It began snowing at nine. Delicate flakes were still sifting down two hours later as Nicole Whitcomb reluctantly loaded her carry-on suitcase and small backpack into her rental car and slammed the trunk. She took one last second to appreciate the hushed descent of the gentle white flakes against the iron gray sky and to drink in the picturesque view of the snow-capped hotel against the backdrop of the ski slopes and surrounding forest.
I wish I could live here, Nicole thought for the hundredth time, as she inhaled the crisp, pine-scented mountain air. She hated to leave all this beauty to go back to the city, and to the stress and tedium of her job. After brushing off the accumulation of snow from her front and back windshields, she unlocked the car, slipped behind the wheel, knocked the snow off her fur-lined boots, and started the engine.
Nicole knew she had to hurry. The weather report had said a big storm was coming into the Steamboat Springs area. When she’d called the Denver airport, however, they said it was sunny and clear, and assured her that her flight to San Jose was departing as scheduled. She figured it shouldn’t take more than forty-five minutes up the mountain road to reach Rabbit Ears Pass, the first of several summits en route. All the roads were open, so after that it should be an easy three-hour drive to Denver.
It was cold inside the car and Nicole shivered as she turned on the windshield wipers, heater, and defroster. Leaving on her fuzzy light blue scarf and hat, she strapped on her seat belt, exited the parking lot, and drove through the quaint Steamboat Springs ski village. There was a good two feet of snow on the ground in the uncleared areas, but so far only a light dusting on the road. Even so, as she turned onto Highway 40 and headed south, she carefully moderated her speed. It had been a while since she’d driven in these conditions.
It was her first time in Colorado, a place she’d always longed to visit—and it was as beautiful as she’d imagined it would be. She’d always loved the snow. During the years she’d lived in Seattle, it had been a hop, skip, and jump to the nearest ski area, and she couldn’t count how many delightful hours she’d spent on the slopes with her friends. Since she moved back to California three years ago, however, she’d given up all that.
At the thought of that move and the reason behind it, Nicole’s stomach knotted with anxiety. The memory of that awful day and all that happened afterward still filled her with self-recrimination and doubt. Would she ever be able to forget?
Nicole frowned, shoving the thought away, determined not to let it spoil her mood. She’d just spent a wonderful long weekend with dear friends she hadn’t seen in years. When her best friend, Chloe, had announced her intention to have a ski resort wedding, Nicole had laughed at first—the idea had seemed ludicrous and impractical—but in the end it had been fabulous.
The wedding had taken place high atop a ski slope at Steamboat Springs, with the bridal party in formal wear and everyone on skis. After the ceremony, most of the people had ridden the chairlift back down, but Nicole—on a dare from one of the groomsmen—had blithely skied down the mountain. It had involved tucking her long bridesmaid’s dress into her thermal leggings, which Chloe had laughingly insisted was scandalous and beneath the dignity of a twenty-nine-year-old woman. But Nicole hadn’t cared; she couldn’t resist the challenge.
The newlyweds and most of the other guests had left after two days, but Nicole stayed one more day to go skiing on her own—and what a blast it had been! Sailing down a white mountain with the crisp air in her face always felt like heaven. She couldn’t wait to show the pictures to her coworkers and to the kids at the museum and the library that weekend.
The car had warmed up now. Nicole removed her hat and gloves, glancing briefly in the rearview mirror to smooth back her wavy reddish-gold hair. She’d left the town of Steamboat Springs far behind. The snow was falling faster. Nicole increased the speed of the windshield wipers, focusing her attention on the road. For the first time, she began to wonder if she’d made a mistake in staying the extra day. The drive back to Denver would have been so much easier yesterday, when the weather had been clear.
The road began to climb through a wooded area now. Nicole had read that the highway gained an incredible 2,500 feet in about seven miles during this stretch, as it made its way up the side of the Gore Range through Routt National Forest toward the pass. The view here should be expansive, but instead it was obscured by low, dark clouds.
Nicole felt another stab of worry as she crept along. She’d been lucky to rent a car with four-wheel drive, but it wouldn’t help if she encountered black ice. Worse yet, it was becoming more and more difficult to see. The storm had come in way faster than she’d expected. The wind howled. There had been a couple of cars behind her at the beginning, but they’d long since disappeared from view, and she’d only passed a few cars coming the other way.
Should I turn back? Nicole wondered. She didn’t want to get stuck on this road in the middle of a blizzard—but she couldn’t miss her flight. She’d already been gone five days. No, she decided; she’d press on.
Rabbit Ears Pass was still more than a dozen miles ahead. At the rate she was crawling, it could take almost an hour to reach it. Nicole used the snowbank at the right side of the highway as her guide, staying just a few feet inside it. Through the swirling flakes in the air, the steep, snow-covered slope on the north side of the road was partially visible.
Suddenly a loud crack erupted from above, followed by a low hissing sound. What on earth was that? The hissing behind her grew louder, turning into an ominous, growing rumble. Glancing into the rearview mirror, Nicole was shocked to see an enormous slab of snow slide off the mountainside in a great, rushing torrent and cover the entire road behind her.
An avalanche! she thought in terror. If she’d been driving any more slowly, it would have buried her.
There was no turning back now, Nicole realized, even if she’d wanted to. With her heart in her throat, she continued up the road, crawling on for what seemed like a century. The highway soon leveled off. Snow was smacking against the windshield at such a furious rate that the wiper blades couldn’t keep up. Nicole struggled to see through a gathering veil of white.
The accident happened so quickly. One minute, Nicole was driving along under perfect control; the next instant, the road was slipping out from under her and the car was spinning into a terrifying right-hand slide. In a panic, she jammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the left, even as her brain shouted, No, stupid, that’s the wrong thing to do and to her horror, it only made things worse.
The car skidded and then hurled itself off the road into the embankment. A scream tore from Nicole’s throat as the entire world turned upside down.