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A Place to Start, the ending

IN WHICH we find out whether I can stick the landing at the end of this story.

Happy New Year! We’ve come to the end of things here today, on a day symbolizing the beginning of new things. May this new year bring you many amazing new stories, to read or even to live out.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following along with these posts and reading this story . . . this story that was meant to be a short story and ended up being a 27,000-word novella, the first in a trilogy.

Ah, well, these things happen.

If you want a copy that isn’t broken up into eleven blog posts, a copy you can read straight through in one sitting, I do intend to publish it on all the various online sites in a week or so. I’ll let you know once I do that.

This story was offered here as a gift, a thank you to my long-time readers, my imaginary internet friends who seem to have an endless inexplicable supply of faith in me. Granted, it’s been sort of like those gifts of dried beans and macaroni glued to construction paper in the shape of the words “I love you” that your kids bring home from kindergarten and you put up on the fridge for a couple weeks and then shove into a cupboard and hope the ants don’t get into it. But it’s the thought that counts, right? And my thoughts are filled with gratitude.

If it made you smile or laugh or even tear up a wee bit there at that one part, if it distracted you for a few moments from the reality of daily life, then I’ve done my job and am absolutely delighted. If you liked the story, my fondest hope is that you’ll tell someone else about it, share it with a friend who you think might also like it, in whatever manner suits you.

Because stories, by their very nature, are meant to be shared.

Here it is, the eleventh and final installment of this particular story.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

Mac arrived back in town just ahead of the next cold front. He stopped off at Charlie’s place to return the propane canister and couple extra water bottles he’d borrowed. Everything else he needed for a few days hiking and camping, he’d already had in his Jeep.

Charlie was sitting on the front porch cleaning one of his rifles when Mac drove up. “See you had the sense to come down ahead of the snow.” He paused to spit and then went right back to what he was doing.

“Just barely. It’s already pretty heavy west of the ridge.” He set Charlie’s gear on the table and leaned on the porch railing, facing him. “Thanks for the loan.”

Charlie grunted in acknowledgement. “You manage to clear your head?”

“Hell, Charlie, I don’t know. Life used to be so simple. No responsibilities, no obligations. No guilt.”

“No death.”

“Aye. No death on my conscience.”

“You’re takin’ on burdens that ain’t yours, son.”

“It’s there all the same, Charlie. There’s no turning back from it, no denying it.”

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

“I’m not ready for love, Charlie. I’m not even sure I know what it is.”

“Hell, Mac, ain’t a man alive was ever ready for love. Women, now, that’s a whole different story. They’re all the time lookin’ for it and know it when they see it. It’s one of the many things they’re right good at, thank the good Lord. Though it ain’t much use if you’re not payin’ attention.”

Mac wasn’t sure about Charlie’s assessment of women. He knew plenty of women who weren’t looking for love. Didn’t he? It’s not like he went around asking them about it. How would he know? Bloody hell, he didn’t care about other women. The one woman he did care about had told him, literally and emphatically, to leave her alone. He wondered what Jo was looking for.

Charlie stood and picked up his reassembled rifle. “Snow’s started. Best get on back to town.”

“I’ve got one stop to make, then I was planning to drive straight though. Back to Atlanta.”

“Not in this, you ain’t. You’ll be lucky to get down as far as John’s old place ‘fore this catches up with you.”

Mac turned to look at the snow, falling heavily now at this altitude and already accumulating, and swore under his breath when he realized Charlie was right. Looked like he’d be spending at least one more night in his cabin after all. No one would be going anywhere on the mountain tonight. And he suspected the old man had distracted him with conversation just long enough for it to be true.

Charlie’s next words confirmed it. “If you’re lucky, once it stops, I’ll wait and plow that place out last.”

Mac scowled, ready to set the man straight about where he’d be staying, but decided to just let it go when he saw the sudden relief on his friend’s face. “And there’s my woman, now. Best get dinner started.”

Mac saw Maybelle’s truck pulling into the drive and gave Charlie a teasing grin. “You cook? When you could eat your wife’s fine cooking instead?”

“Hell, yes, I cook. Man don’t stay married long as I have, he don’t learn how to cook a few meals.”

“You’re one lucky bastard, Charlie, to have found a woman willing to put up with your ugly mug and your cooking.”

The old man let out a cackle of laughter. “Damn, son, you know that woman was the one what found me. Get on with you, now. And try to pay attention.”

Mac would be paying attention, all right. But he didn’t think there were enough apologies in the world for Jo to forgive him for the way he’d deceived her. Or for his arrogance. That door was closed and he’d best get used to it. Still, he owed it to her to say the words in person.

He owed it to himself to try.

* * *

Jo had just returned from her daily run and was doing cool-down stretches outside in front of the cabin when the snow started falling. Thick heavy flakes that looked like they meant business. Unlike the first storm, the old men at the diner had been predicting this one. Unlike that first time, this time she was prepared.

What she wasn’t prepared for was the sight of Mac’s Jeep driving up the road toward the cabin. He parked and got out, hesitating before he walked over to her.

He scowled at her. “You’re going running? In the snow?”

“No, I just finished.” God, she’d missed that scowl. “You came back.”

“Aye. Headed up onto the trails, hiked and camped a bit.”

He looked good. Actually, he looked better than good, with a three-day beard and tousled hair and something fierce in his eyes. She cleared her throat. “Thank you for the rabbit. And the apology.”

He gave a brief nod of acknowledgment and started to say something. Then stopped. Then said it anyway. “Steve? You named a rabbit Steve?”

She felt her cheeks flush. “Yeah, I did. I first started writing a simple version of those stories after I left here that summer. As a way to remember. There was a boy in school that year named Steve and I sort of, you know, had a crush on him.” She shrugged. “I was nine. The boy moved away, the name stuck.” And she was rambling on again, nervous.

“That story and your characters struck a chord with me, Jo. Reminded me of things I’d forgotten. Good things that deserve to be remembered.” He paused. “So, did they survive the encounter with bears, then? Your characters?”

“You’ll have to read it and find out.” She smiled as she said it, flattered that he’d asked, but it wasn’t what she’d hoped he might say to her.

“Aye. I’d like that.” But he looked uncertain. Like maybe he was nervous too. “I’ll say it again, Jo, so we’re clear. I’m sorry. Sorry I hurt you. It was wrong of me to deceive you and try to make you want to leave.”

She huffed out a breath of surprise. “Is that what you were doing? Trying to make me leave?”

He nodded and then stood there, rigid and silent, as if he had braced himself to accept the onslaught of her anger.

“Mac, those days in your cabin . . . I’ve never felt so cared for, so pampered, in my entire life. There wasn’t a single moment when you made me want to leave. Believe me, if you had, I would’ve been gone in a heartbeat. Not from the mountain, but from your cabin. You made me want to stay.” She studied his face, considered his actions. “It’s like you’ve got this huge protective streak and don’t even know it.”

His posture, his tone, everything about him was unrelenting. “I don’t enjoy seeing people suffer.”

She saw the shadows in his eyes and ached to lighten them. “I heard about what happened to your fiancée. I’m sorry for your loss.”

