TITLE: Dead of Winter
WORD COUNT: 14K
SUMMARY: Bella decides to give Mike one last chance to become the man her heart desires. A weekend at a mountain cabin seems to fit the bill, but when a blizzard rolls in and something strange lurks in the forest, Bella wonders if a broken heart will be the least of her worries.
"Thanks, Angela. I really appreciate you and Ben looking after my furry little boy this weekend."
Angela's smile grew wider as Bella hugged her cat once more before passing him over to her former roommate for safekeeping.
"No worries!" she chirped. "You know I adore Joshy."
Josh purred and curled his claws appreciatively into Angela's thick sweater as she tickled him under his chin. Traitor, Bella thought fondly.
"So you're going up to Mike's cabin up in the mountains?" Angela's eyes twinkled at the thought.
"Yeah. Mike's idea of making it up to me for being pretty much absent over the last couple of months."
When Angela grinned wildly at her, her eyes wide with innuendo, Bella laughed at first, but then she shook her head and grimaced.
Angela's expression changed to one of concern. "What's up, girl?"
"I dunno." Bella sighed. "I mean, yeah, it'll be nice to get away, and I'm particularly looking forward to spending time at the cabin, but…"
"But…" her friend urged.
"I can't help but think that this is our last chance, y'know? With Mike's being away so much the past several weeks, it's given me time to think."
"What, that maybe he's not the one?"
"Yeah. Pretty much." Bella shrugged. "But I do want to give him a chance. We should talk it out."
"And in the meantime, you get all comfy up in the mountains and get laid."
"Angela!" Bella aimed a harmless swipe at her friend's shoulder, and they both laughed.
"Well, let's be honest here. It's supposed to snow this weekend. You're not gonna be doing much other than getting cozy in front of the fire. Am I right?"
Bella rolled her eyes as she reached for the front door of the apartment. "I'm taking my skis with me."
"Ha! I doubt you'll get any use out of them."
"We'll see. I do not plan to just sit around the entire time we're there."
Angela snorted. "Believe what you want, Bella. You forget I've known Mike Newton a lot longer than you have. He's a complete horndog. Always has been."
Bella shook her head again in response and opened the door.
"Say goodbye to your mama, Josh." The cat's claws left a snag in Angela's sweater when she picked up his paw to move it back and forth as if he were waving.
Bella tickled the cat one last time under the chin. "Bye, Angela. And don't do that to my cat. It's undignified."
She winked as Angela laughed, the joyful sound following her down the hallway as she left.
Sure enough, when Mike pulled up in his Forester in front of Bella's building, he took one look at Bella's cross-country skis and poles and smirked.
"You're not going to be needing those." He grinned at her. "I've got the only pole you need, baby."
Bella gave him a playful scowl as together they put her things in the back of his car.
"In fact, I don't really think you need all these clothes, either."
Bella laughed and shook her head as they both climbed into the car, but inwardly she groaned. Mike's comments weren't unexpected, but at the same time, Bella did have certain hopes and expectations for their weekend alone. She hadn't been lying to Angela when she'd said she was having second thoughts about her relationship with Mike, and when Mike had suggested they get away for a long weekend so they could "reconnect," Bella was pleasantly surprised and hopeful.
Now she was getting the impression that Mike's intentions were a bit more shallow than hers.
Their two-hour journey north out of Seattle passed with little discussion between the two, the radio providing the only sound beyond that of the traffic. Bella watched the interstate fly by; not until they left it behind and began traveling east toward the mountains did concrete and steel give way to farmland and trees. They climbed gradually into the Cascades, eventually catching sight of altitudes that remained snow-capped even at the height of summer. As they went farther east and up, patches of lingering white from earlier snowfalls grew larger and more frequent.
They finally pulled into a gas station that marked the last real point of civilization before heading onto the back roads and tracks that led to the Newtons' cabin. Though they'd brought groceries with them for their short stay and they were only another twenty or so minutes away from their final destination, Bella was craving the warmth of coffee to wake her up from the journey and needed to stretch her legs. She wandered into the shop while Mike refueled the SUV and purchased a couple of small propane tanks for the cabin's generator; it wasn't much, but they didn't need it for heating, and they were only going to be there for a few days.
Bella had just grabbed one of her favorite chocolate bars to go with her cup of joe when the bell over the shop door jingled.
"Well, if it isn't Mike Newton! You look just like your dad."
"Hey, Mr. Black." Mike greeted the man behind the counter with a smile and a handshake. "Haven't seen you in a long time."
"No, indeed. In fact, long enough that I think you can drop the 'Mister.' You're old enough now to call me Billy."
Bella wandered up to the counter to stand next to Mike. Billy was a tall, older man with long, black hair and dark, slightly almond-shaped eyes, obviously of Native American descent; he smiled at her, and Mike slipped his arm around her waist. Bella just managed to stop herself from rolling her eyes at the unnecessarily possessive gesture.
"This your girl?" the man asked.
"I'm Bella Swan." She stuck her hand out to shake the man's hand before Mike could introduce her.
"Nice to meet you, Bella." Billy's hand was warm and calloused against her own. "What are you kids doing up here this time of year? Going up to your dad's cabin?"
"Exactly. Bella and I wanted to get away for a long weekend with no interruptions." Mike threw a not-so-subtle wink at Billy and pulled Bella closer.
Bella plastered a smile on her face and slowly pulled away, placing her items on the counter as an excuse. Why don't you just pee on my leg and be done with it?
Billy shot her a look of concern that was lost on her boyfriend, and Bella, contrite, gave the man a genuine smile. She didn't want to give him the wrong impression. She was here by choice, and though Mike's somewhat caveman behavior wasn't winning him points, they hadn't talked yet about her concerns for their relationship—which was more her fault than his. She could have started the discussion on the drive up to the mountains, but she hadn't.
"Is this everything?" Billy rang up Bella's snacks as well as their fuel, and Mike swiped his card.
"Before you head back out, I should probably tell you…" Billy's deep voice trailed off, and the couple waited for him to continue.
"There was an incident a couple weeks ago, just after Christmas, about fifteen miles north of here up near Newhalem."
Bella frowned. "An incident? What kind of incident?"
"Maybe 'incident' isn't the right word. I don't know." Billy rubbed the back of his neck with one hand.
"One of the forest rangers… Something happened. No one knows exactly, whether he got lost, got himself injured, or what.
"Thing is, this ranger, he knew his way around the back country and knew how to handle himself overnight out in the wild, even in winter. He'd usually tell someone if he planned to be out that long, but he didn't always, so when he didn't check in by nightfall, no one really thought anything of it.
"But when he didn't turn up after a couple of days, they sent out a search party. When they found his body, he'd been chewed up pretty bad. Mountain lion, the rangers are saying."
Bella gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth, and Mike curled his arm around her shoulders.
"Sorry, Bella." Billy twisted his mouth in apology. "Anyway, the rangers are saying it's a mountain lion that killed him, but thing is, mountain lions rarely attack adults. Plus, this guy, he had his gun on him, and it was still loaded when they found him. I reckon he died first, and a mountain lion found him after.
"But what actually killed him… That was no mountain lion."
"I hate to have to tell you folks something like that. I just want you to be on your guard while you're up at the cabin, all right?"
