I stood in front of the glass doors of the restaurant, searching my reflection for the courage to open them. Taking a deep breath, I reached for the handle then paused, dropping my hand to my side.
It won’t be that bad. I reached for the handle again, curving my hand around the smooth metal and stopped. Really. How bad could this possibly be?
“Are you going in?” I started at the deep voice next to me. Turning, I looked up at a handsome man waiting patiently.
“In!” I said. “No.” I sighed. “I don’t know. Actually, go ahead. I think I’ll stay out here for a minute. I’m not feeling very well.” My throat tightened up as tears burned at the back of my eyes. “Damn,” I muttered and walked away from the door towards the bench off the walkway. Fumbling in my purse I pulled out a tissue and plopped down. “This really sucks.”
“Are you okay?”
I looked up at the man and then back down as the first of the tears plopped off my cheeks.
“I’m fine,” I sniffed, carefully wiping my eyes.
“You don’t look fine.” He sat down next to me. “Do you want to talk?”
“Not really,” I said, looking at him out of the corner of my eyes. “This is actually pretty embarrassing. I’m not normally so melodramatic. I just — I need to do something, and I’m having a hard time doing it.”
The man stretched his long legs in front of him and leaned back against the bench as if he had all the time in the world. I stared at his boots, wondering if they were the real thing or were bought scuffed.
“I’m here for a rehearsal dinner,” the words tumbled out. “My best friend is marrying my ex-boyfriend and I’m supposed to be happy for them. And I am! I mean, they’re great together. Kate is the sweetest woman I know and Brian’s a great guy. And I knew when I introduced them that they were meant to be together. I’m happy for them. I’m really, really happy,” I trailed off, wiping my eyes.
“You were in love and now you’re saying goodbye.”
“That’s it exactly,” I looked at him gratefully.
“So,” he paused, “are you going to go?”
“I probably should. I wouldn’t want them to suspect. Am I a total mess?” I asked pulling a compact out of my purse.
“Not at all. I think you look beautiful.”
“Now I know you’re just being nice.”
“Not nice. Just honest.” He stood and held out his hand. His warm fingers wrapped around mine as he pulled me to my feet. “Are you ready, Eleanor?” he asked gently.
“How did you know my name?”
“Well, I’m here for a rehearsal dinner too. My flight landed a bit late, so I drove on my own.”
I felt the color drain from my face and then rush back in a scorching wave. “You’re…”
“Henry. Kate’s brother.” Pulling my limp hand through his arm, he steered me to the door and through it.
“Oh, God,” I groaned, mortified.
“Don’t worry about it. I know what a good friend you’ve been to Kate, and I know how torn up she’s been over the whole situation.” He paused at the door to the private dining room and raised a brow at me.
I pasted a smile on my face, pressing my hand on my stomach to calm the nausea that threatened to overwhelm me.
He leaned down and whispered in my ear, “So this man came to visit my ranch and noticed there were lots of flies buzzing around the barn. He looked over at me and asked if we ever shoo them. ‘Nah,’ I replied ‘We just let them go barefoot.'”
Surprised, I looked up at him and burst into laughter as we walked into the room.
And Then He Kissed Me
I could never have imagined that one small joke would change my life. Hours after he told it, the memory made me grin. As glasses were raised in toasts, as dinner plates were cleared, as one by one the guests began to leave, I thought of Henry. Sitting next to Kate, I watched as he and Brian talked, his long lean body relaxed in his chair.
“So…” Kate said slyly, “what’s going on with you and Henry?”
I looked down and watched my fingers trace a red wine stain on the white tablecloth. “Nothing.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, unconvinced. “That’s why you guys couldn’t stop talking to each other all night.” She looked over at Henry and Brian, watching them for a moment. Turning to me, her eyes became serious. “Ellie?”
“Hmm?” I replied absently, staring at a certain cowboy.
“I want,” she paused and took a breath, “I want you to know that I’m sorry. I stole your boyfriend and that’s against the BFF Code. I’m so, so sorry.”
I reached for her hand and gripped it in mine. “We’ve been over this before. You didn’t steal anybody. I was just keeping an eye on him until he met you.”
“Really.” I gave her hand a squeeze and then released it. “Kate, you have to stop feeling guilty. I’m fine. More than fine. Besides,” I took a sip of wine, “Brian never looked at me the way he looks at you.”
