So, here we are at the fourth installment of this novella. This deluge of blog posts is starting to seem a wee bit tedious to me. Then again, I’ve already read the entire thing. Several times. Are the rest of you all enjoying it? I really hope you are.
As I’ve mentioned previously, if you’ve come upon this post suddenly or in some random fashion, this segmented posting of a 25,000-word novella might make more sense if you transport yourself back in time and start reading from the beginning, which is here. No hurry, take your time.
For the rest of you, those of you who know what has already transpired, this is what happens next.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
Jo woke slowly the next morning, having slept fitfully after hours spent tossing and turning and wondering what she’d said last night that had made Mac retreat again behind his impenetrable wall of silence. Once they came back inside, he’d asked whether she needed anything else, she’d said no, and he’d said good night and shut himself in the bedroom before she could even give him one of the blankets.
Fine, she’d thought, let his solitude keep him warm. But secretly, in a dark place she didn’t particularly want to acknowledge, she’d ached with the desire to open that door and bring him a blanket and share its warmth with him. Now, in the clear light of morning, she puzzled over the idea.
She didn’t understand this attraction she felt for him. She’d had her share of boyfriends over the years, but none of them had made her feel anything quite this compelling. It wasn’t like her to be so instantly and powerfully drawn to a man. She knew from experience it was possible to be instantly and emphatically turned off by a man, to know on first sight that a man was completely wrong for her, but this opposite reaction was something new.
She had just snuggled down deeper into the couch, fantasizing about all the ways they could have shared body heat during the long cold night, when she heard the distinctive sound of a man clearing his throat. She opened her eyes and there he was, standing in front of the couch with the low burning fire at his back, looking all rugged and tousled and unshaven, eyes intently focused on her, one strong hand holding out a steaming mug of coffee.
Good lord. If she could capture that image and sell it, she’d make a fortune.
“You take it black?”
He made the question sound like a challenge and she stopped herself from cringing as she remembered yesterday’s sludge. “Yes, thank you,” she said, sitting up to accept the mug. She braced herself and took a small sip. And then closed her eyes as the perfection of it filled her mouth. She moaned. “Oh, God, this is good.” She took another sip and looked up at him in gratitude and nearly choked. The look in his eyes was more potent than the coffee and just as hot.
There were so many things she wanted to say in that moment, so many places her fingers ached to reach out and touch, but she opted for safety. “This is perfect. Just what I needed.” It wasn’t even close to being what she needed.
He held her gaze for one more long moment and then said, “Breakfast in ten minutes.”
She slumped a bit in relief at the reprieve from the unaccustomed sexual tension, while at the same time she wanted to call him back, to reestablish that connection. Or at the very least, to thank him for making the coffee less strong than what he apparently preferred. But the moment was gone. Too late.
He’d made oatmeal again, this time with pieces of dried fruit in it, and it was delicious and filling. And consumed in near silence. Afterward, given that her foot was much improved, she insisted on cleaning up and he didn’t argue.
She took her time putting away the clean dishes, poking around in cabinets and drawers she hadn’t had the chance to explore the day before. She was amazed at how well stocked it was, considering the small space. The pantry shelves were deep, full of canned goods and tightly sealed dry staples and even a few packages of what looked suspiciously like military issue MREs. She estimated the place had enough supplies for a small family to survive a major disaster. The compulsive planner in her was delighted. The rest of her wondered about this long-term planning in a place that was clearly not intended for long-term use.
She thought again about whether to bring up the topic of her grandpa’s cabin. But it had become something of a challenge, in her mind. Her curiosity was provoked by his silence on the subject and she was determined now to wait him out. Besides, she was enjoying his company here in this cozy little cabin. There was plenty of time.
She wandered out into the main room, sipping another cup of coffee, and saw Mac had settled into the armchair next to the couch, holding a large sketchpad on his lap. He was scowling at it.
Intrigued, she moved closer just as he flipped to a new page and started sketching. His pencil fairly flew over the page. He was an artist? She moved until she stood just behind his chair.
“Oh! It’s a house.” He turned sharply as if startled by her proximity. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to creep up on you. I just wondered what you were drawing.”
“Aye. It’s a house design.” He went back to sketching rough lines. And frowning.
“You build houses?” She tried to keep the surprise out of her voice and wasn’t sure she succeeded.
“No.” More frowning as he roughed out more of the outline. “This is personal. I don’t ever work when I’m here.”
What an odd thing to say. She watched as he turned to a fresh page and began again, his lines bold and sure and flowing fast across the page. So different from her little doodles.
