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Another blast of arctic wind seized her car in its frozen claws and shoved it maliciously. The little sub-compact was no match for the ferocity of the storm. Alex Klein tightened her hold on the steering wheel. As soon as she'd headed into the mountains east of Grand Junction, Colorado, her little car had been buffeted by the unforgiving wind. Then the sky started dumping snow, reducing visibility to only a few feet at times. So far, the wind had cleared the road of most of the snow, but it still slowed her down.
"If I get caught in this storm, I'll miss my date with Jason." Alex thumped her steering wheel. All those days timing her arrival at work to ride an elevator up with Jason would be for nothing. And she'd finally gathered enough courage to ask him out. He was a normal, everyday, mundane guy. No magic, no freaky pets, no boasting about how much power he had. An accountant for crying out loud. An accountant wouldn't be caught in a snowstorm in the mountains of Colorado. She needed an accountant in her life.
She passed over another mountain ridge and encountered the full force of the storm. The lanes had disappeared as the snow piled up even deeper. She sighed. "Why did I pick this month to not use magic? I could have been back to Denver and home in minutes instead of driving for hours." Sick and tired of magical men, she wanted to find someone normal, like Jason. She'd pledged to not use magic for thirty days to see if she could live normally. Just because she had magic didn't mean anything when it came to controlling the elements.
She checked her odometer again.
"Only a few miles to the next exit." She tried to remain hopeful, but those last few miles stretched on and on. An exit sign emerged through the blowing snow and the barricade had been lowered, closing the highway beyond. She eased her car down the ramp, following the faint tire tracks from other vehicles, then the tracks disappeared.
"Now which way?" There was always some type of hotel near an exit with a barricade. Something that would keep travelers from getting stranded. The weather in the Colorado mountains could be so finicky. It wasn't unusual to get thirty-six inches of snow in one storm system. That's how the ski slopes could end up with a ninety-six-inch base.
She looked left, right, and ahead, but no buildings, lights, or even signs were visible in the blowing snow. The mountains were closer on the left, but there seemed to be more room on the right. A hotel was probably there. She inched her car along the road that headed off to the right.
After several minutes, there still weren't any signs or even a single building and the road became a narrow channel between the looming mountains. "Damn it. I missed the hotel. It must have been the other way." She gripped the wheel even tighter. The road had now become impossible to turn around in, to say nothing about the steep drop-off on the right side of the road. The only option was to proceed and look for any kind of building that might offer a little shelter.
"Shit. Why didn't I leave earlier?" People would find her frozen body out here and comment about how much of an idiot she'd been.
There were so few times when she could visit with her friends, and the storm wasn't supposed to hit until tomorrow. Of course, the weather forecasters were quite often wrong.
She had to keep going on. At least it should still be early enough that someone might be up watching TV. Snow now clogged her car's wipers. Her hands cramped up from gripping the wheel. She took a moment to shake them out to ease the stiffness. She had to go slow and steady. After several miles, the drop-off on the right side of the road started becoming less steep and the ground widened. This had to be a valley. Someone would surely live here. The road continued to hug the mountainside, but on the right side she caught glimpses of the valley getting wider.
She inched around a tight bend and spotted a faint glimmer of light. Did she imagine it or were her eyes playing tricks? She kept staring at the area. There it was again. A light! Definitely a light, slowly becoming more visible. At times the blowing snow would hide its location, but it was there.
"A driveway. Thank God!" She carefully eased her car off the road and headed into the narrow lane. After a few feet, the location of the driveway became unclear. She could barely make out some type of structure not too far from the road. The driveway had to head down the rest of the hill then angle toward the building. From the car she couldn't make out where it was. All along I70, the road followed a river. There could be one at the base of the mountainside, or it could be farther out in the flat area. If there was a stream, could she take the chance of driving into it? It wasn't worth finding out. The house looked close enough that she could get there; but she'd have to leave the car and head on foot to the building. Eventually the plows would come through, so she pulled the car in as far as she could without heading down the slope. Hopefully the car wouldn't get too buried under a mound of snow.
She pulled her cell phone out. No signal. She stuffed the phone back in her purse and took a deep breath as she pulled on her bulky knit hat. Why hadn't she worn her boots? She twisted the matching scarf around her neck. Looking at her computer and purse, she grabbed them and slung the straps over her head so her hands would be free. There was no way she'd leave them behind. Her whole life was in those two bags.
