Home > Where Winter Finds You (Black Dagger Brotherhood #17.5)

Where Winter Finds You (Black Dagger Brotherhood #17.5)
Author: J.R. Ward

CHAPTER ONE

Raul Julia—no relation to the late, great actor—saw his first angel on a cold night in Caldwell in the middle of a December snowstorm.

And it was all because of a BMW.

He had come to a stop at the intersection of Main and Tenth, his long wool coat buttoned up to his throat, his scarf tucked in tight across his chest, the toes of his feet chilly even in his boots. Snowflakes, which had started out at lunchtime dancing in the winter air, had soon put on so much weight that they could no longer perform arabesques on the wind currents. They were also in a hurry now, wasting their freedom in a rush to get to the ground, not realizing that the fall was the very best part of their lives, and that once that descent was over, they were going to be trod upon, sped over, plowed into dirty piles like they were degenerates as opposed to floating miracles.

From one-in-a-million to a nuisance of overcrowding that had to be dealt with by Caldwell Public Works trucks.

It was a sad thing, really. Rather like children turning into adults.

As Raul stood on that corner, trapped in place by a red Do Not Cross palm that flashed in his direction, he got so tired of the cold gusts in his face that he turned and put his back to the traffic light. Due to the accommodation made to the visually impaired, a sound would alert him when it was time to go, but so would the traffic, which was slow and trudging, as if the cars didn’t like the weather any more than he did. In better conditions, he would have crowded the curb and eagle-eyed any opportunity to jaywalk—he had been born in Brooklyn back before Giuliani had cleaned up the five boroughs for a short while, so he was an expert at reading traffic patterns—but in winter, the rules changed. Four-wheel drive did not mean four-wheel stop, and the skidding potential added a dangerous element to any chances you took.

And Raul was the kind of person who had a lot to live for. Especially tonight.

In his pocket, he had a small black box, leather-bound on the outside, velvet-cushioned on the inside. He had married his Ivelisse thirty-two years ago, and though their anniversary wasn’t until April, and though it wasn’t a special one like twenty-five or thirty or even fifty, he had passed by a jewelry store at lunch and stopped. The window had been chocked full of gold and platinum wares that were wearable, bright lights inset into the frame to make the diamonds gleam. There had been a lot of engagement rings, in preparation for the season of asking—as opposed to the season of saying I do, which, according to his youngest daughter, Alondra, was in June—but there had also been a number of crosses.

Pretty as the show was, Raul had kept on going, determined to return on time to his job as an actuary at an insurance company. Going along the packed snow with the others who had dared to venture out at noontime, he had thought of the crosses, although not one of them in particular, but rather all of them in a group. They had been relegated to a cluster down low on the right, a congregation of perhaps ten, all of them overshadowed by those rings. For some reason, he couldn’t get them out of his mind, to the point where he began to become paranoid that something bad was going to happen. Even his normal workload, which was often too much, couldn’t distract him away from the preoccupation.

Maybe it was a sign. Maybe it was a portent.

He had those kinds of thoughts a lot, however. Then again, he analyzed people’s death rates for a living, performing the risk assessments on which life-insurance-premium calculations were based—and after you do that for twenty years, you did get a little flinchy. Every mole on his body was a melanoma, for example. Each skip of his heart was an impending myocardial infarction. Oh, and that headache he’d had when he’d been stuck in traffic coming into work this morning was definitely the precursor to a stroke.

Although put like that, maybe it was all a little crazy.

Maybe he needed to take some time off.

Still, as soon as he’d gotten his work done for the day, at a little past five, he’d put on his coat, said goodbye to his coworkers, and hurried out of the building. Instead of heading to the open-air car park six blocks over, however, he’d gone back to the jewelry store. He’d decided, as he’d slumped along in the cold, that it was going to be closed—but he should have known better. It was the Christmas season, after all, and as he’d pushed his way into the store, the narrow and relatively shallow shop was crowded with people. He’d had to wait for a good fifteen minutes before he caught a salesperson’s eye, and when all she could do was shrug at him, like she couldn’t promise she’d be free anytime before New Year’s, he’d checked his watch and debated leaving.

The girl who’d finally waited on him had been harried and exhausted, like she’d had a long lineup of late closes just like this one, and had nothing to look forward to except more of the same. He’d decided she had to have been his Alondra’s age, and she’d had a nice-sized diamond on her ring finger, no doubt something she had helped her fiancé get a store discount on. Her eyes had been tired, but she had made the effort to smile, and that, more than the time it had taken to walk to the store, or the time he had spent waiting, or even that which he was still wondering if he should purchase, was what made him stay.