Mike let out a puff of air and grimaced. "Right. Well, thanks, but there's no need to worry about us. It's not like we're planning on doing much outside while we're up there. Right, Bella?"
Mike winked at her with a cheesy grin, and Bella inwardly sighed. "No, I guess not."
They thanked Mr. Black again and headed back out to the car. As Mike and one of the mechanics loaded the propane tanks in the back, Bella sat and shivered in the front seat; the heat from her coffee did little to suppress the chill running through her. Yes, it was frigid outside, but Billy's tale of the forest ranger sent the cold straight to her bones. Bella was familiar with the dangers of being out in the wild, but there was something about this story that didn't sit right with her.
A blast of arctic air hit her when the door opened and Mike climbed in behind the driver's seat. She trembled again from the cold, folding in on herself to ward it off.
"Let's get going." Mike grinned at her, his pale blue eyes twinkling with excitement. "Have you seen the sky? It's going to start snowing soon."
Just beyond the gas station they crossed a river via an old truss bridge. After about another half mile, they turned off to the right onto a narrow drive, which quickly began to climb. The wide band of whitened sky above them shrank to a narrow ribbon as the surrounding firs and pines choked out the slumbering oaks and maples. Around a couple of tight curves, they turned left onto a dirt track which continued to burrow through the thickening evergreens. The ride was rough and bumpy, more so than Bella remembered it from her previous visit back in the early summer; bushes and undergrowth scraped against the side of the car, and more than once their car shuddered across patches of ice.
After about ten or fifteen minutes of slow going up the track, the cabin finally emerged underneath the shadows of the surrounding trees. It was almost camouflaged in its setting; very little light filtered down from above, and one tree grew so close to the house that the front porch was built around it. The exterior was made of split logs, the roof of cedar shingles, and the shutters had been painted a dark green, all of which served to further blend the cabin into the landscape.
Mike pulled to a stop in the small cleared area to the left of the house. He shut off the engine and turned to Bella, a boyish grin splitting his face. He clapped his hands together.
He bounded out of his seat and headed toward the back of the car. "Come help me with the propane tanks, and I'll get the generator started."
Bella climbed out and together they lugged both tanks behind the house where the generator was located.
Bella flexed her hands after they put down the second heavy fuel tank. "I don't remember the road up here—if you want to call it that—being so rough and overgrown last time we were here."
"Hm?" Mike paused in his task of hooking the first tank to the generator. "Oh, yeah. You're right; it wasn't this bad last time. But then Dad and his friend Joe had just been up here and cleared up a lot before we came up here back in May. I'm not sure if Dad's been up here since then."
Bella nodded, though Mike didn't notice as he'd turned his attention back to the generator. She tromped back over to the car, but before she started gathering their things, she took a moment to take in their surroundings. Once again she was struck by how peaceful it was up here, with the dense growth of hemlocks, pines, and firs, interspersed with the occasional bare larch. She breathed in deeply the spice of the evergreens and the clean mountain air. It was surprisingly, even eerily, quiet, the expected chatter of winter birds and squirrels absent. It was as if the landscape were holding its breath in anticipation of some unknown event; perhaps the local fauna were already hunkering down before the snow arrived.
A sudden gust of air swayed the branches around her, and Bella hugged her arms around her chest briefly for warmth before she finally turned back to the car to grab her backpack and duffel bag to carry them up to the little porch. On her second trip back to the car, the welcome but intrusive sound of the generator starting up shattered the silence around her.
"Here, let me take that."
Bella jumped, startled by Mike's sudden voice from behind her. He grabbed the cooler of food from her hands and headed onto the porch. Bella stubbornly pulled the last bit of luggage out of the car, her cross-country skis and poles, and joined him as he unlocked and opened the door.
"Home sweet cabin!" Mike grinned and wagged his eyebrows at her, until he caught sight of the skis and rolled his eyes.
Mike turned the lights on and led the way inside. Bella smiled at the cozy interior, which was just as she remembered it. The cabin's layout was very simple: a large, open room downstairs, with a kitchen area in the far left corner, a central wood stove, a rustic dining table and chairs, and an intimate living room suite grouped between the stove and a stone fireplace. In the near left corner, tucked underneath the stairs to the second floor, were the doors to the closet and the sole bathroom.
The interior might be fairly basic, but it embodied comfort and style. The floor was covered in thick area rugs, the sofa and easy chairs each had its own fluffy blanket and pillows, and cheery, white curtains framed the lower halves of the windows. There was a bookcase holding a selection of light reading as well as manuals and guides on living in the mountains, and there was a small cabinet holding a modest stereo system, the one nod to modern entertainment in the entire place. The Newtons had made a conscious decision not to allow television and the outside world to invade their getaway space.
Mike rubbed his hands together to warm them. "A bit nippy, yeah? Do you think you can get the fire started in the stove okay? I'll bring in some wood."
Leaving the cooler outside for the time being, Bella carried the box of dry goods over to the kitchen area, where the small refrigerator was lightly humming, before moving over to the wood stove. A container close by held old newspapers and regular kindling. While Mike went out the back door to bring in some logs from the woodpile, Bella arranged the kindling inside the stove and got it lit, nursing it until Mike finished his chore and took over. Bella returned to the kitchen and emptied the contents of the box into the kitchen cabinets and fixed a couple of mugs of hot chocolate, complete with marshmallows.
By the time Mike joined her on the sofa, they had a nice fire going in the stove, and the chill in the cabin quickly dissipated, replaced by a cozy warmth.
Mike leaned back and slid the arm not holding his mug around Bella's shoulders and drew her close.
"Look, just in time." He motioned to the window on the back wall directly across from them where tiny flecks of white were swirling in a soundless dance between the trees. "It's snowing."
Bella smiled quietly as she watched the beginning of the snowfall and allowed the warmth from the stove and the hot chocolate to relax her. After a moment, though, she remembered something she'd wanted to check once they got there, and she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket.
Mike watched as she fiddled with her phone. "Whatcha doin'? You know we don't get a signal up here."
"Yeah, I figured, since there was no signal last time we were here, but you never know. It's been several months. Things might have changed. But nope." She switched her phone off to save the battery. "No signal. The GPS will still work, though."
Mike pointedly looked over his shoulder at Bella's skis leaning next to the front door of the cabin, then turned his gaze back to her. "Don't know why you care, babe. You're not going to need it."
Bella let out a huff and rolled her eyes. "Look, just because you didn't bother to bring your skis—when I told you more than once I was bringing mine—doesn't mean I'm not going to go out at some point while we're here."
"Okay, okay. Yeesh." Mike raised his hands in surrender. "I get it. You want to go skiing. I'm sorry. But please, just remember what Mr. Bla—I mean Billy—said back at the gas station. You might want to reconsider."
"We'll see," she said grudgingly. Bella was a bit put out. Mike was right; she'd momentarily forgotten Billy's warning in her anticipation of going out on her skis. But surely there would be no danger in going on a little jaunt in the immediate area? Anyway, it was still early yet; it had only started to snow, and there was no telling—they might not end up with enough to make it worth her while. She'd wait until tomorrow to decide.
"I'm going to relax and read for a bit until time to fix dinner," she said instead and hopped up to retrieve the book she was currently reading from her backpack. It was now Mike's turn to huff, and he scowled in frustration as he watched her pad back and curl up against the arm of the sofa, her sock feet tucked underneath her.
