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"Don't worry, folks." Puffing steam clouds, the elderly stable man draped a heavy robe over the sleigh passengers. "You can't miss the house, and old Chanda won't let you get lost. He knows the way home to his oats like the back of his hoof."
"Then all I have to do is keep the reins out of the snow." A smile of relief softened the long, angular planes of Rey Brodie's face. "I think I can handle that."
Beside him Kama Roxbury grinned, amused by her associate's hint of insecurity. In the six months since she'd joined Morrow, Morrow, Emerson and Padgett, or The Firm, Rey's classy aura of confidence had given her the impression he could handle anything. Of course he'd been practicing law for years, whereas she was still a fledgling.
The stable man pointed to a set of tracks leading across the otherwise unmarked white Vermont countryside. "Just follow that trail. Chanda will take you where you need to go." Adding, "Off you go," he slapped the polished rump of the impatient bay horse.
Obviously eager for the warmth of motion, Chanda tossed his head and pawed the snow. Rey cautiously loosened his grip on the reins. Gathering himself, the horse leaned into his jangling harness and stepped forward, gracefully picking up his stride to a leggy trot. The runners of the little sleigh squeaked over dry virgin snow as they sailed from the inn yard toward a faintly indented lane in a field to the east.
Sleigh bells sprinkled the frosty morning with the music of centuries gone by. A redbird swooped across their path and disappeared. Enchanted, Kama clasped her hands in her lap and squinted into the bright sunshine. It had been cloudy when theyleft Montpelier yesterday, and neither she nor Rey had thought to pack sunglasses for their overnight trip to The Granite Fork inn. They'd spent the afternoon and evening taking depositions from the inn employees, bolstering the owner's defense against an exorbitant claim for damages by a former guest. The plane back to Montpelier didn't leave till mid-afternoon, and the inn owner, Jerry Baxter, had offered them the sleigh to view a neighboring farm house, extravagantly decorated for the holidays.
If she'd known about The Granite Fork months ago, Kama would've made reservations to stay here over Christmas. Since purchasing her Grand Cherokee she couldn't justify the airfare for a two-day visit to her family in San Diego. No one had warned her that if you wanted to leave the curb in a Vermont winter, you'd better be driving a SUV.
"Dollar for your thoughts," Rey said. "Can't get the good stuff for a penny anymore."
Before she could reply one of the runners hit a snow-covered rock, bouncing the sleigh and its passengers high, then tilting precariously before righting itself.
Rey drew on the reins. "Why the hell did I let myself get talked into this?" he muttered. "Chanda, watch where you're going!"
Forced to slow his gait, Chanda tossed his head, clearly contemptuous of being held in by such amateurish hands.
They'd been in no danger, and Kama couldn't help needling her driver. "I've never known you to tremble at a challenge," she said slyly. "Here you've dragged me along on a job that's virtually a paid vacation. And just last week I heard you volunteered to research a work comp claim involving a topless bartender."
A tight grin lifted the corner of Rey's profiled mouth, although he kept his gaze fixed on the trail ahead. "You seem well informed. Are you also aware of an action that could lead to the discovery of a certain female attorney after the spring thaw?"
"Hmmm... considering how far we are from the inn, I suppose I could let myself be a little intimidated."
"Good," he said, smirking. "I like a woman who knows her place."
"Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins," she retorted, and took a deep sniff of the December air. Well below freezing, it was more than invigorating, and Chanda's brisk pace sent it zinging over her nose and cheeks. The sun, brilliant in a pristine blue sky, supplied no appreciable warmth. She tucked the robe closer about her hips and snuggled deeper into her down filled parka.
Smoke rose from the chimneys of farmhouses in the distance and fence posts outlined the fields, but the only 'human' sign was the trail -- a trough, actually -- that disappeared and reappeared in the rolling foothills of the Green Mountains.
Rey's growing confidence in his horsemanship soon permitted him to relax the reins and allow the spirited Chanda to set his own pace. "It looks," he said with a self-mocking smile, "as if I'm a natural horseman."
"That's a centaur."
"Smart a--" he caught himself "--as a whip today, aren't you?"
She laughed and indicated Chanda, "Anyway, I'm glad one of us is experienced. I just hope it's enough to keep us out of the drifts." The snow was considerably deeper here in the valleys of the undulating fields than in the more level areas near the inn.
