Unwrapping Presents is Fun!byAlex De Kok©
The mountain road was badly rutted, the snow in thick banks at the side. Jack peered through the screen, barely kept clear of snow by the windscreen wipers, blessing the fact that he was driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Jeep wasn't new, but it was in good condition and well maintained. Maybe coming up to the cabin for the holiday wasn't such a good idea after all. He told himself not to worry. The cabin was well-stocked, there was plenty of gas for the generator and his hardened muscles testified to the logs he'd cut during the summer for the stove. Once there, he could hibernate if necessary.
The Jeep lurched sideways on a curve and Jack eased the throttle. Four-wheel-drive or not, if he went off the road he'd be in trouble. He wished the snow would stop, so that he could at least see where he was going.
Further up the mountain, Anne knew she'd taken a wrong turn somewhere. Walking out on the shitty job at the lodge had been satisfying, but now she was in the middle of nowhere with all of her possessions in the back of her Honda, and she was scared, because the little auto was skidding all over the place. She thought she knew where she'd gone wrong, taking a right instead of a left, but that didn't help the fact that there seemed no way to turn on the narrow mountain road. There was a corner coming up and she knew enough to brake gently, brake early, but what she didn't know was that there was ice under the snow, just where she braked. The skid was slow motion, inevitable, unstoppable, the boulder-lined ditch waiting for the Honda. Anne braced herself for the impact as the little Honda slithered backwards off the road and into the ditch.
There was silence after the impact, a hiss of steam as the running water forcibly cooled the hot engine. Anne sat, shuddering, scared. She was alone on the mountain, lost, and nobody knew where she was. She'd told Sal on the phone that she would head for town, but that was the other way at the intersection, where she'd missed the turn. She fought back panic, and tried to open the car door, but the boulders stopped it after only an inch or two, and she couldn't move it further. Tears filled her eyes and she began to cry.
Jack was puzzled. He was convinced he'd seen tail-lights ahead through a gap in the snow flurries, but now they'd disappeared, and the snow had actually stopped for the moment. He slowed the Jeep even more and tried to look around. A shock ran through him as he realised the beams of the other car's headlights were pointed at the sky. Cautiously, Jack braked the Jeep, holding his breath for a moment as all four wheels locked, but he stopped safely. He set the parking brake, left the motor running, and climbed out.
The Honda was about twenty feet off the road, canted over at an angle, and Jack realised at once that if anyone was inside it, they were going to have a hell of a job getting out, because the car seemed to have settled down between two walls of rock. Not only that, but the little stream that ran through the ditch here had been blocked by the crashed car, and the water was beginning to rise.
Jack slithered down the bank, and tapped on the window. At first he thought the occupant had been injured, but the tear-stained face which appeared as the head jerked around at his tapping was alert and awake. The driver reached down and the window inched open. She, for it was a woman, stopped it after an inch or two.
"Are you all right?" said Jack.
"Yes, but I can't get out. The door's jammed."
"So I see. Can you get through the window, if I help?"
"I think so."
"Better do it soon, because your car's damming the stream and the water's rising. You'll either drown or freeze if you stay there."
"Everything I own is in the car," she said, her voice strained.
"Can you pass them out? Is there much?"
"My clothes are in the trunk," she said, and Jack made a wry face, because the icy water was already finding its way in. "I have some valuable stuff in here, but the rest will have to take its chance."
"Give me the key," said Jack. "I'll get the stuff in the trunk. You get the window down and be ready for me to help you out."
She said nothing, but passed him the key and he unlocked the trunk. The two bags were half-submerged in icy water, but he fished them out and put them on the bank, out of the way of the stream. When he turned back, she'd got the window open, and was kneeling on the seat. She passed a shoulder bag to him, and turned back into the car, passing out a portfolio case, and a camera bag. "What's left will have to take its chance," she said, "but those belonged to my husband."
"Okay, I got 'em," said Jack, and put the cases on a rock, turning back to the woman. She put her head and shoulders through the window, holding out her arms. Jack braced himself, one foot against a convenient boulder, the other behind the front wheel of the Honda. He braced himself, tugging, and she slid awkwardly through the window. Jack felt his foot slipping, and desperately tried to keep his balance, but his foot slipped and he fell backwards, against the boulder, the woman slipping from his grasp and sliding into the icy water. She scrambled to her hands and knees and crawled up the bank, kneeling, crying. Jack moved up and took her arm.
