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Lucas & Danielle

Being an adult has its advantages…

Lucas Abbott and his identical twin grew up sharing everything—including a reputation for funny, idiotic behavior. But now that Lucas is ready to shed that lovable-idiot image, grow up and have a real, adult relationship, the joke’s on him. He and his twin have fallen for the same woman.

Crushed and hoping a few days on the slopes will work out his frustrations, he heads for Stowe, Vermont. All thought of fun and relaxation flies away as a car spins out in a snowstorm, and his firefighter/paramedic training kicks into high gear.

Danielle Rowson is hoping to pick up the pieces and build a new life for herself and her daughter in Vermont. Winding up in a ditch in the middle of a blizzard isn’t part of the plan—and neither is the kind, sexy rescuer whose strong hands pull them to safety.

Lucas has been a little kid, a big kid and now an adult—and he discovers that adulting has more than one advantage. Especially when it comes to sharing with Dani and Savannah the one thing that’s his and his alone: his love. 

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Till There Was You

(The Butler Vermont Series, Book 4)

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” —George Bernard Shaw

Chapter 1

It had taken exactly twenty-seven years for Lucas Abbott to wish he hadn’t been born a twin. Most of the time, he embraced his status as one half of the younger set of Abbott twins, who spread good humor and cheerful dispositions everywhere they went in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

But right now? He was furious with the man who was his doppelgänger in every possible way. Not only were they so identical that their own siblings often confused them, but he and Landon shared almost all the same interests. They had the same friends, the same schedule, the same everything, including, Lucas had discovered to his dismay, the same taste in women.

Earlier today, he’d overheard Landon talking about his date the night before with Amanda Pressley, the woman Lucas had been out with two nights ago.

It had been the best first date of his life, but then he’d heard Landon say the same thing to their brother Will. Hearing that, the euphoria Lucas had walked around with since his evening with Amanda had fizzled like steam hitting cold air.

Tonight, he had to go make nice with Landon and the rest of their family, who were gathering at the barn where the ten Abbott siblings had been raised, to celebrate his and Landon’s twenty-seventh birthday. Happy birthday to him and the last person on earth he wanted to hang out with right now. That, in and of itself, was a first. Lucas and Landon were known for being “thick as thieves,” as their grandfather often said.

Lucas stepped out of the shower in his loft over the barn at the family-owned Christmas tree farm that Landon managed. He hadn’t wanted to live on the property, so he’d given Lucas the apartment and found his own place on the outskirts of Butler, the town they called home. For a brief time, they’d entertained the idea of living together in the loft apartment.

Thank God they hadn’t done that, because Lucas would be packing his stuff after today.

Studying his reflection in the mirror, he encountered the face of a changed man. Maybe it was his birthday, or perhaps it was meeting a woman who truly interested him. He wasn’t sure what it was, but something was definitely different. He’d gone so far as to shave the beard he normally sported during the winter, because he’d thought she would prefer him clean-shaven. Now he was growing it back. Thankfully, his beard came in quickly. He didn’t want anyone mistaking him for Landon.

The situation had him unsettled and pissed off as he dressed in his usual winter uniform of thermals, flannel, denim and insulated boots before stepping into the frozen tundra to head to his parents’ house. He should’ve made up a fake illness to get out of the annual pizza and cake tradition, but like the rest of his siblings, Lucas was robustly healthy. They wouldn’t believe him if he’d said he was sick.

Since the last thing he needed was an Abbott family inquisition, he got into his truck and headed for Hells Peak Road, taking the most direct route through town. On Elm Street, he drove past the family’s Green Mountain Country Store on the right and his sister-in-law Megan’s diner on the left. Technically, his grandfather, Elmer, owned the diner, but Megan was the one who made it happen.

As he approached the one-lane covered bridge that was located right before the turn onto Hells Peak, he stopped short, slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting Fred, the town moose, who stood in the middle of the road, seemingly without a care in the world.

Lucas laid on the horn.

Fred gave him a perturbed look, but he didn’t move.

“Great.” Lucas shifted the truck into Park, accepting that he was going to be late for his own party. He wished he could’ve headed to his woodshop and lost himself in the work that fed his soul, especially at times like this when his soul needed nourishment. Being at odds with anyone in his family was the worst. Being at odds with Landon had the power to break him.

In a family of ten kids, there’d been plenty of arguments and actual fights. But he had never once truly argued with Landon, who had been his ally and best friend for every day of their twenty-seven years.

Until Amanda came to town and they’d both asked her out. Not wanting to hurt any feelings, she’d accepted both invitations. No one ever took him or Landon seriously, so why should she? Especially after the way they’d behaved during the intimate line demonstration she’d overseen on behalf of her company at his family’s store.

Lucas cringed thinking about the questions they’d asked and the comments they’d made. It was like they couldn’t help themselves, although who could be expected to behave in a room full of family members and sex toys? Amanda had handled them with skill that indicated it wasn’t her first rodeo when it came to dealing with buffoons. In her line of work, she probably met her fair share of guys like him and Landon, who’d found the whole thing hilarious.

She probably thought they were both jerks but had humored them by going on separate dates with them. Her company had landed a big account with their family’s store, so she was just being nice—and professional.

That made him sad and mad at the same time. If Landon hadn’t asked her out at the same time Lucas had, they wouldn’t be in the unfortunate position of pursuing the same woman. It was ludicrous when he really thought it over—neither of them had ever had any problem attracting female attention. In fact, they usually had more attention than they could handle. So why, when it truly mattered to Lucas for the first time ever, did Landon have to set his sights on the same woman?

