Excerpt: I'll Take Forever

I'll Take Forever by Barbara McMahon

Contemporary Romance

Chapter One

Jenny Warwick closed the book, a soft smile on her face. She liked happy endings. She was glad the book ended on a high note; that the heroine had attained her goal, saved her father and still had been able to marry her sweetheart. She sighed, wishing real life was so ordered, that everyone lived happily ever after.

Slipping her legs from under the afghan, she stood up in the cold room. The flannel pajamas she wore didn’t provide enough warmth from the cold. A nightly routine of hot chocolate before going to sleep was hard to shake. It was cold out of bed, but once she had her chocolate, she could snuggle down in the warm covers, sip the sweet beverage and then go to sleep.

Quickly she thrust her feet into her slippers and drew her warm woolen robe closer. She’d make a quick trip to the kitchen.

It was cooler still in the hall as she left her warm bedroom. Winter was at its peak and she tried to economize by heating only the rooms she really needed. Summer was a different matter. The high elevation kept the house cool and all the windows could be opened to enjoy the scented air of the Sierra Nevada. Briefly she longed for the days when money hadn’t been an issue and it had been easier to keep the house warm.

Descending the stairs, she shivered a little. It felt even colder than usual through her robe, her slippers not keeping the chill from her feet. Maybe she’d turn the heat up a little, despite the cost. It had been snowing heavily since the late afternoon and the temperature continued to drop. She went to the front door and flicked on the outside light. Opening the heavy wooden door a little, peeping through the crack, Jenny was surprised at how much snow there was on the ground, already more than twelve to fifteen inches had fallen. If it continued at that rate all night, she’d be snowbound for a few days. Her road was not one of the primary ones in the county–often the last cleared by the snowplow.

Well, she thought, turning off the light and re-latching the door, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d been snowbound. She had plenty of provisions and fuel. She’d be fine.

Softly she padded down the hall, turning on the light, opening the door to the kitchen. She flicked on that light and paused. Reflecting later, she realized she had not been afraid at that first moment, more startled than anything else.

The man was dressed all in black–black cords, a black pea jacket, similar to the kind sailors used to wear, Jenny thought as she took in his appearance. More astonished than afraid she wondered who he was and what he was doing in her kitchen. His hair was black, his eyes dark. He was sitting on the floor, leaning against her back door, dripping melting snow on the linoleum, a black gun pointed directly at her. She registered the broken pane in the top part of the door, obviously his means of entry into her locked house. Funny, she hadn’t heard the glass break.

Her gaze went back to the gun. She swallowed, not moving, awareness suddenly rendering her immobile.

‘Move easy, ma’am,’ he said softly. ‘Whatever you came here for, just get it. There may be people watching from outside and I don’t want them to get suspicious.’

She nodded, the heavy thumping in her chest painful. She could scarcely breathe as she tore her eyes away from the gun, moving stiffly to the stove to get the pan she kept on the stove. Filling it with milk, she put it on the burner and turned on the gas. Shivering a little from the cold, a lot from fear, Jenny hugged her arms across her chest, licked her lips. Was it a bad dream? She tried to think, but all she could picture was the man pointing a gun at her.

‘Who are you, and why are you here?’ she asked, pleased her voice didn’t quaver as she had thought it might. Trying not to look at him, she moved slowly to get the cup and cocoa.

‘I’m here because I was about to freeze to death in this blasted blizzard. There’re a few of your neighbors searching for me and I don’t intend for them to find me. Your house loomed up out of the snow and I made use of it. I didn’t realize anyone was home.’

The tone sounded disgusted. Had he know she was home, would he have found another house?

‘You’re letting all my heat out of that broken pane. Not to mention the mess you’re making on my kitchen floor. Why are you so wet?’ Okay, so fear had her asking such an obvious question. It was snowing like crazy outside.

‘Why are you here?’ she wanted to shout, but was pleased her voice sounded almost normal. ‘What do you want from me?’

His soft chuckle surprised her, but she kept her eyes resolutely on the cocoa she was spooning into her cup.

‘I’ve been in the blizzard since shortly after noon and lost my way. All the landmarks I was given are gone, everything’s covered in white. I was like a snowman when I came in, and it’s all melting now. The house was dark. I thought it was empty. You alone in the house?’

Jenny felt a small shock of hope. Could she bluff him, make him think there was someone upstairs? Make him leave before discovering there was not? What would he do if he found she was alone? It would only take a quick walk through to know the truth. Bravely, defiantly, she turned to face him.

