Tori, a young widow, doesn’t plan on marrying again. But when Zee Terrence digs her son out of a snow bank, she can’t deny her insane attraction to him. Could this be her second chance at love?
Zee Terrence, an executive film producer visiting Park City for a film festival, has always wanted to marry and have kids, but that wasn’t in his ex-girlfriend’s plans. He’s never gotten over her, not until he meets Tori, a widow who wants nothing to do with him. Can he convince her to love again? Or will he miss his second chance at love?
Chapter 1: Summer, Park City, Utah
Tori’s hands trembled as she pushed up off the uncomfortable seat of the metal folding chair. She adjusted her sitting position to relieve the shooting pain in her bottom. Jim had always teased her about her bony bum when she sat on his lap.
It was a hot one. And it was never hot in Park City. But today, in this heat, she longed to be on a Mexican beach, tickling Jim’s arm as the salty ocean breeze cooled her coconut-scented body—not in a cemetery.
A blinding light stunned her pupils, causing her to blink uncontrollably. She reached for the sunglasses on top of her head as she tilted her face, squinting to avoid the harsh afternoon sunlight. Not there. She raised her leg slightly and, using the heel of her black stiletto shoe, opened the tan leather shoulder bag at her feet.
The cherry-red sunglasses Jim had given her for her last birthday rested atop her lime-green Coach wallet, another present. She could afford to buy herself those things, but he was a gift giver. It was his way of showing his affection for her. She sighed in resignation. Her complete emotional exhaustion prevented her from bending over to recover the sunglasses. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip and trickled down the back of her neck.
How could they be burying her husband on a sunny day, when families were having picnics in the park and adventurers were climbing mountains? Weren’t funerals in the movies always staged in the rain? Why did the skies not echo her sorrow?
Gussie, Tori’s identical twin sister, stood to place a white lily on the casket. Her navy-blue silk dress fluttered over her body like an afternoon ripple across a secluded mountain lake. Gussie sobbed, leaning over to rest her forehead on the casket, and as she ran her hands along the seam of the lacquered, copper-embellished box, the hem of her dress raised up to caress her upper thigh. In her early thirties, Gussie still had the perfect body. The scene would have sent a priest to confession.
Tori took in a sharp, nervous breath and glanced back at the rows of mourners behind her. She shook her head in disappointment. Only a handful of men who weren’t family had the class, or previous marital training, to look away.
Gussie, despite her name, was a gorgeous runway model. Tori had had her day in the spotlight, alongside Gussie in those revealing evening gowns that made her feel like a movie star. They had been quite the dynamic duo. That was before Tori’s pregnancy. She no longer dressed to impress. None of that glam and pretense appealed to her now. Nothing appealed to her now, and most likely nothing would ever again.
Why wasn’t she crying uncontrollably? Was this the shock stage of grief that friends whispered about with their sideways glances in her direction?
Why was whispering allowed in a civilized society? It was the worst form of torture.
Tori felt a tug on her arm. She looked down at her eight-year-old, towhead son. His eyes were tired, but not as red as hers.
“I’m hungry,” Ethan whispered with a pleading face that shot a dart into Tori’s heart.
“Me too,” she lied. She hadn’t been hungry in days. When did she last eat?
After the funeral services at the church, Ethan had devoured a few treats from a brown paper sack that a kind neighbor had placed in his hands. Her boy was always hungry. He took after his daddy, the ex-collegiate football player. Ethan wasn’t overweight. He was merely your average boy destined to be six foot six. He was growing, always growing.
“We’ll eat soon. Our neighbors made us a big, yummy lunch.”
He gave a courtesy nod of acceptance, then rested his eyes on the turned earth at their feet.
If only I were the one in the freshly churned earth. Please, let us get through this day, Tori pleaded silently as she placed her arm around Ethan’s waist and pulled him in close.
* * *
The pale blue Egyptian cotton sheets rose and fell with Tori’s every breath. She had been lying in bed with the covers over her head since before sunrise. She didn’t have the energy to take a shower or even brush her teeth. That would normally disgust her, but right now, she couldn’t care less.
It was exactly six months ago today when her husband had taken his last painful breath. He had refused the heavy painkillers—a true-grit cowboy.
