Misfortune

Misfortune (Christmas with Scrooge)

Book 1 in The Miss Series

Misfortune COVER #2

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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 herself would have associated with but, nevertheless, 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 ending their brief courtship until after Christmas. Besides, it seemed the moral thing to do. Who wanted to be dumped over the Christmas holiday?

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 into a family affair that was of no concern to her. In fact, she was ashamed for having participated in the usual workplace gossip. She had no connection to these people and scolded herself on her own lack of character. 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 possibly 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 another party 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 before even getting to know 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 unwillingly turned back. The woman stared in disbelief somewhere over Laura’s right shoulder. As though a puppet, she found herself turning in her seat to follow 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 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, it was in the face that this image of distinction had a startling contrast. It hardly was unpleasant to look at, Laura acknowledged with a womanly appreciation, however, it bore a brooding darkness that originated from those mesmerizing eyes and had an effect on the rest of his features. His face was long and cut sharply along the cheekbones and jaw where it came together to form a distinctive square and powerful chin that concealed the trace of a dimple. His intense features formed the hard and stern countenance he bore, and Laura knew instantly it had been a long time since it cracked a smile.

The agreeable nature and sunny disposition of his kin were nowhere to be found in the piercing 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 stopped. He certainly did not have the glowing personality his family possessed.

He had been surveying the room when suddenly his dark eyes stopped in her direction. He caught and held her attention. A cold blank stare, which said absolutely nothing at all, held her spellbound. An unexpected jolt ricocheted along 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 who held her gaze completely captive. 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.

Dexter O’Reilly broke the trance at last by jerking his head in the opposite direction and moved his lean form to follow. She blinked at the sudden laceration to their locked gaze, yet a shudder of relief. She watched him walk away only long enough to see him greet his mother. The woman smiled at him with pure love. He offered 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 and then retraced 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 stepped aside and right into someone’s path coming up behind her. The collision 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 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 father passed away 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 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 the somber depths of his dark 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. However, in the split second that 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 gave 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 actually one of our employees.” Adell was still cheerful as she 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 gaze back to Laura’s flushed face. Naturally, she returned his glance 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 actually experience it.” She was unable to catch the revealing crack at the end of her voice.

On their own accord, her eyes shifted to the face of Adell’s son. His expression had altered slightly, however it was enough to catch Laura’s attention. 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 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, the moment was gone, 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 throbbing 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 she evidently wasn’t being missed and put her drink down on the nearest table and made her 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 twenty kilometers 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. The steep gorge sat at the base of Misty Falls, a magnificent waterfall and one of the most spectacular natural wonders around and what 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. 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 dark road.

The night was very black without the aid of the moon’s glow. The only speck of light came from the car’s headlight. With the snow swirling fast toward her tiny 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, her car was airborne. Fear gripped her chest as she realized that she had, indeed, just driven off Suicide Point.

Trees and brush came up fast to meet her windshield as she felt herself dropping. 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 visit. 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 appearance.

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 disquiet 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 herself to smile and turned 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.

Eyes back on the silent road, he eventually reached the fork in the highway where he would have turned right. However, frowning, he slowed the car until it came to a 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 appeared in 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 headed 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 discovered 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 over to the shoulder of the road and peered out into the darkness. A sense of horror swept over his stunned form 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 into the back of his memory suddenly resurfaced. A night, very similar to this one, fourteen years earlier where he stood 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 fourteen years back when he was an eighteen-year-old boy. He could hear his father calling out for help as he desperately clung to the cold jagged ridge of a gully. 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 steep edge of the incline to find his father clinging fiercely for his life. He called for his son, his hand stretched out begging for help, but to Dex’s horror, he found his feet incapable of moving, gripped with fear. Instead, he stood and watched as his father, no longer having the strength to hold on, disappear. Everything around him had gone deathly silent.

A second cry for help pierced his conscious 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 while at the same time tried 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 Laura to survey her surroundings. Her vehicle had landed in an awkward position, a near ninety-degree angle, wedged between two trees. The hood of her car came to a grounded halt on a steep embankment overlooking the gorge. A wall of brush and trees along with the night itself blocked the gorge from view. Which Laura figured she should be grateful for as she was already horribly terrified.

When the vehicle finally came to a complete stop, to her amazement, she was still alive. However, her feet, she discovered were trapped under the crushed area of the floorboards. She was incapable of freeing them due to the seat belt having her securely strapped in, and because she hung from it like a wilted plant, she was powerless to reach behind to unfasten the latch. She pushed again on the dashboard and tried to pull herself back into the seat. With both hands occupied, she was unable to free herself at the same time. Letting out a frustrated cry, she once again dropped back against her restraints.

