Counting Fireflies



“Just how can I help you, my little baby?” my mother asks, her voice cracking with emotion, tears shimmering in her eyes.

At six feet one, I’m far from little, and I’m definitely not a baby anymore. My nineteenth birthday is in two weeks, and for the first time, I’ll be celebrating on my own. Well, not entirely alone, I suppose. The elderly woman with the horses, who I’ll be living with and working for this winter, will likely offer me birthday wishes at some point during the day.

Gently removing my mother’s hands from my face, I hold them firmly. “Let me go, Mom. Please.” That’s all I want from her.

As she sinks onto our white leather couch in the living room, I kneel before her on the plush, blue-patterned Angora carpet. She looks worn out. So am I. It’s been a difficult year for both of us. The arguments with my stepfather about whether I should attend college or not are beginning to leave their mark on my soul. The ex-marine has been part of our lives for half my existence, but even when Mom married him, I didn’t adopt his last name. My biological father may have died, but I refuse to relinquish the one thing that still connects me to him: our surname, Monterey.

Mom’s gaze drifts past me to the window, settling on the chilly street outside our house. In November, Oakspeak is always the most enchanting place in all of Oregon, but today the vibrant autumn leaves in town have been engulfed by the dense fog and droop mournfully from the trees. “I know you said you need time for yourself,” she says, her voice raspy. “But Canada? Adrian— Are you sure?”

Throughout the fall, she’s been trying to dissuade me from my plans. I don’t think her real issue is my moving out. I would have done that, too, if I’d chosen to attend college in Portland with my best friend, Sandy Cardington. What truly troubles my mother are the things I can’t discuss with her just yet.

Things that terrify me and relate to an unfathomable part of myself.

Sandy isn’t thrilled about my taking a break in another country either, but unlike my mother, she accepted my decision the moment I first mentioned it. She understands what’s happening inside me when I grow quiet and never pressed me for more answers than I could provide.

The incident at her seventeenth birthday party changed everything. For a year and a half now, my life has been upended, and I have no clue how to set it right again. With all the disputes with my stepfather, the noise inside me grew so overwhelming that I can hardly hear myself thinking. I don’t even know who I truly am anymore, but it’s time to find out eventually. And I can only do that alone. Far away from the chaos that is my life.

Moving to Portland with Sandy would have offered an escape and a chance to start anew. But honestly, I also need some space from her right now, or I’ll never sort out my thoughts. That’s why last summer I threw a dart at the world map on my door, and it determined that I’ll be living in a place called Moonbreak Falls near Edmonton, Canada, for the next six months.

Nine hundred miles separate Oakspeak from Moonbreak Falls. That should be far enough to untangle my life and embark on a new journey. I don’t know what will happen after the winter, but for once, I don’t want to look too far into my future either.

I’ve packed everything I need. The train departs in three hours. There’s only one thing left to do now.

Say goodbye.


1. A new beginning

On this frosty morning, the biting cold seems capable of freezing a beaver’s tail solid. After a mere two minutes outside collecting firewood for the stove, my fingers are numb. Despite the chill, I pause on the farmhouse porch and turn around.

Moonbreak Falls slumbers beneath a tranquil blanket of December snow, glittering like a field of diamonds in the rising sun. Serenity pervades the air. Fridays are the only days Ruth Beckett allows herself the luxury of sleeping in—which, for her, means lingering in bed until seven-thirty, leisurely flipping through her beloved cookbook for the perfect weekend cake recipe.

Ruth has captured my heart. The moment the seventy-four-year-old, her gray bun a constant fixture, collected me from the train station four weeks ago, she’s shown me nothing but kindness. Though we were strangers, she welcomed me into her home and immediately made me feel like family.

Her own family has dwindled, with her only son and his wife passing away too soon. She has a grandson she’s raised since childhood, who once assisted her in running the horse farm before departing for college two years ago. Evidently, North Beckett is a gifted ice hockey player and earned a scholarship to Calgary University, a hundred and ninety miles distant. Ruth’s pride is palpable when she speaks of him, even though she always makes it sound as if the twenty-one-year-old barely outgrew his diapers.

Madelyn is the only other person Ruth considers family—a petite, dark-haired young woman, perhaps my age or slightly older, who visits twice a week to clean the house. I haven’t learned much about her, as our paths merely brush in passing during the afternoons. The six horses and stable work, along with numerous minor repairs around the house, fill my days. However, I’ve occasionally overheard during dinner, to which Maddie is always cordially invited, that she works at a town grocery store and isn’t fond of Americans—a category I undeniably fit.

Despite her habit of calling me ‘the Yankee’ when speaking to Ruth, believing I’m out of earshot, I stopped being bothered by it two weeks ago. That’s when she stumbled over a pitchfork I’d left by the stable and face-planted into a mound of horse manure. The memory of that scene still made me laugh days later. Now, she can call me anything she pleases.

As I stand on the porch, noticing my breath no longer escapes as a warm mist but instead freezes within my nostrils, I reluctantly leave the picturesque landscape and step inside. I toss the firewood into a basket near the unlit fireplace, which remained unused since my arrival due to the ever-burning tile stove. Even now, glowing embers wait to ignite the logs in a matter of minutes.

Ruth stressed the importance of never letting the fire die out entirely, especially overnight, as Canadian winters are relentlessly harsh. Even the horses are snug and warm in their stable, and when I lead them to the paddock during the day, their thick winter coats shield them well—or so I hope. I have no prior experience with horses; everything I know, Ruth has taught me since I began working here. Of course, I could be wrong, and they could be shivering out there, tails freezing in the cold.

I crouch in front of the tile stove, which runs through the heart of the house, gracing every room. Sliding three logs into the opening, I stir the embers with a poker. The ancient staircase behind me creaks, announcing the lady of the house is awake. I turn my head over my shoulder, greeting Ruth with a smile as warm as the cozy ambiance of the living room, filled with charming knick-knacks, a blue couch adorned with a floral pattern, and delightful curtains tied back with flair.

“Good morning, dear boy,” she says, approaching and ruffling my tousled blonde hair with her wrinkled hand. She still limps slightly in her felt slippers, the result of a honey jar landing on her right foot two days ago. Thankfully, she’s descended the stairs without her cane, a promising sign. Although her foot swelled alarmingly the first night, the headstrong woman adamantly refused to consult a specialist. In her opinion, Mr. George Alexander Valentine is a fraud, not a doctor, and Ruth can’t fathom how he obtained his medical license. Having outlasted his retirement years, he continues to practice due to the absence of other doctors in town, yet Ruth would rather seek treatment from a veterinarian than consult him.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to her aversion than she’s revealed. I haven’t spent enough time on the farm to inquire about it, though.

Yesterday, Ruth began shuffling about the house after a brief jaunt through the icy snow with her bare feet. Her mobility alleviated my concerns about the severity of her injury, and I’ve abandoned my attempts to convince her to visit a doctor. Perhaps she’s correct in asserting that her longevity is due to not panicking over every minor mishap throughout her years on the farm.