"If you hadn't suggested a run in this white stuff," Rey offered, "we could be lazing in a warm lounge now, waiting for lunch."
"And miss this calendar-picture opportunity?"
"I guess not," he admitted. "It's my martyr act, perfected as a kid brother of a rampaging jock. Although," he continued smoothly, "a tumble in the snow might be stimulating. What'd ya think?"
"I think big brother's tutoring wasn't wasted." She grinned; she missed such bantering with her brothers. "You could be right, depending on the depth of the drift, and Chanda's discretion."
"Huh. You've hidden that wantonness well since invading The Firm."
"Wrong. I'm just a tomboy at heart."
"Sure. I remember you in a red suit and lace blouse at the Padgett Thanksgiving bash. 'Tomboy' isn't a word that comes to mind."
Warmth rushed to Kama's cold cheeks. "Was it too much? From a man's point of view?"
"Not for me!" Rey switched the reins to his left hand and patted the robe in the vicinity of her knee with his right. "And the only comments I heard were complimentary, so you can stop twitching."
If only it were that easy!
"You men are lucky. All you have to do is shower and put on a dark suit. It's tricky for a woman, especially when it's her first big event at the home of one of the partners. I wasn't sure whom to ask--" she'd almost said 'trust,' "--for advice."
Then, dismayed that she'd revealed so much, she fell silent. No matter how many layers of sophistication she acquired in the future, would she ever overcome the social insecurity founded in her childhood? While observant and quick to learn, she'd sprung from a blue collar family, and in this one respect, she envied those to the manor born.
Neither she nor Rey spoke for several minutes, and aside from the jingling and huffing sounds of Chanda and the whispering runners, the quiet was absolute. They might've been skimming across the surface of an uninhabited frozen planet.
Kama's anxious question and comment surprised Rey. Since she'd joined The Firm, fresh out of law school and concentrating on real estate, she'd appeared cool and poised, except for a rare glimpse of tart humor. Complimented that she felt comfortable enough with him to show another facet of herself, he sneaked a sideways peek at her. Under different circumstances, he wouldn't mind exploring some of Ms Roxbury's other facets.
Her wide, light gray eyes reminded him of smoke against a winter-white sky, not always revealing what was happening behind them. The ability to mask one's thoughts was a requisite in their profession, but was her talent for it inborn, or acquired? As if to rebut such mystery, short dark curls escaping from her hood had the fresh, springy naturalness of a gamin. Which was fine with him; whoever'd invented hair spray ought to be permanently lacquered.
He sighed, almost sensing her curvy lips blossoming beneath his own. If it weren't for The Firm's ironclad prohibition against intra-fraternization, he'd use this intimate setting to probe that elegant reserve.
Instead he pulled his knit cap lower on his forehead and said, "Are you warm enough?"
"Yes, but just barely. Is it my imagination, or is it getting colder?"
He lifted his arm in unspoken invitation. She moved closer, and he dropped it about her shoulders.
"It's a good thing no one from The Firm can see us," she said. "But my thirtieth birthday is tomorrow, and right now I appreciate a little gallantry."
It was true, she dreaded crossing the decade line. Even though the silly, sexist idea of spinsterhood didn't exist anymore, except in archaic legalese, her very traditional family never let her forget that while she might be getting better, she was also getting older. As if her brothers hadn't already supplied their parents with enough grandchildren to raise several roofs!
"You'll get used to it," Rey said. "Remember when you visited The Firm last spring, some ghoul hid false teeth in my hoagie? That was my thirtieth, but my starchy upper lip never quivered."
"What about the tears I saw in your eyes?"
"I told you--" Rey slapped the reins lightly against Chanda's rump for effect, "I was allergic to the new hand soap."
"I'll remember that if the hoagie monster strikes again." She settled her cheek into the amiable space between Rey's smooth-shaven jaw and the collar of his duffle coat. "Umm, this old-fashioned bundling is nice. It's been a long time since I've had this much leisure in one lump sum."
"Yep. We'll never make our first million with this kind of sloth."
It really was turning colder. Kama wriggled closer. Sniffling, she fished in her pocket for tissues and passed one to Rey.
