Come In From the Cold: A 12 Days of Christmakwanzakah Blog Hop Short Story

Like my friend Julia Kelly (1/2 of the dynamic duo that organized The 12 Days of Christmakwanzakah Blog Hop), I've never met a holiday romance I didn't like. So this blog hop, made up of flash fiction stories (most 1500-2000 words) has been AH-MAZING. 

Also amazing? Check out this list pretty fantastic list of Christmas romances that author Katharine Ashe put together on her blog. AFTER you've gone through all of the #12DaysHop stories first, of course. 

So thank you, Julia and Alyssa, for organizing this hop. I'm excited to glom all the stories. And happy to share with you my story of love in a time of Snowpocalypse: COME IN FROM THE COLD. It's a smidge over the 2000 word limit. Okay, so it's like 1000 words over the limit. But what gal doesn't like a nice full stocking? 


Come In From the Cold

 

It wasn’t breaking and entering if you had a key. And an alarm code. So why did Sarah feel like she was doing something very bad?

Possibly because she wasn’t wearing pants. And everybody knew pantlessness went hand-in-hand with badness.

If her sister weren’t on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean, and therefore unreachable, she would tell Sarah to take the key and hang out in Luc’s house where it was warm. Of course, if Carolyn were in town, Sarah wouldn’t be in this predicament, would she? Even so, the keychain felt heavy in her grip. Like guilt. Maybe a little like shame. No, she wouldn’t feel ashamed. She was on a mercy mission!

She fumbled the key and for one horrific moment thought she would drop it in the snow. The very cold and wet half foot of snow that had smothered Dallas sometime between her late-night flight and, well, now. Not that Sarah knew when “now” was considering the power was out, and had been out since who knows when.

Phones. Laptops. Gadgets. All were dead. Dead dead dead. And Sarah still felt half-dead herself, even after falling facedown onto her sister’s very plush guest bed after the long flight from Peru. She might have slept until she was full-on dead—this time from hypothermia—had the smoke detectors not started chirping. And the power started moaning.

It was flippin’ creepy out here. Like the whole block had spontaneously combusted. Been raptured. Something. The crack and split of wood, somewhere, had Sarah rushing to the front door. Add to the list of possible causes of death: falling, frozen tree limbs. And the front steps of forty-eight-something-something Woodland Circle.

Lungs on fire, she took a shaky breath and regrouped against a column of the porch. Only it didn’t feel like much of a strategy session—more like clinging blindly to the first solid form she reached. There was a sheet of ice between her and the door. And Sarah wanted to emerge the victor. She’d made it this far, after all.

But when she finally slid the key in the lock, she couldn’t bring herself to go in.

Maybe she should ring the bell first, or would that ruin her claim to plausible deniability? Surely she’d be able to plead insanity. A jury of her peers wouldn’t indict her.

Maybe. Probably.

Right?

“Turn it. Turn. It.” She rested her forehead against the door. It felt warm. Which was ridiculous. But what was even more ridiculous was standing on her sister’s neighbor’s front porch in her panties, so she turned the key.

Her first impression was lush. And warm. The entry was as serene as an expensive spa—she half expected to be greeted by tinkling bells and the soft plips of falling water. Her cheeks prickled with the assault of heat on her abused skin. Her thighs were a different story. If they were even still there and not just phantom limbs, they’d probably never thaw.

“Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1-7-9-2,” she recited aloud as she punched in the four-digit alarm code and the disarm button. She didn’t hear a beep. Shouldn’t there be a beep?

Maybe tromping through the ice and snow had damaged her hearing. Maybe she’d never hear again. Maybe the police would find her soaking in the bathtub of her sister’s neighbor’s house two days before Christmas and would shoot her because she wouldn’t respond to their shouts to keep her hands where they could see them.

At least she’d die blessedly warm.

There was a potted phragmipedium on the ledge under the alarm panel. She felt a pang somewhere in her gut seeing the frag restricted so. Without thinking, she stuck her finger in the soil to test the moisture.

“It should be fine.”

