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EDITOR'S NOTE:
Denise Little

INTERVIEW:
Deb Stover

STORIES:
Deb Stover: Skin Deep
M.L. Buchman:
The Five Choices
Mary Jo Putney: Shining On
Dayle A. Dermatis:
Leave a Candle Burning
Gail Selinger:
With Admiration
Petronella Glover: The Space Between Us

SERIALIZATION:
Laura Resnick: Galatea: A Modern Myth
(Part 2)

RECOMMENDED BOOKS:
C.S. DeAvilla

COMING SOON:
Denise Little

WRITER'S CORNER:
Denise Little:
From Idea to "Keeper"
Julie Pitzel: What Writing Memes to you

ARTICLE:
Lezli Robyn: The Bridge Between Hearts

Dayle A. Dermatis eloped properly in Gretna Green, rode off on the back of a motorcycle, and hasn’t looked back since except to smile and sigh happily. Unsurprisingly, she writes romances that are sometimes sweet, sometimes spicy, sometimes spooky, and sometimes funny, but will always make you smile and sigh happily. An unabashed romantic, she lives in a historic cottage in the verdant Pacific Northwest, and whenever she can, she travels the world for inspiration and loses herself in music. This is her second appearance in Heart’s Kiss.

LEAVE A CANDLE BURNING

by Dayle A. Dermatis

 

She was lost.

Claudia stopped in the tree-lined lane, surrounded by the deep blue of twilight, a swirl of snowflakes, and an ever-growing drift of snow on the ground, and shook her head at her own stupidity.

In truth, the lodge she was heading for (at least, she hoped she was heading in the right direction) wasn’t far from the train station. Walking normally wouldn’t have been a problem. She just hadn’t factored in the earlier sunset this far north and the fact that it might be snowing.

Snowing, right before Christmas, in upstate New York? Not all that shocking.

Thankfully, her job scouting for a TV show meant she knew how to pack light—at least she wasn’t dragging a suitcase behind her. She wore her bulky winter coat and boots, and everything else, including laptop, camera, and clothes, were in her backpack. She’d had to hike to sites before.

Just not in the damn snow.

The world held that silent quality that came only in the winter. The snow padded the ground, muffled the air. All she could hear was her own breathing, and the occasional, tiny snap of a twig as some small animal settled for the night.

The birch trees’ pale bark glowed in the moonlight.

Claudia felt like she stood in the middle of a snow globe.

She thought she’d walked the two miles already, but nary a house was in sight, not even a glow of lights. She didn’t think the snow would have knocked out the power, so this was worrying. The GPS on her phone had been no help: the small dirt lanes didn’t register on the map. And then, of course, because she’d spent too much time on the train working, her battery had died. She couldn’t even call.

She was just about to turn around and head back to the station when she caught motion out of the corner of her eye. She hadn’t heard anyone approach; her own gasp sounded loud against the sudden pounding of her heart.

Not a someone…a something. A large white dog—a husky or a white German shepherd, it was hard to tell in the dark—stood a few feet away, tail waving languidly, tongue out, watching her.

“Well, hello there, pup,” she said in a soothing tone, holding out her hand flat. “Where did you come from?”

The dog barked, and jerked its head in a gesture that looked suspiciously like Come on, then. It took a few steps towards the trees, then looked back expectantly.

Its message was clear: Follow me.

Seriously?

The dog came back a few steps and barked again, this time more impatiently, then turned and looked over its shoulder.

The dog could be leading her to shelter, Claudia supposed. Or it could be leading her to someone or something in trouble. Or it could just be leading her…no, why would the dog be trying to lead her nowhere? Even if it wasn’t to the lodge, it would be somewhere with a phone or a car. Dogs didn’t lead people to scary shacks containing serial killers, after all.

Claudia always trusted her instincts, and they’d never proven her wrong. She also had a lot of faith in dogs. Her choice was clear.

She settled her pack more firmly on her shoulders and followed the dog into the woods.

The trees weren’t closely spaced and there was no foliage beneath the snow to trip her up, although in a few open places the snow had piled up. The dog seemed to take delight in bounding off to leap through the drifts before running back to trot ahead of her.

They hadn’t walked more than ten minutes when Claudia saw lights. As they drew closer, she breathed a sigh of relief, recognizing the stone-and-timber lodge from pictures. The dog had in fact led her directly to Heather Mountain Lodge.

The three-story building toed the line between Victorian and mountain rustic. The roof was steeply pitched to keep too much snow from collecting, with two levels of dormers and multiple chimneys dotting the expanse.

Warm lights glowed from multiple windows, bathing the snow in warm, welcoming gold, a gorgeous contrast to the midnight blue sky and gleaming snow. Fairy lights in the bare trees added to the cheer. Claudia felt warmer already.

Home. In an odd way, that’s what it felt like, even though Claudia had never been here before. She’d grown up in the northeast, though, and the scene was familiar enough.

Plus, her tiny apartment—the tradeoff for a nice place in LA was size—had never felt homey, and now she’d been told that due to budget cuts, she was expected to telecommute.

She sighed, blowing out the melancholy. She’d worry about that after the holidays. Right now, she had a job to do.

“Good job, pup!” she said. The dog barked one more time and trotted away, around the building. Probably a doggie door in the back, leading to a mud room or kitchen.

She went up the flagstone steps to the enclosed porch that ran the length of the building and let herself in, stomping her feet on the entry rug to knock off the snow before continuing to the front door.

Before she could ring the bell, she saw movement through the glass, and then the door opened.

“You must be Claudia,” the very attractive man said. His eyes were the same deep blue as the winter twilight she’d just hiked through, and his welcoming smile sparkled in those eyes like snow under moonlight.

Something tugged at her, deep in her core. It was like the sensation she’d felt when she’d seen the lodge. Home.

But that made no sense—tall-dark-and-handsome shouldn’t evoke home. Instant lust, maybe (and there was that, too), but not home.

“Must I?” she asked cheekily, stepping inside.

“Mrs. Hawley said someone named Claudia was supposed to arrive tonight, and she’s been fretting that you’re late and your phone goes straight to voicemail,” he said, his voice low and pleasant. He closed the door. “So it’s a good assumption you’re Claudia.”

“Excellent powers of deduction,” Claudia said, holding out her gloved hand.

“Excellent powers of being Claudia,” he said, shaking her hand. “I’m Reese. D’you mind leaving your boots on the porch?”

She saw the row of winter footwear lined up next to a rough-hewn bench. Dropping her pack next to her, she sat to unlace her hiking boots.