She watched as the shadows gave way to surprise and disbelief.

“Fiancée? Is that what people are saying? Bloody hell. Carly and I weren’t engaged. In fact, we had words about it that night. She’d driven up as a surprise, wanted things to be more serious than they were between us. I thought she had gone outside to walk it off, but she got in her car.”

“And you blame yourself.”

“I should have stopped her.”

“You can’t always stop people from making foolish decisions. That doesn’t make it your fault, Mac. And one accident doesn’t mean this is a dangerous place.”

Mac looked down at his boots, his jaw tight with emotion. “It’s not just that.” He stopped and stared up at the sky, seeming oblivious of the snow swirling around his face. He exhaled a long breath and looked out over the mountain. “I have two younger brothers. But I also had a sister. She was the baby of the family and had always been frail. One winter, she came down with a cold she couldn’t shake. It settled in her chest, like it did with John. It was icy that winter. Maddie died before the roads cleared enough to get her to the hospital.”

His voice cracked a bit on the name and Jo put her hand on his arm. “Oh, Mac. I’m sorry.”

“But it’s not just the weak and elderly, Jo. This place is tough on everyone who lives here. My dad, he worked with the crews building the Parkway. It’s why he and Ma settled in this area. There was work here, even for immigrants.”

“The Blue Ridge Parkway?”

“Aye. It was hard work, but it paid well enough. He was a master carpenter and he took odd jobs on the side. He worked harder than any man I’ve ever known. And one day in December, a week before Christmas, he came home and ate his dinner and sat down in the big easy chair he’d made with his own hands and died. Just like that. Massive heart attack.”

Jo felt her eyes tearing up at all the loss this man had endured in his life. But it didn’t feel right to let him blame it on this place.

“Mac, people die everywhere, all the time. You know that. My dad was shot in a convenience store in Atlanta, a statistic in a robbery gone horribly wrong.”

“John told me. But your dad was a cop, Jo. That’s different.”

“No, it’s not. He wasn’t on the job that night. He was off duty, stopping for a soda and a bag of chips on the way home. The entire world is harsh, Mac. There are no safe places.”

He put a hand over hers where it rested on his arm. “I can’t help that I’m not comfortable with you staying up here alone, Jo. I won’t be apologizing for that.”

She made a sound that was a mix of laughter and the pain of remembered of loss. “Hardly alone.”

He pulled his hand away and took a step back, horrified. “You’re involved with someone?”

“God, no. That’s not– no. I meant no one could ever really be alone up here, not with all these people, this community.” She watched the hard planes of his face soften with relief and let herself hope that maybe he cared.

“Aye, that’s the truth.”

“Besides, I won’t be living here year round. Just coming up for long weekends and holidays when I can get time off.”

“Time off? But you’re a writer. You could work anywhere.”

“Yes, well.” She ducked her head briefly before looking him in the eye. “I am a writer. But you’re not the only one who hasn’t been completely honest. I’m also an accountant, a CPA.”

Mac frowned, his confusion apparent. “Is that a thing you’re ashamed of, then?”

“I’m not ashamed. I make a good living with it. It’s just— you know how they say to dress not for the job you have, but the one you want?”

“Do they.” He seemed amused by this information.

She smiled. “Yes, they do. This was sort of like that. When you asked what I did for a living, I told you what I want to do. Like, if I said it, out loud, it would come true.”

He seemed to think about it and then nodded seriously, as if her wishful thinking made perfect sense. “And if I were to say, out loud, that I’d like to see you again once we get back to Atlanta, do ye think that would come true as well?”

Oh, God. She was falling for this man beyond the point of no return. “I think there’s a very good chance that it would.”

“That’s good to know.”

They stood there for a moment, quiet and awkward at the prospect of a first date after what they’d already shared.

He reached up to gently brush the accumulating snow off her knit cap. “Are you sure you don’t want to sell? John knew your mom wouldn’t want this place. He intended for the two of you to have the money from it.”

She tensed, wanting to trust his motives. Desperately wanting to trust her instincts about the man. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

He simply nodded, accepting her decision. Confirming her judgment of him. “I’m going to miss this place. I surely miss the man.”

“You loved him.”

“Aye. John was a friend. A good friend.”

The sadness and loss he felt were almost palpable. “He loved you too, you know. He shared this place with you.”

“That he did. It’s just a place, lass. And it belongs to you now. Maybe one day I’ll build another.”

But it was more than just a place and she knew it. For both of them. It seemed too soon for what she was feeling, for what she wanted to say. But she felt a sudden sense of urgency, a certainty that if she waited it would be too late. And, for once, she didn’t stop to consider all the possibilities. “Or we could share this one.”

“Share?”

“Yes, share. It’s a simple concept. Most of us learned it in kindergarten.” She tried for insouciance, but she’d never felt a more gut twisting apprehension than she did in that moment.

“Ach, but we’re not five years old any more now, are we?” He attempted a smile but the look in his eyes was full of pain and longing and regret. “It’s a generous offer, but I don’t think it would be a good idea.”

The thing was, now that she’d said it, now that she’d taken that chance, she was sure it was the best idea she’d ever had. She refused to let go of the possibility, the opportunity, the reckless hope. “You shared this place with my grandpa.”

He ran a hand over the back of his neck and turned away to stare out over the mountain again, his jaw clenching with tension. “I didn’t want to kiss your grandpa.”

She exhaled a short laugh of relief. He still wanted her. “I suspect my grandpa didn’t want to kiss you either.” Her expression grew serious as she pulled on his arm until he turned to look at her. “But I do.”

“Do ye, now.”

“Yes. Very much so. Right now, in fact.”

His look was hesitant, uncertain. And at the same time, threaded with promise. “Jo, ye can’t mean–”

“I do mean it. Kiss me, Mac. Share this place with me. It’s a start.”

She saw emotion flare in his eyes and it looked like desire. It looked like the seeds of hope and love and a future and in that moment she felt herself let go of all her careful plans. And then his hands were on her, pulling her into his embrace there in the falling snow, and it felt like coming home.

“Aye, lass, that it is. A fine place to start.” And then he kissed her.

As beginnings went, it was pretty spectacular.

* * *

The End

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A Place to Start, part 10

Okay, you voracious readers, as promised, this is the second post of the day. Which is also the second-to-last post of the story. Yes, that’s right, I’ll post the ending tomorrow, on the first day of a new year. Seems fitting.

As FL surmised in the comments, this is indeed the first book in a series. I didn’t set out to write a trilogy, any more than I set out to write a novella instead of a short story. But in the writing of it, it turned out that Mac has two brothers. They just showed up, these McIntyre men. And they seemed like interesting people who might have a story of their own that needed to be told, so . . .

I don’t have titles for the other two books yet, but they’ll be subtitled Spring and Fall. Not sure when, exactly, they’ll be available (other than sometime in 2014), but if anyone is interested in being notified via email when they are, there’s a link on the sidebar to sign up for my newsletter. I’d say I send it out infrequently, but the fact is I’ve never sent it out even once. Just ignore the nonsense I wrote on that link about sending it quarterly (I’ll fix that later), my plan is to limit it to news of book releases — hopefully, the kind of email you’re happy to see arrive.

