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A guy with everything to lose. A girl with nothing to offer. They were from two different worlds trying to defy both for a chance to be together.
When a fateful accident during a blizzard brings Elliot Carter and Claire Sullivan’s lives crashing together, they quickly learn that they will have to fight for more than survival, but the bonds formed in seclusion will soon be tested. When Elliot’s father arrives to rescue them, declaring her unfit for his son, Claire will suffer the consequences of deciding to shoulder the burden of a secret that could destroy both of them on her own.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes the moment right before you die, but that wasn’t true for everyone. Mine didn’t even warrant a tiny flicker of light, at least not until I opened my eyes to see Elliot Carter staring up at me.
He was one of those guys that everyone knew. Popular, nice on the eyes and untouchable by pretty much anyone in town that his father didn’t approve of. You had to be somebody for the Carter’s to notice you and I was about as invisible as they came.”
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They say your life flashes before your eyes the moment right before you die, but that wasn’t true for everyone. Mine didn’t even warrant a tiny flicker of light, at least not until I opened my eyes to see Elliot Carter staring up at me.
He was one of those guys that everyone knew. Popular, nice on the eyes and untouchable by pretty much anyone in town that his father didn’t approve of. You had to be somebody for the Carter’s to notice you and I was about as invisible as they came.
I had to blink several times before Elliot’s face became clear, but nothing else was. I couldn’t recall how I came to be dangling over the steering wheel of my car or why there was a tree limb impaled into my passenger side seat. The seatbelt pulled taut against my chest, crushing the air from my lungs. My hair fell around my face as I stared through the cracked windshield to the ground far below.
Elliot stood beneath me. His neck craned up to peer at my car, obviously searching for a survivor, but where did he come from? I closed my eyes and tried to remember. There must’ve been an accident. It was the only explanation. I’d been on my way home and I remembered deciding to cut my drive through the mountains short because the weather was deteriorating.
“Shit. I was on Dead Man’s Curve.” It was a twisty windy road that appropriately lived up to its name. A favorite haunt for bikers on a warm fall day, it became a deadly pass in winter. I knew better than to risk it but when I’d set out earlier in the day the clouds were gray and pregnant with snow, but none had yet fallen.
The pass wound up through the mountains and back to the valley below. I must have careened off one of the upper lookouts and slammed into a tree on my way down.
Why couldn’t I remember anything more than that?
I pressed my hand against my forehead and it came back slick with blood. There was a slight ringing in my ears and I knew I’d hit my head at least once, hard enough to knock me out. The likelihood of a concussion fell heavily over me as I tried to focus my thoughts against the nausea building in waves in the pit of my stomach
“Hello? Is anyone up there?” Elliot cupped his hands around his mouth to be heard against the blustery winds that tossed his raven hair about his face. He wore it long, nearly chin length and although it was tucked under a stocking hat, it whipped against his cheeks. Even in the short amount of time that he had been standing there, the snow had already begun to pile over his calves.
In a brief moment of clarity, I remembered that the weather station had called for a blizzard to hit tonight. Apparently, they were wrong about the timing of its arrival.
“I’m here.” My voice sounded pitiful in its attempt to be heard through the cracked windshield. I cleared my throat and tried again, this time manually rolling down my window a few inches. I shivered against the burst of cold air. “I’m here! Please help me!”
The instant he heard my voice, Elliot rushed to the tree. He surveyed the limbs trying to find the best way up. I waved my hands to be seen through the heavily falling snow but when a terrific groan emitted from my car I froze. The steering wheel had pulled to the right as the tires rotated under my enthusiastic waving.
Closing my eyes, I waited for the car to fall still once more, willing my stomach to settle. When the groan faded, I gripped the wheel tightly in both hands, determined not to let it move again.
Tears slipped from the corners of my eyes and chilled against my cheeks as I considered my predicament. I was trapped in a tree, its branches coated with nearly half an inch of ice and there was a blizzard outside ready to dump nearly two feet of snow on us over the next two days. I was in a death trap.
“Oh God,” I cried and gulped in the air until it burned in my lungs and gave me a wicked attack of lightheadedness, or maybe that was just a symptom of a concussion. I couldn’t remember. It was hard to focus.
