For your Christmas pleasure I am posting an excerpt chapter from one of the stories included in ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS. This sample chapter is from the novella FATE'S LITTLE TRICK - a story by Sheryl Hames Torres, a very talented author. Enjoy!
Jared clicked off the radio. The incessant Christmas babble and hokey country Christmas songs were beginning to grate on his already-frayed nerves.
He looked down at the restless child lying in his lap and wanted to bawl like a baby. The seat belt stretched at an odd angle across Emily's little body. She had to be uncomfortable, but he didn't have the heart to wake her. She was completely exhausted. He watched her signing nonsense words in her sleep and touched the back of his hand to her pale brow. At least her fever was lower.
He cursed the reasons for having to drag his little girl across the country. They should be home decorating the tree and making out Christmas lists. He shouldn't have to do this. He shouldn't have to run. But if his best friend, Rick, hadn't called when he did, they might not have had the chance to run. He still didn't understand how his former in-laws figured they had the right to file for custody of his child. The Daltons had enough money to make the court see things their way. Jared's bank account offered him only two choices, stay and fight for about fifteen minutes, lose Emily and everything else, or fill the car with gas and run.
With a heavy sigh, he drove farther and farther up the ridiculously winding road, deeper into the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. If these were the foothills, he'd hate to see the actual mountains. The intense darkness swallowed the feeble light from his high beams. He'd never seen dark so black before.
A child of the city, he was used to streetlights reflecting against smoggy skies. There were few houses this far back in the woods, but covered in lights and decorations, they were like ornaments in the night. Between the houses, the only illumination was the vast amount of stars twinkling down at them from the inky sky. Maneuvering another hairpin curve, Jared decided he'd never seen so many stars, either.
He wished he could just stop and look at them, enjoy them a bit, but they had to reach the cabins as soon as possible. The devil might not be after them, but the threat was just as dire?and just as frightening.
For the last two hundred miles, in between the innocuous Christmas ditties, the radio announcer continuously touted an early snowy forecast for the southeastern part of the U.S. They didn't know when it would hit exactly as it had stalled several times as it made its way cross-country, just sometime in the next few days. Real specific. The system apparently sped up and slowed down as it crossed the country. At the moment, it was in slow mode. He would have thought snow in the mountains in mid-December wouldn't be a big thing, even this far south.
38 Fate's Little Trick
He didn't care one way or another. Let the snow come and bury them up to the roof until spring. All he cared about was getting to the cabin, locking the door behind them and staying inside for as long as it took.
But how long would that be? Would Emily be a teenager and he a bearded old mountain man by the time it was safe to emerge into the light again? Well, if that's what it took, so be it. Emily was his child, the only good thing from his disastrous marriage to Kirsten. He'd be damned if he'd let those usurpers?those interlopers?take her from him. If Em wasn't good enough for them before, what did they think would be different now? She was still deaf.
As he rounded a corner, the hunting retreat finally came into view. The words uttered by that old storeowner in the valley as he thrust the magazine ad into Jared's hands came flooding back to him.
"Miz Fuller should have room for y'all. She's on up there." He nodded his head toward the mountain with its upper half completely obliterated by the low-hanging clouds and coming dusk. "Now, she's a right bit odd, but she runs a clean place, tight and secure. Reckon folks are a might afraid of her hermit ways, but you needn't worry none. She's just sad. Sadness does that. Makes folks hunt for excuses to avoid anything that'll add more pain to what they already suffer. Made-up fear is just as good a reason as any."
Pulling up in front of a quaint cabin marked "office", Jared squinted through the darkness. A screened-in porch spread at an odd angle across the front of the cabin, following the terrain instead of the architecture of the building. The dim light at the windows was cheery and flickering. Fireplace or candlelight, he surmised. Shifting into neutral, he set the parking brake and cut the lights.
He didn't notice the door open, but suddenly a woman dressed in a long skirt and heavy blanket or shawl stood silhouetted against the flickering light, as though she'd been there all the time, waiting for them.
Leaving the engine and heater running, he slipped out from under his sleeping daughter's head as easily as he could and opened the car door. Standing half in, half out of the car, he called into the dark.
"Hello, ma'am. I'm Jar?Jake Matthews." Fast thinking. He hated lying, but he had no choice. "I'm sorry I didn't phone ahead?"
"You do realize that in a matter of days we could be snowed in here?" Her voice was soft despite her hard tone.
"Yes, ma'am." Jared's defensive hackles rose on the back of his neck. Even in the dark, he felt the intensity of her stare, the sensation that it was cutting through him sent a shudder creeping up his back. "We needed to?um?get away for a while."
"Fine. Two bedrooms, I'm assuming." Her voice was strange, clear but guttural almost, as though it hurt her to speak. Without waiting for his answer, she shoved the screen door open, moved down the two steps and walked away from him.
