The bird flashed across Mandy Carson’s windshield in a whoosh of brown feathers, followed by the tiniest of thumps. She stomped on the brake. “Shit!”
“You okay?” Her best friend Emma’s voice drifted from the speakers, filling the interior of the car.
Mandy’s headlights illuminated snowflakes drifting through the darkness ahead, swallowed in all directions by the impenetrable forest of the Smoky Mountains. She rolled her SUV to the side of the road. “I think I just hit a bird.”
“I bet it ducked out of the way at the last minute,” Emma said. “They usually do.”
“I heard a thump,” Mandy said. Her chest felt like the mystery bird was fluttering against her ribcage. She pressed a hand against it in an attempt to squelch the sensation. “It was big too, like a hawk. I’m going to go check. I’ll call you back later, okay?”
“Keep me on the line,” Emma said. “I don’t like the idea of you walking around on mountain roads at night. I need to know you make it safely back to your car.”
Mandy’s lips twitched. “You sound like such a mom.”
“Guilty as charged.” As if on cue, a sleepy baby sound echoed over the line. “Hurry up and check so you can get moving again before someone hits you too.”
“Okay, okay.” Mandy punched her hazard lights, and the night around her began to pulse with their on-again, off-again yellowish glow. “I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t say that.” Emma’s voice rose. “Whenever someone says they’ll ‘be right back’ in a horror film, they get killed.”
Mandy snorted with laughter. “This isn’t a horror film. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m on a lonely mountain road all by myself. I’ll be right back.”
She stepped out of her SUV and looked both ways. Around her, the night was still and quiet, punctuated only by the breeze whispering through the trees on either side of the road. Snow flurries drifted through the air, dissolving as they reached the asphalt. There was no sign of the bird, but maybe that was a good thing. If it wasn’t lying in the middle of the road, it must have flown away.
Cautiously, she walked down the road, peering into the trees as best as she could in the dark. Nothing. Well, hopefully the bird hadn’t been too badly hurt then. Or maybe she hadn’t hit it at all. Maybe the thump had been a figment of her imagination or something on Emma’s end of the phone conversation.
Relief loosened in her chest as she walked back to the SUV. No harm. No foul. Instead of going straight home, maybe she’d stop at Rowdy’s for a couple of beers on the way. Maybe she’d meet a man there to keep her company tonight, someone as lonely as she was on this night when the rest of her friends were home with their families. Maybe he’d even stick around long enough to be her date for her friends’ New Year’s Eve wedding next weekend.
On second thought, any man out drinking alone on Christmas Eve might be too desperate for her taste. She was probably better off having a party for one at home with a bottle of wine, a hot bath, and her vibrator.
What was that tapping noise?
It sounded like it was coming from her engine, but this car was brand new—thank you very much—because she could afford things like a reliable car now that she and Emma had gone into business together. Last year, they’d become joint owners of Artful Blooms Landscape Design, a dream come true for both of them. And there was no reason for her shiny new car to be making strange noises out here tonight.
She rounded the front of the SUV, and a startled yelp escaped her throat. The hawk—it was definitely a hawk—was tangled up in the car’s grill, its beak snapping angrily at the plastic entrapping it. “Holy shit,” she whispered, dropping to her knees on the asphalt. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”
Mandy might be a lot of things, but a bird killer she was not. This one was still alive, though, its body somehow wedged into the space where the grill met the body of the car, so that only its reddish-brown head protruded, beady black eyes fixed on her, beak snapping angrily.
What the hell should she do now? She couldn’t exactly reach in there and try to free it. That beak looked sharp enough to do serious damage, even if she put on her leather gloves first. Mandy’s heart felt about like how the poor bird looked, beating recklessly against the confinement of her ribcage. Rising on shaky legs, she walked around to the driver’s side door and climbed inside.
“You still there, Em?”
“I’m here. Did you find the bird?”
“I…it’s stuck in the grill of the car.”
“What?” Emma exclaimed, and another sleepy baby sound carried over the line.
