“You don’t have an electric razor, do you?” I ask thoughtfully.
“No. I also don’t have electricity, remember?”
Oh right. I run my hand over his uneven strands of hair in the back. His hair is thick and dark brown in color, although there are a few strands of gray interspersed. I couldn’t have guessed his age for a million dollars when I first saw him in that blizzard, but now I’d estimate mid-thirties.
My fingers hit the elastic strap from his eyepatch, which cuts a line through his hair. “Can I take the eyepatch off?”
“No,” he says.
“It’s going to make it harder to get it all even…”
He shakes his head, turning to look at me with his good eye. “It’s not… pretty under there. Okay?”
“I don’t mind.”
“Well, maybe I do.”
I look at that thin white scar disappearing under the eyepatch, wondering what horror lies underneath that he feels compelled to spare me from. He thinks he’s going to freak me out, but I doubt it. Eyepatch or not, Jake is… well, he’s sexy. Really sexy. Chase is model handsome, but in all the time we’ve known each other, he’s never made my heart do flip-flops like it’s suddenly doing right now. When he looks at me, I don’t tingle all over my body like Jake is making me do with the gaze of his one good eye.
I hate the idea of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with no electricity or hot water, but suddenly, the idea of being stuck here with Jake doesn’t seem half bad. It sounds… actually, really nice. Really, really nice.
My eyes meet his and my knees turn to Jell-O. Does he know what I’m thinking? He’s got to know. A guy that sexy has to know he’s sexy. Maybe he’s lived here for several years, but he hasn’t lived here forever. He must have some idea of the impact he has on women.
Chase and I are broken up. Nobody would fault me a little rebound fun… would they?
No, what am I saying? That would be a terrible idea.
“So can you fix it?” Jake asks me. “Or am I going to be ugly for life?”
I manage a smile. “I’ll do my best. No promises.”
I don’t fix it entirely, but I definitely even it out considerably. He doesn’t look like he came out of Rolando’s, but at least he doesn’t look like he got a haircut when the power went out at the barber shop anymore. I brush the hairs off his neck and step back, appraising my work.
Jake shifts on the toilet seat. “Well?”
“Thank God. I got a hot date coming in tonight by bobsled.”
I snort. “Do you want me to fix your beard too?”
He rubs his hand over it. “You said I did okay with that.”
I squint at his face. “It’s got a couple of uneven areas. It wouldn’t hurt to have a touch up.”
He shrugs. “Sure, go for it.”
I realize the second we’ve agreed to do this that it’s a mistake. I get down on my knees to get the right angle, and I’m all up in Jake’s face. I am, like, way too close to him. He smells like pine needles and fresh air and that stubble on his face I’m supposed to be trimming is just so freaking sexy. I can’t be this close to him.
“Everything okay down there?” he asks me.
“Don’t move,” I croak.
Except I’m the one whose hands are shaking. It’s really hard to be this close to a guy who’s this hot and at the same time focus on making tiny little clips to his beard hairs. I’m probably going to cut off a chunk of skin if I do this. His skin or mine. But I’m not sure what to tell him…
“Natalie? You okay?”
“Uh huh,” I manage.
He lowers his good eye to look at my face. And now, for the first time, he gets it. He inhales a sharp breath and leans toward me, almost imperceptibly. Six more inches and he’ll be kissing me. That’s all it would take. And this is a guy who hasn’t been with a woman in God knows how long. It’s hard to believe he’ll pass this up, especially when it’s got to be obvious to him I want this too.
But then he pulls away.
“I think my beard is probably fine,” he says. “Good enough, anyway. It’s not like I’m posing for the cover of any magazines.”
“Right.” I scramble back to my feet. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed. “It’s fine.”
He smiles crookedly. “Thanks for your help.”
“Anytime,” I say.
I nearly let Jake kiss me.
And the only thing that stopped it from happening was he apparently didn’t want to.
Yes, Chase and I ended our relationship right before he left the car. But it still doesn’t feel right to be with another guy only two days later, while he’s seriously ill in the next room. Chase wasn’t a terrible boyfriend. I owe him better than that.
I need to steer clear of Jake. He’s hot, but he’s not that hot. I’m perfectly capable of resisting him.
