Date Published: Sep 2015
“Let me guess…the Bride of Frankenstein?”
Jacqueline Danielle Maguire wasn’t surprised by the assumption. With her wind-whipped hair and smudged makeup, she probably did look like she’d just stepped out of an old horror movie. But if she was the Bride, then the man who stood behind the gas station counter was the Creature. He certainly had the huge body and square head for it…not to mention the thick unibrow. If Jac was smart, she’d turn right around and get the heck out of there. Two things kept her from it: her need for a telephone, and the rack of candy bars.
Brightening her smile, she turned on the Southern charm. “Happy Halloween. Or should I say ‘trick or treat’?” She selected a Snickers from the rack. “I just loved Bride ofFrankenstein, didn’t you? But my all-time favorite horror movie is Young Frankenstein. Do you remember the part where Madeline Kahn came out of that bathroom after she’d married the monster?” She touched her finger to the tip of her tongue, then thrust out a hip and placed it on the full skirt of her wedding gown. “S-s-s-t-t.” She laughed, but it faded when the store clerk didn’t join in. Obviously the man wasn’t into small talk.
She placed the candy bar on the counter before pulling a twenty out of her Gucci bag. “I was wondering if you might have a phone I could use. My cell phone doesn’t seem to work here in the Rockies.”
“Sorry, can’t help ya.” He took the twenty. “The storm knocked down some branches and screwed up the lines.” He tipped his head at the window behind him. Outside, a wood chipper sat amid a pile of pine branches. “Phone’s been out since midday. If it weren’t for the generator, we wouldn’t have no power either.” His unibrow lifted. “You lost?”
Jac might’ve conceded if he hadn’t opened the cash register and her gaze hadn’t landed on the wicked-looking knife next to the stack of one-dollar bills. Just that quickly, an entire CSI episode played out in her mind, ending with the murderer being apprehended and the runaway bride’s remains being discovered in the wood chipper.
The gas station attendant followed her wide-eyed stare. “Fishin’ knife.”
Her gaze remained riveted on the jagged edge that could easily have cut a humpback whale in half, to say nothing of a twenty-six-year-old carb-counter. “Y-you fish with a knife?”
He grinned, and a squirt of brown spittle flew through the air, missing the bodice of her Vera Wang by inches. “I don’t kill ’em with this.” He lifted the huge weapon, the overhead florescent lights reflecting off the shiny steel blade. “I just gut ’em.”
The words gut ’em set Jac in motion. Grabbing her candy bar, she raced for the door. A strong wind pushed against one side of the glass as she pushed against the other. She might’ve lost the battle if the man hadn’t stepped around the counter. The big, big man with the big, big knife.
Please, Lord, if you don’t let me be gutted like a fish, I promise I’ll never eat sushi again. With that prayer she used every underdeveloped muscle she had to shove open the door, and plowed out into the freezing night air.
“Hey!” the attendant yelled.
Lifting the hem of her gown, Jac made a mad dash for her sister’s MINI Cooper, popping up the locks in mid-flight. It felt like it took a full thirty minutes to get the car door open and stuff herself, and a good twenty yards of organza, inside. But by the time she had the doors locked and the engine revved, the mad fish gutter had just made it out the door. With the knife clutched in one hand and her change in the other, he watched as she squealed away from the gas pumps.
Two miles later Jac finally caught her breath and stopped looking in the rearview mirror. Two more miles and she realized that she had probably overreacted. But it was hard not to be a little spooked on a dark and stormy Halloween night while lost in the horror-movie setting of the Rocky Mountains.
To help calm her nerves, she turned up the radio and scanned through the stations until she landed on classical. She thought the soft violin music would soothe her. Instead it reminded her of the string quartet that had been hired for her wedding. The four musicians in black had just been arriving when Jac had been leaving—or racing across the lawn with her purse slung over her shoulder and her sister’s stolen car keys. The quartet had probably gone home by now, along with a hundred guests, the florist, the chef and pastry chef, the valets, the cute little flower girl and ring bearer, the six ushers and six bridesmaids, and the wedding planner.
