Jennie Braxton opened her eyes slowly, but it was like fighting to swim upstream. She blinked, then blinked again. Where am I? The haze slid away and a face came into focus as it loomed in front of her. Deep brown eyes, a strong nose, and a cleft in his smooth chin. She didn't know him; she would have remembered someone as attractive as this.
"Ma'am?” He touched her shoulder. “Are you all right? Can you hear me?"
Her head hurt and she felt a little woozy. What happened? She nodded, but that caused a pain right between her eyes and she winced. "Yes.” Jennie swallowed, her mouth dry. “Where am I?”
"You're in Heaven, ma'am." He smiled as if that was a good thing. "There was an accident."
"Heaven?" She tried to piece her memories together. An accident? Am I dead? "But my head hurts."
He nodded, his eyes warm with understanding. So this is heaven. Didn't seem too bad. This stranger made her feel safe, as if he saw everything clearly, like he knew things she had yet to learn.
Jennie nearly surrendered to the comfort offered in those beautiful brown eyes. Had she already passed the Pearly Gates? She didn't remember any bright light leading her heavenward. But she couldn't remember much at all.
He knelt so they were eye to eye. "You hit your head on the steering wheel. You ran into a tree."
Oh, God. Her stomach clenched as memories flashed through her mind—she was driving to her parents, the weather was bad. It had been snowing, the girls singing Christmas carols… The girls! "My children," she choked on the words and tried to move, but he kept his hand on her shoulder. "Are...are they here with me?" No! They were no more than babies. Only five and seven. It was too soon for them to see their daddy again. They deserved a life!
"Yes, but they’re fine. Not a scratch." He smiled and glanced over his shoulder. She followed his gaze. Her children stood in the snow, looking like two little Elves dressed in their matching red and green striped leggings, their bright Christmas sweaters. A small Dalmatian pup was squirming in their hands, struggling to break free.
Relief rushed over her in a hot wave. Her daughters were alive. Jennie blinked away tears. Oh, thank the dear Lord! She whipped her head around—the movement causing her a sharp stab of pain. She was still in her car. It smelled like snow and pine trees and coffee. Earthly sights and smells. "I don't understand. How can this be heaven, if I'm in a car and they're not hurt?"
He laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his full mouth resting in a smile. "You're in Heaven, Pennsylvania."
Jennie closed her eyes and took in the news. It was cold because he had the car door open. It smelled like coffee because she’d spilled her mug. "Oh. That is good.” Her front window was cracked and the heavy pine scent came from the branch in her passenger side. “No wonder I hurt." She touched her forehead and felt something sticky. "Katie? Brooke," she called to her children, needing to feel their warm, sweet bodies, to reassure herself that they were truly alive and well. The nice man leaned back as her daughters rushed forward. She’d lost enough in this past year, and if she'd lost them too. Well, it was unbearable. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, think about that.
"Mommy, are you okay?" Katie poked her head in and looked at her. Her daughter’s eyes were a golden shade of brown, and right now they were wide with fear. "You scared us. You wouldn't wake up." She bit her lip, having learned too young about loss.
Jennie's head throbbed, but it was a minor problem compared to what could have been. "I'm fine, sweetheart."
"Good." Katie moved away from the door so Brooke could see into the car. Her five-year-old held the wriggling black and white dog and wore a big grin. “Look at the puppy. He's so cute." Brooke squealed as it tugged on her auburn braid like a chew toy.
The dog. More memories came back, like flashing headlights. Jennie had pulled off the highway, needing gas and a bathroom break. It was snowing, but not a heavy snow. Big, fluffy flakes. She had made the turn and was easing into the station when that dog ran in front of her car. She'd stomped on her brakes, swerved into a tree, and that's the last thing she remembered until she woke up with a stranger's face peering into hers.
"Help me out?" she asked him.
He rubbed the cleft in his smooth chin and shook his head. "The gas station owner called 911 and the ambulance is on the way. The police have been notified too."
She nodded. "Yes, but my children need me."
"You were knocked unconscious, ma’am, which means it’s probably a concussion. The medics will want to check you out."