I honestly don’t think I’ll be posting any more stories of this length here on my blog, as it has proven to be a cumbersome method of delivery. But you never know. Maybe a first chapter. Or two.

And please, if you’re out celebrating tonight, take care. Given a choice, I’d happily lose all my readers due to bad writing rather than lose even one of you to an accident.

Here it is, the tenth installment. I hope you enjoy it.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

Jo had barely taken two sips of coffee when her mother called the next morning to check on her. She made reassuring noises and promised to come for dinner once she got back in town and then ended the call in less time than was strictly polite, but she was anxious to see Mac.

She warmed up the truck and retraced the route back down the mountain to Mac’s cabin, almost missing the turnoff. His Jeep wasn’t parked in its usual spot. She decided to go inside and wait for him to get back. She knocked on the door just in case and, when no one responded, hoped it wasn’t locked. On closer inspection, she realized it didn’t even have a lock. She turned the knob and went in.

The cabin was empty. Not only was Mac not there, it looked like he’d never been there. Like she’d never been there. The cabin had been cleaned and straightened, the ashes shoveled out of the fireplace and new kindling laid. The chairs at the table were neatly pushed in and the couch had been moved back into position along the wall. The greenery was gone and the blankets were folded with military precision at the end of the bed. The perishables had been cleared out of the fridge, the dishes washed and put away.

She stood there in the middle of the cabin, feeling bereft. It had been stripped of the simple things that had made it a warm and familiar place and she felt the echoing emptiness as if it were a physical presence. But it paled in comparison to the aching void in her heart.

Mac was gone.

* * *

Jo drove into town, assuming someone there would know where Mac was and when he’d be back. Assuming he was coming back. It hurt too much to bear, the thought that his apology had also been his way of saying goodbye.

She stopped in at the diner, hoping the fondness for gossip would be in full force and she wouldn’t have to reveal her interest in the man to get information. Everyone was just as open and friendly as they’d been the night before, but in a place where everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and didn’t hesitate to talk about it, not one of them mentioned Mac.

She waited until there was a lull between orders before she broke down and asked Maybelle about him. “You haven’t seen Mac around, have you?”

“Haven’t seen him, love, but there was a sack of groceries at the door this morning when I opened up, with a note saying he hoped I could make use of them. Always been considerate, that one.”

Jo hesitated, trying to be nonchalant. “Did the note say anything else?”

“Sure didn’t. Mac’s not one for being all wordy. But he never leaves until after New Year’s, so I expect he’s around somewhere.”

Fred, the man from the grocery store, spoke up from where he sat a couple stools down, finishing a cup of coffee. “Heard Charlie mention earlier that Mac went up the mountain for a spell. Said he’d be back.”

Maybelle nodded. “Not surprised he’d favor camping over that cabin of his. Most like to be warmer outdoors.”

Jo couldn’t contain her curiosity. “You all know who he– you know he’s an architect, right?”

“Well, sure, hon,” Maybelle said. “Of course we do. But up here he’s just Mac.”

“No pretense in that boy,” Fred agreed. “Solid now as he ever was.”

“But, with all his experience, why is his cabin so . . . primitive?”

“Built it that way on purpose,” Fred said, the admiration evident in his voice. “It’s a smart man who knows what he needs and stops at that.”

“He built that place for warm weather,” Maybelle said. “Two weeks in summer and the occasional weekend in spring and fall. Come winter, he always stayed up with your grandpa.” She frowned and shook her head. “None of us can quite work out why he’d keep you there this time of year.”

Jo felt a sudden inexplicable urge to defend him. “But I’d hurt my foot and couldn’t wear my boots. And there was the snow.”

Fred snorted. “A little snow never stopped a McIntyre.”

“It’s possible he might pop in here,” Maybelle said. “He likes my cooking well enough. You want me to give him a message if I see him?”

“Oh, no, it’s just—” Jo tried to think of a reason why she’d be asking about Mac. Any reason other than the truth, that she cared about him far more than he apparently did about her. She felt miserable enough without adding anyone’s pity to the mix.

She settled for a partial truth. “I stopped at his cabin and he was gone, but the door was open and there didn’t seem to be a way to lock up. There’s the heavy bar on the inside and I just thought, maybe, someone might know how to secure it.”

“Oh, he don’t ever lock it,” Fred said. “Leaves it open and stocked up year round, in case some wet-behind-the-ears tourist gets lost out on the mountain and needs a place.”

Jo wasn’t sure what to say to that. It sounded exactly like something Mac would do. And she’d been that tourist. Nothing more.

“You sure I can’t give him a message, hon?” Maybelle’s look was kind.

“No, there’s nothing, thanks.” Nothing he’d want to hear.

She saw Maybelle and Fred exchange a long look but they didn’t say anything more as she got up and left the diner.

She stood outside and briefly considered going back to Atlanta a week early. Her car had been repaired and returned yesterday, in spite of it being a holiday. So even though she was still driving her grandpa’s truck, getting home wouldn’t be a problem. And she’d learned enough about this place to make a decision. She loved it here and she wasn’t ready to sell. She might never be ready to sell.

She tried to ignore the little voice asking why, if she loved it so much, was she thinking of leaving before she had to. Her grandpa’s place was quiet and peaceful, a sanctuary where she could escape the constant noise and hectic pace of the city and just focus on writing. The people were friendly and welcoming and there was a real sense of community, something she’d never had before and would miss when she left. The place was everything she’d hoped it would be. And more.

But being up here wasn’t the same without Mac.

For someone who had always enjoyed solitude and was content with her own company, the realization was unsettling. As was the realization that she wanted to spend more time with a man who didn’t want to get involved with her. It’s not like he hadn’t warned her. It’s not like she hadn’t agreed to the stipulation. She missed him anyway.

She spent the next few days writing, finishing one story and starting on another, making random notes for a third. She went into town every day for lunch, getting to know her neighbors and feeling more at home. She went to bed early and got up with the first rays of dawn and tried not to think about Mac.

And failed miserably.

She saw evidence of his presence in every room of her grandpa’s cabin. Remembered his touch every night in her bed. She missed his gruff taciturn attitude and his rare devastating smiles. And she was very much afraid that, wherever he’d gone, he’d taken with him what was left of her heart.

* * *

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A Place to Start, part 9

I received a few complaints about yesterday’s brevity. Just one or two [ahem]. Which is really kind of awesome. So, in an effort to make up for that horrendous insufficiency, today I will put up two posts, full of many words for you to read. Thousands of words. You will feel inundated and replete, reading these words, and never yearn for more, ever again. Well, until tomorrow.

I continue to be somewhat baffled by this, but it seems there are one or two [ahem] new people reading or following this blog every day. Who knew fiction was such an attraction? For those of you who are new and perhaps confused about what the hell I’m doing over here, I’m posting a 26,000-word (okay, maybe 27,000) novella in several installments as a gift to my long-term readers. Perhaps you’re intrigued, as well as confused, and would like to read the rest of the story? If so, you can find the beginning of it here.