I shut the iron stove door and follow Ruth into the kitchen, where her cherished cookbook lies open on the counter, ready to guide her in today’s baking endeavor. She hums a merry tune while fastening a red-checkered apron around her waist. It’s a rare sight to see her without one, perfectly complementing her old-fashioned dresses.

“Did you find a scrumptious recipe to try today?” I ask, pouring us both a cup of coffee after shedding my dark blue down jacket. The old lady typically indulges in a hearty breakfast of rolls slathered with butter and jam, but for me, a cup of coffee with milk and sugar suffices.

“Indeed, I did. With Christmas approaching and North arriving tomorrow, I’ll be baking his favorite chocolate cookies.”

A puzzled frown creases my brow as I peer at her over my mug. “Your grandson is coming to Moonbreak Falls?”

“Oh, yes!” The familiar warm twinkle instantly reappears in her smiling gray eyes, which I’ve witnessed countless times when she speaks affectionately about North. “He’s going to spend his winter break at home. Didn’t I mention that?”

Um. No?

She hadn’t uttered a word about it until now. Amusingly, I had assumed Ruth and I would be the sole inhabitants of this wintry retreat. Maddie, a necessary presence I’ve grown to accept given my lack of cleaning prowess, is one thing. The prospect of the house becoming thirty percent more occupied starting tomorrow elicits a sigh from me, though. More people in a room invariably means a greater potential for conflict, and I’ve endured more than my share of that in recent years.

On the other hand, I’ll be spending the actual holidays in my hometown of Oakspeak, so it comforts me knowing Ruth won’t be alone on the farm during Christmas.

“Don’t worry, Adrian,” says Ruth, clearly noticing my sudden unease. “Next weekend, I’ll bake a cake just for you. But for now, wait until you’ve tasted my cookies. I promise you’ll love them as much as my pies.”

It’s not the cake that concerns me, but her thoughtful gesture is endearing. “I’m sure I will.” Chocolate cookies are always a winner, and everything Ruth Beckett has baked since I arrived has been nothing short of mouthwatering. The most memorable treat I’ve had in Canada was the cherry pie she surprised me with on my nineteenth birthday.

As I take another sip of coffee, images of the five-year-old boy from her cherished photo album flash through my mind, his chubby cheeks stuffed with treats. Ruth has shared the album with me nearly every evening since I moved into this house and took up residence in the upstairs room. The oldest photos of North in the album are from his school days, a decade ago. Despite my efforts, I struggle to envision the gangly boy as a robust athlete. A few newspaper articles from more recent times are pasted at the back of the photo book, but in each picture, the young man wears a helmet with a face guard, revealing little about the person he has become. The grubby child lying on the floor with his Border Collie in front of the tile stove is now a college champion? I can’t quite wrap my mind around it.

Once my frigid fingers have warmed around the hot cup, I set aside any worries about another person in the house for the time being, and finish my coffee in large gulps. Placing the empty cup in the dishwasher, I say, “See you later, Ruth.” With plenty to do before lunch, I grab my gloves from the chest by the door, zip up my jacket, and head out to the barn.

As I push open one wing of the stable door, six horses greet me with a friendly snort—five adults and one dark brown foal. The youngest, Sunny, was born just last spring and is a spirited, slender creature that constantly frolics around his mother, the chestnut mare Princess. I grab two carrots from the basket next to the gate and approach them first. Ruth mentioned that the little rascal requires extra attention during his first winter to ensure he stays healthy.

Symphony, the elegant gray mare, and her neighbor Luna, with her glossy dark brown coat, paw impatiently in their stalls on the other side of the wide aisle. They know I always bring them treats in the mornings. “Easy now. There’s enough for everyone,” I murmur, rubbing the white star on Luna’s forehead while giving her an apple from the bucket in front of her stall door. “You like that, don’t you?”

Symphony stretches her neck over the door of her own stall and playfully nudges my shoulder until she receives her treat as well.

Calito, Luna’s brother, the majestic black stallion, resides in a slightly roomier stall further back in the barn. He’s not as impatient as the others, but he perks up his ears with curiosity. The elder horse watches me with his enchanting dark eyes as a cascade of black mane covers most of his face. Pascal, his equally ebony companion with white ankles, shares a stall with Calito. Both horses snort contentedly as they munch on the chunks of bread I give them.

Before I can tackle my chores in the barn, I need to clear some space. So, I open the doors for Calito and Pascal and then guide them to the paddock with ropes fastened to their halters. The landscape may be barren, but they have an outdoor shelter stocked with fresh hay to keep warm. I repeat the process with Symphony and Luna, and finally, Princess and her foal. I don’t even need a rope for Sunny because the sprightly lad goes wherever his mommy goes.

With the horses settled in the snow-covered pasture, I close the barn door and hang my jacket on a hook on the wall. The warmth inside the barn is astonishing, likely due to the top-notch insulation and the heaps of hay and straw on the floor beneath the roof. They’re not just food for the horses but also great insulators.

My day starts with cleaning out all five stalls. I cart the manure outside with a wheelbarrow, dumping it onto a sizable pile behind the barn. Though it’s not the most glamorous job, the physical labor helps me find solace in the simple tasks. It’s a chance to focus on who and what I truly am—something I’m still trying to discover.

Two hours later, I’m done with the dirty work and climb the ladder to the hayloft above the stalls. As I reach for the pitchfork, a plump gray furball springs from the corner and lunges at my shoelaces. “Jeez, Chester!” I exclaim, hand clutching my chest. “One of these days, you’ll end up on the wrong side of this pitchfork!”

Once my heart rate returns to normal, I crouch down and stroke the tabby cat with captivating amber eyes. Bits of hay cling to the white fur around his front paws, a telltale sign of a recent nap in the warm straw. Ruth claims he’s a stray that occasionally drops by for a bowl of milk, but I suspect he’s not as homeless as she thinks. This clever little rascal has found the perfect abode, with an endless supply of mice and year-round comfort.

Allowing myself a brief respite, I sit in the hay near the large, round window with crossbars and gaze across the farm. Chester leaps into my lap, purring like a well-oiled engine as I scratch his ears. Whether king of the barn or not, everyone needs a touch of affection now and then—this goes for both of us.

However, I’m determined to finish my work before lunch, so I gently set the striped feline down in the straw and begin shoveling hay through the hatch below, creating cozy beds for the horses later.

Upon returning to the house, the delightful aroma of chocolate chip cookies envelops me, warming my soul. A spicy undertone accompanies the sweetness, revealing what Ruth has whipped up for lunch.

After hanging my jacket on the hook and slipping off my shoes, I follow the sound of clinking dishes into the kitchen. Just as I suspected, Ruth has prepared meatloaf for us. “Hi, Ruth,” I say, making my presence known to avoid startling her—something that’s happened before, mind the honey jar. Her eyes remain as keen as a hawk’s, but her hearing has declined over the years.

“Perfect timing, Adrian!” she exclaims, handing me a stack of plates. I carry them to the table, but furrow my brow upon seeing three settings.

