Have you finished with the celebrations and obligations of the day, whatever they were? Got your feet up, maybe a glass of your favourite beverage close at hand? Are you relaxed and comfortable and ready to enjoy one last gift? I hope so. Because one of us should be. I’m not at all relaxed — in fact, I’m nervous as hell right now — but at the same time, I’m very comfortable with the idea of sharing this gift with you.
This is for all of you who have been following along over here, patiently waiting for me to write some fiction and put it someplace where you can read it. I’m grateful beyond words for your unrelenting faith in my ability to do that, especially given the dearth of supporting evidence.
Yes, your gift is a story. An entire story with a beginning, middle and end. Yes, really.
Most of you probably remember when I tried to write a sweet snowed-in mountain cabin type romance for you around this time last year and things got… a wee bit out of hand. But this time I had a stern talk with my characters (different characters, obviously) and they agreed to cooperate. There is no conspiracy in this story and no one dies. Well, okay, that’s not strictly true. Let’s just say these characters don’t kill anyone (clearly, different characters). And it is a romance, so there’s sexual tension, but it’s a PG-13 version. Because, you know, it’s on my blog. And my kids, who are way older than 13 but still insist they arrived via virgin stork delivery, sometimes read stuff over here.
This was meant to be a short story, maybe in the range of 5 – 10K words. But a story takes as long as it takes to be told and this one turned into a novella, at more than 25K words. I know my posts tend to run long, but that’s a bit much even for me. I thought about putting this on Amazon instead of here, since they have an option allowing free stuff, but not all of you can (or will) access things there. So, blog posts it is. For now.
This will be the gift that goes on and on and on. There will be many installments, spanning several days. For those (like me) who dislike reading stories in installments, I do plan to publish this in its entirety in all the various online places sometime in January. But this is the only place where you can read it for free, as a gift, from me to you.
Here is the first installment. I hope you enjoy it.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
The third time Jo saw the faint light glowing through the dusk of the forest and the swirling snow that obscured her vision, she swore she wouldn’t blink and lose sight of it. Again. It felt like she’d been walking through snow forever. And before that she’d been driving forever. And before that, working her ass off. Forever.
Fighting her way through an unexpected early snowstorm wasn’t what she’d had in mind when she decided at the last minute to take off and head for the mountains a day earlier than planned. Nor had she expected the out-of-control driver who’d tried to pass her on the winding mountain road, sideswiping her and causing her car to veer off into a deep ditch. And she certainly hadn’t expected that walking the remaining half-mile to her grandpa’s cabin would seem more like thirty.
She had proper hiking gear, but it was in her suitcase. Which was in the trunk of her car. The car with its back end currently wedged under a guardrail. So she did what she always did, she made the best of things. She had a map and it said the turnoff to the cabin was just around the next curve. How hard could it be to find?
It was still light out and there had been just a few flurries coming down when she’d set out. But the wind had soon picked up and the snow had become heavy, making it hard to see. Her jacket didn’t have a hood, so she’d grabbed a shirt out of the pile of dry cleaning in the back seat and draped it over her head, tying the sleeves under her chin. And while it prevented the driving snow from accumulating down the back of her neck, it did nothing to keep the stuff out of her eyes.
She squinted at the light in the distance. Was she getting closer?
She cursed herself again for heading into a situation unprepared. She was never unprepared. Planning was essential to her life, to her sense of security. She was a master of thinking things through, taking into account all possible outcomes. And, too often, of hesitating too long and missing opportunities. Or so her friends claimed.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the impulsive decision had turned into a disaster. She should have waited to drive up tomorrow, should have packed more carefully, should have checked all the forecasts. Surely someone had predicted this storm.
But, damn it, she’d earned some time off and, for once, was eager to take it. Finishing the client’s audit on time before the holiday shutdown had just about killed her and her entire team. None of them had slept more than a few hours each night during the past week. It was a big account. But they’d done it and the boss had given everyone the next two weeks off, with pay, as a bonus.
She normally just worked through the holidays but had decided this year would be different. There was no reason she couldn’t take some time too. Just because she never had, didn’t mean she couldn’t. And then there was the little fact that her mother had asked her to make the trip.
She was so tired, from working and driving and walking, and so cold. Her fingers were stiff in her driving gloves and her ears were beyond aching. Her feet felt clumsy with cold in her thin leather boots and even her thighs felt the sting where the wind worked its way through the thin weave of her lightweight wool slacks.
She plodded on between the tall pines, blinking snow from her eyes, brushing away the low branches of shrubs in her path, sheer determination forcing her closer to the light. She could just make out the square frame of a window and she promised herself she’d never be so stupidly unprepared ever again. If she could just make it to that light and the warmth it promised. To the kind and caring people who would surely offer shelter from the storm and maybe even give her something warm to drink.
Great, now she was hallucinating, imagining a loving family who would be happy to welcome a bedraggled stranger staggering out of the forest, but she didn’t care. The thought kept her going. Logically, she knew her grandpa had been the only one with a cabin in the area. There were no welcoming strangers nearby. Well, there was a caretaker who looked in on things from time to time, ever since grandpa died last winter. But her grandpa had owned all this land. No one else lived out here. Which made her even more stupid for setting out alone, in a snowstorm, to find the place.