Why did he leave her like this? Tori beat the mattress with her fist. He had left her all alone to raise their son.
Nothingness weighed Tori down, deep into her mattress. The front door’s slam jarred her from her angry thoughts. She touched the iPhone on her nightstand. Relief trickled through her veins. Ethan would make his bus. She lifted her eyes to Jim’s photo on the nightstand. “We were so happy. I’ll never be that happy again.” How was it possible to be in so much pain and still be alive? “Are you waiting for me in heaven?” She touched his face with the tip of her finger, then pulled the sheets back over her head.
Why was she so tired all the time? She would start taking those supplements that Gussie had brought over—Bs, Ds, Cs, and one other. Maybe if she started designing again? She had been one of the top interior designers in Park City.
Five years ago, a close friend who was involved with the Salt Lake City Parade of Homes asked her to showcase. After 20,000 people strolled through Tori’s home, and word got out that she’d decorated it herself, she was a wanted woman. When Jim died, she no longer found joy in designing, nor in anything else, really. Tori had passed the torch on to her eagerly awaiting assistant.
Get out of bed! That is the most important thing to do, if nothing else, her therapist had said.
Think positive thoughts. She couldn’t think of one positive thing. How ungrateful she’d become.
Tori pulled herself out of bed and started the shower. She’d count her blessings. Number one: warm water. Some places in the world didn’t have warm water. She was proud of herself for having counted one blessing. It was three degrees outside and cloudy, but she had warm water.
Tori sat on the edge of the copper claw-foot tub and gazed out the picture window. The weepy, dense snow caused the evergreen branches, tipped with thousands of glistening icicles, to bow down toward the earth. Even the snow had icicles. Tori shivered. The worst part of getting into the shower on a frosty morning was undressing and walking on the cold stone floor. Those few seconds of exposure seemed to stretch out into infinity.
A wondrous thought came to mind: if she never removed her clothes, then she wouldn’t get cold. Why had she not thought of that before? Genius.
Tori swung open the glass shower door and stepped under the cascading waterfall. The sheet of water blanketed her body in moist warmth. Her nightgown clung to her body as she leaned against the rough gray-and-copper stone wall.
“Tori!” Gussie’s voice screamed.
Startled, Tori jumped, hitting her head against the corner of the stone soap holder.
Gussie pried open the glass door with a horrified look on her face.
The heat rose in Tori’s face. She would’ve rather been found naked than discovered showering in her clothes.
Gussie’s face scrunched with worry. “Are you okay? Why were you crumpled into the wall like that?”
“You scared me to death!” Tori willed her heart to calm.
“Drama.” Gussie dropped her hands to her sides. “Obviously not to death.” She paused, her eyes studying Tori as she rested a hand on her popped-out hip, utilizing her trademark hip-pop stance. “Why the slip?”
“It was dirty.” Tori motioned to her nightgown. “This is a more organic way of washing it. Silk shouldn’t be laundered industrially.”
Gussie twisted up one side of her face in confusion, but her look quickly transformed into concern. “Oh no, you’re bleeding.”
Tori reached her hand up to where her head had met the unrelenting stone. Warm fluid trickled through her fingers. As she tilted her chin into her chest, the tan Tuscan tile at her feet swirled pink. Her mind went dizzy, and her stomach turned with nausea. She quickly closed her eyes and envisioned lying calmly in her soft bed, but the vertigo continued. She had the weakest stomach of anyone she knew.
Suddenly, Gussie’s hands clamped around Tori’s back, holding her up from under her arms. It brought back memories of Tori’s first dance as a thirteen-year-old with Andy what’s-his-name.
“Do I need staples?” Tori grew anxious. “Or stitches?”
“It’s not that deep,” said Gussie in a comforting voice. “There was a lot of blood at first, but it’s almost completely gone.”
Tori said, “Gussie, you’re soaked through.”
“No worries. I’ll count this toward the sauna time I was planning on taking tonight.”
Tori was grateful for Gussie’s sense of humor at times like these. “Thanks, sweetie. Sorry to get you wet.”
Gussie laughed. “I guess my clothes could use a washing as well.”
