SOMEWHERE WARM


SOMEWHERE WARM:
A NEW YEAR’S EVE SHORT ROMANCE

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What if you fell for your best friend’s ex—the one that had made her life a living hell?

All Zoe had to do was pick up a box of her best friend Haley’s things from her awful ex-husband, Evan.

She didn’t expect her car to get hit by a snowplow. She didn’t expect for the Maine snowstorm to start early. She didn’t expect to be stuck inside Evan’s cabin—alone with him—on New Year’s Eve.

And, most of all, she didn’t expect to come undone by the heat in Evan’s eyes.

~ ~ ~

EXCERPT:

Before I met Evan, I hated him. I even hated the mat on his doorstep. Hunters welcome, it said as I stood stomping and shivering at his front door. All others may be shot.

So he was just like my best friend Haley described him: stubborn, isolated. Hostile.

And taking his sweet time. It was a full minute between my knock and when he finally opened the door. A full minute to measure the extent of my loyalty to Haley against the growing numbness of my body as the last big snowstorm before the New Year started out here in the Maine wilderness.

A full minute to listen to the irritating sounds of the snowplow on this rural lane backing up and beeping, then roaring as it pushed old snow into a giant pile on the corner.

Beep beep beep. The snowplow paused. Then it rushed forward to shove the snow, the driver gunning the engine. Roar!

Why did the plow guy bother, anyway? There would be more snow coming, several feet of it later tonight if the forecast was correct, and nobody wanted to be out here when it hit. I know I didn’t.

Finally, the door opened into the dark interior of his cabin. The man I presumed to be Evan stood there dressed in a navy flannel shirt and wiping his hands on a rag.

“Can I help you?” he said in a gruff voice with a touch of Boston to it. There was a catch at the end.

Beep beep.

He knew who I was. I saw his forearms tighten below where he’d rolled up his shirtsleeves.

Roar!

“I’m Zoe. I’m here for Haley. To get her box of things.” I wasn’t going to offer any more words than necessary to this man with the tense jaw and unfriendly dark brown eyes. He’d given my best friend a miserable marriage and didn’t deserve any further explanation.

“Fine. Hold on.” He turned around and lumbered off, leaving the door ajar. I looked inside to see the dark shapes of furniture and hear the crackle of a roaring fire. Then I averted my eyes. I didn’t care to see how this asshole was going to spend his New Year’s Eve.

I stepped back from his house as I waited, admiring the pretty swirls of snowflakes in the white sky, the hush of the air between snowplow beeps, and the snow-dusted pine trees. This was my last errand before our New Year’s Eve party and I would be driving back soon to beat the storm. Destination: Haley’s cozy apartment, complete with plenty of cranberry and vodka, five kinds of gourmet cheese, and a dozen drunk friends.

But then it happened.

The snowplow driver was backing up near the end of the driveway—beep, beep, beeping to let everyone know he was there. But obviously not looking for anybody else, because suddenly he started moving close to my parked car—too close.

My mouth opened wide, but only a choking sound came out.

Beep! my brain was screaming. Beep beep beep!

Then came the awful sound: the crunch of metal against metal, echoing off the beautiful snowy vista and mountains beyond. The snowplow hitting and crashing into the entire back of my car.

Then silence.

“Shit!” I ran to my Prius. “Shit! Fuck! You…fuck!”

The snowplow driver jumped out of the truck yelling the same words and we met by the car—by my now ruined Prius. The entire back of the car was crunched, the fender touching the ground and some part I couldn’t identify hanging off. My car had been smashed and shoveled into a useless pile of metal.

“Sorry! I’m so sorry ma’am.”

“Sorry! Sorry?!” I gave a short laugh. “This is just…I can’t even…This is—”

“Hell.”

I turned around and Evan was there, breathing heavy and holding a cardboard box. He’d probably heard the noise. People in Arkansas had probably heard the noise.

I stopped for a second at the sight of Haley’s ex in the gray daylight. He was pale and squinting, looking like he hadn’t been outside in weeks. He wore boots but no coat over his navy flannel. His brown hair was messy and he clearly hadn’t shaved in a couple days.

I looked back at my mangled car. “I need to call the cops. A tow truck. Something.” I whipped my phone out of my pocket, took off a glove, and dialed with my freezing fingers as the driver continued to apologize.

The call didn’t go through.

“We don’t really get good reception out here,” Evan the Asshole said. “And it’s probably going to be a while before somebody can get out this way. The storm’s starting early.” He rubbed his free hand across the eight o’clock shadow dusting his pale face. “The weatherman was wrong again. Big surprise.”