Being at odds with Landon made Lucas feel ill. It went against every natural impulse he had to go out of his way to avoid his twin the way he had all day today. They had been the best of friends their entire lives. Even when their other siblings had fought like tomcats, he and Landon had risen above it. Sure, they had fought with their othersiblings, but never with each other. Hunter and Hannah, their older siblings, who were also twins, had been the same way—best friends.

He ached at the thought of losing that bond with Landon, especially since they were together more often than not. Between their shifts as volunteer firefighters and the time they spent doing other things, such as skiing, rock-climbing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, they were constant companions.

And if it came to a choice—Landon or Amanda…

“Ugh.” Of course he’d choose his brother over a woman he’d only just met, but what a bitch of a dilemma.

As if he could hear Lucas, Fred let out a loud moo.

Lucas laid on the horn again, hoping to convince Fred to move along, but Fred wasn’t intimidated by a horn—or much of anything, for that matter, except Hannah. She had a way of dealing with the moose that made her husband, Nolan, crazy. He feared tiny Hannah would be smooshed by the moose that Hannah called a pussycat.

Lucas tried the siren that was built into his truck for times of emergency, but Fred shot him a look full of disdain, as if to say, Is that all you got?

Thinking about Fred was preferable to wondering what the hell he was supposed to do about his brother and Amanda.

Lucas’s date with her had been close to perfect. The conversation had flowed, they’d laughed at the same things, had similar interests, and she absolutely loved their tiny town of Butler, Vermont, as well as the Green Mountain Country Store his family had run for three generations.

She’d had a million questions about the family business and how it worked and how the Abbotts managed to keep business and personal separate. Though Lucas didn’t actually work in the store, it had always been part of his life, and he could answer her questions about the family dynamics as well as any of the others who worked in the office. He sold most of his woodworking products in the store, including hand-carved bed frames, dressers and hope chests as well as smaller items such as carved moose that sold like wildfire, so he was definitely involved.

Lucas put down the window and stuck his head out. “Come on, Fred. Be a sport. It’s my freaking birthday, and it’s already been a bitch of a day. Have a heart and move your ass, will you?”

Fred eyed him as if he was considering the request.

Please?

With another loud moo, Fred took one step forward and then another.

“Was he honestly waiting for me to say please?” Lucas asked the universe as he put up the window, put the truck in Drive and headed over the bridge toward home. He hadn’t lived in the barn in years, but it would always be home to him and his siblings. As he pulled into the driveway that was already full of pickup trucks and SUVs built to withstand brutal Vermont winters, his grandfather, Elmer, was getting out of his truck.

Lucas parked and went to greet his grandfather, who was waiting for him.

“Oh, hey, Luc.” Elmer said his name after giving him a close look to make sure he got it right. Elmer was one of the few people in their lives who almost always got it right. “I couldn’t tell what color your truck was in the dark.”

His was navy. Landon’s was black. Same model. Shocker, right?

Lucas gave his grandfather a hug. “How you doing, Gramps?”

“I’m good.” He patted Lucas on the back. “Happy birthday, buddy.”

“Thanks.”

“I can’t believe you guys are twenty-seven. Where does the time go?”

“And still such nitwits.”

“You said that, not me.”

Lucas laughed as he held the door to the mudroom for Elmer. “Saved you the trouble.”

“You boys like to have fun. Nothing wrong with that.”

A few days ago, he would’ve agreed with Elmer’s statement. Now he had reason to wonder how a guy transitioned from acting the fool to being an actual adult. That was his goal for the next year. He would be mocked ruthlessly by his siblings and others who had come to expect certain behavior from him, but he wouldn’t be deterred in his goal to take his game up a few notches.

Having a plan for himself helped as he hung his coat on the hook with his name on it, which was to the left of Landon’s. He’d been born ten minutes before Landon. Since Landon’s hook was empty, Lucas realized he’d gotten there first. Taking a quick glance at the hooks, he noted that everyone else was there.

Lucas took off his hat, tucked it into the pocket of his coat and ran his fingers through dirty-blond hair to bring some order to it. This time of year, everyone in Vermont suffered from a terminal case of hat head. He stepped into the kitchen and received a warm, welcoming smile from his mother.

“There’s one of my guests of honor.”

Lucas wondered what it might be like to have a birthday all to himself and then immediately felt guilty for having the thought. “Hi, Mom.”

Molly Abbott, her gray hair in a long braid down her back as usual and her pretty face bright with pleasure over an evening with her family, hugged him. “Happy birthday, Luc. Twenty-seven looks good on you.”

He stuck out his chin. “Better than twenty-six did?”

“Much better.”

“He had nowhere to go but up,” their youngest brother, Max, said when he joined them in the kitchen with his baby son, Caden, in his arms.

Molly tried to hide her smile but failed miserably.

Lucas scowled at his brother and reached for the baby, noting the cacophonous noise coming from the family room where the rest of the family was probably watching the Bruins game.

Max handed the baby over to his uncle. “Don’t listen to a word he says, buddy, and don’t do anything he does.”

In light of his recent revelations, Lucas couldn’t help being slightly wounded by Max’s teasing comments. Not that he hadn’t earned the jibes. He certainly had, but that was going to change, effective immediately. He snuggled Caden into his chest and kissed the top of his silky head. The little guy always smelled so damned good. His little fist grasped ahold of Lucas’s flannel shirt, catching a bit of chest hair that made his uncle wince from the tug of pain. “Easy, pal. Uncle Luc doesn’t need any bald spots. Not yet anyway.”

“Hey!” His oldest sister, Hannah, let out a happy squeak when she came around the corner from the dining room and nearly crashed into Lucas. “Happy birthday!”