Breath puffed from between my lips as I trembled in the cold, terrified to admit what was about to happen. My car, a rust bucket on wheels was heavier than most, despite its compact size. Ed, the guy I was supposed to call dad, ran a scrap yard on the outskirts of town and preferred to work on old junkers, tearing them apart to sell them off part by part. That was how I ended up with Frankenstein, my pieced together clunker.
It ran. It got me to and from work. It meant I wasn’t dependent on Ed for anything and that meant freedom from a hell of a lot of shitty things.
A shiver raced up my spine as Elliot circled the tree, testing different branches for their stability. He disappeared for several minutes and then returned with a windshield scraper and began chipping away at the ice. As I watched, my shivering transitioned into a full body tremor.
I knew I was in bad shape. Blood dripped from the ends of my hair onto the dashboard. I hissed when I touched the stinging sensation along my forehead again and my fingers came away wet with ample amounts of blood. My vision swam and my stomach clenched at the sight, knowing that the angle with which I was positioned wouldn’t help to slow the blood loss anytime soon.
When I opened my eyes again I was pretty sure I’d passed out for a couple of minutes because Elliot was on the move. By best guess, I was, at least, twenty feet in the air, a perilous climb on icy limbs that would prove to be slow going for him if he could manage it.
“Talk to me,” he shouted up as he paused between chipping out footholds. From below, I could hear him grunting with effort. “What’s your name?”
“Claire Sullivan.” My voice was shaky as my arms trembled under the force it took to keep the wheel straight. I knew if I let go the wheel would pull to the right and I couldn’t let that happen. Elliot was moving to a position directly beneath me. He wouldn’t stand a chance.
He paused and looked up. “Claire? That’s a nice name. I’m Elliot.”
A large chunk of ice broke off from the tree limb overhead and smashed into my back windshield. I screamed and instinctively ducked. Elliot hugged the tree as the chunks slid off my roof and fell past him.
“You ok up there?”
“I’m fine. Just a little ice.”
“Wasn’t so little from where I’m standing.”
I couldn’t believe it when I heard him laugh. Was he nuts? Well, he had to be since he was free climbing an iced-over tree with a car teetering over his head. If that didn’t qualify him for crazy I didn’t know what would.
I fell silent, watching his progress, wishing that I had something more to wear than a threadbare coat, but it was all that I owned. No hat. No gloves. I had a scarf that my mom knitted for me last Christmas. It had meant so much to me. Things were tight, especially around the holidays. That’s when Ed liked to drink in excess and what little money we had gone straight down his throat. When that ran out he found other ways to get his drinking money.
I learned long ago that Christmas was better off without gifts. Mom had arthritis something fierce and knitting was painful for her, but she’d refused to let me go without something. I loved her dearly for that sacrifice.
I knew my scarf was repurposed from several pairs of old socks, but I never said anything. Mom would have been embarrassed so I smiled and wore my scarf with pride. Today I was extremely grateful for its added protection.
“Hold on,” he shouted as he gripped a new branch and hoisted himself higher. He vanished from sight for a moment and was lost to a thick patch of evergreen needles. I held my breath when I heard a cry followed by an extended silence.
“Just a bit slippery down here. I’m good.” But he didn’t sound good. His voice was pinched and I knew he must have come close to taking a tumble. He was high enough now to break a leg or worse.
“I’m sorry,” I called through the crack in my window. The tip of my nose was instantly sore from the bite on the air. It had to be well below freezing. It was nearly impossible to tell what time it was, but the sky was growing darker by the minute. The clouds spilled over the mountain top, concealing nearly everything from sight.
“For what?” When his head poked through the pine needles I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
“This is too dangerous. The car isn’t seated well in the tree and I could come speeding down at you at any moment. There’s no reason for both of us to die today.”
Even as the words passed my lips, the car shuddered, sliding a few inches to the right. My arms ached as I tried to steer left, hoping that the added friction would slow the slide. My heart thrummed in my neck and I held my breath once more, terrified that this could be my last moment.
Elliot swung his leg over a branch and pulled himself up, clinging to the thick limb with a vice-like bear hug. “I’m not leaving you up here.”
When I didn’t answer I heard him start to move again, inching toward the main tree trunk. Through the spider-webbed glass, I could see his determination staring back at me and realized he was nearly close enough to reach my front bumper.