Kate reached over and hugged me. I squeezed her, happy that I was able to speak the truth. She pulled away and gave me a watery smile. “Look at us! Three glasses of wine and we’re acting like we used to after a night out.”
“I love you, man!” We both convulsed into giggles.
“That’s it! I’m cutting you two off,” Brian said walking around the end of the table. Reaching up he tapped a hanging lantern with one hand and winked at Kate. “I was just telling my future brother-in-law that he needs to go to the beach before heading back to the Montana wilderness.”
“It’s not exactly wilderness,” Henry interrupted.
“Close enough,” Brian waved his hand in dismissal. “I need to drive my beautiful bride-to-be home and make sure she gets her beauty sleep. So, that leaves Ellie to play tour guide.”
“Subtle, Brian. Real subtle,” Kate muttered next to me.
I ignored her and looked at Henry. “Do you want to?”
Saying our goodbyes, Henry and I walked out the front of the building, passing the bench where I’d poured out my heart. We walked around the hedges lining the parking lot, crossed the street and stood at the edge of the sidewalk, our feet already touching sand, the ocean glittering in the moonlight. Balancing on one leg, I slipped off my shoes, lightly touching his arm for balance.
“Aren’t you going to take off yours?”
“Nah. I’ll just get sandy.”
“Listen. If you don’t take off your shoes, I’m going back to my car and heading home. You can’t come to the beach and not feel the sand between your toes. Now,” I pointed, “Take them off.”
“Wow, you’re bossy.”
“Watch it.” I waited while he pulled off his cowboy boots and rolled up his jeans. “Hold on. I’m parked right there.” Taking his boots from him, I walked over to my car and threw them in the back seat along with my shoes and purse. Locking the door, I turned and jumped, startled to find him so close.
“You didn’t have to follow me.”
“It wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me not to.”
“Please,” I rolled my eyes. “Who’s gentlemanly in this day and age?”
“Me,” he growled.
“Did you just,” I swallowed, “growl?”
“I’ve been known to do that.” He edged a little closer. I took a step backwards and felt the cool metal of the car against my spine.
“You’ve been known to growl?”
“On occasion,” he whispered, leaning in closer. He raised his hand to lightly caress my cheek. “I’ve been thinking all night about how you’d taste.”
Nervously, I licked my lips, my eyes darting to his mouth, as his warm breath brushed me. “Have you?” I murmured. Slowly closing my eyes, I leaned closer. His lips, firm yet soft touched mine. Tentative at first and then, with more pressure. He wrapped his arms around my back and pulled me closer. Sighing I relaxed into his hold and there, at the edge of a moonlit beach, with my back against my car and my toes on cool cement, the whole world shifted.
“I want to see you.” Henry’s deep voice rumbled through the phone. I sat on the couch, staring as the faded sunlight painted the walls a deep gold. I reached for the glass of wine sitting on the coffee table.
“I want to see you too,” I sighed, taking a sip of the crisp Chardonnay. “Come to California, Henry.”
“I want to, sweetheart. I do. This is a busy time at Hidden Hollow. I’m in the middle of interviews for a chef to take over while mine is on maternity leave.” The phone was silent for a moment. “You can come here, Ellie.”
“I have work too.”
“When’s your spring break?”
“In two weeks.”
“Come to Montana,” he urged.
“Henry,” I started.
“I’m buying you a ticket. You can use it or not, but I’m hoping you do.”
I shifted down on the couch. “I don’t want you to pay for my ticket,” I protested.
“I can afford it and I know you can’t. They don’t pay teachers enough,” he replied stubbornly. I closed my eyes and pictured his square chin with the tiny cleft. God, I wanted to kiss that chin.
“You know,” I sighed, “that’s not playing fair. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Ellie. God, I would love to come to California right now.”
“I want to lay California out in front of me and explore every peak and valley. I want to run my fingers through Sonoma and Napa. I want to wrap my hands around San Diego and Palm Springs and run them up to Long Beach.”
My heart thudded as his raspy voice continued.
“I’d spend a long time in Long Beach,” his voice dropped to a whisper. “A really long time.”
“Really?” I squeaked.
“Mmm-hmm. I want to nibble my way down Santa Clara and expose San Francisco and Oakland. Twin cities.”
“Um,” I swallowed, “they don’t really like to be called that.”
“I want to lick my way around Monterey and San Luis Obispo while my hands stroked up towards Santa Barbara.”
I shifted on the couch, warmth pooling in my stomach. “Henry.”