She held onto the image anyway as she took another step, and then another and another, eyes focused on the light, until her frozen toes jammed into something hard. Cement steps, she noted dully, as she fell. She managed to catch herself on stiffened arms before her face made contact and realized she felt no pain in her feet. Not a good sign.
She stood up and climbed the two shallow steps and brought one fist down on the rough plank of the door. It made a soft muffled thud so she raised both hands, pounding now, desperate to get past that door to sanctuary. But no one responded. The door remained firmly closed.
Maybe whoever was there just hadn’t heard her. She reached for the doorknob and fumbled twice before her fingers curled around it firmly enough to turn the knob. It wasn’t locked. She opened the door and called out, “Hello? Is anyone here?” Realizing her voice was a weak croak of sound, she tried again, louder, “Hello?”
Silence. The cabin was empty and full of shadows. No sign of life other than the dim glow of a lantern set on a table in front of the bare window. No fire in the hearth, no dinner bubbling on the stove. Nothing. No one.
She stepped inside and closed the door at her back, shutting out the howl of the wind. It was almost as cold inside the cabin as it had been outside. She didn’t care. She’d made it. She’d found her grandpa’s cabin. She took a step and tripped on the curved edge of a braided rug she hadn’t seen in the dim light. As she hit the floor in a half-frozen heap of exhaustion, it occurred to her it should have hurt more than it did. Or at all.
* * *
Mac was in a foul mood as he pulled his Jeep up to the door of his cabin. Cold and frustrated and almost regretting he’d let anyone know he had arrived on the mountain earlier than planned. He could have said no, but he’d never turned down a request for help. And he never would.
He’d left a battery powered lantern burning when he stopped by earlier to gather his gear, knowing when he got the call to help with rescue efforts that he’d be out until after dark.
This early season storm had caught even the old timers by surprise, and it had done a number on the tourists who’d driven up for the holidays. Some drunken fool had run three cars off the road before he’d ended up in the ditch himself. Luckily, no one had been hurt too badly. And no one had gone off the side of the mountain. He kept reminding himself of that. No one had plunged to their death tonight.
They were still looking for the driver of one of the cars, the only one who hadn’t been sensible enough to stay with the vehicle and wait for help. They figured it was a woman, judging by the size of the prints, and Mac had followed the tracks in this direction before they crossed over themselves too many times for him to make sense of the trail in the dusk.
He’d decided to check his cabin on the off chance she’d made it that far. But he wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him when he pushed open the door.
He wasn’t even sure at first there was a person under the pile of wet clothes on the floor. Until he saw that it was shaking with cold. He swore under his breath as he stalked over to set a match to the kindling in the cold hearth. He hadn’t planned on spending the night, but wood was always laid and ready.
While he waited for it to catch, he unclipped the radio from his belt and clicked twice, “Thom, you there?”
The deputy replied immediately. “Here, Mac.”
“Found her. My cabin.”
“Thank God. Car registration says Joanna Mitchell, from Atlanta.”
Mac frowned. She was a long way from home. “That car drivable?”
“Not without repairs. I’ll check with you tomorrow once we pull it out. Got to call in the team. Good job, Mac.”
“Don’t mention it. Out.”
He turned to look at the woman curled up on his floor. She hadn’t moved since he’d walked into the cabin, other than to shiver even harder, and his scowl became downright fierce. Bloody hell. This was a complication he didn’t need.
“Ma’am?” He cleared his throat. “Ms. Mitchell. Can you hear me?”
No response. Mac crouched down beside her, noting her wet clothes and . . . he peered closer. Was that a shirt tied over her head? Goddammed foolish tourists, coming up the mountain in December dressed like that. What had she been thinking? He noted the small backpack she was wearing. Good quality, waterproof. Probably saved her from dying of hypothermia, keeping a good portion her back mostly dry.
Well, there was no other option, he had to get her dried off and warmed up. Not like he could send her on her way in this condition. Much as he might want to. If she couldn’t cooperate, he’d have to do it for her. She sure as hell couldn’t stay here.
He dragged the rug closer to the fire and unzipped her boots, tugging them off and setting them on the hearth. Expensive leather, most likely ruined. Completely worthless in the snow. Her thin leather gloves were soaked through and he slowly peeled them off fingers that were stiff with cold. No sign of frostbite. She was lucky. The minute he let go, her arms folded back in close to her body in an instinctive search for warmth. She moaned and curled herself into a tighter ball, still not acknowledging his presence.
Damn it, she was worse off than he’d thought. It wasn’t even that cold out there tonight, but she’d been wandering around long enough to get thoroughly chilled. Didn’t look like he’d be sending her anywhere but into the folds of a warm blanket. Not tonight, anyway. He had to get her dried off and warmed up, fast.
