Sage tromped through the heavy snow. A sudden gust of icy wind knocked her back a step and left her breathless. A pair of lausks - tiny ice fairies - danced a jig across several snowflakes. Sage shook her head as she watched them cavort. At least someone was enjoying the snow and ice.
She paused to readjust her scarf, so it covered her nose and mouth, ignoring the irony of despising the frigid January weather. After all, her last name was “Winters.” Continuing down the side street, she cursed herself for deciding to run this errand before going home. But then, the meteorologists had predicted only a few flakes after seven until closer to midnight when the storm was supposed to arrive. She had decided to close the bookstore an hour early anyway. Weather on Stargazer Island was notoriously unpredictable in the winter months, as was clearly demonstrated now that she was walking in the middle of a snowstorm at 5:20, more than six hours before it was supposed to hit.
Sage reached her destination and followed the tire tracks in the snow-filled driveway to Sam LaSalle’s well-lit cottage-style house. Sam had asked his old Navy buddy, Eric Gunnerson, to move in when Eric decided to live on Stargazer permanently.
She grimaced slightly at the sight of the black Cadillac Escalade sitting under a covering of snow. Still, knowing Eric was home did not deter her. It was simply too cold outside for hesitation.
“He can go back to avoiding me once I drop off his foster mother’s order,” she grumbled to another playful lausk.
The tiny creature nipped the tip of her nose, making it tingle with cold.
Making it to the small, shoveled area in front of the entrance, Sage stomped the snow from her boots and knocked on the solid oak door. It opened to reveal Eric’s business partner, Mason James. The giant, tough-looking former soldier with piercing dark gray eyes and scars carving into his almond skin took a slightly limping step back. The icy weather must be bothering his old injury. Normally, Mason’s gait was so smooth it was impossible to tell that he had a prosthetic leg. He ushered her in and quickly closed the door on the blizzard. In his usual style, he grunted. Then sighed before finally speaking.
“Sage. What brings you over here tonight?”
He took her hat, gloves, scarf, coat, and vest while she bent to remove her heavy snow boots.
“Thanks Mace. Miz Andrea’s order came in. I wanted to drop it off before the storm hit.”
Glancing pointedly out the window, he grunted again. “I think you’re a little late.”
She looked at him dryly. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hey, Mace! Who’s…?” Eric trailed off. “Sage.”
“Eric. Is Miz Andrea around, or did Doc Harris need her working tonight?”
Once the island’s lone doctor, Doctor Mel Harris, discovered that Andrea had been a nurse in one of Chicago’s top hospitals, he had hired her on the spot. The woman was both compassionate and no-nonsense. Doc’s patients quickly grew to love her.
“I’m in here Sage!” A melodic voice called from the kitchen.
Sage trailed the men deeper into the house. In the kitchen, Sam and Andrea were putting the finishing touches on dinner. Sage pulled three books out of her weatherproof messenger bag.
“Your books came today.”
“Oh! Thanks, honey,” Andrea said, wiping her hands on a towel.
The statuesque fifty-something woman could put most super models to shame. Her ebony skin was flawless beneath an intricately braided mass of blue-black hair. Just a touch of gold eye shadow made the cinnamon color of her eyes pop and sparkle. Beside her, Sage could easily have felt like a plain little mouse. But Eric’s foster mom had a way about her that never made anyone feel insignificant. From the moment she moved to the island, back in early November, Andrea Browning had adopted Eric’s entire circle as her own. Mason and Sam became as much her sons as Eric. Sage had adored her from the instant they met.
Andrea walked over to kiss Sage’s cheek and take the books from her. The moment she felt the younger woman’s cold skin, she tsked, shaking her head.
“You didn’t need to bring these over in this storm, Sage honey. I’d survive the weekend without them.”
“I had thought to beat the storm,” Sage told her. “It got bad quickly.”
“Well, now, you just sit yourself down and join us for dinner. I’ll make you some tea. The least we can do is warm you up.”
“Thanks, but I really should get home before it gets even worse,” Sage decided.
