"I can't believe we're going to get hit with the snowstorm of the century, today of all days, when Gus is bringing his bride-to-be home to meet us!" seventy-four-year-old Clara Whittaker said, worry etching her face.
Sam Whittaker watched as his grand mother rushed around before going off to work at the family-owned department store, putting her spotless country kitchen in order.
"Now, Gran. I'm sure Gus'll make it to Clover Creek intact," he reassured her. "Though as for his bringing a woman…" Sam paused, not sure how to put this, only knowing he didn't want to break his hopelessly romantic grandmother's heart. "Gus didn't exactly say he was getting married, you know. Only that he had a surprise that was going to be presented to all of us around three or four o'clock this afternoon." He held up a hand, effectively silencing his grandmother before she relayed her concerns. "And again, you've no reason to worry. Storm or no storm, I'm sure Gus's surprise'll be here."
Sam only hoped Gus didn't break any laws this time. The situation with the borrowed Humvee, the Santa, the faux reindeer and the damaged parking meters during the Christmas holidays had been a little sticky. At least until Gus had agreed to pay for all damages, in lieu of the citation and fine Sam had had no choice but to impose.
"Well, I don't know what the rest of you think, but I know what Gus said and what he didn't say, and I still think he's bringing home a bride," Clara said emphatically as she strode to the bay window to look out at the pale gray storm clouds obscuring the early-morning sun.
"You may have a point," Harold Whittaker murmured thought fully as he brought out galoshes for himself and his wife. "Gus always said he was going to be married by the time he was thirty-five. He's been hinting at a satisfying new romance in his life for weeks now. Not to mention debated—in theory only, of course—the virtues of having a wedding right here in Clover Creek, West Virginia, as opposed to the more metropolitan New York City. And, let's not forget, his thirty-fifth birthday is Saturday."
"The only question is how is Gus planning to introduce the woman of his dreams," Sam's seventeen-and-a-half-year-old sister, Kimberlee, said as she, too, cast a glance at the wintry gray sky before gathering her book bag, coat, earmuffs and gloves into her arms. She swept the length of her long golden-brown hair over her shoulder, away from her face. "You know Gus would never do it in any normal way."
"That's the understatement of the year." Sam thought about his older brother's penchant for distinctly un forget table fanfare as he chugged the last of his coffee. He noticed the first intermittent snow flakes starting to float down from the sky. The white specks were almost too tiny and far apart to even be called flurries, but they were a definite harbinger of the storm to come. They looked so peaceful and delicate, serene, even. Hard to believe the weather forecasters expected the seemingly harmless flakes to whip up an all-out wicked winter blizzard. As a law officer, he'd have his hands full in a few hours. And so would everyone else up and down the East Coast, although the storm would likely wreak havoc differently in each locale. Some cities would lose electricity. Others would be in un dated with ice and sleet, as well as snow. Unlucky travelers would get stranded— probably in the worst possible place, at the worst possible time. And school would be cancelled every where.
Mentally shaking himself, Sam turned back to his grand parents and sister. "Clover Creek still hasn't gotten over Gus's parachuting onto Main Street when he arrived for that impromptu visit last fall," he recalled. Never mind the two minor auto accidents and the painting mishap caused by his un her alded descent from the sky. And that day, Gus had had nothing in particular to announce to the world, save his unannounced home coming. Sam didn't want to imagine what spectacle Gus would decide a wedding needed.
Clara smiled and shook her head. "That grandson of ours always knew how to get attention, even before he be came as rich and famous as his celebrity clients." Clara slid the rest of the break fast dishes into the dishwasher and looked at Sam. "You know, Sam, you ought to take a page from your brother's book and snag yourself a bride, too."
Sam rolled his eyes at his grandmother's match making tendencies and leaned over to slide his own coffee cup into the machine. He'd only been back in West Virginia for a year and a half. During that time, his grand mother had fixed him up more times than he could count. Always against his will and without his knowledge. And always with poor results. He'd been hoping she'd eventually cease and desist. Not a chance.
Gran continued to counsel him. "You're not getting any younger."