“Thank you.” He leaned down so she could kiss his cheek. “Where’s my niece?”

“With her daddy. She’s all about him these days, except for when she’s hungry. Then Mommy is number one.”

Lucas smiled at the face Hannah made to express her displeasure while knowing full well she was madly in love with the daughter she’d waited forever to have—and the husband who’d made her so damned happy. “Fred was being Fred again on the way over here. Blocking the road to the covered bridge.”

“He’s been ornery lately.” Hannah acted as if she had a direct bead on Fred’s moods, which she sort of did, not that anyone wanted to admit that out of fear of encouraging her moose-whispering activities. The best part was that she didn’t even think that her unique bond with a full-grown bull moose was weird. Everyone else did, though, especially Nolan, who was continuously freaked out by her close encounters of the moose kind. “Ever since I took Baby Dexter home with me, he’s been out of sorts.”

“Has it occurred to you that Fred liked having Baby Dexter around and maybe he didn’t want you messing with it?” Lucas asked.

“Of course it has, but he has no business raising a baby moose.”

Bouncing Caden, who seemed to have dozed off, Lucas raised his brows in disbelief. “And you do?”

“I’m better at it than Fred is. At least with me, the poor baby is getting regular meals and lots of love.”

“Which is critical to moose development.”

“Every baby needs lots of love. Moose are no different.”

It took effort on Lucas’s part not to roll his eyes. Knowing she was dead serious kept him from mocking her—that and his newfound intention to act more like an adult than a buffoon. The sound of a baby crying in the next room had Hannah spinning around to go to her daughter. “Speaking of babies…”

When they were alone, Lucas gazed down at Caden’s sleeping face. “Auntie Hannah may be nuts, buddy, but she’s the best kind of nuts.” Lucas admired his older sister more than just about anyone he knew. After enduring the devastating loss of her first husband, Caleb, in Iraq, watching her find new love with Nolan had been inspirational. And now they had baby Caleb, whom they called Callie, and Hannah smiled all the time. If taking care of a baby moose made her happy, so be it. If anyone had earned the right to be happy, it was Hannah.

“Was she going on about the baby moose again?” Nolan asked, his mouth full of cheese and cracker.

“Maybe?” Lucas hesitated to toss his sister under the marital bus.

Nolan groaned. “She’s round the bend over that baby. Wanted to bring him in the house the other night because it was too cold for him outside. I have to keep telling her he’s a wild animal, not a house pet.”

“He’ll be a house pet by the time she’s done with him.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of—having a full-grown bull moose in bed between me and my wife.”

Lucas snorted with laughter. “Might be a good idea to nip that in the bud.”

“Ya think?”

“What’re we nipping in the bud?” Lucas’s father, Lincoln, asked as he came from the family room to join them.

“Hannah’s affair with the baby moose,” Nolan said. “If she had her way, he’d be in bed with us.”

“Oh dear,” Linc said. “Probably best to not let that happen.”

“I hate to tell you this, Linc, but there’re times when your daughter is downright unmanageable,” Nolan said.

“She gets that from her mother,” Linc said.

“I can hear you, Lincoln Abbott,” Molly said, “and you will pay for that later.”

“Sorry, Nolan,” Linc said. “You’re on your own.” Heading toward his wife, Lincoln said, “You heard me wrong, love.”

“No, I did not.”

“No wonder my wife is nuts,” Nolan said. “She was raised in a nuthouse.”

Lucas cracked a grin. “You’re just figuring that out now?”

“Oh, I’ve known it for a while.” Nolan had grown up with Lucas’s older siblings and had been in and out of the Abbotts’ barn for decades. Nolan’s crush on Hannah had developed years after his close friend Caleb had died. And no one doubted Nolan’s fierce love for his wife, despite her moose antics.

The door to the mudroom slammed shut, jolting Caden.

Lucas rubbed the baby’s back. “Easy, buddy.”

“Quit slamming that door,” Molly said to Landon.

“Sorry, Mom.” Landon laid a loud smacker on Molly’s cheek. “It’s my birthday. Don’t I get a pass on door slamming?”

“No door slamming in this house, even on your birthday. It’s in the Abbott family rule book.”

“I never got my copy,” Landon said, making his twin smile. Lucas would’ve said the same thing. “Mom, you remember Amanda, right? I hope it’s okay that I invited her to join us.”

Lucas froze.

Landon had brought Amanda to their birthday dinner? No way.

“Of course it’s all right,” Molly said. “The more the merrier is the Abbott family motto, which you’d know if you’d read the rule book. Welcome to our insane asylum, Amanda.”

When Amanda laughed, Lucas wanted to turn to look at her, but remained rooted in place, barely able to breathe, let alone move. “Thank you so much for having me, Mrs. Abbott.”

“Please, call me Molly. Everyone does.”

Lucas listened to them with a surreal feeling of detachment as his mind raced to catch up. Amanda had come to their birthday dinner. With Landon.

Worst birthday ever.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of his life has not discovered the value of life.” —Charles Darwin

Chapter 2

As usual, their mom had made pizza from scratch for their birthday—sausage and onion for him and pepperoni and peppers for Landon, along with special orders for the others. Normally, Lucas loved the traditions and the way his mother still paid attention to the details with each of her ten children, even though they were grown and some had kids of their own.

But tonight, with Landon and Amanda seated directly across the table from him, Lucas could barely swallow the delicious pizza or the beer his father had opened for him. He had nothing to say to anyone, which was rare in and of itself. Lucas Abbott always had something to say, especially in the midst of his boisterous family, all of whom had come to celebrate their brothers’ birthday. As the eighth child in a family of ten, one learned to speak up early or be drowned out by the noise.

