We’re getting close to the end, now. Are you relieved? Can’t wait for it to be over? Are you even still reading?
If you’re reading over here for the first time — welcome! — this is the eighth installment of a 25,000-word (actually, more like 26,000) novella. It begins here, if you feel inclined to read the earlier posts.
It’s a Monday and probably you all are exhausted, so I’ll keep this one short. No, it’s okay, no need to thank me. I hope you enjoy it.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
Jo pulled the truck into a parking spot with plenty of empty space around it, still feeling a bit shaky from the experience of driving what felt like a parade float down the winding mountain road into town. As well stocked as the kitchen was, it didn’t have the necessary ingredients to make brownies. Or anything else appropriate to bring to a Christmas potluck. And there was no way she was going to show up empty handed.
The string of tiny decorative cowbells over the door announced her arrival in the store, but the woman at the register was already headed in her direction. “Oh, my stars,” she said, looking a bit misty-eyed. “It’s been an age since I saw that truck pull in here. Took me right back, I tell you, and for a minute there I imagined . . . well, never mind the ramblings of a foolish old woman. You must be Joanna, John’s grandbaby.”
Jo was afraid the woman was going to envelop her in sturdy arms and a cloud of perfume and tears and she quickly grabbed a shopping basket from the stack by the door as a form of defense. She wasn’t used to being hugged by strangers. “Hello, yes, I’m Jo. Nice to meet you.”
“So very pleased to see you here, Jo. I’m June. You just let me know if there’s anything I can help you with. Anything at all.”
Jo nodded her thanks and said, “I just need to pick up a few things. I’m sure I can find what I need.”
There were a couple other customers in the store and Jo smiled at them as she made her way up and down the crowded aisles. The store was an eclectic mash-up of groceries and hardware and home goods. She selected a box mix of brownies that she knew from experience was as good as homemade, and splurged on a small package of chocolate truffles for herself. And a nice steak for dinner. She was surprised to find a decent bottle of merlot and added that to her cart as well.
She got in line behind another customer and June talked right over him. “Heard you spent a couple days snowed in up to Mac’s cabin.”
The man turned and gave her a surprised look. “Snowed in, you say? Hope that boy treated you right, missy.”
“Oh yes, he was a perfect gentleman. Took very good care of me.” She squelched all thoughts of just how good.
June gave her a sympathetic look. “Good thing he was out on the mountain that night, helping with the rescue efforts. He’s been vigilant like that, these past few years. Ever since–“
“Junie,” the man interrupted, “now, you know the man don’t appreciate idle talk ’bout that.”
“It ain’t idle talk, Fred Cartwright, and don’t you be telling me what I can and can’t say in my own place of business.” June huffed like a bird with ruffled feathers. “It’s just a shame, is all, how that girl’s death changed the man. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
The man, Fred, nodded in agreement. “That’s the truth of it. Damn shame.”
Jo wondered who had died and what it had to do with Mac. It wasn’t her place to ask, but apparently her curiosity was pretty much out of control where Mac was concerned.
She had to ask. “I don’t mean to gossip, but–“
“Hush now, ain’t no such thing. We’re all family up here. It ain’t gossip to talk about the people you love.”
“Oh, hon, it was a tragedy. Pretty girl, full of energy, but flighty with it like some city folk are. Y’know? Took a curve too fast out on the main road and it was snowing and, well, she went over the edge. We had the old guardrails, back then.”
“Took a while before we could get down to her,” Fred said. “Not that it mattered. Coroner said she died on impact.”
June shook her head sadly as Fred paid for his groceries and said goodbye and went on his way. “Poor Mac, he ain’t been the same since.”
“That’s very sad. A terrible way to die. But what does it have to do with Mac?”
June rang up items as she talked. “That’s the saddest thing. That girl, Carly I believe her name was, she and Mac were an item. Word was they were about to get engaged. He was the first one to make it down to her car that night. And just days before Christmas too. Such a shame.”
Jo handed over her debit card and stared at the woman, speechless. “Shame” hardly seemed to cover it.
“But that’s all in the past, hon. Don’t you fret about it none. Why, it’s going on three years now.” She handed Jo the receipt and the bag of groceries. “Will we see you tomorrow at the potluck?”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll be there.”
“That’s good then. Merry Christmas!”
“And the same to you, June.”
Jo put her groceries in the truck and climbed back up into the cab and just sat there in the parking lot, turning over this new piece of information about Mac. He’d been in love, practically engaged, and the woman had died horribly. Sliding off a mountain road during a snowstorm. Not unlike her own situation, except she hadn’t been speeding and had been stopped by the guardrail. A very sturdy, new guardrail.