Here is the ninth installment of the story. I hope you enjoy it.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

Mac heard the sound of a truck approaching his cabin and cursed whoever had decided to disturb his solitude. He’d spent the day reliving old memories and contemplating the feelings provoked by new ones, not yet sure what to make of it all. He’d split more logs than was probably good for a man and last night had made a not insignificant dent in a very fine bottle of scotch.

The peace and quiet he cherished, the serenity of this place that he sought out whenever he could make time, was gone. In its place was stark loneliness, a silence that seemed to echo in his soul. But he didn’t need the company of whoever had just driven up and he sure as hell didn’t need Jo Mitchell in his life.

He’d almost convinced himself of that when the cabin door opened without so much as a knock and there stood his brother, Cam. “It’s a sad, sad day when Ma has me tracking ye down like a stray dog, Duncan McIntyre.”

Mac suppressed a growl of irritation. “It’s a sad day when you feel obliged to do it.”

“She’s been trying to call for days and couldn’t get through. She worries about you this time of year. Ye know that, Mac.”

“She sent you up here to check on me?”

“I was in the area. She said I was to put hands on ye, and nothing less would satisfy her.”

Mac muttered a low oath. “I’m not a wee bairn in need of looking after.”

Cam shrugged in dismissal, as if he thought the argument weren’t worth the effort. Mac knew different and Cam’s next observation confirmed it. “I see you’ve been whittling again.”

Mac looked at the small pile of wood shavings on the floor. “Passes the time.” It also helped him process his thoughts, but they both knew that.

“Speaking of which, I stopped in town on the way here. Saw your girl at the diner.”

“I don’t have a girl.”

“Such lovely sad eyes she has.”

Sad eyes? “She does not have sad eyes.”

“Ach, I know sad eyes when I see ’em. Seems I’ve spent a lifetime looking into sad eyes. I recognize a need for comfort. Your girl has that look about her.”

“She’s not my girl. And she sure as hell doesn’t need your comfort.”

“So you say. Heard she stayed here with ye for a couple days. Complained a lot, did she?”

Mac thought about it. “No. She never complained, not once.”

“Now that’s hard to believe, knowing you. Squeamish, then? You make her your famous rabbit stew? City girls can get right queasy about the sight of blood.”

“She wasn’t squeamish about the blood. It was the–” It was the fact that it was a rabbit. “She wasn’t squeamish.”

“Hated the quiet and the forest? Couldn’t wait to leave and get back to the bright city lights?”

“She loved it here.”

“What then? She’s allergic to firelight? C’mon, Mac, there had to be something that has you holed up here sulking instead of in town celebrating the holiday with a beautiful woman.”

“I’m not sulking. And I don’t do Christmas.”

His brother just stood there and waited, silent.

“She’s from the city, Cam. She doesn’t belong here.”

Cam’s expression was one of disbelief. “You do realize that you live in the same damn city, don’t you?”

“That’s different. I’ve lived here, as well. I know the mountain. She’s not suited for life up here. Jesus and Mary, you should have seen her the night I found her, near frozen to death. Her car was wedged halfway off the mountain in a ditch.”

“She looked pretty damned healthy when I saw her just now.”

Mac got up off the couch, needing to move. “She doesn’t belong here, Cam. It’s not a safe place for a city girl. She doesn’t have the skills to survive. Even if she did, I’m not looking to get involved.”

“I see. So that’s it, then. You’ve made up your mind.”

“Aye.”

“Then ye won’t mind if I pay her a call next time I’m in Atlanta. Maybe take her out for a nice dinner? I bet she likes to dance. I’m verra light on me feet.”

Mac glared at his notoriously charming brother, narrowing his eyes in warning. “Ma sent ye here to take a beating, did she?”

“Well, if ye don’t want her, it hardly seems fair– ”

Mac felt his patience snap and he roared. “By the gods, man, you will stay away from that woman.”

Cam laughed at him. Laughed. “You’re being an ass, Duncan McIntyre. Would serve ye right if she did go back to the city and never again crossed your doorstep. Have a care what ye wish for, big brother.”

“It’s none of your concern, Cam.”

“Maybelle’s a pretty good judge of character. She and old Charlie have taken quite a shine to your city girl. So has everyone else in town. And that young deputy sheriff– Thom? Is that his name? Nice looking guy, dark hair, sincere smile? He’s over to the diner even as we speak, doing his best to erase that sadness from her eyes. Not that ye care, of course.”

“The hell, you say.”

“Aye, the hell I do say. Crawl out of your cave and do something about it before it’s too late.”

Mac added a log to the fire and poked at it, hard, sending sparks flying up the chimney. “Speaking of pain-in-the-ass younger siblings, you heard from Drew of late?”

“No. You?”

“Not since the call in June.”

“Damn, that was six, seven months ago.”

Mac stared into the fire, pensive. “Aye. He’s in the wind, Cam. Seems our little brother is plagued by demons, just like the rest of us.”

“Hell, Mac, you’re just a shining ray of bloody fucking sunshine. I’m headed out. I’ve got a deposition in Charlotte tomorrow.”

“Always a pleasure to see ye, Cam. Don’t let the door hit you.”

Cam walked over and wrapped him in a bear hug. “Aye, and you’re a prince among men.”

Mac allowed the hug, returned it. Then pushed away and punched his brother’s shoulder. “Give Ma my love when ye talk to her.”

“Call her yourself, ye thickheaded dolt,” Cam said, returning the punch. “She was worried sick. Cell phone reception up here isn’t that bad.”

It is when you have your phone turned off. “Aye, I’ll call.” Cam gave him a skeptical look. “I promise, I’ll call her. Safe travels, Cam.”

“And to you, Mac.” He paused. “Go mend fences with your girl. She’s a keeper.”

And then he was gone and Mac was alone again, missing Jo. So she’d caught the attention of Thom Dawson, had she? Thom was a good man. Solid, reliable, kind. Dull as an old blade, but a good man.

Jo would be wise to move on, to find a man who’d treat her better than he had. A man who would offer her more than he could. But damned if he was going to show up in town and stand witness while some other man did his best to “erase the sadness” from her eyes. Thom was a friend, but Mac had no doubt that he’d resort to violence if the man so much as put one finger on Jo in his presence. Better he stayed away.

Besides, Cam didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. Jo did not have sad eyes.

He turned on his phone and called his mother, wished her a Merry Christmas and apologized for worrying her. They talked long enough to allay her concern about his well-being and Mac assured her he was still coming down to visit her in the spring. He even managed, just barely, to stop himself from issuing threats involving bodily harm to his brother when Ma asked whether he was bringing his new girl with him so she could meet her.

He hung up and turned the damned thing off again and stalked around the cabin a few times, muttering about interfering family members, before grabbing his jacket and the keys to his Jeep. He suddenly felt the need to take a drive.

* * *

The conversation around her seemed to fade away as Jo saw Mac’s Jeep pull into the parking lot of the diner, every nerve suddenly on high alert as she waited for him to come inside. But he turned off the headlights and just sat out there, alone.