When everyone was there, they were close to twenty people as his siblings were pairing off, getting married and having babies like wildfire these days. Their elusive, quiet brother Wade had shocked the living shit out of them recently by showing up with a wife none of them had met until after he and Mia had said “I do.” No one had seen that coming, but Wade seemed happier than Lucas had ever seen him. Mia’s long-lost father was throwing them a big wedding in Boston in June that everyone would be going to. Would Landon bring Amanda to that, too?

The noise level in the dining room was probably registering on the Richter scale. Normally, he’d be right in the middle of the fray. Tonight, he had a splitting headache.

Elmer nudged him. “What’s up with you?” Fortunately, his grandfather kept his voice down, so the question wasn’t heard by everyone else.

“Nothing.”

“Not like you to pick at the pizza. You’re more likely to inhale than pick.”

“I’m not that hungry tonight.”

Elmer’s white brows furrowed as he placed a hand on Lucas’s forehead. “You’re not feverish.”

Molly zeroed in on Elmer’s hand on Lucas’s forehead. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. The pizza is great, Mom.”

Though she accepted his answer, he could tell by the way his mother looked at him that he hadn’t fooled her.

Per the tradition, she brought out one big cake, half chocolate for him and half vanilla for Landon, and they blew out their candles together. They’d done that twenty-six other times, and it had never once occurred to Lucas that he ought to have his own damned cake as a grown-ass man. Until now.

“Happy birthday, bro,” Landon said, giving him a warm smile.

“Same to you.” Lucas could barely stand to look at the face that was nearly the mirror image of his own. He felt naked without the beard that left almost nothing to distinguish him from his identical twin.

Clearly Amanda preferred Landon to him if the way she giggled at every stupid thing his brother said was any indication.

She’d worn her dark hair up tonight, which only accentuated her pretty green eyes and the smattering of freckles across her nose that he’d found both cute and sexy. He didn’t recall her giggling so much when they went out and was thankful for that. In general, giggling wasn’t something he found overly attractive in a woman.

But damn if he didn’t find the rest of her overly attractive. She was downright gorgeous. He’d thought so from the first time he saw her in the conference room, surrounded by sex toys as she indoctrinated the family on the line of products her company produced.

And no, it hadn’t been the sex toys that had gotten to him. It’d been her. The confident way she spoke about something that most people had trouble talking about in private, let alone in a room full of strangers, had really done it for him. This was a woman who owned her sexuality and her freedom to express it.

That’s where his attraction toward her had started. But it had only flourished during the evening they spent together talking with an ease he didn’t often experience with someone he’d just met.

They’d covered everything from their families to their hometowns to their favorite sports, movies, books, TV shows, and it had been… easy. Fun. He’d immediately wanted to do it again and had thought she felt the same way, but watching her now with Landon, he could see that she had found a connection with him, too. Perhaps a stronger connection than she’d found with Lucas. If that was the case, there was nothing he could do about it. The choice was hers to make, and she’d clearly made it.

He stood, taking his grandfather by surprise. “Where you going, boy?”

“Gotta get home. I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.”

“Where you got to be?” Landon asked.

“I’m covering for Denny.” Lucas referred to one of the paramedics they worked with. “His wife has an ultrasound, and they’re going to find out what they’re having.”

“Oh, cool.”

“You didn’t open your presents,” Molly said.

“I told you guys no presents.”

“When do we ever do what we’re told?” Linc asked.

Lucas took the time to open the gifts from his parents—some new tools for the shop, a sleeping bag to replace the one he’d trashed after the last camping trip, a pair of the cargo shorts he wore in the summer, a book about Lewis and Clark that he’d been meaning to get and a watch with GPS capability.

“Thanks, Mom. I love it all.”

“You’re very welcome.”

He appreciated that she seemed to get that he wanted out of there. But he hoped she knew it wasn’t because he didn’t love the time with his family.

Tomorrow, he would do the shift for Denny during the day, and then he had three days off before his next shift at the firehouse. That was enough time to hit the road and get out of town for a couple of days. If his brother was going to be falling all over Amanda, he didn’t have to stick around for the show.

After he said his goodbyes to the others, his mother met him in the mudroom.

“You really shouldn’t have gotten presents, Mom.”

She shrugged off the statement. “It’s fun for me to find things I think you’d like.”

“Well, thank you. For the gifts, the pizza, the cake. For everything.”

“Are you all right, Luc? You aren’t yourself tonight.”

“I’m all right. Just fighting off a cold.”

“Are you sure that’s all it is?”

“Yep.” The last thing he’d ever do is confess to anyone that he was jealous of his brother. Such a stupid, pointless emotion, and one he’d felt rarely enough to be unfamiliar with how to deal with it. He kissed his mother’s forehead. “I’ve got a few days off, and I’m going to take a run over to Stowe tomorrow.” One of his best friends from Bowdoin College lived there, so no one would question why he was going. They didn’t need to know that he wouldn’t be seeing Craig this time around.

“Supposed to snow tomorrow. Be careful driving.”

“I will. Don’t worry.”

“You know better than to tell me not to worry.”

“I’ll be fine. If there’s one thing your children know how to do, it’s take care of themselves. You saw to that.”

“True. I’m very proud of that.”

“Then don’t worry. I have snow in my DNA.” He hugged her and headed out the door before he had to see Landon and Amanda again. Was he being ridiculous running from them? Yes, and he knew it, but so be it. He didn’t want to deal with it, especially on his freaking birthday.

