Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Gift for You ~ Red Ribbons in the Snow

On Monday evenings at 9 p.m. EST, I'm privileged to be part of an Internet-based broadcast called Romantic Dialogue. Aleka Nakis hosts the discussion from her NowLive.com website. The chat can be lively and fun, as well a informative.

Last Monday evening the discussion revolved around plotting a story and we walked through the process with our listeners. It was such great fun that after the broadcast, we decided to actually write the story. It follows as our Christmas give to you.

Red Ribbons in the Snow

By

Catherine Chernow
Tia Fanning
Maddie James
& Aleka Nakis

Chapter One

The following segment is written by Catherine Chernow:

Lori McAllister shifted her car into drive, then pressed her foot down on the gas pedal. The vehicle slid forward, the tires spinning on the ice. She bit down on her lower lip, wincing from the sting of chapped skin. White, puffs of mist lined her windows as the temperature plummeted, her body shaking in response to the frigid air. She placed the car in reverse and tapped the gas pedal, causing her small Toyota to careen backwards, the bumper hitting against something hard. Lori glanced in the rearview mirror, her eyes opening wide when she saw that the back of her car was now wedged into a pile of drifted snow.

Stuck.

Tears filled her eyes.

"Damn!" She smacked the steering wheel with the side of her hand. "Ow!" she cried, as pain shot up her arm.

Stuck.

Around her, the snow fell harder and faster, the large flakes swirling and dancing as they landed on the ground. Lori shifted the car into drive once more. Placing her foot on the gas pedal, she gunned the engine, hoping against hope to drive her small car out of the ditch. The wheels spun, and this time, the engine died.

Silence.

No sound broke the devastating stillness. Her breath left her lungs, filling the inside of her car with more white misty puffs of air. Lori dug into her bag for her cell phone. Flipping it open, she started to dial the emergency number when she saw the blank screen.

Her cell phone was dead!

Hot tears poured down her face, their warmth the only heat she now felt. Panic filled Lori, her heart pounding as she watched the snow fall harder and faster. A gust of wind rocked the car. She gripped the steering wheel as the car shifted from side to side. A tiny bit of hope bloomed inside her as she turned the key in the ignition—if she could start the motor and gun the engine, perhaps the wind would help dislodge the back of the car from the snow drift.

There was some whining and squeaking, but the darn thing refused to start. She slumped back in her seat, her hands sliding from the steering wheel when. The wind howled, sending shivers down her spine. She drew her white fox coat around her body—it had kept her warm in the past, but not this time. Nothing would warm her now as the freezing cold permeated her body.

She swiped the tears from her cheeks, determined to think warm thoughts. Hot chocolate with marshmallows melting on top. A crackling fire in the hearth. The smell of pumpkin pie and a turkey roasting in an oven. All the good things that her parents' home provided—Holiday House. That's what everyone called Lori's parents' home. A warm, welcoming house...

Lori jumped when she heard pounding on the side of her car. Fear lodged in her throat. Swallowing hard, bile rose in her mouth as she dared to glance out her side window. A tall figure—a man perhaps, stood outside, gesturing wildly. Then he leaned down and placed his hand on the driver's side door. In one swift movement, he yanked it open.

Lori screamed and reared back as the man reached inside.

"You okay?" he shouted over the wind.

Lori shrank back against the seat, reaching for something, anything she could hurl at the huge, hulking figure in the parka.

"Come on!" he yelled. "My truck's over there."

She glanced in the direction he pointed, but all she saw was swirling snow.

"Listen," he leaned in, his crystal blue eyes intense, water dripping from the small ice crystals melting in his dark, jet-black hair. "You can't just sit here," he told her, his face a mask of hard angles and planes. "You'll freeze to death."

She swallowed. Hard. Oh, his big body radiated warmth and... and...

Could she trust him? How could she go with a perfect stranger a—

"If you don't come with me now, you'll die out here." Again he reached in, this time, grabbing her arm. His fingers held her upper arm in a firm, yet gentle grip. "Come on," he cajoled, his voice soft. "It's okay." He gave her a small smile, his mouth softening as his lips curved upwards. Something familiar about him slammed into her chest. "I won't hurt you." He cocked his head. "What's your name?"

"L-Lori," she replied, her teeth chattering.

"Matt Somers," he nodded, his eyes never leaving her face.

That name rang a bell, a familiar peal of angst. Matt Somers? Her eyes widened and her mouth hung open.

Matt Somers. The hermit. The recluse! He lived not too far from Holiday House, in a cabin he supposedly built himself. He never, ever ventured out...

Except for now.

Lori held her breath as he grabbed her hand. "Come on Lori, before we're both stuck out here in this white out."

She placed her hand in his as the snow fell around them, and allowed Matt to help her from the car.

Then a gust of wind knocked the breath and balance from Lori—making her fall straight into his arms.

The following segment is written by Aleka Nakis:

His fingers closed beneath her breast as his hands slipped inside her coat and he gathered her against him in an intimate hold. He was a mass of strong, warm muscle, and even in the whirling wind, his clean masculine scent tickled her nose and sparked a flame deep in her center.

“What were you thinking going out on a night like this—in that tiny car and that outfit?”

Suddenly her knight in shining armor turned into a frog. She squinted against the snow and fixed a don’t screw with me gaze on those dark blue eyes. “The same thing you were thinking going out on a night like this.”

Matt grinned and glanced at her feet buried in the soft snow. No boots, no pants, just shiny red strappy things against the pure white blanket. He doubted the fashion diva and he had gone out for the same reason. It was hard to picture the fragile robin staring him down clearing snow drifts to keep cables and wires from snapping. Now, he wouldn’t get the chance to finish and he highly doubted his efforts would have been enough, anyway. This blizzard was forecast to be the worst of the decade.

“Let’s get to the truck and out of this wind.” He pulled off his glove and held it between his teeth as he unsnapped his pocket to stick it in. Then he bent and reaching for an ankle, he added, “It is getting worse by the minute.”