"I need to hold my kids." Jennie heard them playing with the puppy and knew they were fine, but she wanted them in her arms anyway. She undid her seatbelt, wondering why the airbags in her car hadn't deployed. Her stomach rolled at the smear of blood on the steering wheel. "Please?" She tried to push herself out of the seat, but the stranger’s gentle grip was stronger than it seemed and kept her in place.
"I can't, ma'am. You wouldn't be here right now if I hadn’t been chasing the puppy, trying to catch him so he wouldn’t get hurt. I'm responsible for you."
She heard sirens and knew the ambulance was close. But before they came and whisked her away, she needed to feel her children safe in her arms. "Just one second with my girls."
He glanced at the kids and back at her. "Girls!" he called out. "Come give your mother a hug."
"I'm sorry," he said, "but what are your names?"
The girls dropped the dog as the ambulance pulled off the highway. They had been fine a minute ago but now they both burst into tears and squeezed between the door, the stranger and her lap. "This is Katie, and my youngest is Brooke. I'm Jennie."
"I'm Nick Ryan," he said, stepping away to give the girls more space.
She kissed their cheeks, and tasted their salty tears. "I love you both so much. If anything happened to you..." Jennie bit back a sob. She said a prayer of thanks and hugged them tight. Life was fleeting, fragile. Had Daniel been looking out for them tonight? A guardian angel?
Her husband had been a naval officer in Norfolk, Virginia on a training exercise when his helicopter went down. It was in January, almost a year ago.
"Don't cry, Mommy,” Katie said, frowning at Jennie’s forehead. “We'll take care of you."
She forced a smile and ignored the stabbing pain in her temple. "I know you will. You're the best girls in the world."
"Oh, oh." Brooke pushed out of her arms. "We forgot the dog. He's running away." Katie left her embrace too, in an eager attempt to catch the dog. The bad pup raced by the car, wagging his tail and running toward the gas pumps.
Nick leaned in, as if sensing how she must feel being deserted for an unknown pup. "You know kids," he said. "They can't sit still."
She swallowed a lump in her throat. "Yeah. I know. Hope you catch your dog." Jennie glanced at him, wondering why he hadn't had the pup on a leash. The accident could have been avoided.
"That’s not my dog," he said with a shrug and a crooked grin. "I was on my way to work and saw him running down the road. I gave chase, trying to save him from getting run over, and darn near got you all killed instead." He glanced at her head injury and frowned. “I am so sorry, Jennie.”
She sniffed. Whatever was he wearing? He smelled, well, heavenly. She turned her head and buried her nose in his collar, and sniffed again. His scent was a mixture of sweat and cologne. Manly. Why she could appreciate this now was beyond her. Could be the emotional state she was in after crashing into a tree, or the simple fact she hadn't been touched by a man in a year. She hadn't been aware that she'd missed it.
"And don't worry about the bills," the nice smelling man named Nick said. "I'll take care of everything."
"You don't need to do that," she answered. "I'm not destitute. Not yet, anyway. I have insurance, too." She gave a brief smile. "I don't want to go to the hospital. Would you do me a huge favor and tell the ambulance driver that I'm fine?"
"Nope. Listen, have them check you over and if the hospital releases you, call me and I'll drive you to the Inn. We only have one in town and they always have room. But I'm not going to let you sign off." He shifted so they were practically nose to nose and spoke quietly. "I'm not being obstinate, just practical. Years ago a buddy of mine had a sister, and she was skiing in Aspen during Spring break. She took a bad fall, and allowed the ski patrol to take her down the mountain, but then she refused treatment.” His expression darkened. “She never made it through the night."
"That's a terrible story." She touched her throbbing head. "You win. I'll go. For everyone's peace of mind," she added, holding his gaze. He had a very caring face. Like Daniel's, she thought. A face that she had loved with everything in her heart.
"Thank you." He leaned back, giving her some room to breathe. "So where were you headed before I messed up your plans?"
"Philadelphia. To spend the holidays with my parents." She sighed. "We were almost there, but I was low on gas and the girls needed a bathroom.”
He dug into the front pocket of his black winter coat and pulled out a phone. "Give me their number and I'll call them."
"That's kind of you, but if I could have my phone, I could do it." She glanced around. "I don't see it." Panic rose in her voice. Tears weren't far away.
Nick cleared his throat and she looked up into his warm brown eyes. "We'll find your phone later. Is there anyone else I should let know? A husband? The girls’ father?"