He got in the truck, started it and cranked the heat, hoping it wouldn’t take long to warm up. It was bloody freezing, as per usual for the last week in March in Vermont, where winter tended to hang on until after the first buds of spring appeared on the trees. Keeping an eye on his parents’ dogs, George and Ringo, who’d followed him outside, he backed out of the driveway and glanced back at the house to see his mom still at the door, watching him go.

Lucas hoped she’d forgive him for leaving the party early, but he’d needed to get out of there before he gave away how he was feeling to the whole family. This was all new territory for him. He wasn’t one to have secrets or things he wanted to keep hidden. What you saw was what you got with Lucas Abbott, and he had no clue how to navigate this situation.

Keeping an eye out for rogue moose, he drove to the family’s Christmas tree farm that was shuttered until spring planting. Normally, he loved the isolation and the serenity of life at the farm, but, like everything else the last few days, it didn’t bring the usual comfort. He was edgy, out of sorts, off his game and feeling lost in a sea of familiar places and people.

His plan to get the hell out of here for a few days was looking better to him with every passing minute. Inside the loft apartment over the barn, he started a load of laundry and pulled a duffel bag with the Butler Volunteer Fire Department logo from under the bed.

He and Landon were both lieutenants in the department, charged with handling most of the administrative work that earned them small salaries. Lucas’s was enough to cover most of his expenses, which were minor thanks to the fact that he didn’t have to pay rent. He got to live at the farm in exchange for keeping an eye on the place in the off-season and acting as the caretaker on behalf of the family business. Between his fire department salary and the sale of the furniture and other wood items he crafted, he eked out a pretty decent living, but his needs were minimal.

Would a woman like Amanda be satisfied with the life that had always more than satisfied him, or would she find it lacking? And since when did he care what anyone else thought of his life?

Since the best first date in history, that’s when.

He had put his laundry in the dryer and opened a beer when the phone rang. Seeing his grandfather’s number on the caller ID, he took the call. “What’s up, Gramps?”

“I was thinking about you on the way home and decided to give you a ring. You weren’t yourself tonight, and I’m wondering if I know why.”

Amused as always by his grandfather, Lucas leaned back against the kitchen counter and smiled. “Knock yourself out.”

“I think you and your brother have set your sights on the same woman, and that’s got you all turned around.”

Lucas knew he shouldn’t be surprised that Elmer had figured out his dilemma.

“Am I warm?”

“Pretty warm.”

“Ah, thought so. It’s a heck of a thing to meet someone who really strikes your fancy. Happened to me once upon a time, and it was the worst feeling in the world.”

Lucas stood up straighter. “When did it happen to you?”

“With your grandmother. I met her when she was dating my cousin.”

“No way.”

“Yes way, and it was awful, I tell you.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing, and that was the hardest part. I loved my cousin. We were as close as brothers. I never would’ve done anything to hurt him.”

“Since I know how this story ends, I have to know how you ended up together.”

“She told him she fancied me.”

“Whoa! How did he take that?”

“Punched me in the mouth,” Elmer said with a low guffaw. “That’s how I knew she’d picked me.”

“Wow, Gramps. I had no idea.”

“We didn’t talk about it much after the fact. I remained close to my cousin until the day he died, and I went out of my way to make sure there was never any bad blood between us.”

“Did he ever get married?”

“Yep. Married a great gal a couple years later, and the four of us ran around together for the rest of his life.”

“I’m glad he ended up happy, too.”

“Believe me—so was I. Second-happiest day of my young life was standing up for him at his wedding.” After a pause, Elmer said, “You never really know what people go through before they end up with a happily ever after, son. It’s not always rainbows and unicorns or straight lines that lead from point A to point B. A lot of times, it’s hard and messy and painful.”

“Yeah,” Lucas said, marveling at how Elmer had homed right in on everything Lucas was feeling.

“But the most important thing is family. Your brother is your closest friend, your soul mate, if you believe in such things. The two of you have been like two peas in a pod from the word go. I’d hate to see anything come between you.”

“Me, too.”

“Then don’t let it, Luc. Amanda seems like a nice gal with a good head on her shoulders. If she’s taken a shine to Landon, well, then, there’s nothing you can really do about that. But being angry with him over it isn’t going to make it better for you. It’ll only make everything worse.”

Elmer was right. Of course he was. He was always right. “Very true.”

“I’m glad you agree. Amanda is only here for a short time. Brothers are forever.”

“Especially identical twin brothers.”

Elmer laughed. “Especially that. You okay, pal?”

“Yeah, Gramps, I’m good. This helped a lot. I’m going up to Stowe for a couple of days to ski and clear my head.”

“That’s a great idea. Have a wonderful time.”

“Thanks for calling.”

“Happy birthday, Lucas. I think this is going to be your best year yet.”

“I hope so.”

“Love you, son.”

“Love you, too, Gramps.”

Lucas put down the phone, feeling thankful for the unconditional love of his grandfather, who had always been a steady presence in his life. Elmer had made an excellent point. It would be foolish to allow a woman he barely knew to come between him and the twin brother who was also his closest friend. He wasn’t going to let that happen and would use the time away to get his head back on straight.

Amanda was a great person, and he really liked her. However, she certainly wasn’t the only woman in the world. If she had decided Landon was the one for her, Lucas would find someone else. Stepping aside was the right thing to do. He had no doubt about that after talking to his grandfather.

He couldn’t believe the story Elmer had told him about the early days of his relationship with Lucas’s grandmother. He’d never thought too much about how his grandparents might’ve gotten together, but he hadn’t pictured anything like the story Elmer had relayed.