Correction: Gerald, the wedding planner and her best friend, would still be there. Probably frantically dialing Jac’s number. This was his first wedding, and he had been determined it would be a success. Now, thanks to her, his fourth business in four years might fail.
Taking her phone out of the side pocket of her purse, she speed-dialed his number. She hit speaker and placed the phone in the cup holder while she unwrapped the Snickers bar and took a big bite. Chocolate, caramel, and nougat weren’t part of her diet plan. Not that she had ever stuck to a diet. The only willpower genes in the family had gone to Aunt Frances and Jac’s sister Bailey. Jac had little will and no power. Just a wild imagination and compulsive tendencies.
“Jac! Where the hell are you?”
Bailey’s booming voice came through the phone speaker and caused Jac to swerve toward the wall of dense forest. Dropping the candy bar, she used both hands to steer back toward the double yellow lines.
“Bailey,” she breathed with relief. Her relief was short-lived.
“‘Bailey’?” Her sister’s voice hit a high note that didn’t bode well. “You run off from your second wedding in less than a year and all you can say is ‘Bailey’? I swear, Jac, when I get my hands on you—”
“I’m sorry, Bay, but I didn’t really run off. I just needed to take a little drive and think things through.”
“Three hours is not a little drive!”
Jac picked up the candy bar from her lap and finished it off as she tried to explain. “I know it looks bad, Bay, but I got lost. And my phone wouldn’t work so I couldn’t call or use the GPS. I even tried stopping at a gas station to get directions, but there was this really creepy attendant who I think killed the real gas station attendant with his big ugly fishing knife and then disposed of his body in the wood chip—”
“Oh, for the love of Pete.” Bailey groaned. “I should’ve never let you watch so much television growing up. You live in some kind of fantasy world where gas station attendants are murderers and brides run off from their weddings without any repercussions. Wake up, Jac. That’s not how the real world works.”
Jac’s shoulders slumped. “So I guess Bradford is upset. And Gerald’s probably heartbroken that I screwed up his first job as a wedding planner.”
“Actually, Bradford looked more relieved than upset. But I don’t think you’ll be getting any more party invitations from his mother. As for Gerald, he’s already planning your next holiday wedding.” Bailey paused. “But this is it for me, Sis. I refuse to attend another wedding where I’m the only Maguire present. The whole runaway bride thing has gotten old. It’s time to give up on the crazy stipulation in Aunt Frances’s will and get a job.”
“Unlike you, Bay, I can’t ignore that much money. And I don’t want a job. I want to be like Aunt Frances and spend my summers in Italy and my winters in Cancún. Which means I only have two months left to choose a groom before all Auntie’s money goes to the Mysterious Mr. Darby, who I think is trying to take me out so he’ll inherit. I told you that I saw him lurking around my and Gerald’s apartment.”
“According to Gerald, he wasn’t lurking. He rang the buzzer like any normal person, and you refused to answer it.”
“Because it’s too suspicious. He never said more than two words to me all the times he visited Aunt Frances. Now suddenly he shows up and wants to ‘talk’ to a woman who’s going to keep him from inheriting billions of dollars. Well, that’s not going to happen. Not unless I have a big bodyguard with me.”
Bailey sighed in exasperation. “He’s not trying to kill you. Why would he have to kill you when you keep running away from your weddings? All he has to do is wait you out. Geez, Jac. How many weddings is it going to take before you realize that you’re not attracted to men in Aunt Frances’s social circle? Or at least to the loser men you keep choosing.”
“I have to choose the losers who need money, Bay. No one else would agree to a one-year marriage. And that’s how long I need to stay married in order to get my inheritance.”
There was a long pause. “Do what you want, I’m not your keeper.”