“Who’s joining us for lunch?” I ask as Ruth dishes up the meatloaf and roast potatoes. Until now, our Fridays have been solo affairs, and I’m fairly certain her grandson isn’t due back until tomorrow.

“Maddie came by to help me spruce up the house and add some festive touches,” she explains, ushering me into my customary chair. Only now do I notice the fir branches behind the pictures, the twinkling fairy lights in the windows, and even a cluster of mistletoe in the archway between the kitchen and living room. “We won’t have enough time tomorrow, but I wanted everything ready before North arrives.” Her eyes twinkle with affection.

“Your grandson really loves the holiday season, huh?”

“No, he despises it.” Ruth pauses, laughing heartily with her hand on her chest. “He always complains that with all the decorations, he feels like an elf in Santa’s workshop. That’s why I have to act quickly and hang everything before he hides the Christmas supplies.”

Ah, so Ruth loves her grandson, but she adores Christmas even more. I get it. Smiling, I use the carving fork to dish up generous portions of meatloaf onto each plate and then call out, “Madelyn! Lunch is ready!”

The dark-haired girl descends the stairs moments later, taking the seat across from me. “Hi, stable boy,” she greets amiably, careful not to dampen the mood. But true to form, she can’t resist a jab. Wrinkling her nose, she quips, “Sweetie, horse manure may have been an alluring scent in the eighth century, but nowadays, it’s a tad outdated.”

Grinning, I heap potatoes onto my plate and glance at her from beneath my lashes. “The same could be said about Eau de Mop, yet you wear it daily.”

Her lips press together, but she conceals them quickly behind a napkin. I know she’s not gritting her teeth, but rather struggling to stifle a laugh. “Drop the napkin, Maddie,” I groan. “I bet a smile would look stunning on you for a change.”

Rolling her eyes, she replaces the napkin on the table and tucks her long hair behind her ears. No smile, but she sticks out her tongue for an instant, and the corners of her mouth tilt up the tiniest bit. I’ll take what I get and pile some roast potatoes onto her plate as well.

Over dinner, Madelyn and Ruth chat about the items left to retrieve from the attic to complete the house before North arrives. “In the blue box in the dresser, you’ll find the stockings for the fireplace. I believe yours from last year is still in there,” Ruth utters casually between bites.

Maddie’s intense gaze lingers on me much too long, leaving me no choice but to meet her eyes and give her my attention. “Does the Yankee get a stocking too?” she teases me.

“Aww, I knew you had a soft spot for me deep down!” I feign affection, pressing my left hand to my heart while keeping my right hand free for eating.

That’s when I hear Madelyn Brunswick laugh for the first time since we met. “Keep dreaming, cowboy!” Her laughter is contagious, and for a moment, it feels like we’ve managed to bridge the gap between Canada and the United States.

“Good heavens,” Ruth chimes in, her old lady giggle adding to the merriment. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that’s true sibling love.”

“God forbid!” Maddie and I exclaim simultaneously before returning our focus to the food on our plates.

Later that evening, Ruth sits in her creaking rocking chair by the warm stove, sewing a colossal Christmas stocking. As I bid her goodnight, I notice she’s already stitched half my name into the fabric, currently working on the ‘I.’ The gesture touches me deeply, and I pause to watch her skilled hands for a few silent seconds.

A warm smile graces Ruth’s wrinkled face. “Every family member gets their place by the fireplace, my boy,” she says gently, rousing me from my reverie with a sigh.

“Thank you, Ruth.” As I walk past her, she takes my hand and gives it a loving squeeze. I return the pressure with a smile and whisper, “Goodnight.”

For the first time in years, I feel genuinely welcome in a house again. I climb the unique staircase with its small platform in the middle and enter my cozy, birch wood-furnished room. Sitting on the bed, I lean against the headboard and dial Sandy on my phone.

Initially, we spoke almost every night, but over time we grew more sporadic. I miss her deeply. Heck, I miss my home and everyone I knew there—well, almost everyone. Yet, this break in the snowy north, focusing solely on work and the few people around me, has helped me let go of some baggage.

I need to dig deep into my soul and uncover what lies within. I want to find out who I truly am—without the two Cardington siblings who made it impossible for me.

The moment Sandy’s cheerful face appears on the screen, her voice follows. “Hi, Adrian!” With the empathetic expression she was undoubtedly born with, she envelopes me in warmth even across the distance. There were days when I genuinely thought I was in love with Sandra Michelle Cardington. But then, there were times when I knew that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Hey, Sands. How was your week?”

“Exhausting,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “College isn’t as fun as they make it out to be.”

Suddenly, her face fills the screen, eyes and nose pressed against the camera, whispering conspiratorially, “Think twice before you come back, sweetheart!”

I can’t help but laugh. “I will.” But right now, returning home isn’t on my mind. My six months as an au pair will be over soon enough.

Sandy’s tone turns serious as she moves her phone further away, her face back to its normal size. “So, how are things in Canada? Still enjoying your time with dear Grandma?”

I nod. “By now, working with the horses feels more routine.”

“No more muscle aches?”

“No more muscle aches.” I grimace, recalling the pain in my arms and back during my first week on the farm. Who knew daily horse manure and snow shoveling would be a better workout than the gym? But I appreciate my body’s subtle transformation in such a short time.

“Do you have any big adventures planned for next week?” she teases, brushing her free hand through her chocolate-brown hair.

I shake my head. She knows there’s nothing here besides snow. And I don’t want to tell her about Ruth sewing me a stocking, Maddie’s first smile, or North Beckett coming home from college tomorrow. It’s not that they’re big events, but I feel that the less I share about my days here with my old life, the easier it is to preserve the magic of this extraordinary journey and make the most of my time. Or maybe I just don’t want to talk about myself—who knows? “And you? Any plans?”

A dramatic sigh escapes her. “Yep. Cramming for my semester exams. I’d much rather be in Canada right now.”

“No, you wouldn’t!” I laugh. “You can’t stand the cold, snow, or isolation. You wouldn’t survive a week here.”

“You’re probably right,” Sandy giggles. “I’m not in the mood to freeze my butt off. Next time, please pick a farm in Hawaii, and we’ll go together.”

“Deal.” My laughter fades to a sentimental smile. Maybe I am homesick after all.

The door behind her opens, and her boyfriend Thane pokes his head in, searching for her. She turns her shoulder to him and lowers the phone so far that I can only see the black dandelions on her white tee. Nice. “I’ll be there in a minute,” she tells him. They’re probably going to watch a movie tonight, making this a short phone call. I like Thane Griffyn—back home, he was the only non-confusing element in a whirlwind of emotions.

As soon as the door clicks shut, Sandy gives me her full attention again.

“Movie?” I ask.

“No, Cam just got here.”

At the mention of her brother, a queasy feeling spreads through my stomach, but I try hard to keep my expression unchanged. Sandy’s sympathetic look tells me I’ve failed miserably. I’m glad she gets along much better with Cameron now than when they were kids and lived in the same house. No more nasty pranks, I guess, but a strong sibling bond instead.

“He brought Chinese food,” she adds.