She started the truck and drove back up to her cabin, slowly, carefully. Thinking about what Mac had said about her not belonging here on the mountain.
* * *
Christmas Day dawned bright for Jo, with sunshine and warmer temperatures and a muzzy head from overindulging in red wine and chocolate the night before. She’d had quite the pity party, but there were some things a girl just had to do when faced with an impossible situation. And why she was still thinking about Mac at all was anyone’s guess.
The truth was, she liked him. More than liked him. And she was beginning to think that what she’d first seen as arrogant controlling behavior was perhaps an overly protective streak born out of tragedy. The knowledge didn’t make his attitude acceptable, but it went a long way toward trying to understand it.
After a morning spent unable to concentrate on anything and wandering listlessly from one window to the next, each of which showcased spectacular views of the mountainside, Jo packed up her brownies and headed down to Maybelle’s diner.
The diner had seemed vaguely familiar when she’d driven by yesterday, but she was taken straight back twenty years in time when she stepped inside. She remembered coming here as a child. Remembered the linoleum counters and red upholstered stools banded in strips of silver metal. The laminated menus and individual jukeboxes at each booth and how her grandpa had let her punch the buttons, selecting songs to play. And the milkshakes, thick and rich and served with almost an entire second helping in the metal tumbler.
She could almost smell the lingering wisps of homemade pie and hash browns and chicken fried steak. But today the air was redolent with the smells of Christmas, of turkey and ham and all the trimmings.
She set her plate of brownies with the other desserts, relieved to see Mac wasn’t there. Not that she had expected him to be. She made small talk with the people she’d already met and they, in turn, introduced her to others until it was all she could do to keep the names and faces straight in her mind. Everyone welcomed her. And hugged her. Everyone offered condolences and had a remembrance to share with her about her grandpa. The unhesitating acceptance was overwhelming, the sense of community unlike anything she’d ever experienced before.
She’d gone back for a second helping of dressing and gravy when the door opened and a man walked in on a gust of cold air. He was tall and well built and outrageously handsome and he looked so much like Mac that she caught her breath for a moment before she realized it wasn’t him.
“Cameron McIntyre!” Maybelle’s voice bellowed out over the din of conversation as she made her way over to greet him. “Well, aren’t you a sight for these old eyes.”
“Maybelle, love, I’ve been pining for ye all the time I’ve been away.” He swooped the woman up in a great twirling hug and gave her a big noisy smack of a kiss on her cheek. “What does a man have to do to get a decent meal around here, lass?”
“Oh, go on with you now,” she said, blushing like a woman half her age. “Come in and let me make you a plate.”
He waded into the crowd like a conquering hero, this man who had to be Mac’s brother, laughing and talking to everyone, slapping men on the back and kissing women on the cheek. He exuded charisma like heat from a bonfire and his Scottish accent was as pronounced as it was charming. He was like Mac dialed up to eleven.
And Jo wasn’t the least bit attracted to him.
He made his way over to where she was standing by the counter and gave her one of the sexiest and most blatantly flirtatious smiles she’d ever seen. This man was potent and he knew it.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, lass. I’d’ve remembered it.” He reached for the hand she extended and held it in his, the gallantry as natural as breathing.
Maybelle set a plate of food in front of him and he thanked her for it, without once looking away from Jo. The intensity was flattering, but she felt no spark of attraction. Neither, she suspected, did he.
“Cam, this is Jo Mitchell,” Maybelle said, “John Blanton’s granddaughter. Jo, this here rascal is Mac’s brother Cameron.”
An expression of genuine sadness crossed his face, and she liked him for it. “Ach, lass, I’m sorry for your loss. John Blanton was a good man.”
“Thank you, Cam. It’s nice to meet you.” She retrieved her hand and forked up a bite of dressing from the plate she held in the other.
Maybelle continued with the introduction. “Jo spent a couple days snowed in up to Mac’s cabin, after the recent storm.”
Cam snorted in disbelief. “Snowed in? My brother was snowed in? Not bloody likely.”
Jo gave him an assessing look and ate another bite of dressing, keeping her expression deadpan. “Oh, but it’s true. We were trapped. Desperate. Had to eat rabbits to survive.”
“Subjected to the full force of my brother’s charm, were ye, lass?”
“It was harrowing.”
Cam threw back his head and let out a full-throated roar of laughter that turned heads. “Jo Mitchell, you’re a pure delight. I think I’m in love.”
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I think you’re weak from hunger, Cam McIntyre. Have some dressing and gravy, it’s delicious.” She ate another bite and smiled up at him. This man was thoroughly charming, but he had nothing on his older brother.
* * *
Part 9 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.