She swatted his shoulder and almost fell back. “What are you doing?”

“Hold still.” The curve of her bottom settled snug against his arm as he released his hold around her thighs, which he’d grabbed at to prevent her snow angel performance. “I need to give you a flat surface to walk with so you won’t sink knee deep into the snow.”

“Flat surface?” She whacked his back again. “No way. You’re not ruining these babies. They cost eight hundred dollars pre-tax. I can walk in them.”

He straightened. “Fine. Have it your way.” Placing a hand under her elbow, he guided her toward the car. “Maybe next time you should use some of that money to put tire chains on that ice cube of yours.”

“It’s a rental, thank you very much, Mr. Know It All. Besides, chains wouldn’t do me much good in Miami.” She took two steps and sank into the snow, veering to the right like a falling log.

He tightened his hold, pulled her upright, and then decided she wasn’t going to make it another twenty feet. In a quick move, sure to disallow her objection, he lifted her and stomped toward the cloud of exhaust fumes coming from his truck. “I’m surprised you’re not arguing.”

“I told you: the shoes are too expensive to ruin.”

Matt laughed, and for the first time weeks, he felt warmth spread in his chest. This feisty red-head was just what the doctor ordered for a perfect white-out. She was light as a bird, but he could imagine the curves hidden by the bulky coat and couldn’t wait to see her decked out in his flannels sleep pants. Or maybe not. Were the clothes necessary in the comfort of his bed if he found a way to keep her warm?

He looked down at her head resting comfortably against his chest, and wondered how much ‘good’ that cream colored cashmere cap was for her in Miami. Strands of red hair spread over her fur collar and her black, hose-clad Victoria Secret model calves bobbed from beneath the full length fur that was so necessary for Miami. But it was those ruby-red eight hundred dollar shoes that attracted his attention. If she clicked those four inch heels together three times, she might vanish and he’d never even know what she looked like without her coat.

He held her closer and brought his lips to the top of her cap before he balanced her on his knee and opened the truck door to place her in the passenger seat. “Okay, sweetheart. You’ll be warm soon enough,” he said, leaning across her to adjust the heat controls.

“Thank you” she whispered, raising her bare hands to her mouth and blowing on them.

Damn, those big eyes, pools of melted milk chocolate, looked familiar. Maybe she was a model or a television personality. But, no. Why would she be driving that little city car in the Adirondacks all alone if that was the case. She’d be sipping mojitos on a sandy beach somewhere with her publicist arranging snap shots of her tropical holiday.

“You comfortable?” he asked.

“Getting there. Come on and hop in while we can still find the road.”

He chuckled and closed her door. She sounded like a lady who knew a thing or two about blizzards. Soon there’d be no road, and they’d be grateful to be inside the cabin.

Walking around the back of the truck, he unzipped his parka and placed his other glove in the pocket. He needed both hands on the steering wheel to drive in this mess. And they needed to get to a permanent shelter- fast. Seated in the warm vehicle, he released the brake, shifted into gear, and slowly pulled out to where the road should be.

“I’m about two miles down,” Lori said.

“Sweetheart, that’s a few miles too many.” He glanced over at her and smiled at the view of her rosy cheeks and red nose. “It’s going to be impossible to find any turn off.”

“No, I’d know it in my sleep. Unless you’re worried that this high-tech jet-on-wheels can’t handle the elements- we can be there in less than ten minutes.”

“Jet-on-wheels, eh? Well, we won’t be doing much flying in this weather.” He could barely see ten feet ahead of him, let alone drive ten minutes south and then back again. “You have until the River Gap to find your way, then you’re coming home with me for the night.”

She stretched and pushed back against her seat. “I’m way before that.” Running a polished nail tip over the radio controls, she added, “When you said truck, I expected an old beat up pickup that would have snow drifting up through the floor boards; not a luxury, fully loaded Hummer. Not bad for backwoods transportation.”

“Yeah, well, we save all that money at the supermarket by utilizing the backwoods road kill. Possum, coon, an occasional thumper or two. Something you city folks have no clue about.” He pushed his tongue against the inside of his cheek and waited for a shocked response.

She laughed. “They’d be frozen solid and all skin and bones in weather like this. Not much of a nutritious meal.”

“Good come back. I thought you’d squirm at the mere thought. You’re full of surprises. Aren’t you?” What really surprised him was how much he didn’t want her to go. He enjoyed her company- city ways and heels. “So where do I turn?”

“We haven’t come to it yet,” she replied, leaning closer to the window. “Everything is hidden behind the snow. Can you stop for a moment so that I can orient myself?”

“Not on this road.” He tapped the brakes and slowed down. “I don’t want anyone to run into us.”

“There is nobody out here.” She pasted her nose to the side window and looked out. “But this will do. I should find it any second.”

“Any second we’ll be at the turnoff. Then we’ll be lucky to find the clearing my cabin is in.”

She slumped back in her seat and sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to be a nuisance, but I can’t find it. Everything looks the same. Guess you’re stuck with me at least until it stops snowing.”

Excitement rippled from his chest to his groin. “Guess I am.” He made a right and shifted down into first gear. “Hold on. It’s steep and a little bumpy here.”


Chapter Two

The following segment is written by Maddie James:

What the hell am I doing? Lori turned to look out her window, a mite panic-stricken. A blanket of white met her gaze. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Bumpy was right. She clung to the door handle on the right and gripped her seatbelt with her left hand. They rocked one way, then another, and her body went the opposite each time. The monstrous truck lurched forward, slowed slightly while moving over a drift, pulled away, and then slid sideways a little.

Shit!

Of course, it was not like she had a choice in all this. He did save her ass. She was stuck. Stuck! In more ways than one. But up until this very scary moment as they were slip-sliding their four-wheel-drive-merry way down to some gawd-awful cabin in the woods, she’d been cheerfully bantering with him like she’d just met him in a bar and had accidentally (okay, purposely) sloshed a martini onto his suit.