Two, she was thankful for Gussie, whose black and gold eye makeup ran down her face like a heavy metal artist ready to take the stage.
With the help of her sister, Tori stepped out of the shower and into the carpeted closet, where she removed the suctioned nightgown with great difficulty. She wouldn’t attempt that one again.
Tori toweled herself dry. “No photo shoot today?”
“Nope,” Gussie sputtered, lathering a foaming cleanser into her face at the sink. “Tori, you okay?” Gussie’s intonation marked her concern.
“Define okay. One minute I’m crying; the next, I’m beating my mattress in anger; then the next, I feel nothing.”
Gussie dabbed her face with the towel, then moved to the closet to change her clothes. “Nothing?”
“The crazy thing is, I’m not scared of the anger or the grief. But I’m terrified of that nothing feeling. Nothing matters anymore.”
“Do you remember what you told me after Casey left me?”
Tori shook her head out of frustration. “I hope you’re not comparing Jim dying to your ex-husband walking out on you,” she said, slipping on a black cotton dress.
“You’re angry at everyone and everything right now. I get it.” Gussie sighed. “I was there.”
Tori’s hands twitched with indignation. “You weren’t there. That’s what I’m trying to say. My situation is different than yours.”
Gussie seemed to be dismissing Tori’s frustration as she continued, “You made me so angry. You said that it would take time. That I needed to be patient. That time would heal my wounds.”
“I remember. You yelled that if one more person mentioned the word time, you’d scream.”
Gussie balled her fists. “Casey did something worse than dying; he abandoned me. I had a right to be angry.”
Tori couldn’t disregard the pain that Gussie had experienced. “Sorry.”
“Me too. Have you ever heard of a woman named Mary Ann Baker?”
Tori shook her head.
“She lost her parents and then her only brother to a hereditary disease. When her brother died, she couldn’t afford to transport his body home or bury him. I believe he ended up in an unmarked public grave.”
“A potter’s field,” Tori lamented.
“Baker was full of sorrow and rage. Then, she bared her soul to God. She wrote lyrics that beautifully capture Christ calming our troubled hearts and minds.”
“‘Master, the Tempest is Raging.’ Like Mary Ann Baker, I believe that if you have faith and ask Him in humility, He will calm your troubled heart. He calmed mine.”
Tori grew defensive and threw her towel at Gussie’s face. “I’ve done that.”
Gussie raised a brow. “In humility. Not our strong point.”
Tori’s jaw tightened. “How dare you?”
“Not to sound cliché, but I dare because I care.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m your twin. I know you better than you know yourself. I wouldn’t tell this to anyone else. Some people need meds and additional therapy.”
“And for someone with clinical depression, it would be a slap in the face to them to become humble and pray more.”
Tori narrowed her eyes. “And it’s not a slap in the face to me?”
“I’m telling you what’s helped me, your identical twin. Can I finish my story?”
Gussie blinked her acceptance and walked toward the bedroom door in silence.
Soul-constricting guilt slithered up Tori’s legs. “Fine.”
Gussie jumped onto Tori’s bed and fluffed a pillow, which she then used to stuff under her chin while she laid out on her stomach. “The pain you’re going through is real. It’s not exactly like mine was, but that doesn’t matter. It’s pain. I’m not saying that God can, or will, take away your pain and depression. What I am saying is that it can’t hurt to ask for comfort.”
Tori lay down next to her sister and buried her head in her pillow. Hadn’t she been humbled by her husband’s death enough? Did she lack faith? “I’m not strong enough for this.”
“We never know how strong we are until we have no other choice.” Gussie rubbed Tori’s back. “I’m sorry you’re in pain, but I know you’re going to pull through this.”
“I’m not so sure.” Tori exhaled her grief. “I need help.”
“I’m always here for you,” Gussie said, squeezing Tori’s arm.
Tori felt the electric shock pulse through her body. They rarely touched each other—for this exact reason. It was a bond difficult to explain.
Gussie continued, “But I realize that’s not enough. That’s why I’ve found a handsome someone who wants to help.”
Tori’s eyes narrowed. “Seriously? Why would you even bring up the subject of another man? I’m never going to find anyone like Jim again.”
“I thought that too, before I met Ray.”
