Linger Longer Lodge

Rebecca Matthews

 

Chapter 1

Tears of anger and grief shrouded Lindsay’s vision as she drove wildly up the unfamiliar, winding mountain road. The blackness of a moonless night compounded her inability to see clearly the edges of the dangerous, steep drop-offs. A still small voice at the back of her mind told her she should not be driving in her condition, but she pushed it aside and paid it no heed. She had to get away. She had to go. She didn’t know where and she didn’t care; she just had to distance herself from her family right now. Extremely distraught, she barely noticed the weather was changing drastically as the altitude climbed, climbed, climbed. When she left home, it had been a dreary, cold drizzle, but now, the moisture had turned into snow at this higher elevation. For late November, it was no surprise, but her mind was not on the weather or the road conditions. She had just been dealt a horrendous blow by the person she loved most in this world—her mother.

In their small nuclear family, Lena had been the center of their universe. Her name, derived from Helen as in Helen of Troy, meant, “Torch of Light,” and she had lived up to her name. She was their sun, and they joyfully revolved around her bright disposition, her amazing talents, her wit, and her joy for living. To think of life without her was inconceivable, but the fact she was dying became the elephant in the room, and they could not remain ostriches with their heads in the sand. The truth stared them in the face as they watched her diminish right before their eyes. Each day she faded a little farther away. Her voice became weaker, and her cheeks, the color of putty, became more sunken. She was like a skiff drifting away from shore and they had no rope to toss her.

Four years ago, her beloved mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and agreed with her surgeon to have both breasts removed at the same time to hopefully ward off the cancer returning later to the unaffected breast. The aftermath of her surgeries was traumatic for Lena, her husband, Howard, and Lindsay. The pain she experienced was excruciating, and the emotional upheaval of the age-old tragedy of dealing with disfigurement, body image, and feelings of being ‘less than’ a woman engulfed the whole family. Surgeries didn’t stop with the mastectomies. There were reconstruction surgeries, one on each breast, and then plastic surgery to try to make her newly-made breasts resemble real breasts. Along with the chemo came the hair loss, the violent nausea, and vomiting; all to no avail. It was tragic beyond any nightmare Lindsay and her father could have suffered.

Four years after her initial diagnosis, the cancer spread with a vengeance and became even more resistant to treatment and thus, fatal. Within six short months of the news the cancer had returned, Lena succumbed to her illness. Lindsay and her father were devastated to find, despite the battles their loved one had fought so valiantly and seemingly won, she lost the war. As if losing her wasn’t enough, in a matter of a few words, with literally her last breaths, their heartbreak was magnified beyond anything they could have imagined.

Lindsay replayed the scene earlier tonight. Her mother had motioned Lindsay and her father to her bedside; although she was so weak, she could barely open her eyes or speak loud enough to be heard. After they drew close enough to hear her faint whispers, she told them the most incredible and unimaginable piece of information. It was like dropping a bombshell on her beloved daughter and adoring husband.

“Lindsay…I love…your father…very much. Best…husband…ever.” She smiled and then gasped for air before she could continue. They each held one of her bony hands. Lindsay hoped through their touch they could somehow send her mother the strength she needed to struggle through whatever was so very important to her. “I have to…tell you both…before I die…” She paused again, and the silence was deafening; the atmosphere was thick with tension as they waited for her to continue. What could this dire message be? Lindsay exchanged a confused glance with her father.

“I didn’t…know until…we had…no other…children…you…are not…Howard’s child.” The past twenty-two years of Lindsay’s life unraveled in a matter of seconds.

The sharp intake of air of both affected parties could have inhaled the frail woman lying in front of them. It took great effort for her mother to lift a forefinger and motion for silence. Obviously, she was not finished with her deathbed confession, which would destroy two lives. “I fell in love…” a faint smile tugged at her lips as her thoughts obviously left them and this room for a fraction of a moment, “…so deeply…in love…with someone…after we were…married.” Long pause. “I am sorry…to hurt…you both…but I can’t…leave…this…unspoken.” It took several pants and gasps before she could continue. “Forgive me, please.”

Her words left Lindsay and her father speechless, and before they could effectively absorb this newsflash or process their thoughts, Lena went into a raspy, coughing spell, choking and gagging and convulsing. As they peered at her with a mixture of grief, shock, anger, and disbelief, she fell back against the damp pillow and released her final breath.

“Oh, my God! Mother! Mom! How could you do this to us? How could you wait until now?” Lindsay was hysterical, screaming and crying as her fists pounded the mattress. What she really wanted to do was pound her mother. No, what she really wanted was just to have her mother back and the words she had kept silent all these years to return to the vault of unspoken truths.

“Why did she tell us this now?” she demanded.

As she fixed her eyes on the man she had known as her father her entire life, he appeared broken and small. His eyes were red and tears streamed silently down his face. His lips quivered as he fought back sobs. His forlorn expression gave him a lost appearance, as if his wife had just abandoned him beside a road with nothing to hold onto and nowhere to go. Lindsay’s heart now broke afresh for her father as well as for herself. She realized her own pain and disillusionment with her beloved mother, who she had considered to be of saintly quality, must be amplified one hundredfold for her father. Now, he was not only the grieving widower and caretaker, he was the duped husband. The devoted wife he had cherished above all else had been a cheating adulterer. Even worse, she had not just had sex with another man, she said she had been in love with him and had his child! Her father lay his dead wife’s hand gently on the sheet, then slowly rose from his knees beside her bed, turned, and walked away. Lindsay grabbed his arm to stop him from moving away.