The next day, after putting in a ten-hour shift at the firehouse that had included calls to a couple of snow-related fender benders and one elderly resident who’d needed transport to the hospital, Lucas set out for Stowe. Normally a ninety-minute drive, tonight it was slow going due to the snow that continued to fall. Lucas took his time, keeping the speedometer around forty and following in the tracks left by an eighteen-wheeler that was a mile or so ahead of him.

Driving in snow was second nature to him after growing up in northern Vermont. If Vermonters stayed home every time it snowed, they’d go weeks without leaving the house some years.

He’d called his friend Craig, who’d told him to use the house while he was out of town on business. Lucas had the security code to the house and was eager for some time alone on the slopes. Physical activity always helped to clear his mind, and he hoped it would have the usual effect on him this time.

He hated being out of sorts like this and needed to shake it off and get back to normal. Moping around wasn’t his style. At the peak of ski season in Stowe, he could also count on some good nightlife. Perhaps a night with a snow bunny would fix what ailed him. One thing he knew for certain was that getting out of Butler had already made him feel better than he had in days.

Two hours into the ride, he was yawning and guzzling the coffee he’d brewed at the firehouse to keep himself awake. His eyes were tired from staring into the snow that had seemed to intensify as he got closer to Stowe. Finally, he took the exit onto the local road that led to Craig’s place and found that it hadn’t been plowed.

“Awesome…”

He slowed the truck to a crawl, inching along while hoping he was still on the actual road. As he rounded a bend, he watched with horror as the car in front of him fishtailed wildly before pitching off an embankment into a ditch.

“A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” —Carl Sandburg

Chapter 3

Lucas put on the emergency lights that were wired into his truck and pulled over next to the place where the car had left the road. The road was completely deserted except for him and whoever was in the car. Grabbing his parka and the badge he’d stashed in the glove box after his shift as well as the high-powered flashlight he carried with him at all times, Lucas got out of the truck and zipped his coat as he jogged toward the car.

He carefully navigated his way down the small hill that led to the ditch where the car had landed, illuminated by the red glow of taillights. Even through the closed window, he could hear the driver crying hysterically as she tried to open the door that was jammed against the slope. First order of business would be to calm her.

When he knocked on the window, she startled.

“I’m a firefighter and paramedic.” He spoke loudly, hoping she could hear him through the closed window, as he withdrew the leather billfold from his pocket and showed her his badge. “I can help. Put down the window.”

She lowered the window about halfway.

“I’m Lieutenant Lucas Abbott from the Butler Volunteer Fire Department. What’s your name?”

“Danielle,” she said between sobs. “Danielle Rowson.”

“Are you hurt, Danielle?”

“I… I don’t think so.”

A squeak from the backseat got his attention, and that’s when he realized there was a baby in a car seat.

He was relieved to see the baby’s arms and legs moving.

“I don’t have a cell phone,” he said. “Do you?” It wasn’t unusual for people in Vermont not to have them, since the reception was spotty in the mountains.

“I have one, but it lost service a while ago.”

“That’s pretty common up here. Okay, then, I guess we’re it. If you’re sure you’re not hurt, I can help you out and then get the baby out. I can drive you wherever you need to go.”

As he handed her the billfold containing his badge, he could tell she was trying to decide whether she should allow him to help her. “I know I’m a stranger, but I swear you and your baby are safe with me. I’m the eighth of ten kids. My brothers and I are all certified in cold-weather rescue, and like I said, I’m a lieutenant with the Butler fire department.”

After taking a good long look at his badge, she handed it back to him. “Okay.” She sounded hesitant, and really, who could blame her? He was a total stranger to her, despite his fancy badge. At least she’d stopped crying.

“Release your seat belt and open your window and the baby’s. I’ll help you out, and then we’ll get your little one.”

She followed his instructions and climbed out of the driver’s side window into his arms. The first thing he noticed was that she was tinier than he’d expected her to be and curvy, not that he was noticing the supple flesh that pressed against him. He reached back into the car for her coat and purse and handed both to her before going to retrieve the baby from the car seat. Judging by the pink snowsuit, he assumed the baby was a girl.

He gave her a cursory check, determined that in addition to her limbs moving normally, her pupils were responsive to his flashlight. Once he’d ensured the baby was okay, he released the straps and lifted her out, handing her over to her mother. Then he lowered the handle and lifted the detachable seat out of the car through the window.

The baby let out a happy squeal at the sight of her mother.

“Thank God she’s all right,” Danielle said on a long sigh of relief.

“What else do you ladies need from the car?”

“Our bags in the trunk. The flowered two on top.”

Leaning inside the driver’s side window, he removed the keys from the ignition and pressed the button on the key fob to open the trunk. He grabbed the bags she’d asked for from a trunk full of stuff, shouldered them both and clicked the lock button, which also closed the windows before the lock chime sounded.

“Everything we own is in that car. Is it safe to leave it?”

“I’ll call for a tow as soon as we get to a phone. They’ll take it somewhere safe for the night.” He wished they were in Butler so he could call Nolan to take care of the car.

He offered Danielle his arm. “Hold on to me and take it slow.”

When she hooked her hand around his arm, he could feel her trembling, probably from the shock of the accident as much as the biting cold. Snow continued to fall steadily and was accumulating on the road at an alarming rate.

Lucas powered the three of them up the small hill to the road and guided them to his truck. “We can belt the baby into the backseat.”

While Danielle took care of that, he put their bags on the other side of the backseat, next to the work bag that contained the personal protective equipment he kept with him at all times. As a member of a volunteer fire department, he could be called out at any time and had to be ready for anything. He got into the driver’s side and blasted the heat.

