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            Read the first chapter from
Room At The Inn

   Her windshield wipers only smeared the partially melted snow, allowing it to freeze faster and accumulate higher on her windshield. Helena McCray's brilliant plan of taking the back roads to avoid holiday traffic on interstate I 95 seemed quite foolish. She hadn't counted on an ocean low bombing out along the eastern seaboard, spreading its moisture inland, to create what forecasters dubbed, the storm of the century. She leaned forward in hopes of seeing some markings on the snow-covered roads, but those had been obliterated several inches ago. The howling winds pushed the rapidly dancing flakes with gusto, building drifts she had to ease past in order to keep moving toward her destination, Washington D. C.

    The car tried to turn sideways. A hard turn of the wheel edged the car back into the rut made by an earlier vehicle and she prayed the back wheels would not slip off into a ditch she couldn't see. Cursing beneath her breath, she ran her mitten hand across the frost forming on the inside of the glass.

     "I need my head examined," she groused, then narrowed her eyes to look through the small clear spots and tried to judge the roadway.

     Her defroster huffed as it struggled to keep up with the snow, wind, and falling temperatures. The car groaned as it slowed into a drift. The point of the hood acted like the bow of a ship pushing the drift into the air as if it were foam upon the sea.

    "Keep going, keep going," she urged the vehicle.

     In defiance, the auto jerked to the left and the wheels sank deeper. She turned hard in the opposite direction and pressed the pointed toe of her sleek leather boots on the gas. The automobile fishtailed but somehow continued to roll. Her hands shaking, she glanced in the rear-view mirror and watched the drift fade behind the white curtain falling from the sky.

     She needed to find shelter. However, in the past few hours, she'd not even seen a passing car. In some ways that was good because there wasn't room for two to navigate the narrow country roads under these conditions. However, the flip side of this coin indicated that everyone had hunkered down in their own homes until the storm spent its fury. All those warnings her mother issued about starting out on some foolish venture seemed to come true.  God forbid if something happened, she would never hear the end of it.

     Ahead she caught the flash of a sign next to the roadway. Peering intensely, she tried to read the words, but the snow and ice obliterated the letters, preventing her from seeing the names of the upcoming towns. Her attention diverted for a mere second was all it took. The road plunged and the car angled, suddenly rolling faster. She could see the trees give way to a winding stretch with a small stone wall between her and a plunge into the valley below. Her heart beat faster as she fought for control.

     The wind focused its attention on her little car. Her hands took a tighter grip on the wheel as the car shimmied. The snow seemed deeper as the wheels gasped once and then gave up their traction against the gravel. The wheel jerked. Helena screamed. Forgetting the lessons her father taught, she slammed her foot against the break petal escalating the skid toward the wall. Fighting the steering wheel, she over compensated. The car lunged sideways in the other direction. Its rear wheels caught the lip of the ditch, and she plunged backward down a small ravine, bouncing, and jerking the occupant inside.

      Her head slammed first against the headrest, then forward on the steering wheel and she saw stars. Hoping to protect her face, she let go of the steering wheel and crossed her arms over her face, screaming as the sound of cracking timber filled the little car. The ride seemed to last forever. Yet through some grace of God, the car came to a rest, wedged in the crook of trees far below the roadway. Stunned, she sat in the silence, wondering if she were dead or alive. A second later, something warm coursed down the side of her temple. She lowered her hands and raised her glanced in the rear-view mirror.

      Wide-eyed and pale, she stared at her reflection beneath the dark knit cap covering her hair.  Transfixed, she watched as a bead of red slithered down her cheek drawing her eyes to the cut just above her left brow.

      "I'm bleeding."

      She forced her body to move, reaching past the center console, to fish in her pocketbook for tissues, old napkins, anything to stop the bleeding. "Of all the times," she grumbled, tossing out the various tubes of lipstick and eyeliner. "You mean to tell me, there's nothing." Rummaging to the bottom, her fingers grasped something soft and pliable. "Of course, the fabric samples."

