Misfortune

Misfortune (Christmas with Scrooge)

Book 1 in the Misty Falls Series

Misfortune (Christmas with Scrooge)

Dexter O’Reilly is a cold and ruthless businessman who meets, Laura Witherow, a loving and compassionate individual on Christmas Eve. Recently orphaned, Laura faces her first Christmas alone. After taking a wrong turn down a deserted snowy road, she finds herself stranded deep in the Pennsylvania back roads. Then, as miracles would have it, she is sent someone to share the holiday with that cold fateful Christmas Eve. True, he might not be old Saint Nick, but he was her very own Scrooge. After their brief and unusual encounter, Dexter hopes never to lay eyes on the woman again. However, eight months later she unexpectedly shows up on his business doorstep seeking financial aid for a homeless shelter she operates after a series of unfortunate events leads her to financial ruin. Dexter scoffs at any charitable organization as well as his growing affection for the obstinate woman who refused to give up. Laura is determined to conquer the past, the present, and even the future to show Dexter that there was more to life than money and that she was the way to true happiness.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER 1

“Dexter O’Reilly is a man only a mother could love.”

Laura unconsciously lifted her chin. She had been listening half-heartedly to the conversation around the table. The group was not the sort she usually associated with but she made the best of the situation. Not for the first time that evening, she wondered why she agreed to come.

Because she didn’t want to be alone at Christmas, she reminded herself.

The thought of spending the holiday alone was absolutely dreadful. She was certain she would have spent most of it crying into her solitary eggnog, which was why when David asked her to accompany him to his employer’s Christmas Eve party, she eagerly accepted.

They had not dated long. As a matter-of-fact, she was thinking it was high time to call it quits. She had no idea what she saw in David, to begin with. But then he went and invited her to this staff Christmas party, and she decided, a little selfishly perhaps, to put off bringing their brief courtship to end until after the holiday. Besides, it seemed the moral thing to do. Who wanted to be dumped over Christmas?

However, at the moment, she almost wished she had declined David’s invitation. His so-called group of friends had begun a barrage of complaints, bashing the party and their generous hosts. Laura had been successful in ignoring them up to that point, however now their words had curiously piqued her interest. “Dexter O’Reilly?”

“O’Reilly?” David had returned from the bar for the umpteenth time that evening and caught her question. “The Almighty One who thinks himself too superior to show himself at company bashes.”

“Who is he?” Laura’s brow dipped a little.

“Adell’s son.”

“I thought Harris O’Reilly was her son?” Laura inquired, referring to the store manager and owner.

“Dex is the older brother,” David explained as he dropped into the seat next to her. “His father Wallace O’Reilly, Adell Cameron’s first husband, was the original owner of the Sunny Meadows food chain. After his death, O’Reilly inherited the business but went into partnership with Harris. Mainly, I think, because he didn’t want anything to do with the business.”

“So he’s a co-owner?” Laura found her attention caught.

“You’d never know it, though. He hardly ever lowers himself to mingle with the common folk. The guy is a real snob.”

The woman sitting across from Laura added, “He’s got zero manners. Zilch. Nobody likes him.”

“I heard he tried to fire his own brother but his mother stepped in. Supposedly, they have a real hatred for each other,” someone added.

“Rumor has it he wants to sell the grocery chain. Wants nothin’ to do with it. Which means we could all be out of a job.”

“Unless Harris O’Reilly buys him out.”

“That’s unlikely to happen. Harris can’t afford to buy him out.” One of the men at the table said. “So he works extra hard to prove to his brother that he is capable of running the business on his own. That way Dexter doesn’t have to help operate the business and won’t threaten to sell his share.”

She was on the verge of asking more about this Dexter O’Reilly character when it dawned on her she was meddling in a family affair that was of no concern to her. In fact, she was ashamed of having participated in the usual workplace gossip. She had no connection to these people and scolded herself for her lack of manners. From what she had witnessed of Adell Cameron and her family, they certainly weren’t deserving of such condescending behavior from their employees. Whatever family skeletons they had, were entirely their own business.

She turned her head toward the group near the entrance of the hall. Adell Cameron stood with her small family talking and smiling amongst their employees. When introduced earlier, Laura found the woman to be immensely friendly. She was probably the sweetest person Laura had ever met. Her sparkling eyes and cheerful manner instantly warmed her to the motherly woman. She was an elegant woman whose appearance spoke immeasurably of her class. Her formal crêpe pantsuit and the stylish salt and pepper blunt cut of her hair were almost deceitful until one looked into her penetrating hazel eyes and saw the gentle warmth of a kind-hearted woman.

