I seem to have accumulated some new
victims blog followers. Welcome! My posts aren’t usually this entertaining, or frequent, and I’m sure you’ll come to your senses eventually. Probably sooner rather than later, as my daughter is due to arrive in town in a matter of hours and she’s bringing The Intruder Cat and The Overly Friendly Dog with her. My cat, who is old and curmudgeonly, will be thrilled. You should know that, at some point, posts over here will degenerate into stories about and pictures of their antics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
But in the meantime, this is the fifth installment of a 25,000-word novella I’m posting here as a gift to my readers. We’re about — checks word count — halfway through, after this post. If you’re just joining us and want to start reading at the beginning, which is the author-recommended option, you can find it here.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
After Mac left, Jo tried to write again but she was feeling antsy after yet another day of inactivity. She was used to running every morning and working out at the gym a couple times a week, provided her workload wasn’t too heavy. Which it had been recently. She was feeling both sluggish and on edge from the lack of physical activity.
She needed to get out of the cabin. She pulled on her hiking boots and discovered that if she didn’t tie the left one too tightly, she could manage to get around using the crutches to help take the pressure off. She gathered up some supplies and set off for a short walk.
An hour later, she was just finishing up with her efforts when Mac walked back through the door, his arms loaded down with grocery bags. He closed the door against the cold and took one step into the room. Then another. He stopped. His face grew tight with anger.
“I don’t do Christmas.”
He went into the kitchen and set down the groceries. Came back out and glared at the room. Clearly furious.
“This,” he made a sharp gesture toward the greenery on the mantle and the bowl of pine cones and cinnamon sticks on the hearth, the stems of holly she’d put in a wide-mouth jar on the table. “I don’t do this.”
“But it’s just a few–”
“I come here to get away from this. I. Don’t. Do. Christmas.”
She looked down at the floor for a moment, resolutely steeling herself before meeting his gaze and then trying not to flinch under his angry stare. Clearly, she’d crossed a line she hadn’t known was there.
“I’m sorry.” She paused and then went on in a quiet voice, feeling small. “I don’t really do Christmas either. Not since Mother married Stan. They were always busy and I was at school and . . .” she trailed off and looked around the room. “It just seemed so bare and I thought . . .” She swallowed hard, mortified that she’d decorated his place without asking. “I’ll just take this all back outside.” She moved to pick up the bowl on the hearth.
“Really, it’s not important. It’ll just take a minute–”
“Joanna. I said, leave it.”
She hesitated, not sure whether to leave the greenery or get rid of it, suspecting he’d be upset either way.
He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, massaging the tension there. “You’re right. The room was bare. Just let it be.” He walked to the door. “I’ll bring in more firewood.”
It looked to her like they already had enough wood stacked inside to keep a fire going for a solid month, but she wasn’t about to argue with him. She went to the kitchen and started putting away groceries, needing to be busy. It was obvious Mac associated something painful or unpleasant with Christmas and she hurt for him. But it was none of her business. And it certainly wasn’t a hardship to ignore a holiday that had come to mean so little to her.
He’d bought a large roasting chicken and she got it ready to go in the oven, then set the pan aside while she made dough for cinnamon bread. She turned on the oven to warm it slightly, then put the bowl of dough in to let it start to rise. She’d bake the loaves after supper so they’d be fresh for morning.
She’d just taken the dough out of the oven and covered it and put the chicken in and was cleaning up the mess she’d made, when she realized she was humming a Christmas carol. She stopped abruptly and looked around, relieved to discover Mac was outside again. Apparently, ignoring the season wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d thought.
She stood there for a moment, looking around the small rustic cabin, miles from anywhere and everyone she knew. It wasn’t her grandpa’s cabin, but it wasn’t such a bad place to be stranded. A thick layer of snow covered the ground outside, while inside there was a fire crackling and popping and emitting a steady glow of heat, and the air carried the aroma of fresh pine and warm bread dough and roasting chicken. Everything about this place was unfamiliar to her. Yet it was comforting. Then it occurred to her that tomorrow was Christmas Eve. And she was suddenly swamped with an intense wave of homesickness unlike anything she’d ever felt before.
