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Icy rain pounded the windshield then fell away like tiny diamonds from a broken necklace.
"It never sleets in South Louisiana!"
Goldie Rios hit her hand on the steering wheel of her compact vehicle, wondering how a perfectly good Saturday in early December had gone from a day of Christmas shopping and a late dinner to driving down this dark, deserted road all by herself.
Nervous and tired, she grabbed the locket she always wore, clutching it briefly with one hand before taking the wheel of the car back with a tight grip. Oh, yes. She remembered with belated bitterness how her day had gone from bad to worse. She'd just dumped another loser of a boyfriend, and right in the middle of a swanky uptown restaurant at the mall near Baton Rouge. The whole place had gone silent, the only sound Goldie's seething response to Loser Number Five's whining excuses for being seen with another woman one hour before he'd met Goldie for dinner.
The woman was not his sister, his mother, his aunt or his niece. And Goldie was pretty sure she wasn't his grandmother, either, since the cute blonde clung to him in a way that bespoke intimacy rather than family bonds.
She should have listened to her friend Carla— before Carla called her from the other end of the mall and told her to casually walk by the pet store. She'd warned Goldie that this one was too smooth, too confident and too good-looking, but Goldie wasn't good at listening to other people's advice. Carla was right. He was in the pet store, buying a cuddly Chihuahua while he cuddled the cute blonde.
Goldie watched, horrified and hurt, from behind the Gingerbread House at Santa Claus Lane, while the man she'dbeen dating for six months kissed another woman. And bought her a dog. He'd never once offered to buy Goldie a dog. In fact, he'd told her he was highly allergic to animals. So after waiting for him to meet her for dinner, Goldie smiled, chatted with him, ordered spaghetti and meatballs and then "accidentally" dumped half her meal onto his lap before telling him that they were finished. It was a standard metaphoric mode of dumping a boyfriend, but now she understood why a lot of women took this route. It made a statement to the world and it made her feel good.
Or at least it had until she'd left the mall in tears.
After driving for an hour in rain that turned to sleet, she'd realized she'd somehow missed the main exit to Viola, Louisiana. Now she was trying to get home through the back way. Bad idea on a night like this and considering she wasn't all that familiar with the roads around here. If she hadn't been so depressed and distracted, she might have thought long and hard about the sanity of taking this remote shortcut. Too late now.
Easing the little car along, Goldie sent up a prayer for safe travels while the radio personality announced yet another road closing due to icy conditions.
"If you're inside, stay there," the perky broadcaster advised. "If you're traveling, stay on the main roads."
Goldie sputtered a reply. "You don't say."
She was not on a main road. And the sleet was getting heavier while the temperature was dipping below freezing. Soon these roads would be slick with ice. Her cell phone rang but since she had both hands glued to the steering wheel and the service out here was questionable at best, Goldie ignored it. Probably Carla calling for details about the breakup. Or maybe Grammy wondering why she wasn't home yet. But she didn't dare talk on the phone and drive in this mess at the same time.
Goldie listened as the "Jingle Bells" ring tone died down, her eyes misting as a wave of loneliness hit her square in her soul. "I guess I'll be alone again this Christmas," she said out loud just to hear herself talking.
No puppy dog for her. And no more snuggling or cuddling with Number Five, either. Five losers in five years. Could her life get any worse? She'd been making the same old mistakes with men since she'd graduated from college and worked in Baton Rouge. Now she'd just have to focus on doing her weekly column on being organized long-distance from Viola while she stayed with her recuperating grandmother through the holidays. In spite of coming here to help Grammy and in hopes of finding some true meaning in her life, Goldie was as confused as ever. Some advice columnist she was. How could she tell other people how to stay focused and organized when she couldn't even keep a man? When would she find what she was looking for—that perfect fit in a relationship?
And why did that matter so much, anyway? She'd never been one to chase after the dream of marriage and family the way some of her single friends did. By Goldie's way of thinking, relationships were highly overrated. So why did she keep dating the wrong men? Maybe so she could break up with them and prove her theory? And keep her heart safe in the process?
She held to the steering wheel as she came to a curve, the trees crouching across the road causing her to lose sight of the asphalt. And that's when she hit the patch of slick black ice. The car lurched then shimmied before suddenly changing direction. Screaming, Goldie tried to remember how to steer into the skid, but it was too late. Her car kept slipping and sliding until it went into a careening, screeching turnaround. She looked up, her scream now locked inside her throat, as the car headed right toward the wide trunk of an ancient cypress tree.
The alligator was cooperating. The humans all around the eight-foot reptile, however, were not.
"I want him gone, Rory."
"Me, too. I can't sleep at night, knowing that creature is hibernating right here at my dock. Rory, can you just take him outta here?"
Rory Branagan shivered in his waterproof work boots and his insulated raincoat. His gaze moved from the sedate alligator buried in a self-made bunker of water and mud near the bank to the couple standing in the icy wind. In the yellow glow from the security light, he could see the fear in the couple's eyes. "I understand, Mr. Johnson. But this gator is just doing what alligators do in winter. He's hunkering down for a good long rest."
Alfred Johnson kicked his cowboy boots into the sleet-covered grass near the shallow pond behind his house. "His snout is sticking up out of the water. 'Bout scared my poor wife to death. He coulda grabbed little DeeDee and ate her whole."
"He's not that hungry right now, sir," Rory observed, shaking his head. "And your poodle shouldn't be out here near the water anyway." At least not on a night like this one. And surely these nice people knew that if they lived on a bayou, they were bound to see alligators.
