Hello! If you’re just joining us, I’m in the process of posting a 25,000-word novella on my blog. In however many installments it takes. As a gift to my long-time readers over here. Clearly, neither they nor I are daunted by the prospect of a story being delivered in the most cumbersome and drawn out way imaginable.
The first post is here, if you’d like to go back and start at the beginning. It’s entirely possible the story might make more sense if you do.
This is the second installment. I hope you enjoy it enough to come back for more. And perhaps even feel compelled to share the link with others. Sharing is good.
A Place to Start
A McIntyre Novella
Book One: Winter
by KD James
When Jo woke the next morning, she mentally added one more item to the list of things she hadn’t been prepared for: a grouch of a man named Mac. She’d never known a man who could scowl with such ferocity, not even her grandpa.
Last night, he had fed her and shown her where the bathroom was and then positioned the huge couch so it was directly in front of the fire, moving the heavy solid thing around like it was doll furniture. By the time he gruffly told her to get some sleep before firmly closing the door to the sole bedroom behind him, Jo had been almost entirely sure this was not her grandpa’s cabin.
It had been 20 years since she’d seen the place, and she’d only been eight at the time so maybe her memory was a bit sketchy, but things didn’t change that drastically. Not even over the course of two decades. Like the fact that her grandpa’s cabin had once had three bedrooms. And a nicely equipped full-sized kitchen. And a second story.
But she’d been exhausted and had drifted off to sleep before she could make sense of it.
Squinting now at the morning sun streaming in through a window, she lay snuggled in the warm cocoon of blankets and wondered what this place was. And why Mac had seemed willing to let her think it was John’s cabin. Clearly it wasn’t. He must not know she’d ever seen the place. She thought back over what she remembered of their conversation the night before, but it had been mostly just her rambling on, unable to stop talking.
Maybe he hadn’t wanted to upset her further. That must be it.
Well, today was a new day. The sun was shining and the storm had passed and she was eager to go see the old place again. Her new place. She was struck with a familiar pang of regret. She’d always thought she would be seeing her grandpa again as well. She’d waited too long, had hesitated too many times over the years, thinking there’d be plenty of time, later. Now it was too late.
She moved to get up and groaned in pain. Every single muscle and bone in her body hurt. She sat up and was hit by a draft of cool air as she remembered all she was wearing was her underwear and a t-shirt. The fire had burned down to embers during the night.
She pulled the blankets back up over her shoulders, wondering where Mac was this morning. The cabin was quiet. The bedroom door was closed so maybe he wasn’t awake yet.
She stood up, wrapping herself in a blanket, and winced as she put weight on her left foot. She looked down and saw her toes were a lovely shade of dark purple and swollen to twice their size. She’d known tripping on that step was going to hurt eventually. Then she realized she was standing on a neatly folded pile of clothing. Sweatpants, a flannel shirt and a pair of thick wool socks. All men’s size extra large. One touch confirmed that her own clothes were far from dry and she put on the items Mac had left for her, grateful for his consideration.
“Mac? Are you awake?” No answer.
She hobbled over to the bedroom door and knocked quietly, not wanting to disturb his sleep, but wanting to get on with the day. “Mac?” Still no answer. She gently turned the knob and pushed the door open slowly, just a couple inches. And was hit by a blast of bitterly cold air. The room was empty, as was the bed, with just a sheet pulled over the top of it.
Good lord, the man had slept in here with the door closed, shutting out heat from the other room, with only a sheet as a cover? Was he insane? Why would he do that? He should have– well, she wasn’t sure what he should have done instead. Maybe he normally slept on the couch by the fire. Great. She couldn’t wait to see his scowl after a night spent freezing to death because of her.
She pulled the bedroom door closed just as the front door opened, letting in a fresh gust of cold air and a fully bundled, broadly smiling Mac. The transformation was incredible. Maybe it was just seeing him in daylight instead of shadow, but Jo didn’t think so. She’d thought he was reasonably attractive last night, and impressive just based on size and strength alone, but seeing the man smile . . . he was devastating. And much younger than she’d thought. Mid-thirties, at most.
She wanted the scowl back. She desperately wanted him to frown at her again. Oh, this was not fair, for a man to be as gorgeous as Mac was when he smiled.
“Good afternoon,” he said, stomping snow off his boots on the newly cleared threshold before coming in. “We ended up with about six inches. Looks like we’re stuck here until the plows can get through.”
“Afternoon? But the sun . . .” She looked at the rays of light slanting through the window. How long had she slept, anyway?
He gave her an odd look. “That window faces west.” Then he smiled again. “I brought us dinner.” He raised one arm and it looked like– she gulped audibly. It looked like he was holding a pair of freshly skinned rabbits.
Oh, dear God. Her stomach lurched sickeningly and her hands felt suddenly clammy, but she forced a smile. “Rabbits. How nice.”
And then she mumbled a quick, “excuse me,” turned and took two hobbling steps in the floppy too big socks and shut herself in the bathroom, sitting down before she passed out right in front of him. She had a feeling it would be a very bad idea to show this man any weakness. And they were stuck here together for the foreseeable future. Add one more item to the steadily growing list of things she hadn’t planned for.
“I can do this,” she whispered to the small cold room, “I can eat rabbit.” It wouldn’t be the first time. But she promised herself it would be the last.
