Twelve years earlier
Maggie Egan might only be eighteen, might not be the smartest person on earth, but she had a keen understanding of death. She'd learned it first hand, the hard way, three years ago, when a fatal car crash snuffed out the lives of both her parents and left her orphaned.
Now, it seemed, the cold, greedy hand of death planned to finish off what it had started. Not content she had escaped that accident with a few minor bruises and scratches, death--she sensed its cold, dark presence--returned to hunt her down, claim her life.
"And with another car accident." A laugh, the sound bordering on hysteria even to her own ears, shot past her stiff, frozen lips. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." This time the laugh hitched in her throat and joggled out in a whimper. "I don't want to die," she cried in the silence of her car.
Outside, the wind moaned and the frenzied whirling of the snow, coming fast and thick, blinded her and obliterated the landmarks around her stationary car.
"Not out here. Not alone."
Her death would devastate Alannah Denton, her godmother, legal guardian, and the only family Maggie had left.
And what of Stefan? Would he blame himself for her demise because he'd been the one to phone her, asking she meet him in Huntsville, a forty-five minute drive north of their little town of Harmony Village?
When she awoke this morning, the sudden burst of the vicious cold snap had come as a shock to her. Not nearly as much a shock as the radio announcer informing the listening audience the below thirty degrees Celcius temperature, with the wind chill, felt more like minus fifty.
But when she'd started out from Harmony--she glanced at the tiny clock on her dashboard--only an hour ago, it hadn't been snowing. Yes, the wind stung her face and nearly cut her in half as she rushed from the house to her station wagon, but the sun shone, a vivid, hopeful reminder spring had sprung.
But had it?
Although the calendar insisted this was April the sixth, it didn't look like it, didn't feel like it.
Now, as Maggie leaned over the steering wheel in an effort to see, she felt cold. And scared. To her left, a snow-covered embankment, the one her tires slipped down, rose chillingly up to the nonexistent road. To her right, an indistinct landscape stretched out, mile after indistinguishable mile. A blanket of snow.
Terrified of freezing to death, she turned on the engine and a blast of warm air flooded the inside of the car. Grateful for her heavy coat and fur-lined boots, she nevertheless wished she had thought to grab a hat, scarf, and mitts. But she hadn't. She hadn't even thrown a blanket in the car as Stefan so often advised her.
But, she reasoned, in this intense cold, the blanket would offer little warmth anyway. Besides, if help didn't arrive soon, very soon, having a blanket would be too little, too late. Maggie shuddered, turning off the engine in an effort to conserve gas.
There was nothing for her to do but wait. Wait for someone to find her. Or death to take her.
Every five or ten minutes, she restarted the engine and sighed as the warm air took the chill away from her body. The chill, yes, but not her fears. They multiplied at an alarming rate.
She was going to die.
An hour had passed and no one happened along Highway 60. No one knew where she was. What had happened to her.
What had happened? What had happened was simple.
Although she'd traveled at thirty kilometers an hour, the slick road conditions made a mockery of her reduced speed. She'd played with the steering wheel, trying to compensate for the skidding and swerving, but her driving experience had failed to meet the challenge of the unexpected and ferocious winter storm.
Winter storm indeed, she snickered. Whiarton Willy, the soon-to-be extinct ground hog, had predicted a short winter. He never had the guts to mention the short winter would kill her. Literally.
Everything had moved fast.
Everything had moved in slow motion.
In the seconds she had, helpless to do anything, she held her breath, gripped the wheel, and closed her eyes as the car dove down into the ditch and came to a thudding halt at the bottom. Her seat belt had held her in place, saved her life, only for her to freeze to death a few hours later.
She turned the key in the ignition and the engine coughed, spluttered, then stopped. The fuel gauge read empty. She obviously had run the engine too often, too long, and now she had run out of gas. And her only source of heat.
After an another hour, she grew tired, sleepy. She tried to fight off the sleep, knew it was a matter of survival to remain awake, but her eyelids felt so heavy, they fluttered shut. She wanted to sleep, only for a few minutes. It was too difficult, required too much energy to keep her eyes open. It was far simpler to give in.
"No." Maggie snapped herself awake. "Don't give in. Don't give up. Don't go to sleep."
She'd never been this cold in all her life. She tried to move, rub her arms, her legs, but it was painful.
"Someone. Anyone. Please come for me," she whispered, closing her eyes. Her forehead hitting the steering wheel jolted her awake. "Please, please don't let me die." She couldn't say His name, but she addressed the prayer to God, the God she'd turned her back on when He had turned His back on her parents, three years ago.
