“Hold on!” Darcy Malone clenched the steering wheel and slammed on the brake, but nothing stopped her skid into the four-foot snowbank.
The right bumper of her Volkswagen thudded against the frosty mound. A jolt rippled through her. She sat frozen. The rustle of falling flakes grew in her ears. Slowly, the fear cleared from her brain.
She released a breath of relief, and the cramp in her neck eased. Darcy glanced at her daughter in her rear child seat. “Eve. Are you okay?”
“That was fun,” Eve exclaimed in her squeaky voice. Her pink jacket was halfway off her shoulders, and cracker crumbs spotted her purple shirt.
Only a five-year-old would declare an auto accident fun, Darcy thought. “Luckily, I was driving slower than a turtle.” They were safe. That was what counted.
And if Darcy’s GPS was correct, they’d landed in Tuckaway Valley in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The town where her mother grew up. Soon, she’d meet her mom’s side of the family. Someday, this might be her home for the holidays.
She’d spent nearly three decades wishing she had a house full of relatives for those big and little celebrations. Her dream was about to come true. She had ten days to impress them.
Despite her doubts and the likely fender bender, a small thrill rose in Darcy’s chest. She already imagined upcoming gatherings. Eve running around, giggling by the fireside. Everybody asking Darcy for her eggnog recipe. The one drink she vowed she would someday attempt to make from scratch.
“Can I get out?” Eve asked.
“Let me look.” Darcy shifted into park and cut the engine. She unbuckled her seatbelt and stretched over to the passenger-side window. At least, they were parked under a streetlight. With her bare hand, she wiped the condensation off the cool, damp glass. She squinted and tried to make out the details of a building in between the falling flakes. About six feet away, the red letters of a neon sign shone through the sheet of white. DINER.
The pitter-patter of wet flakes smacked against the windshield. In the overheated car, the odor of Cheerios permeated the interior. Darcy’s stomach growled. Besides snacks and potty breaks, they’d done little other than travel. “I spy food ahead. Supper is calling us.”
“Yay.” Eve clapped her hands. Her mittens, snapped to her jacket cuffs, flapped in the air.
Darcy rolled her shoulders, stiff from today’s ten-plus-hour drive and the stress of playing “guess if we’re on the road or not.” Not the best start to her two-week vacation. The Nor’easter had surprised meteorologists and Darcy by arriving a day earlier than predicted. It was a relief to be safe. She couldn’t wait to stand on the ground where her parents had met.
She wished she had more memories of them. She was five when her mother and father passed away in a car accident. Her dad’s distant Uncle Frank had taken her to live with him. A confirmed bachelor, he was the last member of the Malone line. He had raised her with the help of nannies and a series of girlfriends. Most of them had drifted out of Darcy’s life.
Uncle Frank had told her little about her parents except that they had run off to marry when Darcy’s grandmother disapproved of her daughter’s future spouse. Mother and daughter never reconciled. Darcy often wondered why.
“Mommy, I want a grilled cheese.”
At the sound of Eve’s clear, steady voice, Darcy swallowed and the tension flowed out of her. She shifted around to face her. “The snow gods are watching over us. We can walk over to that restaurant.”
“Eat!” Eve’s hand flew up in her eagerness.
Before Darcy uttered that magic word “wait,” her daughter was out of her seat. The kid was too expert at escaping those child restraints.
“I like snow.” Eve’s wide blue eyes glimmered with happiness. She pressed her forehead to the window to stare outside.
“I’m glad you approve of the frosty stuff cause there’s lots of it. Those boots will get a workout today.”
“C’mon. Let’s go.” Eve scooped up her well-worn toy, Bunny, from her booster chair.
Darcy climbed out. Luckily a plow must have passed not too long ago. The cold flakes chilled her feet in her knee high black boots. The wind whipped her skirt around her legs. Tingles of excitement raced through her until she stepped away and glanced at the spot on her car that had landed in the bank. She couldn’t be certain of the damage until she pulled out and got a good look.
Darcy flipped the back of the seat down and leaned in to help her daughter, who held her green stuffed animal. Giggling, Eve pushed off and leapt into her mother’s arms.
Together, they rounded the front of the classic red VW. Darcy couldn’t complain about the auto. She’d bought it off Craigslist the day before they left New York. The small engine had chugged through the blizzard like a bulldozer.
“Are we there?” Eve tilted her head back for a glimpse, causing her hood to slip off and the icy sleet to hit her cheeks. She squinted and turned her cheek into her mom’s jacket.
“We’ve only gone six feet. Besides, nothing stops the Malone girls. Does it?”
Eve recited the last line of their motto. “You and me.”
At the entrance, Darcy placed Eve down. A lit sign in the window grabbed her attention. “We’re at the Easy Breezy Diner.” She pointed. “Nice wreath on the door.”
A poster advertising Midnight Merriment was taped underneath the decoration. She read the flyer out loud.