"Problem?" She smiled innocently at him before flipping to the right page and diving in.
"No, no. No problem. I'll just…"
Mike wasn't able to keep the note of disappointment from his voice as he rose from the sofa. He bent as if to retrieve their mugs from the coffee table but then hesitated.
"Fuck it," he mumbled. He straightened without picking up the mugs and brushed past her. He grabbed their bags from where they'd left them next to the front door, and his feet thudded against the wooden steps as he trudged up to the one room upstairs, the bedroom. Bella listened to him shuffling about overhead and the loud opening and shutting of cabinet doors. While the wood stove was able to provide enough heat for the whole place, it would still be a while before it would be comfortable enough to sleep upstairs, and Mike was no doubt getting out extra blankets for later.
A few minutes later Mike reappeared downstairs and just stood at the bottom of the steps, hands on his hips, looking a bit lost. Bella pretended not to notice and fought a smirk when he huffed and went to stare at the bookcase. A moment later he snagged a book off the top shelf and threw himself down on the opposite end of the sofa. Bella had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the look of utter frustration on his face.
Some time later when Bella reached the end of a chapter, she took a break from her reading and looked up at the window. She was surprised at how dark it had gotten. Her watch told her it was well after five o'clock, and the sun had set without her notice. She looked over at Mike next to her on the sofa and chuckled softly; he'd nodded off, and his book dangled precariously from one limp hand. Bella gently lifted the book away without waking him and laid it next to hers on the coffee table before she stood and made her way over to the window that looked out behind the cabin.
It was well and truly snowing now, and Bella listened contently to the hiss of the snowflakes as they hit the window pane. It was difficult to make out much detail against the reflection of the room behind her, but she estimated two or three inches already lay atop the tarp protecting the woodpile, the corner of which she could just make out to her right. She grinned in growing anticipation of being able to ski tomorrow, and she was grateful that the snow was falling now: she might love to play in it, but she'd much rather be inside admiring it while it was actually coming down.
After another few moments spent watching the play of the flakes outside, Bella slipped on her boots and went to the front door to grab the cooler off the porch. The warmth inside the cabin made the cold outside that much more of a shock to her system, and she swore under her breath as her bare fingers came into contact with the freezing metal handles.
A terrible scream suddenly rent the nighttime forest, and Bella froze where she stood with one foot poised in the open doorway. Ever so slowly she turned her head to peer over her shoulder, dreading what she might find looming behind her in the dark, but there was nothing there.
The shriek came again, like that of a banshee wailing for the dead, or someone in unbearable pain. Trembling with fear, Bella bolted back inside the safety of the cabin.
Bella knew those terrible wails belonged to an animal. She was pretty sure it had been a mountain lion, despite never having heard one before, but it took her a while preparing their supper for her nerves to calm down. She was more than halfway through when Mike stirred from his nap. Even though she heard him coming up behind her, she still jumped slightly when he slipped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder to see what she was making.
"Beefy mac? Mmmmm. Thanks, babe." He gave her a quick squeeze and a peck on the cheek. "Sorry I fell asleep."
"No worries. You've been going pretty much non-stop for the past six weeks. You obviously needed it." She smiled at him over her shoulder. "And I know how much you like beefy mac. I thought it would be perfect for a snowy evening."
He gave her another quick kiss before moving over to the window to see for himself. "Wow. Yeah, look at that."
After a moment Mike tended to the wood stove, adding another log. "Would you like a fire in the fireplace tonight, babe?"
"Hm?" Bella paused in stirring the cheese into the beef and macaroni. "No, why bother with the fireplace? It just loses heat up the chimney. Could you set the table? I'm almost done here. And get whatever you want to drink."
Dinner was pleasant enough, if somewhat dominated by Mike's talk about his projects at work. Bella acknowledged to herself that it was good that he seemed so engaged with his job; at the same time it would be nice for him to show some interest in what her life entailed beyond where it intersected with his.
After dinner, Mike turned off all the lights in the room except for one lamp in the far corner; with its amber shade it cast a warm glow over the cabin's interior. Bella had just retrieved her book and was about to curl up in the chair closest to the stove, but Mike gently removed it from her fingers and laid it aside. He took both her hands and led her to the couch. He sat them close together; while one arm went about her shoulders, the other hand cupped her cheek and angled her mouth to his. His kisses started out softly, chastely, but soon his tongue was sliding between her lips, and his hands began to travel south.
"Oh, Bella. I've missed you, missed this," he groaned into her neck. He began pulling her sweater up, one hand snaking up to unclasp her bra.
Almost before she knew it, Bella was underneath him on the couch with Mike panting and grunting as he thrust into her. This wasn't how she'd envisioned things happening tonight, but she wasn't surprised. Once again, she'd given in to his persistence, despite her protest that she'd rather wait until they were in the warmth and comfort of the bed upstairs. Once again, with almost no foreplay he was on top of her, inside her, taking his pleasure.
Once again, she had to fake her own climax when he came, and once again, he was completely oblivious.
Ordinarily Bella would have liked to share the closeness engendered by their lovemaking—at least Mike was usually good for a decent cuddle afterward—but instead, as soon as she felt she could get away without causing offense, she made her excuses and left him while she took a shower.
If her boyfriend couldn't make her come, she would damn well do it herself. Plus, for the first time ever, she felt dirty after having had sex with Mike—used, even. He was getting all the pleasure out of this arrangement; she none of it. In fact, this side of their relationship had never been mutual, and it was high time for Bella to admit that this simply wasn't enough for her.
Sated and fresh from her shower, Bella dressed warmly in sweats and thick socks, then padded over to the coffee table. She snagged her abandoned book and offered Mike a little smile.
"I'm kinda tired. I think I'll just curl up under the blankets upstairs with my book." She turned and headed for the stairs.
"It's still kinda early." Mike frowned in disappointment. "You sure you don't want me to build a fire in the fireplace? It'll be romantic…"
She paused at the bottom of the steps to give him a look of apology. "No, really, Mike. I just want to read, then go to sleep.
"Plus, I'll be well rested for tomorrow—and skiing." Bella's voice lifted in a teasing sing-song, and she grinned mischievously at him. Her grin turned to quiet chuckles at his look of exasperation, and Mike mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "Whatever," as she climbed the stairs.
"Well, there's nothing for me to do down here on my own," Mike grumbled. He pushed himself upright and went to check on the stove for the night.
Bella inwardly sighed. It was all an excuse, of course, her tiredness. Yes, she was enjoying her book, but she really just wanted a moment's reprieve. While Mike secured everything downstairs for the night, she lay propped up against the pillows, and her gaze wandered away from the pages to the one window in the room on the opposite wall. The glare from the bedside lamps obscured only a corner of the view outside, and Bella watched the falling snow, entranced.
She wasn't exactly being fair, she knew. She still hadn't told Mike how she felt about this weekend, that it was essentially a test. It wasn't about reconnecting so much as it was deciding for herself whether or not the relationship was worth trying to save. Was it right to keep this from him? On one hand, Mike deserved to know how she felt. On the other, if he did know, wouldn't that lead him to change his behavior for good or bad? Skew the results?
Bella shook her head at herself. It was as if she were a scientist carrying on some kind of warped experiment: if the mouse knows there's cheese at the other end of the maze, will he behave differently from the mouse who doesn't know about the cheese?
