This is my entry into the 'Winter Holidays Story Contest'. Be sure to vote, and either leave a comment or send feedback. I hope you enjoy it.
The cabin lights flickered each time the wind picked up. Snow swirled across the fields, piling up against anything in its way. Maggie poked at the fire in the wood stove before adding another log. It was two days before Christmas, and she was alone.
His shoes sat by the door, right where he left them after slipping his boots on. An empty hook waited for his jacket. Images of him stomping through the snow on his way up the trail made her smile. Steve loved the outdoors. And winter was his favorite season.
There was a pot of stew simmering on the stove. Maggie hoped the power stayed on at least until he made it back. It was one thing to be alone; adding the darkness to it didn't appeal to her at all. Finding a book to read, she curled up on the big leather sofa. A yellow fleece blanket warmed her as she turned the pages.
The wind rattled the old windows, the panes tinted from the layers of frost. Maggie closed the novel that wasn't holding her attention, deciding to make some cookies. Before she even stood, there was an odd knock on the door.
"Steve? You're back earl—oh."
An old man leaned against the doorframe. Snow clung to his beard, masking the true color. Neither his hands nor his head had protection from the weather. Maggie knew their cabin was the only one around for several miles, and didn't recognize the stranger. Wary, she wondered where he had come from.
"Are you all right?"
"Cold, so . . . so cold," he whispered, his breath ragged.
Something told her the man wasn't a danger to her. Whatever it was, she knew he had been in the storm far too long dressed as he was.
"Lean on me so we can get you close to the fire," she said, putting her arm around his waist.
She didn't drag him in, though she came close. The man did little more than shuffle his feet the entire way. Maggie held back her shock when she saw he didn't have boots or even shoes on.
"My name is Maggie. I'm going to help you get warm again, all right?"
His raised his head enough to look at her, then nodded. The sadness Maggie saw in his eyes made her wonder what put it there. Prying the buttons loose on the thin jacket he wore, she let it fall to the floor behind him. A red T-shirt was all that covered his thin frame.
"Let's get you dried off a bit, okay?" She grabbed the blanket she had just been under and wrapped it around his shoulders. "My sister left this here the last time she visited. It's so soft and cozy. I probably should send it back to her some time."
With a chance of frostbite from the frigid air, his wet clothes wouldn't help. Yet she hesitated to undress him.
"Go ahead . . ."
The raspy words startled her. Had he read her thoughts? Or did he know enough about the winters up in the mountains to realize the risks? Nervous about being alone with a stranger all of a sudden, she didn't move.
"Don't be scared."
The look in his eyes told her all she needed to know. This man, this weary stranger, needed her help. Maggie felt a calm come over her before reaching for his belt.
"I have dinner on—stew, with some biscuits. When we get you warmed up, I think you'll be ready to eat something."
Lifting his left foot, his weight fell onto her. There wasn't much of it though, she realized as they repeated the motion with the right one. Dragging his jeans off wasn't easy. Maggie tried to keep the blanket around him while she tugged on the frozen denim without letting him fall.
"Did you see the gorgeous sunrise we had this morning? I think Mother Nature was teasing us knowing she was going to turn this storm our way. Maybe that means tomorrow will be bright and sunny again though."
Finally she stood again. The only clothing he wore was the T-shirt and faded boxers. She rubbed his cheeks with the end of the blanket, drying the icy skin. Small puddles of water appeared from the pile of clothing next to the stove. Sweat trickled down her back and across her forehead.
"I'm going to reach over for the chair so you can sit. I won't let you fall."
Again his weight rested on her. This time, she was ready for it as she leaned forward enough to grab the arm of the wooden rocker.
"I know this isn't the softest piece of furniture in here, but we'll work on that. Once you're sitting, I'll get some more blankets and a pillow . . ."
He didn't sit in the chair as much as he fell into it. Maggie could tell his time in the inclement weather exhausted him. The blanket cushioned his frail body from the old oak chair just a bit. She tucked it around him as much as she could before running into the spare bedroom.
"Here, let's get this quilt around your legs," she said when she returned.
She felt him watching her. It wasn't a freaky, scary feeling. No, it was more like a trusting child who adored the person helping them.
"You saved my life," he mumbled through the blanket covering his mouth.
