I want to take a minute to publicly thank McB, who read an early draft of this story and offered valuable feedback. I’ve always disliked the term “beta reader.” That sounds to me like someone who would agree with everything you say and tell you how pretty you are, while secretly confiding to your friends how deeply concerned they are about your uncombed hair and inability to construct a decent paragraph. So I consider myself extremely fortunate to have friends who are kick-ass delta readers— avid voracious consumers of books who are intelligent and perceptive and courageous enough to tell you when you screw things up or have spinach stuck in your teeth. Thanks, McB. You did it on short notice and at a time when you had many other things to do and I appreciate it.
Once again, with apologies for the repetition, if you’ve just discovered this blog and are wondering why I’ve put some random piece of a story up as a blog post, I’m in the process of posting installments of a 25,000-word novella over here as a gift to my readers. Delta readers, every one of them. If you’re interested and want to read from the beginning, you can find the first post here.
Moving right along, slowly but surely, here is the seventh installment of the story. Hope you enjoy it. Feel free to complain to McB if you don’t. She can handle it. (And no, Trace, she will not send you the rest of the story. Not even if you beg. Because I know where the bodies are buried. Of course, so does she.) (Dear NSA, totally kidding about the bodies. Really. Inside joke. No bodies here, move along.)
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
Jo got up off the floor and wiped away the tears and gave herself a stern talking to. She’d had a plan when she decided to come up here and she needed to stick to it. Mac had been a diversion, a very pleasant one certainly, but he was just that. A diversion. Ample evidence that impulsive decisions were a bad idea.
Yes, she’d slept with him. Yes, it was mind-blowingly good. So what. People had casual sex and one night stands all the time. Just because she never had didn’t mean she couldn’t start now. Time to move on. She ignored the pain in the vicinity of her heart and looked around her grandpa’s cabin.
Oh yes. This was the cabin she remembered. The rough timbers and the vaulted ceiling and the natural stone of the massive fireplace covering the far wall. Even the oversized leather couches and chairs that had made her feel small and insignificant as a child. Not that she’d spent much time inside that summer.
She hit the light switches by the door and the entire place was bathed in a warm glow of familiarity. It all came flooding back. Except the thing she remembered most vividly was not the look of the place but the sound of her grandpa’s rough voice calling to her, telling her to be back in time for supper, to stop daydreaming and wash up, to leave the jar of dirt and leaves and bugs outside, to put down the book and go to bed, to get up and rise and shine and drink her milk and brush her teeth.
And where as a child she’d heard stern disapproval, the woman she was now heard the gruff affection and enduring love of a man unsure of how to deal with a child’s pain and loneliness.
Memories of that summer swamped her and the years seemed to fall away, leaving her painfully aware of how stifling and serious and restrained her life had become. Left her yearning for a simpler time. A time so clearly remembered now, being here in this place, she wondered how the memory could ever have dimmed.
Her reminiscing was interrupted by the sound of a truck coming up the drive. Only it sounded like more than one truck.
She went to the door and opened it and saw a pair of pickup trucks had come to a stop in front of the cabin. A middle-aged woman hopped down from the one closest to the front door and walked toward her.
“Hey, there. You must be Joanna. I’m Lucy. Lucy Graham? Your grandpa was a friend.”
“Hello. Yes, of course. Lucy Graham. I saw your name mentioned in the— um, yes, hello. Nice to meet you.”
The woman let loose a gale of easy laughter and walked right over to Jo and wrapped her arms around her in a big strong hug of warmth and welcome. “Hon, I can see from the look on your face just exactly where you’ve heard my name. I swear, that man and his twisted sense of humor.”
Jo braced herself for an explanation that was perhaps too personal, remembering the substantial bequest her grandpa had made to this woman. Among others.