This was not some casual banter-flirt. This was a situation she didn’t want to be in.

Not in the least.

No matter how good, she imagined, that flannel shirt looked on him, or would feel under her hands if she smoothed her palm over his muscled chest.

Muscles. He had those. She could feel every inch of them as he’d hoisted her up in his arms and carried her toward the truck. Who would have thought? Matt Somers, with muscles.

Great! Of all the people in the world to be stranded with, he was the last possible choice on her list. And she’d been flirting no less. Why? Cripes, Lori, are you that hard up that a flannel shirt, dark-dyed and starched Levis, and oversized Timberland boots are a turn-on? Even if it is Matt Somers wearing them?

Well, you know what they say about the size of a man’s boots…

No. She would not be attracted to Matt. No matter what. For God’s sake, he was the hermit! The man known to rarely come out of his cabin.

No one even knew what he did for a living.

In high school, he’d been voted most likely to succeed. He was a nerd, of course, a high-tech nerd who knew his way around a computer like nobody’s business. He’d single-handedly installed the high school’s new computer lab when the business teacher was having fits with it. Of course, this was back in the late 90s and a lot had changed since then.

What the heck had Matt Somers been doing since high school?

No one really knew. After…well, after the prom…and after the…incident, he just sort of disappeared. And Lori was happy to let it go. Oh, she’d wondered about Matt for a few years after that, but hadn’t really considered what had become of him until her parents mentioned a couple of years ago that he now lived in the cabin down the road.

As a hermit.

It didn’t fit, but who was she to question?

Thank God he’d not recognized her. At least she didn’t think he had.

Movement caught her eye, and she turned and watched Matt’s long fingers reach toward dash and fiddle with several knobs and levers. Soon, a life-giving blast of warmth shot at her feet.

“Thank, God,” she moaned.

“Put your hands near the vents. Those gloves you’re wearing aren’t worth crap. I can’t believe you weren’t better prepared to be out tonight.”

He was right, of course. The paper-thin leather driving gloves were great for, well, driving, but for keeping her fingers warm in a blizzard, they might was well be dainty white dinner gloves fit for an afternoon tea on the veranda.

Okay, so she didn’t have the right shoes, coat, or gloves, and she had placed herself in the middle of a blizzard. So what? The local mall in Miami wasn’t very equipped for this environment. And she lived in Miami. Thing was, she knew better growing up around here. Suddenly, she felt like such an idiot.

“You don’t have to be so rude. It’s not like I planned this blizzard thing, you know.” Then another thought struck her. “But you were out too, so looks like you weren’t so smart either.” She resisted sticking out her tongue and ending her dig with a na-nah-na-nah-nah.

“I have a truck, good boots, a warm coat, and insulated gloves. I’m prepared.”

“Of course you are.”

The Hummer tilted to the left and her body went with it. Her head cracked against Matt’s shoulder.

“Ow! Sorry.” She reached up and rubbed her temple.

“You okay?”

“Sure.” Lori frowned. “I think.”

She looked at him. A grimace on Matt’s face echoed hers. And, she noticed, he was awfully quiet now. Had been the past few minutes. Of course she’d been lost in her own brief introspection. “You okay?”

He gripped the steering wheel. “Peachy, sweetheart.” His gaze remained steady in front of them.

A paused filled the front seat of the Hummer.

“You sure?” She looked at him again.

He bit his lip. “Not a picnic here, you know, trying to save your ass and get you to warmth. I’m trying to concentrate on what I’m doing. Not exactly a Sunday drive.”

They lurched to the right again and slid a little.

”Oh.”

Cranky man.

Damn sexy cranky man. His demeanor had definitely changed in the past few minutes, too. She stole another glance. Strong profile. High cheekbones. A nice nose—not too big but sturdy. Manly. He’d filled out some since high school. He was…quite a nice looking man. And given a different set of circumstances, she might even be attracted.

Okay, maybe she was already attracted.

Lips. A scruffy beard covered his lower face and a thick mustache arched over his upper lip. The lips were full, and right now, moist. Chapstick, maybe? No, he’d just licked them. And as her thoughts lingered on his mouth, her brain swirled with a bit of headiness of what it might be like to kiss the most-likely-to-succeed-nerd from high school.

The one who had saved her ass all those years ago and she’d not once looked back to thank him? A hint of embarrassment struck her.

He swiped the back of his hand against his brow, then reached to turn down the blower on the heater.

“Hot?” she asked.

“A bit.”

“Um.” She was feeling a little hot, too. Particularly in the area of her panties.

“I’m sure you’re a little damp by now.”

“Excuse me?”

“Wet. Are you wet yet?”

Lori stared at him and when she didn’t immediately answer, he sidled a glance her way. She replied, “I’m…well…”

“With the heater going full blast, I figured the snow had melted in your shoes, on those slinky black hose…and that you’d be wet by now. I’m sure you’ll be ready to get out of those clothes once we get to the cabin.”

Sucking in a deep breath, Lori nodded. “Wet. Yes. I am that.”

The following segment is written by Tia Fanning:

It seemed like an eternity passed before they made up to the cabin. Silently, Matt placed the Hummer in park, turned off the ignition, and got out, fighting the swirling snow to close his door. Moments later, he was opening her side.

“Ready?” he hollered.

She nodded. Was it her imagination, or had the blizzard actually gotten worse?

As she stepped out, he scooped her up and flung her over his shoulder, slamming the passenger door as he did so. His hand rested on her rear and held her in place as he began trudging up the slope to the cabin’s entrance.

“Is it necessary to carry me like this?” she yelled over the wind, holding onto his parka for dear life.

He didn’t respond. After climbing the porch steps, he fished out his keys and dealt with the lock. Carrying her inside, he stomped the snow off his feet and abruptly spun around to close the door. It was then that she spied yet another door, this one complete with a keypad.

He swung her back around, and she listened to him punch in numbers.