My eyes shifted to Evan’s home, to his open front door and the way it revealed a golden glow of warmth coming from inside.

I looked at my car again. I probably couldn’t even back it up. And it was blocking Evan’s truck, so he couldn’t give me a ride. Which was fine, because I wouldn’t want to be enclosed in a vehicle with the bastard anyway.

“Can you give me a ride back to town?” I asked the snowplow driver quickly. “I’ll deal with this later.”

But he shook his head. “I got to do this next road over. Told my boss. I’m sorry. It’s starting to really come down. I can get you after I’m done maybe.”

I gritted my teeth but tried to remember that I was a teacher and this could be a dad of one of my kids—or, at the very least, someone who could give me a bad name in our rural community. I needed to be an adult here. “Fine. I’ll wait outside here. Please come right after you’re done with the next road.” I gave the driver my best school marm look.

“Yeah, I’ll come. Just, you know, after the next street and maybe one over.”

“Okay. Fine.”  I crossed my arms in my puffy jacket against the cold. “I’ll wait here. Just come back.”

The driver jumped into his snowplow, mumbling “Gonna fucking kill me,” under his breath. He started the noisy snowplow and drove off.

I didn’t look at Evan, but I could feel his eyes on me.

“Looks like I’m not going anywhere anytime soon,” he said. “Not that I was going to go anywhere anyway.” He cleared his throat. “You can come inside until somebody comes to pick you up.”

“No thanks.” No way would I wait in there. Not with him. Not after all I’d heard about him.

He gave a short laugh. “I’m guessing Haley told you all about me, right?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what I thought.” He walked back to the house, his boots crunching on the snow on his yard.

Then came a loud thump and I looked over. He’d dropped the box of Haley’s stuff outside on the step, right in the snow. He gave me a pointed look, a sort of I dare you to do something about this.

Damn. I’d forgotten to get the box from him.

“The door’s unlocked!” he called. “You know, in case you decide that being indoors with me beats freezing to death out here.” He walked inside the cabin and shut the door.

I uncrossed my arms and gave the cabin the middle finger. He probably couldn’t see it, but it made me feel better. Dickhead.

I muttered under my breath. “New Year’s resolution: don’t do errands on New Year’s Eve when a snowstorm is about to hit.”

I should have been halfway into the thirty-mile drive back home to Haley’s party by then, the box of her things safely in the backseat. I should have been about to put on a tight dress in her bedroom while I sipped wine and giggled with her before meeting her cousin Justin from out of town.

Justin was the carrot she’d dangled in front of me to run this little errand for her. Not that she needed one. This was my closest friend here, after all. And I’d been in my share of bad relationships, but nothing that compared to the misery Evan had inflicted on her, based on the tales she’d told.

“You’ve got to do this, Zoe,” she’d said to me last night. “I can’t face him again—he always tries to do his controlling thing with me. I can’t go back to that place I was again.” Tears pricked her green eyes. “But there are some really important things he still has of mine. Some of my jewelry, this antique cookie jar from my grandma…”

“Of course I’ll do it,” I’d said. “Justin just better be incredibly hot. And literate. That’s my New Year’s resolution, remember? Find a hot guy who reads.” I’d said the last part just to lighten the mood, just to make her feel better, like she was doing me a favor. With or without Justin, I was going to get her stuff back.

I had even known that there was a snowstorm coming later tonight, and that weathermen here could be wrong, and still I went. I’d left as early as I could after running some errands for the party, thinking I could beat the blizzard. I was wrong. A few more snowflakes had begun falling from the sky now, tiny and beautiful but carrying a hidden menace.

I stood by my mangled car, my lips pressed together, watching the street hawkishly. The roads were nearly deserted and ominously quiet, an echo chamber for my increasingly paranoid thoughts. How long would the driver be? I checked the time on my cell. I should’ve taken his number. Why hadn’t I exchanged contact information with him?

I knew better. It was that damn Evan who’d distracted me with his hermit complexion and inhospitable nature.

As if in cahoots with him, the snow turned thicker and started accumulating on my knit hat and boots as the minutes ticked by. I pulled my hat down over my dark blonde hair, which was freezing into stiff locks, but it only served to make me feel like I was wearing an ice cap. My legs were becoming a bit numb and I started pacing to shake the cold off.

But I wasn’t going to wait inside that cabin. I really wasn’t. The driver was going to be here soon and I’d grab the box and be on my way. I’d deal with all this car shit in the New Year. I brushed off some flakes that had started caking on my jeans and remembered why I was here, why this was so important.