She sensed, rather than saw, Reese lean comfortably against the doorjamb. A glance showed he’d tucked his hands in his pockets.

“Do you work here?” she asked.

“No. I was on my way back from the bathroom when I saw you on the porch. But I grew up nearby, so I’m familiar with the place.”

She stood in her thick socks, and saw him grin. Thought she saw the flash of a dimple, even.

“And I figured,” he went on, scooping up her pack for her, “here’s my chance to meet this intriguing latecomer before anyone else. Good thing I trusted my instincts. Come on in,” he added, stepping aside to let her enter. “Mrs. Hawley’s in the parlor with some of the other guests.”

It was warm inside, enough to make her chilled cheeks hurt in a pleasant way—although she had to admit it wasn’t the only reason her cheeks were flushed. She shivered, adjusting to the change in temperature.

She followed Reese through the foyer, unable to decide whether to look at the gorgeous architecture or him (also gorgeous). The foyer, although paneled with dark wood, was welcoming thanks to the warm light from antique Tiffany lamps and the faded oriental rug covering the center of the floor. A steep staircase dominated the right side, its likely hand-carved newel posts a testament to an art form mostly lost today. The wood—currently wrapped with a sweet-smelling pine garland—shone, polished by more than a century of hands caressing the railing as residents and then hotel guests made their way up- or downstairs.

Claudia smiled, feeling the tension melt away. She already liked it here.

She had a job to do, so she shouldn’t allow herself to be distracted by Reese, but unfortunately she already was. Okay, maybe not full-on attracted to after their extremely brief conversation, but at least appreciative of.

The snug way his jeans hugged him didn’t hurt, definitely. Nor did the in-need-of-a-trim black hair, striking blue eyes, and warm smile. Nor the comfortable way he led her through to the parlor. Not cocky, but simply confident, settled in his own skin.

She wouldn’t have minded more time alone with him, but there were other people in the parlor, and that settled that.

“Oh goodness,” said a tall, rangy older woman, “you must be Claudia.”

“I must,” she agreed this time. “You’re Mrs. Hawley?”

“That I am.” The woman’s white hair framed a face that showed a lifetime of smiles in the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. “Let me show you to your room, dearie, and then you can settle in and meet folks. Shall I make you a pot of tea? Or hot chocolate? Or…?”

“Hot chocolate sounds lovely,” Claudia said. She leaned in conspiratorially. “Especially if it has a nip of crème de menthe in it.”

Mrs. Hawley smiled. “Absolutely,” she said.

 

“This is perfect,” Claudia said when she saw her room. The turned-wood four-poster bed had a cream-colored, crocheted blanket at its foot and a lavender-scented sachet on the pillow, and the room’s uneven wooden floors creaked as she entered. Cozy and charming. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

It took her even less than that—the lingering chill (although the room itself was toasty) drove her to drop her backpack and shuck her parka before plugging in her traitorous phone and heading downstairs to properly meet the rest of the guests.

Back in the parlor, she was happy to settle in an antique sofa near the stone fireplace, where a fire crackled and spat heat and the scent of wood smoke. Happy especially because the free spot was next to Reese.

“Mrs. Hawley’s off making your hot chocolate; we had an early supper so she could let the cook go for the night because of the snow,” Reese said. “Which doesn’t bode well for breakfast.”

“We aren’t going to be snowed in for long, I hope?” asked a man wearing glasses and a Dr. Horrible T-shirt, who’d been introduced as Matt. He held hands with a pretty redhead—Holly—wearing multicolored striped socks and a matching crocheted hat.

“The weather report said it should stop snowing overnight,” said a teenaged girl with a blond French braid, glancing up from her phone. Brittany, Claudia repeated to herself. Her parents, Tom and Sherry, had already gone upstairs, as had the final guest, Angela, a musician.

“And once the plow comes through, we’ll be fine,” Reese added.

Mrs. Hawley returned with Claudia’s hot chocolate, and now that this crop of guests was assembled, began her story.

“The White Lady,” Mrs. Hawley said, settling herself into her chair and into her story. “We don’t know much about who she was when she was alive, but we know this: She was married, and her husband was away one night in late December. I’ve heard different stories—that he’d been out hunting that day, that he went out in the storm to help someone. As the snow came down harder, she knew it would be more difficult for her husband to find his way home. So she went from window to window, lighting candles to guide him to safety.”

Mrs. Hawley paused to take a sip of her own hot chocolate before continuing.

“Since then, each year, starting a day or two before Christmas and going until a day or two afterwards, after dusk falls she moves through the lower rooms of the house, lighting candles in the windows to bring her beloved home.”

Holly shivered. “That’s a beautiful story.” She squeezed Matt’s hand. “So romantic.”

Romantic, yes, but whether there was any truth to the story…well, that was Claudia’s job to figure out.

“What style of clothing does she wear?” she asked. “A nightgown? A Victorian dress? Earlier period, later?”

“Oh, well, I can’t say for sure,” Mrs. Hawley said, looking down at her hands. “I’m not an expert in these things.”

“I understand,” Claudia said. “It’s just, if we can narrow down her clothing style, we can narrow down who she might be.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Reese said, turning toward her in interest. Claudia felt that flutter in her stomach again at hearing his mellow voice. “You’re from one of those reality shows—you’re a ghost hunter.”

Claudia laughed, glad that he seemed to be taking her seriously. “Not hardly. I’m a location scout; I don’t get any air time at all. And America’s Legendary Ghosts isn’t a ghost-hunting show—we don’t run around with EMF detectors or try to debunk the stories. We focus on the truth behind the legend…we want to know whether the ghost story has some basis in history. We’re more of a history program than a reality show.”

“So you’re here to decide whether The White Lady is real or not?” Holly asked.

Claudia reluctantly turned her gaze away from Reese. “I’m here to discover whether there’s any historical basis for The White Lady,” she explained. Then, to Mrs. Hawley, she added, “I assume you’ve seen her?”

“Indeed I have.” Mrs. Hawley sat up straight. “Every year.”

“Please, tell me.”

“We’ve had candles in the windows here in winter for as long as I can remember—and I’ve been here since I was a little girl. Even if no one sees her, people come down in the morning and find candles burning, or melted wax where the candles have burned down.”

“And what happens if people try to interact with her?” Claudia asked.

“They can’t,” Mrs. Hawley said. “She doesn’t respond to any attempts to communicate with her. If people come close, she disappears.”

“Vanishes?” Claudia clarified.

“Essentially.”

“Did her husband make it home?” Matt asked.