“Oh, Daddy. I’m so sorry. How awful! I am so angry with her! My whole life has been a lie. Who is my father? I mean, you are my father, but whose blood runs through my veins? Do you have any idea? Did you know anything about this affair? How dare she hurt us like this when we were already in agony over losing her!”

She flung her arms around her father and held him close as she sobbed into his comforting shoulder. He did not immediately enfold her in an embrace as he normally would, and Lindsay quickly noticed his slow reaction to her hug. Still, he did not speak of the revelation they had just received. Pulling back from her father, she peered at him as if he had suddenly become a stranger. Where is the affectionate man who had put Lindsay on a pedestal all her life, along with his wife? His gaze was a blank stare, his eyes revealing a void where the sparkle of love and life formerly resided.

Slowly, he shuffled over to the hook by the door, slid his arms into his worn jacket, and scuffled his way out to his garage workshop where he often went when he needed to be alone, to heal, to reflect, or to just retreat from life for a while. Lindsay’s heart was heavy as she watched him go without a word. As full of tumultuous emotions as she was at this latest discovery, she knew his battered heart needed time alone to sort out his feelings regarding this nightmare of lifelong lies and deceit.

It was over. It was finished. No retribution could be paid, no retaliation delivered, and no reasons given to account for her actions. There was just a cold body lying in place of a precious, loved woman who had held the hearts of those closest to her in her frail hand. A few words, however, crushed both their hearts permanently and irreparably. What were they to do with this knowledge now? Her mother was out of her torment, but for Lindsay and her father, a new one had just begun. There was a heaviness in her chest, which tears could not dissolve. A hard lump resided where a once-tender, loving heart had been.

Still in shock, Lindsay knelt once again at her mother’s bedside, taking her mother’s cold, dead hand in hers. When all the tears she hadn’t shed in the past four years were finally drained from her, she got up and stared down at her mother’s face in sweet repose.

“I’m glad your suffering is over, but I’m afraid ours has just begun. I hope he was worth it.” How could this be happening? How could her wonderful mother have done this, and even worse, kept the dirty deed hidden from them all these years? It was a sneaky, vile thing she had done, and Lindsay felt helpless, inarticulate fury at the mother she had adored.

Can you hate someone and love her at the same time? Bitterness welled within her at the thought of her mother in another man’s arms, bearing his child and passing it off as belonging to her husband. Her father had doted on his pseudo-daughter and openly adored his wife. He did not deserve this. Does my biological father even know I exist? Is he aware he had a child with my mother? Have I ever seen him and not known? He could be anybody. This is awful. It is like a nightmare, and I wish I would hurry and wake up!

Lena and Lindsay were Howard’s entire world. Everything he did, he did for them. He had worked, saved, and planned for the two women in his life. He had told them since he was several years older than Lena; he feared he would be the one to leave her and Lindsay, so he was heavily insured to guarantee they would be well taken care of after he passed. It was not to be.

The man who filled the fatherly shoes for Lindsay all her life, played tea party with her, built her a playhouse in the backyard, and taught her how to ride a bike was not her blood relative at all. When Lindsay had the measles as a child, her mother had to go to work, so caring for her fell to her father. He took excellent care of her, including covering her with calamine lotion to ease the itching. In addition, to ease her spirits for being so ill, he pretended her most beloved doll had measles too and painted her with the pink anti-itch lotion as well. A picture of that night was one of Lindsay’s most cherished photos. He was the saint, and she was the…Lindsay couldn’t bring herself to call her mother names as she lay lifeless before her. She had been a wonderful mother. The fact she had strayed when she was young and impetuous was apparently unpreventable at the time and definitely unchangeable now.

How could she do such a thing to Daddy? Lindsay was furious with her mother. How selfish of her to create such a catastrophe as she lay dying. Like her father, Lindsay had to get away from this room of death, which had suddenly become as stifling as a tomb and as confining as a coffin. She had to leave this house, or go mad. She grabbed her jacket and dashed out the front door, with no thought of where she would go or of telling her father she was leaving. She just ran to her trusty little blue Honda, shivering in the chilly drizzle.

Lindsay jumped into the car and sped off recklessly into the waning light of the gray, cold, miserable day. Darkness rapidly encroached upon this day without sunlight. How befitting! The day my mother died would be a gray, dismal, sunless day. She was like the sun to us. Would we ever feel its warming, energizing rays again?

In her disturbed state of mind, Lindsay did not go down the roads she normally travelled but turned at every crossroads she encountered, until she found herself truly lost on a winding, rough, dirt road heading up into the Smoky Mountains. She doubted she could retrace her route as she had turned so many times on strange, unmarked roads she had difficulty seeing. All she could do was keep going and hope to eventually come to some decent road with a sign to help her get her bearings.

There had been stories of people who had gotten lost deep in these mountains, never to be seen again. Panicked, she peeked at her gas gauge and saw it was nearly empty. All she could do was keep going and hope she would eventually find some decent road with a sign to help her get her bearings, or better yet, come across somewhere she could ask directions, and get some gas.

“Oh, great!” What would she do now? She had not seen any kind of business or even a house for a long time. Where would she find gas at this hour? As she kept going farther and farther from home, fear began to seep into her consciousness. To make matters worse, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. In these mountains, once the first snowflake fell, it was not long until the roads were impassable. The locals knew it and did not venture out, and if they were out, they were quick to get back home before the weather and the roads rapidly worsened.

Now, panic was taking hold of her. Her hands trembled, her teeth chattered, and she was on the verge of breaking into tears. The road would soon ice over and become too treacherous to try to go farther. Driving would become extremely dangerous soon—if she could drive at all. She may soon run out of gas, stranded beside the road, or she could lose control of her car on the steep, slick roads, vaulting her over the mountainside where no one would find her for days or weeks. The thought chilled her to the marrow. The disastrous result could only bring more pain on her beloved father, plus leave him totally alone.

