The Warmest Winter, Day 08byTooCleverByHalf©
Thanks to everyone for their feedback on the previous chapters, with a special thank-you to my real-life editor. Remaining errors, if any, are mine. Reading the chapters of this story in order is highly recommended. All geek culture references are properties of their original copyright holders.
Mike rolled out of bed to the sound of Electric Light Orchestra's "The Diary of Horace Wimp." Another day, another chance for incredible sex with one of his delectable houseguests. Of course they were friends now, first and foremost, and he wouldn't do a thing to jeopardize that, but as long as they were open to it, and they were stuck here anyway because of the snow... What was that sound?
Dripping. A lot of dripping. Rain? No, he'd hear it on the roof. It was the snow melting. Okay, he'd heard it in the background for nearly a week now, but not this much.
After getting ready for the day, Mike went out onto the balcony. The snow indeed was finally starting to show visible signs of recession. A two-day blizzard left the entire area buried, trapping the three women there to begin with, but now there was a chance that their time together was starting to come to a close.
With a sigh, he went back inside, and downstairs for another of Cassie's culinary spreads. Mike had no idea how many different breakfasts were possible, but Cassie was determined to show them off.
"I wanted to talk to you," Jenny started in the middle of the meal, "About the... idea you had yesterday."
"Still can't think of what to call it, but there's time," said Mike.
"No, I mean, it sounds good in a pitch, but I want to really think about what it would actually take to pull off, to see if it's worth the risk."
"Number one," Mike responded, gesturing with his spoon, "I appreciate your point of view. You're the center of the enterprise, do what you need to get prepared. Number two, I am a professional assessor of such risks. People pay me outrageous sums to determine if paying even larger sums are worthwhile, savvy? I'm telling you it's worth it, so that should count for something. Number three... hang on... rats. I forgot where I was going with that." He got up to refill his coffee mug.
Jenny still looked apprehensive when Mike returned to the breakfast table. Cassie and Veronica sat quietly watching the exchange.
"Tell you what," Mike suggested, "I'll get my four hours of work in, and then after lunch you can talk it over with Cassie."
"What about me?" asked Veronica.
"You need your MBA, hands-down. After that, I'm sure you'll have no problem managing the business side of the company. Besides, I figured you'd want to come with me."
"To your office?"
"No, in the Hummer," Mike said, cracking a grin. "The snow's melted enough, and still dripping. I want to go see if the road is clear of fallen trees and excessive as-yet-unmelted snow. You mentioned being the most stir-crazy in this group."
"Or just the most crazy," murmured Cassie into her coffee cup. She grinned slightly when everyone turned to look her way.
"Anyway," Mike continued, "You're car's shot, so we're taking the Hummer. It'll be slow going for up to a forty-mile round-trip, so that's the whole afternoon. I'd like some company so I don't get bored, and if there's anything blocking the road that doesn't need a chain saw, we can just get it ourselves."
"Okay, okay," said Veronica, "Dude, you oversell. You had me at Hummer."
"All right then. Ladies," Mike said, getting up, "I will see you at lunch." With that, he put his dishes into the sink and went to his office to work.
"So what's your input, then, Veronica?" asked Jenny, "Since you'll be gone later."
"You provide the product, or in this case, service, and I'll do what I can to help you keep doing it," Veronica said, "How much goes into the product, what space you'll need, how specific, how much quality and quantity, that's what you need to hammer out. You bring me a full venture proposal, and I'll look at the whole thing, holistically, and give you my input. I can't really, until then. My job is making it all fit together as best as it can."
Jenny thought for a second. "Okay, I get that. Cassie, what about you?"
"Let me think about potential details for a while. I might even do some Internet research."
"That's actually a good idea. Meet back here for lunch?"
They all agreed, and went to their separate rooms.
In his office, just before lunchtime, Mike called Dave, the ranger he knew best from the park.
"Monkey, it's Uncle."
"Hey, Mike. What's up?"
"I'm taking the Hummer out to see how clear the road is. How is it on the big wide world beyond?"
"Cold. Wet. Still rock salt everywhere. What we need is a good rain followed by a night we don't get a freeze."
"Yeah, I agree, that'd be good," said Mike, subconsciously nodding, despite being on the phone. "Should I find a tree or somesuch, how long would it take to get someone out?"