Mrs. Hawley looked sad. “We don’t know,” she said. “We just don’t know.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t,” Claudia said. “If he had, she wouldn’t feel compelled to keep lighting the candles.”

They all stared at her as if she’d just kicked their collective puppy. Clearly she’d harshed their mellow. What had they expected? Before she had a chance to speak, Brittany looked up from her phone and said, “Well, isn’t it obvious? It’s a ghost. It’s not supposed to be happy.”

Although the others nodded in agreement, that effectively killed the conversation. After one or two more half-hearted questions, the group broke up, Mrs. Hawley retiring for an early night so she could handle breakfast.

“You didn’t get any supper, did you?” Reese asked Claudia.

She’d been so intent on learning about the ghost that she hadn’t realized until now that she was starving, and she appreciated him realizing she might not have eaten. She had a power bar in her luggage, but the hell with that. Any extra time she could spend with him was a bonus, and if he could point her towards food….

“I had a snack on the train, but that was it,” she said.

“Come with me.”

She followed him to the kitchen—both because she didn’t know where it was and because it was an opportunity to ogle his butt again in those faded, snug jeans.

The kitchen had been upgraded with professional appliances, but still held the sense of a homey Victorian kitchen, thanks to details such as herbs drying from a rack hanging from the ceiling, a fireplace with a bread oven along one wall, and an open wooden cabinet displaying blue-patterned china.

“You said you used to live here?” Claudia asked. “Mrs. Hawley seems comfortable with you.”

“I grew up in the area,” Reese said. He stripped off his sweater, and she caught a flash of taut abs dusted with dark hair as the T-shirt beneath rode up. Yummy. She fumbled herself onto a barstool, but he didn’t notice, being too busy opening cabinets and pulling out a plate and bread with a comfortable ease, as if he were well acquainted with the layout. “My mom worked for Mrs. Hawley for a few years, so I hung out here a lot. I’d like to say I was helping, but I’m pretty sure I was just underfoot.”

“I grew up in Albany, actually,” Claudia said. “I’ve never been here, but I’ve been to Lake Placid a few times.”

“Not too far away, then,” Reese said. “Welcome back.”

So different from the men she’d met in California, she mused. It wasn’t that nobody was nice there, but she did work in Hollywood, after all. Everybody seemed to be angling for something—and seemed to be made of hard edges. Reese seemed confident, but in a comfortable way; like he was settled in his own skin.

Maybe that was the familiarity and comfort that tugged at her.

Claudia propped her elbows on the butcher block island. “So, have you seen The White Lady?”

“As a matter of fact, I have.” He was leaning into the industrial refrigerator, so she couldn’t see his face, although his deep voice was casual and self-assured. He didn’t sound like he was lying. “I was walking by the parlor and I saw her in there. It scared the snot out of me, and I ran to find my mom.”

He emerged from the fridge, balancing ham and cheese and condiments in his arms. Claudia held her breath until the food was safely deposited on the butcher block. She felt bad for not helping, but damn, she was tired.

“We moved the year after that,” he went on. “Late summer. So I never had the chance to see her again.”

“Is that why you’ve come back?”

He turned away to find a knife, turned back. “No, not really. I…my folks are both gone, and my brother and sister were off doing their own thing, so I just wanted to come back and recapture the fond memories.” He handed her the knife and shoved the condiments across the island. “What about you? It must suck to work on Christmas.”

She opened the jar of stone-ground mustard, spread some on the wheat bread. “Kinda. My family’s big, and we decided a few years ago to make Thanksgiving the big holiday—my folks are in Florida now, and we rotate between locations—and we’re on our own for Christmas.”

More than kinda, she’d realized on the hike here, but she wanted to keep the conversation positive. No sense scaring a guy away by immediately admitting that you can’t hold down a relationship because your job requires you to travel so much. Her last boyfriend finally up and decided that didn’t work for him.

Oddly, it had worked for her. Oh, he hadn’t been a bad guy—she thought she’d loved him, eaten an awful lot of Ben & Jerry’s after his departure—but the fact was, she loved to travel and loved the chance to be on her own. Absence did make the heart grow fonder, at least for her.

Unfortunately, not many people shared that view, and constant travel made it hard to even get to know someone long enough to find out if they shared that view.

Claudia added ham, Swiss, and tomato slices to her sandwich, and continued focusing on the positive. “Being free on Christmas gives me a little more leeway—you’d be surprised how many ghost legends revolve around the holidays.”

“Maybe Dickens was on to something.”

She laughed. “Maybe so. There certainly haven’t been any Thanksgiving ghosts for us.” She put some baby spinach on the sandwich, covered it with a second slice of bread, and pressed down with both hands to smoosh it down to a more comfortable height. “I’m just glad I’m here this year. It’s always depressing to be without snow on Christmas. Despite what the rest of Hollywood likes, I don’t want to be wearing shorts in December. It’s just wrong.”

“I hear you,” Reese said. “One year I was in Australia for Christmas. The big heavy Christmas dinner makes no sense when it’s a bazillion degrees out.” He was already tidying away the sandwich fixings.

“What took you there?” Claudia took a big bite of her sandwich, stifling a moan of pleasure. She hadn’t realized she was that hungry. Maybe it was the crème de menthe talking.

“I’m a structural engineer, specializing in earthquake retrofits,” he said. “I was working on a government contract.”

Now that she had a little food in her (that wasn’t sugar laced with alcohol), she was able to focus again. She found herself distracted by his hands, competently wiping down the butcher block.

Thought about those hands on her body.

She was tired, but she wasn’t that tired.

“Does your job take you all over?” she asked, because dragging him down on the butcher block and having her way with him might be a tiny bit too forward.

“Everywhere there are earthquakes, which is as all over as you can get,” he said.

“And where do you live when you’re not wandering the globe?”

“I’ve got an apartment in the city, but it’s mostly a place to store my stuff. I’m thinking about—”

They heard a shout, and then Holly appeared in the kitchen doorway. “Come quick!” she said. “We’ve seen The White Lady!”

Claudia dropped the second half of her sandwich and bolted for the foyer, Reese on her heels. When they arrived, the rest of the guests were there, in various stages of settling in: Angela was in a flowered flannel nightgown, with a matching robe belted firmly around her, while Tom’s wet hair suggested he’d been in the shower.

“In the parlor, where we were earlier,” Holly said.

Sure as shooting, the candles in the window had been lit, a smudge of wax on the windowsill indicating someone had bumped the candle after it had been burning.

“Candles,” Claudia said. “Did anyone see The White Lady?”

“I did,” Matt said, raising his hand. “I came back down to get my phone, and there she was. She vanished before I got into the room.”

