Teacher Fiona MacPherson and eight of her students are returning from an academic competition when they are stranded in the Cascade Mountains by a November snowstorm. The forecasters misjudged the speed of the storm, and Fiona had expected to be home long before it was supposed to start. Fortunately, one of the students recognizes a half-buried sign that marks the road leading to Thunder Mountain Lodge.
The lodge doesn't have a phone or internet service, the shortwave radio hasn't been repaired after having coffee spilled on it, and cell phone service in the area is terrible even when the weather is nice. Even so, Fiona is able to make contact with her principal. With no improvement in the weather forecasted for the near future, she and the students are stuck there until the snowplows come.
The innkeeper, John Fallon, isn't exactly happy to see them. A wounded veteran who isn't coping with his problems as well as he could be, John bought the lodge for the solitude and fresh air. Since coming back from the war, he doesn't like being around large crowds. The lodge isn't large and it isn't always full of guests, which gives John the peace and solitude he craves. Fiona and her charges disrupt one of those periods of solitude.
John has nightmares and flashbacks of the attack that left him wounded and several other dead, including children. He refuses to talk about the incident and deal with his feelings of guilt. He's avoided his parents and sisters, and he's avoided all other emotional involvement. His responsibilities as an innkeeper keeps him busy and physically active, but it's not enough. On one hand, John's not addicted to medication or alcohol, or engaging in other self-destructive behavior; but on the other, he's also not addressing the main issue.
The arrival of Fiona changes everything. Her caring, optimistic personality has John both attracted to, and frightened by, her. He finds himself falling for her, wanting her. John's amazed to learn that Fiona's attracted to him, too -- but she won't act on it because of the students. They share a passionate kiss in the laundry room that puts that restraint to the test, but the arrival of snowplows brings them back to reality. For the first time, John is not looking forward to being alone.
Using the computer at the library in the nearby town, John and Fiona keep in touch via email. He eventually asks her to come for Christmas, and she jumps at the chance. Even so, he's still surprised to see her when she arrives. Fiona has come to find out if they have a future together, because she has fallen in love with him. But something that started out so promising, ends in disaster. John avoids telling her anything meaningful about himself, and won't tell her about what happen in Iraq. He's afraid to open up to her -- he fears she'd be horrified and reject him. Fiona cares about him, but if he won't admit to a problem, how can she help him?
I loved this book. It's emotional, especially the last third of the book. I thought the story unfolded believably, and the characters were likable (the hero is a reader). The story isn't holiday themed, despite the big red bow on the cover. The book also won the 2008 RITA for Best Contemporary Series Romance.
Started: 12 November 2008
Finished: 19 November 2008
Disclaimer: I purchased this book.