“Happy New Year, Val,” Val Fielding said to herself as she lifted her glass of champagne to her lips. She sipped from her glass, feeling the bubbles tickle her nose, and watched the wind blowing tree branches against the window. The darkness outside was consuming and neither the fire she’d lit in the fireplace nor the old quilt she’s wrapped around herself did anything to stop the cold air from seeping into her bones.
She glanced down at the labarador sitting at her slippered feet. He gazed up at her so affectionately that she chuckled and rubbed the top of his head. “And Happy New Year to you, Dexter.”
She thought of her solitude and it reminded her of her mother who had spent many New Year’s Eves alone while her father, a doctor, was on call. She’d put on a cheery face, but Val and her sister knew the truth. Her mother had been terribly lonely. Val knew her loneliness tonight was different. She’d chosen this solitude, broken only by the scratching of branches against glass and the crackle and pop of a log in the fireplace. Besides, her life would be too full for relationships for a long time.
She continued to stroke Dexter’s fur, but her gaze moved around the room lit only by the firelight. It was a good room, she decided. One she would spend a lot of time in over the years. It needed work--the old wallpaper was peeling and faded, and the wood floor she’d glimpsed under the carpet would need lots of polishing. She imagined shelves filled with books and collectibles on either side of the fireplace, whose soot had collected over the years to turn the surrounding brick a dirty black.
“One year. Think I can do it?” She glanced back down at Dexter and swore he gave her an encouraging nod. Maybe that was the champagne. She drained the glass. “I know, I know. Now’s not the time to ask that question.”
She would simply forge ahead and try her best to stick to both her timetable and her budget. She had one year to turn the old, run-down Victorian into Bluebonnet Creek’s newest bed and breakfast and then one more to turn a profit. Giving in to thoughts of failure served no purpose.
The chill in the room reminded her that come January 2 she would need to contact a local electrician, gas man and the plumber to come out and have a look at the various systems and pipes and wires. She wanted all of that in working order before she started her first project. Beside her on a stack of boxes that currently served as her desk was a notepad, already filled with lists and plans and sketches. It didn’t overwhelm her to look at it; it made her anxious to get started. She loved a challenge, she loved do-it-yourself projects and she loved her dream.
The knock on the door sounded so suddenly and loudly that she bolted forward in her seat even as Dexter scrambled to his feet and gave a low growl. “Good grief! Who could be at the door at this hour?” Dexter, as well-trained as he was, held his ground. She patted him. “Come on, Dexter. Let’s see who our first guest of the year is.”
She left the parlor and moved carefully down the dark hall to the front door. Through the textured stained glass she could see the outline of a person in the light of the streetlamp outside.
The person, unable to see her in the dark hallway, pounded again. “Andy! Andy, are you in there?”
Val hesitated. He was looking for Andy and that had to be Andrew McFee, a former high school classmate of hers as well as the previous owner.
She stepped closer to the door. “Andy McFee doesn’t live here anymore!” She called out, still a good three feet away.
She heard a muffled curse.
“I’m an old friend and I’m in a jam. Can I come in and borrow a phone?”
Val frowned. What decade was this guy from? Women didn’t let strangers into their houses in the dark of night. “I don’t think so. Why don’t I call the police and they can come over and help you?”
“Fine, do that. But I’m bleeding and I need more immediate help than that.”
Val stepped close enough to press an eye to one clear inch of glass in the design. The man seemed to know it was there and leaned down so she could see the gash on his forehead.
“Good Lord.” She looked down at Dexter. “You be ready for anything, boy.”
Dexter stood silent at her side, but she could feel his rigid alertness. He would defend her with his life, she knew. She took a deep breath and then unlocked the door.
The chill cut through her quilt and blew through the entry way when the wind whipped the door out of her hand and flung it against the wall. The man stumbled inside, then grabbed the door and slammed it shut. He locked it and then turned toward her, holding his hand to his head. Vivid blue eyes looked at her intently, then widened in recoginition. She felt hers grow larger, too.
“I need a towel, fast. And a first aid kit if you have one.”
She nodded and turned to run for both. Then she stopped and looked at Dexter who stood staring at the man. “Stay, Dexter. Watch’ em.” Certain the dog would obey with his unflinching loyalty, she ran back to the kitchen and flipped on the light. There was a stack of old clean towels ready to serve as rags, and she grabbed one as well as the plastic first aid box by the sink and dashed back to the front door. She needn’t had worried about the danger of the man. He’d sunk down to the floor and sat slumped against the door, eyes closed. Dexter remained standing in the same position she’d left him.
“Here,” she held the towel out to him.
He opened his eyes, saw the towel and took it. She placed the first aid kit on the floor beside him while he held the towel to his head. “Did you call the police yet?” he asked.
“No, but I think you need an ambulance instead.”
“Yeah, I would have to agree,” he said weakly.
She ran back to the kitchen and picked up the phone. She started pressing numbers before she realized there was no dial tone. She checked again. It’d been working fine earlier when her parents had called to wish her happy new year.
“The storm must have taken out the phone lines,” she told him as she went back to the hall, trying to think what she should do for him. He was trying to hold the towel to his head with onehand and unwrap a large bandage with the other. She took the bandage and did it for him.