“And I don’t want to.”
“That’s fair. But all this guy wants to do is snuggle and make you happy.”
“And there’s a catch. You may need to clean up after him from time to time.”
“Is he a slob?” Tori anxiously ran her fingers through her wet hair. “Wait. Why am I even entertaining the idea?”
“I’ll go get him. Brush your hair.” Gussie rolled off the bed and smiled. “He’s waiting in the living room.”
Tori’s mouth dropped open. “You wouldn’t dare.” Maybe her sister would dare. When they were young, Gussie had done worse things. And Gussie had given the disclaimer earlier on that she dared to do things for Tori’s own good. Tori ran to her master bathroom, leaned over her husband’s sink, and prepared her toothbrush.
The peppermint toothpaste swirled in her mouth, causing her to gag. It had been Jim’s favorite. She’d used it during her pregnancy and hated it. It was the instigator of her morning retching ritual. After Ethan was born, she’d switched to an organic cinnamon paste to avoid the awful memory. Now, with Jim gone, she yearned to have him back, even if it meant reliving her nauseating pregnancy.
She held her hand under the running water and splashed the sides of the basin out of habit. It was the only idiosyncrasy that drove Tori mad, the one thing about him that grated on her nerves—the constant hair in the sink. He would pull his hair through his fingers every day, and if it was longer than half an inch, he’d snip it into the sink. She’d curse while she rinsed his hair down the drain every morning.
Tori ran a wide-tooth comb through her dark, chestnut hair that was cut in a 90s-layered style—reminiscent of an old Friends episode. Tori and her middle-school-aged friends used to see who could come the closest to replicating the stars. “How do I look, Mom?” Tori said into the mirror. She had always asked her mother that question before leaving home.
In a horrific twist of fate, she’d lost her husband to cancer, then had her mother diagnosed a few months later. Her mother now resided in an assisted living facility an hour away to be close to where she received her cancer treatments. Tori tried to visit her mother at least once a week; unfortunately, that was all she could emotionally give right now.
Her mother would have given more to Tori. She had given more. When Tori had gone to her with the news of her pregnancy, her mother showed love and compassion. She had been a voice of reason, grounding Tori. What would happen when that voice stopped speaking? Tori shuddered. When she’d found out about her mother’s illness, she’d been devastated. Her invincible mother suddenly wasn’t invincible. Her mother was human, and humans die.
Gussie entered the bathroom quietly. “Like heaven dusted your cheeks with angels’ mist. Remember who you are tonight. You’re an angel sent to me from heaven in my old age.”
“You even sound like her,” said Tori. “I’m going to miss her so much.”
“Me too. She always has a way of making me feel like I’m really something. You know?”
Tori grabbed the sides of the sink. “Was it her calm, listening ear, or the bowl of ice cream that she handed us as teenagers when we talked, that created that sense of belonging?”
“I don’t know, but I could go for a bowl of mint chocolate chip right about now. You up for a trip to the store?”
Tori raised an eyebrow. “What about the snuggly guy sitting in my living room?”
“He’s right here,” Gussie said, unfolding a blanket to reveal a wiggly puppy with glossy black locks. “He can come too.”
Tori squealed with delight. “He’s adorable!”
“And he’s been trained to be an emotional therapy doggy. I got your shrink to write a letter to confirm the necessity for this little guy. You’re all set. Meet your new beau.”
Tori’s chest warmed as she brought the puppy up to her face and peered into his deep brown eyes. As he snuggled his cold, wet nose into her neck, his soft newborn fur rubbed against her chin, causing Tori to experience the first real sense of comfort since her husband’s passing.
“What would I do without you, Gussie?”
Gussie embraced Tori, sending a warm electrical wave down her spine. “You’ll never have to know.”
The clean, thin mountain air whipped across Zee’s face, causing his eyes to water. This was his last run of the day. The chairlift climbed up the mountain with a speed equaling a robin in flight. Although the cold air met his face with force, his cheeks remained warmed from the sun that had blanketed them with a fresh suntan that day. It was reminiscent of having spent the day surfing.
He took in a deep breath and admired his surroundings. The white mounds met the azure sky with resplendence, then cascaded down the mountainside in perfectly groomed trails, skirting the verdant rows of evergreen trees.