“Vanished how?” Claudia asked. She didn’t want to sound suspicious; hated ruining the other guests’ excitement. Even as she spoke, she felt the energy in the room drop.

“Just…I don’t know, exactly.” Matt looked abashed. “I turned to call up the stairs to Holly, and when I turned back, the Lady was gone. But I know she didn’t go past me.”

The parlor’s only other door led to the dining room, and the door between the dining room and the kitchen had been open—surely she and Reese would have heard someone in there?

Claudia asked a few more questions, then decided not to investigate tonight. There would be time for that in the morning.

Time to figure out if this was a legend worth pursuing…and if Reese was, as well.

Nah. She’d already decided that he was. But exhaustion was crowding out interest, and she still had a job to do.

Dammit.

 

Claudia shoved the drapes aside and smiled at the sun sparkling on the fresh, untouched snow.

A good night’s sleep under cozy flannel sheets and a warm down comforter had gone a long way to improving her outlook on life. The snow had been hauntingly lovely last night, but she’d been lost and cold and hungry; today, she could simply appreciate its beauty. She wondered how the dog was doing, and made a mental note to ask Mrs. Hawley.

The dining room had a big stone fireplace and large windows that looked out on the mountains. Quiet holiday music filled the background from unseen speakers.

Even better, the dining room had Reese in it.

And when she saw him, she had that same damn curious tug at her very core.

She said good morning to him, as well as Brittany, her parents, and Angela, who were the only other ones there, then helped herself to food from the sideboard. She slid into the seat catty-corner from Reese, wanting to watch him without being obvious. But from the way he smiled at her, she suspected he’d notice, because he’d be watching her, too.

His smile made her feel all melty, like an icicle in the sun. Damn, what was happening to her?

“This is just lovely,” Sherry enthused. “I’ve always wanted to get away for Christmas. And I love the decorations.”

“They’re beautiful,” Claudia agreed. “My apartment’s way too small for a tree, and I travel so much that decorating seems more like clutter-adding than something festive.”

Reese asked, “Well, then, what’s your favorite part about Christmas?”

“Ideally, I love the ritual of it all,” Claudia confessed. “Trimming the tree, wrapping the presents, sitting down for dinner with family….”

“And snow,” Reese added with a wink that told her he remembered their conversation from the night before. “Don’t forget about the snow.”

“But you can have the rituals without snow,” Tom said.

Claudia had almost forgotten there were other people at the table.

“That’s true,” Reese said. “Claudia’s right. It’s about being with family and friends—rituals are about sharing the same joys with the people you love.”

Everyone murmured assent, and then they all started discussing their rituals and childhood memories: tinsel versus garland, holly and mistletoe, favorite carols. And cookies. The cookie debate almost got a little heated.

Claudia, who didn’t even like to bake, found herself wanting to make holiday cookies with Reese. Preferably with each of them wearing little more than an apron. He’d look adorable with flour on his nose. And wearing little more than an apron.

After breakfast, Reese asked, “What’s your plan for today, ghost hunter?”

“Legend hunter, please,” Claudia said, cradling her hands around her coffee mug. “I’m headed into town to meet with the county clerk to look at the lodge’s records, and hit the local library for their archives.”

He offered to drive her, and she happily took him up on it. She could have walked, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make sure she knew the way first. Bonus: His truck had four-wheel drive and snow tires. The driveway had already been plowed, as had the lane, but it was still a bit slippery.

Claudia laughed at herself. The truth was, she was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend more time with him.

She hadn’t even been here a day, and yet she was feeling something shifting, deep, like thick ice on a river just before it breaks free.

The drive reminded her to ask Mrs. Hawley about the dog. She hadn’t seen it around today, so maybe it didn’t live at the lodge, but at a nearby farm.

At the county courthouse, she waded through land and tax records, making photocopies of what she needed. By the time she was done, it was lunchtime, and she met Reese, who’d been running errands, at a local restaurant.

The proprietors had gone for a full-on log cabin feel, with exposed-log walls, a pot-bellied stove, deer heads on the wall, and a taxidermied black bear to greet her at the door.

Reese had arrived before her, and was already at a table with a steaming cup of coffee, his olive parka slung over the back of his chair. A second cup of coffee sat at her place.

“I remembered you had coffee this morning, but not what you put in it,” he said, pushing creamer and sugar in her direction.

The gesture warmed her more than the heat inside the diner did.

His dark hair was mussed, either from having his hood up earlier or because he’d run his fingers through it. Either way, it worked on him, and Claudia wondered if it was soft, and how it would feel to run her own fingers through it. Then draw his face towards hers….

She turned her attention to the menu, made a random decision about food because she was thinking more about how Reese’s lips would feel on hers, and put the menu back down.

She wasn’t used to such instant attraction, not like this. She believed herself savvy enough to get a good sense of a person early on, but when it came to relationships, the process had always been gradual. I like you, hmm, maybe I’m interested, I wonder if….

Physical attraction, sure. But this deeper tug, this feeling of things clicking into place?

Was it the holidays? The nostalgia for proper winter? Her dissatisfaction with the place she barely called home?

She realized Reese was watching her with those winter-twilight eyes, and answered her own questions. No, it wasn’t any of those things. It was this. It was him, whether she was used to it or not.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Sorry,” she said. “Wool-gathering.” Then, before she could talk herself out of it, she added, “I’m…really glad we’re able to have lunch together.”

Oh, Claudia. So lame.

But he smiled and said, “Me, too. It’s hard to have alone time in a house full of people, even in a house as big as the lodge.”

The waitress came to take their order. When she left, the spell was momentarily broken.

“So what do you really think about The White Lady?” Reese asked after swallowing some coffee. “Is she real?”

“I want her to be,” Claudia admitted. “But the bottom line for me—for my job—is whether the underlying legend is real. What about you? You saw her as a child—it wasn’t a childish fantasy?”

“If she isn’t real, I can’t blame Mrs. Hawley for making her up,” Reese said. “She’s been a good source of tourism for the lodge even at other times of the year. But more than that, I believe Mrs. Hawley believes. Her own husband died of a heart attack—must be twenty years ago now—and I think she likes the idea of someone being able to guide her lover home.”

“Oh.” Claudia looked down at her paper placemat, which bore the history of the diner. “I didn’t know that. How sad.”

“Don’t be sad.” Reese put a hand over hers. “It was a long time ago, and I’m pretty sure she’s had…friends since then. But she hasn’t remarried, and I know the lodge is important to her, so….”