     Pulling them out, she leaned back and pressed them against her forehead. She'd get new ones once she reached D.C. and asked the office to overnight them to the hotel. The hotel, Warmth. A soft bed. A hot bath. She closed her eyes, groaned, and tried to calm her racing nerves with slow deep breaths.

     Somehow, she must have fallen asleep. Beyond the fog that encased her body, something startled her awake. Her mind felt so muddled, she had to fight to open her eyes. Looking around, the inside of the car, she was surprised to find the windows frosted over with a thin layer of ice. A shiver took over her body. In the distance, she heard the sound again. Her brow knitted together as a muffled bark echoed. With effort, she turned her head toward the window as something flew at it. Helena gasped as two rust-colored paws landed on the door followed by a scratching sound. She blinked only to watch the image of a deep red muzzle and a velvet black nose sharpened, then pressed against the glass.

      "N-nice doggie," she said her teeth chattering and the dog whined.

      "Clancey?” A man’s voice echoed down the hillside. “What have you found, boy?"

      Helena's hands found the buttons for the window. She pressed down but nothing happened. Of course, she chided herself,  the motor isn’t on. "Help," she cried and hoped he could hear her.   "Help!"

      The dog's shrill bark caused her head to throb.

      "What cha' find?"

      His voice was closer.

      "Help." She rubbed her hand across the layer of ice on the inside hoping he'd see. "Help me."

      The car shook. Helena blinked, as a man's face appeared. His red and black cap and face were distorted by the ice and snow that accumulated on the car. She didn’t care at that point who he was, only that he was there, and he’d get her out.

     "Miss, are you all right?" he asked.

     "I-I think so. Please, can you get me out?"

     "Hold on."

      Helena took a deep breath of cold air and waited. The door shook. Metal upon metal screeched and what sounded like a gun blast echoed across the air as the door came open.

Frigid air pushed in along with snow from the roof. She’s barely recovered when the inquisitive nose of an Irish setter pressed against her cheek. Helena pushed the dog back and turned only to see the animal's bright eyes dancing with joy as if finding a new toy. In a flash, his front paws were on the seat and his tongue managed to give her several vigorous lashings before its owner pulled him away.

      "Back, Clancey, don't scare the girl."

       Her rescuer elbowed the dog out of the way and knelt to her eye level. Two grey eyes filled with concern stared at her. "Anything broken?"

       At that moment, a man's voice never sounded so good. "I-I don't think so," she replied.

       "You've got a nasty bump there on your head."

       "I do?" Then, she remembered. "Oh, yes. I hit the steering wheel. I can't get out."

       He fished in the pocket of his black and red Mackinaw and pulled out a flashlight. Flipping it on, he flashed the beam toward the floorboard.  "Nothing on your feet. Can you move them?"

      "Yes," she said and flexed her toes.

      "Good,” he said, “Any pain?"

      "No," she answered. "I would just like to get out. I'm cold."

      "Let's get this seatbelt undone. Lean back," he told her.

      She pressed her back against the seat as he leaned over her. The warm smell of wood chips and spice enveloped her. He struggled with the button. His arms moved against the fabric of her coat as he struggled with the safety belt. The texture of the wool rubbing, circling against the satin of her blouse created a torturous sensation along her skin. Helena could feel a sudden warmth flood her cheeks. The last thing she should be thinking about was the randy images coursing through her brain.

       "I've almost got it," he breathed.

        Looking to the side, she watched the frosty fog form around his words.  "Great," she whispered as the clasp gave way. The web shoulder belt went slack. She fell free against his arms. He looked at her and the edges of his lips lifted in a smile.

       "There now, not so bad."

       “No,” she whispered. “Not bad at all.”

       His arm slid about behind her shoulders. “Arms around my neck,” he instructed and with great care lifted her out as if she were no more than a child.

      "My pocketbook."  Helena pointed back to the car.

       "Let me find someplace to put you down. The snows heavy here and you don't have the shoes for it."

       She glanced down at the trendy stiletto-heeled boots that were perfect for the New York fashion district. However, in the middle of a raging snowstorm, they were definitely out of place.