She repeated the words over and over, trying to convince herself God heard her, trying to believe He wouldn't abandon her, would send help. But, He hadn't heard her parents' prayers, hadn't saved them, hadn't sent them help.
What was the use?
I'm too young to die. I have my whole life ahead of me. I want to marry Stefan. Have babies with him. I don't want to die.
It would be dark soon. Not having the strength to keep her eyes open any longer, she let them drift closed.
What was the use?
Soon it would be too late. Maybe already was. Her body felt numb.
All of a sudden, the driver-side door was wrenched open. Snow and driving wind stormed in and struck her face before someone leaned in and released her seat belt.
"Thank God. Maggie, hang on. I'll get you out."
She watched the lips move, and in a delayed action, the words floated over to her. She tried to concentrate on what the voice said, to make sense of it, but comprehension eluded her.
The arms reached in. The hands, two iron-clad gloves, fastened on her upper arms and pulled her out of the car. If she was numb before, the snow and wind lashing at her changed that. The numbness vanished, replaced by stinging pain. Her knees buckled and she would have fallen had it not been for the arm, a band of steel, wrapped around her waist.
Half-dragging, half-carrying, her rescuer helped her up the embankment. The snow and wind continued to beat her. Slipping and sliding, she struggled to keep up, but her legs refused to cooperate. She tripped and almost fell a couple of times. She couldn't see except for the white of the snow. Couldn't hear except for the howling of the wind.
Soon, she found herself sitting in a warm, very warm vehicle, the fan on full blast. A heavy blanket was draped over her.
A hand clutched her neck while something pushed at her mouth. The liquid slipped past her lips, still cold and stiff, and burned her throat as it slid down.
Awful. It was awful-tasting.
She twisted and writhed, endeavoring to avoid that horrible stuff.
But her rescuer, her tormentor, battled her, gripping her chin. "Drink," he commanded, forcing her to swallow the burning liquid. He was strong. Stronger than she and he won. Eyes watering, she coughed and coughed and only then did her tormentor relent.
"Maggie, stay with me. Do you hear me? Stay with me."
The voice, quiet now and oddly familiar, comforted her. Calmed her. Did she know him? she wondered as she fought off the waves of sleep engulfing her, threatening to tug her down into the advancing darkness.
"Maggie, stay awake." The voice turned curt, cold.
She rolled her head toward the man sitting beside her, his fingers clutching the steering wheel with enough force, his knuckles showed white. Tension gripped his shoulders, firmed his jaw, edged his mouth as he focused all his attention on peering out the windshield. Slow and cautious, he drove along the road, still slippery, still slick.
How could he see where they were going? The wipers, swooshing back and forth at top speed, couldn't combat the deteriorating visibility. The snow continued to fall and the wind blowing it across the highway created perilous white-out conditions.
All of a sudden, her teeth chattered and her body wracked with uncontrollable shakes. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms, attempted to firm her lips, but she continued to tremble. Delayed reaction to freezing? Or scared to death? An involuntary giggle slipped out.
She heard the fear in his voice and then a crackling sound in her head. The ice surrounding her brain splintered and snapped. The numbness thawing, her mind came back on line, slow and sluggish. The frost fell away from her eyes and she recognized her rescuer.
"Stefan," she whispered. "You came." She found her lips had defrosted and she managed a smile. "Thank you."
"Thank God," Stefan said, his voice fervent. He spared her a quick glance before slamming his gaze back on the treacherous road. "You're gonna be okay, now, Maggie," he promised, almost as if he wanted to reassure himself as well as her.
By the time they arrived at their destination--to Maggie it seemed an eternity had passed--her body-shaking trembling had downgraded to a few, slight shivers.
Stefan pulled the SUV up close to the cabin and shoved the gear to Park. Stepping out, he ran, as fast as the three-foot snow drifts permitted, to her side and opened the door.
"Where are we?" When she stood, her legs crumbled and immediately Stefan's arm came around her waist, holding her up.
Instead of answering, he half-dragged, half-carried her up the steps and into the cabin. Stopping long enough to remove her coat and boots, he ushered her into the bathroom. "Sit." He gently pushed her down on the covered toilet seat. Turning on the shower, he ran the water until, when satisfied with the temperature, he eased her in.
Maggie gasped when the lukewarm water sprayed her face, neck, and hands. Her exposed skin burned while her sweater, jeans, and socks soaked up the water. How long she remained under the pulsating jets, she didn't know. What she did know was Stefan didn't leave her. He stayed in the bathroom, cooing soft words of encouragement.