“Sounds delicious. Say hi to the guys for me. But let Thane open the box. You never know.”

“Of course!” Sandy makes a disgusted face, as I’m obviously not the only one who vividly remembers Cameron putting a frog in her food when she was thirteen. “Take care, Adrian.”

“You, too. Good luck with your exams. I’ll call you again next week.”

She blows me a kiss before hanging up, and I let my head fall back against the wall. Sandy and me—that was a nice idea for a while, but never really an option. She once told me how she knew Thane Griffyn was the right guy for her. That she was deeply in love with him. It had something to do with butterflies. Not just one or two, but the right amount. In her case, that was actually seventeen.

In nineteen years, I never had butterflies in my stomach with Sandy. But I always felt safe and happy with her. Tonight, I wish I could hug my friend.

As for Cam…that’s a whole different story.

I toss the heavy quilt aside and swing my legs out of bed then walk over to the desk, covered with my drawing supplies. Sandy gifted me a new sketchbook for the journey, with high-quality paper and bound in exquisite leather. On the first few pages, I sketched her from memory during the long train ride here. Since arriving in Moonbreak Falls, I’ve barely held a pencil twice.

With the sketchbook propped against my bent legs, I make myself comfortable on the bed and start outlining the girl who’s lived next door to me all my life. Her hair blows in the cold winter wind, her cheerful face turned towards the sky, and she spreads her beautiful butterfly wings as she rides Pascal, the noble black stallion, through Canada’s snow-covered mountains. I love turning people into fantasy creatures in my drawings, and Sandy looks stunning as a winged elf.

Her brother, however, appeared far more dangerous in the only picture I ever drew of him. No one has ever seen it, not even Sandy, though she’s the only person who knows the truth. Three days later, I burned it.

After all this time, tonight my fingers itch to draw Cameron Cardington again. But after the seven fateful minutes we spent together in his basement—the virtual heaven of a game I was forcibly recruited to play at Sandy’s birthday party one and a half years ago—I swore I would never draw those captivating eyes again.


2. North

It’s one of those nights, the kind that taunt me with nightmares of my past. It’s Sandy’s seventeenth birthday party, and I know every move I’ll make, every sound that will echo. My heart’s pounding like a thousand drums as I trail behind Cameron Cardington into the basement. And I just can’t escape the dream.

Gina, a classmate of ours, thought it’d be a riot to tweak the rules of ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven,’ locking Cam and me in a room so we could ‘bond.’ For him, it’s all fun and games. Me? I’m scared out of my mind.

I’ve only been in this basement a handful of times, whenever Sandy needed something from the mountain of boxes stashed in the back. I wish she were here now.

“Gina’s got a bizarre sense of humor,” Cameron states nonchalantly as he leads the way down the wooden stairs.

Bracing one hand against the wall, I search for some courage. “Yeah,” I mutter, clearing my throat to sound bolder. “Never really been into these games.”

“Why not?” Cameron inquires, spinning to face me, his tone laced with innuendo. Barely off the last step, he backs me against the wall, his body flush with mine. “Too juvenile for you, Monterey?”

Damn! I can feel his chest against mine. His chocolate-brown hair is tousled from running his fingers through it all night, and his breath is sweet with liqueur. My breath comes in shallow gasps as I’m trapped in his audacious gaze.

“Wow, Adrian…” My name spills from his lips like a dare. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re nervous.” Cam plants one hand on the wall near my head, the other slipping under my chin, guiding my gaze back to his after I’d tried to avoid him. His expression shifts, and he peers into my eyes. His voice softens, and he leans in a hair’s breadth closer. “Is that it?”

I’m at a loss with my hands. Part of me wants to shove him away, reclaim my space. Yet another, utterly terrifying part screams to rest them on his chest and let this unfold. Instead, I press my palms against the frigid wall behind me for support.

“I’ve never kissed a guy before,” I whisper, my words barely audible in the shadowy basement.

Cameron shrugs, the epitome of casual. “Me neither.” As his lips inch closer, my breath quickens. He notices, and that’s what makes him hesitate, just an inch from my face. “But it’s different for you, isn’t it?” he asks, his voice suddenly tender and understanding, searing a hole in my chest.

I swallow hard.

Cam retreats, running a hand over his face. “Damn.” His gaze shifts to the ceiling. “Does Sandy know you’re into guys?”

My silence draws his attention back to me. Hesitantly, I shake my head. I’m not even sure if I am into guys. All I know is that Cameron Cardington has had a unique hold on my heart for over three years now. But the idea of revealing this to anyone terrifies me. And Cameron is the last person on Earth who should know.

My chest aches, as if on fire, consuming all the air in my lungs.

“Okay, listen!” he says, stepping back, one hand on the railing. “You’re a really cool guy, Adrian, and I genuinely like you. But you shouldn’t waste your first kiss on me.”

I’ve made out with a few girls before, and Cameron knows it. That’s probably why he stressed the word ‘first.’

“You know it wouldn’t—” His gaze darts around the basement, searching for the right words. “It wouldn’t mean the same to me as it would to you.”

I give a short nod. Hell, I don’t even know what it would mean to me. Cameron is my best friend’s brother and, on top of that, the biggest player Oakspeak has ever known. Maybe it’s normal for a guy to feel drawn to him? Some strange form of admiration, perhaps?

God, I desperately hope that’s all it is.

With a sigh, Cam nods towards the basement door. “Come on. We should get back to the party and forget this ever happened.”

I close my eyes, lean my head back against the wall, and take a deep breath. Yes, forgetting is all I want.

When I open my eyes again, I’m staring at the ceiling of my room in Ruth Beckett’s farmhouse in Canada.

Oh man. I rub my hands over my face. When will these dreams finally end?


The icy grip of the wind spurs me to work faster this morning. At breakfast, Ruth mentioned a blizzard warning for the afternoon. We never had such snowstorms in Oregon, but the gravity in her voice left a queasy sensation in my gut. She insisted I finish everything by noon and save the rest for tomorrow. Fine by me. I’d rather not be blown off the roof while fixing shingles when the storm hits.

By eleven-thirty, I’ve wrapped up with the stables and secured anything that could be snatched and tossed by the wind. Surprisingly, Maddie lends a hand, since she and Ruth have finished all the Christmas decorating inside the house before North’s arrival. With her help, I have enough time before lunch to take a hot shower and slip into faded jeans that don’t reek of horse or hay.

Although the weather here is perfect for thick knit sweaters—and my mom packed plenty in my suitcase when I wasn’t looking—I keep the itchy things buried deep in my closet. Instead, I opt for a white sweatshirt. In elementary school, Sandy used to tease me about the lack of rainbow in my wardrobe, and to be honest, I often wore white shirts just to irk the little know-it-all in her pink unicorn dresses and ponytail. Later on, however, white hoodies became a habit, and over the years, that habit morphed into my signature style. I like white. It’s so impartial.

I’m adjusting the hood around my neck as I head back downstairs. Yet on the small landing midway down, I freeze in surprise and glance towards the door as it swings open, letting in an icy gust of wind that races through the entire house. A few snowflakes whirl in, shimmering silver in the noon light, as if heralding an angel.