The only alternative for her at that moment was to cry 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 for another three hours. The snow had begun to fall steadily. No doubt, her car tracks were completely covered by now. And, sadly, the fact remained, 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 she pulled 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 sob of relief, she responded, “Yes, yes. I’m in here.”

She heard someone outside her vehicle before a huge form loomed out of the dark beside her driver’s side 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 then began pulling on the door handle. It didn’t give. 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 the woman. Then leaning through the broken window, he examined the extent of injury to her legs. He could see that they were bare and scratched, coated in blood, with only tattered pieces left of her torn nylons covering them. As she had said, her feet were trapped under the crushed portion of the hood of the car.

“Didn’t you wear boots?” He yanked at her legs, trying to free her feet.

She looked stunned and 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, he had no alternative but to crush her as far back into her seat as he could to make room for his entrance. She moaned and whimpered as his shoulders crushed her chest, but he had no choice. With the passenger door pinned 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 closer.

He noticed her eyes had begun to glisten and her lips shook as if she were to burst into a fit of hysteria. He knew he should say something to help calm her nerves, but he came up empty. Instead, he turned his attention back to her situation.

“Can you feel your feet?”

Laura’s nerves were pulled taut to their breaking point. 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. She recognized the symptoms and attempted to suppress them.

However, his hands had a calming effect. Oddly, for a man who appeared to be so harsh and uncaring, his hands were strangely gentle as they reached under and unbuckled the straps of her sandals. He tossed them carelessly aside then returned to her feet where he startled her completely by gently massaging them back and forth.

“Wh-what are you d-doing?” Her voice stuttered from both the lingering hysteria and the unexpected intimate touch.

He ignored her and continued with his task until without warning her feet slipped freely from their trap. Feeling utterly disorientated, she muttered a thank you before reaching down to rub them gingerly. Indeed, what she wanted was the continual touch of his soothing hands.

He didn’t even bother to acknowledge her thanks but simply turned to the seat belt next, and with a quick touch of a button, she was free of that restriction as well. As she fell hard onto the steering wheel, however, 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 not 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 I don’t think I can do that if I don’t have to.”

“I don’t kid.” Which hardly surprised her. “And, yes, you do have to.”

“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 soon if not already.”

“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 crept into his face. “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 grew with alarm as she reached for his coat lapels and clutched them in her fist as hysteria threatened to bubble back to life once more.

Dexter studied her distraught face and that same emotion which had surfaced earlier with his mother resurfaced. 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, “No, but there’s a blanket on the back seat.”

Dexter searched her face and was relieved to notice the panic in her eyes had only eased slightly. However, it was really in the revealing tremble of her bottom lip that gave her away. It wouldn’t stop quivering as if she were sitting in a meat cooler, which wasn’t far from how it felt. He wouldn’t admit it, but her concerns were probably warranted. It was horribly cold, and the broken window only made it even worse. His eyes shifted back to her face and noticed her chin had begun to join her bottom lip in trembles. She didn’t even attempt to control her fears.

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 taut muscles onto the cramped bench. Then retrieving the blanket she mentioned, he tossed it to her in the front seat. She snatched it but continued to stare at him with wide, frightened eyes. That foreign emotion made yet another unwelcome appearance. He hated any show of emotion while the woman certainly had no qualms openly displaying them. Yes, the quicker he got out of there, the better. He was beginning to regret his decision to come down the ravine. Aggravated, he squelched the little voice that told him otherwise.

Laura turned away at last and huddled deep into the front seat pulling the blanket around herself and drawing her knees up to her chest. She wrapped her arms about her legs and 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.

She had no idea how long she sat there. So many thoughts had begun to run through her head; she lost 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 worse 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 anything go right 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 she had. And it left her completely frightened and 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 would 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 her blanket closer and rubbed her nearly naked legs, trying to coax warmth back in them.

Shivering horribly in the front seat, she glanced 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 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. Frozen, she stared up at the bleak ceiling of her car. She clutched her chest, unable to breathe until at last she gasped for air and sucked in a long raspy breath. With her lungs refilled, reality slowly penetrated her senses. I’m still alive, she reassured herself. Then reaching over to the back seat, she touched another human arm. And, thank goodness, not alone.

Her hand stilled. She wasn’t 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 impossible seemed unlikely. He brought her someone to share this first Christmas without him. She actually 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 cold had finally crept beneath his warm tweed coat and reminded Laura how terribly 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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