What the hell? What did he have inside that needed to be locked up so tight? Treasure? Wait! Maybe, something more sinister? Perhaps he picked up stranded women all the time and brought them here to his inescapable fortress so he could have his wicked way with them.

There was a soft click.

Did Matt want to have his wicked way with her? For some reason, that didn’t sound so bad.

“Yes,” he stated.

Her breath caught in her throat. “Yes, what?”

He opened the second door and stepped over the threshold. “I’m answering your question. Yes, it was necessary to carry you the way I did. It was easier for me to keep my footing with you on my shoulder than holding you in front of me,” he said, placing her back on her feet. “Anyway, we wouldn’t want to ruin those $800.00 shoes anymore than we already have.”

The world tipped cock-eyed as all the blood rushed to her head. She stumbled on her heels and started to fall, but Matt’s strong arms were there catching her before she it the floor.

“Easy now,” he said, drawing her up against him.

She lifted her head and stared into the endless depths of his beautiful blue eyes. She could drown in them. Are you going to have your wicked way with me?

He chuckled. “Do you want me to have my wicked way with you?”

Oh, God! Had she said that out loud?

“Um… um… yeah. I mean, no, um… crap.”

“Lori, it’s okay. I’m just playing. No, I did not bring you here to take advantage of you.”

His response, though reassuring, equally let her down. Why didn’t he want to take advantage of her? Did he not find her attractive?

Mentally, she slapped her self, wondering just what the hell was wrong with her. Why did she care what he thought? And why was she so hard up on him? Maybe she was feeling this way because he’d saved her—again. Wasn’t there a name for that condition?

“Hey, you. Are still with me?” he whispered.

Shaking her head, she looked away. “Yeah, sorry. I guess I’m just… with all that’s happened, I’m just a little out of it.”

Matt smiled and released his hold on her. “Come with me. A hot bath will make you feel better.”

Nodding, she numbly followed, keeping her gaze on the wood floor and his booted steps. Maplewood gave way to plush cream-colored carpeting, which soon gave way to granite tile. Suddenly, she collided into a firm body. Matt twisted around, wrapping his hands around her waist to keep her from stumbling back.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, meeting his concerned gaze.

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. A hot shower sounds wonderful.”

As he went to the linen closet and pulled out towels, she surveyed the bathroom. It was gorgeous. Not only did it have a glass shower stall and a double vanity, but a Jacuzzi tub big enough for two people.

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to get you some dry clothes.”

Matt walked into the next room. She peeked out, watching as he approached a chest of drawers and pulled out flannel pajamas. She glanced at him, then to the bureau where a small wooden box and his colognes sat, to the high-tech entertainment center, to his bed. Holy crap! This was his bedroom. That meant that she was in his master bath. This was his bathroom—his private domain. Surely he had a guest bath in this large-ass cabin. So why did he bring her here?

He returned with flannel pajamas in hand. “Why don’t you take that off?” Matt asked, his eyes dropping to her chest.

Did he want her to take her shirt off? To undress in front of him?

“I’ll hang it in the foyer.”

Oh, her fur. She fumbled to remove the soggy thing, but couldn’t seem to accomplish the task. She needed to get a grip. Matt placed his hand over hers and stilled her fidgeting fingers. He unfastened her coat, then nudged her around, slowly pulling the heavy garment off her arms.

“Thanks,” she whispered.

“There is extra toiletries in the vanity drawers and in the cabinet. Toothbrush, comb, what not. Use what you want. There is also deodorant and lotions—the manly kind,” he said with a wink.

On that note, with her coat in hand, he left the bathroom, closing the door behind him.

After turning on the shower, Lori sat on the toilet, removing her favorite shoes. She inspected them, and finding them water logged, threw them across the bathroom. Next, she peeled off her wet clothing. The heated tile felt good on her frozen toes, but she was sure the shower would feel better.

Opening the glass door, she climbed in, relishing the steaming spray. She washed her hair and lathered her body, enveloping herself in Matt’s scent. As her fingers roamed across her slick skin, she closed her eyes and imagined it was Matt’s hands caressing her body.

There was a knock at the door.

She opened her eyes, and noticed the lights were flickering. Suddenly, the room went totally dark.

No. No. No.

She was petrified of the dark.

Panicking, she tried to get the glass door open, but it wouldn’t give. Matt calling out her name echoed in her ears, but she couldn’t answer him. Her throat constricted with fear, stealing her voice as well as her breath. Her head swam, and she felt the walls close in on her as she plummeted into black nothingness.


Chapter Three

The following segment is written by Tia Fanning:

Damn, her temple throbbed. She couldn’t see, couldn’t talk, couldn’t move. She tried to open her mouth, but the tape across her lips held firm. When she tried to breathe through her nose, the dark fabric clung to her face, cutting off her air. She struggled against the bonds holding her wrists and ankles.

Last she remembered, she’d been arguing with her boyfriend, Jim Somers, in the school parking lot. It was prom night, and he was drunk. He didn’t want to go into the dance. No, he’d wanted to go straight to the hotel room. He’d expected her to give it up to him. After all, it was ‘tradition’ and he had waited long enough for her to ‘come around’.

When she’d refused to go, and broke up with him on the spot, he had hit her with all the strength his football player muscles could yield.

That was the last thing she recalled.

She jerked at the ropes until they bit into her skin.

“Hey, look. The princess has awoken from her slumber,” she heard Jim slur.

Suddenly, the black bag was snatched off her head, taking with it locks of her hair. Her eyes watered and her scalp burned. Jim loomed over her, smiling. She glanced down at her tied feet. At the end of the bed, three of his football cronies stood.

“Are you sure about this, Jimbo?” Brandon asked, crushing a beer can in his hands.

“Oh yeah,” Jim replied. “She begged me to set up this fantasy for her. She said she always wanted to be fucked by four guys at once.”

Lori shook her head violently back and forth, letting out a stifled scream.