“I love Santa Barbara. Do you know where I’d go next?”
“That’s a good possibility. I’d stroke Yosemite until I melted all the ice and it was as hot as the desert.”
“Henry?” I whispered.
“Yeah?” Henry replied thickly.
“I’m not sure I like what this will make Fresno.”
Henry’s surprised laugh barked through the phone. “Montana. Two weeks.”
“I’ll be there.”
“Here we are,” Henry said, throwing open the door to the airy bedroom.
I walked into the room and ran my fingers over the bumps of thread in the quilt laying across the bed. “Was it Kate’s room?”
“No. She was down the hall across from my room. So this is okay? I didn’t want you to feel…” he trailed off.
“It’s perfect.” I looked up to see him staring at me with a heated look. I fought the urge to jump in his arms.
“Right. Okay,” taking a deep breath, Henry set my suitcase on the bed. “I’ll just let you unpack.”
Following him to the door, I watched him walk down the hall. As he disappeared down the stairs, I grinned. After two months of phone calls and emails, I was finally at the ranch for two golden weeks.
Humming under my breath I opened my suitcase and pulled out my clothes, carefully hanging them up. I smiled at the sight of my jeans and tops next to Henry’s winter coats.
A glint caught my eye as I turned towards the bed. Curious, I looked deeper into the closet, moving until I saw the reflected bit of sunshine again. Reaching in, I pulled out a purple calico blouse with tiny pink flowers and pearl snaps. Giving it a quick shake, I coughed as dust flew in the air. Now, why on earth would there be a blouse in the closet?
Shrugging, I tossed it across a chair and finished unpacking. As I was pushing the suitcase into the closet, I heard Henry come down the hallway. Looking up, I saw him leaning against the doorway, a lecherous grin on his face, his eyes glued to my butt. I snapped to attention, blushing. “I’m all done!”
“Um, how about checking out the barn?” I asked, willing my face to cool off.
“Right,” he drawled, walking towards me.
“Oh! I found this.” I tossed him the blouse. He caught it, the smile fading from his face.
“It was in the back of the closet.” I gestured watching as his fingers ran lovingly over the buttons, his rough skin catching the soft cotton.
“Is it Kate’s?”
“No,” he said, looking up at me with a small, sad smile. “It was Georgie’s.”
“Widowed. I thought you knew about Georgie,” he said, confused.
“Oh God. I’m so – I didn’t know.” I swallowed the lump that lodged in my throat at the sadness I saw in his eyes. “How long?”
“Almost ten years now.”
“How did she die?” I whispered.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. He sat next to me and reached for my hand. I waited in silence while I watched dust motes dance in the sunlight beaming in from the window.
“We got married when we were eighteen. I’d known her all my life.” He looked at me with a ghost of a grin. “I used to tease her nonstop. And then, one day, I stopped teasing and started loving. Our parents wanted us to wait until we graduated college, but we were in such a hurry to start our lives. We barely waited until we graduated high school.”
I ran my fingers along his knuckles, listening to him talk about a girl with golden hair and cornflower blue eyes. He told me about their first years of marriage, living in a small apartment while going to school.
“She was diagnosed when she was twenty. We were scared but never thought that it’d kill her. And then, one morning, she left. Slipped right out of the room, with me and her mom and her dad sitting around her.”
He tugged on one of my curls. I looked up into his solemn eyes as he wiped away my tears with his thumb.
“Ellie. I never thought to hide Georgie from you.”
“I loved her. I’ll always love her, but,” he leaned down and softly kissed my lips. “I’ve moved on with my life. I’m not a broken man.”
White or Red?
“White or red?” Henry asked.
“White. Definitely white.” I replied, carrying our plates to the table.
“Really? I thought you liked red.”
“I do,” I felt myself blushing.
“Interesting. Now, I have to know what’s making you turn so pink.”
“It’s just that,” I started, “you know how tequila can make some people lose their cool?”
“Yeah,” Henry said slowly.
“Well, red wine is,” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, “red wine is not what I should be drinking if I want to keep my wits.”
“We’re not exactly playing chess,” Henry teased. “We’re having dinner.”
“Red wine is dangerous,” I hedged.
“This, I’ve got to hear.”
“It’s rich and deep and heavy,” I explained, sinking into my thoughts. “The tannins fill your mouth, making it tingle. Your tongue comes to life, your lips go numb. It warms a path down your body tightening your fingers and toes. It’s,” I laughed uncertainly, returning to him, “dangerous.”