Ensnared by another world, I slowly descend to the next stair, gripping the wooden railing tighter as a young man enters the door who, in his mysteriousness, could hardly be further from an angel. Black winter boots, black skater pants, a black jacket, and hair as ashy blond as if he had just risen from the scorched plains of hell. With a hint of caramel woven in.

He drops his sports bag on the floor beside him and slams the door shut. “Hello! Grams?” he calls out, not aiming at any particular direction. Then he hops twice on the spot, head tilted forward, shaking snow from his tousled hair. With one hand clad in a fingerless black glove, he ruffles the wild strands further, emphasizing the dark blonde chaos with the radioactive symbol on the back of his hand.

“North!” squeals an excited voice from the left, from the passage to the kitchen, and as soon as Ruth appears, the young man’s lips curve into a smile that conceals all the sins of hell beneath the genuine joy of seeing his grandmother again.

As North strides past the stairs towards her, his gaze shifts slightly in my direction, as he only now seems to notice a third person in the room. It’s as if someone hit the slow-motion button for Moonbreak Falls—his single blink lasts an eternity, and the dark blue of his eyes burns as intensely as the sky just before sunrise. Goosebumps prickle on my neck and race down my arms to my wrists.

But then, Ruth engulfs him in a fierce embrace, exclaiming, “Come here, my little darling!” His hearty laugh resets time, and I shake myself free from this peculiar moment with a subtle shake of my head.

Little darling? The guy is two heads taller than her. Apparently, the last ten years—since North clearly outgrew the childhood photos in her album—have gone unnoticed by her.

Still, Ruth’s embrace manages to squeeze the air out of North, and his laughter ends in a flustered cough until she finally lets him go. “I’ve missed you so much!” she trills, pinching his cheeks, which definitely aren’t chubby anymore.

North takes her hand and squeezes it, grinning crookedly but letting his gaze wander to me once again. “Yeah, I can imagine,” he says to her. “So much so that you got yourself a replacement grandson.”


“Oh, no!” I stammer, descending the next three steps to the last one. “That’s not true. I…I’m just working here.” I don’t want to be a point of contention between the two of them. From Ruth’s stories, they’re such a happy family. Unlike my own. “My name is—”

“I know who you are…Adrian,” Ruth’s grandson interrupts me suddenly, and all the mischief is gone from his expression. His voice is soothing and understanding as he approaches me and extends a hand, which I hesitantly take.

Wow. It’s warm.

“Grams has told me a lot about you in recent weeks. And I must admit, I was pretty curious about what kind of special treasure I’d find here. She says heaven sent you.” North lets his eyes slide once inconspicuously downward over my entire body and looks back at my face the next second. The left corner of his mouth twitches up, drying out my throat, and I swallow. Then he takes a step back but doesn’t immediately let go of my hand, instead giving me just enough room to step off the stairs.

I follow his invitation with my other hand still firmly on the railing because, strangely enough, I need the support. Nevertheless, I manage to give Ruth a grateful look, deeply touched by how she apparently portrays me in her stories. I had no idea.

“Welcome to Moonbreak Falls. I hope you already feel at home here,” North says with a friendly smile, finally opening his fingers so my hand can slip out of his. Much too slowly, I notice.

“Yes, it’s beautiful here.” Better than at home.

“Come on, take off your coat, boy!” Ruth now urges him excitedly and scurries in her felt slippers to the kitchen. “We want to eat soon. The table is already set.”

North doesn’t need to be told twice. He peels off his jacket and hangs it on the hook next to the door. Then he adjusts his black hoodie, under which the hem of a white T-shirt sloppily peeks out around his hips. In doing so, he seems to really notice his surroundings for the first time and does a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep through the entire house. “Oh my God! What a mess!” he exclaims. “Is Grams sleeping with Santa now, or what?”

“Hey, don’t be cheeky, kiddo, or you’ll get a smack upside the head!” Maddie’s flirtatious voice rings through the living room. As North spots the part-time maid, his face lights up again, and he spreads his arms as she squeals with joy and rushes toward him. With a sporty spin, he catches her momentum and hugs her tightly.

“It’s so nice that you’re finally back!” she murmurs happily against his chest.

I shake my head slightly. You must probably be Canadian to get that from her.

Leaving the two of them to their reunion moment, I follow Ruth into the kitchen. By the time the mouthwatering roast chicken is served, they also join us at the table. North pulls out the chair I’ve been sitting on for the past four weeks, but before I can choose another seat, Ruth interjects, “No, you can’t sit there. That’s Adrian’s spot.”

Feeling as if I’ve been struck by lightning, I stand rigit, unsure how to handle this situation. North also freezes for a moment, his fingers still wrapped around the wooden chair’s backrest, and raises his eyebrows in surprise. Ruth completely ignores him, though, as if she’s not aware of what a big deal this is.

“Well, well, well!” North chuckles, turning his head to me. There’s no kind of resentment in his expression whatsoever, and the surprise quickly gives way to his cheerful mood. “And they say I haven’t been replaced.” He pulls the chair back further and nods for me to come closer. “Go ahead, sit down.”

The whole situation is incredibly uncomfortable for me because, although it’s absolutely not my intention, I already feel like the odd one out just five minutes after North’s return, inadvertently causing tension.

Hesitantly, I walk to the spot, which is at a right angle to Ruth at the table, and place my hand next to North’s on the backrest. “Hey…this is…I’m sorry,” I mutter softly, turning only to him to avoid involving his grandmother.

“Why? Because Grams likes you?” North winks at me and then heads to the other side of the table to sit next to Maddie. “Now you’ll just have to put up with me,” he drawls in her ear. For him, all of this doesn’t seem to be a problem. On the other hand, he probably likes the idea of sitting next to the dark-haired maid, because the next moment, she squeals and jumps two feet off her chair, apparently pinched in the thigh by him.

I’m not quite sure what kind of relationship the two of them have. No one has ever mentioned them being a couple since I’ve been here, but they seem unusually close. Maybe there’s something more going on between them. This thought forces me to keep my gaze away from them in a strange way, so I focus entirely on the food on my plate and leave the talking to the others today.

Ruth and Maddie engage in an enthusiastic conversation about the new store in town, which, in addition to books and all kinds of knick-knacks, apparently also sells beautiful fabrics that Ruth wants to use to sew herself a few new aprons soon.

Several minutes later, I shove the last bite of vegetables into my mouth and put the fork aside. As I wipe my lips with the napkin, it’s almost like a reflex to glance across the table at North, who is sitting diagonally opposite me, and suddenly, I’m left breathless.

North has already finished his meal and is leaning back in his chair. His fingers are laced on his stomach, and his intense gaze rests shamelessly on me. I clear my throat briefly, swallow, and put the napkin back on the table. My eyes flicker between the plate in front of me and North on the other side several times. I want to ask him what’s going on, but his penetrating gaze does something very strange to me, and I lose my voice.