Jackson came up beside Jim and looked down at her. “She don’t look excited. And damn, you jacked up her eye. Man, I ain’t looking for trouble. You know how my uncle is, being a judge and all.”

Laughing, Jim slapped his friend’s back. “She is excited. She’s just playing the part. Trust me, she loves this freaky shit. She told me she wanted to be kidnapped and tied up. All rough and tumbled. She said she wanted it to be as real as possible.”

Jim tenderly stroked Lori’s hair. “Are you excited, baby?” He slid his hand down the front of her dress, cupping her breast roughly.

Lori squealed in protest, bucking against the mattress.

Brandon’s eyes glazed over and a smile formed on his face. After fishing out a new can from the cooler, he stumbled over next to Jim and Jackson. “Shit, Lori. I never took you for the type. Had I known, I would’ve asked you out long before this asshole did.” He gave Jim’s shoulder a playful punch.

They all laughed.

Lori struggled harder against the ropes.

Chase, the sheriff’s son, stumbled over and sat on the edge of the bed. “And you don’t mind sharing her, Jimbo? I mean, dude, this is your girlfriend.”

“Naw, I’m an open-minded guy. Want to please my woman and all that. I love her to pieces. This is her prom night gift.”

“So let’s get this party started. Who goes first?” Brandon asked, opening his beer.

“Hell, if we remove the tape, and turn her on her side, that’ll give us three nice, warm, tight possibilities. I know I’m going this round, and dibs on the main entry point.” Jim started undoing his pants. “You three figure out who’s going where, and which one of you unlucky bastards will have to sit back and whack it until one of us is through.”

Brandon, Chase and Jackson erupted into playful argument.

Lori couldn’t believe this was happening. It had to be a dream. A very bad nightmare. Her muffled screams filled the room as she desperately fought to free herself.

The door burst open. There stood Matt, a shotgun in his hand. “Untie her,” he ordered.

Coming in from turning on the generator, his house lit again, Matt shrugged out of his jacket and ran into the bedroom to check on Lori. She was lying in his bed, just as he left her.

Shit.

He checked her pulse again. It was steady, her breathing normal. He relaxed some. She was still in a faint, and nothing more. Though he was sure her muscles would be achy tomorrow. The loud thud he heard when she had collapsed in the shower told him she’d had a hard landing.

Retrieving a comforter from his closet, he removed the damp towel he had wrapped around her when he’d pulled her limp body from the shower, and laid the warm cover over her.

“No,” she murmured, shaking her head. Suddenly she shot up. “No!”

He caught her before she tumbled out of the bed. “Lori, you’re okay. You’re safe.”

Her frantic gaze sought his. Tense moments passed as they stared at each other. She inhaled deeply, looked around, then pulled the blanket over her exposed breasts.

“Thank you for saving me,” she whispered.

He shook his head. “Well, I couldn’t just leave you in the shower.”

“No, I’m mean the other time.”

“What? You mean thanks for not leaving your stranded ass on the side of the road?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “No, for saving me on prom night.”

She might as well have hit him with a ton of bricks. His stomach dropped and his blood raged, his heart threatened to beat out of his chest. He recognized her now.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding...

How could he not have connected the dots before? Lori… red hair… Lori McAllister. He thought she was some stranded city tourist heading up to the bed and breakfast down the road, not a hometown girl heading to her parents house for the holidays.

Lori. His Lori.

He rose from the bed and stormed out of the room. He couldn’t be around her, not now. He couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t tear into her right then and there.

Stomping into the kitchen, he opened the cupboard and pulled out two mugs for the coffee he had prepared while she was in the shower. He was sure his guest would appreciate it, just like she’d appreciated all the other things he had done for her in the past. He slammed the cabinet door closed, gaining little satisfaction from the cracking thump it made.

Soft footsteps padded into the kitchen.

“You’re mad at me,” Lori said quietly.

“No, not at all,” he snapped.

He heard her take another step toward him, and the scent of his shampoo and soap, made sweet by her own essence, mingled in the air and surrounded him. His body responded, but his mind could not get past the drifting memories of their shared past.

“Talk to me, Matt. Let’s not act like we’re still kids in school. We’re grown-ups now.”

He brought the cups down hard upon his granite counter. “Okay. Let’s do that.” He swung around to face her. “There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you for many years now.”

Sitting her pajama-clad ass down at his kitchenette table, apprehension crossed her features. Refusing to hold his gaze, she stared off, her fidgeting fingers betraying her discomfort. Good. He hoped she was uncomfortable. It meant she had a good idea about what he was going to ask.

“Tell me, Lori. Prom night. Once you were untied and bolted from the bed, where did you go?”

“Home.”

“And when the cops came to your door to ask you questions, what did you say?”

She took a deep breath. “I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about.”

“Right. And did they see your black eye?”

“Yes.”

“And how did you explain that?”

“I said it was an accident. That Jim accidentally elbowed me when he was helping me out of the car at school,” she whispered.

“And?” Matt pressed.

“And that was why I didn’t make it to prom.”

“And your parents?”

“Believed my story.”

“Do you know what happened to me?”

She shook her head.

“I became more of an outcast than I already was. I was a troublemaker, jealous of my brother and his popularity—a school football star. And I was making up lies because I had a crush on his girlfriend. And how do you think the sheriff felt about me calling the cops on his son? And did you think Jackson’s uncle, the judge, was going to let me off when Chase’s dad hauled my ass off to jail for threatening your attackers with my father’s shot gun? I lost my scholarship, the whole town turned against me, and my father practically disowned me.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

“What? I didn’t hear you?” he spat. “Sorry for lying? Sorry that I was forced to leave town and stay with an aunt? Sorry that I had to work two jobs to get myself through college?”

Lori rose up, knocking the chair back. “Stop it! Just stop it! What was I supposed to do?” Tears rapidly streamed down her face. “I was just a kid. I was so embarrassed, so ashamed,” she sobbed. “I just wanted to forget it ever happened.”

