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Moonlight On Snow:
A Love Story

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12

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            Haley Gant suddenly wished she could celebrate her thirtieth birthday the way her sister planned to celebrate her own. With all her friends, a dozen of the hunkiest male strippers, and enough champagne to float a boat. Probably an aircraft carrier if Courtney’s usual parties were any indication.

            Haley sighed. Right now she’d settle for enough champagne to float a tiny toy boat, but champagne was a scarce commodity on the slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. Haley took a sip from the blue spattered enamel cup and grimaced. Coffee, even laced with sugar and powdered creamer, ran a distant second to a crystal flute of chilled bubbly.

            Despite her resolve not to succumb to weak female emotions, as her dad would say, Haley felt downright weepy as she watched the hands on the wind-up brass clock creep toward midnight. The rising wind accompanied the ticking of the old-fashioned clock in its inexorable journey to end the old year and begin the new one, bringing her thirtieth birthday with it. Thirty-years-old! Haley’s shudder couldn’t be attributed entirely to the bitter cold of the Montana winter. Where had the years gone?

            Six months ago when she and her sister had met in Las Vegas for a week’s vacation, Haley had cracked every over-the-hill joke she could think of, but she wasn’t laughing now. Courtney, younger than Haley by five years, had remarked at the time that Haley was trying too hard to be blasé. Bless her flaky sister’s heart! Courtney, who somehow had the uncanny ability to zero in on emotional issues, was on target. As usual.

            Haley smiled when she thought again of how Courtney vowed to celebrate her own thirtieth. Of course, she and Courtney, split apart by their parents’ bitter divorce, with Courtney raised by their free-spirited mother and Haley by their stern, no-nonsense  father, were worlds apart in opinions and beliefs.

            Most of the time, she didn't dwell on how she and Courtney had ended up reflecting their respective parents’ personalities. Sometimes though, like tonight, she did find herself wishing she could be more like her younger sister.

            Haley looked around her snug log cabin. Maybe she could squeeze one male stripper in, but only if he didn’t mind dancing on the old red and navy-braided rug in front of the stone hearth. The silliness brought a smile to her face and took her mind off her moody thoughts.

            Normally, she was too focused on work to notice how narrow and, a small sigh escaped her, how boring her life was. Tonight though, the solitude of the small cabin and the loneliness of the isolated research station with the wind moaning through the huge pines depressed her. Even the falling snow had lost its charm after nearly two months of the blasted stuff, and, now, she had a storm to anticipate according to the weather reports.

            Next time she accepted a research project, she vowed, she’d make sure it was some place warm. Like the equator! Right now the tropics sounded like her idea of heaven. She grimaced. Maybe if she wasn’t so focused on her cold solitude, she could concentrate on the report she should be writing.

            Instead of writing the year-end project report she needed to present to the corporate bean counter when he arrived next week. She'd spent the last day of her twenty-ninth year staring into the flames of the fireplace and questioning her life. Past, present, and future. Another sigh escaped her. Haley didn’t like the answers she’d found to those life questions. Restless, she tossed her pen aside, too distracted to pretend to work any longer.

            Though she’d never been one to celebrate the New Year, or even her birthday, she suddenly wished she were wearing a flashy gold dress and holding a flute of champagne while she danced with a hunky guy, to use Courtney’s words, in a hotel ballroom with other noisy revelers. The hunky guy would definitely be the perfect accessory for such an ensemble.

            A wistful smile lifted the corners of her generous mouth as she tried to imagine a tomboy like herself, pony-tailed brown hair and unadorned features, in such a scene. There was as much chance of her appearing in public in a dress like that as there was of her having some sexy guy drooling over her.

            Her smile faded. Celebrating New Year’s Eve by running the generator to power her desk lamp until midnight somehow paled in comparison.

            "Whoopee!" she muttered. "Some celebration."

            A glance at the clock showed only five minutes left until her planned Internet rendezvous with her sister. Haley powered up her laptop. At least Courtney and her mother always remembered her birthday. Her dad? Well, that was another story. She’d learned long ago not to expect him to mention it, even if he did remember the date.

            Franklin Gant considered sentimentality cheap and something to be avoided at all costs. No matter how hard Haley had tried to be the daughter her dad seemed to want, even to following in his professional footsteps, he’d never, not even once, said he loved her. The closest he’d ever come was a terse, "Good job, Haley," when she’d received her doctorate in botany at such a young age. Another heavy sigh escaped her lips. Heaven forbid that he should ever send a birthday greeting of any kind.

            Resolutely, Haley shoved the lonely thoughts into a corner of her mind as she connected an adaptor to her cell phone and aligned it with the infrared port on the laptop.

            A dancing envelope greeted her as soon as she jumped onto the Internet. The familiar strains of the birthday song began when Haley clicked the New Mail icon. Then the words Happy New Year and Happy Birthday undulated across the screen.

            "Oh, Sis," Haley whispered through the tightness in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that had threatened all day and gave herself another scolding for being such a weepy female. She could just imagine her father’s scornful expression were he to see her acting like some weak-willed woman.

             Suddenly, the laptop beeped shrilly. Haley’s eyes snapped open. "Well, hell!" How could she have forgotten to charge the battery? That was just another symptom of this blasted birthday-induced insanity.

            She knew she had only a couple of minutes before the laptop died. She’d be able to read her sister’s message but wouldn’t have time to send a reply back to Courtney who was partying on the deck of her latest boyfriend’s yacht.

            Quickly, she scanned Courtney’s email. Midway through, her eyes widened. A frown replaced her fond smile. Aloud she reread the part that sent a chill of apprehension through her.

            "Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts. Remember how we talked about that? Well, I decided to send you something you’d always remember. <G>"

            Haley frowned fiercely at the little symbol meaning grin.

            "After all, you only turn thirty once, my genius sister. You can’t send this gift back. At least not right away. <LOL>"

            Haley didn’t laugh out loud as that symbol dictated. If anything, her frown deepened into a scowl as she slowly read aloud.

            "So try to kick back and enjoy this next year! Oh, and by the way, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And that leaves the field wide open!"

            A shrill beep punctuated the last word she read. The laptop screen went black.

            "What have you gone and done, Courtney?" she whispered.

            Haley sat frozen in her seat, staring at the dead laptop, but her brain raced as she tried to figure out her devious sister’s plot. When Courtney got it into her head to do something, nothing stopped her. Especially not common sense.

            A flash of light streaked across the two windows set in the front wall of the cabin. Haley looked up. Headlights. Someone had negotiated the treacherous ruts of what she jokingly called her driveway and turned into the clearing in front of the cabin. Who could possibly be visiting her at this time of the night?

            She walked to one of the uncurtained windows and looked out through the falling snow. An all-wheel drive compact car looking rather worse for wear after navigating the old logging road up the mountain idled in the clearing.

            Courtney’s words hit her with enough force to knock the breath out of her.

            Momentous birthdays call for memorable gifts.

            Her sister’s idea of memorable could be summed up in one three-letter word. Men. To be more accurate, you could make that two three-letter words. Men. Sex.

            "Oh, no. Courtney! Tell me you didn’t!"

            Haley opened the front door and gulped a lung full of frigid air.

            "If twelve men pile out of that car, I’m going to strangle you, Courtney!


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