“Come to a Family-Friendly Celebration on December 23, Downtown Main Street, 5pm to Midnight. Enjoy Sleigh Rides, Music, and Food. New Discounts on Store Items Every Hour.”
“Do they have toys?” Eve asked.
“I don’t know. Sounds like a mini fair. That’s ten days from now. We might be gone by then, but we’ll find out about this Merriment.”
A bell jingled as they entered. She and Eve stopped on the large welcome mat. Darcy scanned the dining room and assessed the business as her Uncle Frank had taught her.
Yes, thanks to Uncle Frank, she had money to pay her bills. Two months ago, he’d surprised Darcy by marrying and becoming the devoted stepfather and grandfather to his wife’s children and their offspring. Now he spent all his free time with his new family or studying his stock profits and bank accounts. That’s when Darcy became certain she’d go after her dream and find her mother’s family. Who would have thought that a week after she started her online search cousin Eddie would pop up on her screen?
Eve moved restlessly next to her. Darcy pushed away the thoughts of her uncle to examine the diner. Quaint and charming were her first thoughts. It was just like the restaurant she imagined eating at with her mom’s relatives. No customers, but there was a blizzard of course. The eatery contained a long counter with six wooden stools and enough red and white Formica tables to serve thirty to forty people an hour. At least ten to fifteen dollars a plate––
“Hello. You out walking in the snow?”
At the end of the counter, stood a rangy man wiping his hands on a beige hand towel. He greeted them in a welcoming voice that made her want to kick off her boots and settle in one of those red-cushioned metal chairs with him next to her. His straight dark hair tumbled over his forehead—a little overgrown by Manhattan standards. But she wasn’t in the city. If she needed another reminder, she had only to consider his clothes. He was dressed in jeans and a denim shirt. Was he a waiter or the cook who had stepped out from the behind the stove for a break? Whoever he was, his friendly manner drew her into the room.
“Are you?” His coffee-brown eyes filled with curiosity as he focused on her.
“Out for a stroll?”
He was good-looking, no denying it. All right, clear your mind. You’d think you never saw a man before. “If you call wading knee-deep through snow a walk, yes, we are. I caught your glowing sign through the storm.” She whirled to the window and back, suddenly feeling foolish for pointing out the obvious. She ran her fingers through her hair while she sought a topic that would show she possessed a brain.
“Yeah, we’re a breakfast and lunch place, really. Last meal served by two in the afternoon. During the storms, I keep the coffee on for the plow guys. Figured if any brave souls were out, they could stop in, too. And here you are. Sit down. I’ll bring the menus.” He grabbed a couple off the countertop.
“One is fine.” She stomped her feet on the welcome mat to shake off the clinging snow and to give herself a second to gather her composure.
Eve copied her. They crossed the black and white patterned floor to the nearest table and took off their coats. Darcy hung them on the back of the chairs and drew out a seat for Eve. Her daughter climbed up, pulled off her boots, and sat with her legs tucked underneath her.
Their greeter returned and handed the printed list of offerings to Darcy. Over his casual clothes, he wore an apron. “I’m Leo, and I’ll take your order on this wintry December day.” He fished out a folded navy baseball cap from his overall pocket and plunked it on his head. Next, he dug out a pad of paper and removed a short pencil from behind his ear.
“Hi. I’m Darcy Malone.” She gestured to the love of her life. “This is Eve.”
“I’d like a grilled cheese sandwich,” Eve told him. “Please. With white cheese.”
“Sorry, she’s got a thing about color.” Darcy cruised the food offerings and tried to define the scent of the man hovering by her shoulder. What was it? A cooking spice? The fragrance was so heavenly it made her want to bake, or at least turn on the rarely used oven.
“Not a problem. Would you care for something to drink with your meal?”
“Chocolate?” He raised a brow.
“I guess I should have called that one.” He turned to Darcy.
“I’ll have the same as she ordered except add a few fries to my plate.” She made a sweeping wave with her hand in the air. She inhaled a deep breath and caught the aroma of her favorite beverage. “Is the coffee ready?”
“The beans arrived at the grocery store this morning. Risked my life to beat off the crowds panicking in the aisles before the blizzard hit. Ground them minutes ago.”
“People act the same way in New York when that five-letter word is spoken.
“Storm?” he guessed.
She leaned forward and whispered, “Fresh.” When he wrinkled his forehead, she added, “The beans were fresh.”
He didn’t seem a fan of her humor.
“So you’re from the city?” He stuck his pencil behind his ear.
“Apartment in Brooklyn, but I spend most of my time at work in the Big Apple.”
He took her menu. “Let me guess. This young lady loves to play in the snow, and you didn’t catch the alert that the snowstorm would move in early.”
“You about nailed it.” True, she’d expected a few flakes at the most today.
“I’m five,” Eve declared, picking out the pink and blue sugar packets from a wire holder.