The snow fell thicker and faster. She turned onto a wider, better-maintained road and hoped it would lead her out of this mountain version of Deliverance. She wished she were home right now. Her father probably needed her comfort; after all, her mother had only died a couple of hours ago. Her physician had told them since death was imminent, all they had to do was call and tell him the time and he would send a hearse to pick up the body.

Strange to refer to the loving, warm person she had sought out for comfort, encouragement, and rejoicing as ‘the body.’ Was she no longer a person? Was she just the $1.98 of minerals Lindsay’s biology teacher had told them the human body is worth? The thought of her beautiful, special mother denigrated to such status was revolting, and she hated herself for the anger, blame, and disgust she had felt toward her mother just moments before.

As her car headed up a steep incline, the jerky ride meant the tires slipped occasionally. The road she had hoped would take her down off the mountain and back to the relative safety of familiar roads, instead took her higher into unfamiliar territory. The windshield wipers were going as fast as they could, but were doing a poor job of clearing away the thick piles of snow on her windshield, making visibility almost nonexistent. Fear clutched her heart. All she could see ahead was the furious swirl of giant flakes in her headlights’ glow. There were no other cars on the road.

Apparently, everyone else had better sense than to be out on the roads in these conditions. It was impossible not to be angry at her foolish actions, which led her into such a precarious position. Her pulse quickened, and despite the chill in the car with the heater running, droplets of sweat formed on her brow. Her palms gripping the steering wheel were also damp.

She could just make out a sign up ahead! Was it a STOP sign? There must be a larger road intersecting here. If she…could only…make it. The tires whined loudly as they spun futilely trying to gain traction. Her engine raced as the vehicle slid sideways, and she feared she had lost control of the car—and her very life. She feared, just like her mother’s battle with cancer, Lindsay was also losing the battle between her driving skills and the winter road conditions. Rather than going forward, the car began to slide backward toward the edge of the road. Oh no! This is it!

Straining to see out the rearview mirror, she saw only black nothingness. To her left, the jagged, vertical rock face of the mountainside towered above her, which meant behind and to her right the road disappeared into the densely wooded terrain and the deadly drop to the bottom. No matter how she turned her wheel, she had no control over the direction of her car.

“Oh, God!” she pleaded.

She was not a praying person, but she found the wherewithal to do so. Suddenly, her tires gripped the gravel at the edge of the road and propelled her forward just as her wheels were about to leave the roadway, plunging her to certain death. For the first time in her life, she truly felt as if a Divine Hand had reached down and prevented her car from careening down the rugged, steep mountainside. She crested the peak and the remaining distance to the STOP sign was now a gentle downhill slope and somewhat protected by the side of the mountain. It should be smooth sailing.

At the STOP sign, she faced another dilemma. She had no idea what road this was, which direction was home, or more critically, which direction was the nearest anything. She was in drastic need of a gas station but guessed it was a ludicrous wish at this point. For the past couple of hours, she had not glimpsed a car or lights from any houses. As she sat alone at the crossroads, frightened half out of her mind, the decision of which way to go loomed before her. Just as she was ready to resort to the eeny-meeny-miney-moe method of decision making, she heard a voice as plain as if someone were in the car with her, telling her to Go right. So, she did. Am I going crazy? She knew it had been a stressful night for many reasons, but hearing voices was a new one for her. This was the second time she had felt she was not alone on this ride tonight.

Still no houses, signs, businesses, nothing could be seen, and the snow was piling up rapidly. The tree line was not too far above her, indicating she was very high in the mountains. Her fuel light had been on since she got onto the paved road, and she was feeling utter desperation to find a gas station or at least a house. Her fuel gauge was below E now, and she knew she only had a short time before she ran out of gas and was caught in a blizzard unable to stay warm, with no chance of help in sight.

“Mom, looks like I’ll be joining you much sooner than I expected.” Lindsay felt hopeless and doomed to perish. She leaned forward, rested her forehead on the steering wheel, and cried out in despair. “What have I done? I am so stupid! Now, Daddy will lose both of us in the same day!”

As the sound of her voice faded into the silence of the car’s interior, the engine sputtered a few times then died. She coasted as far as possible to the edge of the roadway without slipping off the side. She didn’t want anyone to come along and hit her vehicle. Then she had to laugh at the absurdity of the possibility. Since she had not seen another car for hours, the chances of anyone damaging her car were slim to nil. As soon as the motor died, the temperature in the car dropped.

She loved the used, little blue car her dad had bought for her when she turned sixteen. Six years later, it was still going strong. She had driven it through two years of high school, then college, and on road trips. She was convinced there was no place it couldn’t safely take her. Now, however, it was her crazed reaction to her mother’s death and final words, which had stranded her on the side of a mountain in a blizzard in pitch-black darkness. She could not stay in the car because she would surely die from hypothermia. She would have no choice but to get out and walk, hoping someone would pass by, or she would stumble upon a house before she froze to death or catapulted blindly off the mountain precipice. All she knew was she had to keep moving. If she stopped, she would die.

She was definitely not dressed for being out in a snowstorm. She wore loafers, not boots, a pair of sweat pants with a turtleneck sweater, and her short, lined denim jacket she had grabbed by the door as she ran out of the house. What she wouldn’t give for her hooded parka and her mukluks. She had no scarf, gloves, or hat, and her nose and toes already felt frozen. Her teeth chattered like a pair of castanets. She was going to freeze to death for sure. Serves me right for having such wicked thoughts about my beloved mother and for being so stupid to take off like this.