Harris O’Reilly stood beside her, grinning down at his wife, Lydia O’Reilly. In height and nature along with a set of deep hazel eyes, he resembled his mother. However, his dark head complimented his wife’s raven locks as she smiled in return and laughed at something her father-in-law, Norton Cameron was saying. For a brief moment, Laura felt a jolt of envy. A wish to be part of a family was so great it startled her.

Which was completely foolish. A sudden wave of loneliness explained this unfounded emotion. Without realizing it, Laura sighed out loud as she looked upon Adell’s quaint little family.

Wistfully, she wondered what it would have been like growing up with Adell Cameron as her mother. It had always been just her father and herself, her own mother passing away when Laura was a toddler.

Not that she would have traded her father for the world. She loved him dearly and their relationship had been close. Closer than any daughter and father could be. They only had themselves in the world. Now, however, there was only Laura.

Unconsciously, her mind traveled back to recent months when she sat at his hospital bedside. She held his hand, tears flowing down her cheeks as she looked on in fear, praying desperately for a miracle.

“Please, Dad, don’t go. Hold on.”

“It’s time, Laura,” he said through short breaths.

His eyelids slowly opened to take in the young woman at his side. “You’re the image of your mother.”

“Fight it, Daddy, please. Don’t leave me—don’t leave me all alone.”

“I’ll always be with you, Laura. Don’t ever doubt it.” His breath caught in his throat as he fought for one last look at his daughter. “I promise, you won’t be alone.”

Those had been his last words. Now, ten months later, sitting in the hall of the Sprucewood Lodge with numerous people buzzing around her, Laura felt completely and utterly alone. Her father had let her down.

Releasing a sigh, she knew her father wouldn’t be pleased to see her so unhappy at Christmas, their favorite time of year. Still, she couldn’t shake the lonely feeling, even with all the people surrounding her. In an odd sense, she felt betrayed by her father. How could he leave her? He knew he was all she had. Yet he left, he had abandoned her.

“Can you believe this place? You’d think with all their money they could have afforded better.” The conversation around the table drew her out of her unhappy thoughts.

“I think the place looks very festive.” Laura defended Adell Cameron’s decorating.

“Yeah, but I bet they have an exclusive party just for executives. Held by Dexter O’Reilly himself in some posh banquet hall.”

They all sneered at this last remark, except Laura who sat back digesting this new information she was learning about David’s employers. She hadn’t realized there were two O’Reilly brothers at the helm of the huge and successful food chain. It was disconcerting to realize Adell Cameron had a son who wasn’t as kind as the rest of her clan.

Without ever having met him, Laura took a sudden dislike to this Dexter O’Reilly character. The image of the perfect little family now had an unmistakable flaw. A black sheep son.

It dawned on Laura only then that she would never meet this man, and quite possibly Adell Cameron and her family outside of this occasion. She chided herself for allowing her thoughts to be so caught up in the O’Reilly’s.

Glancing around the table, listening to the continual degrading of a man she did not even know from people he funded the very livelihood they depended upon, caused her to realize she was no better. Although she had no associations with Dexter O’Reilly, was of no importance. Attacking and condemning a man behind his back without even knowing him, was simply cruel.

Deciding then and there to block out any more conversation regarding the O’Reilly family, Laura turned her attention away from the group.

That was when the woman sitting across from her, paused in mid-sentence to utter, “Well speak of the devil.”

Laura unwittingly turned back to find the woman staring in disbelief somewhere over her right shoulder. As though a puppet, she turned in her seat to follow the direction of the woman’s gaze.

A tall, lithe man stood in the entrance to the hall. Dressed in office attire, his aloof stance gave off an essence of power in a brash egotistic manner. He stood as if he were the center of attention, drawing all eyes upon him. Indeed, he was a remarkable sight. At well over six feet tall and with a set of thick brown locks brushed to perfection over a set of penetrating but mesmerizing dark eyes, he was the epitome of male perfection.

However, his face was a startling contrast. Not that it was unpleasant to look at, Laura acknowledged with a womanly appreciation, however, there was a brooding darkness that emanated from those piercing eyes and tarnished the rest of his features that included sharp cheekbones and a distinctive square jaw. A powerful chin concealed the trace of a dimple.

His intense likeness formed the hard and stern countenance he bore, and Laura knew instantly it had been a long time since he cracked a smile.

The agreeable nature and sunny disposition of his kin were nowhere to be found in the captivating set of hazel eyes inherited from his mother and shared with his brother. Dexter O’Reilly was not anything like his relations. There was a family resemblance, yes, but that was where it ended. He certainly did not have the glowing personality his family possessed.