When she heard Mike's footfalls on the steps, she finally turned back to her book and didn't look up when he climbed into bed next to her. She felt his eyes on her as she pretended to read, and she resolutely ignored him, eventually managing to focus enough to get back into the plot. After some fidgeting from Mike's side of the bed, they both relaxed with their books.
Bella kept up the ruse for nearly an hour before her mind began to drift once more. She marked her place, then turned out her light and scooted down under the covers on her side, her back toward Mike.
"Good night, Mike." A sudden yawn added authenticity to her words.
Mike abandoned his book as well, and after turning off his own lamp, he flopped down, making the mattress bounce and creak underneath them both. He sighed heavily into the darkened room.
Bella's gaze sought out the window once again, and she continued to watch the snow. She imagined her thoughts and memories of the day being cloaked with a heavy, white blanket, and she began to relax, her breaths evening out.
Mike shifted behind her, and his arm slid over her hip and around her waist. He pulled her close, her back to his front. Bella leaned against his warmth and would have been content to simply fall asleep with his arm around her, but Mike had other ideas.
He began nuzzling through her hair, and his hot breath ghosted across her ear, while the hand on her stomach sneaked its way underneath her top. Bella halted the hand's progress with one of her own, lacing her fingers with his.
Wet kisses trailed along the back of her neck, and that same hand she'd just stopped escaped her hold, this time slipping underneath the waistband of her sweatpants toward the juncture of her thighs.
"Mike, no." Bella grabbed his hand and jerked it away. "I'm tired, and I want to go to sleep."
"Ah, Bella. Come on," Mike whined. Then his voice changed, taking on a persuasive note. "I'll make it worth your while."
Oh, I highly doubt that. "No, Mike. Not tonight. Please, can we just cuddle?"
Bella laced her fingers with his once again and pulled his arm tightly around her waist. Mike answered with another heavy sigh and a perfunctory kiss to the back of her head before his own flopped back down on his pillow, but he gave her a comforting squeeze and relaxed against her.
She finally drifted off as the snow swirled outside the window, the hiss of the flakes hitting the glass and the snarl of the wind in the trees the only sounds in the night.
Bella woke before Mike the next morning. She was familiar with his penchant for morning sex, so rather than lying awake in bed with her thoughts and risking getting groped again, she ventured out from the warmth of the blankets and padded over to the window.
What she saw surprised her. When they'd gone to bed, the snow was perhaps six or eight inches deep. But now the pale light of the early morning sun revealed a thick blanket of white that hid all but the largest of the underbrush and the trees themselves. There was barely any green anywhere, nearly obliterated as it was by its covering of white, and the branches bent low under their heavy burdens.
Bella grinned in anticipation as she tightened her arms around her torso against the slightly chilled air. She'd definitely be getting some skiing in today.
She was in the middle of fixing pancakes when Mike tromped downstairs.
"I missed you when I woke up." He slid his arms around her waist and nuzzled behind her ear before moving her hair aside to kiss the back of her neck. One hand drifted up just underneath her breasts. "I was looking forward to a bit of…"
He finished his sentence by pulling her tightly to him and grinding his obvious hard-on against her ass.
"Mike! You're gonna make me spill the pancake batter!"
Mike immediately stepped back, his hands raised in surrender. "Sorry. Geez. God forbid I want sex with my girlfriend."
Bella finished pouring the batter and turned halfway to look back at him with a glower. "Sorry, Mike. I just…"
She took a deep breath and reined in her annoyance before forcing herself to speak more cheerfully. "I want to eat breakfast and then go outside. Have you seen the snow this morning?"
Mike's scowl morphed into one of resigned acceptance, then he nodded, his eyes wide. "I know, right? It must be over two feet out there. I wasn't expecting that at all."
He glanced over his shoulder at the wood stove. "You banked the fire?"
Bella flipped the pancakes on the griddle. "Yeah, and we'll need more wood soon."
"Right, well, after we eat, I'll dig out the woodpile and bring some more in."
After Bella cleaned up from their breakfast while Mike lingered over his cup of coffee, they both pulled on their outer gear. Mike grabbed the two snow shovels from the closet and pulled open the back door.
"Shit!" A mini-avalanche had just fallen on his feet where the wind had piled the snow high up against the outside of the cabin. Bella laughed.
"Go on. I'll clean this up in here," she chuckled. "Just keep as much outside as you can."
Mike scraped what he could back across the threshold, then started clearing a path to the woodpile, while Bella shed her jacket long enough to mop up the melting snow inside. When she was done, she joined him outside where Mike had already shoveled a channel in the snow halfway to the woodpile.
The snow was past Bella's knees in places where it had drifted. It was hard to believe so much had fallen overnight. The morning sun, now peeking out from behind the clouds, cast filtered light through the towering trees; it reflected off the glittering snow with near blinding intensity.
With the second shovel Bella began working her way over to the generator, which was merrily humming away. It was hard work, but fortunately she didn't have far to go from the back door. By the time she'd made it to the generator and cleared the front of it, Mike had finished digging out one end of the woodpile and called her over.
"Here, let me pass some of this to you." He handed her a couple of logs and reached down for more. "Just lean it up next to the door. We'll bring in a bunch now so we won't have to come out here again until much later."
Together they ferried inside a good supply of firewood for the rest of the day, and Mike added another log to the stove. Bella went to the front door and gingerly opened it, forewarned of the possibility of snow drifted up onto the porch. There was some, but not as much as on the other side of the cabin, and Bella easily kept most of it from falling inside with the shovel as she opened the door and stepped outside.
Bella grinned at the little tracks that trailed through the snow along the edge of the porch. At least one raccoon was still out and about in this weather, instead of holed up somewhere nice and warm, and it had decided to have a closer look at their cabin sometime after the snow had stopped falling, perhaps in hopes of finding some food. She looked out beyond the porch railing in eager anticipation of her morning adventure on her skis. As she turned around to go back inside, she caught sight of something to her right, and she snorted.
"You should come have a look at your car, Mike."
A moment or two later Mike stuck his head out the front door and groaned. "I guess I need to dig that out, too."
The Forester was quite literally buried. If they didn't know where it was parked, they would never have known there was a car there; it could just as easily be a rock or any other large object.
"You don't have to worry about it right now. I mean, it's not like we were planning on driving anywhere today."
Mike shrugged. "Well, no, but… I'd just rather be prepared, y'know?"
Bella pursed her lips and nodded. "Okay, well, why don't you take a bit of a break for now? I'm going to go out on my skis while the sun's shining. When I get back, we'll have some lunch, and then I'll help you dig out the car. And maybe by then the sun will have melted some of it."
Mike gave her a long, speculative look. "You're really going out skiing in this?"
She responded by looking at him like he'd lost his mind, the "duh" all but said. "It's snow. It's perfect. When else am I going to go skiing?"
She brushed past him back inside the cabin and began gathering her gear that she'd left just inside the door the day before. She kicked off the boots she'd been wearing to shovel snow and started pulling on her ski boots.
Mike shut the door behind him and huffed. "I just… There are other things to do here besides play in the snow, y'know. Are you sure you wouldn't rather stay here with me? 'Cause it's not like I can go with you."
She raised her eyebrows at him. "And whose fault is that? I told you I was bringing my skis."