"No.” She took a calming breath, holding herself together. “Just my parents. John and Louise Howard."
Before she could say more, the ambulance arrived. Uniformed medics carried a stretcher toward her. She wouldn't refuse treatment. She was a single parent now, and couldn't afford to take any chances.
Nick stepped away, allowing the two young men to take over. "I'll meet you at the hospital," he told her. "Don't worry. I'll call your parents and take care of the car. Everything will be fine."
“Thanks.” She nodded and spoke to the medics. "The kids...Can they ride in the ambulance with me?"
"Yes, ma'am. They should be looked at too." Carefully, they lifted her onto the stretcher, asking her routine questions. Katie grabbed Jennie’s purse from the car, brushing broken glass from the strap. Brooke carried her and Katie’s backpacks. Jennie gave the medics the information they requested, and then she and the girls were lifted into the ambulance.
The last thing Jennie saw before they closed the ambulance door was Nick sneaking up behind the pup, grabbing hold of him tight, and then cradling him in his arms.
The ER wasn't busy when the ambulance arrived, and they were seen right away. Within an hour, Dr. Sue had pronounced the girls healthy, but told Jennie she wanted her overnight for observation. The three of them were in a brightly lit area, waiting for an available room. There was a small TV, a coffee station, a cold drink dispenser, and tables with magazines. It wasn't the Ritz but it was warm and reasonably comfortable.
A short time later, Nick entered. His black coat was undone, his cheeks flushed and raw from the cold. His dark hair was flecked with melting snow, but he wore a warm smile. "I called your parents. They are on their way. And the police arrived just after you were taken away so I let them know that I witnessed the whole thing. Gave them an accurate report of the accident, but you’ll have to give them your insurance info when you get out of here." He ran a hand threw his damp hair, shaking the snow off his shoulders. "Oh, and the garage towed your car to the body shop. I brought you your bag as well. It's still in my car. Figured you might need it."
"You did all that?" Tears welled and she sniffed them away. "How did you get their number?" she asked. "I never had time to give it to you."
"You said they lived in Philly, and you gave me both their names. Luckily they didn't have an unlisted number."
"Well, that was very kind of you." She gave him a weak smile. "I must have left my phone in the car. It was in the middle console."
"I found it." He pulled it from his jeans pocket and handed it to her. "Not sure if it's going to work. Looks a little banged up."
"Thank you," she said, looking at the smashed face. A phone could be replaced. A person—not so much. She turned it on and was pleased to see that it was still in working order.
"Nana and Papa are coming here?" Katie said, looking up from a book she'd taken out of her backpack. The girls were sharing a small bag of Cheetos Crunch and their fingers were a nice shade of orange. She brushed her hands on her corduroy skirt, and Jennie pretended not to see. "Can we all go home with them?" She asked with bright eyes and a happy smile.
"I wish we could, sweetheart." Jennie glanced from her daughters to Nick. "The doctor wants to keep me for tonight,” she said, knowing she had to do whatever it took to be healthy and safe. Reaching for Brooke’s hand, she wiped the fingers with a tissue from her bag, and added, “But you girls can go with them, and I'll join you tomorrow."
"Why can't you come too?" Brooke asked with a pout. "That's just mean."
"Not mean, honey. We’re making sure that my head is all right." She touched the small bandage on her forehead, grateful it wasn’t worse.
"Still think it's mean." Brooke rested her head on Jennie's lap. Poor sweetheart was tired after a long day and the trauma from the accident, she thought, tucking an auburn tendril behind her small ear.
Nick sat down in a chair, leaving space for her daughters. "Hey, I can drive you to Philly after you get out of here tomorrow," he said. "Your car won't be ready for several days. I mean, I’m no mechanic, but it’s a mess."
"I’ll rent something." She studied him, seeing his guilt and finding it unnecessary. "You don't need to hang around or pick me up. You've been kind enough," she said, wishing he'd go away so she and the girls could relax.
"I'll leave when your parents get here," he said, and took off his coat, sliding it onto a spare chair.
Jennie frowned. She hated the fact that she was forced to stay here a night, when all she wanted to do was get home with her parents and let her mother take care of her and the girls the way she loved to do. Every cell in her body ached. Her muscles were knotted and tight. Her head hurt. She wanted a good cry.