It proved an extremely difficult, slow process just to put one foot in front of the other on the wet, slick snow. Was there a faint glimmer of lights through the trees to her right? Although the way her mind played tricks on her tonight, she could not be sure. It could just be a hallucination for all she knew. After all, she had started hearing voices! Unable to maintain her footing, she fell repeatedly into the knee-deep snow, leaving her drenched from head to toe. She had never been so miserable. What was going to happen to her? The chill went all the way through to her bones, and she was so cold she could barely move. Sleep persistently pulled at her consciousness. The terrifying reality of dying right here on this road seemed so surreal, but inevitable. How could I end up this way? This isn’t how I am supposed to die, is it?

In her fading consciousness, she knew no one would be coming to help her. It had been hours since she had seen another car even before she ran out of gas. These woods were home to bears and panthers and probably some wolves too, none of which would be too proud to make a midnight snack out of a foolish young woman who took off in an act of insanity.

“Predators are not picky when it comes to prey.” Then she started laughing aloud hysterically. Okay, I am really losing it now. What a good tongue twister though. Does frostbite affect your brain?

Just then, she heard a distant barking. Wolves don’t bark, do they? I think they just howl, so hopefully it means there is a home somewhere nearby. Fully aware once again, she stopped in her tracks, marching in place to keep the circulation going to her feet, and her arms wrapped around her body for warmth. She could barely feel her fingers and toes anymore, but she waited silently where she was. The barking came closer and closer, but then it faded away again, and Lindsay once again struggled to keep moving, making very little forward progress. Exhausted and nearly frozen, she sank to the ground and lay down in a snow bank, expecting not to wake up again. No one is coming. I am going to die right here. Oh, God, no!

Suddenly, the barking grew louder and more frantic again. This time she could hear footsteps tromping through the snow and a dog panting loudly. Not knowing if it was seconds or minutes later, she felt a sloppy wet tongue licking her face, and the whimper and whine of a dog. Then, in a partially conscious fog, she felt strong arms buried in a thick thermal jacket pulling her up out of the snow and tossing her over a shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She was too fuzzy to ask who this was or what was happening. Then everything went silent and black. For all she knew, it might be the Death Angel scooping her up to take her into eternity, to heaven or to hell, she could not guess. She had no fight left in her at all. Weak and very, very cold, she was just going to let this person or whatever, do what they wanted with her. If it was Sasquatch or Bigfoot, she couldn’t care less, because at this point she had totally given up. She craved nothing but blissful sleep.

As if in a dream, she thought she saw light and felt a flood of warmth. Did she hear voices? It was the voices of a man and a woman, and she felt hands pulling at her soaking wet, ice-cold clothing. After a moment, she thought maybe she should protest, but what the heck. She couldn’t fight off a flea right now. Then with her wet clothes gone, someone pulled a warm, soft nightgown over her head, and wrapped her in a huge, fluffy cover of some sort. Someone soaked her feet in a pan of water and someone else put her hands in water too.

What the…? She just got rid of her wet things, now they were putting her in water? Not sure if her eyes were open or not, she struggled to lift her lids so she could see her surroundings, but her vision blurred and her mind so muddled she was never really sure if what she saw was real or a dream.

After a while, her feet and hands began to feel warmer. Someone dried them for her and placed warm woolen mittens on her hands. Her feet were also dried and warm socks, pulled onto her feet. Someone held a cup of steaming liquid to her lips and she found she had suddenly forgotten how to swallow. A woman’s motherly hands spooned the fluid into her mouth, which had ceased to be able to function. She drooled more of it out than she drank but what did trickle down her throat felt wonderful to her insides.

One thing she could make out was a roaring fire in a huge fireplace. She seemed to be in some large, spacious area with dark, thick wood everywhere and solid, heavy furniture. As warmth overtook her, she relaxed and let sleep claim her, unaware of anything else.

* * * *

Joshua Long had lived in these mountains and in this very house ever since he was born, until he went off to college, and then he moved to the big city to find himself. After he was gone, his parents turned the large country home into a lodge and began a business six months out of the year, having guests who wanted a scenic mountain hideaway and relaxing pastimes like fishing, horseback riding, bird watching, and other non-glitzy types of entertainment. He was happy in his small apartment in New York, where he intended to become a famous writer.

Then, his world turned upside down when his father had a debilitating stroke several months ago, that left him unable to care for the lodge and the property. This land had been in his father’s family for generations. It was a beautiful place of solitude with the melodious, babbling brook accompanying the warbling birds and call of the hawks. It boasted incredible vistas, where you could look out upon ridge after ridge of towering mountains stretching out for hundreds of miles and trees in every hue of gold, red, orange, and brown in fall. In summer, it was a haven of cool escape from the oppressive heat of the crowds below. But he had loved his Manhattan apartment even more.

He had a tiny place, and even then, it was a challenge to make the rent each month. His first culture shock upon moving to the Big Apple was the unbelievably high prices of everything. He loved the sights and sounds of the city at night; the honking of taxis, the lights of the majestic, tall buildings like low-lying stars twinkling in the night, and the feeling of life that was part of a town which never slept. If you wanted a pizza at three in the morning, no problem. There were places open all night, all over, with anything and everything a person could want. But what he really wanted was to become an acclaimed author. He had been in love with words since just a lad. His vivid imagination was his only playmate in this remote locale since he was so much younger than his siblings, who were grown and out of the house for most of his childhood.

While in New York, he worked at a publishing house as an apprentice editor and took odd jobs to make ends meet. He wanted to be near the heart of the publishing world, which was New York. By being so close to the hub of the literary world, he felt he would have an edge in learning the craft and finding success.

