And the story continues. For those of you just joining us — welcome! — this is the third installment of a 25,000-word novella, which I’m posting here as a gift to my readers. And whoever else wanders by.
You might want to start reading at the beginning, but I certainly understand if you prefer to read these posts in random order. Just because I think the words make more sense in a particular order doesn’t mean that’s going to work for everyone else. Hell, I know people who always read the ending first.
Actually, now that I think about it, the ending of this story was one of the first scenes I wrote.
Whatever your preference, I hope you enjoy the story enough to come back for more. Posting all this is going to take a while.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
Jo blew out a slow breath of relief as she settled into the couch and tried not to think about how easily Mac had just scooped her up off her feet and carried her across the room. Like it was no effort at all. She wasn’t a big woman, but she wasn’t exactly tiny either. She touched a hand to her cheek and felt the flush. She told herself it was windburn, but she knew better.
She’d wanted to make a casual remark about how silly it’d been of her to mistake this place for Grandpa John’s cabin, maybe suggest he give her directions or even a ride to the place, but the moment hadn’t seemed right to bring it up. She didn’t want to make a big deal of it or accuse him of lying. And then he’d pulled off her socks and the sight and feel of his strong hands with those long fingers gently touching her bare toes made her lose the train of thought completely.
It didn’t help that he didn’t talk much. Made it sort of difficult to mention something in passing. She was curious now, wondering how long it would take if she waited instead for him to mention it. Besides, she could barely walk with her foot the way it was and putting her boots back on was out of the question. And he’d seemed so pleased with those damned rabbits. She supposed it was only polite to stay and try to eat them, after he’d been so considerate.
She heard him mutter something and pretended not to watch as he strode over and walked out the front door. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, so she figured he was coming right back.
At least he wasn’t smiling anymore. That was something. She didn’t want to think about what she’d do if he picked her up while smiling at her the way he had earlier. Of course, now that was all she could think about. This wasn’t helping to cool the heat in her cheeks. In fact, she could swear it was spreading. She needed a distraction.
She looked around the room and saw her backpack propped against the edge of the hearth. She set her coffee cup on the floor — two sips of that stuff was enough to fuel her for a solid week — leaned over and grabbed the pack. She dug through it, hoping everything had stayed dry as advertised. Yes. Pens, drawing pencils, notebooks, all of it dry as a bone.
Writing was the perfect distraction. That was supposed to be the test of this place, after all. Seeing whether she could write again. There was plenty of time to ask about her grandpa’s cabin. Later.
* * *
Mac had found a few potatoes as well as carrots and parsnips and added them to the stew pot along with the browned meat and seasonings. Jo hadn’t so much as glanced up when he came back in. He’d thought at first she was reading, but then saw she was writing something in a notebook.
Then he realized that, other than coffee, she hadn’t eaten today. It would be hours before the stew was done. Why hadn’t she asked for something to eat? Did she think he planned to starve her? He hoped she wasn’t one of those women who ate a leaf of lettuce and two grapes and called it good for the day. He grabbed a large mug and added some dried oats and spices and waited for water to boil.
When it was ready, he stuck a spoon in it and brought it to her. Intent on her writing, she didn’t appear to see him standing there. He cleared his throat and held the cup in front of her face.
She looked up, startled.
“You need to eat.”
Her gaze went from him to the cup and back again. “Oh. Thanks. Um, what is this?”
She looked suspiciously at the cup, sniffed. “Porridge?”
“Aye, that’s what we called it growing up. Porridge, oatmeal, same thing.”
“It smells like cinnamon.” She sniffed again and took the cup. “And nutmeg.”
“Eat while it’s hot.”
She lifted the spoon and took a bite and made a humming sound of pleasure, her focus already back on her notebook. Apparently she wasn’t avoiding food, just too distracted to feed herself. Sorely lacking in survival skills.