Mike scowled, his jaw clenching in frustration. "Well, do you remember what Billy said back at the gas station? I'm not sure I like the idea of you going out there on your own."
She sighed and looked away for a moment, one knee bouncing with impatience, though her thoughts turned briefly to the screams she'd heard the night before. "Look, I agree with you that the story Billy told us was creepy. But, Mike, that happened twenty miles north of here. I'll be fine."
"Just…" Mike planted his hands on his hips as he frowned at her in resignation. "Be careful, yeah?"
"I said I'll be fine. But I've really been looking forward to this. I promise I won't go far, but I'm not going to pass this up."
Mike shook his head and grumbled something too low for her to make out before walking past her toward the kitchen.
Bella glared at his back and only just resisted her childish impulse to stick her tongue out at him. She finished her prep by putting on her helmet and gloves, then picked up her poles and skis and stepped back outside.
The snow had drifted up high enough that she could ski straight off the porch. She paused in front of the little house and glanced back, wondering if she'd see Mike looking out at her, but he wasn't at the window. Although the sun had now disappeared behind the clouds and didn't look like it would be coming back any time soon, she lowered her goggles over her eyes and ventured out amongst the trees.
Bella struck a leisurely pace as she wended her way through the forest. This was about enjoying the solitude of nature on a cold winter's day, the crisp, clean mountain air, the quiet sounds of birds and other woodland creatures as they traveled through the snow. Several minutes' journey away from the cabin, far enough that she no longer heard the hum of the generator, she halted and watched as a black-tailed deer carefully picked its way through the snow. It froze in place for a moment, its ears swiveling back and forth. Bella held her breath, not wanting to startle the timid creature. They both stood as still as statues, until suddenly without any obvious provocation, it leapt forward and bounded out of sight.
Seconds later, Bella's heart jumped into her throat as a pair of crows took to the air, dislodging the snow from the branches where they'd sat hidden. They cawed raucously to each other, their urgent calls warning of some unknown danger as they quickly disappeared into the sky to the west, the same direction the deer had fled.
As loud as the crows had been, now that they were gone, it was deathly quiet, the only sounds that of Bella's pounding heart and the blood rushing through her ears. Something wasn't right, something that made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She didn't know what lurked out there, but whatever it was, she suddenly imagined herself the rabbit waiting for the predator to attack.
Her flight instinct kicked in; Bella turned as quickly as she could on her skis and took off back the way she'd come. It wasn't difficult to follow her tracks; they cut a clear path through the trees, and with a singular focus, she sped across the snow back to the safety of the cabin. Within minutes it came into view, the annoying rumble of the generator a relief and the thin trail of smoke escaping the chimney a sign of warmth and welcome.
Mike was outside next to the car, leaning back at an odd angle and facing out toward the trees away from Bella, when she braked to a sliding stop in front of the porch. At the sound of the snow kicking up from her skis, Mike looked over his shoulder in surprise before hurriedly hiking up his pants. When he turned to her and grabbed his snow shovel, his cheeks were glowing red from more than just the cold air.
"You weren't gone long. Everything okay?"
Back at the sanctuary of the cabin in Mike's presence, everything seemed so normal. What on earth had spooked her so badly? She shook her head at herself, disguising it as shaking out her hair as she removed her helmet.
"Yeah, everything's fine." She sounded so convincing it almost worked on herself. "It was really pretty out there, but I dunno. I guess it just wasn't the same, not being able to share it with someone, y'know?"
She smiled at Mike, unaccountably relieved to see him, and he grinned back at her before screwing his lips in apology. "Yeah, I'm sorry, Bella. You've told me how much you love skiing. I guess I was being a bit of a dick when I didn't bring my skis with me."
A real apology. She smiled again and shrugged as she began removing her skis. "Never mind. We'll have other chances, right? We'll just have to find another weekend to come back before the winter's over."
"Definitely, babe. I promise." He glanced at the still-snowbound car, then back at her. "Feel up to helping me out for a bit, or do you want to catch your breath first?"
"Nah, I'm good. Let me just go get the other shovel." She paused as she turned for the cabin and looked back at him with a grin, her eyes teasing. "Were you just pissing in the snow?"
Mike's blush returned along with a sheepish expression, and he looked over her shoulder before nodding slowly. "Yeah, uh… I kinda wrote out my name."
His eyes returned to hers, and they stared at each other for a moment before they both cracked up. It felt good to laugh, and the last of Bella's jitters from the disturbing quiet of the forest disappeared.
Mike cleared a large area behind and to the right of the SUV while Bella dug out the car itself as best she could. Mike had already made quite a dent in the snow on the driver's side while she'd been out skiing, so she finished that off before concentrating on the other side. They worked for about an hour, shoveling and scraping snow, throwing it off to the side, until the vehicle was freed. Bella, exhausted, leaned against her shovel and surveyed the carnage. She knew it was necessary, but she hated the way their shovels had ravaged the pure blanket of white.
They spent the afternoon pleasantly. After a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, they dug out a few old board games and played them on the coffee table near the warmth of the wood stove. After Bella beat Mike twice at Trivial Pursuit, they switched to Monopoly; they laughed and goofed around, having a wonderful time together. Around four, though, Mike started openly cheating at Scrabble so he could spell out words pertaining to sex. Bella laughed at first, but she soon begged off to take a hot shower.
As the steaming water streamed down her back, relaxing her tired muscles, Bella mused over the events of the day so far. There had been a couple of rough moments early on, but when she'd returned from her abbreviated trek on her skis, the mood between her and Mike had shifted considerably. He'd been contrite at first, then open and playful, and she'd thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon they'd spent together. It brought to mind the early days of their relationship, when everything had been fresh, new, and exciting, before they'd both allowed work and other responsibilities to get in the way and leech the joy out of their time together.
Maybe there was something worth saving here after all.
Bella took her time drying her hair and getting redressed. By the time she made it back downstairs, Mike was in the kitchen working on dinner.
"Oh, good. There you are." He grinned at her over his shoulder before adjusting the heat on one of the burners on the stove.
Bella gawked at the lit candles on the table. "What's all this?"
"Can't I make my girl a romantic dinner?"
He smiled at her as he stepped away from the stove. He paused briefly to give Bella a quick kiss, then continued to the cabinet where the stereo was housed. He turned on some quiet music, then with a wink and a smirk at Bella, he went back to his dinner preparations.
Bella smiled widely; it had been a long time since Mike had actually cooked for her, not to mention put any kind of effort into it.
Dinner was wonderful. Mike wasn't the most accomplished cook, so he'd kept things pretty simple, but it was the gesture that was important. They opened a bottle of wine to share with their meal, and more than once as they ate, Mike's hand reached over to squeeze hers.
They cleaned up together, and as Bella headed toward the couch with their glasses and the rest of the wine, Mike started a fire in the fireplace. Once he had it going nicely, he joined her on the sofa, poured them each another glass, and took a sip, smiling at her as he slid his free arm behind her shoulders.
Bella relaxed against the back of the sofa, her head cushioned by Mike's arm. This was the perfect end to an almost perfect day: skiing; simple, innocent fun; a nice, romantic meal; and cuddling in front of a warm fire with her boyfriend. But after a few quiet moments Mike gently removed the glass from her hand and set both his and hers on the table in front of them.