       "This will do," he replied and placed her on one of the broken trees. "Hold on to this branch till I get your purse."

        With the greatest of reluctance, her hands left the security of his neck and fastened a death grip on the empty branch on her right.

        "I won't be long."

         She tried to nod but only succeeded in turning the motion into a shiver. He waited until she stopped shaking. "I won't be long. Hold tight." This time he took his arms slowly away and waited for a small beat. "Clancey, come."

         Helena watched the dog move to the spot below her. "Watch. Stay," he commanded backing away. Without protest, the dog placed his rear end in the snow and then turned his warm brown eyes upon her.

          She swallowed. Dogs were something small and snippy in New York. This specimen looked large enough to do some serious damage. "N-Nice doggie," she whispered.  His tail moved sculpting the white in an arc. The wind blew down the hill, buffeting her body and making her slide along the log. "Oh shoot," she gasped and pulled on the limb to keep from moving. The dog rose and whined. "I'm all right," she whispered with the greatest of caution, afraid the animal might leap in her direction.  Another gust of wind roared down the slope. This time she could feel herself inch closer toward the ground. Clancey let out a bark.

         "Hold on."

         She glanced up to see her rescuer rush toward the tree with her purse strung over his shoulder.

         “Got it,” he replied, and his strong arms reached out as hers gave way.

          Helena slid against his body. She grunted and took a moment to catch her breath. Odd, it wasn’t so bad plastered against a man who felt as strong a mountain.

          "Trying to slip away?" he teased. Before she could say another word, he placed one arm beneath her legs and scooped her back into his arms. Their faces were only inches apart as they stared into each other’s eyes. He was the first to speak. "It will be slow going. Just keep your arms around my neck."

           She didn't need to be told a second time and wrapped her arms around his neck, tucking her head against his heart.

          "All right, Clancey, let's go home."

          With a yelp of joy, the dog began to leap through the drifting snow toward the road.

                                                            * * * * *

         Her head burrowed against his chest. Her arms wrapped tightly about his neck, she clung to him as if she might slip away with the next gust of wind. James Buchanan carved his path across the open fields toward his house, while Clancey bounded through the drifts in front of him forging the way. The wind roared across the open ground of the meadow gaining speed as it swooshed up the incline creating white tornadoes of powdery snow in its wake. When he started out with the dog for his evening run, the storm had abated somewhat. Perhaps, it had paused to take a breath for it seemed to explode back to life with a vengeance.

        He leaned down, his mouth close to the top of her head to speak, "Almost there." His reassuring words brought a nod of response. Focused on his steps, guided by the Clancey's bark they moved steadily toward the Victorian mansion with the twin towers topped off with vivid red and black onion domes that seemed more at home next to the Moskva River rather than hidden in the Pennsylvania darkness. Despite her slight weight, it was a relief to place her feet on the veranda that ran around the first floor.

       "There," he smiled and placed a hand on her elbow to steady her, "we made it."

        Her head tilted toward his and she scanned the house with her gaze. "Where is here?" She asked bringing her glance back to him.

       "The Gift of the Magi," he replied. "My home."

        She turned and pulled the edges of her coat closer. "Impressive," she replied. He heard the clatter of her teeth.

        "Let me get the door open." He stepped around the dog at her feet and pushed the door open. "Come in and let's get your warm."

        She blinked in surprise and took one-step forward. "You don't lock your doors?"

        He shrugged. "Everyone pretty well knows everyone here."

        "Here," she murmured. Her footsteps paused.

        "You're in Magic Hollow just above the town of Noel, Pennsylvania."

        Sensing her quandary, Clancey moved around behind her and let out a shrill bark. The woman jumped.

        He stepped forward and took her arm.

        "Clancey," he snapped.

        The dog looked at him and sat down. Tongue hanging, as if to say, 'You weren't doing it. Someone had to step in'.

        "H-He won't bite, will he?" She asked hovering at the doorway.

         "No ma'am, he just wants you to come inside out of the cold before we both freeze to death."

         "Right." She glanced, uncertainly, at the dog before moving through the doorway into the warmth of the huge den."