She caught her breath. Yes. She felt the solid, comforting warmth of his touch, felt the tug of home, and thought, This. This is what I want when I stagger in after a long flight.

And, Well, this and a continuation of the touching until we’ve removed each other’s clothes and….

And, Am I going crazy? Her emotions were going haywire, attraction and longing and happiness and sadness ribboning together.

“I get that.” Claudia gathered her feelings and her thoughts. “It’s just that so many of the stories are about loss. It just wears me down sometimes.”

She’d never told anyone that before. She wasn’t sure if she’d even realized it until now.

“I get that, too,” Reese said. “We want to find our soulmates and have happy endings.”

Claudia squinted at him, but he didn’t sound like he was making fun of her. Quite the opposite, in fact: If anything, he looked wistful.

He went on. “My parents truly seemed to be happy with each other, really seemed to be in love. I guess I want to believe that’s possible for anybody.” He squeezed her hand, let go, and she felt an instant, sharp pang of loss.

Thankfully the waitress chose that moment to reappear with their lunches, giving her a distraction.

The cost was reasonable and the portions hearty—and, Claudia discovered, quite tasty. Her enormous bowl of chili had a nice bite to it, warming her after the walk over from the courthouse, and the buttered cornbread melted in her mouth.

“Enough about my job,” she said after a few bites. “What about you?”

“It’s hard, sometimes, going in after an earthquake to assess the damage and what can be done,” he said. “But I like the fact that I can make buildings safer, prevent further destruction or injury. That part is truly satisfying. And I get to meet a lot of interesting people…for a little while, anyway.”

“Same here,” Claudia said. “But I’m also grateful for modern technology—I Skype with my folks every few weeks.”

“My sister likes to call me while she’s out walking,” he said. “Always multitasking. I Skype with my brother so I can see his kids—he’s got three now.”

“What about….” Claudia bit the bullet. “Anyone else?”

He shook his head. “No one special,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain a relationship given all the traveling I do.”

“This probably sounds weird,” he said, “and may be blowing my chances, but…I don’t need to be around someone twenty-four/seven. I like having time away. Then when I’m with someone, I’m really with them, not taking them or our time together for granted.” He gave a half-shrug, a gesture so small she almost missed it. “I know it’s unusual—I’ve met some pretty independent women who just didn’t want that level of independence.”

“Tell me about it,” Claudia said. “That’s why my last relationship tanked. I love my job, and everywhere it takes me, but finding someone else who understands that love….”

Suddenly self-conscious, she looked down at her half-eaten chili in the white porcelain bowl.

Reese cleared his throat, and to her relief, changed the subject. “How did you end up at the show?” he asked.

She smiled, grateful for the reprieve. “I sort of fell into it. I was the family genealogist, and I played around with cameras, and couldn’t decide what to major in at college. Eventually I moved to LA with a friend who wanted to be an actress, and got a job as a PA, and…I’m good at research.”

“It’s a good thing to be good at,” he said.

“Yeah, although my boss just realized I could be good at it anywhere,” she said, and proceeded to tell him about being forced to telecommute and loathing her tiny apartment. “Of course,” she concluded, “I could always just become impossibly hipster and work in coffee shops.”

“I rank airports by whether or not they have free wireless and how many available outlets there are,” Reese said, his mouth curving into an impossibly cute grin.

“Ditto the planes themselves,” Claudia said. “Give me power at my seat and I’ll fly you forever.”

“And hotel rooms,” Reese said, almost at the same time. “Wireless, outlets, comfortable bed….”

“Absolutely,” Claudia said, thinking about comfortable beds and Reese and room service.

Their shared laughter made her feel so light and airy, like a snowflake in a swirl of wind.

 

Despite the local library being in a modern building, the older records hadn’t been updated to the modern age, leaving Claudia to slog through ancient microfiches of local newspaper archives and census records in the chilly, damp windowless basement.

Still, there was something about this kind of research she loved; the chance uncovering of a mystery, the allure of discovering a treasure of information.

To her delight, Reese had come with her, and helped her by making photocopies and bringing her books on local history.

It was already dusk by the time they left, Claudia’s bag stuffed full of paperwork to review over the next two days.

Everyone seemed in good spirits at dinner, and hopeful that the ghost would make another sighting. She liked the way Reese was easy with everyone, even drawing Brittany away from her phone for a conversation about technology.

Plus, the venison stew, roasted vegetables, and an apple pie with locally made maple ice cream almost sent Claudia into a food coma.

Afterwards they repaired to the parlor again. Reese made a point of sitting next to Claudia on the sofa, stretching out his long, jean-clad legs towards the fire.

While the other guests played a game or read and Mrs. Hawley knitted, Claudia started in on the reams of photocopies. This was a work trip—she wasn’t really on vacation, despite the holiday—but when she curled up Indian-style, her knee bumping Reese’s thigh, he smiled, and so she left it there, enjoying the contact. Even if it was a distraction.

Especially if it was a distraction.

This time, it was Angela who spotted something moving in the dining room when she stood to stoke the fire. Once again, they rushed across the foyer into the other room.

“What was that?” Tom asked, and at the same time Holly said “Was that a light outside?” and Claudia had to admit that really did look like the flicker of candle flame outside the window, although neither she nor the rest of them clearly saw a person.

“We should go check for footprints,” she suggested.

Clouds obscured the stars and moon, but the ambient light from the lodge, along with the flashlights Mrs. Hawley procured for them, provided enough illumination to show that there were no footprints outside the dining room.

It was Brittany who spotted the white candle in the white snow, its wick blackened, showing it had been used.

They all trooped back inside, kicking snow off their boots on the porch and shivering in the warmth. Mrs. Hawley went off to make hot chocolate and hot buttered rums.

Reese waited until the others had gone and just he and Claudia were still on the porch. After the flurry of other people, it felt good to be alone with him, if only for a few moments. The light gleaming from inside haloed his dark hair in its usual messy state, and she fought the urge to tame it just so she could feel it.

“What do you think about it?” he asked.

She gave a cautious shrug, glad that she had someone she felt she could trust to bounce ideas off of. “I have to admit I saw something, but I can’t swear it was candlelight. Finding the candle on the ground was…an interesting development, though.”

“And how’s the research going?”

“Nothing to confirm or deny yet, but the night is young,” she said. “Mrs. Hawley gave me a book on Adirondack ghost stories that includes the legend of The White Lady…but the account was given by her father, who bought the lodge before Mrs. Hawley was born. I’m still tracing back the property records from then. I need to either find some kind of proof of a woman whose husband died around the holidays, or a very old account of the ghost, or even both.” She tucked her boots beneath the bench and stood.