"Depends on how many miles, trees, and 'somesuches' you find. Look, I can have three guys on call and ready to go at a moment's notice after fifteen minutes. I'll make some other calls to see if I can wrangle more, but if the snow's too high at this end, you're still stuck."
"I get that. I'll be heading out in about an hour or so. I'll call you when I'm done, either way."
"Sounds good. You know what I'm going to say next."
"Yeah. Don't freeze, don't waste gas, don't pee in the snow, and don't mess up any trees I don't have to."
"More or less. Talk to you later."
After lunch, Veronica got on her most weather-appropriate clothing. She and her friends hadn't banked on being stuck in snow, so she had to improvise a little. Her undergarments were easy enough- a black pair of string bikini-style panties, with the of-course-it-matches bra. Over these, she first donned a white t-shirt and her exercise pants, tight against her skin for warmth. She doubled up on socks, and completed her main ensemble with jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. To this, she added her shoes, and a coat, hat, and pair of gloves from the downstairs hall closet. She opted against a scarf, as she planned to not leave the warm car.
Now ready for anything, or so she felt, Veronica headed to the garage. Mike was already in there, double-checking the Hummer for drivability, as it had sat idle for a month or so.
"Everything okay?" she asked. Mike looked up, or since it was from the driver's seat of a Hummer, down.
"So far, so good. We'll find out for sure on the road, if we get very far."
"Wow. I feel so comforted."
"Ha ha frakin' ha. You want to get away from the house for a couple of hours or not?"
"No no, I'm coming," Veronica said quickly, hurrying over and getting into the front passenger seat.
Mike finished his checks and climbed in, but it still seemed an interminable time to Veronica until they were ready to go. It couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes, but she was antsy.
Finally, the garage door opened and Mike pulled out.
"Woohoo!" she exclaimed suddenly, then placed her hands over her lips and darted her eyes over to Mike, who was holding his ear and trying to turn a grimace into a smile.
"It's okay," he said, "I... didn't want to use that ear again today anyway."
After briefly pausing to make sure the electronic garage door device activated to shut the door behind them, the Hummer rolled slowly out, and up onto the road.
The service road ran along the outer border of the park itself. It was mainly used for emergency vehicles, ranger access, and the construction vehicles from when the ranger stations were first built. Mike's driveway was a left turn off of it, and by the time a car hit the gravel driveway, it was outside the park.
Without being built for ease of travel, the service road had its quirks. At times, it turned abruptly to avoid a particularly large tree. The landscape's bumps and dips were only flattened as necessary, so any kind of speed was going to be difficult to maintain. The upshot of this was that even in ideal conditions, they would not reach the main road for over half an hour, easily. The good news was that this was not much slowed by the presence of snow.
Mike kept the radio off, and tried not to speak during some of the tighter turns. Where he remembered particularly large dips or bumps in the road, he gave what warning he could to Veronica.
"OW!" she cried at one point.
"Yeah, I'm fine. That last bump just made me hit my head, that's all."
"No, you warned me. It was just a big bump. Are you sure it wasn't a tree?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I remember it. I really am sorry. I should have taken it slower."
"Maybe. But I'll be fine. Don't worry about it."
"Here. Tighten your seatbelt, and try to grip something low. Lean your seat back as far as you can."
"I won't be able to hear you that well."
"I won't be talking too much. I'll be focusing on driving better."
"Mike, chill, will ya?"
Mike finally cracked a smile. "Chill? Really? We're in the middle of the aftermath of the Blizzard of the Century, and you tell me to chill? That's a little heavy-handed, isn't it?"
"How many Blizzards of the Century have there been so far?"
"Don't get me started."
For a while after, Mike and Veronica drove in silence. The park boundary, and thus the road, was placed where it was because it was a small ridge. Slightly higher elevation meant that the road was less likely to flood. Also, Mike noticed, it made trees want to fall away from the road, rather than onto it. The wind could have blown trees over, but in a forest this thick, the winds would have broken momentum before reaching this part. Still, as unlikely as trees covering the road were, he still had to check.
Veronica had nearly whispered it. Mike almost wasn't sure he heard it the first time, so he slowed down a little. The crunching tires were reduced to a low grind.
"Stop." This one sounded a bit more urgent.