In order to make it up to Chase, even though he has no clue what I almost did, I heat up some more soup for him. Half of the soup from this morning is still sitting in the fridge, so I put it on the stove, regretting that Jake doesn’t have a microwave. Drew teases me that I’m the only culinary-school-trained professional who uses the microwave daily, but what can I say—I love my microwave. It heats things so quickly! If it were a choice between my pressure cooker and my microwave, I might pick the microwave.
I bring the soup over to the sofa, where Chase is still dozing. He might be recovering from hypothermia, but he looks almost like his usual self again—absolutely gorgeous. Handcredible. He blows air softly from his lips with each breath, his long eyelashes fluttering. Yes, Chase has longer eyelashes than I do.
I don’t understand why I wasn’t more infatuated with him. It would have made my life so much easier. But I wasn’t. I was never in love with him. If not for my family, I would have ended it with him months ago. And now that it’s over, all I feel is relief to be free of him. Even when our relationship was at its peak, I never felt as helplessly drawn to him as I do to…
Well, I’m not going to think about that right now. It’s pointless and frustrating.
“Hey.” I nudge Chase’s shoulder. “Wake up.”
His eyelashes flutter. “Nat?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
He struggles into a sitting position. He’s still very out of it. He rubs his eyes, then looks around the cabin. “Is this… where are we?”
“We’re just staying here a couple of days,” I tell him. “Until the storm blows over.”
He doesn’t ask any other questions, which means he really must still be pretty sick, because the usual Chase would have about a million questions about where we are and how we got here and where’s room service. I’m relieved he doesn’t seem to be his usual self, because I just can’t deal with a barrage of questions right now.
“Have some soup,” I tell him. “You’ve hardly eaten anything today.”
“I feel nauseated,” he says. But he takes the spoon from me and scoops some of the broth into his mouth. He makes a face. “Where did this soup come from?”
It’s Campbell’s chicken noodle soup from a can. But he won’t like that. So instead, I say, “It’s from Tavern.”
Tavern is one of Chase’s favorite restaurants in his neighborhood. I’m counting on the fact that he has no clue what’s going on.
“Oh,” he mumbles. “I guess… I don’t know. It’s fine, I suppose.” He groans and clutches his temples. “My head hurts.”
I wonder if Jake has any Tylenol in the house. “Do you want to take something for it?”
“Maybe.” He rubs his eyes again. “I’m so tired. Why am I so tired?”
“You almost froze to death.” I wince at the truth in those words. If Jake had come along an hour later, it might have been too late. “That was only last night.”
“Yeah…” He lies down again, pulls a blanket around his body, and shuts his eyes. “I’m going to go to sleep again. Okay?”
I lace my fingers into his, which are now very warm compared with last night. I hold his hand until his breathing evens out. He’s asleep.
Jake comes out into the living room. I’ve noticed he’s always wearing his boots in here and that he limps slightly when he walks. When we were outside, I thought he was just struggling to walk in the snow, but now it’s obvious he has the same problem on even ground.
“He won’t stop sleeping,” I tell Jake.
He shrugs. “What do you expect? He almost died last night. Give him a day to recover.”
Jake’s right, of course. But I’m still worried.
He sees the look on my face and his shoulders sag. “Okay, look, if he’s still so out of it by tomorrow, I’ll check the roads. Maybe we can make it to the hospital.”
“Thank you,” I say, although when I looked outside, there was so much snow, it seems impossible we could go anywhere. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here. We’ll almost certainly have to wait until Monday, when people realize we’re not back when we’re supposed to be. Fortunately, Drew knows where we were going, so at the very least, he’ll make sure someone is out there looking in the right place.
Snow never looks like this in Boston.
In the city, snow falls on the ground, then immediately either gets scooped away or turns brown. I’m reading Drew’s serial killer thriller, but it isn’t holding my attention. My eyes keep getting drawn to the window, at all that fresh white powder. Finally, I put down my book completely.
I pace the room for a couple of minutes, finally ending up at the closed door to Jake’s bedroom. After a hesitation, I knock.
“Come in!” he calls out.
This is the first time I’ve been inside his bedroom since we arrived. It’s very small—even smaller than the living room, which is tiny. His bed is simply a mattress on the floor, and I can see the lumps in it from the doorway. Other than the mattress, he’s got a dresser constructed from unfinished dark brown wood that looks like he might have built it himself, and there’s also a rusty file cabinet pushed into the corner.
I notice that on top of the file cabinet, he’s got a pair of binoculars.