She winced. She’d given that up in her budget planning for the bed and breakfast. It was no longer a necessity for her. “Sorry. How about you? Do you have one on you that I can use or a maybe you left it in your car, assuming you have a car?”
He shook his head, even as he tied the bandage tightly over the wound. “It’s dead. I forgot to charge it before I left Houston.” He looked up at her. “My car, I’m afraid, is part of your fence.”
Val felt her jaw fell open. She stepped into the front dining room where she could see the street from the window. Sure enough, there sat an old green Volvo, halfway in her yard, her fence smashed to pieces around it. She must not have heard it over the noise of the wind. She frowned and went back to the hall.
“Are you drunk?”
He was struggling to stand up and she hurried to his side to help him. His coat hung open and she could feel his warmth, even as she became alarmingly aware of his size. Though he seemed to be fit, he wasn’t overly huge, but he was big enough to do whatever harm he wanted to do to her. As soon as he was on his feet she stepped away again.
“No, I’m not drunk, just very tired. Don’t worry about the fence. My insurance will cover it. Do you have some place warm I can sit, maybe some tea or something?”
At least he had auto insurance. Val nodded and gestured to the parlor. “There’s a fire in that room. I’ll get some water boiling.”
“Thanks.” He looked at her steadily, the bandage safely in place. He was as handsome as she remembered, tall with dark brown hair and serious blue eyes, and as he held her gaze, she felt her heart skip a beat. “I appreciate your kindness. It’s been a very long day for me. Val, right? Val Fielding?.”
“That’s me. And you’re Matt Schaffer, aren’t you?”
“Go sit down and get warm and I’ll make the tea. Then we can swap stories and figure out what to do.”
He nodded and began walking gingerly down the hallway. Dexter followed him, but she knew the dog well enough to know he’d relaxed and no longer felt threatened. He was a good dog though and would keep an eye on the stranger. Though Matt wasn’t really a stranger to her. They’d gone to high school together and even had mutual friends, but it had been years since she’d seen him.
In the kitchen she set about digging for the supplies she’d need for tea. Having dumped her last box into her new home a few short hours earlier, she hadn’t had a chance to unpack more than a box of plastic utensils to eat her takeout salad. Now she found everything, got the water boiling and even managed to find a couple of unused packets of Splenda left over from lunchtime tea. She stood for a moment, waiting for the water to boil, thinking about the man in her parlor. Matt had been so full of life when they were younger. She remembered watching him , amazed at his silly antics when she knew him to be one of the smartest students in their class—almost as smart as her. Now he seemed so serious. Of course, he’d just run his car through her fence and had a gash in his head. With the water poured over a teabag in a mug, she returned to the parlor.
Matt was sitting in her chair by the fire, leaning close to it with his hands out in the classic position to get warm. He looked up and tried to stand when she came in. She suddenly remembered that about him, that he’d always had nice manners and stood every time she entererd a room.
“Sit, sit,” she scolded anyway and handed him the steaming mug. He cupped it in his hands, soaking the warmth through his skin.
“Thanks. So you just moved in? What happened to Andy?”
She sat down on an ottoman a few feet away. “I guess you know he inherited the place from his grandparents. I was here at the right time when he decided it was too much for him and wanted out.”
He nodded, digesting that.
“So, what happened to you tonight?”
“I was in the process of moving to town myself,” he said as he finally set the hot cup down on the floor by his feet. “I’m supposed to start work on the second. I have a rental house I was on my way to when I crashed into your yard.”
“I didn’t realize the storm had produced any ice.”
“It didn’t. I fell asleep.” He shook his head. “I should know better, but I wanted to get into town. I’d worked a fourteen hour shift and I was dead tired.”
“What do you do?”
He touched the bandage and then his fingers, as if checking for blood. “I’m a doctor, and Bluebonnet Creek’s newest. And I think I owe you a free check up.”
She felt a flutter in her belly at the thought of Matt Schaffer looking her over.
Damn, he had to be a doctor.
“Did I interrupt something?” He gestured to her champagne glass and the bottle sitting on the boxes beside her chair.
She felt her face heat and was glad for the simple firelight that hid her embarrassment. “Oh, just ringing in the new year. Me and Dexter.”
He smiled down at the dog whose tail slapped the floor when he reached out to pet him. “Sounds nice. Just about all I would have energy for myself.”
“Want a glass?”
He smiled. “Sure. That’d be great.”
She returned to the kitchen to dig out a second glass and, back in the parlor, poured for him and topped off her own. He took it from her and lifted his glass to gently clink it against hers. “Well, Val, I sure kicked the year off with a bang. Should be an interesting one. To old friends. Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year, Matt.” And somehow she sensed that “interesting” wouldn’t even begin to describe it.
Read Chapter 2~February
Read Chapter 3 ~ March
Read Chapter 4 ~ April
Read Chapter 5 ~ May
Read Chapter 6 ~ June
Read Chapter 7 ~ July
Read Chapter 8 ~ August
Read Chapter 9 ~ September
Read Chapter 10 ~ October
Read Chapter 11 ~ November
Read Chapter 12 ~ December