That was a lie, and they both knew it. Bailey had been Jac’s keeper since birth. Which was a good thing, since their mother had been better at serving a bottle of Bud than a bottle of milk and more accomplished at changing lovers than changing diapers. Five years older, Bailey was the one who had fed and changed Jac. The one who helped Jac up when she fell and cuddled her close when she cried. Not that Maguire woman cried all that often. They were more yellers than criers.
Suddenly feeling contrite for all she’d put her sister through, Jac whispered, “Thanks, Bay.”
“For being such a good sister.”
She snorted. “Don’t thank me yet. When I get my hands on you, I might just strangle you and dispose of your body in the Gerhardts’ wood chipper.”
“They have a wood chipper?”
Bailey laughed. “While I’m looking for it, I want you to find out where you are so I can come get you. Do you see any mile markers?”
Jac looked around. “No. But I’m sure there has to be one up ahead.”
“As soon as you find it, call me back.”
“Love you, Bay.”
“Love you too.”
After hanging up, Jac felt much better. Things would work out. They always did. When a door closed, a window opened. Her life was a testament to this. Who would’ve thought that two orphaned Mississippi kids would end up living the good life? But it had happened.
One minute the police were standing in their small apartment telling them their mother and her newest boyfriend had been killed in a motorcycle accident, and the next minute Jacqueline and Bailey were living with their wealthy aunt Frances in a mansion in upstate New York.
Well, maybe not exactly the next minute. The next minute they were shipped off to Alabama to live with their uncle Bud, their aunt Sissy, and their six hillbilly cousins. Then, after Bailey set fire to Uncle Bud’s tool shed, they were sent to child services. It was during their stay there that Jac had remembered their great-aunt Frances or, as Granny Lou had liked to refer to her, “the Rich Bitch.”
It seemed Frances Rosenblum hadn’t gotten the gene that made Maguire women get with losers. She’d had the foresight to completely distance herself from her Southern relatives by getting educated and marrying money. So much money that she could easily take in two orphaned nieces.
It had been like the musical Annie all over again. Except they didn’t have a Daddy Warbucks who sang and took them on cool helicopter rides. They had the Rich Bitch, who sent them off to boarding school the first chance she got. Still, boarding school was better than living with Uncle Bud.
Just like being lost in the Colorado Rockies was better than being married to Bradford. As much as she wanted her aunt’s money, she would’ve been miserable with Bradford—and he would’ve been miserable with her. He hated her constant chatter, and she hated his overbearing mother.
Tired of the depressing classical music, Jac dialed through the radio until she found a seventies station. The Donna Summer song reminded her of Granny Lou. Her mother’s mama had loved anything to do with disco—polyester, platform shoes, mirror balls, and John Travolta. Since she and Bailey had stayed with Granny every summer until she died, Jac knew all the words to “Last Dance.” As she sang along, a mile marker came into view. She reached for her phone, but before she could call Bailey, Bigfoot leaped out in front of the MINI Cooper.
Jac hit the brakes, but they barely slowed the car down. Making the split-second decision that hitting a huge beast in a tuna can was a bad idea, Jac swerved and ran right into a signpost. The airbag opened, forcing her head back and whooshing all the air out of her lungs, before quickly deflating. She slumped against the seat and took a few quivery breaths as Donna continued to sing about her last chance for love.
Besides a sore shoulder from the seat belt, Jac didn’t appear to be hurt. The car wasn’t as fortunate. The front of the MINI sat a good three feet off the ground, its yellow hood curved around the bent signpost like a bee that had crashed into a really hard flower. The sign said Deer Crossing, a warning she could’ve used earlier.
Reaching for her phone, she tried dialing 911, and then both Bailey’s and Gerald’s cells. Unfortunately, this time she had no service. A gust of wind blew against the car, causing the bumper to creak back and forth on the metal post. As she sat there in the dark, she thought about all the television shows she’d seen about people who got stuck on dark, deserted roads. An image of the creepy gas station attendant with his knife flashed through her mind. What if she’d gone in a circle and the guy was right around the corner? Or what if the animal that had jumped in front of her really wasn’t a deer? What if it was Bigfoot? Or a mountain lion? Or a grizzly bear?