Henry’s eyes darkened. He deliberately pulled the cork out of the bottle of cabernet and filled a glass. Handing it to me, he rasped, “I like dangerous.”
The look in his eyes made me take a half step back. Gulping a mouthful of wine, I stared at him warily. His eyes locked on my mouth. He stepped closer until his body was pressed to mine. He took the glass out of my hand and placed it on the table. Setting his hands on my hips, he lowered his head. “Dangerous can be fun,” he murmured against my lips.
His mouth played across mine. His tongue teased and stroked until I melted into him. He wrapped one arm around my waist and cradled my head with his other hand. He trailed kisses across my cheek, down my jaw. I clung to his shoulders.
“Um…Henry…I’m not sure…”
He gently bit my earlobe, sending a shiver down through me. “It sure seems like a good idea to me.” He walked me backwards, capturing me against the wall. His hands slid up, caressing the bare skin under my shirt.
“I thought,” I gasped, as he filled his hand, “we…were…”
“Going to take it slow?” He shifted against me, his thigh sliding between mine. “Sweetheart, I can promise you I’ll take it real slow.”
“Your bed or mine?” I moaned.
He reached both hands to cup my butt and lifted me against him. “I don’t think we’re going to make it to the bed.”
“I thought,” I breathed, “you were,” I worked his belt buckle free, “going to go slow.”
He pulled at the buttons of my blouse. “Wait.” Henry panted. “I don’t have protection.”
His words were like ice water. Unwrapping my legs from around his waist, I tried to stand.
“Actually, as long as you have a clean bill of health, you don’t need to worry about it,” I said, avoiding his eyes.
“What do you mean?” Henry frowned, his breaths coming slower as he lifted my chin with a finger.
I forced a smile to my face. “I can’t have children, so you don’t have to worry about getting me pregnant,” I said lightly. I pulled the sides of my blouse together and tried to slide from between him and the wall.
Henry blocked my way with his arm. “Ellie,” he whispered.
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” I swallowed. “Let’s just forget about it, okay? I’m really hungry and that dinner smells great.” I pushed his arm away. My fingers trembled as I buttoned my blouse.
Suddenly, that glass of wine sounded like a good idea. White this time.
I peered through the windshield, trying to see past the sheet of water pouring down the front of the car. We inched down the road as the wipers furiously crossed back and forth. Next to me, Carrie groaned, clutching her swollen stomach.
“Don’t worry,” I assured her, loosening one hand from the grip on the steering wheel to reach across and squeeze her arm. “We’ll get there in time.”
“They’re coming four minutes apart,” Carrie closed her eyes, trying to breathe deeply through a contraction. “Oh God!” she groaned. “I shouldn’t have stayed at the house waiting for Todd to get back.”
We reached the one-mile mark. I tensed as I came to the bridge. Even over the pounding of the rain, I could hear the roar of the creek. I stopped the car, searching the road ahead.
“Carrie? Hon? I need you to help me out here. Do you see the bridge?”
Carrie opened her eyes, leaning as far forward as her belly allowed. “Ellie,” she whispered, “where is it?”
“Hold on.” Getting out of the car I was instantly drenched. I thanked God and Henry that it was paved and not dirt like so many other ranch roads. Walking slowly forward, I came to the edge. The cheery creek had been replaced by a raging river. The rustic wooden bridge was no where in sight. I raced back to the car and got in. Trying to still my shaking hands, I carefully put it in reverse.
“The bridge is gone.” Think, Ellie, think. The bridge was gone. The phone lines were down. I looked at my cell phone resting on the dashboard.
No cell service.
“No,” Carrie said firmly. “It’s not gone. It can’t be gone.” She gripped my arm with strong fingers, “I’m having a baby. I need a hospital. I need a doctor. I need an epidural. And I. Need. Todd.”
Taking a deep breath and throwing the car back into park, I grabbed both of Carrie’s hands in mine and stared firmly into her watery blue eyes. “Henry and Todd are probably behind us on the road. They should have finished moving the cattle by now. They’ll see the note. We’ll probably meet them on the way back to the house.”
“This is not in my birth plan!” she wailed.
“Well, one thing is for sure,” I said, releasing her hands and starting the slow drive back to the house.
“What?” Carrie asked, clenching her teeth and trying to breath as another contraction ripped across her stomach.
