The Snowman’s Sweetheart by Shanna Hatfield

Chapter One

“Thank you, sir. I’m so pleased I was able to help.” Sierra Goodwin balanced the phone between her ear and shoulder as she perused the contents of her closet, attempting to focus on her conversation with the general manager of a boutique hotel in Utah. Her roommate would be home in three hours, ready to leave for their weekend getaway, and Sierra hadn’t even started packing. “I’m glad the curriculum was to your liking, Mr. Whitting. Thank you for entrusting me with the project.”

“Of course, Miss Goodwin. You came highly recommended by my old pal George Rumley. I had no idea we could hire a freelance curriculum designer before he mentioned working with you, but you’ve definitely earned our business, Miss Goodwin. We’ll be in touch in the spring about an update to our holiday curriculum.”

Sierra continued her frenzied riffling through her clothes and nearly dropped the phone. She fumbled to catch it before it fell to the floor, pressing it to her ear. “Thank you, Mr. Whitting. I look forward to hearing from you in a few months. Have a wonderful winter season. Goodbye.”

She disconnected the call, grateful she continued to gain loyal clients to support her growing freelance business. In the past two years since she’d gone out on her own, she’d nearly worked herself to death, or at least some days it seemed that way. But her dedication and driven efforts were starting to pay off. Pleased clients were making referrals almost faster than Sierra could handle the projects, and that was fine with her. She liked keeping busy. Nonstop work had gotten her through the trials of enduring the holiday season. After surviving Christmas and New Year’s, and wrapping up a huge project with a large financial institution in Arizona, she was ready for a break.

When Jenn, her best friend and longtime roommate, mentioned going to the mountain town of Pinehill for the annual Winter Fest, Sierra hadn’t been overly enthused about the idea. She currently detested all things to do with winter and the holidays. But Jenn had shown her the website for a posh hotel with a spa and room service and had convinced her there wouldn’t be a single reminder of Christmas in sight when they went for the mid-January event.

Sierra just hoped her friend was right. The last thing she needed was a town full of reminders of how much she used to love Christmas before betrayal and humiliation had left her bitter about the entire holiday season.

Neither she nor Jenn had ever been to the touristy Oregon town of Pinehill, located less than two hours east of their apartment in Portland. From the photos they’d seen online, it looked like a charming place to visit. At least it would be if they’d taken down the holiday decorations.

She sighed as she went through her clothes again. No doubt, in spite of her protests, Jenn would insist they spend time on the slopes. Sierra grabbed a handful of sweaters and set them inside her empty suitcase. After adding tops she could layer, she tossed in jeans, warm socks, and a few pairs of lounge pants and sweatshirts. On a whim, she grabbed a little black dress she’d worn to an art gallery show opening in October and stuffed a pair of black heels into the bag that held her slippers, and a cute pair of winter boots. Just in case she needed a second nice outfit, she also packed a skirt with a cashmere sweater that had been a gift from her parents for her birthday.

She folded a hand-knit raspberry-hued scarf made by her great-aunt Camilla and a long, black wool coat into her suitcase, then had to sit on it to get it zipped. After gathering her laptop, phone charger, and the tablet she used for reading books, she filled a bag with snacks and set everything by the door, where Jenn’s suitcase was already packed and waiting.

The moment Jenn arrived home from her job as an assistant office manager at a distribution warehouse, Sierra knew she planned to change her clothes, grab her things, and get on the road.

From what Sierra could see on the map she’d studied, Pinehill was located just a few miles off the main highway that passed by Mount Hood, one of the biggest ski areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Sierra had never gone skiing, although she had been snowboarding with her brother and his friends a few times. If she and Jenn did venture out into the snow, Sierra assumed they’d be able to rent whatever equipment they needed.

The key rattled in the lock as she added another scarf and pair of mittens to her pile of belongings near the door. She looked up in surprise as it swung open. She hadn’t expected Jenn to arrive home for another two hours.