He had been surveying the room when suddenly his dark eyes halted on Laura herself. He caught and held her gaze. A cold blank stare, which said absolutely nothing at all, held her spellbound. An unexpected jolt ricocheted through her pulse until it found its way to the vicinity of her chest. She made a silent gasp and blinked in astonishment. Finding herself incapable of looking away, she tilted her chin slightly and stared boldly back.

Their eyes locked across the room of a hundred or more faces. The noise of the party dimmed to a murmur. The only hushed sound recognizable was her own hollow breathing. Time seemed to slip away as she sat there staring at a stranger, unable to look away. His dark features bore no hint of his thoughts. It struck Laura how unusual his expression was, like one she had never seen before. Almost lifeless and without human depth.

At last, Dexter O’Reilly jerked his head in the opposite direction and broke the trance, before turning and walking away. She blinked at the sudden laceration of their locked gazes, yet felt a shudder of relief. Unconsciously, she watched him long enough to see him approach his mother who offered him a warm smile. He had none in return.

Laura turned back to the group around the table who were full of excitement about the latest arrival. Not wanting to be part of the gossip any longer, she excused herself while she went and retrieved a drink at the bar. Threading her way through the gathering of guests, she happened to notice Lydia and Harris O’Reilly talking to Norton Cameron. Their faces were solemn, no longer smiling and cheerful. Laura couldn’t help but blame the grim newcomer for their sudden gloominess.

She ordered a ginger ale before retracing her steps, dawdling as she went, in no rush to rejoin David and his group of friends. Stepping around a very large man too intent in his conversation with a slightly smaller man to realize he blocked her way, Laura collided into the path of someone coming up behind her. The impact would have knocked her over had a set of hands not come up and steadied her. She glanced over her shoulder to realize the hands belonged to none other than Dexter O’Reilly. Once again, their eyes locked.

A wondrous sensation fluttered beneath her breast causing a warmth to spread all over her. At closer proximity, she noticed the smooth shave of his face, the pronounced cleft between his nose and lips, and tiny little creases at the corner of his eyes. Which, at the moment, deepened at her thorough examination.

Adell Cameron’s voice startled her out of her stupor. “Well, hello again.”

At the sound of his mother’s voice, Dexter O’Reilly immediately dropped his hands as if suddenly realizing he was still touching her. The moment he did, Laura felt a cold rush of air.

Pulling her muddled brain together, she composed herself and turned to the older woman with a friendly smile. All the while, extraordinarily conscious of the man who stood beside his mother watching her. Not for the life of her would she meet looks with him again. It had left her feeling oddly unsettled. “Hello, Mrs. Cameron.”

“Adell, please.” Her hostess spoke with poise but with a lively edge to her voice. When she smiled her entire face lit up. “You’re David’s wife, aren’t you?”

“No, actually we’re just friends.”

“Oh, well then it must be awfully serious for you to take time away from your own family on Christmas Eve to join him here with us tonight.”

A temporary shadow dampened her spirits. “I don’t have any family. My mother passed away when I was a child and I lost my father earlier this year.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry.” The tall but slender woman reached out to touch her arm.

Unconsciously, Laura’s eyes strayed to the man standing pompously next to his mother. She hated it when her father’s death was brought up. It inevitably always drew sympathy. She knew perfectly well that it was part of human nature. Anything less would be considered heartless. Still, Laura hated their pity.

However, Dexter’s face bore no emotion or compassion. He simply stared blankly back. A grisly feeling of apprehension shot through her from those somber eyes. An unsuspecting chill swept over her body and had her automatically reaching up and rubbing goosebumps that had suddenly appeared on her arms. Then, before she could decipher his expression further, it was gone and he was looking away.

Adell’s voice drew her attention back. “This must be very difficult for you.”

Laura smiled naturally for the first time that evening. “I’m managing, thank you. But the festive atmosphere of your party certainly helps. You did a wonderful job.”

“Christmas is my favorite time of year. I always like to go all out. At least my son teases me I do.”

Laura was obligated to look at Dexter O’Reilly once more; however, he continued to remain detached, as if he found anything more interesting than the two women before him. Yet, in that split second she allowed her gaze to linger on him, she suspected he found the hall of partygoers of little interest as well. She knew instantly he wished to be anywhere but there.

Adell noticed her glance shift to Dexter and quickly amended, “I was referring to Harris, actually.” Then remembering her manners, she said, “I apologize. This is my son—”

“Mother I don’t have time for this.” He spoke for the first time. His voice matched his appearance, cold and detached.

“Nonsense.” She brushed him off and offered Laura a small apologetic smile before continuing. “This is my oldest son, Dexter. Dexter, this is Laura Witherow.”

