Author: Clarissa Johal
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Date of Publication: December 13, 2012
Number of pages: 300
Word Count: approx. 81, 575
Cover Artist: David Efaw
Clarissa Johal has worked as a veterinary assistant, zoo-keeper aide and vegetarian chef. Writing has always been her passion. When she’s not listening to the ghosts in her head, she’s dancing or taking photographs of gargoyles. She shares her life with her husband, two daughters and every stray animal that darkens the doorstep. One day, she expects that a wayward troll will wander into her yard, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The soporific sound of drumming rain soon lulled Lucinda to sleep and her book slipped to the floor. The flames in the fireplace burned down low. Muted light played across the living room window, mixing with the rivulets of rain from outside. There was a faint knock at the door. Startled awake, Lucinda checked the small clock that hung on the wall. One forty-nine in the morning. Who could be stopping by so late? she wondered. Marny? No, she would have called first. Maybe an emergency with somebody’s pet.
“Just a minute.” Re-wrapping the blanket around herself, she went to open the door. As soon as she twisted the doorknob, the unlocked door flew open, blasting her with a gust of icy wind and rain. Lucinda let out a cry of surprise as she was temporarily blinded.
A man stood on her porch. As he stepped closer, he went from a gray, watery outline to a solid entity. His black sweater dripped with rain and lay like a second skin on his powerful-looking torso. Dark black jeans were plastered onto his equally muscular legs.
“Come in! It’s freezing out there!” Lucinda moved aside as the man stepped over her threshold.
“I apologize for knocking so late.” His voice was even and low. “I saw the light coming from within.” He bowed his head, running a hand through his short, dark hair. His eyes flickered up to meet hers.
Lucinda blinked, startled by their flash of shocking, ice-gray.
Darwin growled at him, hackles raised.
“Darwin!” Lucinda scolded. “Did you break down somewhere?”
The stranger paused before answering. “Yes. I broke down.”
“I’m so sorry! Do you need to use the phone? The only tow truck company I know of around here is probably closed for the night.”
He stood dripping in her front room, the water pooling darkly around his feet onto the hardwood floor.
“Let me get you a towel. You must be freezing.” She patted Darwin firmly on the head. “Darwin, stay put.” The dog sat, eying the stranger fixedly. Lucinda ran into the bathroom and grabbed the only towel she had, which had been tossed over the shower door. She hoped he wouldn’t notice it was slightly damp.
“Thank you.” He took the towel from her.
A shock leapt through their fingers as they touched. Lucinda pulled her hand back. The dying fire flickered off the hard planes of his jaw. She watched as he ran the rough, blue towel through his hair, light eyes never breaking contact with hers. She felt a chill steal through her. “I’ll add some wood to the fire,” she murmured, embarrassed for staring. She turned away to hide a blush stealing over her cheeks. “The phone is in the kitchen if you want to leave the tow truck a message.” The man walked behind her, and Lucinda turned with a start.
Her initial alarm dissipated as quickly as it came. She shook her head to clear it. “I’ll get you the phone. You don’t even know where my kitchen is.” Ducking around him, she pulled her blanket tighter. Red-faced, Lucinda returned and handed it to him. He ran a hand through his wet hair again, brushing it away from his forehead. She found herself staring at him. His face was attractive, but there was a darkness about it that made her feel slightly uncomfortable. Not a darkness of color — his skin was quite light — but from within. It made her heart beat faster. His eyes, however, burned a bright, clear gray.
“Thank you.” He ran his thumb over the mouthpiece of the receiver.
“Where are you from, Mister — ?”
“The phone.” He handed it to her. “It is dead.”
Lucinda took the phone from him and listened to its silence. “The storm must have knocked out the lines. Damn it. I left my cell phone at work. I don’t have a car, or I would offer to drive you to wherever you’re staying. Are you just passing through?”
He raised a dark, arched eyebrow. “Now that is something you do not hear of these days,” he said in his low, even tone.
“Not having a car.”
“I know. I used to have a car, but the town is so small, I, um, decided to sell it when I moved here. My bicycle works fine.” His sudden smile was wide and slightly disarming. It left her feeling jumpy. Lucinda cleared her throat, gathering her thoughts and holding her hand out formally. “I’m Lucinda Bell. I’m the town veterinarian.”
“Cronan.” He slid her hand into hers.
The name stirred something within her. Something between fear and a feeling she couldn’t place. His icy grip was overly firm, and she fought the sudden urge to run. She drew her hand back and pulled the blanket around her again. “You’re freezing. Do you want a cup of tea?”
“I do not require anything to drink.”
“Okay.” Lucinda shifted her weight nervously. “Well, that’s three new people I’ve met recently. That never happens in this town.” Something indecipherable flickered across Cronan’s face. “Where are you staying?” Lucinda asked.
“I have yet to take up residence.” Eyes still appraising her, he ran the towel down his neck, catching water droplets in its thirsty folds. Lucinda’s gaze followed the towel. “Oh. Well, the closest place to stay is at the motel down the main highway.”
Cronan cocked his head slightly. A shudder of wind and torrential rain slammed against the windows.
“But, of course,” Lucinda continued, “you can’t possibly walk there in this weather. It’s about ten miles away, and it’s kind of late.”
“It is late.” His gray eyes studied her thoughtfully. “And I would not want to get into an accident.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “No, of course not. You can stay here tonight, Mr. Cronan. I don’t have anything for you to change into. I have a clothes dryer but…well, um, you can borrow a blanket while your clothes are in the dryer, if you want.” Lucinda felt herself blush and mentally kicked herself for it. Shut up! Shut up!
“I have not the need to change into anything presently.” He caught Darwin’s fierce glare and chuckled. “And please, call me Cronan.” His light eyes locked with hers again.
“Cronan,” she repeated. “That’s an unusual name.”
“It is a family name.”
“Oh.” Her heart hammered in her chest. Maybe this is a bad idea. The thought was pulled away like the tide, and her panic subsided as quickly as it came. The clock ticked loudly, marking their silence. “Well, you can sleep in here. The fire should keep this room warm. I would offer one of the other bedrooms but there’s no furniture in them.”
“Thank you, this will be quite comfortable, Lucinda.” Her name rolled off his tongue in an intimate way that made her face grow warm.
“You’re welcome.” Studying his face, she felt like she had missed something. “Let me get you a blanket.” Dashing into her bedroom, she realized too late that she was wrapped up in her only blanket. She fingered its worn saffron threads. His clothes are wet. And he’s probably colder than he’s letting on. Grabbing the sheet from her bed, she neatly folded the tartan blanket and wrapped herself in the sheet.
“Here.” She came back out and set the blanket down in the chair. Cronan glanced at it, his expression unreadable. “I have others,” she lied, “but this is my warmest one. Come on, Darwin.” She turned and walked toward her bedroom door, aware of his eyes boring into her back. She shut the door, and for the first time since moving in, she locked it.
Cronan stood alone in the middle of the room and gazed into the fire. Walking over to it, he pressed the damp towel against his face, inhaling deeply. A smile spread across his lips. He turned and his gaze fell upon the tartan blanket. Just as quickly, his smile faded like a memory.