“You don’t seem pleased. It’s not going well?”
“Well enough. Part of the process. It doesn’t have the right feel yet.”
“Can I see?”
He shrugged and handed the sketchpad to her.
She sat on the couch, set her coffee cup on the floor, and started flipping back through the pages of drawings. Most were of the house as seen from the outside, but some were highly detailed floor plans. “Are these windows?” She pointed to a line in one of the latter.
He leaned over to look at the place she indicated and she caught the clean scent of his soap and something else indefinably masculine. “Aye. Floor to ceiling, here.” He touched the page with one long finger. “And here.”
“Ah,” she said, trying to ignore the presence of the man, and kept turning pages. “It’s a big house. A lot of space.”
“I like wide open spaces.”
“So what’s not right about the design?”
“If I knew that, I’d fix it. Just doesn’t feel right.”
“Who will be living here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, is it a young childless couple? A family? Extended family with grandparents? Who do you see living here?”
He scowled at her. “I don’t see anyone living there. It’s a design.”
She handed the sketchpad back to him and smiled politely. “It’s a nice design.”
“Nice?” He looked as if she’d just given him the gravest of insults. “Don’t be mincing words with me, lass. I can see you have an opinion. Tell me.”
This was a different side of him, she thought. This was a man used to being in charge, a man who demanded honesty and didn’t suffer fools gladly. So she told him the truth. “It doesn’t have a heart.”
He laughed, a short harsh sound, then scowled again. “A heart? It’s a house, not a living thing. Explain.”
“Mac, if you want it to be a home, you need to imagine people in it. Where will they eat breakfast? Where will the kids do homework? Which of those spaces is the cozy room where the parents will read to the kids and then snuggle each other on the couch once they’re alone at the end of the day? All those huge windows are very impressive during the day when there’s a view, but they’re cold and lifeless at night. More like an office building. This design has no heart.”
He sat there, silent, as if shocked by what she’d said.
“Well, you asked.”
“Aye. So I did.”
They heard a noise outside that sounded like a truck. “That’ll be Charlie,” he said and shrugged on his jacket and went outside.
She stood to look out the window and saw a big truck with a wide plow attached to the front approaching the cabin, engine revving and pushing snow to one side of the long gravel drive as it came. It slowed to a stop just short of the cabin and a large man with a graying beard climbed down out of the cab. The two men greeted each other like friends, talked for a couple minutes, and then walked back over to the truck. The man reached up behind the seat and hauled out . . . her suitcase? Was that her suitcase?
Jo grabbed one crutch and limped to the door and pulled it open, rushing as best she could down the steps toward the truck. “You rescued my suitcase? Oh, bless you. Thank you so much. I can’t even tell you what a relief it is to–” She stopped abruptly as she realized both men were staring at her as if she’d grown two heads.
She looked down at herself. Oh hell, she was in stocking feet and barely dressed, her hair an uncombed tangle. She must look like a lunatic.
“You’re quite welcome, miss,” the driver said, his expression sympathetic. “Cain’t rightly imagine what a hardship it’s been, you being stranded out here with this young pup.” He gave Mac a stern look of what appeared to be disapproval. “You need anything, anything at all, you hear, you just come on into town and let me an’ Maybelle know. We’ll fix you right up.”
He nodded at her, decisively, as if something had been settled, and readjusted the worn ball cap on his head. Then he slapped Mac on the back, spat something off to the side, climbed up into his truck and made a wide turn back out the way he’d come, plowing snow in his wake.
At any other time, with any other man, she might have taken the driver’s words as sarcasm. But he’d seemed genuinely sorry for her plight. And sincere in his offer of assistance. This was so outside her realm of experience, she just stood there in the snow, her socks absorbing the chill of melting snow, her breath forming clouds around her head, until Mac came over and gently nudged her into walking back to the cabin.
Nothing about this place made sense. Not the unexpected weather, certainly. Not the cabin that wasn’t the one she’d come here to see, not the man who was keeping secrets and making her life difficult while at the same time taking such good care of her, not the kindness of total strangers. Not even the food in the damned pantry.
Nothing was going as she had planned. Nothing. And she wasn’t sure what to do about it. Even worse, she wasn’t sure that was a bad thing.
* * *
Mac had never seen anyone so happy about the return of belongings as Jo had been when she’d seen old Charlie drive up with her missing suitcase. Like it was the Holy Grail of personal belongings. Had he been that hard on her? It wasn’t like he’d starved her or deprived her of warmth or shelter. Sure, the cabin was uninsulated and drafty, but he’d made sure the food was hot and the fire was kept stoked.