The cold air hit her the second she opened the door. She pulled the scarf farther up across her face as she stepped out. The light represented shelter from the storm. It was close enough she should be able to get there, but too far away for anyone inside to hear if she honked. Knowing her luck, a crazy mountain man lived there, but it wasn't like she had a choice. She headed down the slope, determined to reach the light.
After taking only a couple of steps, her feet started sliding. Her arms flailed as she tried to remain standing. She hit the hard surface and sprawled on her back. Before she could manage to get back up, her body slid down the slope, gradually picking up speed. She managed to snatch a bit of bush, but it snapped off. She tried to grab something else to stop her descent. A tree, rock — anything that might help.
She dug her fingers into the snow like claws, anything to slow down. She slid into a low railing, stopping her at the edge of a bridge.
Lying there for a moment to slow her pounding heart, she looked around to get her bearings. She could barely make out the foot-high wooden railing that marked the sides. The bridge angled off to the left. If she'd tried to drive down, the car would have slid and probably missed the turn for the bridge and ended up ...
She eased over to the bridge's edge and looked down, snow and black. There wasn't any way of knowing how deep it might be. A few snow-covered boulders mounded up here and there as the side sloped down. If she'd ended up down there, she could've been trapped in the car. No one able to see it. Alone in the night to freeze to death. She shuddered at the thought then looked up to the light. The light became her beacon in the dark.
She should be able to get warm once she got there. She stood up and shuffled slowly across the bridge. The moment she stepped off the other side of the bridge, the snow got deeper. It looked like a level trek to reach the building. Here the snow reached up to her knees, forcing her to lift each foot up high to take the next step.
After every few steps, she stopped and took several breaths. Each time she did this, it took more and more time to catch her breath. She pulled the scarf down, seeing the frost vapors pour out as she gasped. The cold air bit her lungs, but she needed more air and a few moments to rest. Why didn't I leave sooner? If she had left a couple of hours earlier, she would probably be pulling into her drive right now. Oh well, there was nothing she could do about it.
"No more dilly-dallying. Take some more steps. Keep moving before you freeze." Her voice disappeared in the wind's howling. She pulled the scarf back up and trudged on.
The harder she tried, the less progress she seemed to make. After fifteen minutes of fighting the snow, she felt like she hadn't gotten much closer. When she looked back, her white car had vanished and her footsteps were quickly disappearing. The only way left was toward the light.
She had to be getting closer. Damn it. She had to keep going — the wind was finding ways to get the cold in through her not-thick-enough wool coat. Snow had worked up her jeans' legs and her socks were soaked. The light, I've got to keep heading for the light.
She struggled on through the snow. The longer she took, the deeper the snow became. She paused.
Where's the light? She looked around and discovered it behind her. How long had she been walking the wrong way? So much for her resolution about not using magic. This was an emergency. She could create a light orb to show her the way. She patted the front of her coat to find out that her wand wasn't there. That's right, it's in my suitcase. In the car. She looked back, but there wasn't any way she could get back to her car. This was past the point of no return.
She turned around and pressed on. The bitter cold continued to seep through her coat. I have to get there soon. It's so cold. The light disappeared whenever the wind gusted. Now when this happened, she stopped and waited until the light reappeared. She couldn't risk getting turned around again.
Finally, the light started getting stronger. She had to be getting close. Then all of a sudden — darkness.
The light had gone out. Now what? No. Stop and think this out. Do not panic. Someone had to have turned out the light. That meant someone was inside — someone who could help. She stared into the swirling snow. There had to be a building there.
Once her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she thought she could see a dark shape up ahead. She took a few more steps closer. Then some more. Another whiteout. She stopped until the wind died down a little. The dark shape had gotten a little closer. Just keep going. She couldn't feel her feet or fingers now. Get there. She tucked her gloved hands in her armpits trying to keep them a little bit warmer.
The dark shape could always be seen now. Must get warm. So frickin' cold. She hit something with her chest. She had to pause and focus. A porch.
To her right were some steps. Four steps. She grabbed the railing.
One — she used the banister to pull herself up.
Two — just keep going.
Three — almost there.
Four — must get warm. The porch.
She stared into the darkness.
A faint orange glow. Fire. Warmth. Door?
She looked around. Three steps to the door. Three. A small step. Warmth. Her teeth chattered. Must get warm. Another step. One more. She raised her shaking hand to knock.CHAPTER 2
Her hand twitched. Warmth enveloped her. It was so cozy nestled under the covers. Covers? She needed to wake up. Her thoughts remained muddled; she couldn't focus them. What happened? I need to move. But why? Alex moved her hand. At least she could move.