“It’s alive. It’s probably hurt. Jesus Christ, I don’t know what to do.”
“I do,” Emma said suddenly. “I actually know the perfect guy to call.”
“Who?” Mandy asked, drumming her fingers restlessly against the steering wheel. The night around her pulsed to the rhythm of her hazard lights like she was in some kind of weird dream or having a bad trip.
“He was one of my Tinder dates last year,” Emma said with a slight giggle. “He works at that wildlife rehab place outside Haven.”
“Perfect,” Mandy said. “What’s his name?”
Everything seemed to slow inside her before speeding to a frantic pace. “Cal? You went on a Tinder date with Cal?”
“Um, you know Cal?” Emma asked hesitantly.
Oh, Mandy knew him all right. They’d first met in kindergarten, and on that one fateful night when they were sixteen, she’d known him in every sense of the word. “We went to school together.”
“I had no idea.” Emma sounded thoughtful. “Makes sense, though. I never really knew the kids from Elderwood.” She’d gone to the public school, while Mandy and Cal had endured the special hell that was Elderwood Academy, the best—and most uptight—education you could buy out here in the Smoky Mountains.
Mandy had nearly gotten herself thrown out at least a dozen times. She’d done her best to scandalize every member of the staff. Except that one night…
“Do you have his number then?” Emma asked.
“What? No.” Mandy tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I haven’t talked to him since high school.” “I may still have it. Want me to call him for you? Where are you?”
“I’m on Route 78 about a mile past the Christmas tree farm.”
“Let me see if I can track him down for you. I’ll text you back, okay?”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Mandy ended the call and sat there in her darkened car. The driver’s door was still open, letting the chill of the night seep inside, further dampening her Christmas spirit. At this point, she couldn’t have much less holiday cheer. When her parents first told her they’d decided to go on a Mediterranean cruise for the holidays, she’d been almost relieved. This was a hard time of year for all of them. Sometimes they tried to ignore Becky’s absence, and sometimes they just tried to ignore Christmas itself.
But as the date drew nearer, Mandy realized how lonely the holidays were going to be without them. All of her friends had settled down now. Emma and Ryan had a baby. They’d invited her over for Christmas dinner tomorrow night, but somehow it didn’t make her feel any less alone tonight.
For the most part, she liked being single, had never really wanted to settle down and get married. But she was living in the wrong place to take advantage of the single life. The small town of Haven, nestled deep in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, was the kind of town where everyone else her age had begun the process of getting married and having babies.
Maybe she belonged in a big city full of singles like herself. Or maybe she just didn’t belong anywhere. The truth was, she’d felt so empty and hollow for so long that she didn’t remember what it was like to be full…of love…of life…of anything. She was just this shell of a person, waiting for the weight of the world to crush her.
Headlights slashed through the night, and Mandy tensed. She blamed Emma for making her paranoid about someone slamming into her car here on the side of the road. Her hazard lights were on. No one was going to hit her.
But these headlights slowed and pulled in behind her. And the next thing she knew, there was a man loping toward her car, a man with hazel eyes, blond hair, and the kind of scruffy beard that made goosebumps rise up and down her arms. He hadn’t had that beard when they’d snuck out of their prom after party together. His cheeks had been smooth then, boyish.
Tipsy from spiked punch and adolescent hormones, they’d fumbled their way through a spur-of-the-moment decision not to end prom night as virgins. It had been messy and awkward and somehow…perfect.
Afterward, she’d avoided him, preferring the misery of her own self-inflicted solitude at that time in her life. But she’d often thought about Cal over the years. And now, here he was, all grown up and headed straight for her.
Cal Rocha had thought working Christmas Eve meant drawing the short straw. But he felt like he’d won the fucking lottery as he walked toward Mandy’s SUV. Mandy Carson, the girl he’d been infatuated with all through high school, the one who’d gotten away.
