Just One Kiss (Whisper Lake #4) - Barbara Freethy

Chapter One

"It's just one little favor."

Hannah Stark frowned as her mother's voice came across her phone speaker. Had Katherine Stark been drinking? Were her mother's words slurred? Or was her hypervigilant scrutiny of her mom playing tricks on her? There was no reason to think her mom had fallen off the wagon. On the other hand, her mom had rarely needed a reason. Although, there had been one good reason, but all the others…those had just been excuses.

"I really need your help," her mother continued.

"Mom—stop," she said, cutting off another plea. "I'm already on my way. You don't have to convince me."

"Oh, good. I'm sorry to give you more work, Hannah. I'm sure you've had a long day. But we're going to lose this rental if there's no hot water."

"It's fine. I'll take care of it." She turned right at the next light and headed away from her townhouse and the hot bath she'd been looking forward to for the past eight hours.

As an ER nurse, she spent a lot of time on her feet, and today had been a rough one. It was Friday night, five days before Christmas, and Whisper Lake was full of holiday visitors eager to experience the charm of a small-town Christmas and the beautiful white powder of the surrounding mountains. Some of those visitors had already ended up in her ER with torn muscles and broken bones. The slopes were exciting but sometimes unforgiving.

She smiled to herself, thinking that description probably fit her as well. She had a difficult time with forgiveness, especially with the people she loved the most. Her mother was at the top of that list. But despite their complicated relationship, she'd step in and help, because that's what she did. She kept the family together. She kept things on track. She'd been doing that since she was thirteen years old, and she didn't see that stopping any time soon.

Her phone rang again. This time it was her brother, Tyler, who at twenty-four was five years younger than her. She'd been Tyler's second mom for as long as they both could remember.

She answered the call. "Hi, Ty. What's up? I hope you're not calling to tell me you're not coming home for Christmas."


"No," she said quickly. "You promised you'd make it home. It can't be just me and Mom. We need you here."

"I'm trying to get home, but my flight for Sunday already got canceled because of the weather. The earliest flight I could rebook is Tuesday morning."

"That's Christmas Eve," she said in dismay.

"I know, but it's all I could get. It's not just Chicago weather that's the problem; there are storms in Colorado, too. If I miss that flight, I'll probably just have to come after Christmas. I'm planning to go to Aspen for New Year's. Maybe I'll just stop in Whisper Lake first."

"No way. You have to make it for Christmas." She felt an almost desperate need to convince him. "You haven't been home since August, and you know how difficult the holidays can be, especially for Mom."

"Which is why I will do my best to be there," he promised. "You sound particularly stressed. Is there something going on I don't know about? Has Mom fallen off the wagon?"

"I don't think so. But she's still being annoying. I'm on my way up to the cabin. Apparently, the tenant is having some issue with the hot water, and I'm the only one who can deal with this crisis."

"Isn't that Mark's job?" he asked, referring to the property manager.

"Mark left for Hawaii with his family, and his assistant left a message with Mom that she's in Denver for the day. Mom is too busy to go herself, so I'm off to save the day."

"You wear a superhero cape quite well."

"I wish I had one. Hopefully, the problem can be fixed if I relight the pilot. There's snow coming in tonight, and it is damn cold already. If I can't fix it, I'll have to find a place to move them to, which will not be easy at this time of year, and we'll lose the rental money."

"I have confidence you can fix the problem. You always do."

She appreciated his confidence in her, because she had worked damned hard to make sure her younger brother never had to live with the same fears and doubts that had plagued most of her life. "Thanks, Ty. I'll see you soon."

As she ended the call, she let out a breath. She felt a little guilty for