She knew that she must look hideous. Normally she considered herself reasonably attractive with her big green eyes, upturned nose, and shoulder length auburn hair. She was slim and athletic in build, five foot eight, and at thirty-one and a mother of two, she didn't look much different than when she was a flight attendant flying the friendly skies. Now? She felt nasty, wanting to brush her teeth and get the blood out of her hair.
Nick’s blue sweater hugged his chest and he was wearing snug Levi’s. His dark hair, worn on the longish side, waved around his ears, not like a barber shop cut, more like a salon. “Weren’t you on your way to work?” She hoped he wasn’t so busy feeling bad that he screwed up his job. “What do you do?”
He grinned and sat forward, his elbows on his knees. "I own a restaurant on Main Street. I'm a chef."
She checked out his hands and noted the long fingers with short nails. "Oh." Jennie was saved from clever conversation when she spotted her mom and dad coming down the corridor. He turned when he heard their voices and got up from his chair. She hadn’t realized he was so tall before.
"Nana!" Katie set her book down next to Nick, and Brooke jumped off her chair beside Jennie. Both girls went barreling toward their grandmother. Dropping to her knees, the stylish sixty-year-old cuddled them close.
Jennie figured her mom would never really age. Louise Howard kept her hair a silvery blonde and stayed thin from the gym three times a week. Blinking away tears, Jennie noticed how frail and old her dad looked in comparison. Instead of enjoying their retirement, her parents now faced some health issues. Six months ago her dad had bypass surgery, and was only now getting back to his normal self, although her mother said his appetite was still poor.
"My little darlings. I've missed you so much." Louise gave them big kisses, and then crossed the room to kiss Jennie’s cheek, her gaze settling on the bandage at her forehead. "Thank heavens you're all right," she exclaimed. "What a frightening accident."
Jennie's father elbowed in and bent to kiss her other cheek, then walked over to shake Nick's hand. "You must be the one who called us. I'm John Howard and this is my wife, Louise. We're very grateful to you."
"Nick Ryan," he said, "and it was the least I could do." He shook both their hands, looking slightly uncomfortable. "The accident was my fault. I was chasing after a puppy, worried that it might get hit by a car. It ran in front of Jennie’s SUV. She swerved and lost control. Now she's here instead of home with the two of you."
Jennie appreciated his integrity, but enough was enough. She got to her feet, feeling just a little wobbly. "It wasn't your fault. It was an accident." Tears she blamed on the pain pills pricked her eyes. "Nick's been great," she told her parents. "But enough with the guilt."
Turning away from his puzzled gaze, she put an arm around her mother's back. "It's so good to see you. I'm feeling rather weepy."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of," Louise said. "It's perfectly natural under the circumstance."
Nick picked up his coat. "I'll run down and get your bag. It's in my car."
"Want me to come with you?" her dad asked.
"No, stay here. It'll just take me a sec."
When he left the room, her mother turned to her and raised an eyebrow. "Nice looking man. What does he do?"
"He's a chef."
"Hmmm." She sat down and cradled Brooke in her arms, giving her grandbaby the love and attention she needed and deserved. "I've missed my little bumpkins. I can't wait to have you all home with me." She looked at Jennie, over Brooke's head. "Your dad and I decided to stay overnight. We hate driving late, especially with the snow and traffic so bad."
"Really? It's only a half hour's drive. Wouldn't it be better to take the girls and I'll join you in the morning?"
"That's what I told your mother," her dad said. "But she won't listen."
Louise shook her head, an obstinate look on her face. "Friday night before Christmas? No thank you. Especially with the snow and all. The 95 is a death trap at the best of times."
"Your mother is becoming a nervous wreck," her dad complained. "I told her to stop watching the news."
"And so I should,” her mom said defensively. “Can't even go to a movie theater anymore without the threat of getting shot."
"Louise. Don't go on like this in front of the children." Her dad spoke quietly, and took Katie into his arms. She hugged him tight and then peeked out at her Nana.
"What's wrong with the movies?" she asked. "Mom took us to see Frozen.”
“I love Frozen!” Brooke said, jumping off Nana's lap.
“And she said we could go to Disney on Ice.” Katie turned toward Jennie to make sure the plan hadn’t changed. “Didn't you, Mom?"