Soon, she felt heat pass through her body.
Sensing she had recovered sufficiently, Stefan instructed, "Wait here. Don't move." Returning a few minutes later with fluffy blue towels and a white terry cloth bathrobe, he laid them on the covered toilet seat. "I'll get the fire started." He hesitated. "You'll be okay? Do you ... need help?" He watched her, his eyes probing, worrying.
Maggie could see Stefan needed to be reassured she had survived the ordeal and would be fine. She had given him quite a scare, she realized. After everything he just did for her, the very least she could do was allay his fears. She allowed herself a few seconds to stare at him, to absorb the wonder of his love for her and hers for him, before giving him a nod and a soft smile.
He still looked unconvinced. "You're sure?"
Upgrading her smile to a grin, she replied, "Positive."
With a curt nod, he left, closing the door behind him.
Taking a fortifying gulp of air, she began to peel off her wet clothes. The socks came off easy. The sweater didn't resist. But, when it came to the jeans, she struggled. By the time she managed to strip them off, her breathing was labored. Weak and exhausted, she lowered herself onto the bathtub ledge for a long time, to catch her breath and recoup some energy.
When she thought she could stand, she did and reaching for the towels, she draped one over her hair in a turban-style and the other, she wrapped around herself. Once again, she had to sit down, her breathing irregular. Even this simple task zapped her of all her strength. After several minutes, she heaved to her feet, slipped on the bathrobe, and picked up the wet clothes. Too weak to wring the water from them, she arranged the sweater, jeans, and socks over the ledge of the bathtub.
Straightening, she glanced in the mirror and groaned. The face reflecting back at her looked drawn and haggard. Her eyes, dull and dreary, seemed to sink into the eye sockets. And her hair ... Reaching for the comb, she pulled it through her coppery red strands, grimacing as the comb teeth tugged with the tangles. Deciding she did the best she could with damage control, she sucked in a breath, and went looking for Stefan.
Maggie found him in the living room, his back to her, crouched in front of the fireplace. The stack of wood popped and crackled and the orange flames leaped and danced. The sight and sound mesmerized her, relaxed her. Warmed her. Sitting on the couch, she tucked her bare feet under her and folded her hands on her lap.
Stefan sensed her presence because he spun around, and for several moments, he remained silent, staring at her with an intensity in his dark blue eyes that was a mixture of derision at himself, relief at her safety, and hunger to hold her close to him. She uncurled her legs and was about to stretch out her arms to him when he said, his voice hoarse, "I'll be right back," and fled the room.
She ambled over to the fireplace, and kneeling in front of it, she sat back on her haunches, rubbing her hands. The heat soothed and relaxed her and she gave a contented sigh.
When she looked up, Stefan handed her a coffee. "Thank you." Smiling, she took the mug, enjoying how the heat seeped through to warm her fingers. As soon as she took a sip, the doctored brew brought instant tears to her eyes. Coughing and spluttering, she blinked furiously, and laid the mug down. "What is that?" she croaked, wiping the palms of her hands across her watering eyes.
"Medicine." He knelt beside her, and stoking the fire, he whispered, "I'm so sorry, Maggie." When he turned, he wore a tortured expression on his face. "If I hadn't asked you--"
"Don't." She laid a finger on his lips. "You're not to blame. No, you're not," she said in a firmer tone when his lips took a stubborn downward tilt. "No one expected the freak storm. Not even Environment Canada issued any wind chill and blowing snow warnings. So don't blame yourself." With splayed fingers, she cradled his cheek. "I'm cold," she said softly. "Won't you hold me and share some of your heat?"
Uncertainty crept into his eyes.
She curled her fingers into his and nudged her shoulder against his. "Please."
His chest lifted and fell with an intake and out-breath of air, then he nodded. His arms came around her, enfolding her with such tenderness and care, it brought tears to her eyes. Snuggling her close against him, he caressed her hair in long, gentle strokes. "I nearly lost you today."
She felt his body convulse. Twisting, she lifted her head and stared into his eyes growing black with repressed feelings. "But you didn't. I'm right here. Where I belong," she murmured, gliding a forefinger over his lips.
"You could have died," he said against her finger, his voice rough with emotion, his eyes turning bleak.
Touched by the worry on his face, she sought to reassure him. "But I didn't."
His gaze raked over her face, feverishly, selfishly, drinking in every inch of it, as if he committed to memory every line, every plane. A moan ripped from deep within his chest and his mouth strained toward hers.