Which was ridiculous, because home had never been like this for her, ever. Not only had her mother never baked bread, she rarely cooked at all. The one time they’d lived somewhere with a fireplace, there were gas logs installed. And her mother was allergic to pine so they’d never had a real Christmas tree, let alone pine boughs. And yet, here she was, on the verge of tears, homesick for something she’d never had.
Of course, Mac chose that moment to walk back into the cabin, his mood apparently much improved. “By the gods, it smells good in here.”
She turned away quickly, grabbing the kitchen towel and pressing it to her face, pushing hard to stem the welling tears. She was not going to cry. Not over something so absurd. Damn it, she’d never bought into that whole sappy greeting card sentimentality of home and hearth and Clydesdales for the holidays. She wasn’t going to succumb to it now.
“It does smell good, doesn’t it? Thank you for doing the shopping.” She silently cursed herself when she heard the lingering quaver in her voice.
“Jo? What’s the matter? Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine.” She turned and forced a smile but could tell he wasn’t fooled.
He walked over and stood close, his voice rough with regret. “It was wrong of me to snap at you earlier.”
“Mac, it’s fine. I understand. What I did was presumptuous and–”
“You did what any normal person would do. You’re not at fault here. It’s just . . . a difficult time of year for me. Not a happy time.”
“You don’t need to explain.”
“I’m sorry I upset you.”
“You didn’t upset me. I was just, I don’t know, thinking about the past. I must be overly tired or something.” Her voice was steadier now, more casual, and he seemed to relax.
“Go put your feet up. The chicken won’t be done for a while yet. I’ll take over making the rest of dinner.”
“Aye, I will. I told you, cooking relaxes me.” He smiled at her, a real smile, potent as hell and twice as hot, and she went all soft and melty inside. “Go sit down. I’ll bring you a glass of that wine I bought.”
“Oh, that would be nice.” She skirted around him in the tight space, careful not to brush against him, telling herself she was not going to think about all the other things he could do that would be even better than nice.
She thought about them anyway.
* * *
Mac finished cleaning up the dinner dishes and cut another slice of warm cinnamon bread. His third. At this rate, he’d eat an entire loaf before morning. Supper had been filling — roast chicken and steamed broccoli and wild rice with sautéed mushrooms and dried cranberries — but he’d never been able to resist freshly baked bread. He took the bread and remaining half glass of wine into the other room, figuring he’d work on his house design for a while. Jo had made some astute observations earlier and he was intrigued enough to make some changes.
It was still early, but Jo had stretched out on the couch and fallen asleep. The notebook she’d been writing in earlier had fallen to the floor, the pages crumpled where it landed. He picked it up, intending to set it on the table.
He wasn’t really curious about what she was writing, convinced by her earlier avoidance of the topic that she probably wrote the kind of steamy romance some of the women in his office were always going on about. He had no interest in that. But when he glanced at the page, he saw a rough sketch of a little girl off in the margins of the text. Intrigued, he flipped back through a few more pages. There were more sketches mixed in with the writing, simple line drawings of the same little girl and squirrels and foxes and even a surly looking bear. They were charming. Well, not the bear. But the others, absolutely.
What was this?
He sat down in the armchair next to the couch and turned to the beginning of the notebook and started to read.
It was the story of a young girl, wandering on her own in the forest, having unlikely and, if he were to be honest about it, fairly terrifying adventures. She was befriended and aided, and often led into more trouble along the way, by woodland creatures. In particular, by a wise-cracking talking rabbit. A rabbit named Steve.
A rabbit. Bloody hell, it had to be a rabbit. And he’d fed her rabbit stew. He was stung by guilt at the realization. But how could he have known? He traced one finger over the lines of the drawing, appreciating its simplicity while at the same time impressed by the vitality she’d imbued with just a few strokes of her pencil.