39 Sheryl Hames Torres
He got back in his car and followed her up the road, actually climbing higher up the mountain to the last cabin on the lane. None of the cabins appeared to be occupied and he wondered why she was taking them so far. Following behind her, they were barely creeping along.
"Ma'am, wouldn't you rather ride up?"
Ignoring him completely, she moved ahead as surefooted as a young mountain deer, though she carried no lantern or flashlight. His headlights were the only illumination in the pitch darkness of the night. A little general store sat halfway up the mountain between the groupings of cabins. Heavy-branched firs leaned over it in a motherly fashion.
He pulled to a stop in front of the last cabin on the lane. She unlocked and opened the cabin door while he lifted Emily from the seat. Stepping into the small house, warmth enveloped him and he noticed that not only were the lamps already turned on, but a fire roared in the fireplace.
Alarm bells rose inside him and he hesitated. He searched the room for the woman, but she had already started down the hall. Jared followed.
If the lights and the fire shocked him, it was nothing compared to finding the room set up to accommodate a little girl. Frilly pink curtains adorned the windows and matched the quilt on the little canopy bed. On the floor, toys were scattered around the walls.
"This is her room," she said, her tone still gruff. She lit a hurricane lamp that sat on the bedside table. As if reading his mind, she said, "Don't worry about the lamp. She's young, not stupid. She won't touch it."
He turned his eyes in her direction, but she was already leaving the room. Emily still in his arms, he followed his new landlady. "Ma'am, what is all this? How?"
"Trail map's on the table. Store opens at eight. Goodnight."
Instead of stopping, she pulled the door closed behind her with a resounding click. Jared stood there in the center of the warm room, staggered. How was all of this possible? It was as though she expected them, but that was ridiculous.
And she hadn't given them any information at all. Not about price?not even about herself. In fact, it dawned on him that he never even saw her face.
What he did see as he scanned the homey little room was a small, unopened bottle of children's fever reducer on the counter. His eyes went back to the closed door and a chill when through him. How could she have known? One-handed, he turned the deadbolt with a click that echoed unnaturally loud against the backdrop of popping wood in the fire.
* * * * *
40 Fate's Little Trick
It was long past midnight when Gemma finally pulled her eyes and mind away from the cabin up the mountain and stepped inside her own. She'd stopped feeling the cold hours ago, but now, as the warmth enveloped her, she shivered violently.
How ludicrous was this? They were just people. Nothing special. A man and his daughter. Oh, how she wished she could convince herself of that. Why had he come back now? And with that woman's child?it was like a slap in the face. Gemma felt like the character in that silly one-act play they did in high school?the one where the woman and her daughter show up at a man's house just as he's about to commit suicide, only to reveal they're the ghosts of his late wife and child.
Of course, they weren't the family she'd lost and she wasn't planning suicide. She learned when Ray and Lila died that she was too much of a coward to kill herself. But the torture of having Jared here with his child might just do the job for her. Perhaps she should call her lawyer and have him draw up a new will immediately. She could just leave everything to him and his little girl and walk off into the woods.
Maybe then it would stop.
Why now? Why after all these years? She came up here to be alone, to simmer in her own soup and not add anyone else's problems to the pot. So, why did they have to come now? Regretting his choices? Well, his choices and his regrets had stopped being her problem long ago. That woman's child had no right to crawl inside her head against her will. And he had no right to come to her for help. Even if he didn't know that he had.
She ran her hands through her wind-matted hair and fought down the desperate urge to step back out onto the porch. Maybe the icy wind would have more effect if she left her clothes inside.
S he could see the headlines in the afternoon paper, Crazy Woman Found Naked and Frozen on Screened Porch. Not many folks around the area would be surprised.
Walking to the window, she turned her eyes again to the lit cabin up the ridge. She wished he would go to sleep and stop thinking. If only he would just shut up. He chose his boss's daughter, her arms and her lips?her money. She didn't want to care. She didn't even want to know what their problems were. But, despite her best barriers, slowly, little by little, his thoughts were seeping into her brain and pretty soon, she'd know everything.
And what was this ruse with the phony name?
Picking up the lamp, she started down the hall. Turning for one last glimpse at the door, she purposely left the lock unturned, the fire unbanked. Why bother? It had all started again and she couldn't control it anymore.
Goodnight. Don't be mad.
The child's clear sweet voice ricocheted off the folds of her mind and Gemma's feet stopped as if planted to the spot. She closed her eyes, fighting against tears she'd long ago forgotten how to cry.
Hush, baby. You need to sleep.
If you like this sample chapter, you can read the rest and 5 other stories by purchasing a copy of ENCHANTED HOLIDAYS, available from Cerridwen Press http://www.cerridwenpress.com in both electronic and print.
(c) 2007 Sheryl Hames Torres. Do not reproduce without permission from the author/owner.