Damn it, she needed to experience how harsh conditions could be living up here on the mountain. If anything, he’d been too accommodating, too eager to meet her needs. Well, not all her needs. His groin throbbed at the thought of which of her needs, exactly, were going unfulfilled. Not to mention his. The way she’d looked at him this morning over a goddamned cup of coffee had kept him heated for hours.
She’d gone into the bathroom to change into her own clothes. He winced in sympathy as he heard the shower come on, not surprised when it was turned off less than a minute later. He hoped she’d do something civilized to her hair. It tested a man’s resolve to see a woman who looked all sexily tousled like she’d had a wild night and he hadn’t been the one to give it to her.
She came into the kitchen as he was heating up leftover stew for lunch. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but he hadn’t been prepared to see her looking so practical. It didn’t make sense, given the way she’d been dressed that first night. She was wearing jeans and a turtleneck with a heavy sweatshirt over it and carrying a pair of sturdy hiking boots. He felt an unreasonable pang of disappointment when he saw her hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail.
“I feel so much better,” she said. “What a difference it makes having your own clothes to wear. Not that I didn’t appreciate the loan of yours. That was generous of you.”
Hell, it’s not like he could’ve let her walk around naked. Good thing he kept a change of clothes in his Jeep. “Charlie says another storm is moving in late tonight.”
“More snow? Isn’t it early for snow, even up here?”
“Aye, not snow this time. They say there’s a chance of significant icing.”
She looked worried. She should. Even he was concerned about the prospect of a major ice storm. Concerned enough to alter his plan a wee bit.
“Then I guess it really would be a good idea to charge my phone, now that I have the cord for it. But I can’t seem to find an outlet.”
“Electricity only runs to the kitchen appliances and bathroom light fixture. There are no outlets.” He’d built it that way on purpose. It was one of the cabin’s better features, in his opinion. “Not much of a cell signal up here in any event.”
She fell silent at that and he watched as she did that thinking-through-her-options thing again. “Did Charlie happen to mention my car? Is it okay to drive?”
“They had to tow it.” The inconsistency of her appearance was nagging at him. “It would have made more sense to be dressed like that when you set off to hike through the woods.”
“Believe me, I know. I’m always prepared, for anything, and I packed carefully. But the back end of my car was wedged under the guardrail and I couldn’t get to my suitcase. From now on, it goes in the back seat.”
He bit back the urge to tell her how reckless she’d been that night. How incredibly lucky she’d been to find his cabin. “You tried the boots?”
“Yes.” She set them down by the door, leaning on one crutch for support. “My foot is still too sore to wear them.”
“Shame.” He stirred the stew, unaccountably relieved that she still couldn’t get around on her own. Couldn’t leave. God, he was a bastard. “Now that the drive is plowed, thought I’d go on and get some supplies. Anything you need?”
“Should I make a list?” Her eyes were suddenly bright with teasing mischief and he fought not to respond in kind. Damn it, he was not going to warm up to her.
He turned away, forcing a gruffness he didn’t feel. “If you like. Lunch is ready.”
She sat there at the table with her plate off to one side, absently picking the vegetables out of her stew and eating them as she focused her attention on making a grocery list. If she noticed he’d tried not to give her any pieces of meat, she didn’t mention it.
“You realize this isn’t a big supermarket,” he said. “It’s a simple country store.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “I’m listing options, in case they don’t have certain things. It’s a novelty, a real treat for me, sending someone else out to do the shopping.”
She’d stopped writing, so he pulled the paper toward him and turned it around. For all her scribbling, it was pretty basic. Milk, eggs, butter, fresh fruit. He reached for the pen and crossed several items off the list.
She leaned closer across the table, watching. “What have you got against spices?”
He lifted his head and gave her a steady look, their faces now just a hand span apart. “Not a thing. But I have all those spices. And then some.”
She blushed and he settled back in his chair, away from her, and continued reading. His eyebrows shot upward in surprise. “Pot roast? You want a pot roast?”
She frowned. “You don’t think they’ll have one? Maybe a small pork roast instead? Or even a nice chicken would do. Really, whatever is available will be just fine.”
He gaped at her. “You eat meat?”
“Well, yes. Why would you thi– Oh.” She shot an uncomfortable glance at her plate. “It’s just– I’m not fond of rabbit. As a food.”
He looked back at the list. “Yeast?”
“I thought I’d bake cinnamon bread. For breakfast.”
He didn’t even read the rest, just folded the paper and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He didn’t want to know what else she planned to do in his kitchen. She was tempting enough as it was.
* * *
Part 5 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.