He read on, completely drawn into the story and entranced by the characters. Even the animals. Especially the animals. It was a children’s story, but it resonated with him as an adult who knew the forest and its dangers. And also as a man who had somehow managed to forget the possibilities the forest held for childhood adventure.
He read up to the point where she’d stopped writing and wanted to wake her up and talk to her. To ask what happened next. To ask why she’d named the rabbit Steve. Who the hell named a rabbit Steve? In fact, for a brief moment, he could very clearly imagine bending down and gently brushing the hair away from her cheek and kissing her awake. Instead, he closed the notebook and set it carefully on the table.
He picked up his jacket and left the cabin, closing the door quietly behind him. He needed to think. He needed to walk through the tall pines, alone in the dark, across the bright carpet of slowly melting snow, needed to think about this woman from the city who had invaded his life and who possibly understood the forest better than he did.
* * *
Jo lingered in that state between sleep and consciousness, drifting in the dreams she’d had of Mac sitting beside her, enjoying the fire and the quiet of the winter evening, both of them reading. Or maybe writing, perhaps drawing. Just enjoying the peace of a few lazy hours, together, while a storm raged outside. She’d dreamed of him joining her on the couch, of kissing her with unrestrained passion and pulling her down onto the rug, focusing all his fierce intensity on her and making love to her there in front of the fire.
She slowly became aware that at least part of the dream was reality. Mac was there, sitting in the chair next to the couch, concentrating on his sketchpad while the firelight licked a play of light and shadow across the hard planes of his face. She kept her eyes mostly closed, holding onto the remnants of fantasy, enjoying it for what she pretended it to be, while it lasted. She focused on his strong capable hands and realized that he had stopped drawing.
She raised her gaze to meet his and felt a shiver race through her at the stark heat of desire she saw there.
“No,” she said, and pushed at the blanket covering her. If anything, she was burning up.
He got up anyway and poked at the fire, adding a couple more logs, and then stood with his back to her, watching as the flames leapt higher and the heat grew more intense.
She’d never been so physically attracted to a man. She ached with it. Yet a part of her wanted to think things through, to weigh all the options until she came up with a plan. But she was starting to appreciate the value of the unexpected. And the wisdom of not waiting until it was too late.
She pushed the blanket aside and went to stand next to him, wanting the rest of her dream. Wanting him.
They both stood there quietly for a long moment, staring into the fire, thinking their separate thoughts, measuring desire against restraint.
“Jo, I’m not looking to get involved.”
So he felt it too. “Neither am I, Mac. I don’t have time for a relationship.”
He reached out to touch a strand of her hair and she turned to him, drawn by the passion in his eyes.
“I want you, Jo. But I need to know you want this too.”
“Oh, I want this, Mac. I want you. I want this night.”
“And will you be content with just tonight?”
“Not if you don’t stop talking and kiss me, I won’t.”
He made a sound that was part laughter and part growl of desire and pulled her into his arms. His mouth came down hard on hers and she met his need with passion of her own. His hands were demanding yet gentle, while hers fumbled with impatience. She reveled in the feel of his hands and mouth moving over her skin, delighted at the way he responded to her touch, the way he breathed her name like a prayer when he looked at her body.
They made love to each other there on the rug in front of the fire, barely aware of the sound of ice pellets hitting the sides of the cabin as the storm raged outside. And it was so much better than her dream.
* * *
Mac tugged the blanket closer over the naked woman in his arms as the worst of the storm moved on in the small hours of the night and the fire slowly burned itself down to embers. He’d get up and stoke it again in a moment. It could wait. The entire world could wait, for all he cared. He’d never felt so content, so complete, as he did in that moment, holding this woman while she slept.
And he’d never been so certain, so absolutely unflinchingly irrevocably certain, that he’d just made the worst mistake of his life.
* * *
Part 6 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.