Through friends at a party, he met a statuesque young woman named Sherry Fiedler. It was an instantaneous attraction, and they dated exclusively from the moment they met. She worked in journalism, so they had some mutual ground. They seemed to have numerous common interests, including friends, and as time went by, it seemed natural to Josh they would take their relationship to the next level. Being a simple boy from the backwoods of North Carolina, he was shocked to find Sherry was not so inclined. They had been together for over a year, and he couldn’t imagine waking up without her beside him, so he bolstered his courage and purchased an engagement ring. He would never forget that day. He shook as he stood in front of the jewelry case full of dazzling diamonds and chose one he hoped she would like.

When he presented the ring to her, nothing could have prepared him for her response; Sherry did not intend to marry Josh or any other man. She admitted she had been seeing a woman while she and Josh had been together, due to her ambivalence about a heterosexual relationship. His pressing her to marry was the catalyst she needed to decide she preferred her lesbian lover to Josh. The pain of that moment was so real; he could still feel her words stabbing him like a Bowie knife to the heart. His mind went blank, his heart skipped a beat, and he forgot how to breathe momentarily. He was never so hurt, demoralized, and humiliated. She might as well have castrated him on the spot. Her words not only broke him emotionally, they destroyed him as a lover and a man. That was over a year ago, and he vowed he would never, ever fall in love again.

He was through with women—for good! He was stuck in the middle of nowhere; women did not parade through here on a regular basis, so his chances of meeting one were pretty slim. Besides, with all the work he had to do here for his parents, there was no time for a social life, even if there had been any willing participants. From here on his goal in life was to just forget—forget how the woman he loved had ripped his heart out and stomped it flat, forget leaving behind a budding career as a novelist, and forget the stimulating sights and sounds of the city because they were all lost to him forever. Bitter at the cruel twist of fate which brought him back home, to the place he had been thrilled to leave behind forever, he had become sullen, moody, and miserable.

Now, here was an angel who seemed to have fallen from the sky, asleep on their couch. Poor thing was nearly frozen to death when I found her. Thank goodness I paid attention to Bear’s incessant barking and went to investigate or she would be a goner right now. What a waste! Her blonde hair splayed out on the pillow almost resembles a halo. Her flawless skin begs to be touched. I wonder why her brow is furrowed even in sleep, as if she is carrying a heavy burden. Wait a minute. What do I care? Women are nothing but a source of heartache and humiliation. They make a fool out of you, rip your insides out, and then turn and walk away as if nothing tragic had happened at all.

This poor girl was nearly dead, though. I had better stay with her tonight in case she gets scared when she wakes up in these unfamiliar surroundings. I wonder what her story is. Was she trying to commit suicide? What was she doing on top of White Heart Mountain? Everyone knows the roads aren’t useable this time of year. She is pretty though. Stop it, Josh. You don’t care if she is pretty. You don’t need her or anything she has to offer. You are only seeing she gets through the night safely. Don’t even think of her as a woman! She’s more like a hurt puppy you found and are nursing back to health so that you can return her to the rightful owner. You have no need or room in your heart for anymore ‘pets’. Keep in the forefront of your mind the picture of Sherry turning down your proposal and not even taking a look at the ring you spent so much time and angst selecting just for her. Remember that pain so you can avoid it again. You are just watching over this girl to see that all your family’s efforts to save her are not in vain. That’s all.

He sat in a comfy rocker beside where she lay and watched her sleep and dream away what was left of the night. Just like a puppy, she jerked, squeaked, grimaced, and frowned. Her head thrashed back and forth at one point, and he was unavoidably curious what could cause such a pretty young thing such torment during what should be peaceful slumber. This is certainly strange. She looks so delicate lying there on the massive, dark leather sofa, the huge beams in the ceiling, and the oversized chairs and couches, not to mention the gigantic fireplace, all seem to miniaturize her. She may be dainty, but she is obviously tough enough to survive a hellish ordeal in a freezing blizzard. I wonder who she is. I am just glad we found her in time. She was very nearly… He didn’t want to think of the end she faced if he hadn’t arrived when he did. Taking her cold hands in his large warm ones, he scooted the rocker close to where she lay.

* * * *

As Lindsay rose from her stuporous sleep, the first thing she became aware of was that she was warm. Her last conscious thought, whenever that was, was of being very, very cold. She stretched beneath the mountain of fluffy covers where she laid snugly regaining consciousness; she popped open one eye, then the other. The piercing glare of the blinding sunlight upon the drifts of newly fallen snow outside the window was so bright she had to shield her eyes. It poured through the tall, wide windows beside her and on the wall opposite the huge, rustic room.

She examined her foreign surroundings and gazed around. It was a ruggedly decorated room, with oversized fireplace and oversized furniture. It had a very masculine feel to it. There was an eight-point buck’s head mounted above the fireplace and a bear’s head with jaws open in a snarling growl suspended on the wall over her head. The overpowering furnishings, the hunting trophies, and the large fireplace of the rustic lodge made her think this could be Paul Bunyan’s home. Massive wood beams ran the length of the ceiling, giving a primitive, rough-hewn feel to the place. Other smaller hunting trophies hung all around the room. The one thing she didn’t see was a human being. She wondered where her rescuers were.

Lindsay took a moment to piece together the events of last night and woefully regretted her rash actions. Ashamed and guilt-ridden for her childish, impulsive behavior, she feared her father was probably beside himself with worry by now. The news her mother had bestowed on them had shaken Lindsay to the foundations of her being, and she felt ambivalent toward the mother she adored all her life. She was angry with herself for doing such a stupid, dangerous stunt and taking off as she did, getting lost in the mountains, then running out of gas.

Hey, where are the people? Maybe she should try to find seven little dwarves instead or a wicked witch with a big oven. She giggled to herself. Nearly freezing to death must have addled my brains worse than I thought.

