Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Snowbound in Starlight Bend

Book 3.5: Riding Hard Series

Haley’s phone, music, and car died at the same time the world went white.

She plowed into a snowdrift, which sent chunks of snow over the hood of her two-day-old Mercedes AMG, up the windshield and onto the sunroof. Silence blanketed the car as the engine cut, broken only by her startled scream.

There was no blizzard, only a leaden sky with fat flakes of snow coming down without ceasing. Haley had sailed around the corner of the empty highway and hadn’t seen the blocking snowdrift until too late.

“Linda?” she yelled frantically into the Bluetooth hooked over her ear. “Can you hear me?”

Dead silence. Panic lingered behind Haley’s initial shock, waiting to scoop her up.

No, no. No panic. Panic never helped anything. She’d get out of here and call Linda back, explaining what had happened. If worst came to worst, her car and phone had GPS trackers on them. Someone would find her.

But it might be a long time before she was missed. Dad didn’t expect her home until late tomorrow evening—she’d planned to take this quiet road to Sandpoint, stay the night in that lovely town, and drive into Seattle the following day. Now Haley was in this white wilderness, on a back road miles from anywhere, half buried, with no way to communicate. Her car’s signal was gone as was her phone’s. All dead.

She’d heard stories of people stranded on winter roads for days, with nothing but a bag of chips to keep them nourished until they were found. Her heart pounded with increasing fear. Haley didn’t even have a bag of chips, just a half-eaten package of M&Ms. No winter gear, only a coat and gloves that had worked fine during her stay in Chicago, since she hadn’t gone outside very often.

Great idea, driving home to Seattle from her business meeting in Chicago by herself. Flights had been cancelled for weather, even private planes grounded, but Haley was going to let nothing stop her from reaching Seattle in time for Christmas. She and her dad spent every Christmas together, just the two of them, had since Haley’s mother had left them years ago. 

No problem, she’d thought. Haley would welcome the time alone with her thoughts, to think, to plan. She’d gone to a dealership in Chicago, bought a car she’d had her eye on, and driven off. McKees didn’t bother with rentals. And here she was.

It was already bitingly cold. Haley buttoned up her coat and pulled her gloves on, trying not to shiver. Snow covered her front windshield, an opaque blanket of white. The back window was somewhat clear, but that didn’t help—it showed her swiftly falling snow and the two deep tire treads her car had made, which were already filling.

All right, so she could sit here and panic, or she could get out, clear the snow off the car, back it up, and make her way to the turnoff she’d seen to a town. Whatever it was called. Something about Starlight. 

Haley drew a breath, gripped the handle, and opened the door.

Thump. The door made it two inches before it struck packed snow. Haley banged with her shoulder, but the snow was deep and frozen solid, and the door wouldn’t budge.

Shit. She slammed it closed and crawled across the small car to the passenger side, the gearshift and brake digging into her stomach. She hastily unlocked and tried to open the other door.

Thump. This one only opened an inch. Same snow, same problem.

Crap, crap, crappity crap.

Sunroof. It was controlled by the car’s electrical system, but surely Haley could shove it open with her hands.

Nope. Wouldn’t budge. It was quickly being covered with snow as well.

Frustrated, Haley slapped her hands against the thick glass above her, knowing she’d never be strong enough to break it.

Seatbelt buckle. She’d heard somewhere that you could use the metal end of the seatbelt to smash a window if you needed to get out of a vehicle.

The sporty look of this car had called to her from the window of the showroom when she’d passed it. Haley had the money—why not? Now the car she’d loved was trying to trap her, its terrific visibility showing her the snow that would bury her alive.

Haley struggled to bring the seatbelt buckle up and bang it into the driver’s side window. She beat on the window with it, but nothing happened. The glass was strong, meant to keep her safe.

“Seriously?” Haley yelled. “I’ll tear you apart and sell you for scrap, you stupid pile of junk, if you don’t let me out of here!”

Something under the hood hissed, hot water dripping into snow. Not good.


Two huge hands covered with leather landed on her driver’s side window. Haley stared in frozen shock as they slowly slid down the glass. 

They were a giant’s hands, likely belonging to whatever crazy man lived in the middle of nowhere alone, waiting for city girls like her to blunder into snow banks. He’d haul her out of the car and drag her into this silent landscape, never to be seen again.

The hands returned to scrape off another layer of snow. Then a head, covered except for its eyeballs, bent to peer inside her car. Haley shrieked.

