A Father for Bella

By: Jill Weatherholt

CHAPTER ONE


“After a cold day on the slopes, come in for a warm stay at the Black Bear Inn and Ski Resort in Whispering Slopes, voted Shenandoah Valley’s most popular inn.” The radio advertisement warmed Joshua Carlson’s heart as thoughts of his mother filled his mind. The Black Bear Inn—her favorite place. He had to save it.

He hit the turn signal on his silver luxury sedan. The rear wheels spun on a patch of ice as he continued up the steep driveway. A dusting of snow covered the manicured hedges lining the grounds. Puffs of smoke billowed from two massive chimneys and drifted toward the picturesque snowcapped mountains encompassing the property. Mahogany rocking chairs filled the wraparound porch on the two-story brick-and-stone home.

He zipped into the last available parking space. Good sign—the place was busy. No surprise there, because his father never owned anything that didn’t make his wallet bulge.

Joshua stepped out of the car and pulled the crisp mountain air deep into his lungs. He’d always loved the smell of fresh pine. For the first time in months, his shoulders relaxed while he repeated slow and even breaths. The bitter divorce had taken a toll on him both physically and emotionally. He sauntered up the sidewalk, forgoing his luggage for now. He gripped the icy doorknob, wishing he’d worn gloves.

The pine floor gleamed as he crossed the threshold of the front entrance. He inhaled the citrus aroma filling the air. A winding staircase led to the second floor, where he spied a young couple sneaking a kiss—probably newlyweds. I wonder how long that will last. He shook away the negative thought. Not every relationship ends with your first and only love walking out the door.

“Bella! Where are you?”

With a jerk, he bolted to the back of the inn toward a woman’s frantic scream.

“Bella!”

Joshua burst through the kitchen’s swinging door and ran straight out the open back door. “What’s going on?”

The woman jumped when he spoke. “It’s my daughter, Bella. I can’t find her.” Tall and slender, dressed in blue jeans and a crisp white blouse, she raked her fingers through her wavy caramel brown hair spilling down her shoulders. She sprinted to the side of the building.

Joshua trailed behind, shoving his hands deep inside his coat pockets. It was early January and much too cold for her to go without a coat.

“Bella!” she shouted again and pressed her palms to the side of her head. “She asked if she could play outside with Plato. I told her to stay in sight.” Her voice grew hoarse.

“Plato?”

“Her new puppy.” The woman took off like a gazelle, stopping short at the edge of the forest. “It’ll be dark soon.” She cupped her hands to the sides of her mouth. “Bella! Answer me, please.” She spun around and their eyes locked. “She’s almost six and she’s small for her age. And the forest is full of black bears and coyotes.”

He swallowed hard, but the lump remained lodged in his throat. His hand grazed her forearm and she flinched at his touch. “Sorry—we’ll find her, but we’ll need some flashlights. It’ll be dark soon.”

“I can find her myself,” she snapped.

“We’ll find her sooner with both of us looking. Please, get me a flashlight, too.” He sensed his presence made her feel like a mouse cornered by a barnyard cat, but there wasn’t time to explain who he was and that he was only trying to help. The only things that mattered were that the sun was sinking fast and her daughter was somewhere in the thick forest.

Her left eyebrow arched. “I don’t need—”

Boy, she was stubborn. “Yes, you do need my help and right now we’re wasting daylight.” He rubbed his hand across his cleanly shaved face.

She turned on her heel and bolted toward the open back door.

Joshua glanced to the sky. Daylight was fading as though on a dimmer switch.

The woman ran from the house with a flashlight in each hand, hesitating before passing it to him. “Here.” For a second, her eyes narrowed as she scanned his face. “I’m Faith Brennan. Who are you?” She stepped back. “What are you doing back here?”

Of course she’d be alarmed. A strange man comes out of nowhere and wants her to go into the woods with him. “I’m Joshua Carlson—I’m a guest at the inn.” He followed behind her as she tossed quick glances over her slender shoulder. Leaves crunched underneath his Burberry leather shoes. Massive Fraser firs canopied the trampled path. Fraser fir, the only type of tree his father ever brought into their lavish Bethesda, Maryland, home at Christmas time. They’re the best tree, and we will only allow the best in this house. He forced his father’s voice from his head. “Is Bella familiar with the forest?”

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