Through her lashes she studied his lean, regular features. It was a civilized face, neither outstanding nor bland. His dark, level eyebrows and straight lashes shadowed eyes the color of twilight. She'd seen them sparkle with fun, and also turn cold as Vermont granite when impaling a hostile corporate witness. On the surface at least, his personality was a complex blend of courtesy, rationality, humor and latent warmth. From a professional standpoint, she'd add relentless pragmatism to the mix.
Smiling, she closed her eyes in momentary speculation. What would happen if she tried vamping him out here in this frozen wonderland, under the vast blue sky and a wool robe smelling faintly of horse?
It was pure fantasy, of course. They'd both worked too hard to gain a toehold in the highly regarded and conservative old law firm of MMEP to consider jeopardizing their futures there.
Something wet touched her lashes. She opened her eyes and looked up. A minute before the sun had dazzled them. Now it was snowing! With childlike delight she held out her gloved hand to catch and admire the lacy flakes that fluttered onto it and then disappeared.
"I don't know where it came from," Rey said, sounding puzzled, "but we'd better turn back." He flicked the reins and clucked to Chanda. "All of the sudden the sky is full of it."
Apparently mindful of the oaten reward waiting for him in his stable, Chanda swung about and began retracing his steps.
The snowfall thickened rapidly. Huge flakes almost touched one another as they drifted downward, shortening visibility to an island-like orb. With no wind to drive them, the aimless flakes soon coated the sleigh and its occupants with a feathery blanket. Head high and nostrils flaring, the unimpressed Chanda trotted along smartly without guidance.
Kama said, "I'd be nervous if we didn't have such a confident horse."
"Me too," Rey said. "If this keeps up, we may find ourselves snowed in at the inn. It'll be your fault too. You said you wished you could spend Christmas there."
She laughed, a little edgy. "Like they say, be careful what you ask for--"
"What'll we do with the time? Skin diving and hang gliding are out. You have any games on your laptop?"
"Just Solitaire." And a romance novel. She shivered. "I'm freezing. I want a fast warm-up when we get back."
"Cognac," she said, primly straightening and brushing snow from her lashes.
Solitaire and cognac, eh? Rey suppressed a grin. The slender Ms Roxbury was no pushover. He'd seen her confident, no-nonsense air intimidate more than one chauvinist. And while he wasn't in a mood for rejection, he'd watch, and wait. Passion didn't necessarily arrive in a buxom, easy-to-open package. Sometimes it took a little steaming.
"Lights!" she cried, and pointed at two tiny yellow rectangles glimmering through the snowfall. "That must be the inn."
"No--" Rey peered ahead "--see the buildings on either side? It looks like a village. Chanda is aiming for it, though, and since I can't see the trail, there's not much choice. At least we can get directions."
Ears pricked, Chanda trotted past half a dozen two-story clapboard structures, circling an open area that had to be a village green, to halt in front of the only building with lighted windows. A modest sign, 'Tavern', hung from an iron frame above the door.
Kama leaned forward for a clearer look and shielded her eyes from the snow. "Well, isn't this quaint! I don't remember seeing a town close to The Granite Fork on our map, do you?"
Frowning, Rey climbed out of the sleigh. He stroked Chanda's warm flank as he passed, an odd uneasiness akin to wariness slowing his steps as he looped the reins over the wooden rail, then walked around to assist Kama. She descended lightly into his arms, and for a few seconds he sheltered her there. Not many things in life were certain, but whenever possible he was accustomed to choosing his own surroundings. This strange tavern wasn't one of them.
Finally he said, "Well, like they say, any port in a storm." Taking Kama by the hand, he led her up the snowy steps to the tavern door, depressed its iron latch, and shoved. The heavy wooden door swung inward on quiet hinges.
Kama stepped into the dimly lighted room ahead of him, pushed back her hood -- and froze.
Rey closed the door behind them, started to stamp his boots on the bare wooden floor -- and halted in mid-stamp.
A short, plump matron in a long gray dress, frizzles of gray hair eluding her white baby-bonnet cap, looked up from her serving task at one of four long tables in the room. At first she hesitated, then, her round face breaking into a beaming smile, she wiped her reddened hands on her white bib apron and rushed toward them.
Copyright © 2001 by C. J. Winters