Snow pelted the windshield and crusted on the wiper blades. "We should go back. At least there are people and parking lots in Breezewood," M.J. said.
"Do you see any place where we can safely turn around? There's no room, and pulling off a u-turn next this cliff on ice is not my idea of a good time. We're doing okay. This thing has amazing traction."
A billboard loomed ahead of them and read: Mountain Bliss Cabins,
Turn right, one mile.
M.J. pointed to the sign. "Maybe we should try there."
"Good idea. This stuff is turning to pure ice. We have the snack food and drinks I picked up before we left Breezewood. That'll at least get us through the night." Brady tapped the brakes and slowed the van to a crawl before making the right turn.
Ahead, a blanket of pure white buried the road. He stopped. "I don't know about this."
"Just drive straight down the middle and go slow. We can't possibly hit anybody. We're the only fools out in this."
He pressed the gas pedal, the wheels spun, and the van lurched forward. Tree branches, weighted down with heavy snow, smacked against the sides of vehicle.
"Stop!" M.J. shrieked.
Reflexively, Brady stomped on the brake. The van spun around, slid sideways, then nose-dived off the road and into a ditch.
For a moment, the two of them sat in stunned silence. Brady broke the silence. "What the hell is wrong with you, screaming for me to stop?"
"You missed the turn into the cabins. It was back there."
"You couldn't have just said, 'Excuse me, Brady, but we need to turn here.' You had to yell? I thought you saw a deer or something."
"Well, back up out of this ditch and turn around."
Brady opened his door and walked around the van. He returned and stood staring at her. "This van isn't going anywhere. One rear wheel is completely off the ground. You'll need to climb across the seat and come out my side."
"Can't you rock it?"
"Rock it? This thing weighs a ton. Are you crazy? Come on. We'll walk back to the cabins." He was already behind the van, removing their bags and the supplies.
M.J. worked her way over the console and to the driver's door. Given the angle of the vehicle, the drop to the ground was nearly five feet. "Brady, can you give me a hand here?"
"Sure." He stood and opened his arms, waiting for her to leap into them.
"I just need a hand down."
"Fine." He stepped back and offered his hand.
M.J. clutched his hand and stepped out of the van. And she sank into freezing snow up to the middle of her calves. "Holy…" She shivered. "I can't walk in this."
"Get back into the van and wait for me. I'll go and see if they have a truck or a snowmobile or something. Don't keep the engine running, though. I don't know how much damage we've done."
"We? You were driving." He glared at her, and she considered silence might be her best option. "Fine. Boost me back up. God, I can't feel my feet."
He gave her a lift up and then reached into his duffle and produced a towel. "Here, you can dry off with this. Don't worry. It's clean."
"You packed your own towels?"
"I don't like hotel towels. You should be grateful. Don't go anywhere, and don't let the bears in."
"Bears?" But he was gone before she could protest any further.
"Don't let the bears in," she muttered. Her frozen fingers fumbled in her purse to locate her cell phone. She flipped it open and stared at the little phone circling the screen: Searching for service. "This is just great. How can I be on the top of a mountain and not get a cell signal?" She shoved the useless device back into her purse.
Ten minutes later, a growling sound made her whirl around in her seat. A snowmobile sputtered its way toward the van. Brady spun it around so it faced the direction from which he had come. He pulled open the door.
"We're all set. Nice, cozy cabin. A little rustic, maybe, but…"
"I don't care. I want out of this van and inside where it's warm." She clambered down, and he caught her and carried her to the snowmobile. "Your chariot awaits, m'lady. Hold on."
She wrapped her arms around his middle and pressed her cheek to his back. Ice pelted her exposed cheek and wind bit through her flimsy blazer. The vehicle jerked forward and skimmed over the tracks it had made getting to her. No cars or trucks were parked at any of the cabins or at the one marked Office. "There's no one here."
"Just you and me." He pulled up to the steps of a ramshackle log cabin. "Home, sweet home."
But she remained seated. "Did you break in?"