She had no alternative but to meet his gaze. However, he did not so much as glance her way, not even with the smallest nod of acknowledgment. Admittedly uncomfortable, she quickly looked away. It was apparent that Adell’s son not only found little of interest in Laura but found her wanting as well. Unconsciously, she straightened her spine.

“Laura is with David Farley. She’s not one of our employees.” Adell cheerfully continued the introduction. “What is it you do, Laura?”

Abashed, she quietly responded, “Um, well, nothing at the moment.”

That wiped the smile off Adell’s face momentarily and drew her son’s dark eyes back to Laura’s flushed face. Naturally, she returned his gaze before she could catch herself. He instantly looked away. Taken aback, she forced herself to concentrate on what his mother was saying.

“Then what was it you did before?” Adell asked, seemingly unperturbed by Laura’s admission.

“I have a degree in Psychology.”

“How interesting. Do you plan on following that career?”

“I-I’m not sure yet.” The truth being, since her father’s death, she had been in a kind of limbo; not certain where her future lay and honestly where she wanted to see it go. She just needed more time to decide. “My father left me enough money from his life insurance to allow me to live comfortably for the time being.”

“Having a psychology degree must help the process of healing after your father’s death?”

Adell’s question wasn’t uncommon. Most people assumed that because she studied the subject in school, she was equipped to deal with the loss. The truth was, there was no amount of preparation for a tragedy such as the death of a loved one, and in Laura’s particular case, the loss of her last family member, leaving her an orphan.

“It’s one thing to study it in school, another to experience it.” She was unable to catch the revealing crack at the end of her voice.

On their own accord, her gaze shifted back to Adell’s son. His expression had altered slightly, however it was enough to catch Laura’s interest. He stared down at her in his usual dark manner, though now there was a sincerity to the depth of his astute gaze, catching Laura unaware.

Then in a staggering split second, a powerful awareness surged between them and nearly knocked her off her feet. It was as if they shared a very intense, if not brief, sense of raw grief. The feeling left her acutely uneasy. The loss of her parent was a personal and painful experience. One, she was certain, nobody could fully understand.

Then, just as suddenly as the connection started, it was over, and he was pulling his mother aside, leaving Laura to wonder if the moment actually passed between them at all. “Excuse us.”

Adell appeared horrified by her son’s rude behavior, if not overly surprised. She allowed him to lead her away, causing Laura to feel utterly foolish. An unwanted headache began to throb in her temple and she wanted nothing more than to be alone. Funny, not more than two hours before, the thought of it appalled her.

She glanced at David’s table where, evidently, she wasn’t being missed and put her drink down on the nearest table and made for the exit. Quickly, she fled from the lodge, snatching up her coat from the cloakroom. Outside, the snow had begun falling. The Sprucewood Lodge was a popular ski resort deep in the woods of the Poconos region. Winter had hit early and heavy that year. Already the city of Misty Falls where Laura lived some twelve miles west of the lodge had been dumped with a thick blanket of snow.

The gravel road leading out of the lodge had a fresh layer of snow over it when Laura pulled her vehicle out of the parking lot. Her windshield wipers swished back and forth attempting to clear her vision. She stared out at the snowy night and chewed on her bottom lip. Ruefully, she admitted to herself that the route back to the city wasn’t as easy as it had been earlier when she followed David’s directions up to the lodge. If she had any sense of direction or a GPS of some sort, she would have been able to figure out where exactly she was.

She came across a fork in the road and brought her car to a halt. No signs pointed out directions. Towns were few and far between this far from the outskirts of the city. Wildlife outnumbered civilization. Not to mention somewhere out in the dark night ran the deadly chasm of Hungry Hollow, a deep gorge that ran from the base of the magnificent waterfall on the edge of town from which the city derived its name from.

During the summer months, it was a popular stop for tourists along the highway with its Suicide Point, a scenic lookout that provided a breathtaking view of the gorge and its magnificent waterfall in the distance. However, in winter, it was a death trap just waiting to happen.

Laura bit her lip and wondered if she should turn back and wait for David after all. A quick reminder of his so-called friends had her taking a chance and turning her vehicle left down the deserted road.

The night was very black without the aid of the moon’s glow. The only speck of light came from her car’s headlight. With the snow swirling fast toward her vehicle, it reminded Laura of a glass snowball she had as a child. Only now, she was inside the globe rather than on the outside.

She had only driven a few miles when suddenly the wheels from under her car had a mind of their own. Pulling the steering column as hard as she could to the right, the vehicle, however, swerved to the left. The next thing Laura knew, she was airborne. Fear gripped her chest with the realization that she had, indeed, just driven off Suicide Point.