"You all right?"
"Stop the car!"
"Already braking. What's wrong?"
He got no answer from Veronica. Mike stopped the Hummer and looked back at her. She was holding her sides, looking somewhat pale.
"The car's stopped," he said gently.
Veronica immediately unbuckled herself and got out of the truck, gasping for fresh air. She went to the side of the road, looking like she was about to heave, but then she slipped and fell out of sight.
"Damn it!" Mike shouted, He got out of the Hummer and raced over to where she had been. Apparently the snowdrift she had tried to step on was on lower ground than it looked, and she had fallen a couple of feet. Luckily, the snow was deep and soft, but her outer layer was getting soaked.
"Veronica, any injuries?"
"My dignity needs a tune-up if that's what you mean." She was alert now, and a sense of humor was a good sign.
"Can you get up?"
"I'd rather have help."
Mike helped her up, and back to the Hummer. They leaned against it and caught their breath.
"So what was that all about?" Mike asked, "From the beginning."
"Oh, that," Veronica wheezed as clouds of her breath swirled in the air. "I get seasick a little. If I am about to go on a long boat ride or a plane flight, I take an over-the-counter med and I'm fine. This road wouldn't be enough, usually. I mean, it wasn't on the way in."
"But the knock on the head made you more sensitive to it."
"Got it in one. Anyway, I came out to get fresh air and heave if I needed it. Thankfully not. But then I slipped and you know the rest."
"Resting's a great idea. Driving's taken its toll on me for the moment. Wanna lie down in the back for a while?"
"I removed the back seats after I bought it. Plenty."
Mike opened the trunk and they climbed in. Mike had spread blankets across the back, he explained, so that the food he bought, including things like eggs, could survive the trip just that much easier.
"Honestly, I have not a clue as to how the eggs survived when you didn't. You sure you're not concussed?"
"No, I'm fine. Really. My head itself doesn't even hurt anymore."
Mike still insisted on checking, just to be sure.
"Nope, no sign of concussion."
"Told you," Veronica chided him.
"All right, all right, fair enough, but you're freezing. Let's get you warmed up before you get other problems, like pneumonia. Take off your top layer of clothing – it's useless against the cold right now." As she maneuvered to do so, Mike reached up front and restarted the car, which brought a blast of warm air through the interior.
"Breathe slow and deep," Mike instructed, "The warm air in your lungs will help keep you warm from the inside."
"I know," Veronica said, "I remember first aid."
"So do I," said Mike, "But the course I took got something wrong."
"Oh? What was that?"
"They recommended keeping layers on while warming up. But they don't specify that it's only best if you're outside. If you're inside, and not actively being re-chilled, you actually warm up faster the closer you are to naked."
"I get that. But what happens when you put your clothes back on?"
"They warmed up individually, just like you. Instead of your body heat warming your clothes, your clothes will have their own heat, and so your body heat stays in your core, warming you further."
"Nobody's around for miles, right?"
"Um... yeah. We've only gone about twelve miles."
"Only twelve miles, he says. Sheesh." Veronica unbuttoned her jeans and started to pull them down.
"What are you doing?" Mike asked, turning his head away.
"Getting closer to naked, like you suggested."
"I didn't suggest – I mean... You don't have to-"
"Come on, Mike," Veronica said, "It's not like you haven't seen me naked before."
"That was different."
Mike had no answer.
"Come on, Mike, turn back. You'll get a crick in your neck if you keep it turned like that for much longer." Reluctantly, he did so.
"And open your eyes," Veronica sighed, "You and I both know you are no gentleman."
Mike opened his eyes. Veronica had stripped down to just her bra and thong. She was supine along one side of the truck, her head resting on a pillow made of her dry clothes. Her wet clothes were spread out as much as they could be at the head of the space. Veronica seemed quite relaxed, smiling lightly while her bright blue eyes glittered at him. She really was centerfold-gorgeous. Either business would lose a great mind, or modeling would lose a star. Such an imperfect world, that it would have to choose.
"There. Happy?" Mike asked.
"Surprisingly, yes," Veronica sighed, this time in contentment, but then her demeanor changed. "You got pretty soaked, too. You should warm up."
