Married for just three months, Alex Barrett is stunned when her husband, David, dies in a tragic accident. And the absolute last thing the pregnant young widow wants is to take on responsibility for his teenage daughter, Maddie. Reeling from loss, Alex struggles to deal with her grief and her troubled stepdaughter, but one question haunts her: why was David with his ex-wife when he died?
All Maddie Barrett wanted was for her parents to get back together, but an icy road took that dream away. Afterward, Maddie is riddled with guilt that she can’t share with anyone. Feeling angry and alone, she lays all the blame on Alex.
Alex and Maddie must find a way to move past their pain—shared, yet separate. Thrown together in an untenable arrangement, they fight through a frozen landscape of sorrow and redemption while redefining love, forgiveness, and family.
Read an Excerpt
Two caskets flanked the church altar: dark wood—mahogany, maybe—for Dad and a warm honey oak with white satin trim for Mom. So many flowers surrounded them, my nose stung from the mixture of scents, or maybe it stung from my grandmother’s perfume, sprayed on thick to mask her alcohol-laced breath. Grandma Rosie and Aunt Shannon both reeked as though they’d spent the entire morning at a bar.
Alex sat, unmoving, across the aisle from me. My stepmother’s perfect auburn hair draped over her shoulder like a scarf as she stared into her lap. Her hands rested over her flat stomach, but I knew what she hid under those bony fingers. And she could pretend all she wanted, but her stomach wouldn’t be flat for much longer. She didn’t even bother wearing black to her own husband’s funeral. Instead, she wore a stupid purple cashmere sweater and gray slacks—not a stitch of black, unless you counted her soul.
Father John recited a closing prayer, and the organist played a low, mournful melody as people exited the sanctuary, turning their backs on my parents… and on me. When most everyone had left, the immediate family—and she—was allowed a few private moments. My aunt and grandmother got up and headed straight to my mother’s casket. No one from my dad’s family came. His parents had passed away years ago.
“Maddie? Would you like to come up?” The priest asked.
I sucked in a deep breath and stood, but the world spun, and I stumbled. Alex looked up at me with her emotionless green eyes but never made a move from her seat. Regaining my footing, I marched toward my father first.
“Hi, Daddy.” I didn’t really know what else to say. He was gone. His body was in the box, but my dad was gone. I kissed my fingers then pressed them to his heart. “I love you.” Then I wiped my eyes and went to see my mom. My grandmother and aunt stepped aside but hovered close by. “Mom,” I whispered. “I-I’m…” I burst into sobs, wishing I could crawl into the casket with her and shut tight the lid.
Alex’s mother put her arm around me. “She’ll miss you just as much as you miss her.”
I doubted it. Did the dead even have the capacity to feel anything? I glanced at my stepmother. Some of the living didn’t seem to feel much as it was.
She gave my shoulder a light squeeze then stepped back, allowing me some space to wipe my eyes and nose with my already well-used tissue. That was when Alex decided to stand and go to my father’s side. I watched her put her hands over his, but if she said anything, it was too quiet for me to hear. Grandma Rosie tsked and left the sanctuary with Aunt Shannon close on her heels, probably both in search of a drink.
“We’ll take care of your parents until the ground thaws in the spring,” Father John said, reminding me we had to wait months before burying them.
“Thank you.” I swiped my sleeve across my eyes to dry my tears. “I think I’ll go find my friends now.”
“Very good.” He smiled then turned toward my stepmother. “Alex, would you like to join the others for some refreshments?”
My dad’s new wife, his widow, didn’t move. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
The old priest nodded, making the loose skin on his jaw bounce. “Take as much time as you need.”
With one last look at my mom and dad, I left. On the way to the reception area, I nodded at Alex’s parents, refusing to read too much into their sad smiles. Father John held the door then walked me through the lobby and all the way to the fellowship hall. I was barely ten steps inside before people surrounded me, offering their condolences. I felt like the french fry all the seagulls fought over at the beach, but the attention always seemed to come with a lot of shit.
Mrs. Jarvis—the lady who lived down the block from Mom and me—latched on to my wrist. “Oh sweetie, your mother was such a wonderful woman, and we’re all going to miss her.”
One of the guys from Dad’s golf club patted my head as if I were the family dog. “I bet your dad’s already found a prime course, wherever he is.”
“Your parents loved you so much, Maddie. It’s just so, so sad,” said a woman I didn’t even recognize.
Each comment, laced with well-meant but unnecessary pity, made me want to run away, screaming. None of these people knew my parents as I did. None of them knew me the way my parents did, especially Mom. The nearly uncontrollable urge to bolt from the room as if a horde of zombies was bearing down on me swept through me, and I had to force myself to breathe through it.
“Hey.” Haleigh hugged me. One of her corkscrew curls caught in my eyelashes, and I smothered a laugh. “I have to admit, I thought it would be weird having your parents’ funeral together, but Father John did a nice job.”
“Yeah, he did. And nobody had to sit through two services. But now I just want to get out of here. I can’t stand all these people looking at me like I’m the most pathetic thing they’ve ever seen.” I wrapped my arms around myself. I’d worn my black sweater dress, the one Mom’d bought for me to wear on New Year’s. We’d done our annual shop ’til you drop at the after-Christmas sales, and she’d found it on a clearance rack. The fit, the style, everything about it was perfect.
“You don’t look pathetic. You look stunning right now, and you should totally show off that dress later.”
Part of me knew I should have probably stuffed the dress in the back of my closet and never thought of it again, but no matter how badly I wanted to, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have anything else to wear for the party, and Mom did buy it to show it off. She’d been so happy when I modeled it for her that day.
