered feet. He wasn’t here. She hadn’t even considered that option.
A little bit wildly now, she paid closer attention to her surroundings. The next house over was barely visible through the spindly winter-bare trees on the other side of the road. Sam’s covered porch offered little in the way of protection from the wind. Fear clawing at her throat, Wynter eyed the glass windows and pondered how she might break in. But any rocks were buried beneath at least a foot of snow, and the only furniture on the porch was a swing, attached to the shingled roof with thick chains.
She crumpled onto the swing, defeat sapping the rest of her strength. Making herself as small as possible, she huddled against the cold wood, tears stinging the backs of her eyelids. Her idea had been to ask Sam for a place to stay, temporarily. She knew, through his sister, that he lived alone. She’d intended to look for a job, something she could walk to until she saved up enough for a beater car. Choking on a sob, Wynter realized the futility of her hastily made plans.
She hadn’t counted on Sam living in the boonies. She wasn’t sure where the actual town was, or if there was even the possibility of a job. Wynter was so desperate to stay independent, to keep her domineering parents from taking over her life and the raising of her child that she’d run to the one person she could think of.
“Where are you, Sam? I need you.” And the tears that had threatened from the moment the cab started to creep deeper and deeper into no-man’s land finally caught up with her.
Hunching into her thick parka and pulling her knees up as best she could, Wynter tucked herself into the swing and gave in to the hopelessness that she could no longer hold at bay. Wrapping her arms protectively around the life that grew inside her, she started to cry.