“Your grandpa was a friend, to both me and my husband, Del.” She motioned to the driver of the other pickup truck. “He came to stay with us toward the end, when he couldn’t shake the pneumonia and it got tough to be on his own. It always tickled him no end to pretend there was something flirtatious between us. And me and Del, well, we allowed it. John Blanton was a good man, may God rest his soul. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Flirtatious? Jo stifled a cringe at the thought. She couldn’t imagine her grandpa ever being flirtatious. But she realized that whatever else this woman was, she was a friend. “I’m sorry for your loss as well. I’m not– he was– ” She cleared her throat and started over. “We’d drifted apart and sort of lost touch. We talked on the phone a few times a year, but I hadn’t seen him—” Why was this so hard? She hadn’t once gotten emotional talking about her grandpa in the months since he died. Why now? “It always seemed like there would be time—” She stopped, too choked with regret to continue. Too late.
“Oh, hon. That’s just the way of things. My own kids are the same, always busy. But your grandpa, he loved you like nothing else.”
“He came to my college graduation. It was such a wonderful surprise, but then he refused to stay, said he had to get back.”
“I remember that. He talked about you all the time. We all are just so thrilled to see you back here, all grown up and successful and happy. It’s all he ever wanted for you.”
Jo swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you, Lucy. It means the world to me to hear that. Being here like this . . . well, I miss him.”
Lucy patted her arm in a show of compassion. “Del and me, we been keeping John’s truck at our place since he passed. But now you’re here and we figured you might need a way to get around, seeing as how your car got all tore up the other night. We stopped off at Mac’s place first. He said you were up here.”
“Oh my. That’s grandpa’s truck?” She ignored the mention of Mac and looked at the truck in front of her with its extended cab and oversized tires and gleaming chrome dual exhaust pipes and hoped Lucy was joking.
“Quite a piece of work, ain’t she?”
“You won’t have no trouble getting around in the snow with this beauty, that’s for damned sure. John had toolboxes mounted toward the rear on either side of the bed. His tools are still in ’em. Plenty of weight for traction.” Lucy handed her a set of keys.
Jo stared at the keys as if they were a live snake. “I’m not really used to driving something that big. Maybe I should rent a car instead.”
“Hon, ain’t nothing to it. If you can drive a car, this truck is a piece of cake. Is your mom coming up tomorrow for Christmas?”
“My mom? Here?” The sudden change of topic caught her off guard and the mere suggestion of her mother coming to visit made her stomach clench with apprehension. Her mother hated it up here “in the sticks” as she called it. “No. Mother and I don’t really celebrate Christmas anymore. She’s busy in the city with Stan and I always have work and–”
“So you don’t have plans? That’s perfect.” There was an unholy glee on Lucy’s face that Jo had previously attributed only to co-workers assigned the chore of recruiting volunteers for their kids’ school activities.
“Perfect for what?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“A bunch of us have Christmas dinner every year at Maybelle’s diner. All the singles and loners and people whose kids done flown the coop. You should come.”
Christmas dinner with a group of strangers. That sounded innocent enough. Better than spending the evening here alone. She needed to get to know people if she was going to spend time up here. More than that, she realized she wanted to meet them, these people who had known her grandpa.
“I’d love to come. What time should I be there?”
“We start snacking around three o’clock or so. It’s pot luck, for the most part, so bring whatever strikes your fancy.”
“Pot luck? But I don’t have anything here to–”
Del chose that moment to tap on the horn and lean out the truck window. “Woman, I ain’t got all day to wait on your yammering.” He paused a moment and said, “Hey there, Miss Mitchell. Condolences on your loss.” He grabbed the bill of his cap and adjusted its fit on his head. “Lucy, you figure on wrapping this up any time soon? ‘Cause I can come back in a day or two.”
Lucy laughed and waved her hand in good-natured dismissal. “Men. Can’t live with ’em and can’t bury ’em until someone kills them for you. Joanna, we’ll sure be pleased to see you tomorrow for dinner.”
“It’s Jo. I go by Jo. And I’ll be there. Thank you, Lucy.”