Zee preferred to be here in the mountains, alone, to hobnobbing with the Hollywood actors and onlookers in town. Sundance Film Festival was not all what he had expected it to be, or perhaps it had been. He was ready to get back to the beach and do some surfing.
He jumped off the lift and skied toward an intermediate run with a few switchbacks through the trees. He wasn’t an experienced skier by any means, having lived near the ocean a good portion of his life, but he’d picked it up rather quickly over the past few days.
A group of young kids skied up next to Zee with their instructor at the helm.
“Everyone good?” their instructor asked with a wide grin and a thumbs-up. “Follow me. You know the drill.”
The kids raised their ski poles in the air and hollered with enthusiasm. Zee watched them intently as they wound down the hill, leaving behind beautiful bowtie ski tracks.
What I wouldn’t give to be young again, Zee thought. Being in his mid-thirties wasn’t bad, but it’d be better with a wife and a kid or two. He adjusted his ski mask, pushed off, and flew down the hill.
His legs burned from squatting and bending into his turns. He approached the group of young students as they were advancing past a rustic log cabin.
What was an old cabin doing in the middle of a ski run? Zee maneuvered up to the front of the cabin, removed his skis, and clomped onto the wide deck. Peering in through the window at the primitive room, he caught a glimpse of a large stuffed bear in a state of slumber on the bed. Zee expressed his amusement with a low chortle.
“Help!” a young cry emanated from amongst the tall trees.
Zee ran to the side of the cabin. “Where are you?”
Zee surveyed the forested slope to find a boy buried up to his waist in fresh powder. “Hold on, kid.” Zee advanced slowly, trudging through a few feet of dusty snow. “What happened?”
The young boy had clear blue eyes and a pasty face that was peppered with freckles. “I came into the trees, then hit a wicked jump.” His arm shot up with excitement. “It was awesome!”
“Awesome, huh?” said Zee with a chuckle as he dug his arms into the snow to free the boy.
The kid smiled, revealing his two missing canine teeth.
Snow made its way up Zee’s jacket as he dug, melting into his skin. “How old are you?”
“Ten,” answered the boy.
Ten seemed like a lifetime ago to Zee—but they were happy times. “When I was ten, I was trying to catch some awesome, cranking waves in the ocean.”
The kid’s eyes grew wide with excitement. “Cool.”
“There ya go.” Zee pushed away the last of the ensnaring snow. “What’s your name?”
“I’d hate to see you get hurt, Ethan. Watch those wicked jumps.”
“Thanks,” the boy said eagerly, now free from his powdered prison.
Zee smiled as he watched the young boy zip down the hill. Then, thoughts of what might have been yanked him back to the harsh reality of having lost that one-sided battle.
After finishing his run, Zee placed his skis upright in the designated rack at the entrance to the lodge. His sun-strained eyes welcomed the low light. He couldn’t pinpoint if his developing headache was a result of his day in the intense sunlight, or due to the high altitude. He removed his heavy ski jacket, placed it on the back of a hand-carved wooden chair, and plopped down in the mammoth seat.
The open room resembled a European hunting tavern from the early 1800s, with crisscross timbers reaching up several stories, a central stone fireplace, and iron sconces hanging off the walls. Zee whistled. No expense was spared here.
The common area entertained a dichotomy of tired skiers and energetic, supportive non-skiing spouses and travel buddies—who deferred the exercise to pampered indulgence at the world-renowned spas and restaurants.
Zee relaxed back into the wooden chair, but he perked back up when he heard bells tinkling. It was a few weeks after Christmas—too late in the season for a Polar Express reenactment.
A black dot scurried across the floor just before the tiny creature jumped up onto his lap, causing him to nearly bolt out of his seat. He grasped his armrests with force, attempting to steady his racing heart with deep breaths.
Upon closer examination of the high-jumping animal, Zee realized he’d been accosted by a miniature dog—a black ball of fluff with three silver bells hanging off his collar. He couldn’t have weighed more than two or three pounds.
Zee slowly cupped the little pooch in his hands. “Seriously? You’re smaller than my one hand?”