“No rest for the wicked?” he asked.

She laughed. “Maybe tomorrow, if I get enough work done.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked, holding the door to the lodge open for her.

“I wouldn’t take you away from your vacation, but no, at this point it’s all research I need to do.” She smiled, honestly feeling her next words. “But I really appreciate it.”

Dammit. Why couldn’t this research trip be longer? She wanted more time with him.

Maybe they’d get a blizzard and get snowed in, and they could hole up in one of their bedrooms and have Mrs. Hawley send up the dog with food like a St. Bernard….

 

It did snow the next day, although the flakes drifted down languidly, showing no interest in being collectively labeled a blizzard. Clearly they hadn’t gotten the memo.

Still, it made Claudia’s work all the more pleasant. She’d missed the feeling of curling up in a comfy sweater and thick socks by a warm fire, watching the snow outside while she read and made notes and cross-referenced things.

The room smelled of pine from the garlands and cinnamon from the arrangement on the birch side table, where a lamp with amber and glass shades shaped like calla lilies illuminated her reading.

The rest of the guests had gone out cross-country skiing, so she had the place to herself, except for the cook making their supper feast and Mrs. Hawley catching up on paperwork in her own office.

Reese had sat with her after lunch, catching up on e-mail on his tablet. When he left with the others, he said it was to give her time to work. But the fact was, she’d been fine having him in the room. He’d respected her by staying quiet, and when she’d tossed a fact or idea at him, he’d had helpful comments.

No, she hadn’t been just fine. She’d liked having him there. More than she’d expected.

The thought made her smile, kept her warm while she read and researched, staying with her as the midnight blue of twilight fell. She poured a Scotch on the rocks and stood by the window, watching the blue-white glow of the snow and the flakes trickling down past the icicles hanging from the eaves.

She intended to curl back up with her research, but instead she picked up the brochures she’d seen on a side table, flyers listing local homes for sale.

She sat down, spread them out on the sofa, picked up each one. The pictures showed the houses in all seasons—the area was known for skiing, both downhill and cross-country, snow shoeing, ice skating, and even dogsled rides on the frozen lake. In the summer, there was hiking, swimming, boating.

She was surprised at how they made her heart wrench, just a little. What was it about a chalet-style cottage, its roof steeply pitched to slough off snow, that was just so damned charming?

In truth, she’d barely had a few sips of whiskey before she closed her eyes. Resting her head against a pillow, she listened to the soft music playing from hidden speakers: a chorale version of “Silent Night.”

She thought about saving her money and buying a holiday home in the mountains.

She thought about Reese.

And smiled.

Claudia didn’t think she’d fallen asleep—she’d been only drifting—but something started her into full consciousness. She blinked, clearing her head and her vision.

Full dark had fallen; the only illumination in the room was from the lily lamp beside her…

…and a white taper candle in a simple pewter holder, burning in the window.

She sat bolt upright, looked around. At the edge of her sight she saw movement, a flash of white, in a shadowed corner of the room—but when she turned, it disappeared.

The hell?

Her heart pounding, she skirted the sofa and occasional table and a plant stand to get to the corner, where an interior wall met an outer wall, near where she’d stood to look out the window earlier.

Nothing there but paneled walls of stained fir. She reached out a hand….

And suddenly the room was filled with light.

Claudia eeped and spun, only to dissolve into relieved laughter when she saw Reese in the doorway, his hand at the push-button light switch.

“You startled me!” she said, her hand on her chest. If she’d thought her heart was pounding before…holy moly.

But now her heart was pounding for a different reason.

“There’s a candle,” he said. It would have been a non sequitur under any other circumstances.

“I fell asleep,” she said as he walked towards her, which made her heart do a little kathump in between the thuds. She was glad he was back—which didn’t surprise her. “I woke up and the candle was there and then I thought I saw something in this corner, but….” She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I got nothin’.”

“Huh,” he said. He cocked his head, his shaggy black hair flowing with the movement. “That’s interesting.”

“Why?”

“Tom and Sherry weren’t ready to leave earlier, so I went outside to look at the house from a different angle. I don’t have the blueprints for the house, obviously, but the measurements I took don’t quite seem to add up.”

“How so?” Claudia asked.

“As near as I can tell, this room ought to be wider than it is, given the placement of the windows here in the parlor and in the smoking room,” he said.

Right—he was a structural engineer. He'd notice things like that. But it wasn’t just about him being an engineer; he noticed details, filed them away. Like her coffee at the diner. It was part of his competence, that quiet intelligence, and she admired it.

It was her turn to cock her head. “You don’t think it’s just a factor of the house being added on to over the years?”

“I don’t think so—both rooms are, as near as I can tell, part of the original building.”

“Huh,” Claudia said. “What does that mean?”

“Let find out,” he said, and started tapping on the wooden panels.

“Oh, come on,” she said. “It’s not like we’re in an episode of Scooby-D—wait, go back. Does that one sound different to you?”

He went back and rapped again on one of the rectangular panels. “It does—more hollow.”

He felt around the panel, and Claudia could see that it was loose. Not a huge surprise in a house this old...the surprise was when he pressed against it and slid it sideways, revealing a dark hole.

Every bad horror movie raced through her head as Reese stuck his hand in the rectangular opening and felt around. A moment later he said, “I think I feel a latch.”

Another moment, and a section of the wall swung inward, just wide enough for a not-too-large person to slip through. If the parlor weren't well lit, it would be hard to see the dark opening unless you were looking for it.

She leaned in and caught the scent of tallow. Besides that, though, the room—or passage—didn’t smell musty or unused. No cobwebs, not much dust. The space was narrow and long; the light didn’t extend to the other end, but she was pretty sure there’d be another secret door leading to another room.

“You know,” she said, turning to Reese, “I read something that said the Underground Railroad was active in and around Heather Mountain. John Brown’s Farm is nearby.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” he said. “So, what are we going to do? It seems to me we’ve solved the mystery of The White Lady.”

“I think I need to talk to Mrs. Hawley,” she said.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” he reminded her, the blue of his eyes dark and grave.

“I know,” she said, glad that he cared. “I’m not going to expose her—again, it doesn’t matter to me whether the ghost is real or not. But I do need to find out the truth.”

“I’d like to be there when you do,” he said.

“I was planning on it,” she said, and took his hand. It was, she realized, only the second time they’d held hands (the gloved handshake when they’d first met didn’t count). It felt natural, as if they’d been doing it for a long time—as if they fit. His fingers twined with hers.

“It doesn’t mean,” he said softly, “that there isn’t a happy ending.”