“I need you to work with me, ok?”
I wanted to nod, to tell him I’d do anything that it took to be safe but as I looked at the ground, I felt the world tilt and knew I was close to passing out again.
“I’m fine,” I called in a shaky voice and focused on inhaling and exhaling. Something constant to keep the fear at bay. “Just a little petrified of heights.”
His warm chuckle helped to clear a path through my panic. “You and me both.”
Elliot Carter was a known daredevil. He loved fast cars, racing jet skis on the lake, jumping dirt bikes and performing crazy aerial tricks on the half-pipe skate park that his father had built in his backyard for Elliot and his friends. As I thought about it, and I focused really hard on keeping my mind off the swaying of the tree, I realized all of those kept him near enough to the ground.
“Claire?” I let out a little squeal of surprise when I heard a muffled knock on the window beside me. The thrumming in my heart instantly became a chaotic stampeding when he popped up beside me. “Can you open the window a bit more for me?”
I shook my head as I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles. “I can’t let go of the wheel. The car is pulling towards the right. If I let go…”
Elliot leaned back. When he reappeared in my window, his expression was grim. “Your front wheel is nearly off. The back is only slightly better.”
I let out a nervous chuckle. “Well, that’s something I didn’t need to know. Merry Christmas to us, huh?”
“I promise I’ll try to get you home in time for the pie.”
I didn’t want to tell him that there wouldn’t be any pie in my home. Nor sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green bean casserole. Christmas for the Sullivan family was served by the volunteers at Calvary Baptist church if I could swallow my pride for another year to stand in line for handouts. I didn’t think I had it in me this year. Although they were all kind and had genuine smiles, I couldn’t stand knowing I was one of the people they had to help.
“Hey.” He waited for me to look at him, mistaking my silence for doubt. There was a fervor in his eyes that drew me in and I wanted to believe that he could get me home, safe and sound. “I’m right here with you. Nothing is going to happen, ok?”
“Are you always so sure of the impossible?”
He smiled, his lips tinted ever so slightly with blue and I was reminded that no matter how cold it was inside my rusted coffin, it was far worse for him out there.
“It’s only impossible if you don’t try.”
“And an optimist to boot. Lucky me!”
He grinned and slid his hand down the glass. “I’m going to open your door. I want you to lean towards me as hard as you can.”
That wasn’t going to be an easy task considering I was practically hanging out of my seat. The belt had begun to burn against my skin where I’d flailed a bit when I first woke.
With a familiar squeal of poorly greased metal hinges, my door popped open. I watched Elliot’s eyes widen as the sudden movement sent him crashing back into the tree trunk.
“Are you ok?” I cried. I wanted to let go of the wheel, to reach out to help steady him, but it was an irrational thought. How could I save him when I couldn’t even save myself?
“I’m fine. This ice is a bitch, though.”
I laughed. Once I started, it was hard to stop. I knew I sounded crazy, a lunatic with a head trauma trapped in a car like some Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon gone wrong.
My laughter ceased the instant Elliot’s gloved hand fell on my arm. I felt the strength of his grip through my sleeve and turned, staring into eyes as clear as ice, but infinitely warmer. “It’s ok to be scared.”
“Is it? Oh good,” I muttered. “Because I’m pretty much terrified right now.”
Elliot inched closer, shifting his gaze between me and his footing. We both froze when he reached around me to grasp my seatbelt and the car shifted.
I screamed, pressing my head back against the seat, as if that extra rear weight could somehow keep me from careening to my death.
“I don’t want to die,” I whispered and knew he’d heard me when I felt him lean in, offering what felt like a half hug.
“Look at me, Claire.” When I did, I felt the same weightless feeling that I had for years when he would look my way at school and wonder if he would notice me, but each time his gaze would move past. Today he stared right at me, never once looking away. “I’m not going to let that happen. I promise.”
He felt warm pressed against me and I was drawn like a moth to a flame, all too willing to incinerate from his touch as long as I could have that brief moment of victory. He smelled amazing, better than I would have thought. He didn’t wear any of that expensive department store cologne but something that made me think of Christmas and a roaring fire.