“Jo, then. See you tomorrow.”
Lucy turned and made her way over to the truck where her husband waited impatiently, his mock scowl not hiding the affection he clearly felt for his wife.
Jo hadn’t thought about the possibility of meeting people up here, hadn’t thought much at all about the people who had known her grandpa. It hadn’t been part of her plan. And here was Lucy, a woman who had cared for Jo’s grandpa, who had known him well enough to joke with him and be flirtatious with him and was significant enough to him that he’d left her a sizeable sum in his Will. Lucy, who had hugged her and welcomed her without hesitation and invited her to eat dinner with strangers in a place where it seemed there were no strangers.
Jo felt her carefully laid plans make yet another subtle shift and realized she no longer really cared whether she got it all back under control.
* * *
She spent the next couple hours settling in and reacquainting herself with her grandpa’s cabin. Many things were the same, but much had changed. A fourth bedroom had been added on the main floor, a master suite with full bath attached, complete with ADA fixtures that would have made access easier for a man his age. Grandpa hadn’t been disabled, but he’d accumulated the usual limitations and aches and pains of a man who’d lived 92 years.
There was a sturdy handrail beside the shallow steps leading down into the living area and a subtly disguised ramp had been constructed outside, bypassing the steep stairs that led down to the deck.
She’d pulled the truck into the garage earlier, not wanting to clear snow or ice off it if another storm came through, and noticed that the walkway between the garage and house had been covered. And the area in between where cords of firewood were stored and that used to be open-sided now had a solid wall across the back that would block the wind coming down off the mountain.
There were several similar changes, little touches that had surely made his life more comfortable, and she was glad her grandpa had been practical enough to have them made. Conditions could be harsh up here on the mountain and she’d often worried about him living alone at his age.
Of course, he’d scoffed at her concern every time they talked. If he’d had any weaknesses, he sure hadn’t shared them. They hadn’t even known he was sick until it was too late to see him again.
She made her way into the kitchen, wondering whether there was anything in the cupboards she could pull together for lunch. As intimidated as she was by the thought of driving the oversized truck, she needed to go into town and get food.
She opened the fridge out of habit more than anything else. It had been almost ten months since her grandpa had died. If anything were left in the fridge, it was no doubt approaching sentience by now, just waiting to be released.
She was shocked to see the fridge was completely stocked with fresh food. Who would have done this? She hadn’t told anyone she was coming. She’d planned to arrive early enough that contacting someone to get a key once she got there wouldn’t have been a problem. And if it were a problem, she’d have just rented a room at the motel in town until arrangements could be made. But this. This was not done in anticipation of her visit.
And then she realized the obvious. Mac had done this. He’d stayed here with her grandpa on occasion and, as far as she knew, was free to come and go as he pleased. There was no reason to think that had changed after her grandpa died. She went over to the pantry and opened the door. Fully stocked as well. And with many of the same items she’d found stocked in Mac’s cabin, right down to the MREs. Clearly, he was a genius when it came to long-term emergency food planning.
And just as clearly, spending a couple days “trapped” at Mac’s rustic cabin had been unnecessary, given that this place was an easy hike away, even with the snow. Never mind her injured foot and lack of easy mobility, this place with all its amenities would have been the sensible place to take shelter. Provided he’d been at all interested in comfort.
No longer hungry, she climbed the stairs to the second floor, alert now to other signs of Mac’s presence. She found what she was looking for in the smallest of the three bedrooms, the one at the front of the cabin that had the best view. The same one she’d occupied as a child. There was a large worn duffel bag sitting on the neatly made bed, still fully packed. She unzipped it and everything in it smelled like him. She grabbed a fistful of the shirt on top and buried her face in it and her senses were assaulted with memories of Mac and his touch and his taste and his gentle care.