When he had finished the transaction—after she had given him a nice discount—he had told her he wished her well with her nuptials. She had truly beamed then and talked about the man she was going to marry, the wedding planning, the dress. It was a deluge that he could tell she had to keep inside while she was working, and her joy, her youth, and all the things that were yet to come to her, the good and the bad, had made his eyes sting with tears.

It had been a relief to step outside and be able to blame the watering on the cold.

And now he was here, at this intersection, with a diamond cross his Ivelisse was going to kill him for buying for her, and a broken heart.

Alondra would have been twenty-three in January. And the cross wasn’t about any random wedding anniversary, even though he told himself it was, even though he had to believe it was—because otherwise he’d bought the thing to commemorate his daughter’s death four years ago on a snowy night just like this one, in the back of a car being driven too fast on ice, by her very best friend, who had survived.

Which would be rather morbid, wouldn’t it.

As he considered the accident that had taken such a precious gift from him and his wife and the other kids, he reflected that there were a number of dangerous things that could be predicted in life. If you took too many risks with your health, with your body, with your finances, with your habits, you were, statistically speaking, liable to get caught in a situation of your own design that came out badly. He knew this. He studied this; he trended this; he understood this from an overarching, objective viewpoint that was god-like. Yet none of that had mattered when his cousin Fernando had knocked on his front door at one a.m., on that snowy December night. The instant Raul had opened that door and seen that CPD hat being removed from that head, he had known.

He and Ivelisse had had a total of three children, and there had been many, mostly from the older generation, who had felt compelled to point out after the death that at least they still had two left. As if that erased the pain or lessened it by two-thirds. He had wanted to rage at their insensitivity, scream in their faces, tear their hair out. He loved his two surviving children, as much as he had loved his Alondra, but their lives did not make up for her loss. The whims of chance had coalesced into a tragedy that night, the combination of a lead foot and some black ice, coupled with the fact that Alondra had for some reason not put her seat belt on in the rear seat, leading to exactly the phenomenon that Raul assessed every weekday from nine to five.

Death had taken one of his own, and for a long time, he had been terrified that he was to blame. That somehow, because of the nature of his work, he had made a lightning rod out of his family, and God was getting him back for trying to assume a role no human should ever court.

His faith had seen him through, however. His belief that there was a kind and benevolent fountainhead from whom all things flowed had helped him to absolve himself of the guilt fostered by the first, most irrational phases of his grief.

The loss did not get easier to bear with time. When he thought of his youngest daughter, he hurt just as much as he did the moment Fernando had opened his mouth and shared the sad news that Raul had already guessed at. It was just that he thought of other things, too, now.

Such as BMWs.

He had his back to the direction he wanted to go in, his body leaning against the wind, his ungloved hands crammed into the pockets of his wool coat, when the most beautiful M850i xDrive coupe he had ever seen pulled up to the stoplight on Tenth.

It was a relief to distract his mind and emotions away from his lost daughter, for he knew that when he gave his Ivelisse the cross tonight—he was not going to wait until Christmas morning because, if there was anything Alondra’s death had taught him, and what he did for work underscored, it was that mortals should not wait for important things—there were going to be many tears and much bittersweet longing for their daughter. So he needed to shore his strength up. Plus it was going to be hard to drive home in the snowy dark if his eyes were all swollen from crying in the cold.

The BMW was a benediction to him, a convenient derailment just when he needed one. And the reason it worked so well was because it was not just a luxurious sports coupe. It was his dream car. It was the luxury sports coupe. Sleek and refined, with a powerful motor and comfortable seats, he had even sat in one once at a dealership last year. With a starting price of $111,900, it was out of his financial reach—and it was going to stay that way. Funny how age changed things. When you were in your late teens and looking through Road & Track, you could believe that the cars that were too expensive for your wallet were a temporary disappointment, something that your advancing years, and the schooling you were focused on, and the plans you were making, were going to take care of, the impossible becoming an inevitable through hard work and focus.

That avaricious optimism was nowhere to be found when you were just over the lip edge of fifty, and you had two kids in graduate school, a mortgage to finish paying off, and a wife who you liked to take care of as she deserved. The impossible stayed impossible. Maybe, if they hadn’t had kids, he could have considered buying a used one. But he wouldn’t trade any of his three blessings, even with the pain from the one he had lost, for the likes of a car.

   
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