“Hey, girl! I got off early so we could hit the road before it’s completely dark. Ready to go?” Jenn asked as she breezed inside, eyes bright with excitement.

“I hate to admit it, but I am excited about this trip. It will be great for the two of us to get away and enjoy a fun weekend.” Sierra caught a glimpse of something that looked like guilt flit across her friend’s face before Jenn turned away, rushing toward her bedroom. She decided she must be seeing things and chose to ignore it.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Jenn called over her shoulder. “Just give me five minutes to change and grab a few things I forgot to pack. Do you think you could make a thermos full of hot chocolate for us to enjoy on the drive?”

“Of course,” Sierra said, hastening into the kitchen. She filled two travel mugs with hot chocolate, then poured more hot chocolate into a small thermos, in case either of them wanted a refill. It wasn’t like they were driving to the ends of the earth, but a trip always went faster with great snacks, and she’d made sure to pack their favorites.

She tucked the thermos into the snack bag and double-checked to make sure she’d gotten everything she considered essential for five nights away. Jenn swept into the living room wearing a red and white snowflake sweater. Out of respect to Sierra’s wishes to escape the holidays as much as possible, Jenn had left her Christmas sweaters, along with her decorations, packed away during the holidays. It appeared she’d decided to pull at least one out of hiding for this trip.

In truth, Sierra didn’t care. She was too giddy about five days away from Portland—away from her job, responsibilities, and bad memories—to get worked up about a few snowflakes dancing across Jenn’s sweater.

“Shall we get out of here?” Jenn asked, slipping her arms into the sleeves of her white knee-length parka with a fur-lined hood.

Sierra grinned. “You look like a snow bunny in that thing.”

“Laugh now, my friend, but when we’re out in the snow, I’ll be toasty warm.” Jenn wrapped a red scarf around her neck, then unzipped her suitcase and shoved a few things inside before closing it again. “Let’s go.”

Sierra slipped on a shearling-lined brown suede coat and wrapped an Aztec print scarf around her neck. She tucked a pair of mittens into the pockets, then gathered her things. After one last look around the apartment, she followed Jenn into the hall and locked the door.

“Here,” Jenn said, juggling her things. “I’ll take the snack bag. Why did you bring your laptop bag? This is supposed to be an all play and no work weekend.”

“I know, but just in case there isn’t anything on TV up there in the wilds of the mountains, I thought we could watch movies on my laptop.”

Jenn nodded. “Good thinking. However, I anticipate being so busy having fun outside our room we won’t have time for lounging around by the television.”

Sierra’s left eyebrow hiked upward. “Just what, exactly, do you intend for us to do between now and Monday afternoon when we head back?”

“Everything!” Jenn said with an infectious laugh that drew out Sierra’s smile.

She and Jenn had been best friends since they met in English class during their freshmen year of high school. They had attended college in Corvallis together, sharing first a dorm room and then an apartment. When they both moved to Portland, it was natural to get an apartment together. Jenn was closer to Sierra than a sister, and she couldn’t imagine life without her dear friend in it.

As they reached the parking garage, Sierra followed Jenn over to her parking space, only to find Rob Kohl, Jenn’s boyfriend, waiting for them in his SUV.

“Hey, Sierra!” he said, hopping out and opening the back of the vehicle. “Isn’t this great?”

Sierra scowled at Jenn, furious she’d invited her boyfriend to join them for a weekend they’d been planning for months. “What, exactly, is going on?”

“Rob got time off from work, too, and is joining us,” Jenn said, practically squealing with joy.

Sierra had visions of spending the entire trip watching Jenn and Rob making lovey-dovey eyes and kissy-faces to each other. Although they were always good to include her in activities, she often felt like an unwanted third wheel when she was around them. She certainly didn’t need to feel that way on a vacation that was supposed to be a time for her and Jenn to relax and have fun.

She tossed the interloper a blistering scowl. “I’ll stay home. You two go.” She started backing away from the vehicle.