He leaned in, pulling her closer with the arm around her shoulders, and kissed her softly on the lips. His other hand went to her hip, and he squeezed gently before sliding it up her ribs. His tongue peeked out to brush against her lips, and as she slowly responded to him, he deepened the kiss.
He tugged her closer still until, gripping her tightly, he'd dragged her over to straddle his lap. One hand at the back of her head anchored her mouth to his, while the arm around her waist pressed her down against his hips.
Bella tensed when Mike began to grind his erection up against her heat, and she raised both hands to his chest to push herself away. She stared down at him in exasperation; Mike's blue eyes were dark with lust, and he leaned in to draw kisses down her neck.
Bella sat back farther to escape his advances and pushed him back again. "God, Mike, is sex all you ever think about?"
Mike's eyes clouded with confusion as he stared back at her. "C'mon, can you blame me? We're all alone, roaring fire, soft music, hot chick… Let's not waste it, baby."
He moved his hands to the hem of her sweater and started to pull it up, but Bella scrambled off his lap and stood with a glare.
A look of shock registered on Mike's face before he groaned in irritation. "The fuck, Bella? What's wrong now?"
"Did you just call me a chick? A chick?"
He just stared back at her, his jaw now clenched in defiance, and Bella felt the heat rising to her face. She took a few steps back.
"First, don't call me a chick—"
"You call women chicks—"
"Only when I mean to be insulting."
"You know I didn't mean it that way!"
"I do know, but regardless, I find it condescending and demeaning, so don't ever call me that again." She huffed.
Mike just gaped at her.
"And you know what? I'm beginning to think that your only interest in coming here this weekend wasn't for us to reconnect as a couple, but for me to get reconnected to your dick."
Mike stood now as well, anger starting to distort his features. "We haven't been together properly in weeks! What did you expect? I'm a guy. Of course I'm gonna want sex with my girlfriend."
"Every waking minute? What's wrong with spending quality time with each other, talking, getting to know each other better?"
"What are you talking about? We already know each other. And for me, sex is quality time!"
"For you, yeah. Of course it is," she spat.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that your techni—"
Bella's words cut off with a yelp when the generator suddenly failed, killing the music and leaving them in utter silence. The only light in the room came from the fireplace, the glow from the wood stove, and the two small candles on the table that were burning low.
"The fuck?" Growling in irritation, Mike stepped over to the closet and pulled out his jacket, shoved his feet into his boots, then went to the kitchen and grabbed a flashlight from one of the drawers.
"Hopefully it's nothing serious." He wrenched open the door to the rear of the cabin and stepped outside.
Bella wrapped her arms around her torso against the frigid draft of air that swept through the room when Mike went outside. After a moment's hesitation, she headed to the closet and retrieved her own jacket and boots, but instead of following Mike out the back door, she went out the front to stand on the porch.
She stared out at the army of snow-covered trees surrounding them on all sides. She breathed the cold air deeply into her lungs and held it for a moment before exhaling slowly.
What was wrong with her? She'd completely overreacted just now, especially after they'd had such a wonderful afternoon, spending the quality time together that she'd said she wanted. And were Mike's expectations so wrong under the circumstances? No, not really. But she was blaming him for not knowing what she wanted without having given him any clues.
She drew in another deep breath through her nose and exhaled through her mouth, creating a puff of steam around her face. She needed to apologize to him and tell him what had been on her mind for the past few days.
As she stood there in the quiet, trying to find the right words with which to apologize, that same feeling she'd had that morning in the woods trailed up her spine, raising goose bumps on her flesh. A moment earlier when she'd stepped out on the porch, the world around her had been quiet but peaceful. Now it lay in wait, crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce.
Something out there was watching her; she could feel it.
She shrank back from the edge of the porch and fumbled behind her for the door handle. She backed up slowly, as if any sudden movement might bring the terror crashing down on her. Just as the hum of the generator starting back up reached her ears, she opened the door behind her, and she whipped around and back inside, slamming it shut.
She stood with her back against the door, breathing heavily, and tried to gather her wits. Mike was still outside, his darkened form casting a shadow across the window on the opposite wall. Knowing he was out there helped ease her nerves, and she relaxed enough to remove her boots and jacket again before moving back over to the couch.
Several more minutes passed before Mike came back in with a couple more logs for the wood stove tucked under one arm.
"Figured while I was out there…" He gave her a stiff smile and zipped up his pants, looking at her pointedly.
Bella felt the heat in her cheeks as she realized what had taken him so long outside, but she chose to ignore it. "So what was up with the generator?"
"The weirdest thing," he began, setting the wood down next to the stove before kneeling in front of it and adding one of the logs to the fire. "It was just turned off. Like someone had just, you know, switched it off. Bizarre."
He stood and removed his jacket and boots before returning to the couch. He hesitated before sitting down at the opposite end from her. "I had a look around, see if there were any animal tracks or something. Maybe it was a raccoon. I don't know. I didn't see anything."
He shifted uncomfortably and refused to meet Bella's eyes. Bella, contrite, scooted over to him and took his hand.
"Mike, I'm sorry."
He looked up at her then, his expression wary. "What's going on, Bella? You're acting like you don't want anything to do with me."
"No, Mike. I've been acting as if I expect you to be a mind reader, and that's just not fair of me. I'm so, so sorry."
He frowned in puzzlement, but he squeezed the hand that held his and waited for her to continue.
She paused, wondering if she should tell him about the strange feelings of being watched she'd experienced twice now today. "I've been feeling kind of out of sorts, on edge, because…"
She proceeded to tell him, haltingly, about the doubts she'd been having about their relationship, how their time apart while he'd been busy with work had made her question whether they were right for each other.
Mike's initial response was to wipe all expression from his face, effectively putting up a wall between them. But as she explained how she felt, honestly but without laying any blame on him, his gaze softened.
It was now his turn to apologize to her, for having been so wrapped up in his own concerns to have noticed that he wasn't taking care of her the way she needed or deserved. After talking things through, they both resolved to be more honest with each other going forward and not to let things fester until they became major problems.
They talked for a while longer, moving on to other, less weighty matters. As the mood shifted, Mike wrapped his arm around her shoulders again, drawing her close.
"Come here, you." With his other hand he pulled her head to his shoulder, fitting her underneath his chin. He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her to him. He kissed the top of her head, then laid his cheek against her as she slid her own arms around his waist.
Bella relaxed against him, letting the heat from his body seep into hers and comfort her. After all the excitement of the day, both the good and the bad, and now with the warmth surrounding her, she soon dozed off in Mike's arms.
Something on the edge of her consciousness dragged Bella back to the surface. She refused to move, cozy where she was with the two of them curled around each other, her head resting against Mike's chest and her legs draped over his lap. Reluctantly she opened her eyes, her blurry vision finding the reflection of the two lit candles in the window. Odd, though; she'd have thought they would have burned down completely by now. She didn't know how long they'd been asleep here on the couch, but surely…
And that was when she realized they were eyes.
Her shriek startled Mike awake, who nearly dumped her off his lap. In the ensuing scuffle, she glanced away from the window, and by the time she looked back, the eyes were gone.
"Bella, what's wrong? Fuck! Are you okay? Were you having a nightmare?" Mike gripped her shoulders as he tried to figure out what had her so frantic she was nearly incoherent.