Her knees buckled and she collapsed on the floor in grief.

Hearing her choking on her tears made his heart hurt. Damn. He was being an asshole. She was right. She had been only a kid when it had happened, and he could understand, at least now, how scared and embarrassed she must have felt. He had read that many victims of sexual assault felt that way, and that those feelings sometimes prevented the victims from reporting the incident.

The past was the past, and he needed to let it go. He’d already proven to himself that he wasn’t the fuck-up everyone thought him to be. He owned a successful company, one he started from scratch himself, and was raking in more money than he could count. And his dickwad bully brother, the loser that he was, did nothing with his life. One injury, and his football days were done—no career to fall back on.

Matt moved over to Lori and joined her on the ground. She didn’t protest when he gathered her in his arms and rocked her back and forth. “I’m sorry, Lori. I shouldn’t have blown up at you like that.”

“No, no, you’re right.” She hiccupped between sniffles. “I should have been brave enough to do the right thing and should’ve told everyone the truth. My bad decisions ruined your life.”

“Things turned out fine for me. I know it must be hard for you to overcome something like that. And I probably didn’t help matters by throwing it in your face the way I did.”

“I’m okay, really. The only thing I still carry from that night is my fear of pitch black darkness. Fucking black bag.” Pulling away, she wiped at her tears and let out a strangled giggle. “Do you know, I still have to sleep with a night light on? At my age? Can you believe it?”

“Well, I’ll make sure to leave the hallway light on when we go to sleep, and I’ll dispose of any black bags in the house.”

She smiled. “I don’t mind being around black bags as long as they don’t make their way over my head.”

He stood and offered her a hand. “Coffee?”

“I have a question,” she said as she rose to her feet. “That night, how did you know where to find me?”

He picked up the fallen chair and gestured for her to take a seat. “Believe it or not, my drunk-ass brother had invited me to come. His first act of kindness in years. I thought he was bullshitting me, setting me up for some prank—not that I would have said yes, even if I thought he was telling the truth. But after he left, I started to wonder. What if he was telling the truth? I knew that we moved in different circles, but I also knew you were not the kind of girl was into that sort of thing. Worried that my brother’s nasty sadistic side was rearing its ugly head, I got a hold of my dad’s gun and went to checked it out. When I got to the door, I heard your subdued screams and the guys arguing about who would…” he trailed off.

Staring out the window at the swirling snow, Matt couldn’t say another damn thing. His throat constricted in anger and his gut filled with anxiety, just like it did the night he found her tied up. His memories wrecked havoc on his emotions, and he began playing the ‘what if’ game. What if he hadn’t checked up on his brother? What if he had been too late to save her?

He turned to Lori, and met her probing gaze. He knew… he couldn’t then, and he couldn’t now, bear to see pain in those beautiful chocolate eyes.

She gave a small smile, as if she understood. “Coffee would be great.”

Matt went to the counter to get their cups.

“What are all the security cameras for?”

He looked over his shoulder and followed her gaze to the five monitors, the screens currently blanked out with snow. “I have some restricted equipment that I keep at the house.”

“What do you do?” she asked.

He brought over the steaming coffee, then gathered the sugar and milk. “I own a technology company that specializes in retrieving sensitive information from the internet.”

“Are you a hacker?”

He laughed as he took a seat across from her. “No, what I do is legal. My clients tend to be government agencies that need the information for various purposes.”

“What kind of government agencies?”

“Hmmm… I probably shouldn’t be telling you this. I might have to kill you if I do.”

Lori’s eyes went wide.

He winked. “I’m kidding. My three biggest contracts are with Homeland Security, the CIA, and the IRS.”




Chapter Four

The following segment is written by Aleka Nakis:

“Cool, Matt. You’re some kind of government spy or something?” Lori raised her hand to her forehead and squinted as if on surveillance and looking for a clue in the modern kitchen that would save the world.

He chuckled and answered, “That’s a fancy way of putting it. But if it makes me look good in your eyes, I’ll take it.”

“It does,” she added, dropping her gaze to the mug clasped in her fingers. “You’ve really done great for yourself. I’m sorry I played a part in making your road to success a difficult one. If I could, I’d go back in time and change that.”

Matt leaned across the table and cupped her cheek. His hand was large and warm, but despite its absolute masculine appearance, his touch was so very gentle.

“Hindsight is very misleading, sweetheart. Let us put the past aside and start from this moment on. You’ve blown into my life in a form of a winter storm, and you’ve managed in a few short hours to run me through a gamut of emotions I haven’t felt in years. I think, you’ve done really great for yourself. And I want to know more about the beautiful woman you’ve become.” His hand slipped down the curve of her neck and his fingers caressed her nape. “That is—if you have no objections and want the same.”

“I’d like that very much,” she replied, lifting her face to his and breathing a soft sigh of relief. “I really would.”

Grinning, he eliminated the distance between them and brushed his lips over hers. “You taste sweeter than I’ve imagined.”

“You’ve imagined?”

“Yeah.” He dropped his arms and stood, walking toward the sink. Gazing out the window, he ran his hand over his hair. “The reason it hurt so bad to be outcast from my life back then was that part of what they said was true. I did want my little brother’s girlfriend. I’d wanted you for a long time. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what you were doing with him. Other than game days when he played and you performed in that cute short skirt and danced with those huge pompoms, the two of you had nothing in common. He was ugly, rude, and dark. You were beautiful, sweet, and full of light.”

Did he just say she was beautiful? Did he say he had wanted her? Why the hell hadn’t he done anything about it years ago?

“Um… I... I don’t get it. Why—”

He turned, crossed his arms over his broad chest, and leaned against the sink’s edge. “Since we’re coming clean, I think it is only fair to tell you the whole truth.”

“But you risked everything for me, and I let you go down alone. You should turn me out into the snow and then I’ll have to fend for myself.”