"Yes,” she answered, smiling in spite of the pain. “We will. I promise."
"You will have a wonderful Christmas," Louise said, tilting her small upturned nose in the air. "And your cousins are coming, and Aunt Christy and Uncle Matt."
"Yeah!" Brooke clapped her hands. "I love Jed and Jake. Even when they pull my pigtail."
Louise smiled, and patted her head. "We won't let them do that. But they are very active boys."
John spoke up. "Your mom packed us a light bag. We'll take the girls and stay at a hotel for tonight and in the morning you can see to your car, and then join us."
Jennie's heart sank. So much for nurturing. She longed to be in their familiar house, lying on a sofa next to the fire. Her mother fussing over her and the kids. But it was not to be. She still needed to deal with the insurance company, the police report, renting a car, finish her holiday shopping, and pretend to be happy for her children's sake. This was the first Christmas without Daniel. How could she pretend it was a joyful time, when a vital part of her was still dead inside?
Nick returned with her bag, and she was almost happy to see him.
He handed the large bag on wheels to her father. "If you want dinner before you head back into Philly come to Nick's Bar and Bistro. On Main Street, the town center. Dinner will be on me."
"They're staying here for the night," Jennie told him. "Do you know a hotel nearby?"
"Why sure. There's an Inn—the only Inn in town. At the end of Main Street. It's never full, not even this time of year."
"Sounds good," her mother said. "But I think we'll pass on dinner. Just grab something here so we can spend more time with Jennie." She took her daughter's chin into her hand and studied her face. "What a terrible start to this holiday. And you look so beaten up and exhausted. You need to rest. Stay an extra night, take care of yourself and the car." She glanced at her husband. "Right hon? We don't mind having the children to ourselves. We get so little time with them."
"Whatever Jennie wants is fine by me." John gave her a sympathetic look. "You do look like you've been through a wringer. It's an emotional time for everyone." His kindly eyes swept to his grandchildren. "It's going to be rough on you all."
"I might be able to help speed things up with the car," Nick said, stuffing his hands in his jean pockets. "I know the mechanic. He probably doesn't work weekends, but I could give him a call and see."
"That's not necessary. I'll deal with all this tomorrow." Jennie grimaced, feeling herself sinking a little lower with every breath. "You've been too kind already. Please feel free to go to work. We appreciate everything you've done."
Her mother looked at Nick, then back at her. "Yes. You have taken good care of our daughter and girls. Thank you." She reached out a hand and put it on his arm. "Now help me convince my daughter that she doesn't have to do everything herself. She's very stubborn and independent."
"Mom. I have to be. You know that."
The words hung in the air, and her mother's face changed. She nodded and her hazel eyes grew misty. "I know you do. I wish it were different, that's all."
"It's all right, Mom. When I get to your place, you can make all the decisions, and I'll sit back and rest. The car can wait until after the holiday. I need family time," Jennie said, feeling fragile and weak, and hating herself for it. "I haven't seen you since summer, and I want to spend time with Christy and the boys.” Her older sister was married to a dentist and had two sons, Jed and Jake, ten and twelve.
"You will," Louise answered. "They’re coming around noon on Christmas day, but I expect you'll see them before that." She flashed a worried look at her daughter. "I'm just concerned that you've worn yourself out. The holiday season can do that to anyone, and as a single parent? Well, all I'm saying is that you could probably use a night or two on your own. Just rest and concentrate on getting well."
"I'm okay, Mom. Nothing a night's sleep won't fix."
"Sweetheart, you've been stressed to the max. It's been a terrible year."
"Of course it has. Daniel..." she glanced at her daughters and didn't finish the sentence. Stressed didn’t quite cover it. "I want to go home and be with all of you.""Of course you do," John said, giving his wife a pointed look. He turned to Nick. "Thanks again for taking care of our three girls. You better run off to your restaurant. It's already after six. People will want their chef."
"I'm on my way." Nick nodded at Jennie. "I feel like you got a bad impression of Heaven. I’d love to change your mind." He ruffled Brooke’s hair. "I understand that you want to be with your kids, Jennie.” His compassionate gaze encompassed them all. “If you decide to wait for the car, there’s a lot for the girls to enjoy too. We have an outdoor skating pond, an ice rink, perfect hills for tobogganing, even a horse and carriage ride through the park." He shrugged. "We also have a mall. It's not big, but for last minute presents it's enough."