"I think someone else had a hand in that. He led you to our door; I have the easy part."
"He don't help people like me."
Maggie didn't want to upset the stranger, so ignored his statement. She checked the fire instead, intending to get him some food.
"Damn it's nasty out there!"
Cold air swirled across the room, tossing fresh snow in with it. Maggie touched the old man's arm when he jumped at the sound of Steve's voice.
"No, don't be afraid. That's Steve, my husband."
Tired eyes looked at her. Maggie saw pain along with the sadness in them. She smiled before going to the door.
"I was getting worried. The storm turned far worse after you left," she said, reaching for the jacket he had just taken off.
The main living space of the cabin wasn't visible from the entryway. Maggie knew that meant Steve hadn't seen the stranger. Using hand signals for him to be quiet, she pressed him forward a few feet. She knew the second he eyed the man huddled under the blankets.
Steve stared at her, confusion in his eyes. He tugged his boots off and slipped into the loafers waiting to warm his feet. That his wife let a complete stranger into the cabin with her was odd to him. Of course, danger in the city was far more common than where they were in the mountains. The bundle of wet clothing on the floor clued him in to what might have happened.
"Mags?" he asked, using one of his nicknames for her.
"I think he escaped frostbite, but you know more about the signs than I do. He's only been here a few minutes."
They whispered, leaning close to each other to hear. Steve tipped his head to check the stranger before nodding.
"My name is Steve," he said as he walked toward the man. "My wife did the right things by getting your wet clothes off. Are you feeling warmer yet?"
He kept his voice friendly, casual, and low. The old man stared, just as he did when Maggie undressed him.
"Is it all right if I check you for any signs of frostbite? I'm not a professional, but I grew up in snow country."
A slight nod was the only answer Steve got. Pale skin covered the arthritic feet; goose bumps covered the spindly legs. Pushing the blanket away revealed arms the color of mausoleum tile. Steve took extra time with the gnarled fingers, still icy cold. Before crouching next to the old man, he tucked the ends of the fleecy material around him.
"Got a name?"
"Nice to meet you, Nick. It looks as if you escaped frostbite. Are you hungry? Maggie's stew will give you some energy."
Hearing Nick's stomach grumble, he winked. Maggie had already gone into the kitchen, leaving the men alone.
"What say we find you something to wear first? There's a pair of sweatpants in there with your name on them."
"You're welcome," Steve said. "You're safe here, Nick. When you're ready to talk, let me know."
"You don't know me. I could be a killer. Why are you being kind to me?"
"I suppose you're right on that one. But my Maggie is a good judge of character. I trust her instincts. She let you in. That's good enough for me."
Nick gripped the arms of the rocker to support himself as he rose. Grimacing, he grabbed the yellow fleece and tucked it around him. Steve led the way into the spare bedroom.
"My brother comes up here with us sometimes, and always leaves a few clothes behind. These have a string you can use to make them fit better, but I think they're close to your size." Steve rummaged through the drawer for a pair of boxers and some socks. Tossing them onto the bed with the pants, he went to the closet.
"Would you like a sweatshirt or something lighter?"
"Either is fine," Nick replied at last.
"Here's one of each. If you want a shower, there's one right through that door. Clean towels are in the smaller of the two cabinets. If you need help, let me know."
"A shower would be good."
"The water takes a bit to heat up in this part of the cabin. You going to be all right?"
Nick nodded before shuffling into the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes, Steve heard the water go on. Leaving the bedroom door open a few inches, he went into the kitchen.
"He's taking a shower, and I put out some of Tommy's clothes for him to wear."
"Oh Steve, he looked so sad when I was helping him. It was almost as if he didn't care if he . . ."
"Yeah, I saw that too. He can stay here as long as this storm keeps up, but after that it's his choice."
"What did it look like when you were out there?"
"I only made it halfway down the ridge before I turned back. The wind picked up and made it impossible to see. I used the fence as my guide until I reached the top. Mags, it was so strange. The clouds lifted, and the snow stopped long enough for me to see the cabin. About twenty feet from the door, the blizzard descended on me again."
The pipes creaked, signaling the water going off. Steve gave his wife a quick kiss and grinned.
"That was for being such an awesome wife."
"It's easy to do with a husband like you."