Trees and brush came up fast to meet her windshield as the car plunged downward. Then throwing her arms over her face, she closed her eyes and awaited death. A surprising calm washed over her.

* * *

Dexter O’Reilly wanted nothing more than to be out of this hall of partygoers. He hadn’t even wanted to come in the first place. Nevertheless, his mother’s grating persistence eventually irked him enough to agree with a short stopover. He thought about the unfinished paperwork waiting for him back on his desk at the office. Impatiently, he glanced at his watch and wondered if he put in a sufficient length of visit.

After swallowing the last of his drink, he turned on his heel and strode out of the hall. He was in the cloakroom slipping on his tweed overcoat when his mother exited the noisy doors from the banquet.

“You’re not leaving so soon, Dexter?” She frowned with obvious disappointment. “You didn’t get anything to eat—”

“I’ll get something on the way to the office.” He cut her short.

“But the dancing hasn’t even begun yet—”

“I don’t like to dance.” He finished buttoning his coat then slid his hands into a pair of warm leather gloves.

Adell Cameron’s eyes narrowed in concern. “You used to.”

Dexter paused, took note of the forlorn look on her face, and sighed heavily. “I have a lot of work to do. Goodnight mother.”

She followed him to the exit. “Will you be coming over tomorrow for turkey dinner?”

He exhaled wearily. She certainly made things difficult for him. “I don’t think so. I don’t like turkey.”

“I can make a ham.” She smiled, encouraged, but it soon disappeared as he shook his head.

“As I said, I have a lot of work to do.” He stopped at the door and looked down at his mother. A fleeting emotion softened his heart at her expression. Quickly he smothered it and dropped a light kiss on her cheek before making a hasty exit.

Adell watched her son go. Her usually smiling aplomb face bore the sadness that weighed her heart. It had been fourteen years, fourteen years since she lost her jovial and loving son to the stranger who now occupied his body.

“Adell?” Norton Cameron came up behind her and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

She forced a smile back on her face before turning away from the exit doors. “Let’s get back to that party of ours, shall we?”

* * *

Dex’s black BMW easily maneuvered the freshly fallen snow now covering the dark country roads. He turned out of the parking lot and as he did, he noticed the imprint of tire tracks. Someone had left the party earlier than him and left him a slightly plowed path. Turning his attention to the car radio, he plugged his iPhone into the Bluetooth and then selected his favorite playlist before settling back and listening to the music.

With his attention back on the silent road, he reached the fork in the highway where he would have turned right. However, knitting his brow, he slowed the car until it came to a complete halt. The other vehicle, the one that owned the tracks he had been following, had taken the road to the left.

“What idiot would have taken that road on such a night?” he muttered to himself.

The road ran parallel to the deep valley nicknamed Hungry Hollow. Admittedly, the chasm was worthy of its name. Over the centuries since it cut through the earth’s surface, it maimed many, while taken the lives of others. When the north road had been built, the foundation was difficult to lay because of the hard minerals beneath the rocky surface, so the result was a very winding, and at points, steep decline along the gorge. A popular spot for sightseers in the summer with its spectacular views, but only a fool would attempt the road in the winter. Especially an icy night as this.

Dex found himself swinging his vehicle around and heading down the north road, shaking his head at his own stupidity as he went. What dim-witted notion forced him to follow those tracks he had no idea. All he knew was he continually told himself to turn back but his instincts were ignoring that rational portion of his brain.

He had not gone far when the tracks suddenly veered to the left and disappeared. Dex pulled his vehicle safely over and jumped out. He rushed to the shoulder of the road and peered out into the darkness. A sense of horror swept over him as he stared down into what could only be the black and deadly abyss of the Hungry Hollow gorge.

Then he saw it. Barely visible through the thick descending brush and the black of the night, was a tiny glow of red light.

A nightmare he had long repressed suddenly came startling back to mind. A night, very similar to this one, fourteen years earlier which had him frozen in fear, unable to command his frightened limbs into action.

Dex stared down at the small red light. The surrounding night seemed to go completely still. The only sound was the low rustle of bare branches. A chill crept up his spine, and it wasn’t from the below zero temperatures.

Then he heard it, a cry for help. And the nightmare came back to horrific life and transported him into the past where, as an eighteen-year-old boy, he stood terrified above a steep gully. He could hear his father calling out for help as he desperately clung to its cold jagged ridge. His car had just plunged off a bridge and while his son had miraculously thrown himself free before going over, Wallace O’Reilly had not been so lucky.

