Snow Angel Cove

Snow Angel Cove excerpt

Copyright RaeAnne Thayne

Oh, this wasn’t good. At all.

Eliza Hayward stood with sleet
pelting her like hard little pebbles, gazing at the blackened, charred bones of
her future. Cold dread wormed its way beneath her coat like the wintry wind
blowing off Lake Haven, just a few hundred yards away.

“I don’t like this place,” Maddie muttered, gripping her hand tighter. “It’s ugly and
scary.”

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

This couldn’t be real. She had
driven the two hours from Boise with such anticipation, singing Christmas
carols all the way, loud and silly enough to make a six-year-old giggle. She
had been so excited about this new chapter of their lives in this lovely Idaho
town nestled in the raw and stunning Redemption Mountains.

It had been an amazing
opportunity all the way around — a big jump, career-wise, to her first hotel
manager position but also a nice salary increase, a really attractive benefits
package and, best of all, an included apartment on the property for her and for
Maddie so she could keep her daughter close to her.

Now that cute apartment, the
salary bump, the insurance, everything, had disappeared in a puff of
smoke. Literally. Though she couldn’t see any flames, tendrils of smoke still
curled from the rubble of the building.

The air smelled harsh and
acrid, far different from the sweet, citrusy scent of pine she remembered
permeating the town when she had visited the month before during the interview
process.

The fire had to have happened
within the last few hours. Fire crews still worked busily all around the burned
hotel — coiling hoses, stretching yellow crime tape around the perimeter,
putting out a hotspot here or there.

No wonder she hadn’t heard from
Megan Hamilton. The woman was probably still in shock.

Oh, she hoped no one had been
hurt.

That dread sidled up to her
again, menacing and dark.

What was she going to do now?
She had tied off every single loose end in Boise. Her job, her apartment. All
gone. Their things had been packed and put into storage until she had a chance
to figure out what she might need here in their new life, this new start.

She had even used a big chunk
of her savings as a down payment on a newer SUV to get around the mountain
roads.

Now what?

She gripped Maddie’s
hand more tightly. She would figure something out. Isn’t that what she had been
doing for two years?

“That’s not where you’re going
to work, is it?”

“It was supposed to be.” She
forced a smile for Maddie, doing her best to ignore
the flutters of panic taking wing inside her. “It looks like they had a fire
today.”

She drew in a calming breath,
trying to make her brain cells snap into gear so she could come up with a plan.
The sleet seemed to sting harder with each passing second and the wind had
picked up in the last few moments. Apparently the big storm the forecasters had
been predicting — the reason she had come to town early instead of waiting
until Monday — had blown into Haven Point.

Maddie
shivered a little and Eliza was just about to take her back up the small hill toward
the parking lot where she had parked when she spotted a familiar woman about
her age in jeans and a sooty jacket, talking to a firefighter in turnout gear
with the world Chief written on his helmet.

When she saw Eliza and Maddie, the other woman’s eyes widened, looking huge in a
lovely features that looked taut with stress and exhaustion.

She cut off her conversation
with the fire chief and headed in their direction. Though they had only met
twice — once for Eliza’s initial interview and then the followup where she had been offered the job –the woman
held out her arms and folded her in a hug that smelled strongly of smoke.

“You’re here. Oh, Eliza.” Her
voice wobbled and her slim frame trembled too, like a slender branch shivering
in the wind. “I should have called you. I’m so sorry. It didn’t occur to me
yet. I only … it’s been such a terrible afternoon. I thought you weren’t
coming to Haven Point until tomorrow or Sunday.”

She imagined receiving this
sort of news over the phone and was almost grateful she had drive in early and had
witnessed the damage for herself. “I decided to head up in advance of the
storm. Was anyone hurt?”

“Not seriously. Thank heavens.
One of the housekeeping staff suffered some smoke inhalation while trying to
help us evacuate the guests. Other than that, everyone is fine. We were only
about half-occupied and we were able to get everyone out. It’s been a nightmare
few hours trying to find other places for them all to stay.”

What if this had happened a
week from now, when she was in charge as the hotel manager? She hated even
imagining it.

“What happened? Do you know?”

Megan rubbed at her red-rimmed
eyes. “I was just speaking with Chief Gallegos about it. The investigators
aren’t sure yet but all indications point to some kind of electrical event.
They think it started near the guest laundry. It’s a miracle it happened when
it did, late morning before the weekend guests checked in, when we were fully
staffed with the maintenance crew and the housekeepers to help evacuate. If the
fire had started in the middle of night, things might have gone very
differently. The situation could have been much, much worse.”

Eliza could certainly
appreciate that from Megan’s point of view. As far as she was concerned,
though, the fact remained that her exciting new opportunity was now a pile of
ash and debris.

Megan suddenly spied Maddie, pressing her face now into Eliza’s wool coat to
keep out of the wind. “But you. And Maddie. I’m so,
so sorry.”

She wore the same sorrowful expression
that Eliza had seen on her friends and neighbors after Trent’s funeral. “I
can’t believe this happened right before you were supposed to start. I’ve been
so excited to have you on board too. I just feel like we really clicked during
the interview process. Your ideas were innovative and exciting, exactly what
this old inn needed to shake things up.”

Eliza heard the “but” and knew
what was coming.

“Obviously everything has
changed. Oh Eliza.” Megan’s eyes welled up and spilled over, trickling down her
soot-grimed face.  She pulled a
bedraggled tissue out of her pocket.

“I understand.”

