A Taste of... Winter's Black Christmas
“‘Tis the season to have a nervous breakdown, fa la la la la, la la…la…oh wow.”
Winter Black stared at the enormous cabin sitting almost like a wood and glass castle on the side of the snow-covered mountain. Her mouth sagged open as she gaped at the home’s size and grandeur. And that view. “Wow” was the only word that came to mind.
“Toto, I’m not in Virginia anymore.”
Actually, was she even at the right place? Winter pulled her rented Jeep Grand Cherokee up a few more yards to inspect the equally grand mailbox more closely.
1891 Heaven’s View Road
Yes, this was it. Heaven’s View. And boy, the name wasn’t lying. It might have been an understatement of dramatic proportions.
Winter had seen pictures of the place—how could anyone call this behemoth a cabin?—of course, because she’d been the one to secure the rental, but as she pulled into the gravel driveway and moved forward, she was still in awe. The images on the website didn’t do the structure before her justice.
From the website, Winter learned that the ten thousand-square foot house sat on only an acre of land, but that land abutted nearly a hundred acres of open space. The man she’d spoken to about securing the rental had promised that she wouldn’t see another human being for miles.
It was a lot of cabin for just one person, she knew, but she’d only be alone for today. Tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, the love of her life, Noah Dalton, would be coming, bringing Winter’s beloved grandparents with him. And, equally as exciting, Noah’s mom, stepdad, and sister would be joining them the day after Christmas, as would Autumn Trent and Aiden Parrish, Winter’s closest friends from the FBI.
This would be the first time all the people Winter and Noah loved most would be under the same roof, which was why Winter had made a point to arrive before everyone else. She wanted everything to be perfect.
Pulling to a stop in front of one of the four garage doors, Winter was quick to get out of the Jeep and even quicker to snatch the heavy coat from the passenger seat.
It was freezing.
Richmond, Virginia had been a brisk fifty-seven degrees when Noah had dropped her off at the airport that morning. At the time, she’d complained about how chilly it was.
“And Montana said, ‘Hold my beer.’”
Clouds of vapor escaped her mouth with the words, making her smile grow wider. Winter inhaled deeply, breathing in the twenty-degree air like it had the power to cleanse her of every negative thought she’d ever had.
Of which, she’d had plenty.
“Nope…not trotting down memory lane today.”
Managing to tear her gaze from the home, Winter turned to face the expanse of mountain ridges stretching as far as she could see. Sharp peaks bright with snow towered toward a sky just beginning to hint at the oranges, yellows, and reds of the coming sunset.
And Winter had only thought this place couldn’t be more beautiful. If she’d been warmer with little to do, she would have stood there until the sun completely disappeared.
She glanced at her watch. It wasn’t quite four-thirty yet and already getting dark. She still needed to unpack the Jeep and then start on the long checklist she’d been working on all month. But first…
Winter smiled as the echo returned her greeting for several seconds. She was tempted to yell again, but a gust of wind stung her cheeks and whipped her black hair around her face and into her eyes.
A sound caught her attention, and Winter stilled. Mr. Mills, the property manager she’d spoken to, had promised there would be no other people nearby. He’d said nothing about mammals of other kinds.
Bears would be in hibernation, surely, but there were other creatures roaming this forest. Moose, elk…mountain lions.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
“Time to go.”
As a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Winter might carry a badge and a gun, but her ego wasn’t so big that she felt comfortable going head-to-head with a giant moose or a two-hundred-pound cat with four-inch teeth.
Winter fought a different type of animal in her job, and she wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger if one of the men and women she chased stepped out of the forest. Wildlife was different. She was currently encroaching on their turf, and they were just doing what animals did. She respected them too much to be the one to cause them to be maimed or killed. Winter would hate like crazy to have to shoot an animal to save her own life.
She would, of course. She would because, after living the past thirteen years with a cloud over her head, she was determined to step out into the sun. To enjoy life. To love hard. To give back to the world more than she took.
To no longer live with shame and guilt as her constant companion. And rage. So much rage.
“Okey dokey.” Her voice held a singsong quality that wasn’t in her normal repertoire of tones. Was she getting altitude sickness? “How about we focus on good cheer and tidings for a while? Can we do that, please?”
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
The sound was louder now, and as Winter searched the woods, the hair raised on the back of her neck. Goose bumps that weren’t solely from the cold prickled her arms.
Winter was being watched. She could feel it. The question was…from what? Or by whom?
Straightening her shoulders, Winter lifted her hands to make a megaphone of her mouth. “Who’s there?”
She didn’t smile at the echo this time as every sense she possessed focused on the area surrounding her. Evergreen trees tipped with snow so white it hurt her eyes. Wind whistling softly through branches. Fresh air so cold it burned her lungs.
Resolve shattering like an icicle falling onto a rock, Winter turned and hurried to the house. The feeling of being heavily scrutinized didn’t falter as she high-stepped it up the stairs to the front porch, being careful to avoid the icy patches clinging to the wood.
Under the enormous shelter dotted with swings and rocking chairs, Winter turned back and faced the view again, searching the woods for the thing that had made her so jumpy. Her gaze was pulled to the magnificence before her, though.
The vast expanse of mountain and sky was even more breathtaking this time, the sun appearing to be only inches above the tallest peak. The explosion of color was too beautiful for words.
That was the official name of the phenomenon, Noah once told her. When she’d seemed impressed by his meteorological knowledge, he’d gone on to explain that molecules and small particles in the atmosphere changed the direction of light rays, causing them to scatter. When the sun was low on the horizon, sunlight passed through more air, transforming the sky into an array of yellows, oranges, and reds.
As Winter watched the sky change before her eyes, she forgot about the unease she’d felt only minutes before. With each heartbeat, the sun sank closer to the edge of the world, becoming redder.
“Red has the longest wavelength of any visible light,” Noah had told her that peaceful evening. “That’s why the sun is red when it’s on the horizon. Its long path through the atmosphere blocks all other colors.”
When the sun was only an inch or so from disappearing, the red transformed into the same shade Winter saw when her special ability insisted she zone in on something important. The same special ability “gifted” to her by the man who’d killed her parents, kidnapped her brother, and left her for dead.
The wind picked up, as if frightened by even the thought of the serial killer who’d murdered so many. Winter didn’t blame it. Douglas Kilroy had been a terrifying man.
Winter had hunted him down, making sure he never had the opportunity to hurt another innocent soul. She’d been too late, of course. The Preacher had been given plenty of time to inflict more damage, ensuring Winter’s baby brother was well trained to fill his shoes.
“Why are you even thinking about him right now? Of them?”
Even as she voiced the frustrated questions, Winter knew why.
No corner of Earth was safe from evil. Even in a place as exquisite as this.
As the sun kissed the mountaintop, she resolved to push all unhappy thoughts from her mind. She would drink her first spiked eggnog, kiss under the mistletoe, sing carols so loud it hurt her throat.
This was going to be the best Christmas of her twenty-six years of life. Nothing bad could touch her in this magical place with the wonderful people who would soon be joining her.
Crunch.Winter hurried to the front door.
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