"Define break in. I got the door open. I didn't break anything to do it. Now get inside before you freeze to death, and I have to explain your body to the police. I'm going to check around back and see if there's more firewood. Maybe I can get some from one of the other cabins."
Again, he was gone. 'But' seemed to be a magical word that propelled him from her hearing distance. At her touch, the door creaked open and M.J. peered inside. The room was dark and smelled like old, wet fireplace. She wrinkled her nose. Stepping inside, she glanced around at the sparse and shabby furnishings. How long had it been since anyone stayed here? She heard a scratching sound and something skittered across the floor. In two strides, M.J. crossed to the center of the room and leaped up onto the wooden coffee table.
Brady appeared at the open door with an armload of cut wood.
"A m-mouse or something. It went that way." She pointed toward the kitchen area.
"Just one mouse?" He dumped the wood beside the fireplace.
"You think there are more?"
He regarded her for a moment, then said, "Of course not. They don't travel in groups. You want to wad up some newspaper so we can get a fire started? I'll get another load of wood and bring it inside to dry out."
"But the mouse…"
"I'm sure he's well hidden by now. You probably scared the daylights out of him."
"I scared him?"
"No doubt. You're starting to scare me. I'll be right back."
He closed the door, leaving her alone in the dimly-lit room.
She stared at the stack of old newspaper filling a box in the corner. Getting to it required getting down from the table. She scanned the room, but saw no movement. Slowly, she set one foot on the floor, followed by the other. She picked up one newspaper and rolled it for use as a weapon, should the rodent decide to reappear. Rolling and scrunching sheets of paper, she arranged the material in the metal grate.
Brady returned and, while he finished building the fire, she removed her laptop from its case and turned it on. The battery was low. She connected the AC cord. "Did you see a plug anywhere?"
"There aren't any."
"What do you meant there aren't any plugs? There have to be plugs."
She started to say, "But…" then hesitated, fearful the utterance would send him out of the room. "How are we supposed to have light and hot water? There is a bathroom, isn't there?"
The way he stretched the word made her nervous. "And it's indoors?"
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"There is an indoor toilet. It's out the back door, inside the outhouse."
"You have got to be kidding."
He struck a match and the newspapers burst into flame, the damp wood crackling. "I'm not amusing. You've already made that clear." He stood and brushed his hands off on his jeans. "Look, let's get a few things straight. We could be stuck here for a couple of days, so…"
"Couple of days? But it's Christmas. My family's expecting me."
"Oh, well in that case, I'll just have to make all this nasty snow go away, and I'll use my super powers to lift the van out of the ditch so you can have cocoa and gingerbread cookies all ready for Santa."
"There's no need for sarcasm."
"That wasn't sarcasm. It was realism. I'm no happier than you are to be stuck here. I'm supposed to be in a world-class, five-star resort hotel with a hot tub and a very expensive bottle of scotch. Alone. But I'm stuck here in the middle of nowhere in a bare-bones hunting cabin with you. So I suggest we find a way to make the best of it."
M.J. couldn't help it. The tears threatening throughout the day spilled their banks.
Brady frowned. "Oh, please. Don't cry. I can take anything but crying."
"I can't help it. I don't like to be yelled at."
He huffed out a breath. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell. I'm tired, and I'm just as frustrated as you are. Look, let's agree not to complain any more. There's nothing we can do about the situation, at least not tonight. I gathered up oil lamps. Let's get them lit and, if we need more, I'll scavenge one of the other cabins. Why don't you check the bedroom for blankets? We'll have to sleep out here by the fire if we're going to keep warm."
"We? You take the sofa. I'll sleep in the bedroom."
"There's no heat in there, and I doubt the fireplace with give off that much warmth. You'll freeze."
"No, I won't. Surely, as you said, there are blankets on the bed."
"Yes, and what am I supposed to use?"