"I'm thirty. Hardly a candidate for the bachelor hall of fame," Sam murmured, moving closer to the space-saving television set mounted under neath the kitchen cabinet.
"You'd never know that to hear the ladies around here talk!" Kimberlee teased as Sam strained to hear the latest weather report coming from the TV. He frowned, realizing it did not look good. They were predicting two to three feet of snow across the entire eastern seaboard, from South Carolina to Maine, and in some places, ice and sleet. "They say there hasn't been a woman around here who's held your interest for more than five seconds yet!" Kimberlee continued, in a voice that was both amazed and impressed.
Sam shrugged, his gaze focused on the weather map. Right now, the radar map showed the storm moving slowly over the southernmost tip of South Carolina. It wasn't predicted to hit West Virginia full force until much later in the day, which meant they still had hours to get the local emergency management forces—most of whom were volunteers—ready.
"When the chemistry's right, I'll know it," Sam replied distractedly, switching the set off with a decisive click.
Impatient to get to work and do what needed to be done, he buttoned the top button of his starched khaki shirt and knotted his regulation black tie.
"Until then, why waste each other's time, pretending it might amount to some thing, when I already know in here—" Sam paused to thump his chest over his heart "—it won't?"
Sam's grandparents and sister exchanged skeptical looks as they, too, prepared to head off to work and school.
"I know what I want when it comes to a woman," Sam continued as he pinned his name tag and silver badge that proclaimed him sheriff of Clover Creek on his shirt. The four of them pulled on their coats in unison and headed out the door of the rambling old Victorian home to their cars.
"When—" and if, he added uncomfortably to himself "—I find my Ms. Right, I won't let her go."
"I would hope not," his grandfather murmured, opening the door of their four-wheel-drive minivan for Sam's grandmother.
Sam wanted the same kind of enduring, loving relationship his parents had had while they were still alive. The kind his grandparents still did. He wanted all the sacred vows offered. A marriage that nothing and no one could tear asunder.
"Until then, I've got a job to do," Sam said determinedly, casting another look at the fine, sparse flakes falling from the sky above.
And he knew that would not be any easier than finding a mate would be. As the chief law enforcement officer in a growing but predominantly rural area of West Virginia, filled with serenity-seeking yuppies, young families looking for a great place to raise their kids, senior citizens looking for a great place to retire and original residents, also known as "country folk," he would have his hands full at tending to whatever calamities the storm engendered.
Sam's heart beat picked up, and he grinned, already anticipating the challenges ahead. Whatever the next few days and the snow storm of the century brought, Sam had a feeling it would definitely not be easy, and it would definitely not be dull.
Nora Kingsley couldn't believe it. It was starting to snow outside, with—she'd just heard moments ago on the car radio—what was being dubbed as the snow storm of the century on its way. If she knew her overbearing father and equally controlling ex-fiancé, she probably had half the law enforcement officials along the eastern seaboard on the lookout for her by now. And, worst of all, she was stuck in this darn dress! No matter what she did, the zipper on her wedding gown was not moving up, and it was not moving down. And that left her literally trapped in the exquisite floor-length confection of satin and lace.
Giving up on the frozen zipper of her off-the-shoulder gown with a groan, Nora picked up her skirts, moved to the sink and took stock of herself in the mirror. She had absolutely no lipstick left on her lips. Her heart-shaped face was flushed humiliation pink and streaked with the remnants of her tears. Her dark brown hair was a curling, winds wept mess. Of course, it was no surprise that she was a wreck, Nora thought disparagingly, as she quickly washed her face and blotted it dry with a tissue from the dispenser. It had been one heck of a day and, sad to say, at only two in the afternoon, it was far from over yet.
Not that she should be surprised about that, either, Nora thought as she smoothed on moisturizer and lip gloss to protect her face from the bitterly cold winter air outside and then quickly redid her makeup.
She'd known from the get-go that she shouldn't marry someone she'd liked and known forever but wasn't entirely sure she loved. Yet she'd foolishly allowed herself to be talked into it by her father and fiancé anyway. Only to find out fifteen minutes before the ceremony was to begin, when she inadvertently stumbled onto a secret pre-wedding meeting between her father and Geoffrey, that Geoff had stood to gain more than just a wife from the arrangement!
