A Place to Start, part 6

Taking a quick break from the carnival of cats and the dog and my daughter’s personal belongings strewn all over the place — it’s so good to have her home for an extended visit, chaos notwithstanding — to put up the sixth installment of the story.

If you’ve stumbled across this post at random, I’m in the process of posting a 25,000-word novella in a seemingly endless procession of reportedly patience-testing installments. As a gift to my readers. Because all gifts should be this frustrating for the recipient.

The story starts here, if you’d like to go back and read it from the beginning. I hope you all enjoy this next bit. I’ve got to go clean up cat yak before the dog eats it and then make enough food to feed the small army congregating here later for dinner, but will post more again tomorrow.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

Jo had woken up on the couch with the blanket tucked securely around her, Mac nowhere in sight. She hadn’t expected him to wake her up with hungry kisses and scorching intimacy, not after they’d both agreed what they had shared was purely physical. But she’d hoped. After last night, she couldn’t deny that a part of her had hoped for more. She shook off the thought. No, she wouldn’t make this into something it wasn’t. Neither of them wanted that.

She dressed quickly, smiling at the slight ache in places that hadn’t ached in far too long, ridiculously happy after a night of terrific sex. She helped herself to a cup of coffee, pleased when she saw Mac had already eaten most of one loaf of bread. She cut a slice for herself and stood at the window while she ate, sipping coffee and admiring the view. It made a pretty picture, with the pines towering up against the cloudless blue sky and the sparkling layer of ice coating the landscape, already melting and dripping under the bright winter sun.

She heard a muffled clink of metal striking metal. And then heard it again. It was coming from outside. She leaned closer to the window and saw Mac off to the side of the house, stripped down to a t-shirt and jeans, swinging a sledgehammer over his head to drive a metal wedge into a cut log, the sheer force splitting the log cleanly in two.

Good lord. The man was splitting logs. Effortlessly. Like he was Paul Freaking Bunyan. Was there anything this man couldn’t do? And look good doing it? She watched the flex of muscles in his back and arms and felt a rush of heat as she remembered the feel of those muscles under her hands, of his body over hers. Remembered being awed by the sight of muscles straining with the effort as he held himself in check while she reached to retrieve a condom from her backpack. She’d decided in that moment that the best part of being prepared was when it allowed you to be impulsive.

She watched as Mac set the sledgehammer aside, retrieved his jacket and flannel shirt from a nearby stump and stalked back to the cabin. He looked tired, like he hadn’t slept. And he looked angry.

A tingle of unease slid down her spine and her cheerful greeting died unspoken when he strode into the cabin, barely nodded at her, mumbled something that sounded like “need to clean up” and went straight through to the bathroom.

What was this? No smile? No hug or a quick kiss? Not even a polite “good morning” for her? She understood morning after regret, but this seemed a bit extreme. She heard the shower turn on. She remembered the icy cold water and shuddered. It stayed on for a good ten minutes.

When he finally came out of the bathroom his hair was a wet tousled mess, as if he’d simply run his fingers through it in lieu of a comb. He was wearing the same jeans but had put on the flannel shirt she’d left hanging from a hook in the bath when she got her own clothes back. Didn’t he have another change of clothes?

He looked far too serious for a man who had done what they’d done last night. She set her coffee cup down on the table with a shaky hand, knowing one more sip would curdle in her stomach. “Mac? What’s wrong?”

“Put your boots on and get your jacket. Meet me out at the truck.”

Just like that? Without an explanation? “Where are we going?”

“There’s something I need to show you.” She couldn’t help but notice that he wouldn’t look her in the eye. This didn’t feel like simple morning after regret. It felt far worse than that. Something was very wrong.

She put on her boots and jacket, grabbing her gloves and hat as well, and followed him out to the truck, no longer needing the crutches but sliding a bit on the thin glaze of ice. “The roads are icy, Mac.”

“The main roads are just wet.” He gestured toward the tires. “I have chains for the rest. Get in.”

There were indeed chains on the tires. She got in, in spite of his high-handed ordering her around, and he set out down the long icy drive.

Neither of them spoke as he turned onto the main road and drove a short distance further up the mountain before slowing to turn at another private road that climbed up into the trees. The crunch of the chains broke the silence as they bit into the icy drive, ice that was already turning wet in spots where the sun filtered through the winter bare trees.

They drove for perhaps another half mile before a sharp turn revealed a structure up ahead. A cabin perched high on the side of the mountain, though it was more a house than a cabin.

Oh, yes, she knew this place.