“At least you’ll finally have a name. How about Raine? It works for a boy or a girl.”
“Oh God,” she groaned. “I may be having a home birth, but I am not a hippy.” She giggled at her words, the giggle turning into laughter. “I think I’m hysterical.”
“You and me both.”
I drove back to the ranch without seeing Henry’s truck. I pulled as close as I could to the back porch.
“They’re not back yet,” said Carrie.
I jumped out of the car and ran around to her door. Opening it, I reached in and helped Carrie ease her body out. Standing in the rain, she bent in half, her short cap of dark hair plastered to her head. “Okay. That one came faster.” I held her arm as she leaned heavily on me. She moaned as she slowly climbed the four steps to the porch. Steadying her with one hand, I reached for the door.
I turned. Carrie stood frozen, staring at her feet. She raised her head, her wide eyes meeting mine in the dim light.
“My water just broke.”
“Are you sure?” I squeaked.
Carrie’s lower lip trembled, “Either that or I just pee’d my pants, but I’m going with my water breaking.” Her eyes welled up with tears.
Wrapping my arms around her swollen body, I patted her back, my mind racing. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be fine,” I assured her, hoping I wasn’t lying. “Let’s just get inside, okay?” I helped Carrie into the house. “Hey, at least we have power!”
Carrie wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Is your phone working?”
I dug it out of my pocket. “Um…” Walking around the kitchen, I held it towards the ceiling praying for little blue bars. “No. But I got service here all week, so…” I dropped off watching as she bent in half, holding on to the back of the kitchen chair. Thinking furiously, I started opening the kitchen cabinets.
“What are you looking for?”
“Pots. We need to boil water. They always boil water in the movies, so I’m going to boil water.”
“Bottom right corner,” she said rubbing her belly. “Please tell me you’re a nurse or a doctor or even a vet.”
I crouched down and dragged pots out of the cupboard. “No. I’m still a teacher.”
“Biology?” Carrie asked hopefully.
“History,” I said apologetically as I carried the pots to the sink. Filling them up, I looked out the window at the rain pounding the ground. Where were Henry and Todd? Setting the pots on the stove, I turned the burner on and straightened my shoulders. What’s next? “Let’s find you something dry and get you to bed.”
“It’s better for me to walk around, but I should probably change. I don’t have any clothes here.”
“I’m sure Henry has something.” I ran upstairs to Henry’s room. Opening a drawer, I pulled out a plain white t-shirt, lifting it to my nose and inhaling his scent. “Please hurry back,” I whispered.
I ran back downstairs, almost tripping on the fourth step. Grabbing the railing, I forced myself to slow down. I made my way down the stairs and helped Carrie out of her wet clothes and into the shirt. It hugged her swollen stomach, falling close to her knees. Worried, I studied her. She was so tiny. “Carrie? What do you know about delivery?”
“I read a few books, but I never thought I’d need to remember it all. How about you?”
“I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies, Miss Scarlett.”
Carrie groaned, “That was really bad.”
“Another contraction?” I asked sympathetically.
“No. That joke,” she said ruefully. “I’m really glad you’re visiting. If you weren’t here, I’d be all alone.” She stood up walking slowly around the room. “Look, we’ll probably need clean towels, some string and the kitchen shears.”
I nodded, trying to keep from feeling faint. Between contractions, she told me everything she knew. I hoped it was enough as I began to make preparations, periodically checking my phone for service.
The air steamed from the four pots of water on the stove. Minutes turned into an hour. Our talking stilled until the whole world was ticks of the clock and pounding rain.
“I need to lay down,” Carrie finally said.
We made our way to the bedroom off the kitchen. A wrought iron bed dominated the room. I’d already stripped it down to the bottom sheet and piled towels on top. The nightstand held scissors and string, soaking in rubbing alcohol.
I helped Carrie onto the bed, “Henry was telling me this bed was his great-grandmother’s.”
Carrie grunted as she shifted her weight.
“Yeah.” I ran my fingers across the chipped paint, each dent exposing more layers of color, clashing and melding. “He said he wants to restore it, but hasn’t found the time.”
I adjusted the towels beneath Carrie. “His grandfather and great uncles were all born on this bed. So was his dad.” I paused and looked straight into her eyes. “We may not know what we’re doing, but this bed sure does.”
Carrie bore down, her face contorting as she screamed. I watched sweat bead off her forehead and drip down her temples.