The vehicle nose-dived into the hard surface of the rock and tossed the remaining occupant out before it disappeared into the thick brush below. Dex ran over to the edge of the vertical incline to find his father clinging fiercely for his life. He called to his son, his hand reaching out for help, but to Dex’s horror, he was gripped with fear, incapable of moving. Instead, he stood and watched as his father, no longer having the strength to hold on, disappeared. Everything around him had gone deathly silent.

A second cry for help pierced the night and drew him back to the present. A force greater than any he experienced before, told him he had to go down that ravine. A descent, fourteen years before, he was unable to make. In an instant, he knew he could not make that mistake twice. Someone was still alive down there and in desperate need of help. Gingerly, he plunged downward.

* * *

Laura pushed her hands hard against the dashboard trying to give herself enough leeway to reach over and undo her seat belt. To no avail. She grunted in frustration before lifting her hair to peek outside her car window. The last of her dying headlights left just enough light for her to survey her surroundings.

Her vehicle had landed in an awkward position having wedged itself between two trees at a near forty-five-degree angle. The hood of her car came to a grinding halt on a steep embankment overlooking the gorge. A wall of brush and trees along with the night itself blocked the actual gorge from view. Which, thankfully, Laura was grateful for as she was already horribly terrified.

When the vehicle finally came to a complete stop, she discovered to her amazement that she was still alive. However, her feet were trapped under the car’s crushed hood. She tried to free herself but was restrained by her seatbelt which dangled her as if she were a wilted plant and made it impossible to reach behind and unfasten the latch.

She pushed against the dashboard, trying to pull herself back into the seat in an attempt to disengage the seatbelt, but with both hands occupied, she was unsuccessful. Letting out a frustrated cry, she dropped back down on her restraints once again.

Her only alternative was to scream for help. Which she had been doing with no success. She wondered how long she had been down there. At least forty minutes she figured but, with a resigned sob, she knew no one would be leaving the party any time soon. The snow was falling steadily by this point, and no doubt, her car tracks would be completely covered soon if not already.

The sad fact remained, that no one would be missing her.

Her situation appeared hopeless. The thought of dying a slow and agonizing death in her seatbelt had her attempting her efforts once more. She refused to give up and pushed hard on her tired arms while pulling with all her effort to free her feet. With no luck. Frustrated, she cried out in anger and slammed the steering wheel with her fist.

“Hello? Is there anyone in the car?” A male voice broke through the still night.

Completely taken by surprise, Laura remained speechless, until it registered in her brain that she was being rescued. With a cry of relief, she responded, “Yes, yes. I’m in here.”

She heard someone outside her vehicle before a huge form loomed out of the darkness next to window. She gasped in alarm before she realized it was her rescuer.

He bent down and peered into the darkened vehicle. Even in the blackness, Laura could make out the thick mat of dark hair, the square jaw, and the cold steel of his narrowed eyes. Recognition was swift.

Dexter O’Reilly. Of all people to save her life, it had to be him.

“Are you all right? Have you been injured?” he asked, though the closed window caused his voice to sound muffled forcing her to strain to hear.

She shook her head. “No, but my legs are trapped.”

He stepped back and surveyed the situation before attempting to pull on the door handle. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t budge. The vehicle’s front end was not visible due to the dark of night, making it impossible for him to see the extent of the damage.

“I’m going to break the window. Turn your head in the opposite direction.”

She did as was told. In the next instant, a cascade of broken glass exploded within the interior of the car. He reached inside and brushed several broken pieces off her shoulders. Then leaning through the broken window, he examined the extent of injury to her legs. Her legs were scratched and coated in blood, with only tattered remnants of her torn nylons covering them.

To her surprise, he demanded, “Didn’t you wear any boots?”

Stunned, she mumbled, “I didn’t give it much thought.”

He turned to give her a look of disapproval. “They could have saved you some deep cuts.”

Stepping back from the vehicle, he began talking to no one in particular when he said, “I can’t get you free from this angle. I’m going to come in there.”

“How? The door is stuck—” she broke off as she realized he already had a plan.

He leaned forward and suddenly began squeezing his body through the broken window. Since there was only so much space in the tiny opening, Laura’s body was pushed against the back of her seat to make room for him to fit. She moaned and whimpered as his shoulders crushed her chest, but seeing as there was no other way inside the vehicle, she was forced to endure it. With the passenger door jammed against one of the trees, her window was the only way in.

At last, he gathered his body into the passenger seat then turned to study her closely. She knew her eyes were glistening with unshed tears and her lips had begun to tremble, and not necessarily from the cold. At any moment, she felt hysteria threatening to overcome her.