Sarah froze, staring her finger penetrating the soil. Think. Was there an intruder alert button she could press on the alarm panel? Could the police even get to her if she pressed it? I’m sorry officers, I was breaking into this nice warm house and then there was this other guy...

She heaved a great breath. A prayer? She’d survived a year in the jungles of South America only to be cut down in her prime in Carolyn’s neighbor’s house by a criminal. Unless he had a key, too. Did every neighbor on the block have the key to this magical, warm house?

Counting to four, eyes searching the alarm panel, she psyched herself up to confront the person behind her. “You are not supposed to be here. You need to leave.” Stupid to leave the house without her cell. Stupider for letting it die. Stupid power outage. Stupid snow!

She waited for the air to shift, for the death blow, something, but all she felt was stillness.

“Funny. I was just thinking the same,” the intruder said.  

She brandished her key. “It’s not breaking in if you have the key.” She shook the keychain for good measure. “Do you have one?” She whirled around, converting the single key into brass knuckles, ready to strike, only to be struck dumb. Ish.

The guy was fresh out of a shower, white towel slung low. Real low. “You—you are not wearing pants.”

He looked pointedly at her bare, pink legs. Sarah squirmed a little but refused to pull the blanket around her in some maidenly gesture. If she had to run, she’d drop it so fast—maybe in his path. But she figured even a psychokiller wouldn’t chase her out into a snowstorm, wet and towel-clad. “The, um, power went out. But there's p-power here.

“Solar. I'm pretty much off the grid,” he replied but continued to stare at her legs. They stung under his gaze. It couldn’t have been that they were thawing out. No, his eyes pierced them with a thousand agonizing needle pricks of awareness. This time, she did adjust the blanket around her.

And then his eyes stabbed into hers. Flipping. Fruity. Pebbles. He was hot. So hot. And her awareness of his hot pantlessness thawed her brain. This had to be Luc. Her sister’s neighbor. Of course, now she recognized his face from her niece’s soccer pictures.

“Oh, thank God. You're the hunky hippie, not an intruder.” She dropped the key and her fighting stance. The dull brass barely made a ping against the hand-scraped floors, but her teeth clicked as she fought full-body shivers. “Wait. W-why are you here? Carolyn said you were g-going to be in Montreal or Quebec. Or Saskatoon. I d-don’t know. Why are you here?”

He stood so still. Was he trying to convince her to leave using some advanced yoga-Jedi-zen technique? “I live here,” was all he said before he turned and walked down the hall.

Where was he—was he going to get a gun? He was the hunky hippie, and half Canadian, but this was Texas, after all. What should she—

“Oh, stuff it, Fletcher,” she advised herself and followed him into the warmth. She hesitated at the threshold of some woo-woo temple of a bedroom. He made silent steps across pretty dark-stained floors before turning into a closet. Bathroom? She didn't hear the tell-tale sound of a shotgun being racked. Instead, she strained to make out the rustle of cloth and his muffled voice. “If you’re Caro’s sister, you must be…”

“Sarah.” She was Sarah. And she was so tired.

Nice to meet you.

A streak of cream flew across the room and landed on the bed beside her. He came back out in some t-shirt and shorts combo that looked obscenely comfortable. And just plain obscene. Damn. Her body convulsed and she wasn’t entirely certain it was just reacting to the temperature change. He looked as good in clothes as he had a towel. The Hunky Hippie was certainly not a misnomer.

He lifted both eyebrows.

Oh my gosh, she was sitting on this man's tidy bed. Ogling him like she hadn’t seen another human since the Mesozoic era. Not that there were humans around in the Mesozoic era. She should get up. Ask to borrow a flashlight and return to her sister's. “I’m sorry. This whole day is weird. It is d-day, isn’t it? I promise I’m not crazy.”

Her barking laugh might have disproved that statement. But it was so warm here and the thought of traipsing through the snow again...

It wasn't so long ago that, sweating in a hammock, she'd fantasized about ice. Of being so cold your teeth clicked together and your whole body shook with it.