“I don’t know what we’re going
to do. We have to close indefinitely. I guess that’s obvious. I need to speak
with the insurance company to find out if we should rebuild what is left or
raze the whole thing and start over. I can’t believe this happened right before
Christmas. I feel so terrible for my staff. Some of them have been at the Inn
since before I was born, when my grandparents owned it.”

Though that leashed panic
inside her wanted to break free and ravage everything, Eliza forced a smile,
cuddling Maddie close for comfort and for warmth.
“You obviously don’t need a new manager when you’ve got nothing for me to
manage. Don’t worry. I understand.”

Megan gave a little whimper and
more tears dripped out. “I’m so sorry I dragged you out here. You quit your job
and everything. Can you go back to it?”

She wouldn’t, even in the
unlikely event that they might hire her back. With the owners’ son firmly
entrenched in the top management position and mismanaging everything from the
linen orders to the payroll, she suspected it wouldn’t be long before the
Diamond Street Inn would go under.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be
fine.” She had no idea how, but she would figure something out.

“Don’t cry. It will be okay.” Maddie spoke softly to Megan, looking bewildered at the
situation but distressed too. She was such a sweet little soul, always
concerned about the pain someone else might be experiencing, whether at the
hospital or on the playground.

Megan gave her a watery smile,
then reached down and hugged her. “It will be. You’re absolutely right. Not
immediately, but things will eventually be okay.”

“Is there something I can help
you do now?” Eliza asked. “Cancel bookings or something?”

“I appreciate that, but I’ve
already got the front desk staff taking care of that. Thank heavens our
computer system was backed off onsite and we can still access all those
reservations.”

“That is good news.”

She squeezed Eliza’s hands.
“Again, I’m so, so sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. This wasn’t
your fault.”

“At least I can give you a
small severance package. Something to tide you over while you look for another
position.”

Megan had already been so
generous, offering to pay her moving expenses and including the apartment as
part of her compensation package.

“Don’t worry about it,” she
said, even though that panic fluttered harder. She wasn’t destitute. She had
some savings left, as well as monthly survivor benefits. She also had several
solid years of experience as the assistant manager at the Diamond Street Inn.

She wondered if she could
possibly return the SUV and get her down payment back — but what would she
drive to interviews if she did? Her sedan had been on its last bald tire.

Job-hunting less than two weeks
before Christmas wasn’t ideal timing, nor did she want to move her fragile
child into some grimy pay-by-the-week hotel until she found a position and
could lease a nearby apartment. What other choice did she have?

All in all, this might be
another in a string of miserable holidays.

Emotion welled up in her throat
and she was very much afraid she would burst into tears like Megan.

 “I have your cell number. I’ll be in touch as soon as things
settle down.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Hey, Megan,” the fire chief
called. “Do you want us to put up temporary fencing to keep out the looters?”

“Looters. Oh Lord. I’m sorry. I
need to …”

“Don’t worry. I’m going to go
get Maddie out of the cold. Good luck with
everything.”

She gave Megan a hug, very
sorry suddenly that she wouldn’t have the chance to get to know the other woman
better. She had been certain they would have been friends — and she could
always use a few more of those.

The wind and sleet had died
down a little while she had been speaking with Megan. The calm before the storm,
maybe? She should climb into the SUV she could no longer afford and drive back
through the mountain passes toward Boise before the snow began in earnest but
she didn’t trust herself to drive right now, when her emotions were in such a
tumult.

With the vague intention of
grabbing a bite to eat at one of several restaurants she had spied in the
town’s small commercial district, she headed away from the scorched remains of
the Haven Point Inn.

“Was that lady sad because her
hotel burned down?” Maddie asked after a moment.

“She was. It’s been in her
family for many years.”

Megan Hamilton had no
inclination or aptitude to run the hotel after she unexpectedly inherited it.
She had made clear during the interview process that her interests lay
elsewhere, which was why she had hired Eliza in the first place.

“We can’t live there now, can
we?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Where will we put all our
boxes?”

“Why don’t we grab a bite to
eat at that diner across the street
from where we parked and we’ll try to figure out our options?”

“Do they have macaroni and
cheese?”

“I wouldn’t be at all
surprised.”

They headed for the crosswalk
and waited for the light to change. Eliza took a moment to look around, aware
of her surroundings for the first time since she had seen that pile of rubble.

She could see the downtown
business owners had done their best to decorate their charming little clapboard
and brick storefronts. Lights hung on nearly every facade and most had
Christmas trees in the window. A few had ornaments with nautical themes, in
keeping with the vivid blue of the lake that dominated the view in every
direction.

“Mama, the light is green.
Green means go,” Maddie declared.

“So it does.”

Maddie
slipped her hand free of Eliza’s and scampered ahead of her into the crosswalk.
Eliza followed close behind her, keeping an eye on a black SUV headed down the
hill toward them.

The SUV was slowing down, she
saw, the driver hitting the brakes in what should have been plenty of braking
distance but her insides suddenly froze.

The vehicle’s tires spun
wildly, ineffectually, unable to find purchase on the road. He tried to turn
into the skid but she could tell in an instant he wasn’t going to be able to
completely stop in time– and he was sliding straight for her child.

No. This couldn’t be happening!

Maddie!”
she screamed. Acting on a mother’s frantic desperation, she leaped forward to
push her daughter out of the path of the vehicle.

She had only an instant to feel
deep gratitude and overwhelming relief that her daughter was safe before the
vehicle struck her. Though the driver had almost stopped completely by that
time, the impact still stole her thoughts, her breath, and she crumpled like
that ragged tissue of Megan Hamilton’s. Her head struck concrete and she knew a
moment’s screeching agony before everything went black.