She sat up straighter, her pulse racing now with excitement. He’d brought her to her grandpa’s cabin. Finally. As he pulled the truck to a stop, she turned to him with a smile, ready to thank him for letting go of the ruse, but closed her mouth when she saw the look on his face. His jaw was clenched so hard it was a wonder his teeth didn’t shatter. His bare hands were tight on the steering wheel, knuckles white. He made no move to get out of the truck.

“I was starting to think you weren’t going to bring me here,” she said quietly, caution in her voice. Certain he was angry, uncertain as to why.

“You recognize it.”

“Yes. I’ve been here before.”

“How long?”

She knew what he was asking. “I suspected that first night. But knew for sure the next morning when I saw your place in daylight.”

“You didn’t say anything.”

She shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. “I knew you weren’t being completely honest with me. What I didn’t know was why. I was curious. So I waited.”

He made a noise that wasn’t quite a grunt and she couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He still hadn’t looked at her.

She filled the silence. “My dad died when I was eight,” she said, her voice quiet with remembrance of a painful time. “Mother was having a tough time dealing with . . . everything. She brought me up here to stay with her dad while she sorted things out. It felt for a while like I’d lost both of them.” She paused for a moment, collecting herself. “I was here for several weeks that summer. Grandpa sort of let me run wild. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a magical place.”

“It’s not magical.” His voice was cold. Angry. “It’s hard and rough and dangerous and you don’t belong here.”

“What? Excuse me, what did you say?” He was looking at her now, his face taut with tension, eyes hard with determination.

“You don’t belong here. You’ve lived in a city all your life and don’t know how to survive up here. A woman like you, alone and unprepared, you’d never make it through even one winter.”

She was stunned by his words and his intensity and felt her anger ratcheting up to meet his. What the hell was going on here? “Are you going to tell me there are no women living up here? Only rough, tough men?”

“Most of the women here grew up on the mountain. They know the dangers. And damned few of them live alone.”

The implication being that they had a man to take care of them, she supposed. Good God, where had this attitude come from all of a sudden? She was almost speechless. Almost.

“Who are you to talk to me this way? One night of fantastic sex and you think you have the right?”

If anything, his expression got harder, more implacable. “That has nothing to do with this. That’s not what this is about.”

“Then what is it about?”

“I’m prepared to buy it from you.”

“You— what?

“The house, the land, all of it. I’ll make you a generous offer.”

The land. Of course it was about the land.

And to think she’d dared to hope, for a few short hours last night, that he’d been interested in her. Just a little. She opened her mouth and closed it again, not sure what to even say to him. One look at his face told her he wasn’t kidding around. He had set a goal and was going after it, whatever it took. Whoever it hurt. No regrets.

God, what a nightmare. She hadn’t even been inside, hadn’t had a chance to see the place as an adult, let alone had time to make up her own goddamned mind about what she wanted to do. And he was offering to buy the place? Hell, practically ordering her to sell it to him. Incredible. The gall. What sheer arrogance.

She was beyond angry. The look she gave him was as cold as the ice outside. “You should know that we had it appraised. It’s worth a lot of money.” The insult was not intended to be subtle. She named a figure that had his face flushing with anger.

“That is fucking ridiculous.” He fairly exploded with anger. “Who in the bloody hell gave you that figure?”

She wondered how much less he’d been planning to offer and felt smug satisfaction and biting disappointment at the same time. She’d been right. He’d been planning to take charge of her life and cheat her out of her inheritance. Bastard. Then she realized he was still talking.

“Unfuckingbelievable. Whoever quoted that price is trying to steal you blind. The land alone is worth at least fifty percent more than that. And that’s not even taking into account the buildings on it. I’ll offer you twice that amount and consider it a bargain.”

She met his angry glare with one of her own. Then she turned and stared straight ahead out the windshield at the cabin. So she’d been wrong about the money part of it. Or had she? Where was he going to get that kind of money? Maybe he was working for a developer. Maybe the land was worth far more than that if they re-zoned for commercial development.

Whatever, he was still a controlling bastard and she’d had enough. She no longer cared why he’d kept her away from this place, though she could guess. She was here now and she wasn’t leaving until she was good and damned ready.

She wasn’t going to argue with him about it. “My plan hasn’t changed. I’m staying until after New Year’s. I think you should leave now.”

“I can’t just leave you here.”

She heard the word “alone” at the end of his sentence, even though he hadn’t said it, and her anger forged itself into steely resolve. “You can and you will. I assume you have a key?” She held out her hand without looking at him, her stare still fixed on the cabin. Her cabin.