He’s so damn quiet, and his face so inscrutable that I can’t help but wonder if he sees me as competition for his grandma’s affection, slotting me into his arch-nemesis category. Or maybe I’ve got veggie bits stuck in my teeth. Either way, my cheeks heat up, something that hasn’t happened in forever. In fact, there’s only been one person who’s ever managed to spark this mortifying reaction from me. What the hell—?

North seems to relish in the fact that he can rattle me so easily. The second I nibble on my lower lip, his mouth twists into the faintest smirk. His eyes dart to his left, toward Ruth, and that’s when it hits me—the conversation has shifted to me.

“…he’s already achieved so much. The horses adore him, and he’s insanely hard-working,” Ruth gushes, her eyes twinkling in a way I’ve only ever seen when she talks about North.

“Is that right?” North says, his grin widening as he looks at me. I can’t quite read him yet, but I feel awkward with his beloved Grams singing my praises in front of him.

“Absolutely,” Ruth continues, unfazed. “You should have seen him when he first moved in. All scrawny and frail, like a pitiful squirrel.”

“Hey!” I blurt out, though I can’t help but chuckle at the analogy. “That’s not true at all!” I wasn’t scrawny.

“And now…just look at him!” She practically beams, as if my muscle gain is somehow her personal accomplishment. Which, to be fair, is partly thanks to her amazing cooking. “He’s as sturdy as a Canadian Grizzly!”

Obviously amused by his grandma’s colorful descriptions, North gets up and circles the table behind her. Turns out, he’s headed for the fridge and took the long way just to sneak a quick squeeze of my bicep as he passes by. The unexpected touch makes me tense my arm for a split second. It’s more of a startled twitch than a conscious flex.

“Well,” he says with a playful tone, continuing to the fridge to grab a cold soda. “More like a Canadian Lynx if you ask me.” His grin lingers as he pops open the bottle, tips it back, and watches me through the fringe of his long, dark lashes. The whole scene feels weirdly suggestive, and I realize that for the second time in less than thirty minutes, I’m getting goosebumps from North Beckett’s gaze.


3. Sugar cubes

The wind picks up considerably after dinner, and it’s time to bring the horses into the stable before the weather gets worse.

North’s gone upstairs to unpack, and Maddie offered to handle the dishes, so I throw on my jacket and head out to the paddock with two lead ropes. The horses are scattered who knows where, and I have to trek a few hundred feet to catch Symphony and one of the stallions. When I return to the exit of the snow-covered pasture with the two, North’s perched on a crossbeam of the paddock fence, watching me with amusement.

“Do you always do it this clumsily?” he asks, once again jolting me out of my routine. The guy seems to have a knack for that. Or maybe it’s just me.

“What do you mean?” I reply, stopping with the two horses in front of him.

“Well, that you walk miles to fetch each horse individually from the field.”

“Um…yes?” Why? “How else am I supposed to do it?”

Smirking, North slides off the fence, steps outside the paddock, and gestures for me to join him. As he holds out both hands, I pass him the lead ropes and climb through the rails to stand beside him.

Without another word, he loosely wraps the ropes around a beam, sticks his pinkies in his mouth, and lets out a whistle that makes me jump. Instantly, the sound of galloping hooves fills the air as the horses charge straight towards us. In no time, their massive forms huddle together in front of North. No surprise there. He pulls a handful of sugar cubes from his jacket pocket and hands them out to the eager herd. “That’s how you should do it,” he says, glancing at me with a sly grin. “Unless you enjoy all that unnecessary legwork.”

He affectionately strokes their foreheads and noses, then swings the gate open. Holding Calito and Symphony’s lead ropes in one hand and grabbing Princess’s halter with the other, Sunny prances alongside his mother as North effortlessly guides four horses into the stable at once.

Fascinated by his confident handling of the animals, I can’t help but watch him.

“Can you manage Pascal and Luna on your own?” he asks, winking at me over his shoulder as he apparently misreads my staring. Oh, crap!

“Yeah, of course.” I follow his lead and grab the remaining two horses by their halters. To my surprise, it works flawlessly, and they walk just as obediently beside me as if they were led by a rope. Whistling. Huh. Who would have guessed?

Once all six horses are in their stalls, North hands out another round of sugar cubes, leaving only Luna out, who I’m standing in front of. Instead of giving her the treat, he places it in my hand.

This sparks a minor freak-out in me since I’ve never given the horses such tiny treats before. I’ve always stuck to whole carrots and large chunks of bread, which allowed me to safely retract my fingers before they got chomped by those colossal dino-like teeth.

I can’t manage to say anything, but North seems to decode my body language in an instant, figuring out what’s bothering me.

“It’s a piece of cake,” he reassures me and then positions himself behind me. I can feel his chest against my back. The next moment, he gently takes hold of my hand and lifts it. “Lay it flat like a platter,” he whispers, “and keep all your fingers close together.”

I follow his instructions, but my hand starts to quiver a little.

“Don’t worry,” North murmurs soothingly, his warm breath tickling my ear.

But there’s a very good reason for my worry, and it’s not just the horse that’s making me uneasy right now. Instead, it’s North’s sudden closeness that’s stirring up unsettling feelings inside me. A shiver races down my neck, my heartbeat picks up unexpectedly, and I feel like my world is crashing down on me, just like back in Sandy’s basement.

No, please! Not now! Not with North Beckett!

Before the horse’s muzzle can reach my hand, I reflexively pull back, and the sugar cube tumbles to the ground. As North stoops down to retrieve it, I take two frantic steps away from him.

He straightens up slowly, studying me closely with a look that’s both curious and incredibly perceptive. Meanwhile, I’m completely clueless. Whose fault was this? Mine? His? My heart flutters, pounding against my throat. Did North Beckett just try to flirt with me?

“I can’t do this!” I blurt out, taking a third step back as if it could rescue me from my shaky situation. I’d run hundreds of miles from Oakspeak to escape the confusing emotions that had plagued me for months.

This shouldn’t be happening!

“Okay…” North says slowly as he fully straightens up. His caramel-colored eyebrows, wickedly perfect with a slight arch, furrow a bit, creating a questioning crease above his nose. Then he feeds the sugary treat to Luna himself, and we both leave it ambiguous whether my panic was about the sugar cube or the unexpected intimacy.

North slips his hands into his pants pockets, shoots me a subtle smile, then turns and exits the stable without another word.

Once it’s just me and the horses inside, I rub both hands over my face and groan hopelessly into my fingers. Where’s the nearest canyon I can hurl myself into?

I take a few deep breaths in an attempt to settle the turmoil in my thoughts, but it doesn’t work very well. Eventually, I head outside too and lock the barn door to prevent the wind from flinging it open later.

As I make my way back to the house, I can hear cheerful chatter from Ruth and laughter from North and Maddie in the kitchen. I hang up my jacket, set my shoes by the tiled stove, and linger for a while to warm my hands. Then I decide to hole up in my room for the rest of the day. That seems to be the safest option right now. For so many reasons.


