Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Place to Start, part 5

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.”

“What?”

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.

“Leave it.”

“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.”

“You will?”

“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.

“Cold?”

“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.

3 Comments

Filed under A Place to Start

A Place to Start, part 4

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.”

“Oh.”

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.

5 Comments

Filed under A Place to Start

A Place to Start, part 3

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?”

“Porridge.”

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?”

“Listening.”

“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.

3 Comments

Filed under A Place to Start

A Place to Start, part 2

Hello! If you’re just joining us, I’m in the process of posting a 25,000-word novella on my blog. In however many installments it takes. As a gift to my long-time readers over here. Clearly, neither they nor I are daunted by the prospect of a story being delivered in the most cumbersome and drawn out way imaginable.

The first post is here, if you’d like to go back and start at the beginning. It’s entirely possible the story might make more sense if you do.

This is the second installment. I hope you enjoy it enough to come back for more. And perhaps even feel compelled to share the link with others. Sharing is good.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

When Jo woke the next morning, she mentally added one more item to the list of things she hadn’t been prepared for: a grouch of a man named Mac. She’d never known a man who could scowl with such ferocity, not even her grandpa.

Last night, he had fed her and shown her where the bathroom was and then positioned the huge couch so it was directly in front of the fire, moving the heavy solid thing around like it was doll furniture. By the time he gruffly told her to get some sleep before firmly closing the door to the sole bedroom behind him, Jo had been almost entirely sure this was not her grandpa’s cabin.

It had been 20 years since she’d seen the place, and she’d only been eight at the time so maybe her memory was a bit sketchy, but things didn’t change that drastically. Not even over the course of two decades. Like the fact that her grandpa’s cabin had once had three bedrooms. And a nicely equipped full-sized kitchen. And a second story.

But she’d been exhausted and had drifted off to sleep before she could make sense of it.

Squinting now at the morning sun streaming in through a window, she lay snuggled in the warm cocoon of blankets and wondered what this place was. And why Mac had seemed willing to let her think it was John’s cabin. Clearly it wasn’t. He must not know she’d ever seen the place. She thought back over what she remembered of their conversation the night before, but it had been mostly just her rambling on, unable to stop talking.

Maybe he hadn’t wanted to upset her further. That must be it.

Well, today was a new day. The sun was shining and the storm had passed and she was eager to go see the old place again. Her new place. She was struck with a familiar pang of regret. She’d always thought she would be seeing her grandpa again as well. She’d waited too long, had hesitated too many times over the years, thinking there’d be plenty of time, later. Now it was too late.

She moved to get up and groaned in pain. Every single muscle and bone in her body hurt. She sat up and was hit by a draft of cool air as she remembered all she was wearing was her underwear and a t-shirt. The fire had burned down to embers during the night.

She pulled the blankets back up over her shoulders, wondering where Mac was this morning. The cabin was quiet. The bedroom door was closed so maybe he wasn’t awake yet.

She stood up, wrapping herself in a blanket, and winced as she put weight on her left foot. She looked down and saw her toes were a lovely shade of dark purple and swollen to twice their size. She’d known tripping on that step was going to hurt eventually. Then she realized she was standing on a neatly folded pile of clothing. Sweatpants, a flannel shirt and a pair of thick wool socks. All men’s size extra large. One touch confirmed that her own clothes were far from dry and she put on the items Mac had left for her, grateful for his consideration.

“Mac? Are you awake?” No answer.

She hobbled over to the bedroom door and knocked quietly, not wanting to disturb his sleep, but wanting to get on with the day. “Mac?” Still no answer. She gently turned the knob and pushed the door open slowly, just a couple inches. And was hit by a blast of bitterly cold air. The room was empty, as was the bed, with just a sheet pulled over the top of it.

Good lord, the man had slept in here with the door closed, shutting out heat from the other room, with only a sheet as a cover? Was he insane? Why would he do that? He should have– well, she wasn’t sure what he should have done instead. Maybe he normally slept on the couch by the fire. Great. She couldn’t wait to see his scowl after a night spent freezing to death because of her.

She pulled the bedroom door closed just as the front door opened, letting in a fresh gust of cold air and a fully bundled, broadly smiling Mac. The transformation was incredible. Maybe it was just seeing him in daylight instead of shadow, but Jo didn’t think so. She’d thought he was reasonably attractive last night, and impressive just based on size and strength alone, but seeing the man smile . . . he was devastating. And much younger than she’d thought. Mid-thirties, at most.

She wanted the scowl back. She desperately wanted him to frown at her again. Oh, this was not fair, for a man to be as gorgeous as Mac was when he smiled.

“Good afternoon,” he said, stomping snow off his boots on the newly cleared threshold before coming in. “We ended up with about six inches. Looks like we’re stuck here until the plows can get through.”

“Afternoon? But the sun . . .” She looked at the rays of light slanting through the window. How long had she slept, anyway?

He gave her an odd look. “That window faces west.” Then he smiled again. “I brought us dinner.” He raised one arm and it looked like– she gulped audibly. It looked like he was holding a pair of freshly skinned rabbits.

Oh, dear God. Her stomach lurched sickeningly and her hands felt suddenly clammy, but she forced a smile. “Rabbits. How nice.”

And then she mumbled a quick, “excuse me,” turned and took two hobbling steps in the floppy too big socks and shut herself in the bathroom, sitting down before she passed out right in front of him. She had a feeling it would be a very bad idea to show this man any weakness. And they were stuck here together for the foreseeable future. Add one more item to the steadily growing list of things she hadn’t planned for.