"Good thing I was holding tight to DeeDee," Mrs. Johnson stated, completely ignoring Rory's advice. "Now, it's too cold and wet out here to be arguing. Are you gonna rustle this thing outta here and get him away from my family?"
Rory looked down at the big leathery snout sticking out of the water, thinking Marge Johnson might be petite but she was fiercely protective of the things she loved. That included her family and that barking pile of white fur she called DeeDee. Well, he couldn't blame the woman.
"I think this one here was ‘icing' his snout because of the sleet and this frigid water, Mrs. Johnson. He probably wouldn't hurt you as cold as it is out here, since he's not interested in food right now. But if this weather clears and we get some warmer days after Christmas, he could pose a problem."
"So get him," Mr. Johnson instructed, his tone as sharp as the crystals of sleet hitting Rory's broad-brimmed rain hat. "I don't want that gator showing up for Christmas dinner later this month."
"And I don't want him around my grandbabies," Marge insisted, shaking her head, her hair so stiff with hair spray Rory could see tiny ice particles shimmering like a crown on her head. "We've got kids coming home for the holidays and I've got too much to do. I can't be worried about my grandchildren out here by the water."
Rory nodded, steeled himself against a messy job and thought it was nights such as this that made him wish he was in another line of work. But his job as a nuisance hunter for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries paid the bills. And he loved his work on most days. This wasn't a typical day in Louisiana, though. It rarely got this nasty around these parts during the winter. But the sleet was getting heavier by the minute. The forecast for the next couple of days didn't look promising. A rare but sure ice storm was coming, whether Rory liked it or not.
And that old gator was getting real cozy in his nice little cave here on the shore of Mr. Johnson's shallow, marshy pond. If Rory didn't help the poor creature, Mr. Johnson might take matters into his own hands and just shoot the reptile. Rory's conscience couldn't allow that to happen. Nor could his job with the state.
"I'll see what I can do," Rory told Mr. Johnson. "Let me just go to my truck and get my equipment."
"Fair enough," Mr. Johnson replied, satisfied for now at least. "Go on inside, Marge. You're shivering in your wader boots out here, honey."
Rory stomped up the slope toward the driveway, listening to Marge's concerned questions as her husband guided her back to the house. His vibrating cell phone made him stop at the back of the truck.
"What's wrong?" Rory asked into the phone. The call was from his house and that meant trouble. Having two boys ages six and ten with no mother always meant trouble.
"It's all right."
As always, his mother's voice was calm and firm. "Mom, are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I just wanted you to know that we're headed over to my house. The boys were getting bored waiting on you and I need to get home anyway to bake cookies for the youth Christmas party at church this Tuesday. Now I have two eager helpers. We're going to make some with cinnamon and sprinkles and lots of icing. That's where we'll be. I offered to let them spend the night but they wanted to be home with you in case this sleet turns to snow. Something about making a gigantic snowman first thing in the morning. You can pick them up when you're done."
Rory smiled at his sons' high hopes. "Are you sure you can make it back in this weather?"
"Rory, I've lived on Branagan Road for over thirty-five years. I think I can drive the mile from your house to mine, son."
"Of course you can." His mother didn't take any bunk and she sure didn't listen to anyone's advice. And that was one of the main reasons Rory loved her.
"Don't worry so much," Frances Branagan declared. "Now let me get on home before it does get worse."
"Thanks," Rory said, appreciation coursing through his chilled bones. "You're my favorite mom, you know that?"
"I love you, too. Be safe."
He hung up, spoke a prayer of gratitude for his dear patient mother and then set about figuring how to wrestle the unfortunate alligator snoozing down in the pond.
Goldie's feet were cold. She sputtered awake, then groaned as she glanced around. She was in her car, in the dark, on an unfamiliar road. And her head hurt with all the viciousness of two fencers slicing each other to the death, the clanging and banging of her pulse tearing through her temple with each beat of her heart.
She'd wrecked her car. In the ice storm!
Moaning, she pushed at the air bag surrounding her, glad that it had at least saved her from going through the windshield. Then she touched a hand to her head. It was wet and sticky with blood. Weak and disoriented, she groped for the seat belt then after slipping it loose, moaned again when the restraint lifted from her bruised midsection. Automatically reaching for her locket, she clutched it tight. She had to find her phone and call for help.
Her phone, which earlier had been in the seat with her purse, was nowhere to be found now. And she was too dizzy to go digging under the seat.
What should she do? She had to call someone. With great effort, she tried to open the door. After what seemed like hours, the door cringed ajar and a blast of arctic air flowed over Goldie's hot skin. Taking in the crunched front end of her car, she held on to the door as light-headedness washed over her again. She managed to stand, to find her purse. But the phone was lost in the recesses of her shopping bags, notebooks and laptop case. And even if she could find it, she probably wouldn't have very good service.
Goldie gave up on the search and, still woozy and confused, stood and glanced around the woods. She saw a light flickering through the trees.
"A house," she whispered, her prayers raw in her throat. "Maybe someone can help me."
Without giving it much thought other than to find warmth and aid, she slowly made her way along the icy road, her purse clutched to her chest, her head screaming a protest of swirling pain. It was the longest trek of her life and none of the walk made any sense to Goldie. Her brain was fuzzy and her pulse was on fire with a radiating pain. All she could think about was getting out of this freezing sleet.
"Must have a concussion," she voiced to the wind.
When she finally made it to the front door of the house, she was cold, wet and numb with shock. But she knocked and fell against the cool wood, her prayers too hard to voice.
No one came to the door.