          "Behave." James' stern voice echoed behind her as he spoke to the dog and followed her inside.

            Clancey nails tipped against the wood as he trotted to the side and shook, showering them both with the snow that clung to his fur.

            "Bed, Clancey." He commanded. The animal gave him a disdainful glare and moved across the room to his bed near the hearth.

            "Let me take your coat." he offered.

           She glanced back at him over her shoulder and stiffly removed her gloves, shoving them in her pocket.  Helena glanced at her hands, red from the chill, and fumbled to loosen the buttons. "Sorry."

           "It's fine."

           The coat slipped from her shoulders to meet his hands and Helena shivered.

           "I'll get the fire going and you'll be warm in no time."

           "Thank you," she murmured and wrapped her arms around her body to conserve heat.

           He hung the coat on the peg by the door and turned back to speak to her only to have his words die in his throat. His eyes beheld her slim figure dressed in a dark skirt that fell to the arch of her thigh just above the knee and a silken blouse with billowing sleeves that seemed to follow her curves, as it flowed to the bow, resting casually against her hip. He was staring and didn't care.

           She reached up and pulled the knit cap from her head. He watched the tawny hair tumble down her long neck, across her shoulders, to sway across the middle of her back, creating a golden halo around her head. Sexual awareness shot through him as if he were a randy sixteen-year-old back in high school. She held out the hat. He took it.

           In an effort to hide his nervousness, he turned away and spoke, "Go over to the sofa and wrap yourself in that blanket till you get warm." He hung the cap beside the coat and removed his, putting it on the next peg. "I'll fix us some coffee. Or would you prefer tea?"

           "Coffee, please."  She stepped toward the couch and paused. "Um, I hate to ask, but the ladies room?"

           "Oh, yeah." He pointed across the room to the door that led to the hallway and the staircase that led upstairs. "Through that door and it should be the second on the right."

            "Thanks."  She took a step away and her body swayed.

            James hurried toward her and took her arm. Through the silk of the blouse, he could feel the softness of her skin. "Maybe I should walk with you down the hall?"

            "No, I - I will be okay. My shoes slipped on the puddle."

            He followed her gaze to the floor to find a trail of wet dog prints leading across the room. "I'll get that wiped up while you're gone."

            She pushed a strand of that silken hair behind her ear and twisted the ends of her mouth up in a tired smile.

            "Go on," he urged. "I'll get that coffee started."

            She walked away and he stood listening, the sounds of her heels clicking on the heart of pine floors, while his eyes concentrated on the seductive sway of her dark skirt. Only when she passed beyond the doors into the hallway, did he take a deep breath. That infamous Bogie line came to mind. 'Of all the gin joints, in all the world, you had to come into mine.' He lifted his hand and ran his fingers through the hair on his head. "What have I got myself into?" he wondered aloud. With a shake of his head, he moved toward the gourmet kitchen on his left.

            Grabbing the glass pot, he moved toward the sink and turned on the water. With nothing to do but wait, he stared into the darkness. At least for now, they still had lights. It would almost be a curse to be placed in the situation of the lights going out. No telephone or TV, only the radio to break the monotony, they’d have to talk and get to know one another. Above his head, the lights dimmed ominously. He glanced toward the old gas fixture he’d recently revamped to electricity and warned. “Don’t even think about it.”

              Warm water burnt his fingers. “Confound it,” he grimaced and pulled the pot away from the steaming stream shoving the faucet off.  James grabbed the dishrag and wiped off the excess water before he plunked it onto the warming pad and turned his attention to placing a filter in the top. Grabbing the metal canister, he measured enough grounds in for at least six cups. A push of a button, and seconds later the green light popped on as it began to brew. Stepping back, he leaned against the center bar and watched through the window as a curtain of white crawled across the meadow behind the inn, and his thoughts turned once more to his lovely visitor.

            He didn't know whether to be pleased or offended to find himself snowbound with such a lovely guest. His lips twitched thinking about the delightful sway of her hips. "Yes sir," he muttered. "It's a terrible job, but someone has to do it."


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