“I may have been angry, and I may have been shocked by your insistence to protect the assholes that planned to do those horrific things to you,” he said, returning to the table and taking her hand into his. “But I’m not stupid to let you walk out of my life a second time.”

Her mouth dropped. He wanted her in his life. If only he knew how many times she’d dreamt of being with him? Of how many times she’d Googled his name to find absolutely nothing on what had become to her childhood hero? Of how she’d fantasized over bumping into him on a snowy night on a trip back home?

Stroking the inside of her palm with his thumb, he added, “I believe in kismet, sweetheart. Despite my scientific reasoning, I believe things happen for a specific purpose, and that our pasts were necessary to shape the people we are today. Even the simple fact that I didn’t recognize the Miami diva stranded in the blizzard as the girl from my past was for a reason. If I’d known you to be my Lori, I would have taken you directly to Holiday House and we’d never of had this conversation.”

“You’re right,” she said, allowing their hands to fall into his lap. “I don’t think I would have been strong enough to apologize for what I did to you.”

“Please. We discussed it, addressed it, so put the apology behind us now. Are you happy in Miami?”

“Yes.”

“Do you enjoy your marketing career?”

“Very much,” she replied, then realized what he’d asked her. She pulled her hands out of his. “How do you know about my career?”

He grinned and glanced from the computers in the living area to the screens she’d pointed out earlier. “I never would’ve intruded on your life, but I wanted to know you were okay. Then you show up in my town—Kismet—the perfect Christmas present wrapped in your designer fur with pretty red bows on your feet. Like I said, I’m not stupid, and I’m no fool. I want the opportunity to get to know you again. The chance I passed up with you in a different time.”

She stood and looked into those beautiful eyes she’d dreamt about for years. “You’ve known me all my life. How much more do you want to know me?” She tangled her fingers into his hair and fitted her knees between his.

Kissing the valley between her breasts, he whispered, “I want to try to have the relationship we couldn’t when we were younger.”

She moved her right leg around his left one and sat on his lap. Tracing her lips over his, then his jaw, she added, “When we were younger, I was so in love with my hero.” She kissed his neck. “You have a knack for saving me. Like that time you’d pulled me out of the pond when the ice had cracked. I thought it was a childish crush, hero worship of someone who was always there, and I convinced myself that you had just been in the right place at the right time. So to keep from making a bigger fool of myself—”

“You were never a fool.”

“Then why did you refuse to kiss me back that day at the pond?”

“I was a geek, you were a cheerleader. I thought you felt obligated to kiss me—”

“Obligated?”

“Yeah, you know: the way a woman says thanks but never would have considered it if it weren’t for that recent rush of adrenaline. Besides, Jim had told me he was going to ask you out that night at the movies. How would that have looked?”

“A very attractive geek to me. I thought I was too dumb for you. That you found me boring and dull.”

“Dull? Nah, that was never how I’d describe you.” His hand cupped her bottom as his positioned her closer. “Funny how the inexperience of youth tainted our views of each other.” His fingers unbuttoned her flannel top and he exposed her aching breasts to the chill in the cabin. “But today, you’re a woman in full control, and you can ask me to stop at any point. And I will—if that is what you want.”

He stopped his talk and closed his lips over a taught nipple. Swirling his tongue in a sensuous pattern as his hand closed over her other breast, he became the center of her world.

“I want to give us a try,” he said.

“I want more,” Lori responded, arching her back. “I’ve dreamt of being with you for more than half of my life. No man has ever been able to live up to you, and nobody has ever made me forget the taste of your lips on that cold winter afternoon at the pond. I don’t want to try.”

He leased her breast and looked up at her.

“I want to do it. To live my dreams.” She guided him to her other breast. “I want to make love to you, Matt. Right now. Right here.”

He groaned and suckled hard, sending new shivers down her spine. He cupped her bottom and lifted her as he stood. “By the hearth. That is how I’ve always wanted to take you. On that soft cream colored rug, with your fire red hair spread out around you and you moaning my name.”

She smiled and nuzzled against his neck as her hands travelled over his shoulders and down his back. “I can deal with that.”

Placed her feet gently on the floor, he threw some pillows on the rug, and gave her a wicked grin. “You look darling in my flannels, but—“

She shrugged out of the top, and he fell to his knees outlining the curves of her body with his hands. Laying a trail of kisses from her neck, between her breasts, and down to her belly button, he pulled on the drawstring of the bottoms and let them pool at her feet.

“Oh my God. You are so beautiful.”

She knelt beside him and undressed him. Slowly, savoring each new exposed inch of his skin her eyes and mouth were treated to. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Lori undid his belt buckle and made a grand show of removing the wide leather strap. Running her hands over his sculpted abdomen, she reached and unbuttoned his jeans, then spread her fingers over his perfectly proportioned hips and guided the denim down his legs.

Matt erupted in laughter, and she jerked her head up to see what was so funny.

“My boots, babe. I’m still wearing them. And with the pants around my ankles, it makes it hard to move.” He grinned and chuckled as he tried to maintain his balance. “Give me a sec.”

Emulating a professional male stripper, he tossed his boots across the room and kicked the pants over his head. Standing before her with his arms showcasing his naked body, he added, “I’m ready.”

“I can see that,” she said, guiding him down toward the rug. “Then make love to me.”

His mouth crushed her lips and in minutes she was on her back, her hair sprawled over the cream colored surface, and his lips cherishing every part of her body.

“This is what I wanted,” Matt breathed against her lips. “But so much better, so much more.”

Making love with Matt was everything she’d dreamed of. On the edge of losing her mind from his sensual attention, she moaned out his name, and they found that special place in the universe reserved for only the two of them and their passion.

***

His fingers splayed on her stomach and he bent to kiss her. “Finally, Santa brought me the present highest on my list.”

“Me, too,” she added. “And I guess we passed the first requirement.”

He gave her a quizzical look.