Oddly enough he smelled like home. At least, what I thought a home should smell like. Not dank and drafty like mine but warm and inviting.
I’d always hated winter. There were far too many holes in my house for the frigid winds to pierce through and no matter how many tatty blankets I placed on my bed, they were never enough. Living in the mountains, winter came early and outstayed its welcome more years than not.
“I’m going to have to release your belt,” he whispered in my ear. His breath was warm, thawing some of the tears that had tried to freeze along my cheeks.
“You can’t. It’s the only thing holding me up.”
“I know.” I turned to meet his gaze and saw his earlier confidence was shaken. Now that he could see my predicament, it wasn’t good. There was no way to free me without my full weight falling against the wheel. When that happened the chances of shoving the car straight off the limb multiplied exponentially. “It’s the only way.”
“No.” I shook my head and grimaced at the wave of nausea that swept in with the sudden movement. Even though I knew I needed a doctor, probably shook a few screws loose in my brain, I refused to be ill all over him. “Call for help and go home. I’ll wait for a rescue.”
“I already tried. There was a huge pileup on the interstate. Lots of people trapped on the bridge and they aren’t sure it can hold the weight. The pass below is already closed off. The Rangers aren’t letting anyone through. There’s no one coming.”
I blew out a breath. “Ok. Well, I’ll admit that does suck.”
He laughed. “Let me guess, you’re a realist.”
I gave a small nod. “You gotta be when you’re me.”
I blinked. Did he actually care? I was a nobody to him, had been since freshman year five years ago. Why all of a sudden did he see me? Was it just because he had to?
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me.” He removed his glove and pressed his hand to my cheek. Although it wasn’t exactly a raging warmth, I leaned into his touch to soak in the heat. I was perished, shivering like a child taken with a high fever.
“I…” I frowned, unsure how to answer. “We don’t all get the luxury of being born into money.”
Elliot’s gaze hardened. “And that’s what you think of me? That I can’t possibly understand things the way you do just because my parents made something of themselves?”
I glanced toward the windshield and the ground below. “Are we really going to have this conversation right now?”
A flicker of alarm stole away the heat of his piercing gaze and he shook his head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”
He tried to smother over his annoyance, but I knew it lingered and felt bad for provoking him.
“Let’s just get you out of here. We can debate this when we are safe on the ground.”
He reached out and pried one of my hands from the steering wheel and wrapped it around his shoulders. The muscles in my other arm instantly clenched to compensate for the change in pressure and we both held our breath. When nothing happened he exhaled and nodded. “I want you to press the button when I say and only when I say. I’ll do my best to catch you.”
“And if you don’t?”
He tried for a reassuring smile. “I will.”
He guided my hand toward my right side, pressing his chest against my leg to add extra weight toward the rear of the car and placed my thumb over the red buckle. “There’s a really good chance that the car may go before I have a good hold on you. I need you to promise me that you will use your leverage against the wheel to push yourself out of the door.”
“I can’t do that!” I looked back at him, stricken. “I’ll knock you over and you’ll lose your footing!”
Elliot glanced behind him and then down at the ground. He blew out a long breath, preparing himself. “Maybe it will work.”
“Do I sense a bit of a realist in you now?” I couldn’t believe there was a teasing tone in my voice. Here we were, literally up a tree without a hope in the world of not getting crushed by Frankenstein, or at the very least breaking every bone in our bodies as we pin-balled down to the ground, and I was flirting. It was a poor attempt but an attempt nevertheless.
If Elliot’s smirk was the last thing I saw on this earth before I died, I was pretty sure I was ok with that.
“Ready? On three. One…two…three!”
I pressed the button the instant I felt his arms wrap around me. I fell several inches before he caught me and felt my stomach lurch as I hit the wheel.
“Go!” He shouted in my ear. The car shuddered and a frightening crack echoed around us. The tree branch beneath the rear tire had finally given way and the car was rolling.
Bracing my shoes against the floorboard, I shoved myself toward Elliot. I didn’t clear the door fully as the car slid and the door frame slammed into my side.
When my hand pulled free of his grasp my scream was lost to the crunch of metal. My head jerked back, connecting with a part of the door and then ricocheted off the wheel. My vision faded to black and I fell limp as the car slammed into a lower branch then headed straight for the ground.