The wind roars around the house tonight, sneaking through every crevice in the wood. With my arms folded behind my head, I lie in bed, gazing at the ceiling in the dark for hours. It’s as if the storm has invaded my thoughts, too.

I spent most of the afternoon in my room. Partly to give Ruth some one-on-one time with her beloved grandson, and partly to avoid North. The unexpected attraction to him hit me like an avalanche, catching me totally off-guard. I wasn’t ready for this, and it terrifies me.

Why can’t this happen with a girl instead? I roll onto my stomach and groan, burying my face in the pillow. I had hoped Cam would be the grand exception. After all, Sandy was there to balance things out.

But one moment with North Beckett…and my world falls apart again.


The next morning, I come downstairs to the living room at the usual time to find a stack of firewood beside the stove and flames crackling inside. Someone beat me to it. Guilt washes over me for a moment, but then I glance at the clock and decide it’s not my fault if the college student chooses to prowl around the house before 5 AM instead of using his vacation to catch up on sleep.

The tempting aroma of fresh coffee wafts through the ground floor, and I follow the scent to the kitchen. A full pot waits under the machine, and North leans against the counter with a cup in his hands. A warm sensation floods my body, but I refuse to give in to the attraction right now. My Canadian getaway is too important for that—I resolved this after hours of soul-searching yesterday. North won’t be here forever. I’ll tough it out while he’s around, and after he leaves, I’ll simply restart my journey of self-discovery. For now, it’s enough to pretend nothing’s happening.

That’s the plan.

“Morning,” I mumble groggily, avoiding lingering eye contact, and pour myself a mug of coffee. North remains silent, but I can feel his penetrating gaze from across the room. It sparks a hot tingle in my neck, which I rub away with one hand. “Are you always up this early?” I ask, trying to break the stifling silence and appear more composed than I feel. As I say this, I turn my head towards him while grabbing the milk from the fridge.

“Old habit when I’m home,” he mutters against the rim of his cup, which he’s just raised to his lips, his dark blue eyes still locked on me. In them, I can see the chaos—my own.

“You vanished pretty early yesterday,” he smoothly changes the subject. “Grams was worried about you.”

I pour milk into my coffee and then search for the small white porcelain sugar bowl with blue flowers on it, which isn’t in its usual spot on the shelf. At that moment, North slowly slides the bowl across the counter with one hand and then removes the lid. As soon as I see the sugar cubes in the porcelain dish, a fiery shiver of yesterday’s memory zips down my spine, and I swallow.

I take two cubes out and let them plop into my cup. Then I stir with a small spoon and reply softly: “I didn’t want to intrude on your reunion.”

“You didn’t.” North replaces the lid and returns the sugar bowl to the shelf, which is mounted directly on the wall in front of me. For a second, he comes so close that the space between us grows as warm as the coffee heating my fingers when I pick up the mug.

Stepping to the side, I lean against the counter, and take a sip that flows bittersweet down my throat, finally loosening my vocal cords a tad. North also slides back to his spot at the opposite end of the kitchen, watching me like a laid-back lynx in the woods. As I hide my face behind the mug and only look at him over the rim, the corners of his mouth lift those mysterious three millimeters upwards into a barely noticeable smile.

It makes me incredibly nervous because my body has decided to ignore all my objections and instead respond intensely to this little grin with heart palpitations, a dry throat, and unnaturally rapid blinking. Shit. I have to get out of here.

I can drink my coffee outside in the barn, and it’s time to start work anyway. “See you later!” I manage to say, walking through the living room to the entrance door, where I put on my shoes and warm jacket.

I’ve just placed my fingers on the doorknob when North comes into the living room behind me and says my name in a warm but very determined voice. Turning my head over my shoulder, I glance at him with caution.

He approaches me, picks up the mug I just put on the dresser to free my hands for my shoelaces, and holds it out to me with a little smirk. “Don’t forget your coffee.”

At the sound of his provocative voice, it feels as if I can sense the crackling of the air in the room directly on my skin. Unable to speak in this state, I close my eyes briefly and sigh at myself. Then I take the mug and slip through the door.

I don’t want to feel attracted to North Beckett. Good Lord! But when he does things like that, it sends tingles all over my body.

As I walk across the yard to the stables, my surroundings quickly yank me out of my desperate thoughts and back to chilly Canada. Last night’s storm has left some traces here. Damn! Part of the pasture fence has toppled, and the wind has also loosened some wooden slats on the barn. In addition, there are a few broken shingles in the snow in front of me that were blown off the house roof. Maybe I should have nailed them down yesterday after all. Now it’s time for new ones.

I take the horses out and clean their stalls as usual. When I’m done in the early morning and want to get the tools from the barn for repairs, a rhythmic hammering disrupts my routine, and I stop at the stable gate. My gaze sweeps across the farmyard, searching for the noise, and I spot North some forty feet away at the paddock, forcefully driving a new post for the fence into the ground with a massive hammer.

His jacket is off and draped over a crossbeam, and the sleeves of his black sweatshirt are rolled up to his elbows. His strength surges from his legs into his arms in waves and flows through the handle into the hammer, which he swings repeatedly from back to front above his head. The sight is hypnotic, and I stand there for an alarming three minutes just watching him work.

Once he’s sure the post is securely in the frosty ground, he sets the hammer down and wipes his brow with his forearm. Reaching for the water bottle beside him, he takes a few sips, his eyes casually drifting in my direction—almost as if he knew I’d been watching him the whole time.

Damn it. What was I thinking?

I want to cover my face and disappear into a hole, but my body freezes in place, leaving only my eyes free to blink. Yet North doesn’t seem fazed by my behavior. He says nothing, simply placing the bottle down and returning to work. Apparently, I can keep watching without fear of reproach.

Yeah, as if I would!

As soon as I regain control, I swallow the awkwardness and walk over to help him. A long crossbar, broken during the storm, needs replacing. It lies among the tools, and I lift it into position so North can secure it to the post. All the while, I avoid eye contact, focusing instead on my hands and the tools. It feels safer that way.

Unexpectedly, we work well together in silence. Once the fence is mended, North glances toward the house, and I instantly get his meaning and nod. We put away the heavy tools and switch to lighter gear for fixing the broken shingles.

North packs everything into a box and sets it on the ground. He then climbs over the porch railing onto the canopy, the gateway to the main roof. I pass him the box and follow suit.

“Careful, it’s slippery up here!” he warns, his only words for the next half hour. I take his advice to heart; despite the thick snow below, I’m not keen on finding out if it offers a soft landing.

As we finish the repairs, a window opens, and Ruth calls out, “Kids! Time to eat!”

My stomach rumbles on cue, making North laugh. “I wasn’t always a big eater,” I protest, unwilling to seem weak or starving.

“But working on the farm changed that,” he concludes knowingly.

Grinning, I nod and crouch at the roof’s edge, ready to climb down. Once on the ground, North hands me the toolbox and follows. As he leaps down, a small box of nails slips from his hoodie pocket, scattering silver on the ground.

“Go on in,” he tells me. “I’ll pick these up and join you.”

