As soon as the plane lands at the small connecting airport, I grab my carry-on and laptop bag. I look at the monitor that has my upcoming flight so I can find my gate and see DELAYED next to it.
“Dammit,” I mutter and suck in a deep breath. My first flight was already delayed, and I have a feeling that because of the heavy snowfall, this one might get canceled.
I open my weather app and see a storm hovering on the radar. Annoyed, I grab my suitcase and make my way across the tiny airport. It’s a quarter to three, and my patience is already waning.
I left my apartment around four this morning so I could arrive before dark since there’s a three-hour time difference between Seattle and Vermont.
Just out of curiosity, I check to see how far from the airport the rental property my assistant, Peggy, booked for me was. Right now, my choices are to drive a couple of hours in a near whiteout or potentially be stuck in this airport overnight.
I mull it over for ten minutes before calling my sister, Taryn. She’s two years older and always has good advice. She might not understand my dating issues and being single, considering she’s been with the same man since she was sixteen, but most of her other suggestions are spot-on.
“Hey! Did you make it?” Taryn asks as soon as she answers.
I blow out a frustrated breath. “No. The flight is delayed, and I think it’s gonna get canceled. I checked the radar, and the weather doesn’t look promising. I’ve flown enough to know they won’t fly in this.”
“Tell me you’re not going to rent a car and drive the rest of the way,” she mutters.
“I was thinking about it,” I admit.
She sighs. “I know you too well. Please be careful. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
A sad smile touches my lips because it’s that time of year we both dread—Christmas. “I’m always careful. I promise.”
I weigh my odds and decide to check if any rental vehicles are available. If there aren’t, then I’ll just deal with waiting.
As I make my way across the airport, I glance at each TV to see if anything has changed. It hasn’t.
The car rental line snakes around the corner, so it’ll be a miracle if I’m not turned away.
“Looks like they canceled all the outgoing flights for the day,” an older woman behind me says as more people join our line. It nearly triples in size.
“Really? Great.” I shake my head, knowing this is my only chance to get the hell out of here.
When it’s finally my turn, the woman asks me if I have a reservation.
“No. Do you have anything available? Price doesn’t matter,” I explain, pulling out my company credit card.
She taps away on the keyboard and frowns. “Hmm. It doesn’t look like we do. Hold on one second, though. I need to check something.”
The woman offers a small smile before stepping away. Although it’s cold from the doors constantly opening and closing, I’m sweating bullets as I wait for her to return.
If I could go back in time to when my boss reassigned this project, I’d have begged him to choose someone else. Writing a piece on Vermont’s most famous Christmas small town and the traditions from an outsider’s perspective was only slightly better than interviewing dog owners about their favorite pet sweaters. Both make me want to gouge my eyes out with a fork, but when a co-worker got a bad case of the flu, I sympathized and took it.
Once my assistant confirmed my travel plans, it was a done deal. I was actually looking forward to being secluded in a winter wonderland on the company’s dime. Now, it feels like a mistake.
To make matters worse, the most annoying song with jingle bells blares over the loudspeaker. I’m regretting every decision in my life that brought me here.
“So we do have one vehicle left, but it’s a minivan. Would you like it?”
“A minivan?” I groan.
She nods, waiting patiently for my answer. Not my first choice, but then again, do I even have a damn choice? I don’t even care at this point. I just want out of here.
“I’ll take it,” I tell her reluctantly.
The woman grins. “Good thing, because I think everyone behind you would probably kill for it. Bonus, it has satellite radio and heated seats.”
“Thank you,” I offer, truly thankful.
She slides the keys toward me and types up my contract. I get full insurance and prepay for fuel, then I’m on my unmerry way. I grab my shit and head outside. The van looks filthy, but I don’t have room to complain.
I climb inside, and holiday music blares as soon as I crank it. “I think the fuck not.” I turn it off, then blast the heat. I already can’t escape this damn holiday, and I know it will just get worse.
Before taking off, I plug in the address to the rental cabin and know it’ll take longer than the two hours it estimates.
I take it slow to avoid driving into a ditch. I’m not used to this amount of snow, so I can only see a couple of feet in front of me. My stress level shoots up to level eleven. There’s no way I can turn around now.
I’m as committed to this drive as I am to writing this ridiculous article. The windshield wipers whoosh back and forth, and though I have them on high, they don’t clear the flurries fast enough. My heart rapidly beats, and I take in slow, calm breaths, not allowing my anxiety to get the best of me.
I grip the steering wheel through the twisting curves and long straight roads.
I can’t believe I’m driving a fucking minivan in a blizzard.
When I finally arrive at the infamous Vermont town, I’m drained. Some of the buildings are decorated like gingerbread houses, and colorful lights adorn all the trees and streetlights. It looks like a mini North Pole, something one would expect to see on a movie set. Santa’s workshop, along with a massive tree, is the main focus in the center of the square. I continue forward, surprised to see so many people shopping.