The gloves dragged a wool scarf away from the man’s nose and mouth, and his words came to her through the thick glass.

“What the hell are you screaming for?”

Haley’s cry died away. The man who looked through the cleared snow had a hard face tanned from sun and wind, and very blue eyes. He had dark hair and was far younger than the madman she’d expected, his features attractive in an outdoorsy way.

He looked nothing like a crazed reclusive killer who trapped young women. But then, what did Haley know? She’d never met a crazed reclusive killer before.

She sat up in her seat, pushing her hair back from her face. “Who are you?”

The man grinned, which lit up his eyes and made him all kinds of handsome. “Your rescuer, honey.”

He continued to scraping away the snow, digging a trench from the top down to free the door. Finally, he kicked snow and ice from the bottom of the door, grabbed the handle and yanked it open, reaching in with his giant glove. “Come on out of there, sugar.”

Haley didn’t take his hand. “I don’t need to come anywhere. Just push the car out of the snow, and I’ll be on my way.”

The man straightened up, rubbing a slow finger over his chin. “That’s not going to happen. Roads are blocked up behind you. Snowfall’s heavy and the plow won’t be through until tomorrow morning at the earliest.”

Haley’s panic returned. “Why not? Surely someone can drive a plow out here.” She had no idea—it didn’t snow in her native Seattle. They had ice and more rain than anyone needed but never heavy snowfall like this. She’d ignored the snow during her two weeks in Chicago, her work keeping her indoors—the firm she’d been meeting with had provided her a car with a driver.

“Starlight Bend’s only got one plow,” the man said, his words as slow as his movements. “And it’ll be digging out others with more need. So, I guess you’re stuck, darling.”

Haley’s worry made her sharp. “Please don’t call me darling. Or honey, or sugar.”

The man lifted his hands. “Sor-ree,” he said. “Sweetheart.”

Haley let out a breath of exasperation. “Can you say anything to a woman without adding an endearment to it?”

He paused, as though thinking this through. “Nope.”

Haley waited, then let out another noise of irritation when he laughed.

“Let me take you someplace warm,” he said as he held out his big hand again. “You’ll freeze in this little bitty car.”

She couldn’t say he was wrong. Maybe the man had a four-wheel drive SUV with the heater running parked around the corner. He’d force through the snow into this Starlight Bend place and Haley could find somewhere to stay. She pictured a cozy B&B with a mountain view and a nice innkeeper bringing her hot tea and pastries.

“Thank you,” she said, a bit stiffly. “When you say ‘someplace,’ you mean the town, right?”

“Sure.” The gloved hand didn’t waver. “If that’s where you want to go.”

“All right.” She put her hand in his.

Fingers like steel clamped around hers, and she let out another cry as he pulled her straight out of the car. Her feet left the ground and then came back down with a bump.

A deep, hoarse woof made her jump. A huge black animal bounded toward them, red tongue lolling, tail wagging. Haley slipped, her high-heeled boots not good for frozen-solid snow, and the man caught her.

Warmth. Strength. Steadiness of the earth as he straightened her on her feet. Haley’s lips parted as she looked into eyes the color of a deep lake. Falling snow gathered on his black hair and glittered in the fading afternoon.

“You okay there?” he asked in a voice like deep night.

“Yes.” Haley fought for breath as she tried to slide out of his grasp. “Sure.”

The man kept hold of her until she was solidly upright then took his hands away. Which was a shame, because it was cold without them on her.

The dog reached them—a black lab mixed with a little of something else. He reared up and planted giant wet paws on the man’s chest. The man laughed, tousled the dog’s ears, and pushed him back down.

The dog went straight to Haley. Haley held her hands out flat to keep him from jumping all over her tailor-made coat then bent to pat his side and stroke the top of his head. “Yours?” she asked.

“That’s Lance,” the man said. “Yeah, he lives with us.”

The man seemed to approve of her reaction to the dog—probably a lot of people yelped and tried to run when the enormous thing sprang at them. The dog went with the man, both of them big, strong, confident.

“Where’s your car?” Haley asked him. She looked around, her hand on Lance’s head, but saw no welcome gleam of a vehicle—car, truck, or SUV.

“You think I came through this snowfall in a car?” he asked, incredulous. “No. I brought Sammy.”

“Sammy?” Haley glanced about again. “Is that what you call your four-wheel drive?”

He gave a great guffaw of laughter. “No. I’m Maddox, by the way. Maddox Campbell. And you?”