Mike looked down. Yes, his clothing was covered in melted snow, especially his jeans. Plus, the truck was nice and toasty. He shrugged and started removing his jacket. The warm air did feel good against his bare skin. Mike gave Veronica a what-the-hell look, and proceeded to strip to his boxers.
Once they were both stretched out in the back of the Humvee, Veronica asked, "So how can you drive this thing? I thought they weren't road legal."
"Technically not for some roads, including a lot of the ones around here, but the local cops have an understanding with me, that absolutely anything that happens involving this vehicle on those roads is automatically my fault. If I get so much as a speeding ticket around here, these tires may never touch asphalt again."
"But in another way, more than fair."
"I guess. So why a Hummer?"
"Well... hmm. I never really thought about it. I guess I wanted to splurge on something with all the money I make. The house doesn't count – even the indulgences there have practical reasons behind them. This bad boy" – he thumped a wall – "I extremely don't need. I use it less than a dozen times a year, and everything I use it for can easily be done by a utility van with snow tires."
"Nice to see you cut loose on something of your own accord."
"Yeah, well. It happens. So what would you drive, if you could?"
"Red convertible sports car. No question."
"Dunno. Depends on what's on the market at the time I'm looking to buy."
"So not a classic?"
"No, I want to be pampered by technology in a car. Top of the line and right off of it."
"Sounds like you."
"Oh?" Veronica's eyebrow raised. "How's that?"
"Fun, high-quality, well-built, and hot."
"Nope, still getting warm," Veronica said, feeling her upper arms with her hands.
"Are you?" Mike asked, suddenly concerned. He reached over to feel her skin. It was still somewhat cool to the touch.
"It was just a joke. What are you doing?"
"Getting closer for warmth."
"You're not warming up fast enough."
"Stop fussing. I've just not been moving that much. If I flex my muscles a bit, do you think it would help?"
"All right then." Veronica started to flex various muscle groups as Mike settled in about half a foot away from her. They lay side by side, facing each other now.
"Did you mean it?" she asked after a minute or so.
"About you being hot? You know I think that. Proven it a couple of times, as I recall."
"About me being high-quality."
"Yeah. Of course. I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it."
"But what did you mean by high-quality?"
"You're smart. You're independent. You don't take bull from anybody. You fiercely defend your friends. You are unashamed of who you are. That's high-quality." Mike gave Veronica a beaming look, but a sort of sadness crossed her face.
"I'm not... completely unashamed," she said.
"What do you mean?" Mike asked softly.
"I..." Veronica sighed, then seemed to resolve something, "The way I threw myself at you so soon. I barely knew you, and I slutted it up. The worst part is, I was trying not to for once." She started tearing up. "God, what you must think of me."
"You recognized a part of your behavior you disliked, and made an effort to change it. You said, 'for once,' which tells me it's the first time you tried in that way. Personal change is hard. Sometimes, you get a breakthrough moment and it's cut and dry, but mostly, it's hard work and learning from failures."
"I guess. But I'm still disappointed with myself." The threat of crying had abated. He was getting through to her.
"Want my advice?"
"Feel bad enough to motivate you to do better next time, but beyond that, it's not worth it."
"Sounds like a cop-out."
"Maybe. But try it. See if it works."
"I just don't want to be the 'easy' one anymore."
"Is that how others see you, or how you see yourself?"
"Both. I've heard guys call me that when I was around a corner or something."
"Ah. Mind if I ask a few personal questions?"
"Are you as discriminating with partner selection as Jenny and Cassie?"
"Both in quantity and quality?"
"Then how are you the 'easy one' of the group?"
"I tend to have sex with a guy far sooner in a relationship than either of them. There doesn't even need to be the relationship sometimes."
If she only knew... Mike thought. Out loud, he said, "Seems to me you just like sex for the sake of sex more than a typical person. Add to that the stereotype people tend to inappropriately attribute to you given your looks, and the result is a social stigma."
"It should be. Every component of who you are that contributes to the stigma is innocuous, or even good. And even then, it's only society's reaction that makes the conjunction of them bad."
"Boy, I'm glad I got an 'A' in Junior Comp, or I wouldn't be able to follow you."
"Sorry. I watch a lot of the Big Bang Theory. My explanations get like that at times. The point is, Veronica, that you know you're not a slut, or a whore, or a prostitute, or any of those other things."