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Christmas Nights

By:J.H. Croix

Chapter 1

The water enveloped her in its icy embrace. Janie Stevens felt the shock of it through every cell in her body. Fear raced through her as quickly as the cold surrounded her. Frantic, she kicked and struggled to swim to the surface, yet she felt instantly weighted down and weak. The rough current pulled at her, its power much greater than hers. Through the water, she could hear the muffled commotion around her. All she could think was she had to get to the surface and make sure Stella was safe. She kept struggling to gain momentum, getting weaker with every second. She was running out of oxygen, her lungs burning to breathe. She wanted to cry out, but she couldn’t even take a breath.

Suddenly, a strong hand curled around her arm and yanked her up roughly. She gulped in air, swallowing salty ocean water along with her first breath. Coughing and sputtering, she opened her eyes and found herself staring into a pair of ocean blue eyes. A man she vaguely recognized was saying something, but she couldn’t hear anything he said. All she cared about was finding out if her daughter was safe. She looked around frantically and saw the steel gray ocean roiled with choppy waves. Several boats were visible in the distance and bouncing in the rough waters. Her eyes landed on the boat she’d been in—it was listing badly to one side. “Stella, where’s Stella?” she asked, struggling in the man’s grip as he tugged her into a bright red heavy-duty raft.

“Stella’s fine. She didn’t fall overboard,” the man said, gesturing behind them to the boats rocking in the waves.

Janie sat up and started to crawl back out of the boat. Not thinking clearly, she was determined to get to Stella. The man grabbed her arm and held tight. “Janie, hold still. See that boat there,” he paused to point to another boat. “They’re coming over to pick us up. Stella is safe, so don’t put yourself in danger again by trying to swim to her. If you’re not already hypothermic, you’re damn close.”

The fear pounding through her eased, but just barely. The combination of adrenaline, exhaustion and being colder than she’d ever been in her life muddled her thinking. She huddled in the raft and waited, shivering so hard, her teeth chattered. Time passed in a strange mix of fast and slow as she drifted in and out of awareness. Some indeterminate amount of time later, Janie woke up in a hospital bed. She started to get up immediately, kicking the covers back and spinning sideways.

“Mom! Stop! You’re about to rip the IV out of your arm.”

Janie froze and glanced toward the sound of her daughter’s voice. Stella stood up from a chair in the corner. Her dark brown eyes were wide and concerned. She set a book down on the table beside the chair and walked to the bed. “Lay down and rest. You’re stuck here for the night. The doctor already checked you in,” Stella said with a half grin. At seventeen, Stella enjoyed bossing Janie around when she could.

Janie looked at Stella, intense relief coursing through her. The last thing she remembered was being terrified Stella might be in the same icy water she’d fallen into. They’d taken a late autumn trip across the bay for a last hike of the season. Kachemak Bay was beautiful in all seasons, but autumn was Stella’s favorite time of year. Ever since Janie had adopted Stella three years ago, they went hiking spring, summer and autumn on the far side of Kachemak Bay. Diamond Creek, Alaska was situated on one side of the picturesque bay with several smaller communities on the other. This morning, they’d joined a group of various others crossing the bay by boat. On the way home, Stella had asked if she could ride in a different boat with some friends. Thinking nothing of it, Janie said yes.

She couldn’t have known the clouds rolling in would rapidly kick up the wind and lead to a rough ride. Even then, she hadn’t been worried. Born and raised in Diamond Creek, Janie was thoroughly accustomed to harsh weather. She still didn’t know exactly what happened, but something had gone wrong with the boat she was riding in. Next thing she’d known, they’d been bailing water out of the boat, but hadn’t been able to keep up. In what felt like seconds, the boat had started to sink. She remembered trying to grab onto the railing, but missed and splashed into the icy waters.

