THE VIEW must be gorgeous, but I didn’t dare take my eyes off the winding road. Everyone drove so fast up the narrow part of the canyon and even faster through the flat areas. I supposed if I lived in the Rocky Mountains, I would own a four-wheeler and drive that monster anywhere and in any way I pleased.
FINALLY, the last hill. I entered the valley, and the terrain spread wide before me. On my right, Lake Estes looked like the perfect ice bath. All those summers when we visited our grandparents, Daddy had taken us out there in sailboats.
A QUICK glance to the left and I saw Longs Peak glistening in the noon sun.
Wait! What was the mountain farther left? Excitement spiked my pulse.
MIDWAY across the lake, I pulled to the side of the road and rolled down my window for an unobstructed view. A cold breeze seized my face and slithered around my neck. My breath came out in vapory wisps as I gazed at the mountain. Not just any mountain. The one in the picture Grammie had included in the envelope. I hadn’t expected to find it this quickly.
THE information for this leg of the treasure hunt was riding in the passenger seat under my purse. I took the envelope, slipped out the photograph, and held it up outside the window to confirm the identity. “That’s it, Grammie. I found the mountain.”
A WHISPER of fear shadowed my child-like delight. Leaving my part-time job and taking off school to do a treasure hunt was insane. But I couldn’t turn back now. I’d committed to this crazy adventure, and to leave it unfinished would mean dishonoring the woman who had loved and cared for me.
GRAMMIE’S letter instructed me to learn the name of the peak before driving to the address. Any local should know. After a quick visual search, I did a U-turn and headed back to the base of the hill leading to the canyon. I parked at the little motel located on the right.
A JINGLING bell announced my entrance into the lobby, and a thirty-something-year-old woman in a turtleneck sweater looked up from the reception counter.
“GOOD morning.” She smiled, studying me intently. Her blue-tinted blond hair hung past her shoulders.
BEARING the awkwardness of her probing stare, I approached the woman with my photograph. “Hi. I just have a quick question.”
SHE leaned on the counter. “How much did you pay to get your hair that color? I love it. I’ve got to take a picture to show my stylist.”
WARMTH shimmied up my neck, defeating the chill caused by the weather. People often commented on how my tight auburn curls perfectly complemented my dark olive skin. And they all believed it to be fake.
I CLEARED my throat. “Thanks. It’s natural. My mother was African-American. My father was white. Daddy gave me the bright red hair.” Convinced that should satisfy the woman, I placed the photograph on the counter facing her. “Can you tell me the name of this mountain?”
“IT’S natural. Wow.” It took her long enough to rip her gaze away from my features and look at the photo. “Oh, that’s Twin Sisters.” She pointed to her left. “It’s right up the road.”
Twin Sisters. A dull ache gripped my stomach. Out of politeness, I let the woman take a headshot of me with her iPhone. Pursing my lips to keep from screaming, my attempt at smiling for the camera failed.
I HURRIED to the car, buckled in, and let out a long screech. “This was cruel, Grammie. I know you didn’t mean …” I gripped the wheel. “No, actually I don’t know what you mean by this.”
LAUREN. Again. There could be no mistake at the implication in Twin Sisters.
Don’t dwell on it. If I did, I’d talk myself out of this ridiculous treasure hunt.
DIGGING through the envelope and tearing the flap off in the process, I found the address.
45 CHRISTMAS TREE LANE. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Was this place for real?
I PUNCHED the address into the GPS, which took me a few minutes to figure out. I’d never owned one of these gadgets since I could find my way around Houston blindfolded.
FISH Creek Road was the first segment and, strangely, just happened to be the road on which the motel was located. Had Grammie known I’d stop here? Not that Estes Park was a large place. But I’d heard mountain roads weren’t necessarily marked as clearly as city streets, and so opting for the GPS instead of a map seemed wise.
TRAVELING along the base of a mountain range took me farther away from the lake and the village. If it wasn’t for the bitter thoughts hissing at me like vipers, I’d have probably considered this a pleasant drive.