Haley and I had only known each other for just shy of six months, but in some ways it felt like years. Maybe it was strange to call each other our best friend, but we’d grown so close during that time.

I’d first met her when I walked into the coffeeshop where she worked after summer school. I’d meant to grade papers, but she’d come around the counter and talked to me for almost two hours. She was new to town, and she loved romantic comedies and kayaking too. She had bright red curly hair and a blazing energy about her that couldn’t be extinguished, even when the man she loved had tried his best to do just that.

But I didn’t know at the time that she was at the tail end of a bad marriage. All that talk came later.

“It was good when I first met Evan, but things went downhill so quick,” Haley told me the third time we hung out, sitting on a park bench on a sweltering July day. “He was this nice, strong, quiet guy, and I thought he loved me. Now I’m not sure he ever did. But I loved him and so when he asked me to move out into the woods here with him a year ago, I did. And when he asked me to not go out with friends so much, I thought he was just lonely, and so I stayed home. And when he asked that I stopped singing in clubs, that he didn’t like all the attention I got from other men, well, I….” She pushed her unruly hair back and her eyes looked fierce. “I was so stupid. I see that now.”

She touched my shoulder—strange for someone I didn’t know well, but oddly welcome. I’d never connected to the other teachers at my school and hadn’t had a close female friend in a few years. Not since Megan at college.

“Never give up yourself for a man, Zoe,” Haley had said. “Never. Even if you love him.”

I sighed into this cold Maine New Year’s Eve and tried to remember how much Haley had gone through and how important it was to her that I do this small thing. One last thing before she could sever her tie with Evan completely and move on. She’d sent him a terse email this morning about my coming and soon it would all be over.

But the once picturesque and pretty snowflakes were becoming big and wet and mean, and, because it was Maine, the sun was already starting to set before four o’clock.

I looked back at Evan’s cabin. It was square and small, probably only a few rooms. There was a window in front, but the curtains were drawn so tight I couldn’t see him or whatever he happened to be doing in there. A light glowed around the thick curtains, a dancing light, and I guessed he had a roaring fire going in there that kept the cabin as toasty as an oven.

I sniffed and crossed my arms to ward off the freezing cold. I turned back around to watch the road. Nothing. Silence. I was such a fool. I exhaled and saw my breath came out thick as a cloud.

Almost fifteen minutes had passed. I tried to watch the snowflakes falling down and pretend I was standing in the world of my favorite children’s book, Circle of Elms, but then my face smarted where the snowflakes hit. I tried to rub my cheeks, but there was snow on my gloves and it just made the freezing sting worse.

I started pacing the yard quicker, desperate to keep warm, but my body was moving stiffly with the cold. If I saw that fucking driver around town after this, I was going to whack him in the head with a shovel.

I would be at the party now if this hadn’t happened. I would be sitting with Haley on her comfy couch, maybe warming up under an afghan. Maybe she’d fix me one of her delicious hot toddies while we listened to our friends’ stories of dealing with their families over the holidays. I’d probably have eaten at least three types of gourmet cheeses by now, smeared onto crackers or placed on crunchy pita chips. My stomach growled at the thought, feeling empty and raw and resentful at its owner. In my rush to get everything done today and then deal with this asshole, I hadn’t eaten lunch. I felt shaky from nerves and low blood sugar.

The wind suddenly blew a freezing gust of snow-tinged air into my face and eyes. The flakes felt like shards of glass against my cheeks and chin. I sputtered and my eyes filled with tears at the sensation.

I was going to freeze out here, in this bastard’s lawn in the middle of nowhere. On New Year’s Eve. When I should be drinking and eating and laughing, and then waking up tomorrow to nurse my hangover with a large coffee and a favorite book.

The wind started to pick up even more, the sound screeching through the trees. The storied blizzard, the one that wasn’t supposed to start until later tonight when I was behind a closed door and it didn’t matter. I kept pacing in the driveway, but I didn’t get warm; all I managed to do was get some snow in my boots.

The single streetlight on the nearby road popped on as the sky darkened.

“Shit.” I looked back at the house and sighed—then winced as the cold air climbed down my open mouth to claw at my throat.

I scanned the empty road one more time but I knew I had very little choice.

I walked up to the house and gave a loud knock with numb knuckles. Then I reached down and grabbed the box of Haley’s things. I couldn’t make up for what she had gone through with Evan, but at least I could keep her things warm and dry.

Evan opened the door and raised his eyebrows at me.

~ ~ ~

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