Ignoring his directive, I help him collect most of the nails. With only a few left, I slide the toolbox under the roof, knowing I’ll need it later, and head inside. By now, I can’t wait for the warmth of the room and Ruth’s delectable meal. I’m half-frozen.

My break is short-lived, though. The storm damage is more extensive than I realized, and there’s still much to do before nightfall. Unexpectedly, North stays by my side all afternoon, working with me as we move from one repair site to the next. We hardly talk, but I don’t mind. Focusing on the tasks would be difficult if North were constantly chatting anyway. As it is, I’m already struggling to keep my cool around him, avoiding eye contact.

It surprises me that he stays outside with me for so long. He doesn’t have to. I’m the one being paid for this work, and he’s on vacation. As he blows into his hands to warm them, I clear my throat and say, “You can go inside if you want. I’ve got this covered. It’s my job, after all.”

North rubs his hands together, drives in another nail, and turns to me with a friendly yet serious look. “Adrian, this is my home. I want to help, whether it’s your job or not.”

I appreciate his attitude. And honestly, working with him today has been more enjoyable than doing it alone. So I decide to simply ignore the little jolt in my chest each time our eyes accidentally meet. I have to get along with him while we’re living together on the farm after all.

With North’s help, we finish the repairs by evening and move on to bringing in the horses. This time, he lets me whistle, and the horses come galloping even though he’s the one giving them sugar cubes, fetched from the house earlier.

Inside, he has more treats for them—pressed herbs shaped like horse snacks—and I watch him handle the horses with ease. When only Pascal remains, North stops at the stall door, where the horse stretches out its neck, and tilts his head in my direction. “Come here,” he says calmly.

Memories of yesterday’s incident surge through me, and my body tenses, my breath catching.

“If you’re worried you might not manage,” he says understandingly, moving closer to me, “let him come to you. He knows what he’s doing.”

Suddenly, I’m left wondering what North Beckett truly understands. Are we still talking about the black stallion? My heart flutters in my chest as he pulls a sugar cube from his pocket and holds it out to me. Hesitantly, I take it, and he raises his hands in mock surrender, sporting an impish, innocent look saying: See? I didn’t do anything.


Taking a deep breath, I walk over to Pascal, North giving me plenty of space. With my free hand, I scratch the horse under its long black mane on its forehead.

“Now, flatten your hand. Like this—” North grabs another pressed herb treat from a burlap sack on the wall and demonstrates by placing it on his own outstretched palm.

I follow his instructions, extending my arm far enough from Pascal’s muzzle to avoid accidents.

“Good. Now just hold it steady in front of the horse’s mouth.” He demonstrates again, giving Calito an extra treat.

With some sincere reluctance, I move my fingers closer to Pascal, feeling the velvety soft horse lips take the sugar from my palm. “Wow.” A smile finds its way onto my face. “That’s…nice.”

“Yeah,” North chuckles and walks out of the stable with his hands in his pockets. “But we’ll have to work on nice at some point.”

Dumbfounded, I stand there, watching him leave, until Pascal nudges me in the back with his muzzle, jolting me out of my thoughts.

Shaking my head, I stroke the horse one more time before locking the stable for the night. North has vanished from the yard, so I take a deep breath of cold air and squint. How will this continue?

Heading into the house, I grab some logs and stoke the stove once I’m inside. With North and his grandma chatting in the kitchen, I head upstairs to shower, letting the hot water soothe my cold limbs and racing thoughts.

Afterward, hunger drives me back downstairs, but the kitchen is empty. Ruth has left a plate of cookies on the table, and I eat one before grabbing ingredients from the fridge for a spicy sandwich: roast beef, lettuce, cucumber slices, and—

“Peanut butter?”

I jump at North’s voice behind me.

His hand reaches for the jar. “Do you really want to put that in there?”

Trying not to lose my composure, I focus on assembling my sandwich. However, the flicker he ignites in my chest when he’s this close makes it difficult.

North sets the jar down, and I attempt to maintain my cool. “Sure,” I say with a shaky grin, avoiding his gaze, and unscrew the lid to spread the final ingredient onto the bread. Folding the sandwich and cutting it in half, I offer, “Do you want some?”

Unfortunately, I then make the fatal mistake of turning my head toward him, and the knife slips from my hand.

North has taken a shower. His damp hair, an enthralling mix of ash and caramel, falls over his forehead and tangles in his long lashes. His dark blue eyes sparkle with each blink, sending my heartbeat soaring.

So much for staying cool.

Embarrassed, I bend down to pick up the fallen knife and take in the rest of him. For the first time in the past thirty hours, North isn’t entirely dressed in black. Tonight, he stands barefoot in faded jeans and a loose light blue hockey shirt with white patches on the elbows. It must be the Calgary University team’s shirt, as I remember the colors from newspaper clippings in Ruth’s photo album. Fiery red letters spell out “Wicked Fireflies,” and a fierce glowworm bares its teeth on his chest.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything hotter than North Beckett right now.

He cocks his head, noticing my reaction, and flashes a grin that sends electric shivers up my spine. “You a fan of ice hockey?” he teases.

“You mean…the players?”


The second the words escape, I feel my face turn beet red. Why the hell would I ask that?

North’s eyes widen in surprise for a split second before he bursts into a hearty laugh that warms the entire kitchen. “No, Adrian—I meant watching the games on TV.” He then snatches half of my sandwich and takes a bite. Immediately, his laughter fades. “Ugh, no. Gross!” With a grimace like a toddler, he marches over to the trash, lifts the lid, and spits the half-chewed mess into the bin. He wipes his mouth with his forearm and returns the bitten sandwich to my plate. Furrowing his brows, he declares, “You Americans are nuts.”

Guess peanut butter isn’t his thing.

The sad part is, even with that disgusted look, he’s still insanely attractive. I wish it weren’t true, but the flutter in my chest won’t let me deny it any longer.

How do I escape this situation unharmed? I don’t want to be attracted to guys. My life’s complicated enough! Falling for Sandy, I could’ve handled. Crushing on her brother…well, that’s what this break was supposed to fix.

But North Beckett?

Damn, he’s on another level.

Sighing, I grab my plate and head to the living room, where the crackling fire keeps the whole house cozy. Just as I flop onto the couch, overwhelmed by this inconvenient truth, North appears in the passageway, leaning on the wall with one hand. “So, you gonna watch the game tonight or what?”

Puzzled, I furrow my brow. “Ice hockey?”

“Yeah?” He makes the word sound like a question, as if it’s a no-brainer. “Toronto vs. the Nashville Predators.”

I spread my arms, countering with something equally obvious: “There’s no TV here.” Ruth’s into knitting and listening to oldies on the radio to pass the time in the evenings. I haven’t seen anything in the whole house where one could watch a hockey game.

North just grins, swipes my plate from the table, and heads up the stairs. “Come on, let’s go!”

Considering the undeniable pull he has on me, I worry this might not be the best idea. Especially if I want to rewrite my newfound bi-curiousness as straight.

But he took my food. So, with a sense of foreboding in my gut, I rise and follow him up the stairs.