Any other person would have offered words of support and comfort, but he simply looked at her unemotionally.

“Can you feel your feet?”

The aches in her legs and the sores in her trapped feet had started to throb. All she wanted to do was to start crying all over again. She had successfully ignored the pain in her feet since the imminent danger of death was more pressing, however, now he only reminded her of their aches and pains.

She wiggled her toes, and then quickly nodded her head unnecessarily fast. “Yes.”

Laura heard the shaking in her voice and felt the onslaught of convulsions. She bit her lip hard in an endeavor to quail her fears. Post terror had made its ugly appearance. The reality of what she barely escaped and the terrifying predicament she found herself in now had become alarmingly clear.

However, his hands had a surprisingly calming effect. For a man who appeared to be so harsh and uncaring, his hands were oddly gentle as they reached under and unbuckled the straps of her sandals. He tossed them carelessly aside then shocked her completely when he began gently massaging her feet back and forth.

“Wh-what are you d-doing?” Her voice stuttered from the mix of distraught emotions and the unexpected warm touch of his hands.

He ignored her and continued with his task until without warning her feet slipped freely from their entrapment. Feeling utterly disorientated, she muttered her gratitude before reaching down to rub them gingerly. Confused, she was overcome by an unexpected desire for his continual administration.

He merely turned his attention to her seatbelt, not bothering to acknowledge her gratitude. With a quick touch of a button, she was free of that restraint as well. However, as she fell hard onto the steering wheel, she peevishly thought a warning would have been nice.

Rubbing her shoulder, she looked over at her rescuer and remembered who he was. Nice, she sincerely doubted was in his vocabulary.

“We’re going to have to stay the night.” It was simply stated, not a trace of emotion.

“What?” Laura’s hand froze. “You’re kidding, right, because that’s impossible.”

“I don’t kid.” Which hardly surprised her.

“But somebody is sure to drive by and see our tracks in the snow.”

“The snow has started to fall again, they will be completely covered within the hour.”

“What about your car? Somebody is bound to see it parked alongside the road and realize you’re in danger.”

He shook his head, the smallest hint of irritation creeping into his expression. “No, no one will, because you see, you used a road not used during the winter months.”

Laura’s face went ashen. In a small voice, she muttered, “The fork in the road. I should have turned right, not left.”

He simply nodded. “And there is no way I will be able to get us up the ravine in the dark. It would be like going blindfolded.”

“But we can’t stay down here. We’ll freeze to death.” Her eyes rounded in alarm as she reached for his coat lapels and clutched them in her fist as if they were her lifeline.

Dexter studied her for a few brief seconds. An unexplained emotion played within the depths of his eyes but it disappeared before it had barely formed, causing Laura to wonder if she had imagined it.

Perturbed, he thrust her hands away. “We have the shelter of the vehicle, our coats, and each other if need be. Do you have an emergency box in the hatch?”

She shook her head, her voice still unsteady as she replied, “N-no, but there’s a, uh, blanket on the back seat.”

His gaze shifted back to her face at the noticeable shake in her voice. She didn’t even bother to control her anxiety. She was far too terrified.

He sighed and turned away. “I’m going to try to get some sleep. The sooner morning arrives, the better. I suggest you do the same.”

He threw himself into the back seat and stretched his long limbs onto the cramped bench. Then, retrieving the blanket she mentioned, he tossed it to her in the front seat. Laura caught it in surprise, thinking he would have kept it for himself.

Exhaling a weary breath, she settled into her seat before drawing her knees up to her chest and huddling deep beneath the blanket. Wrapping her arms about her legs, she silently shivered, listening to the breathing of her rescuer. She was frightfully cold and horrid visions of dying in her sleep had her sitting with her eyes wide open in the front compartment of the vehicle.

Staring out the window to the blackness before her, she could almost sense the eerie presence of the gorge. “This place always makes me so sad.”

She waited for him to respond, but when he didn’t, she continued. “So many people have lost their lives here.”

When silence was her only response, she continued, “The most famous being that of a young mother who committed suicide here ten years ago. Did you know that?”

“I’ve heard the story,” he said, startling Laura. Not from the fact that he had heard the story as everyone in Misty Falls knew of it, but because she thought he planned to ignore her the entire night.

“Afterward, the lookout became known as Suicide Point   because of what she did,” she said. “She must have been awfully distraught to kill herself.”

“Or insane.”

“Poor woman. Drove her car right off the very spot—” she broke off, swallowing a sudden lump in her throat.

There was a moment of silence before he quietly said, “But you survived.”

Swallowing, she nodded and said, “What makes the story even more tragic was the woman had her two children strapped inside the car with her.”