Unlike his earlier embrace, there was nothing tender or gentle about the kiss. It was insistent. It demanded. Burned. It raged like an out-of-control fire, devouring her mouth. It was savage, urgent. Frantic.
They kissed, again and again, neither able to pull apart. Neither wanting to stop. Understanding her narrow escape from death, the fragility of life, they clung together. Frenzied need took over. She needed to feel safe. He needed to convince himself she was alive. Need, raw need, pulsed with life, power. It became a compelling entity of its own, clouding reason, inhibition, common sense, and propriety.
Although she knew neither intended for it to happen, it was inevitable with such overwhelming emotion surging through them, scissoring from one to the other. Their kisses, their stroking escalated until, in front of the roaring fire, they exploded in a celebration of love, gratitude, and an appreciation of life.
"Maggie." His whisper was hoarse, his body tensed. "Maggie, we shouldn't have done this," he said, even as his arms tightened around her. "Maggie--"
She silenced him with a kiss.
"It shouldn't have happened," he repeated, the color draining from his face in spite of the heat emanating from the fire. "We're not married." His voice held anguish. He looked away as he swallowed several times. She could tell he tried to come up with an acceptable excuse to offer but his disappointed look said it all. He couldn't. "It was wrong. It shouldn't have happened."
"I know." The disconsolate-looking expression on his face tugged at her heart. "But it happened. Let's not worry about it or make a big deal out of it." When he buried his face in her neck, she added, "Just blame it on the residual effect of the accident."
Stefan raised his head, looked down at her. Uncertainty formed a tiny furrow in his forehead and his dark eyes swirled with unspoken emotion.
"Maggie, accident or no, we could have made a baby just now." With barely controlled violence, he scooped a hand through his hair and sat up. Unable to look at her, he stared into the fire a long time. He sucked in a ragged breath, then said in a quiet voice, "I love you, Maggie. I never meant to take advantage of you or to treat you in any disrespectful manner. I want you to know I'll do right by you."
She reached up and cupped his cheek in her hand, turning his head so he faced her. "What ... what do you mean?" She bit her bottom lip as she fought for control. Instinctively she knew what Stefan would say. He was a man of honor, of integrity, of decency, even if he was only eighteen.
She saw the distressed look pass over his face, though he did his best to hide it. He fiddled with his hands before clasping his fingers around hers. "When school is out and we graduate in June"--one finger caressed her cheek lovingly and his lips tipped up in a smile--"we'll get married."
Noticing the smile failed to reach his eyes, Maggie lost her battle for control of her emotions. "Married?" She pulled her hand free and bolted to sitting. "We can't get married." Now, it was her turn to worry.
"Why not?" Stefan frowned, then shook his head. "I know it's sorta last minute, but ... I'm sure we can get Father McNally to officiate." He seemed to put more effort into his smile, like he desperately wanted to convince her. And himself.
"We're too young. How would we live? Where would we live?"
He lifted his shoulders in a slight shrug. "Where? I ... I guess we could bunk down at my place. That shouldn't be a problem."
"This is a small town," she whispered, closing her eyes. "The gossip--"
"We're tough. We can take it." He ran his finger in a soft stroke over her cheek. "We would have made right a wrong so we shouldn't get too much lip about it. Besides, it'll all blow over in no time. As you said, this is a small town so something else will arise to claim everybody's attention."
"And what about your dream to be a teacher?" she continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Or your plans to attend Nipissing University? You've already been accepted."
He shrugged, the fire claiming his interest again. "Change of plans," he said, his voice a dull drone.
Maggie felt the tears well in her eyes and dashed them away. "You can't throw away your life's ambition just because we may or may not have made a baby and you feel duty-bound to do right by me." The anguish of his bitter sacrifice ate at her like acid. "You can't." Her voice vibrated with a fierceness that made Stefan snap his head toward her.
"Maggie, I love you." His put his arm around her shoulder and kissed her hair. "You're much more important to me than some teaching job." He slid his arm down to wrap around her waist and hugged her.
"I love you, too, Stefan," she whispered, her heart breaking.
"Then it's settled." She saw his smile of satisfaction. "The first Saturday in July, we'll do it." He leaned forward, pulled her into his arms, and sealed the date with a bittersweet kiss, warm with the promise of love. And sacrifice.
When he lifted his head and she gazed deep into his dark blue eyes, she knew she loved him too much and she knew what she had to do.
After today, she wasn't a child anymore. She had to take responsibility for her actions.