Behind her, Eric made a sound. Sage could not figure out if it was frustration, disgust, or outrage.
“Where the hell is your car?” He finally blurted.
She looked at him blandly. “In my driveway. Most likely nearly buried by now.”
Sam stared at her. “You walked? In this?”
Sage shrugged. The answer was too obvious to require words.
“Do you have a death wish?” Eric fumed. “Do you have any idea how quickly frostbite sets in? How about hypothermia?”
“It wasn’t snowing when I closed the bookstore, Eric. The storm got bad quickly. I would have turned around, but I was actually closer to your place than I was to mine. So, using the brain you don’t seem to believe I have, I wisely decided to continue on here.”
“And unwisely are deciding to walk home from here in this mess now,” Eric countered.
Mace, Sam, and Andrea’s gazes bounced from Sage to Eric and back again as they watched the two of them volley.
“Well how else am I supposed to get home, Eric?”
“What’s wrong with staying here for the night?”
“How about the fact that you don’t have any bedrooms free?”
Eric rolled his eyes. “You’ve stayed over when the house has been fuller than this. You didn’t have any issues sharing a room with CC and Sonya last summer.”
“Yeah, other women. Do you honestly expect me to share a room with one of you men?”
“Believe it or not, I do have some self-control, Sage. I can share a room with you, even a bed, without assaulting you.”
Andrea’s shrill whistle stopped Sage’s retort. “As entertaining as this is, I’d rather eat while the food is still hot. Sage, you’ll stay here tonight. Eric will sleep on the couch and you can have his bed. He’ll drive you home once the storm ends. Now, everyone, go sit at the table.”
Sage blushed. It had been a long time since one of her elders chastised her. She could not believe she had stooped to arguing with Eric. He was right about the dangers of walking home in a blizzard. It was smarter to stay at his and Sam’s house overnight. All she could think was that Eric made her crazy. She simply could not be rational around the man.
It had not always been that way. When they first met last May, she and Eric had gotten along like the proverbial white on rice. Sure, he might not have been as open as Sam about his life, but Sage had thought they were friends. Then things changed. Sometime in the fall, he had actively begun avoiding her. When they were in a group, he stayed as far away as possible, and barely spoke with her. Even months later, she still had no idea why.
With a huff, she sat in the chair Sam held for her.
His light hazel eyes twinkled with humor as he flashed her a bright smile. Pushing her chair in, Sam sat beside her, removing the soft wool cap from his smooth, bald head. While a few inches shorter than Mason, his shoulders were nearly as wide. With his coffee-colored skin, those contrasting, intriguing eyes, and his laid-back New Orleans drawl, Sam caught the eye of women and men alike. Sage idly wondered what sort of person it would take to actually snare his attention in return.
“No problem, Sage. A bowl of my homemade gumbo will warm you right up.”
Andrea brought over a bowl of the piping hot stew. Mason passed her a slice of fresh baked beer bread. Sage followed the men’s lead, bowing her head while Andrea said grace. Once she finished, she raised a spoonful of gumbo and smiled at Sage.
Flavor exploded over Sage’s tongue with her first bite of the spicy meal. She closed her eyes and moaned in delight. Opening them, she caught Eric staring at her. When Mace and Sam chuckled, a blush rose to her cheeks.
“Taste good, honey?” Sam teased.
“Don’t you boys start,” Andrea admonished. “There is absolutely nothing wrong with a food-gasm. It’s a compliment to the chef.”
“Momma A!” Eric groaned. “A food-gasm? Really?”
Sage laughed. “That’s the term we decided on after trying out Sonya’s salted caramel molasses cookies at Christmas.”
“Okay, yeah,” Sam agreed. “I can see that. Those things were practically porn-worthy.”
“So is this gumbo, Sam, honey,” Andrea told him.
Eric dropped his head onto the table. “Momma A, I really, really don’t want to hear about the foods you deem porn-worthy. Especially when I’m eating them with you.”