There was no safe time of year for a dip in the ocean in Alaska. Even at the height of summer, the ocean temperature didn’t top sixty degrees Fahrenheit. In late October, the water was maybe forty degrees. Cold enough to lead to hypothermia within minutes. Janie looked over at Stella and sighed. She wasn’t much for resting and certainly didn’t enjoy feeling at the mercy of the doctor. Now that her almost drowning was over and there was no doubt Stella was safe, she would have to wait out the night in the hospital whether she wanted to, or not. She looked over at Stella who was watching her with a gleam in her eyes. Between her dark brown hair and eyes, Stella had the natural coloring for the look she preferred—an outdoorsy look with a hint of goth. At the moment, she had on her latest pair of chunky black glasses to go with her black painted nails. She wore a flannel shirt over a t-shirt and leggings paired with hiking boots. She eschewed makeup and certainly didn’t need any with her creamy complexion, rosy cheeks and dark hair.

“I bet you’re itching to jump out of bed and leave,” Stella said with a slow grin.

Janie swung her legs back onto the bed, tugged the covers over her and threw a faux glare at Stella. She wasn’t about to admit it, but she did feel tired and sore. “I’m fine. If I wanted to leave, I could. But, if the doctor thinks I need to stay, far be it from me to argue.”

Stella’s grin faded. “Dr. Marshall said you had hypothermia and wanted you here all night until your temperature was stable. I guess it was below ninety-three degrees and that’s like a big deal. Are you warm now?”

Janie took in Stella’s words and the worry in her voice and mentally scanned her body. She didn’t feel warm, but she wasn’t cold either. “I think I’m fine. How long have I been asleep?”

Stella shrugged. “I dunno. After Travis got you out of the water, they took you back on a different boat. By the time I got to the harbor, they’d already taken you away in an ambulance. They wouldn’t let me switch boats because they had to rush everyone in who’d fallen in the water.” She paused and took a gulping breath. “I was really scared when you fell in.”

For Stella to say anything about being scared was huge. Stella was a sweet girl, but she’d been through a lot before she landed with Janie and carried herself with a wall of reserve. Janie knew if she commented on it, Stella would get quiet. So she let her heart absorb the small victory and reached over to squeeze Stella’s hand resting on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, just fine.”

Stella gave her hand a return squeeze and tugged it free to twirl a lock of her hair around it, one of her preferred nervous habits. “Well, good. You’re not allowed to fight with Dr. Marshall about leaving early though, okay?”

Janie rolled her eyes and leaned her head back. “Fine. Is everyone else okay?”

Stella nodded swiftly. “Oh yeah. A few other people fell in the water when you did, but everyone got fished out.”

There was a soft knock at the door. Stella called out for whomever it was to come in. When the door swung open, Travis Wilkes stepped through. Janie suddenly realized the bright blue eyes she’d noticed when she was being pulled out of the water belonged to him.

He glanced between Stella and Janie. “Okay if I come in?”

Stella grinned. “I just said to come in.”

Travis returned her smile. “That you did.”

He strode toward the bed, and Janie felt suddenly self-conscious. Travis was a classic, rugged and handsome outdoorsman. He walked with the confidence with which he did everything. He was tall and nothing but muscle. On top of it all, he was an emergency responder, firefighter, save-everyone-who-needs-help kind of guy. She knew him in passing, but not well. He moved to Diamond Creek maybe five years prior and stirred all kinds of talk among the single women around town for a bit. In a small community like Diamond Creek, anyone new in town who wasn’t a tourist might as well have a neon sign above them. With his brown hair gilded with gold, his blue eyes, and his strong, chiseled features, well, he was definitely easy on the eyes. He reached the side of the bed, his eyes coasting over her.

“How ya feeling?” he asked, a perfectly reasonable question under the circumstances.

Janie looked up at him and a jolt of electricity zipped through her. Men weren’t something she paid much attention to because…well, just because. Hence, that little jolt took her off guard. Not to mention, he looked his usual rugged sexy self, while she was garbed in a voluminous pink polka-dotted hospital gown. She felt self-conscious and frumpy. She could only imagine how she looked after her impromptu dive into the ocean. Her hair felt tangled and messy. She tried to recall if she’d ever been this close to him, save the blurry moments in the ocean when he yanked her out of the water. She’d laughed off the women she knew who had temporarily crushed on him, but she hadn’t spent enough time with him to think much about him. Right now, with his eyes on her and his presence emanating strength, earthy sensuality and pure masculinity, well, she was all abuzz inside. Trying to cling to something that made her feel half-sane, she figured she must be out of it from almost drowning and still not thinking clearly.