“Haley McKee.” Haley stuck out her hand in a perfect corporate greeting. “Nice to meet you.”

Maddox raised his brows at her hand then covered it with his again, the warmth of his grip incredible. “We already sort of shook. Come on. We better get inside before there’s too much more of this snow.”

He lifted a large cowboy hat from the top of her car, shook the snow off it, and planted it on his head. Maddox seized her by the hand again and started to moved off, but Haley held back.

“Wait. My bags …”

Maddox didn’t let go. “Won’t have room for them. I’ll send someone down here to get them later.”

“No, really—I at least need …”

She managed to break away from him, slipping out of his grasp at the last moment. She nearly tripped again but steadied herself as she reached into the car for her briefcase, stuffing the phone and Bluetooth into it. Haley came out of the car, clicking her remote to lock the doors, and clutched the briefcase to her chest.

Maddox studied her doubtfully. “What’s in there? Gold?”

“Just my life.” Haley slid and stumbled to him. Maddox gave the briefcase a skeptical glance but took her hand again and pulled her along.

They went straight across a field away from the highway, not bothering with the road. Maddox broke a path through the snowdrifts with his long legs, as though he were a walking plow. 

Beneath the new dusting of snow was older snow, frozen and packed. Lance scampered over the top of this, running too fast to sink. He dashed ahead, turned to see them a long way behind him, and came tearing back.

Maddox walked as though they strolled through a spring meadow. His stride was long, his hand on hers firm. Haley struggled to keep up, but he didn’t shorten his steps.

She was wet and very cold by the time they reached woods about a hundred feet from the road. The thick trees shielded them somewhat from the snowfall but not from the chill.

Standing patiently just inside the tree line, reins looped around the big saddle on his back, was a horse. A tall, shaggy horse that turned around when he saw Maddox. He was a black-brown color all over except for a large white streak down his face that widened to take in his entire nose. He walked interestedly toward them, ears pricking, brown eyes taking in Maddox and Haley.

Haley wrenched her numb hand from Maddox’s. “That’s your transportation?”

“This is Sammy,” Maddox said. “My four-legged drive. Best way to get back and forth from town today. What did you think he was?”

“I don’t know—some kind of snowmobile?”

Maddox’s low laughter warmed the air. He didn’t laugh in understanding—he was enjoying himself at Haley’s expense.

He caught up the reins and turned Sammy so the saddle’s left stirrup was at Haley’s side. She backed a few steps.

“Why don’t you have him tied up?” she babbled. “Why doesn’t he run away?”

“Because he’s Sammy,” Maddox said as though he considered this a reasonable explanation. “He stays put when I tell him to.” He gave Haley a skeptical look. “You ever ridden a horse before?”

Haley wet her lips, which were chapped with the cold. “No.”

“You ever seen a horse before?”

“Of course I have,” Haley answered indignantly. “We have horses in Seattle. My school had a pony club.”

“A pony club?” Maddox all but snorted. “Like riding lessons for rich city kids?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Were you in this pony club?” Maddox’s eyes were glinting again as though he’d burst into another round of laughter any second.

“Well, no, actually.”

“What club were you in? Let me guess. Debate? Computer?”

Haley swallowed. “Chess.” 

Maddox let the laughter pour free. It made his blue eyes light up and the corners of them crinkle. “You know, sweetheart, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like you before. Come on, I’ll give you a leg up.”

Haley moved to him in trepidation. Riding a massive horse wasn’t her idea of safety, but she was getting colder by the minute. If she didn’t find a warm place out of the snow and wind, she’d die of hyperthermia. 

She bit back a surprised noise as Maddox grabbed her foot and shin and boosted her upward. Haley scrambled to catch the saddle, nearly going off the other side with the momentum. Maddox caught her with a strong hand and hauled her back, settling her on the seat.

Without waiting, he grasped the stirrup, put his own foot into it, and vaulted up behind her.

Warm, hard male landed at her back. Haley struggled to find her breath as Maddox reached around her and took up the reins, enclosing her in a heated space. Warmth radiated from him like a furnace.

“Ready, sugar?” he asked.

Haley gulped air. “Will you stop calling me sugar? I’m a CEO!”

“Yeah?” Maddox’s voice vibrated through her body. “Well I’m a CWDGAS.”

Haley blinked and looked back at him, his strong chest and curving mouth stealing her breath again. “What’s that?”

“Cowboy Who Doesn’t Give a Shit.” He let out a sharp whistle to the dog. “Come on, Lance. Sammy, take us home.”

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