“Honey, you’ve got to relax.” Andrea turned to Sage. “The boy’s been wound far too tight for months now. He needs to go out on a date. The boys should fix him up. Or maybe Sage, you can go out with him.”
“I don’t need a date,” Eric ground out.
“I’ve seen the women hovering all over him when we’re all out at Polaris,” Sage pointed out, blushing even more fiercely. “I’m sure he does fine without help.”
“Mhm,” Andrea narrowed her eyes as she turned to face her foster son. “And when was the last time you went out with a woman?”
Eric mumbled under his breath. Andrea swatted the back of his head lightly.
Heaving a sigh, Eric looked at Sage. “Back in early June. Sage and I went on a double date with Rowan and CC.”
Sage gaped at him in shock. Her mind flashed back to that evening.
Eric’s steel-blue gaze never once left her. Not from the moment she and Celia had walked down the stairs at the McKenzie House. The appreciative look in his eyes had her tossing a silent thank you to Celia for allowing her to borrow a shimmery, silver-blue dress that clung to what few curves she had.
Once they reached Luna, the restaurant inside the Oceanside Inn, Rowan and Celia split off from them. After learning what they could from a couple suspected cult members, she and Eric engaged in a debate over how best to protect the endangered green sea turtle. That conversation revealed fascinating depths to Eric. Depths that drew Sage like a moth to a flame.
Snapping out of her memories, Sage sighed and shook her head. That date might have left her intrigued by Eric, but the reverse had clearly not happened. Every time she had seen Eric out since, he had been surrounded by gorgeous women. Surely, he had gone out with one of them. Or maybe just taken one home. Yes, that was it. Eric might not be the type to actually date, but he would not go too long between one-night stands.
Mason rapidly disabused her of that notion.
“Yeah, man, but that wasn’t exactly a normal date. And you haven’t taken a woman home since you set foot on the island.”
“You keeping track, James?”
“Nope,” Mason shook his head, grinning. “But when I’ve got a ton of women approaching me after you leave alone, asking if you’re gay, I do take notice.”
Eric groaned again. Sam laughed outright while Sage bit her lip to stifle a giggle. She did not want Eric to think she was laughing at him, but seriously. The man’s looks alone attracted the attention of both women and men wherever he went. Over six and a half feet and 220 pounds of pure muscle with wavy white-blond hair that tumbled around eyes of intense steel blue, Eric could easily pass for a Viking god. Thor in the flesh. He was just…magnetic. Sage was certainly drawn to him like a lodestone. Even though he did drive her nuts.
Andrea patted his arm in sympathy. Then she pinned Sage with a stern glare.
“And what is this about you going on a ‘not exactly normal’ date with my boy? I know Eric treated you well. He’s always been a gentleman. What wasn’t normal about it?”
Sage’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. Miz Andrea’s words caused her traitorous mind to flash back to the explosive kiss they shared back in October. It certainly had not been “gentlemanly.”
In order to help Celia, they had needed to search her professor’s hotel room. Sage was given the position of look-out on the same floor. She had to watch for security, and if the professor returned too quickly, find a way to distract him long enough that Eric and Mace could escape undetected.
When they got the warning that the professor was on his way up, Eric had hurried from the room, but did not have time to get out of the hall. Instead, he grabbed Sage, pushed her back into a small alcove so she was hidden from view, and kissed her.
And that kiss had burned through her like a volcano’s eruption. Conquering. Wild and untamed. Marauding even. But “gentlemanly” reminded her of Jane Austen’s heroes. No way could she picture Eric playing the part of a buttoned-up, overly starched Regency or Victorian gentleman.
That kiss might have been cover for him, but it scrambled her brains. Hot, passionate, so much everything she had always imagined but had never found with anyone else, real or fictional. Sage sighed. She really needed to stop reading so many romance novels. A good mystery would not have her comparing Eric to every romantic hero she had ever come across.
She hauled her mind back to the present with difficulty. Miz Andrea had not been talking about that incident. And she was still waiting for an answer. Finally, Eric took pity on her.