"Eyes! Eyes! Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!"
"Eyes? What do you mean? Where?"
"Outside!" Bella jabbed her finger in the direction of the window. "Eyes. Ohmygod."
Mike frowned as he looked at the window. "There's nothing there, Bella."
"There isn't now!" Bella's voice was still coming out in little squeaks, and her hands shook in front of her.
"It was probably just a dream," Mike said, his voice low and soothing. He rubbed and squeezed her shoulders, trying to calm her.
Bella's breathing began to slow, and she swallowed thickly as she shook her head. "No. It wasn't a dream. I swear to you, there was something—someone—out there. Someone looking in at us."
Mike glanced over at the window again before turning back to her. "We're in the middle of nowhere, and it's late in the evening. No one's going to be walking around out there, especially not in all that snow."
She frowned and chewed on her lower lip; she looked away from him, refusing to meet Mike's eyes, but also avoiding looking at the window again for fear of what she might see there.
"You're right." Her words dragged out of her reluctantly, as if they were stuck fast in cold treacle. "I must have been dreaming."
Her vision of the eyes in the window must have been her mind trying to make sense of the weird feelings of being stalked like prey, along with the incident with the generator.
Mike studied her face, a look of concern in his eyes, and he took one of her hands in his. "Why don't I go outside and get more wood for the stove, and while I'm out there, I can have a little look around, make sure nothing's wrong."
Bella's head whipped back to face him, and her breath once again came in ragged gasps. "No! Don't go outside!"
"Bella…" He tried again to calm her. "It'll be okay. There's no one out there. Just let me prove it to you."
He squeezed her hand and smiled at her reassuringly, then he stood. Bella hopped up behind him and dogged his steps as he once more retrieved his boots and jacket.
"Please don't go outside, Mike. Let's just go to bed." She continued to plead with him as he zipped up his jacket and grabbed the flashlight that he'd left on the coffee table.
"Just chill, okay?" He lifted his abandoned glass of wine and drained it. "I'll be back in a second."
Bella let out a growl of frustration and turned her back to the door as he opened it and stepped outside. She shivered at the gust of arctic air that hit her and hugged her arms tightly around her. She knew she was being irrational—there really was no way someone could have been staring at them through the window—but she just couldn't shake the unease that had lodged inside her chest.
A couple of minutes later the door reopened, and Bella spun around. Mike clomped back inside with a couple of logs in hand, his cheeks bright red from the cold. But what really caught her notice were the flakes of snow clinging to his hair and shoulders.
"It's snowing again?"
"Yep," Mike huffed as he tracked snow in with him. "Pretty hard, too."
He dumped the firewood in the container next to the wood stove. "In fact, hard enough that had there been any tracks out there—which I seriously doubt—they probably would've been covered up by the time I got out there."
Bella trembled again, and she wasn't sure it was from the draft that had followed Mike inside. "I don't like this. I want to go home."
Mike nodded. "Yeah, okay. We can leave first thing tomorrow morning. I'm not all that keen to stay here now, either, to be honest."
"No, not tomorrow morning. I want to leave now. Tonight."
He paused with his jacket zipper halfway down and looked at Bella like she had two heads. "We're not leaving tonight. That's just silly."
"Mike, I'm serious. I've got a bad feeling about this. If we don't leave soon—like now—we could be trapped here because of the snow."
Mike deposited his boots next to the wood stove and faced her again. His eyes held a touch of sympathy, but Bella could tell she wasn't going to like his answer.
He moved close to her, cupping her face in his chilled hands, and leaned down to kiss her forehead before responding.
"It's really late, Bella, and visibility is poor. If we try getting down that road in the dark while it's snowing, we're bound to have a problem. We could get stuck, and then we'd only have the car for shelter. We need to wait until morning when we can see what we're doing."
He looked her in the eyes, one thumb rubbing her cheek. "I promise, we'll leave as soon as we can tomorrow morning."
Bella, deflated, knew he was right, but she tried one last time to plead her case. "What if, come tomorrow, we can't get out at all?"
He gave her a half smile before wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her against his chest. He lowered his mouth to her ear. "Well, at least we'll be here where we can keep warm, yeah? Until we can dig out. And we've got plenty of food. It's not like we'll starve if we're stuck here a couple of extra days."
Bella burrowed closer, squeezing her arms tightly around his waist, and tried to calm her frayed nerves. She knew she had no choice but to agree with Mike. She told herself he was right, that it would be stupid to leave now. Not only would it be easier to see come morning, all the larger predators in the area were mostly nocturnal in nature. If they were going to face anything out there, it would be better to wait until daylight.
Mike gave her one last squeeze, then released her, putting a bit of space between them so he could see her face. "Bed?"
She nodded with a little smile, and Mike clasped her hand in his and led her upstairs.
Bella didn't know how he managed to go to sleep again so quickly after having napped most of the evening, but within fifteen minutes Mike was snoring softly next to her under the warm blankets. Bella, on the other hand, was restless. She lay with her back to Mike's chest, his arms wrapped protectively around her, but she felt anything but safe. She couldn't shake off the conviction that, as ridiculous as it seemed, those eyes had been real.
Finally, after what felt like hours, Bella's mind relaxed long enough for her to fall asleep, only to dream of being hunted through the snow-covered forest by a faceless man with glowing eyes.
"Fuck, I thought so." Mike stared out the front door at the Forester. It was buried once more under a thick covering of snow; it was as if they'd never dug it out the day before. Morning had arrived, and the snow had stopped, but the skies were a bleak, pale grey, hinting at more to come.
Mike turned to Bella, who was scowling out at the snow. What she had been looking forward to just a few days earlier was now an unwelcome sight. "This is going to take a while. Why don't you fix us some breakfast, and I'll get started out here. Then we'll eat, and we'll finish together and get out of here. Yeah?"
"Yeah," Bella sighed. She leaned up for Mike's kiss, then they parted, he for the snow drift trapping their escape vehicle and she for the kitchen.
Bella got the coffee machine started, then she turned on one of the electric burners under the griddle and began mixing together more pancake batter. The batter was ready before the griddle was hot enough, and she leaned against the counter, listening to the gurgle of the coffee maker and the scrape and thud of Mike's shovel outside. God, she couldn't wait to get away.
She had just turned to check if the griddle was ready when the light on the coffee machine winked out at the same time that the hum of the generator suddenly cut off again, and she froze. She slowly looked over her shoulder at the back door and hesitated. She could go out there herself and take a look at it, but something held her back. She only knew the basics about the generator, and if it were something more complicated, she wouldn't have the first clue what to do about it.
Yes, she realized she was lying to herself about her real reasons for not checking on the generator herself.
Her decision made, she went to the front door and stepped outside.
He tossed a spadeful of snow to one side and turned to her with a look of surprise. "Breakfast isn't ready already, is it?"
"No. It's the generator. It's stopped again."
Mike straightened and let out a huff, the steam from his breath forming a cloud around his face. He grumbled to himself, then nodded at her.
"Okay. It's probably all this fucking snow. I'll go take a look at it."
He disappeared around the side of the house toward the back, and Bella retreated back inside. She looked around the interior of the cabin; they'd already brought everything down from the bedroom, but there were still a few odds and ends scattered around down here, so she began to gather their things to stow them in their bags. She had just retrieved Mike's iPod from the stereo when he threw the back door open.