She considered his efforts to be helpful to her. Without him, she would still be sitting in the
airport. At least now, she was halfway home. And the warm glow of the fire was much more inviting than the shadowed darkness of the bedroom. He was right. They were stuck together in a bad situation and both of them needed to make the best of it. Philadelphia
M.J. drew herself up to her full height, trying to look formidable. "Okay. But you should know I've studied karate and, if you try any funny stuff, I'll flip you six ways to Sunday." Some day she would look back on this and laugh. Probably not for forty years. But someday.
"Understood. I'll move the sofa over closer to the fireplace, and I'll sleep in the chair." He lit an oil lamp and handed it to her. "The bedroom is behind the half wall over there. See what kind of bedding you can find."
As Brady lit more lamps, the small cabin took on a cozy glow, and warmth emanated from the blazing fire. In other circumstances, the setting would be considered cozy, romantic. M.J. shook her head to dislodge the thought. She opened drawers and removed musty-smelling wool blankets and a set of graying, scratchy sheets. A faded comforter covered the bed and two lumps she hoped were pillows. She withdrew the comforter and a cloud of dust spewed into the air. M.J. waved a hand in front of her face and coughed.
"I'm going to trek over to the office and see if there's a way in," Brady called. "Maybe they have some staples stored there."
M.J. stuck her head around the wall. "You're leaving me here? Alone?"
He grinned. "You won't be alone. Mickey's here—somewhere." And with that happy thought, he strode out the door.
She shuddered and scanned the floor. No movement. Mickey probably had the good sense to move to another cabin. One without a century of dust. She carried the blankets to the sofa and dropped them, then returned for the dust-laden comforter. Opening the front door, she stepped out into the frigid cold. She held out the comforter and whipped it in the air the way she had seen her grandmother do with bedding. A gust of wind forced the acrid dust back into her face, and she sputtered and spat out dirt. "Crap."
She dropped the comforter on a chair and carried a lamp to the kitchen area in the back of cabin. She surveyed the few cabinets and found a mismatched set of dishes and foggy-looking drinking glasses. "Oh, yuck. Mountain Bliss my ass."
"What about your ass?"
She startled. "Never mind my ass. This place is…"
He lifted an eyebrow to her, and she halted, mid-complaint. "This cabin will at least keep us out of the cold," she continued.
"Yes, it will. And if the cabin doesn't do it, this will help." He reached into the brown bag he carried and removed two bottles. "Say hello to Scotch and Brandy."
"Is that all you…? I mean, great. Was there anything else that might be useful?"
He produced a box of instant oatmeal packets, two cans of baked beans with little wieners cut up in them, a can of potatoes, and a bag of marshmallows appearing to be just a little petrified. "Breakfast, dinner, and
M.J. bit her tongue.
"We can heat our food over the fire. I saw a cast iron skillet on the stove."
"But if there's a stove, why can't we use it?"
"Because it runs on propane, and I already checked. The tank's empty. Come on, this'll be fun. Just like Girl Scout camp."
"I was not a Girl Scout."
"Well, it's never too late to start."
He seemed to be enjoying this way too much. She had two choices: lighten up and join him, or seem like the Grinch. Why make a bad situation worse? M.J. plastered on her TV smile and followed him back to the living room where he was already moving the furniture.
She took the opposite end of the sofa and pushed. "Damn, this thing's
He stepped back. "You're right. Too heavy to be only a sofa." He lifted the cushions and smiled. "Jackpot! It's a sleeper sofa. Stand back." He jerked on the bed and it groaned and scraped as it unfolded. "We're in luck."
"What do you mean 'we'? I get the sofa. You said so."
"You're going to make me sleep in a chair when there's a perfectly good queen-sized sleeper right here?"
She considered his point. "Fine. But keep your clothes on. And wrap up in your own blankets."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he growled as he positioned the bed in front of the fireplace.
M.J. looked at him then. Really looked at him. The firelight softened his features and smoothed the sharp angle of his jaw. His blue eyes sparkled like ice, and his lips pressed together with concentration as he gave the heavy sleeper sofa a final shove into place. And then she remembered she knew nothing about this man but his name and the
address on his driver's license. She pulled her flimsy jacket closer as a chill swept through her. New York
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