Jake himself is lying on his mattress, still wearing his boots—I’ve never seen him without those boots. He’s reading a book, but I can’t make out the title. He shoves it to the side of the mattress when I come in and sits up straighter. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering,” I say. “Could I borrow a pair of gloves?”
He eyes my hands. “I think mine will be big on you.”
“I’ll make do.”
He raises his eyebrows. “What do you want them for?”
“Well…” I wring my hands together. This is so embarrassing—I don’t know what I was thinking. “Never mind.”
Jake struggles to his feet from his mattress on the floor. “What is it? Tell me.”
I’m not sure why I should tell him something embarrassing when he won’t tell me a damn thing about himself. “Nothing. Forget it.”
He arches an eyebrow. “What’s wrong? You need them to protect your nails, Princess?”
“No.” I glare at him. “I… I was just thinking I might go out in the snow and… and build a snowman.”
He stares at me for a moment, his mouth hanging open. After a few seconds, he bursts out laughing.
My face burns. “I’m glad you think that’s funny.”
“No, it’s just…” He gets control of his laughter, but he’s still smiling. “It’s not what I expected you to say. It’s the last thing I expected you to say.”
“My brother Drew and I used to build them when we were little kids.” I smile to myself at the memory of that happy, simple time in my life. Not that my life is bad—I’ve got a job I love, which is more than most people can say. But running my own business is stressful, and my love life was a string of disasters until Chase came along, so it’s hard not to long for a time when all I had to worry about was catching the school bus in the morning. “Drew and I would go out to the park by our house every time it snowed. He did most of the work, actually. But… it was really fun. I never do anything like that anymore.”
“Yeah.” He cocks his head at me. “Me either.”
He ambles over to his dresser, digs around for a moment, then comes up with a pair of black waterproof gloves. I take them from him, his thumb just barely brushing against my hand during the exchange.
“Have fun,” he says. “Remember, if you put the old silk hat on his head, he might come to life. So be careful.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”
I have to admit, there was a tiny part of me that was hoping Jake might offer to come outside to help me build the snowman. It’s always more fun with another person—as a kid, I never would have considered it without Drew. He was determined to build a bigger snowman than any other kid in the park, and if he saw one rivaling ours, he’d challenge the other kids to a snowball fight. And that’s when the real fun started.
Drew. God, I hope he’s able to lead a search team out to find us.
When I get outside, all bundled in my Thinsulate coat, my hat, my red scarf, and Jake’s gloves, I’m not entirely sure where to begin. Truth be told, Drew always did most of the work. But the basic idea is you have to make a base of a large ball, followed by a medium-sized ball, then a small ball for the head. Easy peasy.
I start scraping together some fresh powder with my gloves. It seems to pack well, but it’s hard to form it into a ball. Maybe I should have a shovel. Then again, Drew never used a shovel.
“Christ, do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
I straighten up. Jake is standing behind me, just as bundled up as I am. He’s squinting into the glaring white snow with his good eye and shaking his head.
“I thought you said you built snowmen all the time,” he says accusingly.
“It was a long time ago,” I say defensively. “And my brother used to help me.”
Jake looks down at the pathetic little pile I made on the ground. “I’ll say.”
I huff. “Are you just going to stand here being a jerk or are you going to help?”
“Standing here is much more fun.”
I give him a look.
He sighs and trudges through the snow until he’s right next to me. “All right, you’re obviously not going to be able to do this without my help.”
“But I expect you to do your share of the work, Princess. No slacking just because I’m here.”
“Of course not.”
He nods, his brow furrowed. “All right, the first thing you have to do is make a snowball.”
We each pick up a handful of snow and form it into a spherical shape. He checks out my snowball to make sure it’s all right, which I find mildly insulting. I know how to make a snowball, for God’s sake.
“Good,” he says. “Now you want to add snow to your snowball until it’s too big to hold. That should happen pretty quickly for you.”
I roll my eyes, but do as he says. He does the same, although his gets much larger than mine.
“Great job,” he says. “Now what you want to do is put your big snowball on the ground and roll it so that it picks up more snow.”
I remember this now. I remember Drew rolling a ball in the snow until it got really giant, then he’d look back at me with a toothy grin.
This snow rolls very easily. I’m not quite as quick at it as Jake, but I manage to roll a pretty decent-sized ball. Mine could easily be the torso with Jake’s as the base.