She felt a sharp pang of longing and the hot sting of tears and shoved the shirt back into the bag, zipping it closed. Well, that explained why he hadn’t had a change of clothes earlier. She wondered why he’d left the bag here when doing so meant he’d been as inconvenienced by staying at his cabin as she had been. It indicated a lack of planning on his part and made her wonder whether keeping her there had been a spur of the moment decision.
She decided it didn’t matter, the result was the same either way. She heaved the duffel off the bed and dragged it behind her as she went back downstairs. She set it next to the front door, resolving to drop it off at his cabin on her way into town.
She went back into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. She hadn’t had anything to eat since the slice of cinnamon bread she’d eaten that morning while standing at the window in Mac’s cabin, admiring the view. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
She should have been ravenous. Instead, she knew she was going to have to force herself to eat.
She’d put a couple slices of cheese and salami between two pieces of bread and was about to bite into it when she heard the sound of a truck in the drive. Somehow, she knew this time that it was Mac. He knocked on the door as she walked toward it and she prepared herself to give him a piece of her mind if he was there to continue their argument. She didn’t care what he said, she was not leaving.
She opened the door and he was standing there with her backpack and suitcase in his hand. In her anger, she’d forgotten about them.
“Thought you’d want these.” He set them down just inside the door without stepping across the threshold.
“Thank you.” She was still angry and not ready to forgive him. She had no tolerance for people who thought she needed to be told what do to. But her anger hadn’t diminished her attraction to him. He was as handsome and rough and distant as ever, yet somehow lacking his usual confidence. As if he were unsure of himself. It made him even more appealing.
She leaned over and picked up his duffel and held it out. “Yours?”
He nodded and took it from her. Then handed her a business card. “My numbers are on here. Call me when you’re ready to head back to the city. I’ll arrange something.”
She glanced at it, saw the name of a prominent architecture firm and then looked back up at him in surprise. This was his backer? Why would they be interested in a piece of land way up here in the mountains? “You work for Duncan McIntyre? In Atlanta?”
He stood there, silent, the moment stretching between them. The look he gave her was inscrutable. “I am Duncan McIntyre.”
And then he left. Just got in his Jeep and drove back down the mountain and left her there, stunned, as her mind reeled with the new knowledge of who he was. And what that meant.
Mac was Duncan McIntyre.
He was an architect. A famous and wildly successful commercial architect, the principal of a firm that bore his name. She remembered the article she’d read in a glossy magazine while waiting at the dentist a couple months ago. It had profiled his company and his success as one of the hottest up-and-coming architects, raving about his talent for seamlessly fitting his designs into the natural surroundings of a place. Of making use of nature rather than razing it to make room for a building.
The article had painted him as something of a recluse, unwilling to talk about himself or his personal life, refusing to have his photo appear with the article. He was quoted as saying that any so-called legacy he left behind should be about the creations, not the man. He was reportedly worth millions, the worth of his company approaching the billion mark. He’d won dozens of awards and was in high demand, turning down lucrative deals when they didn’t meet his standards.
And she’d complimented him on his skill at making crutches.
She cringed as she remembered dismissing his design for a house as being completely lacking in warmth, a design without a heart. How amused he must have been by her gauche opinions. Oh God, and then she’d insulted his earning power and financial ability to buy her property, assuming he must be working for someone else. She wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear.
Instead, she looked around at her grandpa’s cabin with fresh eyes. She thought about all the improvements she’d noticed and saw them with new insight.
Mac was the one who had added all the little touches, and some pretty big ones, that had made her grandpa’s last years more comfortable. She was sure of it. As sure as she’d ever been about anything.
And suddenly it all made sense. Of course he wanted to buy the cabin, he’d practically re-built the entire thing. He’d made this place what it was today. His consideration and hard work were in every touch, every detail. Mac wasn’t a mere caretaker. He’d done so much more than take care of the place where her grandpa lived, he’d cared about the man and his quality of life.
He was one hell of an architect. More than that, he was one hell of a man. And she was beginning to realize the extent to which she’d misjudged him, on both counts.
* * *
Part 8 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.