With the baby settled, Danielle got into the passenger seat and closed the door. “Thank you for helping us.”

“It’s no problem. Where were you headed?”

“I… I’m not sure. I was hoping to find somewhere to stay when I got to Stowe, but the snow was coming down so hard that I didn’t know if I would make it there.”

“You don’t have reservations?”

She shook her head. “Do you think that’s a problem?”

“Normally, I’d say no, but this is the end of ski season. Hotels and inns in these parts are sold out months in advance through March.”

“Oh God,” she said, sighing deeply.

“I’m heading to my friend’s house outside of Stowe. He’s away, but the place is huge and has plenty of extra bedrooms. You’re welcome to one of them for the night if that would help.”

“I… I don’t know if that’s the best idea.”

“I understand. You don’t know me at all, and why should you trust me, right?”

She gave him a side-eyed glance full of trepidation. “Something like that.”

“I have several ways to prove I’m an actual firefighter, including the lights on my truck, the license plate that identifies me as a member of the fire service as does the gear and emergency equipment in the backseat.”

Despite his assurances, Danielle displayed concern that he certainly understood. He could be a predator, for all she knew, and she was right to protect herself and her child.

“How about we do this? We’ll go somewhere public like a gas station or convenience store. I’ll give you a phone number to call, and you can fully vet me.”

“Who would I be calling?”

“My mom,” he said with a grin. “I could also give you the number of the fire department I work for, and they can vouch for me as well.”

She thought that over for a second, giving him a chance to take a closer look at a pretty face framed by a knitted hat. Strands of reddish-blonde hair escaped the confines of the hat, and her eyes might’ve been blue or green. He couldn’t tell for certain in the murky light inside the truck. “That sounds okay to me.”

“All right, then.” He put the truck into Drive and headed slowly toward town. “What’s the baby’s name?”

“Savannah.” Hearing her name, the baby let out a little chirp.

“She’s adorable. How old is she?”

“Thank you. I think so, too. She’s four months.”

“What’re you girls doing out in the middle of a storm?”

“I had the Bluetooth connected to my phone, so I didn’t hear that the storm was coming. I realize now how stupid that was.”

He noted that she didn’t say why she was out in the first place and chose not to press her. What did it matter? He would help her out tonight and probably never see her again.

“Are you new to Vermont?” He’d seen Kentucky plates on the car, but it could be a rental.

“No, I used to come up here to see my grandparents when I was a kid, but I haven’t been here in years. Heck of a welcome back.”

Lucas chuckled. “Vermont tends to behave this way from about November to April, when everything starts to melt and we enter mud season.”

“Charming.”

“Mud season is an acquired taste. You get used to it after a while.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“Are you planning to stay awhile?” he asked, thinking of all the stuff she had in the car.

“That’s the plan. I’ve applied for jobs in Stowe and Butler. I’m hoping one of them will come through and that I can find childcare.”

“What kind of jobs are you looking for?”

“Retail management. That’s what my degree is in.”

He immediately thought of the family business.

“My grandparents had a home in Stowe when I was younger. We spent a lot of time there every summer, and some of my best memories were made in that house. I’ve never forgotten it and always hoped to come back sometime.”

“It’s a great town with so much to do and see. You may find it a little more built up than it was then, but the overall feel of the place hasn’t changed much.”

“That’s good to know.” She looked over at him again. “Are you really the eighth of ten kids?”

“Yep.”

“What was that like?”

“Loud.”

She laughed.

“Still is, especially now that most of my siblings are either married or about to be married. Two of them have kids, with more on the way. It gets louder all the time.”

“That sounds wonderful,” she said wistfully.

“Do you have siblings?”

She shook her head. “Just me.”

“You can’t imagine ten kids. I can’t imagine one.”

“Two extremes.”

“Ten is definitely extreme—and we were raised in a barn.”

“Seriously?”

“Uh-huh. My parents restored an old barn and turned it into a house. You can get away with a lot in life when you tell people you were raised in a barn. And I live in another barn now.”

She laughed again, this time a helpless-sounding giggle that made him smile. He had no idea why he thought so, but he suspected she didn’t laugh very often. “And did you get away with a lot?”

“I found my share of mischief.”

“I’ll bet,” she said, chuckling.

“Did you drive here all the way from Kentucky?”

She gasped, and he immediately regretted the question.

He held up his hand to stop her from panicking. “I saw the plates on the car. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to. I don’t mean to pry.”

After a long silence, she said, “I did drive from Kentucky. It was stupid of me not to check the weather, but I was anxious to get here.”

He wanted to ask if she was running away from something—or someone—but he didn’t dare pose another personal question after her reaction to the last one. A short time later, they reached the outskirts of Stowe. Lucas spotted a gas station-convenience store. “Does that one work?”

“Sure.”

He was glad she agreed to stop there, because he didn’t think they’d have many open places to choose from at this hour. After pulling into a parking space, Lucas shut off the engine. They got out of the truck, and while she retrieved the baby, he waited by the front of the truck for her and then held the door that led inside.

“Evening,” the attendant said.

“Hi there. Do you have a pay phone we could use?” Lucas asked.

“In the back.”

“Who should we call for a tow?”

The attendant handed him a business card. “They take twenty-four-hour calls.”

“Thanks very much.” Lucas gestured for Danielle to lead the way to the back of the store where the phone was located between the restrooms. “I’ll call for the tow first if that’s okay.”

“Okay, thanks, but what is this relic you call a pay phone?”

“You don’t have these in Kentucky?”