They’d been acquaintances, not even friends. Two lonely souls who’d shared one incredible night together. He’d thought of her often over the years. Once, he’d gone so far as to look her up and send her a message through Facebook, but she never responded. Now fate had thrown her in his path, and he figured it was time to find out once and for all if he and Mandy still shared a spark, a connection, whatever it was that he’d never truly found again since prom night on a blanket beneath the stars.
She stepped out of the SUV and faced him, dark hair blowing around her face like a reverse halo, in sharp contrast to her pale skin. His breath leaked into the night, his mind empty of anything but the way it felt to look into her blue eyes, like he’d locked onto something solid, something rare, something that hadn’t changed in over a decade.
“Mandy,” he said, his voice gone low and gravelly.
“Hi Cal. It’s been…a while.”
He nodded. “Heard you hit a hawk?”
She gulped. “Yeah, it…it’s caught up in the front grill of my car.”
That didn’t sound promising. He walked around to the front of her SUV. The tawny head of a broad-winged hawk protruded from the plastic webbing on the front of the car. The hawk appeared alert, its head bobbing, beak snapping. “Well, that’s something I’ve never seen before.”
“Leave it to me, right?” Mandy said with a hint of a smile.
“Let me get my gloves, and we’ll see about getting her out of there.” He turned and walked back toward the truck. A few stray flurries blew with the night breeze, but they weren’t—as far as he knew—expecting a white Christmas.
He opened the covered truck bed and took out his cowhide animal-handling gloves, a plastic animal crate, and a bolt cutter. With any luck, he could free the bird without too much trouble, bring her to the center for a checkup and overnight observation, and have her back in the wild tomorrow. Best case scenario.
Mandy crouched beside him as he squatted in front of her SUV. The scent of her perfume carried with the wind, like spiced flowers, or maybe it was just the way the night pressed around them, so intensely dark and desolate, that made everything about the moment seem heightened.
“First thing we need to do is calm her down,” he said quietly.
“How do you know it’s a girl?” Mandy whispered, leaning closer.
“I don’t. Just seems more personal than calling her ‘it.’” He reached into the pet crate and took out a cloth raptor hood. He tugged on his gloves before carefully slipping the hood over the bird’s head. The darkness it provided should help calm her while he worked.
“Don’t worry about the car,” Mandy said softly. “Whatever you need to do to get her out.”
“Thanks.” This was the approach he’d hoped to take, and he was glad to have Mandy’s blessing before he started cutting apart the grill of her car. Using his left hand to hold the bird in place, he gripped the bolt cutter in his right and began snipping through plastic, cutting away a hole big enough to extract the hawk.
He gingerly lifted the bird free, hands wrapped around her wings to keep her from struggling, but she was limp and compliant in his hands, almost alarmingly so. Either she was going into shock, or she’d sustained more damage from the impact than he’d first thought. “I need to get her back to the center immediately.”
Mandy nodded, rising to her feet beside him.
After all these years, fate had finally thrown them back in each other’s faces, and he wanted to see her again. He didn’t want to say goodbye at all, but there was really no way around it, at least for tonight.
“On your way to see your parents?” he asked as he tucked the bird inside the crate and closed the latch.
“No,” Mandy said. “They’re out of town this year.”
“Other family in town?” He walked to the truck and set the crate gently on the floor in front of the passenger seat.
“I pulled the Christmas Eve shift myself, figured it was only fair since there’s no one waiting for me at home.”
“Just you working at the center tonight?” Mandy asked, raising her eyes from the animal crate to meet his. The air between them seemed to warm from the contact of their gaze.
“Need a hand?” She stepped closer, dropping her gaze to the hawk. “I just want to make sure she’s all right.”
“I could always use a hand, if there’s nowhere you need to be.”
“Nowhere,” she repeated, and a smile dusted her lips the way the snow flurries had begun to dust their clothing. “I’ll follow you.”
Will you? he wanted to ask, because she’d done nothing but run ever since the night of their prom. But maybe tonight, maybe this time, things would work out differently. BUY IT NOW: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play