She ran her fingers down his cheek and gazed into his eyes. This Christmas was going to be their first one as a married couple. She adored him, and reminded him often. Second marriages for both of them, he was her soul mate. Steve worshiped her, spoiling her as often as he could. He made sure she knew he had never loved until he met her. Friends envied their closeness, trying to figure out the secret to happiness through them.
"Oh, 'scuse me," Nick said from the doorway.
"No worries. How do you feel?" Steve asked.
"I have dinner ready. Why don't you two take a seat and I'll get the stew," Maggie said.
"You heard the lady, Nick. I smelled that stew as soon as I opened the door. It's about time I get to eat some of it."
Nick sat in the chair closest to him, looking relieved to be off his feet. Steve sat down just as Maggie returned with the pot of stew.
"Man, I'm hungry," Steve said while reaching for the ladle. "Hold your bowl up here Nick, and tell me how much you want."
From the look in the old man's eyes, Steve wondered when he'd had a decent meal last. He scooped up chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions along with the rich broth it simmered in. Nick held his hand up after the second one.
"Maggie uses some special spices in this. The recipe came from her grandmother. You might want to try it before you add salt though."
Again Nick only nodded, his spoon already digging into the rich stew. Maggie brought out some fresh rolls and butter, placing them nearest to the stranger.
"Did I hear my husband call you Nick?" Maggie asked when she joined them at the table.
"Well, Nick, I hope you leave some room for dessert. There's a pan of frosted brownies on the counter just waiting for us."
She almost laughed at the look Steve gave her. He was the king of chocolate, if there was such a thing. His friends teased him that he was worse than a woman at craving the rich flavor.
"I'll make sure I do, ma'am."
"Please, call me Maggie."
Nick looked over at Steve as if seeking his permission. The younger man winked before nodding.
"Thank you, Maggie. This stew is the best I ever tasted. You're a good cook," Nick said.
It was the most he had spoken since he entered the cabin. The sound of his own voice startled him. Nick glanced around as if someone behind him did the speaking.
"Thank you. Grandma lived with my family when I was growing up, and did all the cooking. She taught me a few of her secret recipes," Maggie said, smiling at the memories. "I never did master making bread though."
"Tain't nothing to that," Nick replied.
"Then maybe you'll have to show her tomorrow, Nick," Steve said.
Nick went back to eating—a signal he didn't want to talk anymore. Neither Maggie nor Steve wanted to push him. When the man was ready to talk, he would.
Steve helped with the dishes, a ritual they began even before their wedding. Nick lay stretched out on the sofa, the yellow blanket tucked under his chin. His soft snores made Maggie smile.
"He looked better after dinner, don't you think?" she asked.
"Yeah, he didn't look as pale as before."
"I think we should let him sleep right where he is. When he wakes up he can go into the spare bedroom."
"Good thought, honey. So how do you propose we spend the evening?"
Her eyes told him what she wanted to do. Her words didn't match it though.
"Let's go outside. The storm seems to be over."
"And the moon is breaking through the clouds, so there will be enough light. Don't forget to bundle up good though, because it's bitter cold out there," he said.
He laughed at her mocking tone. "All right, I should remember that you're a big girl and know a few things."
"A few? I know lots of stuff, mister."
"Yeah? Like what?"
She walked up to him and kissed him. "I know how to make you beg," she whispered.
Steve hissed at the image from her words. Before they met he was always holding tight to his control. But Maggie showed him how to let go, giving the power to her. Now he craved what she did to him.
"You're a minx. I should paddle you."
"It feels good, doesn't it?"
Images from the night before flashed through his head. Wild and free, she gave him everything.
"I'm going outside to cool off," he said after giving her a heated look.
Her laughter stayed with him even after he left the cabin. For just a moment, Steve regretted the intrusion on their vacation from the stranger. That changed as soon as he realized the man could have died. He didn't hear Maggie join him. But he felt the snowball she whipped at him.
"Oh, you're in for it now, Mags!"
She ran away from the cabin, the drifts impeding her get-away. Lunging at her, he fell into the snow when he missed. That gave her a good lead. But in the end, he always caught her. She made sure of that. Playing like young children, they made snow angels and a lopsided snowman.
"Think we should get back inside? I don't know about you, but I'm ready for some of those brownies," Steve said.