He told himself he was glad she’d found something to hold her attention, glad she’d stopped chattering at him. He didn’t want to talk to her and he sure as hell didn’t want to be her friend. He wanted her gone. Normally, he loved the silence of this place. It was why he came here whenever he was able to get away from the city. But right now the silence felt heavy and loaded. Waiting for something.
He grabbed his work gloves went back outside. Might as well bring in some more firewood while it was still daylight. Clear skies meant they’d need it tonight.
* * *
Jo looked up from her writing and smiled at Mac the first time he came in with an armful of wood. “Thank you for the oatmeal. It was delicious.”
He grunted something in acknowledgment. “Going to be a cold night,” he said as he stacked the split logs. And then walked back out.
Jo was having a tough time deciding whether he didn’t like people in general or if perhaps it was just her in particular. He certainly didn’t seem to enjoy conversation. Maybe they just hadn’t found the right topic.
She shrugged and went back to her story, relieved that the words were flowing freely again. The man might be handsome and sexy but his lack of social skills wasn’t her problem to solve.
The next time she looked up, she realized it was dark outside and Mac had built the fire back up. There was a large pile of logs to one side of the hearth. He’d turned on the battery-powered lantern on the table under the front window and there was an old-fashioned oil lamp glowing steadily on the end table beside her. A table that hadn’t been there earlier. She hadn’t noticed him doing any of that. How long had she been writing? The stew smelled surprisingly good, considering what was in it, and her stomach rumbled. Where was Mac?
She heard boots stomping on the front stoop and then Mac came inside, carrying something that looked like a bundle of long sticks. He leaned it up against the wall while he removed his boots and jacket. Then he brought it over and held it out for her inspection.
“Are those crutches? Where did you find crutches?”
“I made them.”
“Made them?” He nodded and she sat up straight, setting aside her notebook and pen. “How?”
“I have a workshop out back.”
“You mean, like just now, today, you made them?”
“Had no need for them before today.”
She was stunned. “I can’t believe you made crutches for me.”
He scowled but it seemed less fierce than earlier. “Well now, I surely can’t be carrying you around all day.”
That was the truth, her libido would never survive it. She gave a little laugh, delighted, and stood up to give them a try. He grasped her arm to steady her when she wobbled a bit, stiff from sitting too long. She felt warmth spread along her entire arm, even though his hand should have been cold after spending time outside. She looked up into his eyes as she took the crutches from him. He was watching her intently, almost warily.
“Thank you, Mac. What a lovely thing to do.”
He looked down, gesturing vaguely toward her feet. “Go slowly, they can be a wee bit tricky at first.”
“Oh, I’m an old pro with crutches,” she said as she slid them under her arms, noticing they were the perfect height for her. “I twisted my ankle more than a few times playing soccer and volleyball in school.”
“That’s good, then. We’ll eat soon.”
“I’ll just go wash up,” she said as he turned toward the kitchen.
She stood still for a minute and watched him walk away, admiring the wide shoulders and strong back and long legs. Not to mention a very nice rear end in snug-fitting jeans.
What an enigma this man was. A mixture of taciturn roughness and unexpected kindness. She wondered what he’d be like in bed. And decided it was a damn shame she’d likely never find out.
* * *
Mac sat across from her and tried to contain his amusement as she picked at her stew, pushing pieces of meat behind a small pile of parsnips like a guilty child. As if he couldn’t see them there. If she was a vegetarian, why didn’t she just say so?
“Stew not to your liking?”
“Oh, it’s delicious. Very savory.” She stuffed a chunk of carrot in her mouth and nodded in appreciation.
Watching her eat had been easier last night, when she’d been so exhausted she could barely hold her head up, let alone have a conversation. Not that he wanted conversation. But this deliberate silent treatment he’d been giving her made him feel too much like his father. It didn’t sit well with him. He needed to say something, find a topic that was superficial. Not anything personal.
“So, Mac, what do you do for a living?”
So much for keeping it impersonal, he thought. He’d just keep it as general as he could. Besides, this was his place to get away from work. He didn’t even let himself think about work while he was here, he sure wasn’t going to discuss it. “I design things. Then I build them.”