The little guy nuzzled his nose into Zee’s palm before utilizing his thumb as a chew toy.
“Ow. Those are some sharp little teeth you got there.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Zee noticed the bright blue ski jacket of the little boy who’d been buried in the powder. The boy’s chin remained down as he swept his head from side to side, studying the carpet with his eyes.
“Rambo!” Ethan called out.
The crowds cleared and the boy moved into open view. The distressed vacationers had become aware of the possibility of an aggressive pet and slowly dispersed.
Zee flipped over the lightweight doggy tag. The name Rambo was etched into the red paint. “You do have razor-sharp teeth, but something tells me you wouldn’t thrive, let alone survive, in these woods—not like your namesake, anyway.”
Zee stood and walked up to Ethan. “Is this who you’re looking for?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Ethan sighed out his relief. “My mom’s going crazy.”
“Let’s find her, then, and set her mind at ease.”
“She’s right there,” Ethan said, pointing to the front doors with his elbow.
A tall brunette sauntered into the room like she was out to get the main part in the next blockbuster movie. Zee snapped his fingers, trying to remember where he’d met her—maybe at one of the celebrity parties he had attended in LA. She looked so familiar.
When Ethan’s mom turned, allowing Zee to catch a better look at her face, he sucked in a quick breath. “Wow, kid, that’s your mom?”
Ethan’s face lit up. “She’s really nice. Do you want to hang out with us?”
Was Ethan asking him to possibly date his mom? Zee’s body tingled with anticipation. “Absolutely.” This was about to get serious. “Can I see Rambo for a minute?” Zee took the fluff ball out of Ethan’s hands before he could protest, snuggling the tiny creature into his chest. Game on.
When their eyes met, the confident woman’s placid expression warmed. Zee’s chest refused to fill with air, causing his heart to race. He’d give just about anything to have someone that gorgeous look at him like that every day.
“You found him!” she exclaimed. “How can I ever thank you?”
Ethan pulled at his mother’s jacket. “He’s the guy who dug me out of the snow.”
She blinked her intoxicating dark lashes. “I’m twice in your debt, Mr. …?”
“Mr. Zee?” she asked.
“Zee Terrence,” he corrected.
She scrunched her eyebrows in confusion—a reaction he’d gotten many times before. “Zee? Like the letter Z?”
He nodded. “Unusual, I know. It means sea in Dutch.”
“Is your family from Holland?”
“I don’t think so. I have a brother named Kai, meaning sea in Hawaiian, and a sister named Meri, mean—”
“Let me guess,” she said, cutting him off with a teasing smile. “Sea in Hungarian?”
“Finnish. Hungarian is Tenger. I barely escaped being named Tenger Terrence.”
“Zee was a better choice,” she said with a coquettish pout of her lips and blush of her cheeks, causing Zee to swallow hard just to keep focused on her eyes instead of her mouth.
“You’ve got two great little guys here.” Zee held Rambo in the air, then snuggled him back into his chest. “What kind of dog is he?”
“A teacup Maltipoo Pom.”
Zee held Rambo back up in the air and twisted him around. “A pompom?”
His plan was working.
She twisted a lock of her long hair in her fingers. “He’s a Maltese poodle Pomeranian.”
“Rambo, right? I didn’t get your name.”
“Sorry. I guess I’m a little flustered today.” The rose in her cheeks darkened as she reached for Rambo. “It’s Victoria, but my friends call me Tori. Call me Tori,” she stuttered.
He brushed his hand against hers as he handed Rambo to her. After the initial euphoria from the touch, he felt a cool piece of metal on her finger. He looked down to find a platinum wedding band adorning her left-hand ring finger. Why didn’t I look down at her finger two seconds into our conversation? Idiot!
She batted her lashes. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee or hot chocolate to thank you for your help today?”
He took a step back. He wasn’t the type of guy to mess with a married woman. Was her flirtation all pretense and manipulation? Did she know he was an executive producer? “Thanks, but I have a commitment this evening. It was nice to have met you, Tori. And you too, Ethan. Watch those jumps,” he said with a forced smile.
He turned, ripped his jacket from off the back of the chair, and cursed his stupidity all the way back to his lonely room.