"Get in the Jeep," he said, opening the door for her. He reached in and turned the heater control onto full, and then helped her into the passenger seat. She was trembling, and even in the dark of the snow-filled night Jack could see her face was pinched and pale. "I'll get your things into the car," he said. "Don't let yourself fall asleep."
Hurriedly, Jack put the sodden bags into the back of the Jeep, the shoulder bag, camera bag and the portfolio onto the back seat. He closed the doors and ran round to the driver's side, climbing in quickly and shutting the door. The woman was shivering violently, startled as Jack touched her arm. "My cabin is about another mile. Stay awake, I'll get you there as quickly as possible."
She managed to nod, and Jack got the Jeep moving again, still moving cautiously. Relieved, he spotted the sign at the roadside and turned onto the track, virgin snow crunching under the Jeep's tyres. The cabin was only a minute's drive along the track, even in the snow, and Jack drew up as close as possible to the door.
"Hang on here for a moment," he said. "I have to get the generator going. We need electricity. There's an electric shower, and you're going to need it. Two minutes, and I'll be back. Okay?" She managed a nod, and he got out, quickly closing the car to keep the interior warm. His cold fingers fumbled with the lock for a moment, but he got the lean-to door open against the drift half-blocking it, and slipped inside. There was enough light from the loom of the snow, and he was familiar with the controls, so it was only moments before the motor fired, and he adjusted it to a steady roar. A little fast, on the cold setting, but once it warmed up he'd adjust it. First priority was getting the woman out of her wet clothes and under a hot shower.
He went out and back to the Jeep, opening the passenger door. "Can you walk?" he said.
"I don't know," she said, trembling violently. "I'll try."
Shock and cold were getting to her, and Jack helped her out of the car. He felt her starting to fall and scooped her up, carrying her to the cabin, fumbling with the door. He managed to get light switched on, blessing the generator that he'd really only installed so he could use his computer, and carried her to the couch, letting her slump back.
"You must get those wet clothes off," he said, and her hands moved feebly to the fastening of her coat. "Sorry, lady, but I'm going to have to help you," he muttered, beginning to unfasten her coat. She was wearing a thick sweater, wool skipants, and walking boots, and he managed to get her out of the coat, bending to remove her boots. The skipants defeated him for a moment, until he remembered how Jenny's had fastened, and he slid them off. She had managed to raise the hem of her sweater, but only to her waist, and he pulled it off over her head. All she had on now was a thermal vest, and her underwear and socks, and Jack left those. It was more important to get her under the shower. "Back in a moment," he said, "I have to get the shower going. We've got to get you warm." She nodded and he ran to the bathroom, switching on the shower, starting the water flowing. He checked with his hand under the spray. Yes, it was warming up. He hurried back,and stopped for a moment, surprised. She'd managed to get the thermal vest off, and was in the process of removing her bra, awkward because her trembling hands couldn't manage the catch at her back.
"Leave it," said Jack. "Come on, under the shower." She tried to stand, but he picked her up again and carried her into the bathroom, but she was in no shape to stand. He put her down on the toilet seat. "Just hold on a second," he said. "I'm going to have to get in there with you, or you'll just collapse." He stripped quickly to his undershorts, feeling the goosebumps rise in the cold air. He pulled her to her feet and carried her into the shower, under the now hot spray, feeling the delicious warmth going through him. The woman was trying to stand and he let her, holding her shoulders, letting her lean against him. He made sure the spray was getting to her, and began to massage her shoulders.
After a moment or two, she sighed, and straightened. "I think I can manage now," she said over her shoulder.
"Okay, stay in as long as you can bear it, because I have to get the stove going, or we'll both freeze. Once I get it going, I'll warm a towel for you. Okay? I'll be as quick as I can."