The engine sputtered and died, taking with it the soothing Donna Summer song and the warm air from the heater. Within seconds the car started to get cold. Jac figured that she had two choices: she could stay there and freeze to death, or she could get out and see if she could get phone service farther down the road. Neither was appealing, but since freezing to death seemed more likely than becoming Bigfoot’s dinner, she grabbed her phone and Gucci bag and released her seat belt.
Once she pushed open the door, the car tipped precariously, making her descent anything but graceful. She tumbled out surrounded by a pile of petticoats and ivory organza. As soon as she got to her feet, the cold wind sliced through her, pulling at her hair and freezing her bare shoulders. Fighting against the wind, she grabbed the billowing full skirt of her dress and pulled it up around her shoulders and head. It wasn’t a ski jacket, but it worked. Although her nose soon felt like a block of ice and her toes had lost all feeling—which was probably a good thing, considering her Christian Dior heels were too tight. Stopping at a bend in the road, she leaned against a mailbox and tried her phone again. She was still out of service—
Jac lowered her phone and stared in awe at the gray metal box on the rustic wooden post. Her gaze traveled up the narrow, rutted road that wound through the trees.
She was saved! And not a moment too soon. Icy flecks of snow swirled down from the dark skies, hitting her face and bare hands like stinging insect bites. Using her phone for light, she started up the dirt road.
It was much darker and scarier than the highway. The dense forest seemed to close around her like a thick, cold blanket. An owl hooted, and Jac stumbled, catching her heel in a deep rut. The heel snapped, and she fell to her knees, ripping her dress and landing in mud. At any other time, Jacqueline would’ve been horrified. She’d spent the last sixteen years of her life trying not to get dirty—trying to be the clean, pristine niece her aunt expected her to be. But tonight she was too cold, too tired, and too scared to care about a little dirt. She struggled to her feet and continued up the hill. Her efforts were rewarded a few moments later when she spotted a light through the trees.
The small, dilapidated cabin was nothing like the Gerhardts’ large mountain home. In fact the cabin would have easily fit in their living room. But to a cold, mud-covered woman, it looked like heaven with its warm, beckoning lights and curl of smoke coming from the chimney.
A pickup truck was parked in front. As Jac stumbled past, she held up her phone and read the words printed on the side door. M&M Construction. It sounded like a reputable business and made her feel much less scared.
The wind wasn’t as bad on the porch. So she took a moment to release the skirt of her dress and fluff it out before knocking on the door. It took ten polite taps followed by a bout of hysterical pounding before the door was jerked open.
Jac’s hand froze in midair.
A man wearing nothing but a kilt stood in the doorway—or more like filled it—his half-naked body outlined by the flickering fire behind him. Having only been to bed with older men, Jac had never been this close to so much…hardness. This man had chest muscles you could crack an egg on and a stomach that looked like her Granny Lou’s antique metal washboard.
Jac’s gaze swept up to his face. A face that was just as hard as his body. His angular jaw was tight, his lips pressed into a firm line, and his eyes intense and unforgiving. For a second she wondered if she wouldn’t have been better off with the gas station attendant. Although she’d never seen a CSI episode about a murdering Scotsman. In fact the only murdering Scotsman she could think of was in Braveheart. And William Wallace hadn’t killed irrationally. He’d just wanted revenge for his dead wife. Which Jac thought was so romantic. Unfortunately, her romantic theory was shot to hell when the man opened his mouth to speak. His lips parted to reveal a set of pearly white teeth with two very long—very sharp—fangs.
“Trick or treat,” he growled.
The Night Before Christmas: A Contemporary Romance Christmas Collection
Unwrapped appears in this anthology.