‘I’m alone and I don’t want you here. Would you please leave the way you came? You’re warm now and can…’ she trailed off as he slowly shook his head. Her eyes looked at the gun.

‘I’m not going anywhere tonight, nor is anyone else. Have you seen how deep it is out there? And it doesn’t look as if it’s going to stop any time soon. I’d die of exposure before morning. Oh, no, lady, I’m not leaving.’

She stared at him silently, her mind whirling with questions, her stomach churning with apprehension. Jenny lived miles from the nearest town. It was a small mountain community where she knew everyone. What neighbor was after him? She looked out the window. Only the drifting flakes near the glass caught the light. Beyond it was impenetrable darkness. No one, Jenny suspected. He was making it up to cover for breaking in. It was too late, anyone she knew would stay home and keep warm on a night like tonight.

The milk began to steam. Jenny turned to finish preparing her cocoa, a plan formulating in her mind. If he would remain in the kitchen, she could get to the phone and call the Sheriff. Let someone know she was in trouble, alert someone to come for this intruder. She took a deep breath, the plan steadying her a little. Now her fear was that he’d read her mind. She glanced at him again. He was still sitting on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him, leaning against the door, watching her closely.

‘Where’s your husband?’ he asked.

Jenny blinked and stirred her hot drink. Another idea, pretend Johnny was coming later. Would that get rid of him?

‘He’s out. But I expect him home soon.’

‘Not in this weather.’

‘We have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it can get through. I’ve done all I need to do in the kitchen. Do you still think someone is watching me?’

‘I don’t know. Just leave as you would if you were alone.’

‘Goodnight,’ she said, out of habit. She shook her head—why be polite to an intruder, a housebreaker? Obviously a crook on the run. She just hoped he wouldn’t shoot her in the back as she left.

Jenny carried her cup carefully. She had not filled it to the top, so she would be able to move rapidly once she was out of the kitchen, but there was no use letting this man know that. As if it were full to the brim, she walked slowly, carefully. Reaching the door, she flicked out the light and closed it, breaking into a run to reach the phone.

Snatching up the receiver, she pressed the “9” just as a warm hand covered hers on the receiver. She felt the shock like a kick in the stomach. He depressed the cradle, severing the connection. He had moved quickly and silently. Backing away, her eyes wide, Jenny took a deep breath, tried to calm her racing heart, tears of frustration filled her eyes.

‘No,’ he said gently. Removing the phone from her grasp, he released the button, listening for a moment. ‘It’s dead, anyway.’ He hesitated a moment, indecision touching his face briefly, and then yanked the wire from the wall.

‘Can’t take a chance they’ll fix it before morning. Do you have any more?’

Jenny licked her lips. ‘One in my bedroom,’ she said, at long last.

‘Upstairs?’

She slowly nodded, her face clouding with worry. If the phone lines were down, there was no hope. He’d find the other phone and destroy it, too. Even if the service came back on, she couldn’t call for help. She thought briefly of making a dash to her room, but there would be no sanctuary there. There wasn’t even a lock on the door. She had never needed one before.

‘Let’s go,’ he said, pointing to the stairs.

Jenny turned and slowly started moving, holding her cup carefully. She felt as if she were in a nightmare. Would she awaken and find that it was just a dream? No, it was real enough: the cold was chilling, the slow, fearful thud of her heart in her chest a painful reminder of the intruder and the fear he caused.

Jenny had her foot on the first step when they heard the rumble of a truck, then slamming doors and voices outside. She paused, hope flaring again and looked over her shoulder, up to the face of the man. He was tall, over six feet, and seemed to be looming over her own five foot five inches. He looked scruffy and tired. The thought surprised her.

‘Wait,’ he said, moving to the heavy front door, ear cocked to better hear the voices. In only a couple of moments, there was a rap at her door.

Jenny moved toward the door, her heart skipping. Was this help? She threw a glance at the stranger.

‘One wrong move and one of your friends might get hurt,’ he said softly, gesturing with the gun, moving back a few feet, eyes narrowed as he watched her. Leaning against the wall, out of sight when the door opened, he nodded toward her.

The rap came again. Jenny reached out a shaky hand to flick on the outside light, release the locks and open the door a few inches.

‘Yes? Oh, hi, Nate. What are you doing out on a night like this?’ she said, her mind racing. She dare not risk getting Nate shot–or herself. But was there some way to let him know she was in trouble?