He didn't linger, grabbing two towels as he went out, rubbing himself hard as he dried, shivering, dragging on his thick shirt and trousers, thick socks. The stove was ready, kindling placed, and it took on the first match. He closed the front, for the moment, and hung the fresh towel on a rail he'd rigged for that very purpose. The fire was his next priority, again ready, with kindling placed and it, too, took on the first match. He went back to the stove and checked the towel. Warming, but still a little cool. Hell! Clothes! Did he have anything? Maybe. A wool shirt that had shrunk, and a pair of cotton corduroy trousers that had been too small from new, never worn, somewhere in the back of the closet. He went into the bedroom and searched them out. A sweater, too. Underwear she'd have to do without, for the moment. He went back and checked the towel on the rail again. Yes, warming nicely. He went back to the bathroom and opened the door a little.
"I've got a warm towel for you, if you're ready?"
"I'll just get it." It was the work of moments and he opened the bathroom door. And stopped dead, turning away and holding the towel out behind him. "Sorry," he said, "next time I'll knock." He felt her take the towel from his hand and moved back to the door. "I've got some clothes warming. They'll be too big for you, but they'll do until we can get yours dried. Okay?"
"Okay. Thank you."
"Back in a moment. I'll knock this time." He closed the door but he could swear he'd heard a soft chuckle behind him. He shook his head, but the vision persisted. She'd removed the sodden underwear and his mind's eye held the memory of small, firm breasts, nipples erect, flat belly and a neat delta of dark hair between her thighs. The clothes on the rail were warm and he took them to the bathroom, knocked on the door, and opened it only a crack, holding the clothes out so that she could take them.
"I'm sorry, I have no underwear for you until we can get your own dried."
"That's all right. I'm sure I'll manage for a little while." He felt her take the clothing.
"I'll start some coffee," he said.
The percolator was bubbling nicely before he heard the bathroom door open and she came out, hair damp around her face, looking like a little girl in her daddy's clothes. Jack smiled involuntarily, then sobered, but she smiled back.
"I must look ridiculous," she said.
"A little. But dry, and it's getting warmer in here by the minute. Coffee?"
"Please. Black, no sugar."
He busied himself pouring two mugs, and handed her one. "We'll sort some food out in a minute, just sit yourself down on the couch and tell me what you were doing out in weather like this in a little Honda? My name's Jack Kearney, by the way."
"Anne Matthews. What was I doing?" She made a face. "Running away, I suppose."
"From what? Or don't you want to say?"
"No big secret. I was working at the lodge, just down the mountain. It's closed until December 28, but a few of us were working. Call it a maintenance shift, because that's more or less what we were. There were supposed to be four of us, but the other two girls called in sick. I think I know why, now. When he found out there were only the two of us, the maintenance chief tried to make a move on me. I told him no. He didn't like it, and turned ugly. I put all of my stuff in my car and took off."
"He let you?"
A fleeting smile crossed her face. "He tried to stop me. My brother taught me a good bit of self-defence. I threw the bastard and told him I'd break his arm if he tried to touch me again."
"The lodge is down the mountain. You must have turned right instead of left at the junction of the two roads. Easy mistake to make, as the downhill road goes up at first from the turnoff, and the uphill road down."
"So I found out." She looked up at him. "Thank you for saving my life."
"I'm only pleased I was there, and able to do something about it. I'm afraid for your car, and anything there's left in it."
"I was thinking about that. The car's only worth a couple of hundred, if that. My clothes are safe, if a little wet," she added with a wry grin. "My husband's cameras, and the portfolio, and my laptop, they're safe. Apart from that, there's only an old coat, and some assorted pots and whatnot, electric kettle and the like. I won't worry about them." She looked around. "Where is the camera bag, by the way, and the other things?"
Jack gave her a rueful smile. "Still on the back seat of the Jeep. You stay there, I'll fetch them." Anne nodded, both hands wrapped around the mug of coffee. Jack stamped into a pair of rubber boots he kept by the door and stepped out, closing the door behind him. He was sheltered on the porch, but the snow was coming down thick and fast and the Jeep was almost obscured. He waded across and retrieved the two bags and the portfolio, and made his way back into the cabin. As he kicked off the rubber boots, his burdens slipped. In a reflex action, he hung onto the two bags but was forced to let the portfolio slip. Whether it was a broken fastener or not, he didn't know, but as the portfolio hit the floor it opened and several photographs spilled out.
"I'm sorry," he said, putting the two bags down and bending to retireve the photographs, stopping, startled, at the nude images before him.
"Yes," said Anne. "They're me. The last ones Peter took before he was killed. For our eyes only, he used to say, but I'm not ashamed of them."