“Didn’t they survive?”

“Yes,” she acknowledged. “I remember reading that she must have changed her mind at the last second as they found her dead body sprawled across them as if to shield them from the impact of the fall. How horrible for her.”

“Not exactly the sentiments I’d give to a woman who tried to kill her children.”

“She must have had her reasons.”

“Yes. She was batshit crazy.”

“People get depressed all the time. It can cause irrational behavior, completely out of their control.”

“That might be so, but folks don’t generally commit a murder/suicide because they’ve had a rough day.”

“The brain is a complex and mysterious matter. We all handle stress or depression differently.”

“Am I about to be forced to listen to some psychological babble?”

“It’s not babble,” Laura said, feeling slightly hurt. It was off-putting that he could be so unfeeling towards the sad fate of that young mother.

She sighed and decided not to engage in any further conversation with the man. Burrowing deep into her flimsy blanket, she silently listened to the sounds around her. She had no idea how long she sat there. So many thoughts had begun to run through her mind that she began to lose track of time.

Here she was on Christmas Eve, virtually on the edge of her deathbed, and she had the Grinch himself as her hero. Though the evening could have ended with a far fatal outcome, she could not shake the sense of self-pity that overcame her.

It was her first Christmas alone. She wanted so badly for everything to go just right. But how could it when everything was so wrong?

She should have been at home with her parent celebrating the festive season. She should never have had to face spending the holiday alone. And she most certainly should never have found herself on death’s door. But here she was, and it left her completely and utterly vulnerable.

Tears rolled unchecked down her cold cheeks. The desire to have her father there beside her was so great she let out a tiny sob. It was Christmas Eve and she was all alone. She feared this greatly. Tried to prevent it, but alas the solitary loneliness of her world could not be denied.

She raised her eyes to the twinkling stars. They winked at her as if she were being mocked. Try and change the course of the stars and only disaster lay in your path. She caught sight of the Christmas star and uttered in sorrow. What I would wish for, you could never grant, she thought and cast her eyes away instead.

She shivered, realizing the open window had left her numb with cold. Shaking herself out of yet another bout of misery, she pulled the blanket closer and rubbed her nearly naked legs, trying to coax warmth back into them.

Another bout of tremors shook her entire body.  She shot a glance behind to her rescuer. He was huddled into the warm tweed coat he wore, curled up in the small confinement of the back seat. His large body appeared cramped and uncomfortable, yet his breathing indicated he had fallen asleep. She momentarily marveled at his ability to act calm under such horrific circumstances. Then she remembered he wasn’t the one who just hurdled over Suicide Point.

At last, she was relieved to feel sleep creep into her bones. She allowed her eyelids to droop until at last exhaustion took over and darkness closed in.

In her nightmare, she is falling. Down, down into a black abyss. She is screaming, her arms and legs flaring. No one is there to hear her cries. She is alone. Fear is coursing through her veins at a swift current. And then. . . .

Her eyes flew open. She felt frozen all over. Blinking several times, she stared up at the bleak ceiling of her car. She tried to breathe but was far too cold. Clutching her chest, she gasped for air, whizzing horribly, until at last she was rewarded with a long raspy breath. With her lungs refilled, reality slowly penetrated her senses.

I’m still alive.

Reaching over to the back seat, she touched another human arm.

And, thank goodness, not alone.

Her hand stilled. She was not alone. The realization startled her. She rolled over and peered down at him. He was still asleep. Except for the rising of his chest, he lay completely still. The man was as cold and jagged as the night around her, yet made of flesh and bone just like any other human.

A certain promise echoed in her brain. “You won’t be alone.” Her father kept his promise, even tonight when the possibility seemed unlikely. He brought her someone to share that first Christmas without him. She smiled. True, he was no Santa Claus, but he was her very own Scrooge.

Below her, the man of her thoughts released a sudden and violent shiver. The winter’s night air had finally crept beneath his warm tweed coat and reminded Laura how cold she was. Without hesitating, she crawled over the back seat and laid next to him, pulling her blanket over them both as she did. She couldn’t bear the cold any longer and desperately needed the warmth of another human being.

He let out a groan as her weight nudged him accidentally in the side. Still partially asleep, he gruffly mumbled something incoherent.

She raised her chin and whispered, “It’s gotten very cold.”

He grumbled again and shifted slightly to allow her body a more comfortable fit against his and then went back to sleep. Laura smiled and rested her head against his chest as his shivers gradually subsided. At that moment, there was no fear, no loss, and no loneliness. Only a sense of safety and warmth she hadn’t felt in a very long while. All thanks in part to the stone-cold man beneath her cheek.

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