“Nice.” He nods in approval at the size of my ball. “You’re a natural at this. If the catering business doesn’t work out, you’ve got a fallback career.”
“You’re not so bad yourself,” I say. “In case the living out in the woods and never interacting with other human beings thing doesn’t work out.”
For a split second, a sad look comes over Jake’s features. I’m not sure what that’s about, because the last time it came up, he seemed perfectly content to have no contact with the outside world. But before I can say anything, the look quickly passes.
“Okay,” Jake says. “Now you’ve got to put your ball on top of mine. Remember: lift with your legs, not your back.”
Damn, I’d been hoping he’d lift the smaller ball on top of the larger for me. Oh well.
I bend down, trying to get a grasp of the ball of snow. Even though it’s smaller than his, it’s still pretty damn big. And heavy. But if I could just get a good grip on the bottom of it, I could probably… maybe I could…
“Do you need help?” he asks me.
I don’t want him to have yet another excuse to call me “Princess.” I’m lifting this snow torso if it’s the last thing I do. “No, I’m good.”
“Okay, this is painful to watch.” Jake gently pushes me aside. “Let me do it.”
And then he lifts the damn thing up like it weighs nothing.
I roll out the snowman’s head, while Jake goes back inside to find stuff to make up the face. I do manage to lift the head all by myself and get it on top of the body, just as he emerges from the house.
“Oh, hey,” he says. “You lifted that all by yourself! Good for you!”
I glare at him. “Did you find our snowman a face or what?”
He holds up a really old, dried out carrot and two small pieces of charcoal. “Eyes and nose.”
“What about a mouth?” I ask as he adjusts the charcoal pieces on the face.
“I guess our snowman is the silent type.”
I draw a happy face with my gloved finger, although it’s crooked because the gloves are so big on me. Then I step back to admire our handiwork.
“This is pretty good,” I say. “I feel like I should have taken notes. In case I want to teach my children how to build a snowman someday. You know?”
He snorts. “I don’t think I need to worry about that one.”
I dust a little snow off my pants leg. “Why not? You don’t want to have kids?”
He rolls his good eye. “This lifestyle isn’t exactly amenable to children.”
“Well, you could move slightly closer to civilization in the future. I mean, if you wanted.”
His lips form a straight line. “No.”
“So there’s no way you’d ever—”
“No.” He cuts me off before I can even get out the sentence. “No chance.”
“Anyway.” Jake circles the snowman, avoiding looking at me directly. I can tell he’s desperate to change the subject to anything besides the reason he’s chosen to live in the middle of nowhere. “We should probably name him.”
“A snowman isn’t a snowman until you give him a name.”
He sure has a lot of opinions about snowmen. “I don’t know,” I say thoughtfully. “I need to think about it.”
“This isn’t like naming your child,” he says impatiently. “It’ll probably be melted or smooshed in a few days. There’s no wrong name.”
“All right, all right.” I start to chew on one of the fingers of the glove before realizing they’re not my gloves and I shouldn’t be chewing on them either way. This is how my fingernails get shredded. “How about… Porky?”
“Porky?” He frowns at me. “I know I said there was no wrong name for a snowman, but I think you’ve found it.”
I glare at him. “Porky Pig was always my favorite cartoon character, and you said I could name him. So that’s his name.”
“It’s a ‘he’?” He points to two bumps on the circular torso. “I was sure this was a girl snowman.”
He grins at me. “Snowwoman.”
I scrape off a chunk of the protruding snow. “You happy?”
He scrapes off the other “snow-boob” and forms it into a bulge on the lower third of the snowman. “That’s better.”
“Oh my God.” I take the snow-boob I’m holding and throw it at him. It hits him in the shoulder and he widens his left eye in surprise. “You deserved that.”
“Wow. You’re really going to regret that.” Jake bends down to scoop up some snow. “I may not have as many fingers as you do, but I’ve had a lot of time out here, practicing throwing snowballs. And now I’m going to put it to good use.”
I start to make a run for it, but his snowball hits me square in the shoulder. For a moment, I get this dizzying sense of déjà vu as I remember the snowball fights I got into with my brother when we were kids. I remember how happy I used to be back then. Life seemed so uncomplicated when I was a kid. I miss it. Maybe Jake has the right idea, living out here with no electricity or phone lines.
Jake ducks down to scoop up more snow and I do the same. This is so on.