“Momma A, it wasn’t Sage’s fault, or mine. It was the situation. Remember when Sonya told you about everything that happened last summer?”
When Andrea nodded, he continued. “That cult, VSR, was staying at the inn where Luna is located. We went on a double date as cover to do some reconnaissance. After the second murder, we worried that they were targeting tourists. Then we went straight back to the McKenzie house to debrief. We got a call about a fire in town right after. Everyone went to help out.”
“Well then. I suppose I can understand,” Andrea nodded in regal acceptance. “Except for the fact that it’s been months since then and you two haven’t gone out again. Celia and Rowan did. Look at them now. Nice and cozy, planning their wedding. What’s wrong with Eric, Sage, that you wouldn’t want to go out with him again? On a real date this time?”
Sage looked around at the men. Sam and Mason both looked highly amused, and totally smug. Eric on the other hand, looked like he hoped the earth would open up and swallow him, preferably before he was ill.
“Nothing’s wrong with Eric,” Sage finally answered. “I enjoy spending time with him, Miz Andrea. But we’re friends. I doubt Eric wants to jeopardize that. He just isn’t all that attracted to me.”
Eric’s embarrassment turned to stunned shock. He stared at Sage, steel blue eyes piercing her soul.
“You seriously don’t find this gorgeous girl attractive, Eric?” Andrea’s voice finally drew his gaze away from Sage.
“Of course, I’m attracted to Sage, Momma A. She’s beautiful, inside and out.”
Sage glowed under his words, wondering why they mattered so much.
“Then why on God’s green earth have you not asked her out again?”
“I… It’s complicated,” he stated flatly.
“Hmph. Well, maybe you should uncomplicated it. You’re only young once you know. You need to go out and have some fun so you can look back in your old age and not be bored by what you see. You can bet I’m highly entertained when I pull out some of my old memories.”
“I thought you said those memories are for when we’re old,” Eric said, turning the conversation back on her. “You aren’t anywhere near that, Momma A.”
She kissed his cheek as she stood from the table. “Flatterer. For that, you get an extra-large slice of bourbon brownie pie.”
Sage helped clear the table and do the dishes, grateful when the conversation turned to the weather and local happenings. When they finally settled in the living room with plates of decadent chocolate praline and bourbon-y goodness, she was able to relax and join in, comfortable in their company.
“We normally get one or two good snow storms a year. They rarely last long. Most businesses will be closed the whole weekend. Though that’s more because the ferries won’t be running than because of the weather,” Sage explained to the island’s newcomers.
“If the weather improves, why won’t the ferries resume?” Eric asked.
“There have been a couple incidents in the past when the weather looks clear only to get bad once the ferry is away from shore. They barely managed to make it to the island. Once, visibility was so bad that the captain miscalculated. He sank two small fishing boats before crashing into the wharf. After that it was decided they’d wait a full twenty-four hours after a storm ended to start running the ferries again.”
“I can understand why,” Andrea said. “Living in Chicago, we’ve always been used to snow and storms. I’ve driven in blizzards a few times, but I can’t imagine having to pilot a boat through one.”
“It can be done, with good equipment,” Eric pointed out. “But if it isn’t necessary, it’s a risk you’re better off not taking.”
“Well, this southern boy is more than happy to not have to go out in the snow and cold, be it in a car, ship, or on foot,” Sam, who was only experiencing his second snowy winter ever, piped up.
“Mace is right. Don’t worry, Voodoo,” Eric slapped his back. “You’ll toughen up eventually.”
Later, Sage stood near the door of Eric’s room while he grabbed a couple changes of clothes from his dresser and a pillow from his bed. He handed a flannel shirt and pair of boxers to Sage.
“I’d offer you sweatpants instead, but…” He trailed off with a shrug.
“Your legs are nearly twice the length of mine,” Sage finished. “Pretty sure that won’t work. This will be fine. I really appreciate it, Eric. I’m sorry to chase you out of your bed. I don’t mind taking the couch.”
He shook his head. “It’s fine, Sage. My bedroom will be warmer for you. Besides, Momma A would have my head if she found out I’d let you sleep on the couch.”