“Well…congratulations. I’ll get your order started in the kitchen. Don’t worry,” he tossed over his shoulder. “I make a mean grilled cheese sandwich.”
“Not too nasty,” Darcy joked.
But he’d disappeared behind a door near the counter.
“Mommy, how many?” Eve pointed to the small sweetener packages she’d arranged.
“Yes.” She shot her fist upward, copying her mother’s exaggerated gesture when Eve got an answer correct. She began rearranging the paper packets into piles.
A series of white tiles above the wainscoting on the far rear wall snagged Darcy’s attention. They were about six inches square with various scenes drawn in black. Some featured a building: town hall, corner store, or a church. One showed children holding hands in front of a school. Another depicted a row of houses with smoke spiraling up from chimneys into the sky.
She’d never seen that kind of decoration before. Different. A sign hanging over them read, “Winter in Tuckaway Valley drawn by the elementary students.” She’d remember that idea for her next restaurant renovation.
Darcy dug her phone out of her purse and scrolled through, looking for a text from cousin Eddie. She found nothing from him. Maybe the service in this mountainous area was poor. Unfortunately, she found one from her ex-husband, Josh. Most likely, he wanted to remind her for the hundredth time that Eve was spending Christmas afternoon and night with him and his new wife, Zareena. She shut off her cell. She prayed the pain leftover from the divorce would disappear someday soon.
The roar of an engine interrupted her musings. In the window, an unusual plow appeared on the street. Yellow lights lit the cab section. A boulder sat on the cargo rear-end as though weighing the vehicle to the ground.
“I see a truck.” Eve stared out the pane.
Darcy waited for the operator to swerve away from her Volkswagen or to lift its blade. It continued on a straight path, pushing the growing accumulation toward her car. She leaped from her seat. They’d never get out until spring. “Oh, no. No!”
Darcy yanked the door open and ran outside to the corner snowbank. “Stop.” She flapped her hands in the air.
A blast of the horn came from the truck. The driver waved as he pushed an enormous mound against her small vehicle and continued onward.
Stunned, she stood staring at her walled-in car. The drifts had risen faster than a New York cabbie’s taximeter.
“You’re not wearing your coat.”
She turned to her stern-faced daughter in the open doorway. Her voice mimicked Darcy’s. She even pointed her finger.
Suddenly Darcy felt the frigid air penetrating her black sweater. “Yeah, I should have put on my jacket.” Rubbing her sleeves, she tramped over to her daughter. “Come on, sunshine. Let’s go wait for our food.”
Goosebumps rose on her skin. She hugged her arms over her chest and walked inside with Eve. Stomping her boots again, she was thankful for the indoor warmth.
“Everything okay?” Their server-chef, Leo, stood a few feet from her.
“Nothing that a sturdy shovel can’t cure. Do you have one I can borrow? My car was plowed in a few seconds ago.”
“Oh, sorry. I thought you were on foot from the hotel or I would have warned you.” He narrowed his eyes as though she’d shaped-shifted into a strange creature. “You drove in this blizzard? Through Hairpin Turn, up on the ridge?”
“I…guess.” Was that unusual? They were in the North Country. “The roads weren’t bad if you went about two miles per hour. There was only us and the town crews, which reminded me how everyone else was staying home. Yeah, easy.” She rolled her eyes. “But we made it. From your expression, I’m glad I couldn’t see how high up we’d climbed. I’m not great with heights. I force myself to drive over bridges.”
“Then, you should be ecstatic you missed Hairpin’s view. The elevation and the sharp curve are tough on the best of days.”
“Ew.” Going back could be rough. She’d worry about it later.
He was studying Darcy from her knee-highs to the top of her hair. Was something wrong? No, her shoes weren’t practical like his work boots, but she didn’t live in New Hampshire. If he worked in Manhattan, his type of footgear meant he was a construction worker, a drug dealer, or a cool rock star.
He was still taking her in. Her cheeks heated. Were they turning red? “You mentioned you should have told me something,” she reminded him to divert his attention.
He met her gaze. “No parking on the streets during a snow emergency. Though we haven’t had a December Nor’easter like this in ten years.”
“I’m so happy I’m here for this one.” Just her luck. “How far is the Grand Mountain Hotel?”
“About a mile. You easily can walk it except in this weather. On foot, it might feel twice that distance. You can leave your car here. Nobody will bother to dig it out to tow.”
She frowned. “Thanks for the words of reassurance. I’m meeting relatives, and they recommended I stay in town.” She allowed the fear she’d pushed to the back of her mind to surface. Had her cousin worried she’d overstay her welcome if she checked into the hotel he ran? Okay, she was overthinking things.
“Any other good news?” she asked.
“I can get you a ride.”
A loud beeping blasted their ears.
“Uh-oh.” Eve said from her chair, re-piling her sugars. “Mommy, are you trying to cook? I smell something burning.”
Darcy turned toward the kitchen where smoke seeped through the crack underneath the door.
“Your meals!” Leo whirled around and ran.