Paul Stanton thought he had it all, a great job, a beautiful condo and a stable relationship with his soul mate. When his lover dumps him for another man, Paul is forced to rethink his life. He visits his childhood home in rural Pennsylvania rather than spend the holidays alone in San Francisco. But only a few days with his family is enough to convince him that you can't go home again.
Paul leaves for the airport in the midst of a snowstorm. Stranded in the woodlands, a chance meeting between him and a hunter is his only option for survival. He knows the type. A backwoods bigot like the men he grew up with. But what choice does he have? A few days with the Mountain Man convinces Paul there's more to Andy Reynolds than meets the eye. But is it enough to bind two men who have nothing in common except their sex?
Paul had seen snow once in the last ten years and the frozen water from the sky melted almost as soon as it hit the ground. That was fine with him. The frigid east coast winters had played a part in his decision to leave home. Today's storm seemed like punishment for staying away so long. It brought back memories of his stormy childhood growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
The older he got, the more he dreaded the first snowfall and its promise of bone-chilling months to come. His mother would bundle him up in snowsuit, mittens, and boots so he could trudge through snow up to his ass to get to school.
Forget snow days. School rarely closed because of bad weather. No one else seemed to mind except him. The other kids couldn't wait to play in the drifts or make him the target of their snowball fights.
It seemed like he grew up shoveling snow or working in his father's carpentry shop. He always knew he'd leave one day and never come back. He didn't belong here. Driving through a snowstorm in a compact car, he felt totally out of his element. Too many years living on the West Coast had softened him and thinned his blood.
Chilled and miserable, he regretted the day he agreed to come back for the holidays. Actually, his parents decided for him. He'd felt forced to make the trip. They'd threatened to disown him if he didn't come back to see his sister's new baby.
He should have let them. They knew he had a limited tolerance for the cold, especially the bitter cold of North Central Pennsylvania, but they'd laid an enormous guilt trip on him and he'd had no defense. He couldn't argue the fact they'd made the first move. Haunted by his unhappy childhood, he still felt like the little boy who always had to try harder to please his father.
True, they had visited him in San Francisco. Only once, but it was more than he'd done. Now they were even. They had their visit.
And they had a beautiful new grandbaby, something he would never give them. Maybe now he could unload some of the guilt they piled on him.
Damn! He needed to stop dwelling on this bullshit. He had his own life across the country and up until a few weeks ago, a man to share it with. Damn Craig for leaving him right before the holidays. If his lover hadn't taken off he probably wouldn't be here. Craig would have convinced him not to go. Now the empty apartment was a bitter reminder of what he'd lost and he couldn't bear to spend the holiday there alone.
Shaking off the dark thoughts of his past, and Craig, he tried to pay more attention to his surroundings. The wall of tall pines on either side of the road freaked him out. Swaying in the wind, they closed in on him as if they were alive.
He fiddled with the radio but the only station with clear reception played Christmas carols.
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.
Bah-humbug! There was nothing bright or calm about this day. He shut the radio off.
The potent combination of heavy snowfall and strong wind gusts decreased visibility to a dangerous level. Even the wipers on his rented Toyota couldn't clear the windows. Paul let out a string of curses that would have made a rap star blush. He reduced his speed to compensate.
How did the weather get so bad, so fast? When he left his childhood home only a thin coating of snow covered the ground. After twenty minutes of driving, it looked a lot deeper. His mother's dire predictions were coming to pass.
In his haste to get away he'd ignored her warnings; sure they were just excuses to keep him from leaving.
Would he have stayed longer if he believed her? Probably not. Maybe he should have listened, instead of automatically dissing his family like he usually did, but old habits die hard. Personally he'd rather brave a blizzard than spend any more time with his parents. In their company, he felt like a kid again. It wasn't a good feeling.
His mood worsened. Good thing he left. His ill spirits would have put a damper on the holiday festivities and he had no desire to rain on his sister's parade. She'd been the only one in his family he could talk to.
Growing up in rural America hadn't been easy. In fact, it had been downright painful. All through high school, he'd pretended to be straight. He went on a few dates but they were always uncomfortable and he couldn't wait to get home. He'd spent most of his time studying and a scholarship to San Francisco State University became his Get Out of Jail Free Card.
His parents must have suspected he was gay but before he left, he came out of the closet and made it official. After an awkward silence they told him they still loved him. But he knew what they were thinking. That he was just going through a phase and would come to his senses.
He hadn't. That didn't stop them from trying to change him at every opportunity. He didn't give them many.
He could only handle his family in small doses. They drained him. He couldn't even force himself to stay until Christmas and he'd left for the airport over their protests. At this point he'd rather be stranded and waiting for a flight than trapped in their house another day. He just felt more confident in his own little niche of paradise.
Suddenly the wind picked up and rocked the small Corolla. Paul heard a sharp crack and slammed on the brake pedal. It all happened so fast he barely registered how lucky he was. Instead of crushing him, the falling tree only swiped the front of his car. He couldn't stop shaking. Fifteen feet of the white pine remained standing, the top a broken, jagged line. The rest of the giant tree blocked the narrow road and there was no getting around it in the heavily wooded area.
He calmed his ragged breathing and looked around. Alone in the middle of nowhere, he realized his problems weren't over.
God only knew how long it would be before a crew could clear the road. Going back was not an option. He could almost hear his mother's nagging voice saying, I told you so.
But he couldn't very well sit here indefinitely. There used to be hunting cabins in this area. Maybe he'd get lucky and find shelter. Some place where he could wait out the storm until the road was cleared.
If he intended to walk, it was now or never because pretty soon he wouldn't be able to see the road at all. The wind howled and he almost changed his mind. He'd be crazy to brave those gusts. He couldn't make up his mind. The fucking car started to rock and roll and that decided him. He'd rather be on the outside if it blew over.
His wool pea coat didn't offer much warmth and without hood or gloves he would be pretty damn cold. What choice did he have? He couldn't sit here and run the heater forever.
He struggled to open the car door, and eased out before it slammed into him. The snow, already ankle-deep, squished over the tops of his Alden wing tips and soaked his socks. The vicious, biting cold hit him hard. Mother Nature had a personal grudge against him for sure.
A razor-sharp wind buffeted him and drove him back against the car when he tried to walk. It stole his breath. His teeth chattered. His body shivered. But he had no choice. He needed to get moving.
Paul faced the wind head-on. He leaned forward and put one foot in front of the other. He felt as if he were suffocating. Panicked, he turned his back to catch his breath. He tried walking backwards and made some headway until he tripped over a root and landed on his ass.
At this rate, he'd never get anywhere except lost. He imagined his family regretting their ultimatum when the road crew finally discovered his blue and frozen body in the woodlands.