Sage took the clothes into the bathroom down the hall to change. Looking into the mirror, she wondered how Eric could see her as beautiful. She was just… Sage. Not fiery like Celia or as sweet as Sonya. Unlike Sonya, she was short, without Celia’s generous curves. And as far as looks, well, her skin was nice and clear. But it wasn’t exactly the rich cinnamon color her father and siblings were blessed with, thanks to their Native American heritage. Hers was lighter, milder. Definitely less interesting.
All the interest the rest of her lacked was more than made up for between her eyes and hair. They were just… weird. Most days they looked like they were different colors, one sandy brown with hints of green and the other a mossy green flecked with light brown. Kind of like seaweed. Sage wrinkled her nose at the thought.
And then there was her hair. Multicolored. Too much craziness. She could only describe her hair as striped. Dark brown and wine-red streaks ran through it without rhyme or reason. Most people asked if her hair was dyed and would not believe her once she told them it was her natural color. She kept it long, waist-length, because while the brown areas were poker straight, the red streaks held a natural curl that became way too apparent when her hair was short. At least long, the zany curls stretched more into waves.
Maybe Eric meant she was beautiful in the same way people claim a modernist painting was beautiful? He can appreciate the colors and lines, even if he doesn’t understand how everything was put together. Or why. Sage shook her head.
When she finished getting ready for bed, she walked back toward Eric’s room. She glanced over the railing toward the living room downstairs, finding Eric immediately. He was struggling to get comfortable on a couch that was over a foot shorter than him. Sage sighed in resignation.
When he sat up and looked at her, she waved toward his bedroom. “Come on. I don’t mind sharing your bed with you. It’s big enough for us both.”
“That’s not necessary, Sage.”
She looked pointedly at his legs, hanging over the arm of the couch nearly to his knees. “It looks pretty necessary to me. Just come on. I’m too tired to argue with you.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded, hiding the fact that she did not feel sure about anything. But there was no way she could condemn him to a sleepless night on a cold couch. He climbed the stairs, and she led the way into the bedroom.
“Um, which side do you usually sleep on?”
Eric smirked at her. “In the middle, Beautiful.”
Then his face softened slightly. Sage could see the shift in his aura, the unlocking of a couple of the blockages. Most were still there, but he was more relaxed than she had seen him in months. At this point, she would take that small sign of progress as a win.
“I’ll take the left. It’s closest to the door.”
Sage blinked. “Does that make a difference?”
“If danger comes around, it’ll have to go through me first.”
“Are you expecting danger?”
Shrugging, Eric grinned, mischievous as a little kid. “Well, this is Stargazer Island, home of witches, shifters, and Otherkind. Who knows when the Abominable Snowman might put in an appearance?”
Sage doubled over with laughter, holding her stomach. She and Eric never exchanged witty banter like Celia and Rowan, and rarely teased like Liam and Sonya, but every so often Eric would come out with something that made her bust a gut. Given how rarely he seemed to laugh, she wished she could do the same for him. When she finally calmed, she stood up, wiping the tears from her eyes.
“Do you have a pair of pliers in your bedside table? You’ll need them to pull its teeth, you know.”
That earned her a chuckle. Eric walked over to the table. He opened a drawer and pulled out a small tool kit. Moments later, he held up a small pair of pliers.
“Think these’ll work?”
Shaking her head, Sage mused, “Liam’s right about your nickname, Boyscout. You are always prepared. Sadly, those might be a tad too small to work on an Abominable Snowman.”
“I’ll buy a larger pair after this storm passes.”
Eric replaced the tool kit and yanked the blankets down on the bed. He waved Sage to the other side. She crossed the room and climbed in, amused to find that her legs got nowhere near the foot of the large bed. He climbed in beside her and turned off the lamp. They settled in silence for several minutes.
“Thanks for letting me stay tonight.”
Eric smiled in the darkness. “Pretty sure the phrase is ‘making you stay,’ Beautiful, but you’re welcome.”