Claudia had a feeling he wasn’t just talking about the ghost.

“Let’s find out,” she said. She wasn’t just talking about the ghost, either.

This wasn’t something she wanted to do, but having Reese by her side made it easier. And just seemed right.

 

Mrs. Hawley’s office was a back porch that had been converted into an interior room when additions had been made to the main house. Access was through the kitchen, and the smell of roasting turkey and sautéed onions made Claudia’s mouth water.

A built-in desk took up much of one wall of the long, narrow room. Unlike the rest of the lodge, which was kept in an artfully cluttered but neat Victorian style, here papers and notebooks were scattered and piled along with office supplies, a glass doorknob, and three coffee cups. On the wall were framed pictures of who Claudia assumed were Mrs. Hawley’s children and grandchildren.

“Well, hello, you two,” Mrs. Hawley said, closing her laptop with a snick. “What…oh dear. I can tell by your expressions something is wrong.”

Claudia looked at Reese. “Not wrong, exactly,” she said, and then told Mrs. Hawley that they’d found the passageway.

The older woman’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right,” she said. “We’re almost positive the passageway was a hiding place for runaway slaves. It ends in the pantry, and from there you can get down into the root cellar, which has outside access.”

“And The White Lady?” Claudia had to ask.

“It’s possible—probable—that my father made her up, as a way to advertise the lodge. I kept up the ruse.”

“With help, I’m guessing,” Reese said.

Mrs. Hawley looked down at her hands. They were strong, sturdy, and Claudia saw she still wore her wedding ring, a plain white-gold band. “Yes,” she admitted. “My son’s an electrical engineer; he rigged some small effects. And I hire a girl to pose as the ghost at Christmastime, although sometimes I do it, too.” She stood, looked at both of them. “You’re not going to tell, are you?”

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Reese said. “That wouldn’t be in the spirit of things.”

“There’s no reason to expose The White Lady as a fraud,” Claudia said. “It does mean we can’t feature the lodge on the show, but if the legend brings in customers, keep doing what you’re doing.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Hawley said with heartfelt emotion.

“You know,” Claudia said, struck by inspiration, “you could come up with an even better legend about the passage and the Railroad. The ghost could be year-round, lighting a candle to let the Underground Railroad know when it’s safe to come. I’m sure you could find some historical accounts to back up the story—which might make you eligible for the show. I’d be willing to help you with the research.”

She didn’t really have the time to do that—even while she’d been working here, she’d been doing preliminary research for three other possible show topics—but she’d grown fond of the Heather Mountain Lodge in the short time she’d been here.

Back in the parlor, looking at the decorated tree, its white lights glittering, she said to Reese, “I wish I could just grab all this and…I don’t know, stop time for a little while.” She laughed, swirling the last dregs of her whiskey in the glass. “I wish I could just live here.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Reese said, and she looked up, startled. He picked up the brochures she’d left on the sofa. “In fact, I was looking at houses, somewhere to come on my time off. Maybe you should, too.”

Claudia stared at him. Tug. Click. It didn’t just make logical sense. It made emotional sense. She could live anywhere, and what were wishes but things to make real, if you really wanted them?

She always trusted her instincts.

She raised her glass. “And we should make a pact to meet here every Christmas?”

He smiled, but those midnight blue eyes held a hint of seriousness. “No,” he said, and before the wave of disappointment could crash over her, he added, “I wouldn’t want to wait that long, would you?”

Her breath caught in her throat. She’d been half-joking, not realizing how much, until this very moment, she wanted him to say something like that.

“No, I don’t think I would,” she said.

Now the smile reached his eyes, made them flash in the glow of the tree’s lights.

There was more here, Claudia knew, than Christmas magic. Like spring waiting under the cover of snow. That’s the reason people brought in trees and decked the halls with greenery: to remind them, through the long winter darkness, that the sun would return and the earth would be abundant again. She’d half-forgotten that, missing the seasons in southern California.

There were so many questions to ask and answer, but not at this moment, she decided—it was Christmas Eve. Not a time for worries or fretting about the future. A time for rejoicing in the moment.

She didn’t let Reese draw her in for a kiss—she met him halfway. Finally got to indulge the feel of his hair beneath her fingertips as their lips met and the world around them swirled like snow in a snow globe, and she thought she could stay here forever in the magic. It was only when laughter and voices echoed in the foyer that they pulled apart, but not before Reese caressed her cheek and said, “Now, tell me you’d want to wait until next Christmas to do that again.”

“Not on your life,” she said.

Dinner was full of laughter and talking, exactly how Claudia loved it, with everyone telling stories of their day (except all Claudia said was that she’d just missed seeing the ghost, drat it all). Afterwards, there were carols around the piano—much to her surprise, Reese played. A man of many talents; she liked that.

When they went upstairs, he stopped by her door. He took her hands in his and squeezed them gently. “Sleep tight,” he said.

 As earlier, she didn’t stop to think, didn’t know she’d made a decision until she said “Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” untangled her fingers from his, and reached up to draw him down for as toe-curling a kiss as she could muster.

At least, it curled her toes. At some point, it stopped being something she was trying to do and became something they were sharing.

When they drew apart, she asked a question with her eyes, and he answered. She took him by the hand again, and led him into her room.

 

It was always strange, Claudia mused, when you felt entirely different—in this case, high on the giddy, bubbling joy—and nobody else seemed to notice except the person you shared it with. And except for Brittany, who walked by them and pointed meaningfully at the mistletoe they happened to be standing under.

When they kissed, they thought they heard a low, satisfied laugh, but when they broke apart, Brittany was already in the dining room, and nobody else was near.

After breakfast, they all repaired once again to the parlor. There was a new off-white candle on the windowsill, mostly burned down. Claudia glanced at the corner and smiled.

After yesterday’s snowfall, the sun had come out again, glazing the snow with a brilliance almost too bright to look at. It glinted off the icicles hanging from the eaves, and turned the snow on the trees into glittering fairy dust.

Mrs. Hawley had presents for all of them: small frames of heather pressed under glass. Matt and Holly had brought handmade bookmarks for everyone; Tom and Sherry passed out little carved bear and deer that they’d picked up at a gift shop in town; and Angela gave everyone CDs of a friend’s music.

Claudia gave everyone locally made maple syrup, and Reese had had a similar idea, presenting boxes of maple candy shaped like maple leaves and pine cones, so sweet it made your teeth ache.

But Reese had another present for Claudia, which he gave her after everyone had gone off to tromp in the snow.

The box was only about six inches square, so she was unprepared for the weight of it.