She knew he didn’t celebrate the holiday, and she was starting to understand why. It had to be a tough time of year, bringing with it reminders of Carly’s death. Her heart broke a little at the thought of him being so isolated while just a few steps away, here inside the diner, was a world of warmth and welcome and friendship. Things he claimed not to want.

Someone distracted her with a question and the offer of another piece of fudge. Then Thom Dawson came over, taking his leave and wishing her a Merry Christmas again and telling her to be careful on the roads tonight. He was a nice young man, although he seemed overly cautious for someone his age. Perhaps a hazard of the job.

When she looked out the window again, Mac’s truck was gone.

A half hour later, the celebration was finally winding down and she was exhausted from all the talking and smiling. And stuffed full of good food. She retrieved her jacket and the empty brownie plate and slipped out the door before anyone could subject her to another round of hugging.

Night fell quickly here when the sun dipped below the top of the mountain and it was full dark when she drove home. The day had been warm and sunny and most of the snow had melted. But the roads were wet from downhill runoff and Thom had warned everyone that there’d be a freeze tonight, with black ice in the usual spots before morning. She didn’t know where the usual spots were and was glad to be home before the temperature dropped.

She parked the truck and wandered around to the front of the cabin, looking out over the vast stretch of darkness broken only by scattered pinpoints of light trailing away down the mountain, mirroring the first few stars sparkling in the clear sky overhead. Even at night, the beauty of this place was breathtaking. And the loneliness she felt in that moment was heartbreaking.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, whispering it to herself on a frosty breath.

She crossed her arms, hugging herself against the chill and turned to go inside, deciding tomorrow was soon enough to call her mother. She opened the door and her foot nudged something sitting on the top step. What on earth? She wasn’t expecting any deliveries.

She picked it up and carried it into the brighter light of the kitchen. It was a small wooden box. Plain but smooth, it looked handmade. She pulled off the lid and a ragged scrap of paper fell out and landed on the counter. She set the box down and unfolded the paper. The words were a bold masculine scrawl.

“I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It was signed with just the letter M.

Oh, Mac. Her hands trembling now, she picked up the tissue-wrapped object in the box, carefully folding back the layers. It was a small piece of carved wood that fit comfortably in her palm. She turned it over.

Oh, dear God. It was Steve, the rabbit from her stories. The detail was exquisite and the likeness incredible, right down to the saucy smirk on his little rabbit face.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so she did a little of both. Mac must have read her story, seen her sketches. And then he’d made this for her. She was stunned by the time and thought and sheer artistry that had gone into the gift.

But the simple words of apology were what touched her the most.

She wanted to see him, needed to talk to him. But it was late and the mountain was dark and the thought of black ice made her hesitate. She pulled out her cell phone and the business card he’d given her. One bar of service. She hoped it was enough and punched in the numbers. The call went straight to voice mail.

She disconnected without leaving a message, not sure what to say. “Thank you” seemed inadequate. “I forgive you” seemed inappropriate, especially once she realized she wasn’t sure, exactly, what he was apologizing for.

Her thoughts an unresolved jumble of doubt and hope, she went up to bed, turning off lights behind her. She set the little hand-carved rabbit on her nightstand and stared at it for hours as the light of the almost full moon shone in through the sheer curtain, painting a pale slanted beam that slowly shifted across the floor as night wore on toward a new day.

She finally drifted off to sleep, comforted by the certainty that she’d track him down tomorrow. There were words that needed to be said, words they both needed to hear. But she wasn’t going anywhere and tomorrow was soon enough. They had plenty of time to sort things out.

* * *

Part 10 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.

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A Place to Start, part 8

We’re getting close to the end, now. Are you relieved? Can’t wait for it to be over? Are you even still reading?

If you’re reading over here for the first time — welcome! — this is the eighth installment of a 25,000-word (actually, more like 26,000) novella. It begins here, if you feel inclined to read the earlier posts.

It’s a Monday and probably you all are exhausted, so I’ll keep this one short. No, it’s okay, no need to thank me. I hope you enjoy it.

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One: Winter

by KD James

Jo pulled the truck into a parking spot with plenty of empty space around it, still feeling a bit shaky from the experience of driving what felt like a parade float down the winding mountain road into town. As well stocked as the kitchen was, it didn’t have the necessary ingredients to make brownies. Or anything else appropriate to bring to a Christmas potluck. And there was no way she was going to show up empty handed.

The string of tiny decorative cowbells over the door announced her arrival in the store, but the woman at the register was already headed in her direction. “Oh, my stars,” she said, looking a bit misty-eyed. “It’s been an age since I saw that truck pull in here. Took me right back, I tell you, and for a minute there I imagined . . . well, never mind the ramblings of a foolish old woman. You must be Joanna, John’s grandbaby.”

Jo was afraid the woman was going to envelop her in sturdy arms and a cloud of perfume and tears and she quickly grabbed a shopping basket from the stack by the door as a form of defense. She wasn’t used to being hugged by strangers. “Hello, yes, I’m Jo. Nice to meet you.”

“So very pleased to see you here, Jo. I’m June. You just let me know if there’s anything I can help you with. Anything at all.”

Jo nodded her thanks and said, “I just need to pick up a few things. I’m sure I can find what I need.”

There were a couple other customers in the store and Jo smiled at them as she made her way up and down the crowded aisles. The store was an eclectic mash-up of groceries and hardware and home goods. She selected a box mix of brownies that she knew from experience was as good as homemade, and splurged on a small package of chocolate truffles for herself. And a nice steak for dinner. She was surprised to find a decent bottle of merlot and added that to her cart as well.

She got in line behind another customer and June talked right over him. “Heard you spent a couple days snowed in up to Mac’s cabin.”

The man turned and gave her a surprised look. “Snowed in, you say? Hope that boy treated you right, missy.”

“Oh yes, he was a perfect gentleman. Took very good care of me.” She squelched all thoughts of just how good.

June gave her a sympathetic look. “Good thing he was out on the mountain that night, helping with the rescue efforts. He’s been vigilant like that, these past few years. Ever since–”

“Junie,” the man interrupted, “now, you know the man don’t appreciate idle talk ’bout that.”

“It ain’t idle talk, Fred Cartwright, and don’t you be telling me what I can and can’t say in my own place of business.” June huffed like a bird with ruffled feathers. “It’s just a shame, is all, how that girl’s death changed the man. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

The man, Fred, nodded in agreement. “That’s the truth of it. Damn shame.”

Jo wondered who had died and what it had to do with Mac. It wasn’t her place to ask, but apparently her curiosity was pretty much out of control where Mac was concerned.

She had to ask. “I don’t mean to gossip, but–”

“Hush now, ain’t no such thing. We’re all family up here. It ain’t gossip to talk about the people you love.”

“Someone died?”

“Oh, hon, it was a tragedy. Pretty girl, full of energy, but flighty with it like some city folk are. Y’know? Took a curve too fast out on the main road and it was snowing and, well, she went over the edge. We had the old guardrails, back then.”

“Took a while before we could get down to her,” Fred said. “Not that it mattered. Coroner said she died on impact.”