Nora grimaced, recalling how stunned she'd felt at the betrayal. Then shocked and hurt and furious. Okay, maybe she should have confronted the two of them right then, she thought as she began removing the tiara and veil that had been intricately pinned and interwoven into her once immaculately upswept dark brown hair. But with a churchful of people waiting for the ceremony to begin, she hadn't seen the point in confrontation. Nor had she wanted to be pressured into listening to the explanations her father and Geoffrey undoubtedly had at the ready.
The bottom line was, she hadn't needed to read the exceedingly generous prenuptial agreement her father had given Geoff to sign to know she was about to make the biggest mistake of her life.
So…she'd done the only thing she could. She'd excused herself for "a moment alone," and written a note telling everyone—including Geoff—in no uncertain terms that the marriage was off. Then she'd grabbed her street clothes and snuck out through the rear exit of St. Paul's Cathedral and jumped into the car her father had given her as a wedding gift.
From there, it was pretty much a blur.
Nora remembered she'd been crying as she negotiated the familiar Pittsburgh streets. And with good reason. And that it had been incredibly hard to drive in a dress with such a voluminous skirt and train, even when she hiked it up over her knees and spread the beautiful lace-edged material all the way across the front seat of her brand-new Volvo station wagon.
Yet eventually she had composed herself enough to know she was not going to return to her father's home, or any other place he and Geoff would think to look for her, for quite some time—if ever! Figuring as long as she was running away, it would be nice to be some where warm, too, she had turned onto I-79, south bound. And despite the odd looks she kept getting from other motorists—after all, how often did anyone see a bride in her wedding dress driving herself anywhere, never mind one in a Volvo station wagon who was still wearing her tiara and veil?—she'd just kept right on going. Out of Pitts burgh. Past the Pennsylvania state line, into West Virginia. Only when it began to snow and she was a good hour or so into the state had she realized she was going to have to stop and change into some warmer clothes, and probably look for some place to wait out the storm.
But first, Nora thought, removing the last of the pins—and finally the tiara and veil—from her hair, she wanted to get a little farther south.
And, Nora thought, as she swiftly brushed out her shoulder-length hair, she wanted to get out of this dress, and away from all the reminders of how she had almost wrecked her life.
Dropping her brush and makeup bag in her purse, Nora snatched up the bundle of clothes she had hoped to change into and dashed out into the lobby of the tourist information center, looking for a woman who might aid her with the jammed zipper. Unfortunately, the weather being what it was, and with motorists driving like mad to get to their destinations before the snow, which was just now starting to accumulate, the building was deserted. Or at least it had been, Nora thought, taken aback as she stared in mute dismay at the only other person in the lobby.
It would have to be a lawman, she thought with a half disparaging, half wistful sigh. And a breathtakingly handsome one, at that…
Sam Whittaker had figured he'd run into a lot of wild and crazy things in the blizzard ahead, but a bride in a wedding dress at an interstate highway tourist information station was not one of them. Never mind one so breathtakingly beautiful she could have stepped off the cover of Brides magazine
The glossy bitter sweet chocolate hue of her dark brown hair was in compelling contrast to the naturally golden hue of her skin; the mane framed her heart-shaped face and fell softly to her shoulders, like a mantle of unruly silken curls. She had a stubborn chin, a pert, turned-up nose, and softly luscious, well-shaped lips. Her dark green eyes were both spirited and innocent and flanked by a thick fringe of velvety sable lashes.
And, to Sam's consternation, her attractiveness did not end there. Tall and willowy, she was nonetheless curved in all the right places, with softly swelling breasts, a slender waist and sleekly proportioned hips.
The intricately beaded bodice of her off-the-shoulder white satin wedding gown revealed a graceful neck and elegant shoulders just right for kissing, and a collarbone that was, Sam admitted on a wave of uncensored desire, unspeakably sexy. It was a good thing she was already spoken for and he didn't believe in love at first sight, Sam thought on a wistful sigh, because if he did…he'd be tempted to whisk her away himself.
Unless… Sam stared at the woman in front of him.