* * *
Mac watched Jo turn pale at the sight of fresh game and almost regretted he hadn’t washed off more of the blood before he brought the rabbits inside. Almost. The goal was to get her to leave, not to coddle her or shield her from the reality of life on the mountain. He conveniently dismissed all thoughts of the well-stocked country store a few miles down the main road. A road that had already been plowed. And never mind the delicious breakfast he’d eaten at Maybelle’s diner at the crack of dawn. Nope, Jo was getting rabbit stew. There was nothing wrong with a hearty rabbit stew.
It had been a long hike into town, stopping to set snares along the way, but he needed to let Charlie know not to plow the private road leading to his cabin. Not for a few days, at least. He hadn’t planned to eat while he was there, but Maybelle had dished up a plate the minute she saw him. It would have been rude to refuse. Besides, a man needed nourishment if he was going to put in a full day’s work roughing it in the wild.
He heard the rattle of protest as water surged through the bathroom pipes for the first time in months. Heard water splashing and a startled gasp as she realized “frigid” was as warm as it was going to get. Maybe he should turn up the temperature setting on the water heater just a bit. No, he decided. Hot water was a luxury. Hell, even indoor plumbing wasn’t something to take for granted up here.
Any lingering regret hardened into determination. Things on the mountain could turn tough at any given moment. Lives could be lost just as quickly. She needed to know it. Before she made some dewy-eyed decision to live up here on her own.
He took the rabbits into the kitchen to finish cleaning them. He sensed Jo come up behind him before he heard her. She was quiet in stocking feet. He gave her an appraising glance. She should have looked ridiculous in his oversized clothes. Instead, she just looked like she was . . . his. Where the hell had that thought come from?
“Do I smell coffee?” Her voice had that same edge he always felt before his first cup of the day.
He nodded at the pot he had made hours earlier and watched her limp over to pour some into a cup he’d left out for her. He liked it strong, but it had to be thick as tar by now. “I can make fresh,” he said.
She took a tentative sip and he could tell she fought a grimace. “No. This is good.” She smiled, a bit too brightly, and took another sip. “Do you have cream? Or sugar?”
“Why are you limping?”
“What? Oh, I bumped my foot last night. It’s nothing.”
He put the rabbits aside and washed and dried his hands. “Sit. Let me take a look.”
“Really, I’m fine.”
He pulled a chair out from the table. “Sit.”
She heaved a big sigh, but set her coffee cup on the table before she eased slowly into the chair. She moved like every inch of her was in pain. Probably was. Damned foolish thing she’d done last night, setting off alone in the dark in a snowstorm. But it wasn’t for him to scold her. He knelt in front of her and pulled the sock off her left foot. She winced and he swore when he saw why.
“This was more than just a bump. What happened?”
He could see her weighing the possibilities, as if considering whether to lie, then she shrugged. “I tripped on the front steps. It didn’t even hurt at the time. I don’t think anything’s broken.”
He clenched his jaw, ignoring both her assertion and her sharply indrawn breath as he flexed and straightened each bruised and swollen toe himself, before carefully sliding the sock back over her foot. He examined the right foot as well, but it was uninjured. “You’ll heal.”
He stood up and retrieved a bag of frozen peas from the small freezer compartment above the fridge. He pulled out the second chair, moved it close enough for her to rest her leg on it, and then handed her the peas. “Elevate and ice. Let me know when this melts, I’ve got more.”
She gave the bag an odd look before she took it and he realized it was a bit battered. An ice pack was the only good use he could think of for frozen peas and these had seen their share of duty. Maybe it was time to invest in new ones.
“There’s ibuprofen in the bath–”
“I saw the bottle on the counter. Thanks, I already took some.”
He nodded approval and turned back to the rabbits, furious with himself that she’d been hurt. It didn’t make sense, he knew that, he hadn’t even found her yet when it had happened. But that didn’t matter. She was in his place and that meant he was responsible for her. John wouldn’t have expected less.
He heard her make a small noise of distress and turned quickly. She was staring apprehensively at the sharp butcher knife in his hand. No doubt his anger had caused him to be a bit too forceful while cutting the rabbits into pieces. He very deliberately set the knife down, washed his hands and got out a heavy skillet for browning the meat.
“I think I’ll just go sit on the couch for a while. Unless,” she hesitated, “do you need any help in here?”
“Nope. I got this.”
“I could maybe peel a few vegetables. If you have any?”
He heard the question in her voice and ignored it. “I like to cook. It relaxes me.”
“Okay then. Great. That’s good, relaxing is good.”
She stood and took a tentative step, wincing again. Goddammit. Before she could protest, and he knew she would, he put one arm around her back and the other under her legs and four long strides later set her and her bag of peas on the couch. Seconds later he was back, handing her the cup of coffee.
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Definitely not trusting himself to stare at the pretty blush on her smooth cheeks. What the hell was wrong with him?
He stalked back into the kitchen. She wanted vegetables in her stew? Fine, he’d peel her some damned vegetables. And while he was doing it, he certainly wouldn’t be thinking about how good she smelled. Or how good she’d felt in his arms. He hoped she liked carrots and parsnips. He hadn’t stocked up on vegetables, since he hadn’t planned to stay here again until spring, and didn’t think there was much else left in the root cellar.
This was going to be one hell of a long week.
* * *
Part 3 has been posted; check the sidebar for a link.