June shook her head sadly as Fred paid for his groceries and said goodbye and went on his way. “Poor Mac, he ain’t been the same since.”

“That’s very sad. A terrible way to die. But what does it have to do with Mac?”

June rang up items as she talked. “That’s the saddest thing. That girl, Carly I believe her name was, she and Mac were an item. Word was they were about to get engaged. He was the first one to make it down to her car that night. And just days before Christmas too. Such a shame.”

Jo handed over her debit card and stared at the woman, speechless. “Shame” hardly seemed to cover it.

“But that’s all in the past, hon. Don’t you fret about it none. Why, it’s going on three years now.” She handed Jo the receipt and the bag of groceries. “Will we see you tomorrow at the potluck?”

“Yes. Yes, I’ll be there.”

“That’s good then. Merry Christmas!”

“And the same to you, June.”

Jo put her groceries in the truck and climbed back up into the cab and just sat there in the parking lot, turning over this new piece of information about Mac. He’d been in love, practically engaged, and the woman had died horribly. Sliding off a mountain road during a snowstorm. Not unlike her own situation, except she hadn’t been speeding and had been stopped by the guardrail. A very sturdy, new guardrail.

She started the truck and drove back up to her cabin, slowly, carefully. Thinking about what Mac had said about her not belonging here on the mountain.

* * *

Christmas Day dawned bright for Jo, with sunshine and warmer temperatures and a muzzy head from overindulging in red wine and chocolate the night before. She’d had quite the pity party, but there were some things a girl just had to do when faced with an impossible situation. And why she was still thinking about Mac at all was anyone’s guess.

The truth was, she liked him. More than liked him. And she was beginning to think that what she’d first seen as arrogant controlling behavior was perhaps an overly protective streak born out of tragedy. The knowledge didn’t make his attitude acceptable, but it went a long way toward trying to understand it.

After a morning spent unable to concentrate on anything and wandering listlessly from one window to the next, each of which showcased spectacular views of the mountainside, Jo packed up her brownies and headed down to Maybelle’s diner.

The diner had seemed vaguely familiar when she’d driven by yesterday, but she was taken straight back twenty years in time when she stepped inside. She remembered coming here as a child. Remembered the linoleum counters and red upholstered stools banded in strips of silver metal. The laminated menus and individual jukeboxes at each booth and how her grandpa had let her punch the buttons, selecting songs to play. And the milkshakes, thick and rich and served with almost an entire second helping in the metal tumbler.

She could almost smell the lingering wisps of homemade pie and hash browns and chicken fried steak. But today the air was redolent with the smells of Christmas, of turkey and ham and all the trimmings.

She set her plate of brownies with the other desserts, relieved to see Mac wasn’t there. Not that she had expected him to be. She made small talk with the people she’d already met and they, in turn, introduced her to others until it was all she could do to keep the names and faces straight in her mind. Everyone welcomed her. And hugged her. Everyone offered condolences and had a remembrance to share with her about her grandpa. The unhesitating acceptance was overwhelming, the sense of community unlike anything she’d ever experienced before.

She’d gone back for a second helping of dressing and gravy when the door opened and a man walked in on a gust of cold air. He was tall and well built and outrageously handsome and he looked so much like Mac that she caught her breath for a moment before she realized it wasn’t him.

“Cameron McIntyre!” Maybelle’s voice bellowed out over the din of conversation as she made her way over to greet him. “Well, aren’t you a sight for these old eyes.”

“Maybelle, love, I’ve been pining for ye all the time I’ve been away.” He swooped the woman up in a great twirling hug and gave her a big noisy smack of a kiss on her cheek. “What does a man have to do to get a decent meal around here, lass?”

“Oh, go on with you now,” she said, blushing like a woman half her age. “Come in and let me make you a plate.”

He waded into the crowd like a conquering hero, this man who had to be Mac’s brother, laughing and talking to everyone, slapping men on the back and kissing women on the cheek. He exuded charisma like heat from a bonfire and his Scottish accent was as pronounced as it was charming. He was like Mac dialed up to eleven.

And Jo wasn’t the least bit attracted to him.

He made his way over to where she was standing by the counter and gave her one of the sexiest and most blatantly flirtatious smiles she’d ever seen. This man was potent and he knew it.

“I don’t believe we’ve met, lass. I’d’ve remembered it.” He reached for the hand she extended and held it in his, the gallantry as natural as breathing.

Maybelle set a plate of food in front of him and he thanked her for it, without once looking away from Jo. The intensity was flattering, but she felt no spark of attraction. Neither, she suspected, did he.

“Cam, this is Jo Mitchell,” Maybelle said, “John Blanton’s granddaughter. Jo, this here rascal is Mac’s brother Cameron.”

An expression of genuine sadness crossed his face, and she liked him for it. “Ach, lass, I’m sorry for your loss. John Blanton was a good man.”

“Thank you, Cam. It’s nice to meet you.” She retrieved her hand and forked up a bite of dressing from the plate she held in the other.

Maybelle continued with the introduction. “Jo spent a couple days snowed in up to Mac’s cabin, after the recent storm.”

Cam snorted in disbelief. “Snowed in? My brother was snowed in? Not bloody likely.”

Jo gave him an assessing look and ate another bite of dressing, keeping her expression deadpan. “Oh, but it’s true. We were trapped. Desperate. Had to eat rabbits to survive.”

“Subjected to the full force of my brother’s charm, were ye, lass?”

“It was harrowing.”

Cam threw back his head and let out a full-throated roar of laughter that turned heads. “Jo Mitchell, you’re a pure delight. I think I’m in love.”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “I think you’re weak from hunger, Cam McIntyre. Have some dressing and gravy, it’s delicious.” She ate another bite and smiled up at him. This man was thoroughly charming, but he had nothing on his older brother.

* * *

Part 9 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.

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A Place to Start, part 7

I want to take a minute to publicly thank McB, who read an early draft of this story and offered valuable feedback. I’ve always disliked the term “beta reader.” That sounds to me like someone who would agree with everything you say and tell you how pretty you are, while secretly confiding to your friends how deeply concerned they are about your uncombed hair and inability to construct a decent paragraph. So I consider myself extremely fortunate to have friends who are kick-ass delta readers— avid voracious consumers of books who are intelligent and perceptive and courageous enough to tell you when you screw things up or have spinach stuck in your teeth. Thanks, McB. You did it on short notice and at a time when you had many other things to do and I appreciate it.

Once again, with apologies for the repetition, if you’ve just discovered this blog and are wondering why I’ve put some random piece of a story up as a blog post, I’m in the process of posting installments of a 25,000-word novella over here as a gift to my readers. Delta readers, every one of them. If you’re interested and want to read from the beginning, you can find the first post here.

Moving right along, slowly but surely, here is the seventh installment of the story. Hope you enjoy it. Feel free to complain to McB if you don’t. She can handle it. (And no, Trace, she will not send you the rest of the story. Not even if you beg. Because I know where the bodies are buried. Of course, so does she.) (Dear NSA, totally kidding about the bodies. Really. Inside joke. No bodies here, move along.)