A LEFT turn placed me on Rockwood Lane. I slowed to a stop and peered out the windshield straight up at Twin Sisters towering above. My stomach growled, mostly from hunger but partially from irritation. Shaking my head and muttering mean nothings, I pressed the gas and proceeded at a worm’s pace.
WAS Lauren hiding up here? In a luxury cabin? In a teepee? In a cave with bears … waiting to be eaten?
MY friend Kari, a psychology major, said bitterness was going to kill me. Dr. Phil confirmed it on his television show. But I still couldn’t stop nurturing my condemnation toward Lauren. She deserved the worst. Well, no, the worst was reserved for terrorists, but Lauren came in a close second.
WINDING my way up the thickly wooded mountain, I found myself on Christmas Tree Lane. A road I’d never volunteer to tackle in the snow. As a two-story house came into view through the trees, I pulled over to check the envelope. Had Grammie forgotten any details? The note didn’t say who lived here or what I was supposed to do except collect some ornament.
I’M with you every step of the way, her initial letter had said. If I listened hard enough, I could hear her voice whispering in my heart.
KIND OF HOPING not to be noticed, I rolled ahead and parked beside the wooden structure. The dirt-packed parking area seemed extra large, as if a family of twenty lived here. But I only saw one small SUV, durable enough to survive any snowy deposit.
RETURNING the picture and note to the ripped envelope, I stuffed it in my purse and opened the door. The rich scent of pine filled my nose. I could’ve stood there for a while enjoying the crisp air, except I feared getting in trouble for trespassing. Looking around for a privacy sign, I didn’t see one.
I AMBLED around to the front of the house, admiring the rustic décor on the porch. Two couch-length benches carved out of logs rested against the wall. Decorative, flat wooden panels underlined each plated window. A yard-high wooden figure of a bear standing on its hind legs waited at the front door.
I WALKED up the steps. “Okay, Grammie. Here we go.” Pressing the doorbell set off chimes.
A FEW seconds later, an elderly woman in jeans and a long, button-up sweater swung open the door. Judging by the amount of wrinkles and liver spots, I declared her a century old. But her perfect posture and bright eyes said half that. Thin silver tufts of hair licked at the air from under her granny skull cap, which looked homemade…and a lot like the crocheted caps Grammie used to wear in the winter.
THE woman clasped her hands together at her chest, smiling brighter than the sun. “Grace. I was wondering when you’d arrive.”
She knows me? Relief and apprehension toyed with my heart. Grammie wouldn’t have sent me someplace unsafe. “I’m … it’s … good to be in the mountains again.” What a lame thing to say.
“COME in and warm up.” The stranger stood back and beckoned with one hand.
BEFORE stepping over the threshold, I noticed the colorful wooden sign above the door that said, HAVEN. A haven for what?
“DON’T mind Rusty.” She patted an elderly Black Lab wagging his tail. “He’s a quiet sweetheart.”
QUIET was right. I didn’t notice the dog until she mentioned him.
RUSTY gave me his paw, and I scratched his ears. The aroma of a home-baked meal captured me the second the woman closed the door.
THE spacious interior, lined with cozy rugs gave me a snuggly feeling. A feeling like I used to get as a child, cuddling with Daddy.
MRS. Skull Cap directed me to a chair by the fireplace. “We have much to talk about, and I know you’re on a tight schedule.”
You do? I suddenly felt like Alice in Wonderland. . . .
Come back here tomorrow to read Chapter Three, part two.
GRACE takes delivery of a package and her life is turned upside down by nine sealed mystery envelopes from her late grandmother. Grammie’s instructions require Grace to take the journey of her lifetime, not only to far off places, but also into the deepest parts of her heart. As she follows the trail laid out for her and uncovers her family’s darkest secrets, Grace is forced to confront the loss and betrayal that has scarred her past and seek the greatest Christmas Treasure of all.
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