‘Hi, Jenny, it’s awful, isn’t it? Can I come in?’

She looked over to where the stranger was, but he had disappeared. Without making any noise, he had gone into the closed-off den, that door now open a crack. No doubt he could see and hear everything. And probably had that gun pointed directly at her.

‘Of course, come on in. What are you doing out so late? It’s freezing, still snowing, too, I see.’

Jenny tried to act normally, her eyes flickering involuntarily to the study door.

‘Forecast’s for more, too. Looks like we’ll be snowed in for a while. You okay?’ Nate Fisher was dressed in warm mountain gear; his hat and jacket caked with snow. She glanced behind him as she closed the door, but didn’t see anyone. Yet he’d been talking to someone.

‘Did you come just to check on me?’ She smiled at her neighbor. They had never been friends, but she’d known him for years.

‘No, me and Jim are looking for someone. A stranger around here. You seen anyone walking around, probably earlier?’

‘Nate, it gets dark around five. Even earlier on a stormy day like today. If I saw someone this afternoon, he’d be long gone by now. It’s after ten. Who is it?’ Jenny was puzzled—why would Nate be looking for the stranger so late at night, and in such inclement weather? If the man in her den was wanted, surely the sheriff or one of his deputies would be searching.

‘I know it’s late. We’ve been following his tracks since mid afternoon, but the snow covered them. Lost him a few hours ago and we’re just searching all around now.’

‘What’s the man done? And why are you and Jim searching for him? Why not Bob Marshall?’ Bob Marshall was Alpine County’s Sheriff.

‘Well, it’s not a—er—legal matter, really. Just a guy that—er—owes us some money from a poker game. Tried to welch on the deal. I won’t keep you, Jenny. If you see anyone you don’t know, give me or Jim a call.’

Jenny started to say something, tell him her line was down. Give some indication that all was not right. But the menace the intruder offered was too much. She couldn’t take the chance he’d shoot Nate, or maybe her. Her heart sank as she felt as if her last hope was leaving when Nate turned to go, but she was afraid to try to stop him. She wouldn’t jeopardize his safety, or her own. Not while the stranger stood nearby, watching their every move. She didn’t know what he would be capable of, but he was big and threatening. If she went along with him, maybe he’d leave and things would be all right again.

Reluctantly, she shut the door, hearing Nate call to Jim, hearing them move away, out of earshot. Their truck revved in the hushed night, moving away. Slowly she turned to face the den. The door opened and the stranger stepped out. The gun was no longer in sight.

‘What’s going on?’ she asked. ‘Nate and Jim don’t wander all over creation in a near-blizzard, and hours after dark, to follow a guy who welched on some poker match.’

His lips twitched at her comment.

‘No, there’s more to it. Not your concern, though. They friends of yours?’

‘I’ve known them both for years. It’s a small community. I pretty much know everyone in Palmer.’

He nodded at the mention of the town that served as the local community for the residents of this portion of Alpine County. It was more a village than a town, only a handful of residents lived in the town proper. Its store and post office serviced a large area of ranches, lumber camps, and quiet residences of the local populace. Summer time brought weekenders who had cabins to use in fair weather.

‘We were on our way upstairs, I believe.’ He motioned her forward.

The tight knot of fear filled her throat, almost choking her. Glancing around desperately, she sought some means of escape, some place to hide. There was none.

Jenny started up the steps, still balancing her now cold cocoa. Would everything have been different if she hadn’t gone for the drink? She could have just switched off her lamp and gone to sleep. By morning, he would have left and she’d only have the broken glass to alert her to his presence.

As she moved, she could feel him follow her, close on her heels. She took a shaky breath and paused at the top, turned to face him.

‘Please don’t rip the phone from this wall. It’s a modular one and can unplug,’ she said, pausing as she frantically tried to find some way to delay him, to get away.

He shrugged. ‘Whatever. I’ll unplug it and throw it in the snow.’

Her fear gave way to anger as she flared up. ‘Then just who is going to pay for it, and for the one downstairs? You can’t just break into someone’s home and wreck it and expect to get away with it, you know. You have to assume some responsibility for your actions!’

He smiled again, and Jenny looked away, trying to hold on to her anger. His smile had the strangest effect on her. His teeth were white against his brown skin, his eyes deep brown and intriguing.

Intriguing! She wanted to groan in frustration. She was not going to be beguiled by the good looks of the man, the charisma and magnetism of him. One minute she feared for her safety, the next minute for her sanity!