She slanted a glance toward the crutches propped against the wall and then smiled at him. “You’re very good at it.”
Damn it, that’s not what he’d meant. Ah well, no harm in letting her believe what she would. “Some people think so. What about you? What do you do?”
He watched as she did that thing again, like she had when he’d asked about her bruised foot, as if running all the options through her head before answering. Was this a difficult question?
“I’m a writer. I write fiction.”
Okay, this is good, he thought. Keep her talking about herself. “What have you written?”
She smiled and waved a hand in the air, dismissing the question. “Nothing you’ve heard of, I’m sure. Do you like to read?”
“Some. I don’t have much time for it.”
“What do you read when you have time?”
“History. Biographies. Trade publications.”
She nodded as if he’d confirmed something and ate the last bit of potato on her plate. “Do you live here year round? Is this your home?”
“No, it’s not.” How the hell had she turned this around to be about him? “Are you done eating, then?”
“Yes, thank you. But I can–”
“I’ll clean up,” he said and took her plate.
“But you cooked. The least I could do is–”
“You go elevate that foot.”
Mac took his time scraping and washing the plates, even drying them with a towel rather than leaving them in the rack. He found a lid for the pot and put the leftovers in the fridge. He wiped off the counters and the table. He was thinking about sweeping the floor when he decided his behavior was ridiculous. He’d never been one to avoid an uncomfortable situation and he wasn’t about to start now.
He walked back into the main room, ready to deflect whatever questions she threw at him, only to discover that she had disappeared. The bathroom door was open. She wasn’t in the bedroom. Where the hell was she? He noticed the crutches were missing. And so was her jacket. She’d left? It had been dark outside for hours.
And then he saw his boots were missing as well. She’d taken his boots?
He stalked to the front door and grabbed his jacket, ready to go after her in stocking feet if he had to. By the gods, you don’t just take a man’s boots. He wrenched open the door and there she stood, balanced on the top step with her crutches, her long legs swallowed up in his large boots, looking up at the night sky.
She turned her head and smiled as he closed the door and joined her on the stoop, a happy peaceful smile, and his outrage vanished as if it had never been.
“I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed your boots for a minute. I really needed some fresh air and I didn’t think my foot was ready to be squished just yet.”
Somehow, he found himself agreeing that it was fine. “No, of course not.”
She tilted her head back again and closed her eyes. And just stood there like that. Absolutely still.
“What are you doing?”
“If you’re listening for the plow, it won’t likely be here for a day or two.”
She opened her eyes and smiled at him again. “No, I’m just listening to the night. And the forest. Can you hear it?” She sighed. “It’s so peaceful here.”
Her hair was loose around her shoulders, shiny in the light of the waxing moon. He had to stop himself from reaching out to touch it. What the hell? This isn’t some damned fairy tale. “There are bears out there. And coyote and fox and snakes. It’s not peaceful.”
She lifted her face to the sky again and smiled serenely, as if she were indulging him, as if he had no idea what he was taking about. “They’re all asleep for the night. Look at all the stars. So bright I can see them shining through the pines.” She inhaled deeply. “And the smells. I love it here.”
Listening to her words, hearing the awe in her voice, he felt a pull of longing. His gaze never left her face. “Aye. I love it here too.”
She turned so suddenly he stepped back. “Are you Scottish? I swear sometimes I hear it in your voice.”
“No. I’m American.” He paused. “My parents were both born in Scotland.”
“It’s a charming accent.”
Mac knew his accent was barely noticeable unless he was tired or overly emotional. He’d worked hard when he was younger to make it so. To fit in. He resolved to do a better job of masking what was left of it.
She was still smiling at him, her nearness suddenly making him wary. She was a beautiful woman. Far too tempting here in the moonlight. He opened the door, deliberately abrupt, and said, “Come inside. It’s too cold to stand out here gaping at stars.”
* * *
Part 4 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.