“No! You’re going,” Jenn said, handing her things to Rob, then grabbing Sierra’s arm before she could make an escape. “Rob surprised me this morning with the news he was free to go with us. I knew you’d do this, try to back out of it if you knew he was coming along, but you are going on this trip, and you are going to have fun!”

Rob chuckled. “You can’t force her to go or have fun, Miss Bossy.” He winked at Jenn, then looked at Sierra. “But we really do want you to go, Sierra. Please? I promise we’ll both be on our best behavior. If you refuse to go, then I’m the one who’ll stay behind.”

Sierra rolled her eyes. She wanted to refuse and storm off in a fit of anger, but Rob was truly a nice guy. And if he said he’d stay behind, he would, even if it was painfully obvious how much he wanted to go. She couldn’t very well march off in a snit after his offer to remain behind. Though she was disappointed her girls’ weekend with Jenn had just morphed into something entirely different, the possibility of having fun still existed, if she let herself enjoy their time in Pinehill.

“Please, See? Please come with us?” Jenn begged, giving the sleeve of Sierra’s coat a light tug.

“Pretty please?” Rob asked, taking the suitcase Sierra still held and setting it in the back of his SUV.

“Fine,” she agreed, looking at the two of them like a teacher about to catch two students in the act of sneaking out of the classroom. “I’ll go, but you two better not make me nauseated with your kissing and cooing the whole trip.”

Rob slapped a hand to his chest. “I would never do such a thing.”

Jenn giggled and leaned her head against his arm. “Never is a rather strong declaration, but we’ll do our best to hold our public displays of affection in check.”

“So generous of you both,” Sierra quipped, making them both laugh. Sierra sighed and pointed to Rob. “At least if he goes along, we have a built-in chauffeur and pack mule for the weekend.”

“I’m at your disposal, ladies,” Rob said, taking a sweeping bow. “Come on, let’s get out of here. If we’re lucky, the roads won’t be slick and we’ll make good time.”

Sierra set her laptop bag next to her suitcase, then moved back as Rob shut the hatch. He walked around to open the two passenger doors. While he gave Jenn a hand inside onto the front seat, Sierra scrambled into the back.

“If I’d known you were coming along, I would have filled a mug of chocolate for you,” she said, handing Jenn one of the two travel mugs of hot chocolate.

“Robbie and I will share,” Jenn said, smiling at her from the front seat as she accepted the drink.

Sierra’s eyes rolled upward again. “Of course, you will.”

Rob gave her an odd look but remained silent as he started the vehicle and drove out of the parking garage. Within minutes, they were on the freeway. Jenn flipped through the radio stations, finally choosing one playing easy listening music. At least it wasn’t Christmas carols.

Sierra leaned back in the seat, closed her eyes, and pretended to sleep. She listened to Rob and Jenn talk about Pinehill. It seemed Rob had a cousin who lived there, and he planned to stay with the cousin. Sierra hadn’t liked the idea of sharing the room she and Jenn had booked at a luxury hotel with him. With him spending his nights elsewhere, she’d still get a little time with Jenn to relax and kick back. From what Rob shared about the town and area, it was apparent he’d been to Pinehill several times. Sierra realized his connection to it was likely the reason Jenn had talked her into going there.

The roads were clear and traffic light as they drove away from Portland, taking a highway headed east into the mountains. Grateful they’d been able to get away two hours ahead of schedule, Sierra looked forward to checking into their room and relaxing. Although she’d been excited to slip on a pair of comfy pajamas and binge-watch romantic comedies while eating room service, it appeared Rob and Jenn had other plans.

It was a few minutes past five when Rob turned off the main highway. Sierra looked out the window at the winter wonderland around them. Trees flocked with snow stood like sentinels on either side of the road. Piles of snow that had been plowed from the road made walls and drifts that had to be yards high. A sign on a sturdy post caught her eye.

No longer attempting to feign sleep, she leaned forward. “Rob, that sign said something about a pioneer woman’s grave. Do you know what it’s about?”