“Maddie, I’m so sorry for your loss.” My school principal put her hand on my shoulder. “I wanted to let you know that, in light of your current circumstances, we’re not going to take any action regarding last week’s incident. However, that doesn’t mean I want to see a repeat of it.” She stared down at me, raising one penciled-on brow in a perfect arch.
“Thank you, Mrs. Walker.” I forced a smile. So kind of you to remind me of my transgressions at my parents’ funeral. Bitch.
“And who are you staying with?” She looked around the room as if scoping out my possible caregivers.
“With Haleigh’s family.”
“Oh…” She glanced between the two of us. “Well, I’ll make a note of that in your record, but if you need anything at all, please be sure to let me know.”
“Okay.” I shrugged.
She patted my shoulder again then went over to Haleigh’s parents. The three of them kept glancing in my direction, and I knew without a doubt they were talking about my situation.
Poor Maddie, the troubled sixteen-year-old orphan, whose parents died in a car accident together. She’s going to need lots of support and… a keeper. She’s going to need to talk to someone and tell them all about her feelings.
“I could really use a hit right now,” I whispered in Hayleigh’s ear.
Hayleigh went wide-eyed. “Maddie! We’re at your parents’ funeral.”
I rolled my eyes. “My point exactly.”
“I get it. But you might want to be careful. You could’ve been expelled if it weren’t for—” Her mouth fell so far open I could see her uvula—a word I’d learned in biology the week before.
“My parents dying?” I stared her down, watching her face turn every shade of red in the color wheel. I had no idea why I was punishing Haleigh for the shit day I’d had. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
She stared down at the floor. “Mm-hm.”
“Sorry. I just… I don’t even know.” Then I bumped her with my shoulder. “Did your mom say we could use her car tonight?”
Haleigh smiled. “As long as the snow holds off. But I wish you had your license. I hate driving at night.”
“Yeah, maybe I can get it in April.” That seemed like such a long way away, and I wasn’t even sure who’d take me. Mom and Dad had made me agree to wait until I turned seventeen because they didn’t think I was ready to have my license. I’m pretty sure they didn’t expect to die before then. I know I never expected to lose them so soon.
“What are you two girls conspiring about over here?” Grandma Rosie slurred her words, and I wondered where she’d found more alcohol in the short time since the service ended. The church most likely didn’t keep a stocked bar, unless you counted the communion wine. But I wouldn’t have put it past my grandmother to raid that when no one was looking.
“Probably some party with booze and boys. Maybe we should crash it.” Aunt Shannon winked at me, though she had trouble re-opening her eye, as if she were moving in alcohol-induced slow motion.
I tried to guard myself against the offensive smell oozing off the two of them, but it was impossible when my grandmother wrapped her twig-like arms around me, and her bleached-blond hair fell in my face.
“You know you can come with me if you want, to live I mean. We’d have such a great time.” I had to help her stand upright as she let me out of her grasp.
“Oh, that would be fun!” my aunt squealed a little too loudly. “It’d be just us girls, and we could give each other facials and watch Hugh Jackman movies. God, that man makes me wet.”
Ew, gross! “Um, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” I grabbed Haleigh’s hand. “I should probably go say hi to some people, so…” I took a step back, pulling my best friend with me.
“Okay, sweetie. You just let me know,” Grandma Rosie said, though it came out more like, Okay, sheety. Yoused lemme know.
I hadn’t even made it halfway across the room when my former ballet instructor cornered me. “Maddie!” Miss Nicole pulled me into a hug, enveloping me in her familiar gardenia perfume. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Your parents were such wonderful people. I’ve missed seeing them—and you—since you stopped dancing.” She finally let me go and took a step back. “My God, has it been three months?”
“Time flies.” When your life is falling apart around you. “I’ve missed you too.”
“Why don’t you stop by the studio? You never did see the new floors. No more warped wood.”
I’d sooner spend a week in detention. “Sure. I’ll do that. I, uh, should go say something to my, uh, stepmom before she leaves.”
“Okay, good.” She pressed a kiss to each cheek before setting me free again. “I’ll see you soon.”
I turned around to make my escape and ran smack into Brody Allen, all six feet, blond hair, and brown eyes of him. His soft dark sweater clung to his lean muscular chest, and he smelled like sweet pine with a hint of chlorine, probably from spending most of his time swimming with the school’s team.
“You have nothing to be sorry about.” Brody winked at me with that skeezy half-grin of his perched on his kissable lips. “I’m the one who’s sorry about your parents. My dad’s really shaken up by it too. He keeps saying he’s going to sell his golf clubs and take up fishing instead.” Michael Allen and my dad had golfed together every week, from the moment the snow melted until the course was too cold to walk, so I’d known Brody half my life. The guy went through girls like Grandma Rosie went through six-packs, and he was exactly what I wanted at that moment. Sign me up for self-destruction 101—only bad boys need apply.
Brody ran a finger across the back of my hand, and my mouth turned dry. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck as if someone had turned up the furnace to its boiling point. “Thanks. Um, I think my dad would want him to keep playing, though.” If the look in Brody’s eyes was any indication, I was about to become his flavor of the week.
“Let me know if you need anything. I’ll even cover your next stash,” he whispered in my ear then kissed my temple and stepped back. “So, are you two coming to Drew’s party tonight?”
Haleigh giggled and turned a lovely shade of pink. I managed to nod just before another well-wisher appeared.
“I’ll see you later, then.” He winked and walked away. I knew he probably practiced that wink for hours in front of the mirror, but I couldn’t help the butterflies in my stomach when he directed it at me.
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