My cabin is another twenty miles. Eventually, I turn onto a road that leads to only God knows where. Snow weighs down the branches of the evergreens lining each side of the path. The ice crunches beneath the tires, and when I arrive at a two-story cabin, my mouth drops.
I double-check the address and instructions Peggy emailed me. It’s gorgeous and secluded, far enough away from town not to be in the middle of the chaos. It’s about a twenty-minute drive there and back.
Once I turn off the engine, I grab everything because I only want to make one trip. By some miracle, I make it to the back deck without busting my ass. I look under the mat for the key and frown when it’s not there. What the hell? I search for a note or a rock that it could be hiding under, but no such luck.
You’ve gotta be kidding me.
Instead of leaving, I try the door handle and am relieved and shocked when I find it’s unlocked.
Slowly, I twist and push, almost expecting someone to jump out at me. The fact this place was unlocked is odd and makes me paranoid.
“Hello?” I call out. When no one answers, I sigh in relief and remove my scarf. I pull out my self-defense keychain from my pocket, then hang my coat on a spare hook by the door. My jeans are cold and wet from the snow, so after I kick off my boots, I bend and roll them up.
With rentals, the owners usually leave a binder with things to do in town or some sort of housewarming note, but I don’t see anything like that. When I go into the kitchen, I notice a bowl, spoon, and coffee mug in the sink.
Opening the fridge and freezer, I see containers with leftovers and lots of frozen meat. The pantry is full of food too. I find it somewhat odd, but I’m not one to be picky, given my situation. I’ll have Peggy inform them that their cleaner missed a few things before I checked in.
When I enter the living room, my eyes land on the tall Christmas tree decorated with bright colored lights and what looks like homemade Christmas ornaments. I take two steps forward, my lips pursing with distaste. I should’ve told Peggy to specify no holiday decorations, but I also didn’t expect it to look like the inside of a Christmas store.
As I walk past the mantel, I glance over at a mini scene that looks identical to the gingerbread houses in town. I turn one of the reindeer to get a better look at its face. Whoever owns this place is weirdly obsessed. My best guess is an older couple uses this as their vacation home and rents it during the winter. They probably go by Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
Shaking my head, I grip the handle of my suitcase and carry it upstairs. I walk down a hallway, looking into each of the rooms. The largest bedroom has a king-sized bed and a fireplace. And of course, another tree decorated to the max. As I turn my head, I notice an en suite with a large tub and standing shower that I’m claiming as mine for the next two weeks. The spare room down the hall is spacious and nice, but I could go without the tree in the corner. I’m tempted to unplug every single one of them, but I don’t have the energy. I’m exhausted and sore from sitting for so long.
Next year, I don’t care who gets the flu, I’m not leaving Seattle in December unless it ends up with me on a beach sipping a mai tai.
I return to the large room, throw my suitcase on the bed, and grab my toiletries. I fill the tub and soak for a solid twenty minutes. Once I’m clean and dressed, I grab my laptop, place some things on the nightstand, then climb into bed. Before I check my email, I text my sister.
Fallon: Made it in one piece.
“Barely,” I mutter to myself.
I send her a picture of my joggers and my feet in fluffy socks.
Taryn: Why don’t you light that fireplace?
Fallon: Uh, it’s not gas, and I don’t see any wood. And no way am I playing lumberjack in this weather.
She sends a laugh-crying emoji.
Taryn: Glad you made it okay. Is that a Christmas tree in the bedroom?
Then I add an eye-roll emoji.
Fallon: The whole place is decorated like a department store. It’s weird.
Taryn: Maybe you’ll end up leaving that place loving Christmas again.
She sends me a winky face.
Fallon: Doubt it. But anyway, I’m gonna get some work done, then go to sleep so I can start working first thing in the morning.
Taryn: What time is it there?
Fallon: Just after six.
Taryn: Don’t work too hard. Hope you get some decent sleep.
Fallon: Yes, Mama Bear. Night, sis.
I smirk at the nickname I gave her a long time ago because she’s so overprotective. And still is to this day. Taryn doesn’t care that I’m an independent, thirty year old woman, I’ll always be her kid sister.
Just as I start sorting through emails and am about to reply to one of Peggy’s, I hear a dog barking downstairs, along with muffled speech.
What the hell?
Did I forget to lock the door behind me?
The hair on my arms stands up as I grab my pepper spray. I look around, wondering if I can quickly slide under the bed. The closet is across the room, and I nearly stop breathing as I try to hear what’s going on. Paws race up the stairs, and they’re followed by heavy footsteps. Before I can scream, the door swings open, and a naked six-foot mountain man stands in front of me, looking as confused as I feel.
I inspect his dark hair and scruffy facial hair as his piercing blue eyes meet mine with horror. My gaze roams down his muscular body, seeing all of him, and panic continues as he steps toward me.
That’s when I scream and pull the safety from my pepper spray.
This cannot be happening.