He rose and went to gather blankets and a couple towels from the other room. When he came back she still hadn’t moved, so he set about pulling off the remainder of her clothing. He rubbed at her wet hair with a towel before wrapping a dry one around her head in a makeshift turban. He cursed as the zipper on her jacket stuck, stubbornly packed with snow. She must have fallen, more than once. At least she’d had enough sense to wear layers, he thought, pulling off the thin sweater she wore over a long-sleeved t-shirt. Although something more suited to the weather would have been a better choice.
Leaving the t-shirt for now, he unfastened her slacks and struggled to pull the wet fabric past her hips and down her legs. Her very long, very nicely toned legs. Legs that were mottled with patches of red and white skin. The woman was half-frozen to death and he was admiring her legs? He scowled again and swore.
And that’s when she regained consciousness.
“What the hell are you doing?” Her voice was a raspy shriek of outrage. “G-get away from me. Get your hands off m-me!”
She kicked hard and pushed back away from him, half undressed and shaking with cold and fear. Mac raised his hands and backed off. “Easy now, lass. Just trying to get you warm and dry.”
She looked around the dim interior of the cabin, eyes wide and frantic. He waited, silent, giving her time and space to remember where she was and how she’d come to be there. She seemed to regain awareness pretty quickly. Apparently she’d been more exhausted than unconscious.
He nodded toward the pile of blankets as he stood up and backed another couple steps away from her. “Get out of your wet things and bundle up by the fire. I’ll bring you a mug of something hot.”
He turned and moved into the kitchen area, grabbing a can of soup from the pantry and opening it. Good thing there was still a half tank of propane to run the stove. He filled the kettle with water and set it to boil. Tea and soup weren’t much, but they’d have to do for tonight. Tomorrow she’d be out of there. And so would he.
He went still as he heard her voice. “I-I’m sorry I s-screamed at you. You m-must be Mac.”
Mac set the pan down on the stove, gently, carefully. She knew who he was? He turned slowly to face her, his mouth set in a hard line, eyes narrowed in a kind of warning, as if hoping to ward off whatever she might say next.
She’d moved closer to him, away from the warmth of the fire. “I’m j-j-just so relieved I was able to find John’s c-c-cabin in the dark. And the storm.” She shivered again and pulled the blankets closer around her.
She thinks this is John’s cabin?
She was still talking, her teeth chattering. A mix of cold and adrenaline, he figured. “My c-car ran off the road and I– well, I don’t think I’ve ever b-been so c-c-cold. Thank you for s-starting a fire.” She paused. “You are M-Mac, right? Mother told me John had a c-caretaker named Mac.”
“Aye,” he said as he nodded curtly in acknowledgment, even as he felt his mood go from bad to worse. “Move closer to the fire before ye freeze.” She’d been trying to find this place? He watched her shuffle toward the fire, her fingers clenched on the trailing blanket. Who the hell was this woman? “And your mother is?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. We should have met at the funeral but Mother was– she had to get back home.” Her chattering teeth seemed to have been replaced by just plain chattering. Nerves, he thought. “I’m Joanna Mitchell, but I go by Jo. Susan Mitchell’s daughter. Well, Susan Levine, now. John Blanton was my grandpa.” She glanced around the sparsely furnished cabin, her expression uncertain. “And I guess this place is mine now.”
The hell it was. He scowled at her. “This cabin isn’t–”
She cut him off. “Oh, I know. It’s not official yet. I’m just here to check things out. Get a feel for the place, see whether it suits me before I decide.”
“I was told someone would be coming. In August.” When no one contacted him with a specific date to meet, he figured they’d lost interest and decided to sell the place. And he intended to buy it. That had always been the intention. His and John’s. Ever since John had let him build this cabin on a piece of his land.
“Yes, that was the plan. But Mother has been busy and she didn’t seem to think it was urgent, but now the attorneys want to settle probate and it’s time to make a decision about whether to sell and she asked if I could come instead because it was really up to me anyway and, well . . .” she trailed off, finally running out of steam. “Here I am. I’ll be here for the week. ”
No. Hell no. Mac hadn’t thought the night could get worse, but it just had. “A week. You’re staying here. For a week.”
She looked around the cabin again, peering into the shadows. “Well, yes. Maybe through New Year’s. That’s the plan.”
Mac swore softly under his breath and turned back to the stove. He dumped the can of soup into the pan and turned on the burner. So, she thought this cabin was John’s place. And she planned to stay for a week. Or longer.
He was a bastard for thinking what he was thinking, and he knew it. He wouldn’t lie to her, not outright. If she asked, he’d tell her the truth. But he wanted her gone.
It was for her own good. A city girl like her didn’t belong up here in the wilderness. It didn’t matter how nice or how rough the accommodations were, she was completely unprepared for life on the mountain. Her actions tonight had proven that. He knew for a fact she’d never last a week in this place in the winter. It wasn’t even fully wired for electricity. Hell, it was barely weatherproofed and the fireplace was the sole source of heat. Damn it, this was his summer place. Even he wouldn’t stay here in the winter. Not unless it was an emergency.
It seemed to him like this was an emergency. He turned and gave her a grim smile. “Sounds like a plan, all right.”
* * *
Part 2 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.