She felt something hard and cold touch her palm and closed her fingers over the key. She opened the truck door and shrugged him off when she felt him place a hand on her arm.

“Damn it, Jo–”

She got out of the truck and turned to look him straight in the eye, practically vibrating with fury. “I am an adult, capable of making my own decisions. This is my cabin. My land. And you can tell whichever developer sent you here that it’s not for sale.”

She slammed the truck door, walked over to the cabin and let herself in, and then slammed that door as well, locking it behind her. And immediately felt childish for her tantrum. Who the hell slams doors? At this rate, next she’d be stomping her feet.

She stood there with her back against the door, rigid with anger, refusing to look out the window, waiting until she heard the sound of the truck engine fade as he drove away. Then she slowly sank down until she was sitting on the bare wood floor, feeling the cold of it seeping deep into her very bones while bitter tears streamed down her face.

She wondered whether she’d ever feel warm again.

* * *

Bloody fucking hell. Mac was so angry with himself he could barely keep his truck on the road. She thought he was working for a developer? That was one of the reasons he wanted the land, to keep the goddamned clear-cutting developers out of the area. If there was a way he could have screwed this up worse than he had, he wasn’t sure what it might be. God, he was an idiot.

He’d known it was a mistake to sleep with her last night. Knew she’d question his motives once she realized he wanted to buy the land. And he’d done it anyway. He’d wanted her so badly, and when he’d seen the same desire in her eyes he hadn’t been able to resist the passion between them. He’d woken up in her arms, more content than he’d ever been in his life. And at the same time, absolutely furious with himself.

He’d tried to find a way to explain the situation, a way that didn’t hurt Jo, and all he’d come up with was to tell her the truth. To take her up to John’s cabin, make an offer for the land, and hope she’d take it. It was a generous offer, one he was more than happy to make, even without that promise he’d made to John. She’d be crazy not to take it. And then she’d go back to Atlanta where she’d belonged. But he’d been frustrated with the situation and so damned angry with himself and he’d made a mess of it.

He’d seen her working it through in her head the way she did, sorting out all the angles. And then coming up with the worst possible explanation.

He pulled the truck up in front of his cabin and just sat there, fuming, telling himself he was too angry to go inside. Avoiding the inevitable.

A developer. By the gods, did she know nothing about him at all? No, he realized, she didn’t. He’d made sure of that, hadn’t he? Some plan he’d had. Keep her stranded in his cabin for a few days, give her the silent treatment, let her experience how harsh life on the mountain could be without the comforts of home and she’d be begging to leave. Only it hadn’t worked out that way. She’d been perfectly content in his drafty cabin with its lack of amenities. Content? Hell, she’d loved it.

He got out of the truck, slamming his door just as hard as Jo had earlier. He stomped over to the cabin and went inside and was hit by a flood of memories that nearly brought him to his knees.

Her presence was everywhere. Her coffee cup on the table, a forgotten scarf on the back of a chair, the lingering scent of fresh cinnamon bread and the pine branches she’d brought inside. Her backpack leaned against the end of the couch, her notebook on the floor next to it. And the pile of blankets— would he ever be able to sit on that couch again without remembering how he’d lifted her onto it as she slept and tucked her in after spending the night in her arms?

He walked over and picked up her notebook. He turned to a page with a drawing of that quirky, sassy, cute-as-hell rabbit and gently traced one finger over it. Just as he had the first time he’d seen it.

Damn it, this was intolerable. Unreasonable. He’d barely known her three days. They’d agreed not to get involved with each other and he’d meant it. He kept his relationships short and casual. It was for the best. He had no intention of getting involved with someone again, only to have it end in disillusion and pain and remorse.

Driven by the sudden need to reclaim his space, he packed up all her things. Writing tools went into her backpack. The scarf, her clothes and what few toiletries she’d left in the bathroom went into her suitcase. He washed her coffee cup and shoved the remaining loaf of bread into the fridge. He hesitated over the greenery and cursed a blue streak when he couldn’t quite make himself throw it out.

He carried her bags over and propped them next to the door and looked around the cabin. Expecting to feel relief. Expecting it to feel like his place again. Instead, it just felt empty.

Bloody hell. He missed her.

* * *

Part 7 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.

1 Comment

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One response to “A Place to Start, part 6

  1. rssasrb

    Loving the story and glad I waited ’til more installments were up to read on. Can’t wait to read the next part.

    Hope you and your DD and the critters are having a great visit. Well, your cat probably isn’t, but the rest of you.