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

Jo got up off the floor and wiped away the tears and gave herself a stern talking to. She’d had a plan when she decided to come up here and she needed to stick to it. Mac had been a diversion, a very pleasant one certainly, but he was just that. A diversion. Ample evidence that impulsive decisions were a bad idea.

Yes, she’d slept with him. Yes, it was mind-blowingly good. So what. People had casual sex and one night stands all the time. Just because she never had didn’t mean she couldn’t start now. Time to move on. She ignored the pain in the vicinity of her heart and looked around her grandpa’s cabin.

Oh yes. This was the cabin she remembered. The rough timbers and the vaulted ceiling and the natural stone of the massive fireplace covering the far wall. Even the oversized leather couches and chairs that had made her feel small and insignificant as a child. Not that she’d spent much time inside that summer.

She hit the light switches by the door and the entire place was bathed in a warm glow of familiarity. It all came flooding back. Except the thing she remembered most vividly was not the look of the place but the sound of her grandpa’s rough voice calling to her, telling her to be back in time for supper, to stop daydreaming and wash up, to leave the jar of dirt and leaves and bugs outside, to put down the book and go to bed, to get up and rise and shine and drink her milk and brush her teeth.

And where as a child she’d heard stern disapproval, the woman she was now heard the gruff affection and enduring love of a man unsure of how to deal with a child’s pain and loneliness.

Memories of that summer swamped her and the years seemed to fall away, leaving her painfully aware of how stifling and serious and restrained her life had become. Left her yearning for a simpler time. A time so clearly remembered now, being here in this place, she wondered how the memory could ever have dimmed.

Her reminiscing was interrupted by the sound of a truck coming up the drive. Only it sounded like more than one truck.

She went to the door and opened it and saw a pair of pickup trucks had come to a stop in front of the cabin. A middle-aged woman hopped down from the one closest to the front door and walked toward her.

“Hey, there. You must be Joanna. I’m Lucy. Lucy Graham? Your grandpa was a friend.”

“Hello. Yes, of course. Lucy Graham. I saw your name mentioned in the— um, yes, hello. Nice to meet you.”

The woman let loose a gale of easy laughter and walked right over to Jo and wrapped her arms around her in a big strong hug of warmth and welcome. “Hon, I can see from the look on your face just exactly where you’ve heard my name. I swear, that man and his twisted sense of humor.”

Jo braced herself for an explanation that was perhaps too personal, remembering the substantial bequest her grandpa had made to this woman. Among others.

“Your grandpa was a friend, to both me and my husband, Del.” She motioned to the driver of the other pickup truck. “He came to stay with us toward the end, when he couldn’t shake the pneumonia and it got tough to be on his own. It always tickled him no end to pretend there was something flirtatious between us. And me and Del, well, we allowed it. John Blanton was a good man, may God rest his soul. I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Flirtatious? Jo stifled a cringe at the thought. She couldn’t imagine her grandpa ever being flirtatious. But she realized that whatever else this woman was, she was a friend. “I’m sorry for your loss as well. I’m not– he was– ” She cleared her throat and started over. “We’d drifted apart and sort of lost touch. We talked on the phone a few times a year, but I hadn’t seen him—” Why was this so hard? She hadn’t once gotten emotional talking about her grandpa in the months since he died. Why now? “It always seemed like there would be time—” She stopped, too choked with regret to continue. Too late.

“Oh, hon. That’s just the way of things. My own kids are the same, always busy. But your grandpa, he loved you like nothing else.”

“He came to my college graduation. It was such a wonderful surprise, but then he refused to stay, said he had to get back.”

“I remember that. He talked about you all the time. We all are just so thrilled to see you back here, all grown up and successful and happy. It’s all he ever wanted for you.”

Jo swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you, Lucy. It means the world to me to hear that. Being here like this . . . well, I miss him.”

Lucy patted her arm in a show of compassion. “Del and me, we been keeping John’s truck at our place since he passed. But now you’re here and we figured you might need a way to get around, seeing as how your car got all tore up the other night. We stopped off at Mac’s place first. He said you were up here.”

“Oh my. That’s grandpa’s truck?” She ignored the mention of Mac and looked at the truck in front of her with its extended cab and oversized tires and gleaming chrome dual exhaust pipes and hoped Lucy was joking.

“Quite a piece of work, ain’t she?”

“Yes.”

“You won’t have no trouble getting around in the snow with this beauty, that’s for damned sure. John had toolboxes mounted toward the rear on either side of the bed. His tools are still in ’em. Plenty of weight for traction.” Lucy handed her a set of keys.

Jo stared at the keys as if they were a live snake. “I’m not really used to driving something that big. Maybe I should rent a car instead.”

“Hon, ain’t nothing to it. If you can drive a car, this truck is a piece of cake. Is your mom coming up tomorrow for Christmas?”

“My mom? Here?” The sudden change of topic caught her off guard and the mere suggestion of her mother coming to visit made her stomach clench with apprehension. Her mother hated it up here “in the sticks” as she called it. “No. Mother and I don’t really celebrate Christmas anymore. She’s busy in the city with Stan and I always have work and–”

“So you don’t have plans? That’s perfect.” There was an unholy glee on Lucy’s face that Jo had previously attributed only to co-workers assigned the chore of recruiting volunteers for their kids’ school activities.

“Perfect for what?” She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“A bunch of us have Christmas dinner every year at Maybelle’s diner. All the singles and loners and people whose kids done flown the coop. You should come.”

Christmas dinner with a group of strangers. That sounded innocent enough. Better than spending the evening here alone. She needed to get to know people if she was going to spend time up here. More than that, she realized she wanted to meet them, these people who had known her grandpa.

“I’d love to come. What time should I be there?”

“We start snacking around three o’clock or so. It’s pot luck, for the most part, so bring whatever strikes your fancy.”

“Pot luck? But I don’t have anything here to–”

Del chose that moment to tap on the horn and lean out the truck window. “Woman, I ain’t got all day to wait on your yammering.” He paused a moment and said, “Hey there, Miss Mitchell. Condolences on your loss.” He grabbed the bill of his cap and adjusted its fit on his head. “Lucy, you figure on wrapping this up any time soon? ‘Cause I can come back in a day or two.”

Lucy laughed and waved her hand in good-natured dismissal. “Men. Can’t live with ’em and can’t bury ’em until someone kills them for you. Joanna, we’ll sure be pleased to see you tomorrow for dinner.”

“It’s Jo. I go by Jo. And I’ll be there. Thank you, Lucy.”

“Jo, then. See you tomorrow.”

Lucy turned and made her way over to the truck where her husband waited impatiently, his mock scowl not hiding the affection he clearly felt for his wife.

Jo hadn’t thought about the possibility of meeting people up here, hadn’t thought much at all about the people who had known her grandpa. It hadn’t been part of her plan. And here was Lucy, a woman who had cared for Jo’s grandpa, who had known him well enough to joke with him and be flirtatious with him and was significant enough to him that he’d left her a sizeable sum in his Will. Lucy, who had hugged her and welcomed her without hesitation and invited her to eat dinner with strangers in a place where it seemed there were no strangers.