Jack picked up the rest of the photographs and handed the portfolio to Anne. She nodded and laid it on the table behind her.
"I'm afraid you're stuck here," said Jack. "It's snowing heavily, and I think the road will be blocked soon. Christmas Day tomorrow, and I have the feeling that they'll concentrate on plowing the lower roads. They'll get around to us, but not for a few days. The good news is that there's enough food to last us for a month, enough gas for the generator, and enough wood for the stove and the fire, for even longer. I was planning to stay up here through January. The bad news is that there's only one bed." Jack gestured. "As you can see, the cabin is basically one room, plus the bathroom. The bed is up there, above the dining table. Heat rises, so up near the rafters it's warmer. There's a lot, and I mean a lot, of insulation under the roof, so it stays warm up there even when the fire dies down, so you'll be fine."
"I'll be fine. What about you?"
"I've got a super new winter sleeping bag, and the couch is long enough to sleep on, as you can see."
"For me, yes, Jack Kearney, but you're nearly a foot taller than me. You'd never fit. I'll sleep on the couch. Unless . . ."
Anne bit her lip. "Is it a big bed?"
Jack nodded. "Kingsize." He gave a wry grin. "My wife never slept in it before she took off with her Texas millionaire."
"No matter. You asked about the bed?"
"Jack, I'm a rapid judge of people. If you promise that you will not make any move to touch me without my consent, I see no reason why we can't share. We'll be warmer, for one thing."
Promise not to touch her without her consent? Interesting wording. "I have no hesitation in giving my word for that," said Jack.
"Okay, we share. Now, food. I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. I'll happily pay for what I eat."
Jack laughed. "Let's wait until we see what your appetite's like. What would you like?"
"What have you got?"
"Come and look, and after we've eaten, I'll see about rigging some lines so that we can dry your clothes."
"I'm an excellent cook, Jack. Can I at least earn my keep a little by cooking?"
"That sounds like a deal to me."
"Can I make a phone call first?"
"There's no phone line here, I'm afraid."
"Damn, Val will worry."
"A friend from the lodge, she's at home. I told her I was quitting and she offered me a bed for the night. She'll worry when I don't turn up."
"All is not lost. Modern technology has arrived in my pocket in the form of a cell phone. I'm not sure if we'll get a signal, but hang on and I'll try it." Anne watched as Jack tried the phone, smiled as he grinned in triumph. "Fickle thing. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. Here, ring your friend."
Anne dialled Val's number and it was answered immediately. "Anne, is that you?"
"Where are you? You should have been here an hour ago."
"Val, I crashed the car in the snow."
"Ohmigod, are you all right? Where are you?"
"In a cabin on the mountain, with a charming gentleman who rescued me from certain death."
There was a pause. "Anne? You are kidding me, aren't you?"
"A little. But I think there's a very good chance I would either have drowned or frozen to death."
Val lowered her voice until Anne had to strain to hear. "You're safe, aren't you?"
"Yes, Val, I'm quite safe. I've had a bath, a hot coffee, toasted my toes in front of a log fire, and we're going to have something to eat." Anne giggled.
"What?" said Val.
"If you could see me. Borrowed clothes that are way too big for me. Orphan of the storm, that's me."
"When are you coming down?"
"Val, the road is blocked. It's Christmas tomorrow, so I'll probably be stuck here for a day or two, probably more. Maybe a week. I'll ring you when I get off the mountain."
"Absolutely, Val. I promise."
"Okay, girl, take care." There was a chuckle on the line. "Is he good-looking?"
Anne glanced across to where Jack was checking the fridge contents. "Yeah, Val. Very. 'Bye, girl."
"Bye. Be careful."
"Put your friend's mind at rest?" said Jack.
"I think so. Now what have we got?" Conversation was easy as they prepared the food, cooked the meal, and ate it. Anne directed his assistance as she needed it and Jack thought afterwards it was the most fun he'd ever had preparing a meal, because Anne was just so easy, so natural, to talk to. She was telling him about her husband as they sat on the couch with coffee after they'd eaten, and Jack was staring into the fire, enjoying just hearing her voice, when she stopped. He turned to her and, alarmed, saw tears streaming down her face. He reached out a hand, but hesitated to touch her, remembering what she'd said, when she turned to him.