“Almost there!” I looked, seeing the small dome of the baby’s skull. “I see the head!”
Carrie fell back against the headboard, gasping, sobbing. I felt her legs stiffen again under my hands. Her neck strained forward as she let loose a cry that drowned the sound of the pounding rain, her fingers tearing at the sheet covering the bed.
I saw the back of a tiny head.
“Oh my God!” I gasped, moving my hands to support the baby as Carrie pulled herself up and gave one last push, sending a new life slipping into my hands.
Working quickly, I swiped the baby’s mouth with my finger and set it on Carrie’s chest, covering both of them with piles of warm blankets. Soft mewling cries filled the room.
“Hello, beautiful,” Carrie whispered. She stared into the newly blinking eyes while I tied off and cut the umbilical cord. I couldn’t take my eyes off the tiny wrinkled face, so shocked and irritated with being thrust into the world.
Carrie looked up at me, tears streaming down her face. Reaching out with one had she touched my own wet cheek with her palm. “Thank you, Ellie.”
Emotions swamped me. I wiped my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt. “How do you feel?”
“A little cold. A little shaky,” she whispered staring down at the shock of matted hair on the baby’s head, gently stroking the soft skin, exploring tiny fingers and hands. I piled a heavy quilt over mother and child, starting to remove the soiled towels.
“Wait. There’s still the placenta.”
“The placenta?” I echoed weakly.
“You need to save it so the doctor can be sure that everything is okay.”
“Save it?” I whispered. My stomach churned at the thought. I looked around the room.
Soiled towels covered the floor surrounding us. The shirt Carrie had been wearing hung off a chair in the corner, discarded when even the feel of soft cotton became too much for her to bear. Three empty pots lolled drunkenly across the floor. A fourth pot of tepid water sat on the floor at the foot of the bed.
I moved to look under the quilt. “Did you know that I actually flunked eighth grade biology?” I said conversationally as I cleaned Carrie’s legs, tossing the worst of the towels to the floor, replacing them with clean cloths.
“Hmm?” Carrie was locked in love, her eyes devouring the now quiet baby in her arms.
“Couldn’t dissect a frog,” I muttered, knowing she wasn’t listening. “I nearly passed out at the thought. The boys all–” I suddenly had a thought. “Carrie?”
“I didn’t look. I don’t know why but…boy or girl?”
An arrested look crossed Carrie’s face. “I–I didn’t look either.”
We looked at each other, laughter bubbling up and out, rolling around the room. We unwrapped the baby like the most precious of gifts.
“Congratulations, it’s a girl.” I grinned. The baby cried, her irritation renewed as cool air brushed across her delicate skin.
I continued to clean Carrie, wiping her legs with a wet washcloth. When she finally delivered the placenta, I fought back nausea and put it in a pot, covering it with a lid, washing my hands as shudders wracked my body.
I looked at mother and child resting on the bed, the baby already nursing. The familiar pang of longing stabbed through my womb. I put my hand to my stomach and fought down a tide of jealousy. This was most likely as close as I would ever come to bringing a child into the world. Swallowing new tears, I forced a smile to my face.
“Are you hungry? I’ve heard that new mothers are always hungry.”
“What would you like?”
“Thai food. There’s a great place in Vegas.”
“I’m not sure they deliver out here. Second choice?”
“Donuts. Big, fat donuts with gobs of pink icing.”
“God. That sounds good. Know of a good donut shop nearby?”
Carrie laughed. “At this point I’m so hungry, I’ll eat whatever you bring.”
“You got it.” I walked out of the bedroom, into the kitchen. Through the window, I could see the rising sun breaking through the clouds turning them as pink as the donut icing Carrie craved.
I stood at the window watching fat snowflakes fall in lazy circles. A cold blast of air bit through my sweater as the back door closed.
“The report says it’s going to be a big one,” I said.
“I heard,” Henry’s deep voice replied as he wrapped his arms around my waist and rested his chin on my head. “I fed the horses so they should be good until tonight.”
“It’s so pretty,” I whispered, leaning back in his arms.
“It may be pretty now, Ellie, but in a few hours, it’s going to be a mess.” He squeezed me tighter. “We should be fine. The generator’s gassed up, we’ve got more firewood than we’ll need and, if I’m not mistaken, someone’s been baking.”
I spun in his arms and kissed his chin. “Chocolate muffins.” I grabbed his hand. “Come on. They’re on the table.”
“You’re such a good little housewife.”