Something licked her fingers. She snatched her hand back under the covers. Her eyes fluttered open, but everything looked fuzzy. Where were her glasses? Looking around, she could only focus on the big bed she was nestled in. How did she end up here? The last thing she could remember was being out in the snow. What happened? She ran a hand down her body to only find her bra and undies. Where were the rest of her clothes? Who removed them? She pulled the covers tighter around her.
A gray light filled the room. She couldn't tell if the light came from daylight or some kind of artificial source. Only the dog's panting disturbed the quiet. Slowly she stretched her limbs; at least they all seemed to work even though they were extremely stiff. A whine came from where her hand had previously been. Alex turned her head. A golden, shaggy dog had laid its muzzle on the side of the bed. The dog whined again, so she reached out to scratch its head. A happy pant replaced the whine. At least he was happy to see her, but would his owner be as pleased with uninvited company?
A large shadow moved into the doorway, blocking the light from the other room. "Mandy," a deep resonant voice whispered, "leave her alone. Maybe she wants to sleep some more."
"No." Alex moved slightly to get a better look at the stranger. "Where am I? What time is it?"
"You're in my cabin, and it's a little after eight. You needed sleep after trudging through the storm last night." He moved farther into the room and handed her glasses to her. "I need to check your hands and feet again for any signs of frostbite. Sometimes you won't see anything until the next day."
Alex extended both hands to him. She had expected to see a lean, sinewy man bent over from hard work and age. Instead, he had a well-developed solid frame, a full beard and mustache. She guessed he was in his twenties like her. His height and wide shoulders created an intimidating presence. The golden retriever kept nudging their hands, trying to get some more attention.
"I don't remember knocking or coming in," Alex said. The second he touched her hand, a surge of electricity shot through her fingers, like shaking hands with another wizard. Her body instantly responded, some basic instinct calling out for satisfaction. This was new, nothing she'd ever sensed before. Could he be a wizard? What were her chances of accidentally stopping at a wizard's house?
"You didn't." He thoroughly examined all of her fingers, not appearing to notice anything.
The skin on his hands was tough, but he handled her fingers as if they were china.
"Your hands look okay. Now stick your feet out so I can check your toes."
She slid her feet out to him. "How did you find me?"
"I didn't. Mandy did." He carefully moved each toe. "I'd just gone to bed when Mandy started whining and scratching at the door. She wouldn't quit, so I got up to look. Imagine my surprise to find a woman collapsed on my front porch. All clear."
She slid her feet back under the blankets. At least he was willing to assist a stranded woman. "So you brought me in?"
"Thanks for helping me," she paused. "Where are my clothes?"
"Everything was soaking wet. I took them off so you could warm up."
He didn't even look embarrassed. Like it was the most natural thing to do. Alex shifted a little farther toward the middle of the bed.
"I examined your hands and feet for frostbite. I didn't know how long you had foolishly been walking. Don't you know that you're always supposed to stay in your car?"
"Of course I do. I only walked from the end of your driveway. I would have driven in closer, but I couldn't tell where the driveway was. I didn't want to take the chance of rolling my car into a ditch — or worse, a partially frozen pond." Lucky me. I picked some backwoods hick who thinks that women have the common sense of a toad. "If you would give me my clothes, I'll get out of here."
"You walked all the way in from the road?"
She nodded. "My clothes?"
"Sorry. They still aren't dry, and more importantly, the storm hasn't let up yet."
"Why don't you toss them in the dryer?"
"You should get your power back once the storm's over."
"No." He hesitated. "It doesn't work like that out here. First, I have to take my snowmobile into town to let them know that my power is out. Then they have to come out and fix the problem. But they can't get out here until the plows have a chance to get through."
"And the plows come out when?"
"If we're lucky, they get out here several weeks after the storm ends. If we get multiple storms, the delay can be even longer. It takes them so long to clear the main roads that they usually rest for a few days before starting on the little ones." He moved back and leaned against the doorjamb. "We've had a lot of snow this season. I'm surprised an avalanche hasn't already closed the pass."
They had been getting a lot of snow this season. The skiers were in seventh heaven. But she didn't ski and had a job to get back to — as well as a life, such as it was. "So about how long am I going to be stranded out here?" He hesitated again, "Last time we had a storm like this it took a month."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Magic in the Mountains"
Copyright © 2018 Donna S Kunkel.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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