Now it was her turn for Jedi-zen mind manipulation: please don't make me go.

“So you're Luc. You’re not out of town and you do yoga. And g-grow…plants. I should probably go now.”

Was that a smile from the hunky hippie? She couldn’t really tell because he was moving closer and then the heat of his hand at her shoulder was enough nuke her neurons.

She looked up. And up. And up into his warm, brown eyes.

Change.” He nodded to the pile of cloth at her hip and squeezed her shoulder, the firm pressure reassuring. “I’ll go find a blanket to switch out with yours. Looks like silk. We can hang it to dry.” He didn’t even pull a face or indicate with his voice that he was bothered by the mess. That she’d wrecked his zen palace with her huge clomping snow-covered boots and wet matelessé she’d dragged through the front yards. He just bent down and pulled off the purloined boots and gave each foot a brief rub.

Which was…really nice. She kind of wanted to cry. She also kind of wanted to stick her cold feet back into his big, warm hands and beg him to continue. To linger on her arches, then keep going. It would be so nice to lean back against the soft sheets and slide under his blankets. Or him.

“These will be big, but they’ll warm you up pretty fast.”

“Um, thanks,” she murmured to his retreating back. Clearly she was the only one harboring erotic fantasies about blankets and bare skin and massage oil he distilled from his own chia plants.

She wrestled the socks almost up to her knee. So glam. Oh yes, those would lure him back to bed lickety split. Which was ridiculous. He was a hunk and she was—

She was playing Goldilocks and got caught. She was not here for…whatever else she might have wanted to be here for once she saw him in his pantless glory. Luc was her sister’s neighbor. Carolyn’s kids, and her husband Will, were obsessed with him. There was no way she would ruin that by pouncing on him.  

More than likely they'd dump her, not him, should things get weird. Especially after she'd ruined Caro's fancy bedding.

"Change. Right. Let's get changed." She stroked the smooth fibers of the fabric beside her. It felt like hundred-year-old linen, super luxe, super soft. Was she supposed to wear it like a sarong? A diaper?

Oh flip. A closer examination revealed the fabric was pants. Thin pants in a sustainable fiber that wasn’t synthetic, which meant there was probably no stretch, and Oh, God, why couldn’t you have been merciful and allowed me freeze to death in my panties on his front porch?

Wedging herself into these pants was going to be even more absurd than Goldie wedging herself into the tiny baby bear’s bed.

 

 

They. Fit.

Kind of.

Which was a Christmas miracle considering Luc was all long and lean and ropy muscle and hot and get a grip, Fletcher. He was built with very fine muscles and she…wasn’t. But she could at least hide her muffin top thanks to the lovely, soft throw he’d delivered to her, a polite knock on the open bedroom door before entering.

Now she was huddling on his couch hiding the spillover, and warming up, while he floated around bringing her tea. Another blanket. A towel for her hair she hadn't realized was wet. Yeah, he floated. It was odd. He was so male but so light on his feet. Grounded without being a clod.

Mmm. Yoga did a body good.

He squatted in front of the fireplace and adjusted some controls. She guessed he wasn’t burning fossil fuels willy-nilly and was about to ask how it was powered but he turned around and sat on the hearth. When he crossed his legs, she was distracted by the pale strip of flesh just below the hem of his shorts. A lovely peach that deepened to an even tan. “So what do you do for fun when you’re not out on site?”

He knew what she did? That her sister had talked with this man about her made Sarah feel a little squidgy inside, and so she said the first thing that popped into her mind. “Not yoga.”

She thought he just barely refrained from rolling his eyes. Ha! Take that zen master Luc.

Could she be any more obnoxious? She was beholden to him. For warmth. And, maybe—oh please let him feed her soon—lunch. “It’s not that I have anything against yoga. In fact, I think it’s awesome.”

“But…”

Oh, he was perceptive. “It’s just, the last time I went with Carolyn to her studio here—” She made a face and shrugged her shoulders. “It wasn’t really a class, per se. More like a yoga talent show.

“A what?” His smile flirted with the corners of his eyes and Sarah wondered if she’d ever be cold again.

“Oh, you know. A talent show. These women were all nice and normal and namaste or whatever and then bam! Three legged birds of paradise and I was quietly sweating in child’s pose.”

He could probably do all kinds of freaky shit and never break a sweat. While reading her mind. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Oh, is it lunch time?” Sarah hoped she pulled it off with an insouciant shrug, but she was afraid it came out more like a roar. 

He laughed and stretched up into standing. Oh. She’d call that: hot soldier pose.

“I’ve got some chili on the stove.”

“You should know, I eat meat.”

Luc shook his head and laughed without making a sound. “That’s okay.”

“I’m also not very bendy,” Sarah confessed, apropos of nothing.

“Well, that’s okay, too, considering I just offered you lunch.” He winked at her and her breath contorted itself into some bendy, complicated pose. “Want a beer?”

“You're allowed to drink beer?” She wanted to clap her hand over her mouth.

“Sarah,” he raked a hand through his hair in the most non-composed gesture she’d seen from him. “I'm not in prison. I'm just a vegetarian.”

She wanted to shout I've been living in the jungle with grad students and post docs for a year and I've forgotten how to be female. Or normal. Instead, she just studied her toes. Her toes inside his socks.

“I started yoga when I got permanently benched after a deep muscle tear. Doctor’s orders. And I try to avoid meat because my dad had a massive coronary about ten years ago.”

She felt her mouth form an O and he waved her off.

“It’s cool. It’s not like we’re a different species or anything.” He winked again and Sarah blushed to the roots of her wet hair. “Besides, I can’t do half of that talent show shit either.”

Before she could respond, Luc left the room. She presumed he went into the kitchen as there was some general banging noise. The scent of something hearty and homey. God bless solar power. And Luc, the Hunky Hippie.

She should really stop calling him that. And she should man up and apologize.

“I didn't mean—oh, flip. I’ve been such a jerk. All day. I know I sound so stupid, and I’m not. But when I woke up and everything was dark and it was cold.” She couldn’t just sit here and let him wait on her  anymore. She should at least offer to set the table. Plus, she felt silly apologizing to an empty room.

The hallway that led to the kitchen was bright with winter light. A row of high-set windows turned what could have been dark and awkward into a little jewel box gallery.

“Just down on the right, Sarah.”

It’s like he knew she’d stopped to study his art, as if she could discern his soul via scribbles of earth tones on canvas. “So, yeah,” she continued. “I just kind of freaked out because they lost my luggage and I can't wear my sister's clothes because she’s so skinny even though she’s had three kids. And I didn’t know what I was going to eat for Christmas if they couldn’t get home on time. And I panicked about being so cold and remembered your solar power and Caro’s spare key. So I broke into your house and…”

There was a baby gate across the threshold. A baby gate. She stepped over it, looking around for a wife and toddler she swore Caro had. Never. Mentioned.

She was greeted instead by two wriggling balls of fur and her relief was acute. “You have dogs!”

He laughed at some screwball thing the silver one did in an effort to elbow out the black one in a bid for her complete attention and continued to stir a big stoneware pot on the stove. She watched as he took a taste of the chili, frowned, and reached up to a spice rack.

She gave the dogs one last scruffle and kiss before going to wash her hands. “They're really sweet, Luc.”

“Yeah.” He sprinkled something into the pot, stirred, and snuck another quick taste. “They feel pretty comfortable round here considering I’m a vegetarian and won’t, you know, eat them. Or let my neighbors eat them in the off chance of a Dallas Snowpocalypse.

Oh, this man was as wicked as his grin, and she felt the urge to pop him with the end of the dishtowel.

Luc made some noise and the dogs sat prettily on their haunches. He tossed them something—green beans?—and held out a hand. To her.

“Let me feed you, Sarah."

She put her hand into his and wondered if there was some sacred yoga term for two hands intertwining as one. “Okay.”


If you'd like a copy of this for your eReader, just email me and I'd be happy to send you one.