“I can do this,” she whispered to the small cold room, “I can eat rabbit.” It wouldn’t be the first time. But she promised herself it would be the last.

* * *

Mac watched Jo turn pale at the sight of fresh game and almost regretted he hadn’t washed off more of the blood before he brought the rabbits inside. Almost. The goal was to get her to leave, not to coddle her or shield her from the reality of life on the mountain. He conveniently dismissed all thoughts of the well-stocked country store a few miles down the main road. A road that had already been plowed. And never mind the delicious breakfast he’d eaten at Maybelle’s diner at the crack of dawn. Nope, Jo was getting rabbit stew. There was nothing wrong with a hearty rabbit stew.

It had been a long hike into town, stopping to set snares along the way, but he needed to let Charlie know not to plow the private road leading to his cabin. Not for a few days, at least. He hadn’t planned to eat while he was there, but Maybelle had dished up a plate the minute she saw him. It would have been rude to refuse. Besides, a man needed nourishment if he was going to put in a full day’s work roughing it in the wild.

He heard the rattle of protest as water surged through the bathroom pipes for the first time in months. Heard water splashing and a startled gasp as she realized “frigid” was as warm as it was going to get. Maybe he should turn up the temperature setting on the water heater just a bit. No, he decided. Hot water was a luxury. Hell, even indoor plumbing wasn’t something to take for granted up here.

Any lingering regret hardened into determination. Things on the mountain could turn tough at any given moment. Lives could be lost just as quickly. She needed to know it. Before she made some dewy-eyed decision to live up here on her own.

He took the rabbits into the kitchen to finish cleaning them. He sensed Jo come up behind him before he heard her. She was quiet in stocking feet. He gave her an appraising glance. She should have looked ridiculous in his oversized clothes. Instead, she just looked like she was . . . his. Where the hell had that thought come from?

“Do I smell coffee?” Her voice had that same edge he always felt before his first cup of the day.

He nodded at the pot he had made hours earlier and watched her limp over to pour some into a cup he’d left out for her. He liked it strong, but it had to be thick as tar by now. “I can make fresh,” he said.

She took a tentative sip and he could tell she fought a grimace. “No. This is good.” She smiled, a bit too brightly, and took another sip. “Do you have cream? Or sugar?”

“Why are you limping?”

“What? Oh, I bumped my foot last night. It’s nothing.”

He put the rabbits aside and washed and dried his hands. “Sit. Let me take a look.”

“Really, I’m fine.”

He pulled a chair out from the table. “Sit.”

She heaved a big sigh, but set her coffee cup on the table before she eased slowly into the chair. She moved like every inch of her was in pain. Probably was. Damned foolish thing she’d done last night, setting off alone in the dark in a snowstorm. But it wasn’t for him to scold her. He knelt in front of her and pulled the sock off her left foot. She winced and he swore when he saw why.

“This was more than just a bump. What happened?”

He could see her weighing the possibilities, as if considering whether to lie, then she shrugged. “I tripped on the front steps. It didn’t even hurt at the time. I don’t think anything’s broken.”

He clenched his jaw, ignoring both her assertion and her sharply indrawn breath as he flexed and straightened each bruised and swollen toe himself, before carefully sliding the sock back over her foot. He examined the right foot as well, but it was uninjured. “You’ll heal.”

He stood up and retrieved a bag of frozen peas from the small freezer compartment above the fridge. He pulled out the second chair, moved it close enough for her to rest her leg on it, and then handed her the peas. “Elevate and ice. Let me know when this melts, I’ve got more.”

She gave the bag an odd look before she took it and he realized it was a bit battered. An ice pack was the only good use he could think of for frozen peas and these had seen their share of duty. Maybe it was time to invest in new ones.

“There’s ibuprofen in the bath–”

“I saw the bottle on the counter. Thanks, I already took some.”

He nodded approval and turned back to the rabbits, furious with himself that she’d been hurt. It didn’t make sense, he knew that, he hadn’t even found her yet when it had happened. But that didn’t matter. She was in his place and that meant he was responsible for her. John wouldn’t have expected less.

He heard her make a small noise of distress and turned quickly. She was staring apprehensively at the sharp butcher knife in his hand. No doubt his anger had caused him to be a bit too forceful while cutting the rabbits into pieces. He very deliberately set the knife down, washed his hands and got out a heavy skillet for browning the meat.

“I think I’ll just go sit on the couch for a while. Unless,” she hesitated, “do you need any help in here?”

“Nope. I got this.”

“I could maybe peel a few vegetables. If you have any?”

He heard the question in her voice and ignored it. “I like to cook. It relaxes me.”

“Okay then. Great. That’s good, relaxing is good.”

She stood and took a tentative step, wincing again. Goddammit. Before she could protest, and he knew she would, he put one arm around her back and the other under her legs and four long strides later set her and her bag of peas on the couch. Seconds later he was back, handing her the cup of coffee.

“Th-thanks.”

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Definitely not trusting himself to stare at the pretty blush on her smooth cheeks. What the hell was wrong with him?

He stalked back into the kitchen. She wanted vegetables in her stew? Fine, he’d peel her some damned vegetables. And while he was doing it, he certainly wouldn’t be thinking about how good she smelled. Or how good she’d felt in his arms. He hoped she liked carrots and parsnips. He hadn’t stocked up on vegetables, since he hadn’t planned to stay here again until spring, and didn’t think there was much else left in the root cellar.

This was going to be one hell of a long week.

* * *

Part 3 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.

3 Comments

Filed under A Place to Start

A Place to Start, part 1

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.

10 Comments

Filed under A Place to Start