Suddenly, a door opened somewhere, and a burst of chilly air swept into the room. Soon, a huge beast of a man entered, carrying a large bundle of neatly chopped firewood and stacked it by the fireplace. He didn’t speak and neither did she. What were the rules of etiquette in a situation like this anyway? She wasn’t quite sure what to do now. Had he rescued her in order to have his way with her and then chop her up and stick her into the freezer until spring thaw, when he would bury her in a shallow grave deep in the woods where no one would ever find her? His face, though not smiling, was also not frowning. There was a kindness and concern around his eyes, which made her relax and wait for him to speak first.

“So you are awake. Feeling better?”

“Yes, thank you. Are-are you the one who rescued me last night?”

“Yeah. Well, it was actually Bear here.” He reached down and patted a mutt who resembled a mix of collie, German shepherd, and several other breeds. “If it weren’t for Bear going nuts and barking like crazy, we wouldn’t have found you in time. He ran out toward where you were, came back, and then headed in your direction again, so we knew something was up. We would never have known anyone was out there if not for him.” Love and pride shone in his eyes as he patted the homely dog who gazed adoringly up at his master.

“Well, then, I thank you and Bear for saving my life.”

A stern look instantly replaced the kindness and concern she thought she saw a moment ago. “What a stupid thing to do. What were you doing out here all alone, dressed like that?” The disdain in his voice was unmistakable, and she was conscious enough now to be highly offended by his scolding. How dare he! He has no idea what I have just been through! “Didn’t you know there are no gas stations around here for miles?” Taken aback at the brusqueness of his reply and the anger in his face, her jaw dropped as she stared dumbfounded.

“Well, I am so sorry I inconvenienced you. Next time I run away from home in hysterics, I will make sure I have a full tank of gas and call AAA first to plan a better route!” Hmpff! Take that, buster!

He shrugged slightly and kneeled down to put more logs on the fire. He didn’t speak further, but she had plenty more to say to this insolent bastard. Who did he think he was anyway, talking to her like this? She would set him straight on a thing or two,

“Since you are so sure I know this geographical area, I can assure you I have never been anywhere near here before. What is this place anyway?” She didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “I received some shocking news last night, and not thinking clearly, I took off terribly upset. Before I knew it, I was lost in the mountains, the weather grew worse and worse, and I ran out of gas. I had hoped to find a station or a passerby or something. I am very sorry to have troubled you. So, if you would kindly tell me where my clothes are, and sell me a gallon or two of gas, I will be on my way and out of your hair.”

When he turned to face her, his face carried a poorly concealed smirk. She wondered what could be so damn funny.

“You are a feisty one, aren’t you? I didn’t know I was going to get you so angry so soon. I usually don’t affect women that way for at least twenty-four hours or so. Lady, I don’t know who you are or where you’re from, but all I can tell you is this. There is no gas to be had at any price, and there is no way you are getting back down the mountain for several days.”

Lindsay gasped, and her eyes grew wide as saucers. “Wh-why not?” she asked in a timid voice, suddenly meek as a kitten. All the bluster sucked out of her.

“Well, because we are at the top of White Heart Mountain, and no one, I repeat no one comes up here this time of year. This,” he gestured to his surroundings, “is the Linger Longer Lodge, and we are closed from October to April due to the winter weather. The roads are almost always impassable this time of year, and no one has any reason to come up this road since we are the only thing up here. You have been on our private road for the last five miles.”

She sank back against the mound of blankets and coverlets, which were her makeshift bed on one of the leather sofas.

“Well, of course! Everything else was going so well the past twelve hours. This is just icing on the cake.” Deflated at this new catastrophe, she let out a big sigh, slumping down until she almost disappeared within the mound of bedding.

“Huh? What are you mumbling about now?”

“Are you always this rude, or is it just me you find so repugnant?”

“Lady, I was not being rude, I was just being me.”

“Well, first of all let’s get something straight. My name is not lady, it is Lindsay. And who are you, since you are just being you?” He responded with what could almost be mistaken as a grin.

“Well, excuse me…Lindsay. I am Joshua Long. The only other residents of the lodge at this time of year are my mother and father, Jim and Betty Long. They were here tending to you last night.”

“Oh…Well, thank you, Josh. Where are they now? I’d like to thank them too.”

“Well mother is upstairs, giving dad his medicine and helping him with some therapy, and then she’ll be down.”

“Medicine? Therapy? What is wrong with your father?” Lindsay asked, genuinely concerned.

“Well,” Josh paused. She couldn’t help but wonder if he felt he should not be discussing this with a stranger. Then he continued. “He had a pretty bad stroke last spring, so he is on a lot of medications, and the doctors told him he had to do certain breathing and other exercises in order to recover. Still, he is only expected to survive a year or two.” Now, there was definite bitterness in his voice. She could only assume it was because he was upset about his father’s illness and poor prognosis.

“I know how you feel. My mother just died of cancer. She was only forty-six.” Her voice trailed off in sorrow. Her ambivalent feelings toward her mother were still very raw. “Speaking of fathers, mine is going to be going crazy with worry about me. I need to call him. I think I must have left my cell phone in my car.”

“Doesn’t matter, you wouldn’t get any reception up here anyway. If the lines aren’t down, you can use our phone. It is over there on the desk.”

She tossed a thanks his way. She immediately headed for the desk, wrapping the comforter for a robe. When she picked up the receiver to attempt to notify her father, there was no dial tone.

“It’s dead!” Panic struck again. “Oh, no, no, no. What am I going to do? I have to get in touch with him! He is going to worry himself sick about what might have happened to me. I have to let him know I am okay.” Angry with herself for lacking the constraint to keep her emotions in check, tears welled up in her eyes and overflowed down her cheeks.