"Yeah, I'm worn out. Must be cause I'm so old."
Though she was teasing, Steve was indeed the younger of the two at forty-five. Maggie was fifty-three, but no one ever guessed that from her looks.
"Lean on me, you old woman you." Steve held out his arm and grinned.
"Old lady? Who you calling a lady?"
Facing him, she shoved him into the snow. Then she put her hands on her hips at the same time she put a boot on his stomach. She knew the second she did that she shouldn't have. Steve grabbed her leg and pushed.
Shrieks of laughter echoed across the mountain. Nick rested on the couch, listening to the couple play. He smiled, remembering the times he and his Mary had laughed together.
Cold air rushed into the room when Maggie opened the door. Snow swirled around her feet, melting as it hit the floor. Steve brushed the excess snow off his jacket before following her inside.
"Ah, you're awake. Are you feeling better?" Maggie asked as soon as she saw Nick sitting up.
"Yes, thank you. Have fun out there, did you?"
"I did. Before I met Steve, I wasn't too fond of the snow. He loves the cold weather, so I decided to see what was so special about it by looking through his eyes. The crisp night air is amazing."
"Don't let her fool ya, Nick. She prefers lounging around the pool," Steve said.
Maggie shook her head and gave him a soft push on the arm. "Just for that, you don't get any brownies."
"I take it back, I swear!"
"I knew that would get you to behave. Nick, want to join us in the kitchen?" she asked.
Along with the brownies, Maggie set out milk and coffee.
"These are almost as good as the ones my Mary made," Nick said as he took a second brownie. "I miss her."
The words held a world of emotion in them—pain, sadness, and loneliness.
"Has she been gone long, Nick?" she asked.
Staring into space, he nodded. "Eight years.
"I'm sorry. Losing someone we love is so hard."
His gaze shifted to her and she answered before he even asked.
"My daughter died when she was twenty-six. A drunk driver trying to outrun the police hit her broadside. He had an outstanding warrant for assault, and didn't want to go to jail. So when the cops tried to pull him over for running a red light, he sped up. Trish was on her way home from work."
"I hope the bastard rots in prison," Nick replied.
"He died in the hospital a few days after the accident. That was ten years ago. The pain eases, but it's always there in the background."
Steve reached over and took her hand. He gave it a little squeeze to remind her he was there for her.
"So, is everyone full now?" she asked, changing the subject to something less maudlin.
"Stuffed and then some," Steve replied.
Nick shifted his gaze from the plate of brownies to the couple across from him.
"Go ahead, Nick. Don't be shy."
The old man blushed but took another brownie. He hadn't eaten the day before, though he hadn't said anything.
"Honey, you stay sitting and I'll take care of this."
"I think he's trying to make a good impression, Nick," she whispered, leaning closer to him, hoping to get a smile from him.
But as he had done so many times in the few hours since he showed up, he just nodded. Maggie hid her disappointment by going into the living room.
"She means well, Nick," Steve said.
Steve saw defeat in the pale blue eyes looking back at him. There was not a doubt in his mind that Nick had a problem bigger than he knew how to handle.
"Maybe I can help. I'm a lawyer, though not in the public sector anymore."
"Fat lot of good the last lawyer did me."
"We're not all crooked," Steve said in a soft voice.
"I should go. Where's my clothes?"
"You can't go in the dark!"
"You gonna stop me?" Nick asked, staring at Steve.
"If I have to, yes."
Nick shoved his chair back and stood. With one last glare, he left the kitchen. Maggie watched as he went right into the spare bedroom and shut the door. Steve came in next and shook his head.
"Let's go to bed, honey," she said.
"I'll check the fire and lock up."
Knowing her husband as well as she did, she realized he needed a few minutes alone to work out whatever happened between the men. When he was ready to share with her, she would be right at his side waiting.
He couldn't sleep. Nick didn't like the man he had turned into over the past year. His Mary would hate it too. Everything seemed pointless anymore though. The same law that was supposed to protect him took everything away that he had. Chilled, he decided to go sit by the fire for a while.
That's where Steve found him early the next morning. Covered with the yellow fleece blanket, he looked frailer than he had the night before. While thinking about what could be bothering the old man, Steve made coffee.