Jo felt her carefully laid plans make yet another subtle shift and realized she no longer really cared whether she got it all back under control.

* * *

She spent the next couple hours settling in and reacquainting herself with her grandpa’s cabin. Many things were the same, but much had changed. A fourth bedroom had been added on the main floor, a master suite with full bath attached, complete with ADA fixtures that would have made access easier for a man his age. Grandpa hadn’t been disabled, but he’d accumulated the usual limitations and aches and pains of a man who’d lived 92 years.

There was a sturdy handrail beside the shallow steps leading down into the living area and a subtly disguised ramp had been constructed outside, bypassing the steep stairs that led down to the deck.

She’d pulled the truck into the garage earlier, not wanting to clear snow or ice off it if another storm came through, and noticed that the walkway between the garage and house had been covered. And the area in between where cords of firewood were stored and that used to be open-sided now had a solid wall across the back that would block the wind coming down off the mountain.

There were several similar changes, little touches that had surely made his life more comfortable, and she was glad her grandpa had been practical enough to have them made. Conditions could be harsh up here on the mountain and she’d often worried about him living alone at his age.

Of course, he’d scoffed at her concern every time they talked. If he’d had any weaknesses, he sure hadn’t shared them. They hadn’t even known he was sick until it was too late to see him again.

She made her way into the kitchen, wondering whether there was anything in the cupboards she could pull together for lunch. As intimidated as she was by the thought of driving the oversized truck, she needed to go into town and get food.

She opened the fridge out of habit more than anything else. It had been almost ten months since her grandpa had died. If anything were left in the fridge, it was no doubt approaching sentience by now, just waiting to be released.

She was shocked to see the fridge was completely stocked with fresh food. Who would have done this? She hadn’t told anyone she was coming. She’d planned to arrive early enough that contacting someone to get a key once she got there wouldn’t have been a problem. And if it were a problem, she’d have just rented a room at the motel in town until arrangements could be made. But this. This was not done in anticipation of her visit.

And then she realized the obvious. Mac had done this. He’d stayed here with her grandpa on occasion and, as far as she knew, was free to come and go as he pleased. There was no reason to think that had changed after her grandpa died. She went over to the pantry and opened the door. Fully stocked as well. And with many of the same items she’d found stocked in Mac’s cabin, right down to the MREs. Clearly, he was a genius when it came to long-term emergency food planning.

And just as clearly, spending a couple days “trapped” at Mac’s rustic cabin had been unnecessary, given that this place was an easy hike away, even with the snow. Never mind her injured foot and lack of easy mobility, this place with all its amenities would have been the sensible place to take shelter. Provided he’d been at all interested in comfort.

No longer hungry, she climbed the stairs to the second floor, alert now to other signs of Mac’s presence. She found what she was looking for in the smallest of the three bedrooms, the one at the front of the cabin that had the best view. The same one she’d occupied as a child. There was a large worn duffel bag sitting on the neatly made bed, still fully packed. She unzipped it and everything in it smelled like him. She grabbed a fistful of the shirt on top and buried her face in it and her senses were assaulted with memories of Mac and his touch and his taste and his gentle care.

She felt a sharp pang of longing and the hot sting of tears and shoved the shirt back into the bag, zipping it closed. Well, that explained why he hadn’t had a change of clothes earlier. She wondered why he’d left the bag here when doing so meant he’d been as inconvenienced by staying at his cabin as she had been. It indicated a lack of planning on his part and made her wonder whether keeping her there had been a spur of the moment decision.

She decided it didn’t matter, the result was the same either way. She heaved the duffel off the bed and dragged it behind her as she went back downstairs. She set it next to the front door, resolving to drop it off at his cabin on her way into town.

She went back into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. She hadn’t had anything to eat since the slice of cinnamon bread she’d eaten that morning while standing at the window in Mac’s cabin, admiring the view. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

She should have been ravenous. Instead, she knew she was going to have to force herself to eat.

She’d put a couple slices of cheese and salami between two pieces of bread and was about to bite into it when she heard the sound of a truck in the drive. Somehow, she knew this time that it was Mac. He knocked on the door as she walked toward it and she prepared herself to give him a piece of her mind if he was there to continue their argument. She didn’t care what he said, she was not leaving.

She opened the door and he was standing there with her backpack and suitcase in his hand. In her anger, she’d forgotten about them.

“Thought you’d want these.” He set them down just inside the door without stepping across the threshold.

“Thank you.” She was still angry and not ready to forgive him. She had no tolerance for people who thought she needed to be told what do to. But her anger hadn’t diminished her attraction to him. He was as handsome and rough and distant as ever, yet somehow lacking his usual confidence. As if he were unsure of himself. It made him even more appealing.

She leaned over and picked up his duffel and held it out. “Yours?”

He nodded and took it from her. Then handed her a business card. “My numbers are on here. Call me when you’re ready to head back to the city. I’ll arrange something.”

She glanced at it, saw the name of a prominent architecture firm and then looked back up at him in surprise. This was his backer? Why would they be interested in a piece of land way up here in the mountains? “You work for Duncan McIntyre? In Atlanta?”

He stood there, silent, the moment stretching between them. The look he gave her was inscrutable. “I am Duncan McIntyre.”

And then he left. Just got in his Jeep and drove back down the mountain and left her there, stunned, as her mind reeled with the new knowledge of who he was. And what that meant.

Mac was Duncan McIntyre.

He was an architect. A famous and wildly successful commercial architect, the principal of a firm that bore his name. She remembered the article she’d read in a glossy magazine while waiting at the dentist a couple months ago. It had profiled his company and his success as one of the hottest up-and-coming architects, raving about his talent for seamlessly fitting his designs into the natural surroundings of a place. Of making use of nature rather than razing it to make room for a building.

The article had painted him as something of a recluse, unwilling to talk about himself or his personal life, refusing to have his photo appear with the article. He was quoted as saying that any so-called legacy he left behind should be about the creations, not the man. He was reportedly worth millions, the worth of his company approaching the billion mark. He’d won dozens of awards and was in high demand, turning down lucrative deals when they didn’t meet his standards.

And she’d complimented him on his skill at making crutches.

She cringed as she remembered dismissing his design for a house as being completely lacking in warmth, a design without a heart. How amused he must have been by her gauche opinions. Oh God, and then she’d insulted his earning power and financial ability to buy her property, assuming he must be working for someone else. She wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear.

Instead, she looked around at her grandpa’s cabin with fresh eyes. She thought about all the improvements she’d noticed and saw them with new insight.

Mac was the one who had added all the little touches, and some pretty big ones, that had made her grandpa’s last years more comfortable. She was sure of it. As sure as she’d ever been about anything.

And suddenly it all made sense. Of course he wanted to buy the cabin, he’d practically re-built the entire thing. He’d made this place what it was today. His consideration and hard work were in every touch, every detail. Mac wasn’t a mere caretaker. He’d done so much more than take care of the place where her grandpa lived, he’d cared about the man and his quality of life.

He was one hell of an architect. More than that, he was one hell of a man. And she was beginning to realize the extent to which she’d misjudged him, on both counts.

* * *

Part 8 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.

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