She tugged off the curled blue ribbon; tore off the wrapping paper, white with blue snowflakes; opened the plain box.

“Ohhh….”

She shook the snow globe, watching the tiny white flakes swirl and dance around a winter forest scene and a building that looked much like Heather Mountain Lodge.

He must have bought it that first day, when they’d gone into town so she could do her research. That made it even more special.

“A little piece of the Adirondacks to take home to California,” Reese said. “And snow to get you through the warm winter.”

“It’s perfect,” Claudia said, her voice catching. “Thank you.”

And she realized, yes, snow to get her through the winter. But not winter in LA, not ever again.

He held out his hand, helped her to her feet. “Speaking of snow,” he said, “let’s go outside and enjoy it. I’m thinking there’s a potential snowman with our names on it.”

 

Instead, they went for a walk in the woods.

Snow clung to the branches and covered the ground, pristine. There were no signs of her footprints or of the big white dog’s paw prints from just a few nights before.

Claudia’s gloved hand curled around Reese’s, comfortable, strangely familiar, and ever-exciting.

“I’ve been thinking,” Reese said.

“Hm?”

“You want to move here, I want to move here, and I think, given everything, that we might as well skip a step and look at buying one house, not two, and moving here.”

“You’re not just…being logical, are you?” Claudia asked, because she had to be sure, had to hear him say it. “As in, we’re rarely home, so why not be roommates and share a house?”

He shook his head, slowly, as he gathered her up in his arms. “No,” he said. “I’m talking about sharing a house, and sharing a future.”

He kissed the tip of her nose, his lips warm against her chilled flesh, then moved in for a long, slow kiss that warmed her all over.

And that was exactly how she’d hoped he’d respond.

 

The sun didn’t last; by the next morning, clouds had muted the sky again, heavy with potential snow. Fitting, Claudia thought, that she should leave in the weather she arrived in.

“Thank you so much,” Claudia said sincerely, taking Mrs. Hawley’s hands between hers. She’d already reiterated her willingness to help research the lodge’s connection to the Underground Railroad. “It’s beautiful here, and that’s because of your hospitality and love for the lodge. From the staff, to the stories…even the dog that helped me find my way here.”

Beside her, she sensed Reese suddenly going still. Mrs. Hawley cocked her head.

“Dog? What dog? I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about him. A big white dog, in the woods the day I arrived. It led me here, through the snow. I was lost….” She trailed off at Mrs. Hawley’s confused expression.

“I haven’t got a dog,” the older woman said. “I don’t even know anyone around here who has a big white dog.” Then she looked at Reese. “Didn’t you have a big white dog when you were a boy?”

Reese’s face was a blank mask. “Yes. Albus.”

“That’s it, Albus,” Mrs. Hawley said. “A sweet dog, that one.”

“Well,” Claudia said, trying to recover, “if you see another big white dog in the area, thank it for me. And thank you again.”

Reese didn’t say anything as she shouldered her pack and followed him out to his truck. Her breath misted in the air as she climbed in, dropped the pack at her feet. He turned up the heat, but it took a few minutes for the blowing air to shift from cold to warm, and by that time they were down the driveway.

The truck bumped along the lane. Why were trucks always louder than cars inside? She’d arrived in silence, and was leaving in sound, and while in many ways she preferred the silence, she didn’t like not hearing Reese’s voice.

He’d pulled in on himself, and she wasn’t sure if he was angry, or didn’t believe her about the dog, or if he’d done a one-eighty and decided they’d moved too fast.

Hell, what had she been thinking, falling in love with a guy she’d barely just met?

Trust your instincts. Somehow, she didn’t feel worried.

Her instincts told her to give him time.

They arrived at the station, parked in the tiny lot, which was mostly empty except for two other cars, one of which was half-covered with snow. The station itself was small, too, just a white clapboard building with a black “witch’s hat” roof, steeply pointed but still covered with snow, and an additional covered waiting area with the same type of roof.

Claudia reached for the door handle, but stopped before she opened the door. Reese had shut off the truck but made no move to open his door, and even though he was just dropping her off and didn’t need to come with her, something stayed her hand. Intuition, again.

He finally spoke. “Tell me about the dog,” he said, looking at the slowly fogging windshield instead of her.

So she told him about being lost, and the dog coming out of the woods, and then leading her to the lodge before bounding off behind it. “Why?” she finished.

“Like Mrs. Hawley said, when I lived here as a kid, I had a White German Shepherd. One time I was walking home and the snow was so thick I lost my sense of direction, and he found me and led me home through the woods.” He finally turned and looked at her, blue eyes intent. “I’ve never told anyone that. Not even Mrs. Hawley.”

“Well,” Claudia said, feeling a curious sense of warmth, like something melting beneath her breastbone, “perhaps that means we’ve found the ghost after all. I believe, truly, that it was Albus who found me and led me to the lodge.”

A slow smile touched Reese’s lips. “I believe that, too. He had good instincts, Albus did.”

“Who knows,” Claudia said, “maybe he’s been doing it for years.”

“Or maybe he just helps people I’m supposed to meet. People who…are meant to be in my life.”

Claudia’s heart thumped, and she smiled, too, at that. “Then I have even more reason to be grateful.” Reluctantly, she added, “My train should be here any minute now.”

“Then let’s go,” Reese said.

She exited the truck, the cold briefly sucking the air out of her lungs. She supposed if she lived here all the time, she might complain, but right now it felt exhilarating. She heaved her pack onto her shoulders, and Reese walked with her. They were the only ones there.

The snow began drifting down, fat, languid, dancing flakes.

Once they were on the wooden platform, he turned to her and said, “I have some time off in January after I finish my current project. I could come to LA….”

Claudia felt a warm flicker in her chest, like a growing flame. “I have a better idea,” she said. “I’ll put in for vacation time, too, and we’ll meet back here.”

“Have a proper stay at the lodge?” Reese’s mouth quirked in a grin.

“Snuggle under the covers and look at property listings.”

“I think I can distract you away from those….”

“Challenge accepted,” she said.

In the distance came the faint whistle of a train, mournful and yet expectant, inviting her to another adventure. It reminded her that she loved to travel, even if she didn’t want to leave just yet.

Reese cradled her face in his hands, bent to kiss her again.

With the snow swirling around them, she felt again as if they were in their own snow globe, the world existing only for the two of them, the moment locked in time.

And she knew she had a new holiday ritual, one she’d start as of next year, in their house.

She’d leave a candle burning in the window.

She knew Reese would understand.

 

Copyright © 2014 by Dayle A. Dermatis.

Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor