Chapter I - The Hunted
15 Mar 2012
The woman collapsed face first in the snow. Rough edges on the ice-pack sliced her cheeks and forehead as she hit the ground. Exhausted, her clothes frozen to her skin by the heavy, wet snow, she didn’t dare just lie there. More than anything, she wanted to do just that. She chided herself for not listening to the weather forecast before she went running. She might have at least worn a jacket if she knew the storm was coming. Wincing with pain, she got up on her knees and listened for footsteps behind her. All she heard was sleet settling on silent trees. The storm was changing now as nightfall drew close. Soon, the snow would feel like tiny shards of ice. No animals stirred in the woods. They were too smart to be out in this storm. Her pursuer – The Hunter as she thought of him - persistently followed her every move. He was in no hurry. He knew she couldn’t keep it up much longer. Her long dark hair and lithe build might belie her 58 years thanks to her marathon training but she was getting tired. She had started on this run in the early afternoon but now the deepening shadows of evening marched resolutely toward nightfall. She was losing energy quickly in the frigid air.
Of course, she was no longer sure that she remembered the way to the cabin. It had been years since she vacationed there with her family. She could be way off course. She only had instinct and memory to guide her. All she knew was the deepening snow. Nor did she know what awaited her there. Would she get help from those who had rented the cabin for a family getaway? Or did The Hunter know about the cabin? Was he already there waiting for her? Shaking off the thought, she put one foot in front of the other and kept moving.
Suddenly, she saw a warm flicker about a football field away from her, off to the right. If she kept on her current path, she would move away from the light rather than towards it. Was it the cabin? Was it The Hunter’s searchlight? She had been sure he was behind her but now she wasn’t sure of anything. All she wanted was to get out of this cold night air and into dry clothes. She turned toward the light.
As she moved closer to the cabin, she smelled smoke coming from the chimney. She forced her feet to pick up the pace. Her breaths came in short bursts now, frosty air burning her lungs as she lunged through the knee high snow. Just as she reached the cabin steps, her knee gave out and she fell, hitting her knees heavily on the steps. She tried to rise up, tried to get up the stairs to the door. She fell twice more. Then, just as the door to the cabin opened, she fainted.
A man stood frozen in the doorway, watching. Even for a tall man, he was big. Nearly six feet seven inches tall, 250 pounds, with salt and pepper hair, he looked like a cowboy - but certainly not a boy. His etched face held eyes the color of jasper; hard eyes that raked across the trees and the outline of the camp, searching for someone chasing the woman. He saw nothing. He glanced down every few seconds at the woman lying on his stairs. She hadn’t moved at all since the second time she tried to get up. He stood the rifle he was holding just inside the door’s frame and walked to the edge of the porch. Uneasy, he looked out over the camp once more and then stepped down to pick up the woman. Lifting her easily, his arms cradled her as he would a child. Taking one last look toward the woods, he turned his back, headed into the cabin and kicked the door shut with his boot.
Once inside, the man laid the woman on the couch. He put several more logs on the fire to warm the room. He wanted to take off her wet things so she would warm up faster but instead he covered her with a blanket. She wasn’t moving but at least she was breathing. He wanted to check for injuries but he didn’t want to touch her. The wounds on her face looked superficial. He would wait to clean them. Besides, she was probably just cold and exhausted. She was dressed like a runner. He suspected someone might have been following her even though he hadn’t seen anything or anyone behind her in the woods.
He crossed the room to place the sturdy bar across the door and to make sure the curtains were drawn. He sat down in the only overstuffed chair in the sparsely furnished room and waited. Of course, he had never been very good at the waiting game. He got nervous if he stayed still for too long. Within minutes he rose from his chair and headed for the kitchen. The breakfast bar allowed him to keep an eye on her while he made a light dinner. Besides, he thought, a pot of fresh brewed coffee was probably just the ticket to arouse the sleeping woman. He hoped she was just sleeping. The cabin was far away from town and hospital if she really were seriously injured. She’ll wake up when she smells food, he reminded himself, as he kept busy by chopping onions and peppers for a six egg omelet. He brought out homemade bread from the refrigerator to warm on the counter. As he reached for the butter he kept inside the fridge door, he found himself whistling a haunting tune that he had thought forgotten long ago.
He turned to the breakfast bar to check the couch and frowned. The couch was empty. His eyes darted to the front door to see if she had silently crept back outside. That wouldn’t be her best move, he thought, but then he didn’t know what or who was causing her to run. He moved out of the kitchen into the hallway and looked to the left. The living room was definitely empty. He looked to his right toward the bedrooms and bathroom. The door to the guest bathroom slowly closed. Strange, he thought. How did she know where the bathroom was? Why hadn’t she said hello or asked him who he was? He shrugged his shoulders and went back into the kitchen. All in due time, he said to himself. No rush.
In the bathroom, the woman cleaned the blood off her face and inspected the cuts. Nothing requiring stitches, thank God, she thought. She had no clean clothes to change into and after all that running she was sure that she didn’t smell too good. Her clothes were still wet. She noticed a bathrobe on the back of the door that looked like it would fit her and towels were on the shelves by the shower. She decided a shower was just what she needed.
Back in the kitchen, the man heard the shower running and shook his head. She was a strange one all right. He found himself wondering what his jeans and t-shirts would look like on her and he smiled. One of his t-shirts would probably be an ankle length dress on her. He laid out dishes and silverware for two on the breakfast bar. He poured orange juice into two glasses and then set the pot of fresh coffee in the center of the bar. He sat down to wait for her. No sense in making the omelet until she came out of the shower. He poured himself a cup of dark, rich coffee.
In a few minutes, the shower stopped. Five minutes after that, he heard footsteps in the hallway. He watched as she came into view. She was maybe late 50’s and very attractive. The woman wore a towel wrapped around her head like a turban. She wore his guest bathrobe like it was made for her. He cocked his head to the side and smiled at her. About a month ago, he had bought the female size bathrobe at the same time that he bought his own. They were a matched set and on sale at the time so he figured why not? He hadn’t really expected anyone to use it but it made the extra bathroom look more like a guest bath and not like he lived completely alone. Now he wondered if fate had had a hand in that decision.
“Hello”, the woman’s voice sounded husky from breathing the cold air, he supposed. “Thank you for taking me in”, she said, fussing with the turban while she talked. “I guess I owe you an explanation”.
“Name would be nice”, he said. “Cole.” He put out his hand to her. She smiled sheepishly and took his hand. It was a workingman’s hand, rancher maybe. He covered her hand in both of his. His handshake was strong and confident and – very masculine. “My name is Shannon. Pleased to meet you, Cole.” She was surprised to hear her voice sound so steady. “You wouldn’t have any clothes I can change into, would you? Mine are pretty awful.”
He shook his head as he dropped her hand and got up from the bar. “No, ma’am.” She was afraid of that. She’d have to get back into her dirty clothes. “Eggs?” He asked. She nodded her head and smiled. “That would be wonderful”. Cole walked into the kitchen and started the omelet. Shannon slipped into Cole’s seat at the bar and poured some coffee into a mug. She watched Cole as he cooked. She guessed his age at around hers, maybe a few years older. He must live alone, she thought. He knows his way around the kitchen too well. She sat quietly trying to decide how much she should tell him about her situation. Cole was entitled to some kind of explanation for saving her. She shivered. She wondered if he would let her stay the night and dry her clothes by the fire. She smiled a thin smile up at Cole as he divided the omelet between their two dishes and set her dish in front of her.
“I’ve been here before”, Shannon said as a way of introduction. Cole nodded slowly and shrugged his shoulders but didn’t say anything. He just buttered a thick piece of that homemade bread. “I mean, I’ve been in this cabin before. My Granddad built this place with his sons many years ago. Our family spent many happy times here. My Dad, uncles, and Granddad used to hunt these woods.” She looked at Cole. He took a sip of his coffee but didn’t say a word. “It’s been many years since I was here last. When Granddad died, he left the cabin to my Dad. When Dad died, it came to me. My rental agent leases it to people for me.” She waited to see what he would say. Cole just kept eating his eggs. “Look, I apologize for breaking into your peace and quiet like this. It was an emergency.” Again, she heard no response from Cole. “You gonna say anything at all?”
“Listenin’.” Cole said. This time he fixed his striking eyes on hers. “Who’s out there?” He asked and waited for her to squirm.
“I honestly don’t know”, she said. “I started my usual run around 12:30.” When he raised his thick, dark eyebrows at her, she said, “That’s late for me but I didn’t want to miss the run altogether so I started late. I always run in this general direction but don’t usually come this far. The cabin’s about 20K from where I get onto the trails. I train to run 10-15K races. So I usually run 5K out and 5K back. Anyway, after about an hour, I noticed that someone was on the trail with me…always staying just out of sight. I could hear him breathing. I heard twigs breaking. When I stopped for breaks, he stopped…that sort of thing.” Cole listened intently, watching her. “At first, there were other people on the trails so I wasn’t concerned. The farther away I ran from the well-traveled parts of the trail, the creepier it seemed. I tried to lose him. I sped up and tried to take different paths to lose him. I tried to slow down to see if I could see him or if he would pass me. Before I knew it, I was on the way to the cabin. It was getting dark and I was tired. It was snowing, and then sleeting. I saw the light from the cabin. And that’s the story.” She ended lamely.
“Why?” Cole asked. When she looked at him, puzzled, he said, “Why you?” She shrugged that she didn’t know. “Who?” This time his tone was demanding. She shook her head unhappily. “I swear I don’t know”, she said. “I figured he was just some creep.”
It was Cole’s turn to shake his head. “Not that long”, he said.
“I don’t understand”, Shannon said. “What’s not that long?”
“No rapist or mugger is gonna chase a target that long – and not try to get close”. He watched her face as the word target sunk in. “You a professional?”
“What? Oh, no. I run for a hobby, I guess you’d say. I’m a professional photographer.” Shannon pulled the bathrobe closer around her. She was getting cold now that her warm shower was wearing off and she was beginning to feel very vulnerable, very aware that she was naked under the robe.
‘What kind of pictures?” For somebody who didn’t say two words a few minutes ago, he was asking a lot of questions now, Shannon thought to herself, miserably.
“I freelance. Sometimes I do magazine work…sometimes weddings…different things.”
Cole saw how uncomfortable Shannon was and gently covered her tiny right hand in his. “Tough to make a living that way”, he said. He sat for a moment, looking at her hand. Then he started rubbing his thumb over the base of her thumb. She felt the heat rising within her. She knew her neck was turning red. Soon her face would be beet red. She wanted to pull her hand away and run. But she didn’t. She just sat there, trying to breathe. You’re behaving like a schoolgirl she told herself. This isn’t the first man you’ve ever talked to you, you fool.
Meanwhile, Cole was looking at his hand rubbing hers. “I manage.” Shannon squeaked out in a very little girl voice. Cole nodded his head and looked up at her red face and smiled. Shannon finally found the courage to meet his gaze. She drew in her breath at what she saw there. His eyes were the most beautiful shade of green, and they were laughing at her now. But there was something else, too: an edginess that told her he could be firm, even dangerous. She wasn’t sure whether she should be afraid or not.
Suddenly, Cole dropped her hand and sat back in his chair. “Well, I’m sure you are exhausted after all that running. Now that you’ve showered and eaten a little something, you probably want to rest. You are welcome to the guest bedroom for a good night’s sleep. The guest room has plenty of blankets and pillows to keep you warm. I’m going to lock up. I’m sure no one will bother us anymore tonight. We’ll talk more in the morning and try to sort this out.”
She smiled gratefully and pulled the bathrobe even tighter. Cole saw her discomfort and said, “Look, I don’t have anything that will fit you but I do have a flannel nightshirt that would at least keep you covered so you’re not so…exposed…to the cold, I mean. I’m sure it will go right down to your ankles. And I have warm wool socks that will be like knee socks on you.” He hesitated and then said, “And if you want to rinse out your – um- things - you can hang them by the fire and by morning they’ll be toasty.”
“Thanks. I would like that.” Inwardly, she groaned. Like her underclothes toasty? What was the matter with her? “ The nightshirt and socks I mean. I would appreciate that.”
“Sure. I’ll get them.” He turned and walked down the hallway to the master bedroom. Shannon waited for him to come back instead of following him into the hallway. She hopped from one foot to another. Her feet were freezing on the cold, hardwood floors. She would be grateful for the wool socks.
Cole came back to the breakfast bar and handed her the socks and nightshirt. She smiled at him wanly, said her thanks and went down the hall to the guest room. Cole poked the fire back to life and then sat in the chair by the fire, thinking while he pulled smoke from a pipe. He smiled when he heard Shannon turn the lock to the guest room door. At least she has some caution in her, he thought. He leaned his head back against the back of the chair. It had been a long time since he had a woman in his home. It’s kinda nice, he thought. Closing his eyes, he listened to the crackling fire.
[to be continued]