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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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A Place to Start, part 6

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

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

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

A Place to Start

A McIntyre Novella

Book One:  Winter

by KD James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes, she knew this place.

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

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

“You recognize it.”

“Yes. I’ve been here before.”

“How long?”

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

“You didn’t say anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what is it about?”

“I’m prepared to buy it from you.”

“You— what?

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

The land. Of course it was about the land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t just leave you here.”

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

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

“Damn it, Jo–”

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

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

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

She wondered whether she’d ever feel warm again.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloody hell. He missed her.

* * *

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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