She shook her head. “We have a modern invention called the cell phone.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard of this thing of which you speak, but since it’s often useless in my part of the world, the pay phone is still essential.”

Amused by the conversation, Lucas made the call, gave the dispatcher directions to where Danielle’s car could be found and mentioned it was in a ditch by the side of the road. The dispatcher said he would call Craig’s house to let them know where the car had been taken. With that taken care of, he glanced at Danielle. “I’ll call my mom, and you can ask her anything you’d like to. I’m an open book.” Lucas dropped coins into the phone and placed the call to the most familiar phone number in his life.

“Hey, Mom, it’s Luc.”

“Hi there. Did you make it to Stowe?”

“Just now, and on the way into town, I witnessed an accident.”

“Oh wow. Is everyone all right?”

“Yep. I’ve got Danielle and her four-month-old daughter, Savannah, here with me. They were hoping to find a place to stay in town.”

“That won’t be easy this time of year.”

“That’s what I told her. I offered her a room at Craig’s, but she’s understandably reluctant to trust someone she’s only just met. I thought maybe you might be able to set her mind at ease.”

“Of course. Let me talk to her.”

“Hang on.” Lucas handed the phone to Danielle, who had Savannah propped on her hip. He thought about offering to hold the baby for her but sensed she wouldn’t want that. “My mom. Molly Abbott.”

“Hello?”

Lucas wished he could hear the other side of the conversation, but he suspected he already knew that his mother would assure Danielle that she could trust him to provide shelter for her and her child for the night and to help her get settled somewhere the next day.

Danielle did more listening than talking, and after about five minutes, she nodded, said thank you and handed the phone back to Lucas.

“Thanks a lot, Mom.”

“Always happy to talk about one of my kids.”

Lucas smiled at the predictable comment. “Talk to you soon.”

“Love you.”

“Love you, too.” He ended the call and looked at Danielle, realizing in the bright light of the store that her eyes were hazel. She was startlingly pretty, with delicate features and what his grandmother used to refer to as a “peaches-and-cream” complexion. “Would you like me to call the fire department, too?”

She shook her head. “Your mom was very convincing. I appreciate your offer of a place to stay for the night.”

“What exactly did my mom tell you?”

Danielle’s lips formed a small smile. “I’ll never tell.”

Lucas desperately wanted to know, but he didn’t pursue the line of questioning. “Let’s pick up some groceries to get us through the night and morning. Do you drink coffee?”

“Of course I do. I’m not a savage.”

Lucas laughed as he grabbed a handheld basket. “Great answer. Cream? Sugar?”

“Both, please.”

They picked out a couple of frozen pizzas for dinner as well as eggs, bacon and bread for the morning. Lucas tossed in a package of lunch meat, some chips and salsa, a twelve-pack of Sam Adams, as well as toilet paper and paper towels, just in case Craig was low on either. “You want a bottle of wine or anything?”

She shook her head. “I’m breastfeeding, so no alcohol for me.”

“Ah, got it,” he said, while trying not to imagine her breastfeeding her child. A tingle of sensation made his skin feel strange, and then she brushed against him, setting off a full-body reaction to her nearness. What the hell? He shook off the odd feelings so he could focus exclusively on her and the baby and making sure they had what they needed. “Diapers?”

“I have plenty, but thanks for checking.”

“Anything else you want or need?”

“Chocolate.”

Smiling, he led her to the candy aisle. “Pick your poison.”

She gave the vast array of options her full attention before choosing a small bag of Nestlé Crunch bars, which happened to be Lucas’s favorite, too. When she started to walk toward the checkout, he added a second bag of the candy bars to the basket before following her.

Lucas loaded their groceries onto the counter.

Danielle propped Savannah on her hip so she could get out her wallet.

Lucas put his hand on her arm.

She startled and looked up at him.

“I’ve got this. I needed to get supplies anyway.”

“Can we split it?”

“Nah. It’s all good.”

“Thank you.”

He paid for the groceries and carried the bags out to the truck, stashing them in the backseat while she put the baby in the car seat.

She cast a glance his way, her gaze colliding with his for a brief, charged moment before she looked away.

“You okay?”

“I made a huge mistake by not better planning this trip.” She sounded so sad and down on herself that Lucas wanted to object. “I just hope that this isn’t going to be another huge mistake.”

“I swear to God on the lives of everyone I love—and I love a lot of people—you have nothing at all to fear from me.”

“That’s what your mother said, too.”

“She’s somewhat partial to me and my siblings, but I’ve never once known her to lie about anything. In fact, that was the one thing we got in really big trouble for when we were kids. My sister Charley was a world-class liar, and she got in so much trouble.”

“How about you? Did you get into trouble for lying?”

“Nah, with me, it was more about broken windows, fender benders with my father’s cars, music that was always too loud and wrestling. I was—and am—a big fan of wrestling with my brothers, sometimes in places such as my mother’s dining room where her grandmother’s china is kept. That was a bit of a problem for her, to say the least.”

“The woman must be a saint.”

“That word is often used to describe her.”

“How many brothers?”

“Six. One of them is my identical twin.”

“Oh wow. That’s so cool!”

“Get in the truck and I’ll tell you all about it.” Most of the time, people expressed dismay that there were two of them, but Danielle just seemed intrigued. That was because she didn’t know that he and his twin were largely considered buffoons by everyone who knew them. She didn’t know them, so here was a great opportunity to test out his new plan to act like a grown-up.

As they left the parking lot of the convenience store and headed for Craig’s house, it occurred to Lucas that he hadn’t thought of Amanda, Landon or the mess he’d left behind at home in more than an hour.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. 

~ Calvin Coolidge

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