“Watch it,” I laughed, pulling him towards the kitchen.
As the day progressed, I watched the fat flakes turn to icy bullets that obliterated the world around us. The wind shook the windows in their frames as the snow piled up. Never, in the four months since I’d moved with my new husband to his home in Montana, had I felt so isolated. The three miles to the nearest neighbor seemed as far away as my family in San Diego.
When morning turned to afternoon, Henry started to put on his snow gear.
“You’re going out in this?”
“I have to check on the horses,” he said, shrugging into his coat.
“I’ll come with you.”
He walked over and put his hands on my shoulders. “Look, hon, it’s blowing at almost 50 miles an hour and, with the wind chill, we’re looking at temps way below zero. I won’t be long.”
“I just…I would just feel better if I knew you weren’t out there all alone.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s nothing I haven’t done before.”
“I know,” I said, fiddling with his coat buttons. “But really, wouldn’t it be faster if I helped?”
“I don’t know…”
“Look. Didn’t you say you tied a rope from the barn to the house?”
“Well, yeah, but…”
“So I’ll hold on to the rope.” I looked into his eyes. “If I don’t go with you, I’m just going to worry. Besides,” I smiled suggestively, “the sooner we get back, the sooner we can go to bed,” I ran my finger down his chest and gave him a lingering kiss, “and conserve heat.”
Henry sighed in defeat. “Fine.” I grinned and rushed to the back door to pull on my snow gear. “But you’ve got to hold on to the rope, Ellie. The visibility is zero and if you get turned around, you could wander off and freeze to death without ever finding the house.”
“I’m not an idiot, love.”
“I know.” He frowned as he watched me zip my coat and reach for my hat and gloves.
“Don’t be such a worrywart,” I teased as I opened the door. The blast of wind froze the smile off my face. It cut through my coat with the ruthlessness of a machete. “Good God!”
“Change your mind?”
“Not a chance. But, let’s hurry, okay?”
“Step in my footprints. It’ll make the going easier.”
I followed Henry out from under the shelter of the porch, my hand clutching the rope tied to the railing. I pushed my way through the snow. By the third step, Henry’s form was a vague shadow in a world blinded by white. I blinked my eyes, squinting through the snow as I trudged along after him to the barn. The shadow that was Henry was soon devoured by the snowy beast. Alone, with only a rope to guide me, I tucked my head down and continued, putting one foot in front of another into tracks that were already being obliterated by the wind.
With a gust that blew the hood off my head, the storm raged, tugging me off balance. Releasing the rope, I struggled to regain my footing, falling sideways into a snowy drift. Spitting snow out of my mouth and wiping it from my eyes, I staggered to my feet, reaching out to grab the rope.
My gloved fingers slipped through air.
Don’t panic. The rope is there. You know the rope is there. Carefully, not moving from my place next to the drift, I stretched my arms to either side, waving them, searching blindly for the rope. The wind bullied my body, pushing and shoving, trying to knock me off my feet. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.
I stood still, trying to get my bearings. “Henry!” The wind swept his name from my lips.
Stay still. Don’t move. I stood motionless, my eyes searching through the blinding snow. I knew Henry would know something was wrong when I didn’t follow him into the barn.
Warmth seeped from my body, replaced by a chill that sank into my bones. My muscles quivered with the temptation to move, to run, to get back to the house. But I knew that any step could be in the wrong direction. Stay still.
I stood there as heavy lethargy seeped into my body. The sting of the icy wind turned into a caress and the roar of the storm into a lullaby.
A shadow appeared to my left like a mirage. “Ellie! Ellie!” I could hear the panic in his voice.
“He-ee-en,” my teeth chattered. I forced his name past my frozen lips. “He-e-en-ry!”
I felt his arms grab me and envelop me in a bear hug. “Oh God, sweetheart. I was so worried! ”
“Tired. So-o-o tired.”
He lifted me in his strong arms and carried me to the blessed warmth of the house. Setting me on my feet, he immediately started undressing me. “Hold on, babe. I’m going to warm you up. When you didn’t show up at the barn, I thought you’d gone back to the house. I came back here and -” Cursing, he scooped me into his arms and carried me to the bedroom. Tucking me under the blankets, he stripped down and joined me holding me tightly as his warmth sent needles into my skin.
“Am I going to be okay?” I slurred sleepily.
“You will,” he hugged me tight. “I promise.” I heard him dial his cell phone as I drifted off.