The gruff, tough man strode over to the desk where she sat weeping with her face buried behind her palms. Her shoulders shook with the force of her sobbing. He hesitantly reached out to touch her on the shoulder and then pulled his hand back. Instead, he squatted down beside her.

“I’m sorry,” he told her softly, sweetly. Then he remained squatted down beside her knee, silently waiting for the wave of tears to subside. About a minute later, she sniffled and lifted her head.

“Do you have a tissue?” she asked; her nose ran, her face was wet and sticky from the saltwater of her tears. “Sure. I’ll be right back.”

Oh, brother. I bet I look just beautiful with snot running down my upper lip and mascara streaks all down my face, with not one speck of dignity remaining.

Soon he was down beside her again, handing her a whole box of tissues.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, it looks as if you have been crying quite a bit lately.” The big, burly grizzly had morphed into a tenderhearted teddy bear right before her eyes. His tone was kind and gentle, his dark eyes warm and full of empathy.

Smiling back at him, with quivering lips, she was truly grateful for his compassion, and the tissues.

“Thanks. Yes, I have.”

“Wanna talk about it? I make a better listener than talker.” Now he smiled back at her, and she saw he had a nice-looking face when he wasn’t scowling.

“No, not really. But thanks.”

“Sure. No problem. I understand, I truly do. We all have to deal with our grief in our own way.” Lindsay got the feeling he was not just talking about his father’s condition or her mother’s death. At the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, Joshua bolted to his feet and stepped back from Lindsay as if caught doing something inappropriate. His roly-poly mother joined them.

“Well, how is our little patient this morning? You look so much better, my dear. You gave us quite a fright last night. I am glad to see you have pinked up. I bet you are hungry. I’m Betty, so just call me Betty.” She was a jovial, warmhearted, talkative woman, as round as she was tall, with rosy, apple-shaped cheeks and a contagious smile. Her compassionate attitude toward Lindsay made her immediately feel at home.

“Hi, Betty. I’m Lindsay Wheeler, and I can’t thank you enough for rescuing me from what I am sure would have been my last night on earth. You and your husband, and Josh here,” she added, suddenly shy, “oh, and I can’t forget to include Bear, have literally saved my life. Can I help you do anything? I know how to cook.”

“Well, sure. Follow me. When we are closed-in like this during the winter, I get a break from cooking for the big crowds I feed when we are open. But I love to cook and, as you can tell, I love to eat too. Josh, dear, would you grab my robe from behind the bathroom door so Lindsay has something to wear besides a huge comforter? I learned from my mother, who learned from her mother, etc.”

On and on she chatted comfortably with Lindsay as if they were old friends. The younger woman was immediately drawn to the outgoing, lively older woman with the tender, caring ways. Together they whipped up a handsome breakfast for all of them and then called the men to the kitchen table.

Joshua helped his father slowly come down the stairs and introduced Jim Long to Lindsay. Lindsay smiled watching the two men approach, all the while assessing the condition of the older man who appeared very ill and frail.

“Lindsay, this is my father, Jim.” With everyone seated at the table, Mr. Long gave the blessing. Lindsay was not used to this custom but found it endearing and rather comforting.

The Longs were absolutely charming people, and if it weren’t for worrying about her father not knowing her welfare or whereabouts, she would have been happy about being here. Being with them, her problems somehow seemed so far removed. She could put aside any thoughts of her unfaithful mother, her own dubious paternity, and the heartbreak her father must feel right now. Like a child at Disney World, she was in a world of joy, escape, comfort, and lots of good food. She hadn’t realized she was starving until the mouthwatering aroma of breakfast overtook her.

“My goodness!” Lindsay declared a few minutes later as she wiped a dab of syrup from her lip. “I can’t believe I ate a breakfast fit for a lumberjack! I can’t remember the last time I ate, or when I was even hungry last, for that matter.”

“Oh, it’s fine, just fine! I love to see people enjoy my cooking. A good appetite is a sign of good health, I always say.”

During the course of breakfast, Lindsay had an opportunity to size them all up. She liked what she saw. This family who had saved her from certain demise loved each other and it showed. There was playful teasing, laughter, and a spiritual aspect Lindsay found very touching. As the two women cleared up the food and dishes and began their day Lindsay heard stories of the bear mounted on the wall, and the deer, and other animals whose preserved carcasses were all around her.

* * * *

In the afternoon, the sun disappeared and snow began to fall again. Although it fell silently and was beautiful to watch, Lindsay felt despondent knowing more snow would mean it would be even longer before she could get back home or get word to her father. He’s probably called the police by now. What a horrible daughter I am!

Still weak from her ordeal, Betty insisted Lindsay take a nap. Meanwhile, the snow continued to fall. Lindsay was a registered nurse, but she felt she was the recipient of compassionate, skilled nursing care since she arrived at the lodge. They were taking such good care of her; it was better than any five star hotel. Lindsay’s sleeping quarters were relocated from the sofa to one of the guest rooms upstairs. She found the new location delightful. The rugged, outdoorsy decor made her feel small and delicate. The bedspread and lampshade bore a woodsy scene with black bear, deer, streams, and mountains in a palette of masculine colors of hunter green, beige, brown, and burgundy. A wildlife painting hung above the large, comfortable bed, and the one window, which overlooked an expanse of Ponderosa pines, mountain laurel, and oaks, was framed with curtains of the same sturdy animal-print fabric as the bedspread.