He nodded and glanced back at her. “When this road was being constructed in the 1920s, the builders happened upon a grave that was marked by an old wagon tongue. A woman’s body was buried inside a makeshift coffin made from wagon sideboards. Historians believe she and her family were traveling on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Oral histories and journals indicate her husband and young sons continued on the journey after burying her.”

Jenn placed a hand on Rob’s arm, then glanced back at Sierra. “How sad she died so close to the end of the trail. Is there a museum or something at her grave?”

“The Forest Service put up a sign, and there’s a plaque near the grave,” Rob said, then pointed ahead as they rounded a curve in the road and the lights of a town twinkled at them through the dusky evening like a fairyland. “Welcome to Pinehill!”

Jenn clapped her hands together in excitement. Sierra remained silent as they drove into town, taking in the residential areas that gave way to businesses.

“This is downtown,” Rob said, motioning out the window to his left where brick buildings constructed in the early 1900s lined the street. Inviting amber light glimmered from the glass globes of Victorian lampposts while Christmas lights dazzled from every conceivable surface. On the other side of them was a large park with a gazebo lit up by lights and a sledding hill behind it, where children laughed and played in the snow.

The street was packed with cars, and it took them almost ten minutes to drive the two blocks to the hotel.

Rob pulled up beneath the porte cochère, then hurried around the SUV to open their doors. Jenn hopped out and wrapped her arm around Rob’s waist, looking at the grandeur of the hotel while Sierra took her time getting out, wondering if anyone in this cheerful, vintage-appearing town realized it was the middle of January, not December.

Boughs of greenery draped across the front of the hotel. Wreaths hung from the doors. The balconies were adorned with garlands and burgundy bows. Much to Sierra’s dismay, it looked like Christmas lingered in Pinehill and had no plans of leaving anytime soon.

“I know what you’re thinking, but come on,” Jenn said, tugging on Sierra’s arm. “Let’s check in; then we’ll eat dinner.”

“I’ll go find a place to park and meet you in the lobby,” Rob said, setting out their suitcases and handing Sierra her laptop bag.

“Sounds great, babe,” Jenn said, kissing Rob’s cheek.

A porter quickly pushed over a cart and loaded the luggage, following them as Sierra and Jenn walked inside.

Sierra did her best to ignore the towering Christmas tree in the hotel lobby. At first glance, she thought it was fake, but the rich scent of pine filled the air around it, making her draw in a deep breath. She would cut out her tongue before she admitted it, but she’d missed the smell of a Christmas tree filling their apartment during the holidays. Jenn had agreed to skip putting one up when Sierra had made her feelings about the season perfectly clear.

“Good evening! Welcome to Pinehill and the Spruce Hotel.” A friendly front desk associate greeted them with a broad smile. “Do you have a reservation?”

“We sure do,” Jenn said, sounding perky and pleased.

Sierra remained silent as they checked in. She took the room key Jenn handed to her, then followed as the porter led the way to the elevators. They got off on the fourth floor and followed the porter as he pushed the cart to their room.

While the porter set their luggage off the cart, Jenn made small talk with the young man. Sierra flicked on lights and looked around a room that appeared both spacious and comfortable. A small kitchen area, a table with four chairs, and a living area with a couch and two side chairs would give them ample room to spread out their things. The bedroom had two queen beds and an adjoining bathroom with a spa tub and walk-in shower.

The girls had pooled their funds to get an upgraded room, and Sierra was glad they had. In spite of the small Christmas tree on the counter in the kitchen, she loved the room and couldn’t wait to settle in.

“If you need anything, please let us know,” the porter said, accepting the five-dollar bill Sierra handed to him as he lingered at the door after pushing the cart into the hallway.

“We will. Thank you.” Sierra closed the door, then turned to find Jenn bouncing on the balls of her feet as she stared out the window at the picturesque scene below them of lights aglow and snow softly falling.

Sierra stifled a groan and headed into the bedroom. She felt like she’d tumbled down a rabbit hole that ended at the North Pole.