"Can we, Mom?" Brooke asked. "I want to slide down hills and make a snowman."
Jennie gathered the frayed edges of her temper at the hope shining in her daughter’s eyes. "I don't know, hon," Jennie answered. "It makes more sense for me to leave the car here and deal with it next week, after the holidays."
Nick stopped at the doorway. "If I get a vote, I’d like you to stay." Without waiting for a reply he walked away, his solid footsteps echoing down the hall.
“I want to go for a ride in the carriage,” Katie said.
"We’ll see.” Jennie shot her mother a look. "How could you?"
"I wasn't being pushy. I just see that you're on the verge of collapse." Her expression softened. "I miss him too. We all do. We know this is a very difficult time for you."
"What are you talking about?" Katie eyed them both. "Dad?" Her face crumpled. "Why isn't he here? This place is called Heaven. Stupid name, anyway." She burst into tears, and her Papa folded her in his arms.
"There, there, Katie, my girl. It's okay to cry." John gave his wife a look. "Why don't we take the girls to the cafeteria and get them a bite to eat?" He glanced at Brooke who was clinging to her mother. "You guys hungry?"
A nurse came around the corner. "Your room is ready. Why don't your visitors come up to room 302 in about twenty minutes, once we have you settled?"
John put his hand on Katie’s shoulder and held the other hand out to Brooke. "Yes, we'll grab dinner and see you in half an hour," he said, leading her daughters away. "Come, Louise."
Louise bent and kissed Jennie on the forehead. "Just think about it, will you? You need to take care of yourself so that you'll be strong enough for the girls." Then she followed her husband and grandkids from the room.
Jennie watched them leave, but her mind was on Nick and his last words. He wanted her to stay. Why did that give her a warm, fuzzy feeling, and make her want to smile? Not that she would let her mother know that. It would be her own little secret, and one she would hold dear.
Nick rushed down the brightly lit corridor of Heaven’s only hospital as fast as his legs could carry him. "I would like you to stay." His words mocked him every step of the way. What an idiot! She was either divorced or a widow, for heaven's sake. She probably wanted a husband, and if she didn't, her mother certainly did. It would only be a matter of time before that idea was firmly implanted into Jennie's brain, and he didn't want to be around when that happened. She was young, beautiful, with two adorable girls. Of course she would want a husband. He wasn't in the market for a wife.
Idiot! Moron! If he had a brain it must be tucked away in his pants.
He tossed his bulky ski jacket over his shoulders as he exited the building and headed for his Jeep. Earlier this morning he’d made his mainstays, chili, stew and lasagna, but tonight's special was Coq au Vin and it needed some prep time.
As Jennie's father had pointed out, it was after six. The restaurant opened for lunch six days a week, and then again at five. His bartender, Byron, and Ally, his waitress, were taking care of things until he could get there. They were more than capable but still it was his responsibility to make sure things ran smoothly. He took his phone from his jacket pocket and dialed the first number that came up.
"Nick's Bar and Bistro," Ally said cheerfully.
"Hi Ally. How's it going?" He'd already given them an update earlier, after seeing Jennie and her girls off in the ambulance. Ally told him not to worry, that she'd get the salad and bread out to the customers, and offered to chop up the chicken before the place got busy.
"No problem, boss. We only have three tables right now, and I can handle that fine. I'm pushing the stew and chili. So far so good," she said with a nervous giggle. "You on your way?"
"Yup. Will be there in a few minutes. Just wanted to tell you that you're brilliant and beautiful, and I should give you a raise."
"I'll hold you to that." He heard people chatting and laughing, and the sound of Bing Crosby crooning in the background. He imagined the bar was still packed, people enjoying their two for one's, hoping the weather would clear and make the roads safer for their journey home.
"Don't rush," she said. "The streets are bad. How's the woman?"
"She's good. Might have a severe headache, but I don't think it's any worse than that. They have to hold her overnight for observation.” He was glad that Jennie hadn’t forced the issue of leaving. Maybe he shouldn’t have shared his story about his friend’s sister, but he didn’t want anything bad to happen to the vulnerable mother of two. “As you can imagine, she's not happy about it."