The whole room oozed testosterone, but she had certainly not expected to find frills and pastels in this rugged mountain lodge. It had an image to maintain after all. The thought made her smile. If circumstances were different, she would have found this a delightful place to be, but she could not stop thinking of the unnecessary worry she was causing her bereaved father. Guilt pangs stabbed her heart. He doesn’t deserve this.

When she awakened from her afternoon siesta, the first thing greeting her senses was the aroma of a pot roast with winter vegetables, which had simmered all afternoon. It was as fragrant as a bouquet of roses and made her mouth water at the first whiff. She went directly to the kitchen to see if Betty needed any help, but there she found Jim and Betty working side by side, laughing and giving each other sideways glances and occasionally stealing a kiss. The beauty of the scene brought back painful memories of similar sights within her own home before…

The Longs were oblivious to her presence, so she quickly and quietly backed out of the doorway, but as she did, she bumped smack into Josh. Startled, she let out a little shriek, which drew Jim and Betty’s attention away from each other and the meal they were dishing up.

“Oh, Josh. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you were standing there.” Then she started laughing at what a ridiculous picture she must have made, and she couldn’t stop. She had not laughed in such a long, long time except for her one brief bout of hysteria last night when she was nearly frozen. It was intoxicating, and as her uncontrollable laughter continued, Jim and Betty began laughing, and eventually so did Josh, although they had no idea as to the cause of Lindsay’s guffaws.

“So I guess laughter really is contagious!” Her laughter wound down while tears streamed from her eyes, but this time they were not tears of anguish.

As they settled down to eat the luscious, aromatic meal, everyone wore smiles. They had an intimate, enjoyable meal sprinkled with laughter at the funny stories the elder Longs told about their son and their three other children. After dinner and with the clean-up complete, they gathered around the game table near the fireplace and played cards until very late. They played the women against the men, who won nearly every hand, and the women were miffed to discover the men had been cheating all along. The atmosphere was lighthearted and gay and the most Lindsay had enjoyed herself in a long time.

As they prepared to head for their sleeping chambers, Lindsay told them all, “I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed the past twenty-four hours with you folks. You have been very good medicine for me. As crazy as it may sound, maybe I was meant to get lost and for you to find me. Anyway, I just want to thank you again, from the bottom of my heart. I could never repay you for what you’ve done for me, but I do hope to someday find a way to properly thank you.”

Josh, going up the steps ahead of her, turned and smiled down at her for no apparent reason. “It is a good place to hide out. Believe me, I know.”

Puzzled at his remark, Lindsay stared at him. Josh turned back around and headed up the stairs, went into his room, and let the comment float into nothingness. She wanted to ask what he meant, but instead, she glanced back down the steps at the elderly couple, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, smiling into each other’s eyes in a way which made words unnecessary. Lindsay watched the exchange and couldn’t help but hope she would someday have the same kind of relationship she witnessed between Jim and Betty Long with a man of her own. She couldn’t help but think bitterly, I bet Betty never cheated on Jim.

* * * *

Behind the closed door of his bedroom, Josh mulled over recent events. It had been a very interesting and unusual twenty-four hours. He pondered the wistful look on Lindsay’s face as she watched his father and mother dishing up supper and sharing a little affection sprinkled in for good measure and smiled to himself. He never realized the loving, extremely close relationship his parents shared might be extraordinary. He had always just taken for granted there was nothing unusual about it. Thanks to Lindsay’s expression while observing them, he had to consider the possibility it might be a rare and beautiful thing. Once he took a moment to rethink it, he admitted perhaps he was luckier than he had realized. He almost laughed aloud as he remembered her fit of hilarity when she backed into him trying to sneak back out of the kitchen. The way her laughter rose to the rafters and drifted back down was a lovely sound from a lovely young lady. It was more than the sound of her laughter he enjoyed in that moment. The feel of her curvaceous backside as she bumped into him sent a shockwave through his loins. It had been a long time since he had a woman. Nancy Palm and her five sisters had been taking care of keeping him sane and physically relieved; however, they left a lot to be desired. He missed making love to a woman—holding her body close, feeling her silky skin, her seductive curves, and most of all kissing the lips of someone he held in his heart. How could such a brief, innocent touch of her body against his be so titillating? Maybe he suffered more after this long abstinence than he initially realized. He would certainly never make it as a monk.

There was no mistaking how much his mother enjoyed having another woman in the house, especially this one. Lindsay had walked—well, been carried—into their lives just hours before, yet she fit in as if they had known her for years and had visited a thousand times before. The camaraderie between her and his mother as they worked so well side-by-side, preparing meals and performing a dozen other household tasks, amazed him. It pricked his conscience to remember when he had brought his former girlfriend Sherry here to visit; he had never once heard her and his mother conversing with the ease and warmth of his mother and Lindsay. The two women laughed and chatted as they went about their day as if they were old friends, or could he even think it—like mother and daughter. He was utterly fascinated by their interaction. It made him happier than he’d been in quite a long time to know his mother had another female whose companionship she enjoyed so thoroughly.

Maybe this girl wasn’t real. It’s only November, but maybe she is one of those magical Christmas angels. Maybe she got lost on her way to a family that needed divine intervention. Don’t think the Linger Longer Lodge was at that point—yet.

Even his father, who had been weak and wan since the stroke, perked up at Lindsay’s quips and comments during the meal and card game, and Josh couldn’t help but note the slight sparkle in his beloved father’s eyes. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening, thanks to her contributions.

I am making too much of this. She has a life and it is not on White Heart Mountain. As quickly as she came into their lives, she would leave it, and the thought sent pangs of loneliness through to his core. No denying it, she had been very good for this family in the short time she had been here. Maybe there was something to the theory she was meant to get lost and we were meant to find her. No, that is the stuff of Hallmark movies, not real life. But what if…?