“We have chemistry,” she said, shrugging and standing to retrieve a throw from the couch. “It’s good that it wasn’t just in my mind.” She wrapped the cashmere over her shoulders and snuggled into it.

“Sweetheart, it wasn’t your mind I was connecting with this past hour.” He added a log to the fire, then joined her. “Let’s get to bed and I promise I’ll attempt to connect with your mind this time. The generator only takes care of this part of the house, but we should be able to find a way to stay warm under the covers.”

She laughed and placed her head on his shoulder as they walked down the hallway. She hadn’t even noticed there was a chill in the air.


Epilogue

The following segment is written by Aleka Nakis:

Lori awoke to a strange clatter outside the cabin. It was daytime, and she tried to look past the window into the swirling snow, but could not distinguish any features out there.

At one point in the night, the storm had settled, and despite the silent darkness, she’d had the best sleep she had in years in the hands of the man who claimed her heart. She loved Matt Somers and nothing else mattered. Let it storm all it wanted out there. She had everything she needed inside the cabin.

Turning over, she realized he wasn’t in bed. She was alone, but she could hear his voice outside the window. Warmth filled her and she snuggled deeper under the covers. He’d return soon enough and maybe he’d even have a cup of coffee for her.

Scanning the room, she noticed the lights on the stereo system were lit and the digital alarm clock blinked twelve o’clock. The power must have been restored while they’d slept.

A burst of cold air was followed by a snow covered Matt as he entered the room. “Good morning, sleeping beauty.”

“Good morning,” she said. “What time is it?”

“A little before noon.” He removed his parka and hung it over the bathroom door. “Want to get up and see if Santa found his way in the storm?”

“Did he bring fresh brewed coffee by any chance?”

“Think so.” He grinned and tossed her the flannels she’d worn after the shower. Then he produced a big red box and pulled out a pair of fuzzy slippers. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”

“Where’d you get those?”

“I have my ways.” He shrugged and reached under the covers to tickle her toes. “Now come on; time is ticking and we have many things to do before dinner tonight.”

“What are you talking about? The wind has picked up again and I don’t see us going anywhere soon.”

“Nope, it’s a gorgeous Christmas day.” He shook his head and strolled toward the door. Glancing back at her, he added, “Don’t take too long getting up. I think there is something special for you under the tree.”

She laughed and kicked at the covers. The man was crazy! There was no tree in the cabin to put presents under. And furthermore, how did he get her slippers?

Tucking her arms into the pajama sleeves, she quickly dressed and slipped her feet into the heavenly slippers. Then she peaked out the window and saw a helicopter in the clearing.

What the heck is that?

“Matt, Matt?”

The door flew open and he rushed to where she stood. ‘What is it?”

“There’s a helicopter outside.”

He nodded and licked his lips. “I know. Now come into the living room. My patience is rather small today.”

She let him take her hand and lead her down the hall and into the living area. He covered her eyes and turned her towards the corner next to the fireplace. Removing his hand, he brought his chest against her back and wrapped his arms across her chest.

“Merry Christmas,” he whispered against her ear.

“Where did the tree come from?” She gawked at the site. The spruce was at least ten feet tall and four foot wide. “It’s beautiful.”

A fresh-cut scent filled the air and the leaves glistened with the melting snow. There were three boxes arranged under the tree—all with red ribbons and bows.

“Don’t know. Maybe Santa brought them.”

“Maybe he did.” She pulled out of his embrace and dropped to her knees, picking up a green package and shaking it.

“No.” Matt took it from her and replaced it with a different one. “Start with the white one.”

She smiled and tugged at the ribbons. Tearing into the wrapping, she revealed a gold box and lifted the lid. “Oh my God. This is gorgeous,” she exclaimed, lifting a black silk dress with red metallic threads running through it. “I don’t understand how you got all this stuff.”

His blue eyes twinkled and he shook his head. “Part of the benefits of owning your own firm and being an expert on communications. Now go on. Open the green one next.”

She needed no further urging. She ripped off the wrapping and was rewarded with an identical pair of red shoes to the ones she’d ruined last night.

“My red ribbons,” she said, clutching them to her chest.

Matt shrugged. “I guessed you liked them.”

She stood and walked back to him. “I don’t care how you did all this. I’m just glad you did it for me. Thank you, Matt. You’re wonderful.” Rising on her toes, she met his lips. “I love you,” she whispered before she kissed him.

Ending the kiss, he motioned toward the tree. ‘There is one more gift. The smallest of the three, but the most important one.”

Lori picked up the tiny box and held it in her palm. “Everything you’ve given me is lovely. Even the fuzzy slippers.”

“Especially the fuzzy slippers,” he said taking the box from her hand. “You’ll need them when we come up here on winter nights.”

Butterflies fluttered in her stomach. They’d come back here—together. Now that was definitely something to look forward to.

She gazed up at him and smiled. God he was gorgeous. He’d shaven the beard and the angles of his jaw and the plains of his cheeks were so handsome. Time had been good to him, even better to her. In time, she’d come back to him.

“Lori, I want you to accept this gift and everything that comes with it.”

She was slow to unwrap the tiny present. It was a jewelry box.

Matt closed his fingers over hers. “I love you, Lori.” He removed the lid and a big diamond solitaire sparkled in the light. “Please do me the honor of being my wife.”

Her legs went weak and stars danced in front of her eyes.

“Oh, no,” he said, teasing her. “You’re not going to faint before you answer me.”

“Yes!” She threw her arms around his neck and repeated her answer. “Yes, I’ll marry you.”

He lifted her off the ground and twirled her in a circle. “Good. I don’t think I could have handled a rejection well. I mean with the chopper waiting to fly us to Holiday House, I would feel foolish having Christmas dinner with the woman who had just dumped me.”

“It ain’t gonna happen. You’re stuck with me forever, Matt. Stuck.”

“I like the sound of that,” he answered, carrying her back into the bedroom and under the covers. “You’re stuck with me too, sweetheart. Stuck for good.”

The End

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