Mike stood in the doorway, one hand on the door knob, the other on the frame, as cold air swirled in past him. He looked pissed off and a little jumpy. "I don't know what the fuck's going on here, but something isn't right."
Bella froze where she stood. "What do you mean? What's wrong?"
"Whatever did that out there to the generator wasn't a raccoon. The fuel line's been ripped in two. And I don't know what the fuck did it, because there still aren't any tracks out there." His eyes met Bella's, and she shivered at what he wasn't saying.
Mike took a deep breath and glanced between the kitchen stove and the wood stove before turning back to her. "If I bring in more firewood, can you cook breakfast on top of the wood stove?"
Bella, stunned from the news about the generator, nodded dumbly. "Yeah, I can do that."
"'Kay, I'll be right back." Mike slammed the door shut behind him, and Bella headed back to the kitchen to start transferring everything over.
The griddle now sat atop the wood stove, and the bowl of pancake mixture was perched nearby on the coffee table. Mike seemed to be taking a bit longer than she'd expected to bring in the firewood, but maybe he was taking another look at the generator. While she waited, Bella went back into the kitchen and dug out the old stove top coffee pot. Mike could probably make it through the morning without a cup, but she sure couldn't.
She prepped the coffee pot and set it next to the bowl of pancake batter on the coffee table, and Mike still hadn't come back inside. Bella frowned, her hands on her hips; after a moment's uncertainty she grabbed her jacket, threw it on, and stomped over to the back door.
She hesitated once more before opening the door, then screwing her eyes shut and taking a deep breath, she jerked it open and went outside.
If Mike had been at either the generator to the left or the wood pile to the right, she would have seen him immediately, but he was nowhere to be found.
Bella didn't raise her voice, and his name fell flat in the close forest air. There was no answer, and she crept to her left to get a closer look at the generator. Sure enough, the fuel line connecting one of the propane tanks to the generator was severed partway up. It looked as if it had been pulled apart until it had ripped, the two edges ragged.
Bella's eyes narrowed as she examined the ground around the generator. Mike's footprints from the side of the house were clear, and she'd followed their path backward from the door to the generator. But there were no other tracks; the surrounding snow behind the cabin was completely undisturbed except for where it had dropped from a line of branches hanging overhead.
Thoroughly confused, she turned back, passing the door and making for the woodpile. Again, Mike's boot prints were plain to see, and his abandoned shovel leaned against the side of the house. The tarp covering the firewood had obviously been moved since last night's snowfall, as the end of it was mostly free of snow. In fact, a couple of logs had slipped off the top and lay at an angle against their mates.
That's when Bella noticed the discoloration on the surface of the snow next to the woodpile. There were two stains, two different colors. One was a thin, yellow line, spelling out clearly the letters "M-i-k" before ending in one concentrated spot. The other was red and scattered about in a few small drops.
Mike's name escaped her mouth in a harsh gasp, quickly muffled behind her hand. Her eyes darted about, peering through the trees, and just a few feet away, partially hidden by snow dislodged from the tree above, lay a lone glove.
Bella stared for just a second, her eyes riveted on the glove, then she bolted for the back door, wrenching it open and slamming it shut behind her.
She leaned back against it in shock, mentally chanting Mike's name behind her closed eyes while she tried to calm herself enough to get her bearings.
She had to get out of here, but the car was still completely buried under a snow drift. Mike—she let out a frightened sob—had barely made a dent before she'd told him about the generator. If she were going to drive back to civilization, she'd have to dig it out herself now, but the thought of working outside while whatever had taken Mike was still lurking out there somewhere…
Bella pulled her phone out of her pocket and switched it on. No signal, just as she'd expected, but she wondered how far she'd have to go before she could find one.
She'd still need the car.
Scared but determined, she grabbed the second shovel and headed for the front door. She had to count to ten before she opened it and forced herself outside onto the porch, where she paused to survey her surroundings before venturing toward the mound of snow covering the Forester. But when she got a good look at it, her feet halted where they were, and she stared in disbelief.
Both rear tires had been cut to ribbons and lay in shreds of stark black against the white of the snow.
Bella turned and scrambled back inside, where she sank to the floor, her entire body shaking in fear, her eyes staring out at nothing.
Who or what the hell was doing this? How were they doing it without leaving any tracks? Why? Where had they taken Mike? Was he dead?
And how in hell was she going to get out of here?
Part of her wanted to just stay here in the cabin and hope that someone would come looking for them when they didn't make it back to Seattle on Monday as scheduled. But there were at least two problems with that plan: she'd be relying on someone coming out to check right away when no one had heard from them, and she had no doubt she was no safer inside the cabin than out from whatever—or whoever—was terrorizing her.
Driving out of the mountains was no longer an option, but neither, it would seem, was staying put. There was only one thing she could do now.
No more than five minutes later she was ready to go. She'd pretty much inhaled an energy bar before stowing in her backpack a few items from the emergency winter survival gear that the Newtons kept at the cabin: a couple of flares, a mini shovel, a multitool, a first aid kit, and a canteen filled with water. She didn't intend to be out there for long, but she wanted to be sure she had what she'd need if she got into any trouble—regular trouble, she thought with a shudder.
Bella shouldered the backpack, put on her helmet, grabbed her poles and skis, and stepped out onto the porch. She strapped on her skis, and after surveying the area once more she lowered her goggles and pushed off.
Yesterday morning, she'd skied off into the forest without any particular destination or route in mind. Now she followed the narrow, barely visible gap in the trees that was the only sign left of the dirt track they'd driven up to reach the cabin less than two days ago.
Bella's heart was in her throat as she began her trek, wondering if she was really making the right decision in venturing off on her own to try to reach safety. By her reckoning it was a little over five miles as the crow flies from the cabin to the gas station where they'd stopped the other day. The route she'd have to take by ski would be half as much again, so about seven or eight miles, or around ten or eleven kilometers. The best women cross-country skiers in the world could do that distance in under thirty minutes on a prepared track—but she was nowhere near that fast and skiing an uncut trail. Still, barring any mishaps, she could do that in an hour, surely?
Less than a couple hundred yards away from the cabin she was praying she hadn't overestimated her abilities and cursing her luck. It had started snowing again. At first it came down lightly, with tiny flakes that swirled like ash, drifting harmlessly across her path. But within just a few minutes, it was falling thick and fast. The darkness grew under the trees, and with the snow as heavy as it was, it cut her visibility down to less than fifty feet.
She focused on her pace, the kick-slide, kick-slide of her stride giving her something to occupy her thoughts other than what might have happened to Mike, which would surely trigger the panic lurking just below the surface. She concentrated on moving one foot in front of the other, but the poor visibility began to play tricks on her eyes. Shadows in the trees ahead and to her left and right seemed to move, only to resolve into nothing as she drew closer; still, her unease grew with each imagined phantom in her path. A couple of times she had to stop short as she suddenly came across sharp bends in the trail leading through the trees. She remembered there were a few switchbacks in the track as it climbed into the mountains, crisscrossing along the slopes rather than going straight up.
Kick-slide, kick-slide. Maybe she was imagining more than just specters in the trees, but the temperature seemed to have dropped; her breath rose in gusts of steam before her eyes, and the moisture on her upper lip was freezing. How long had she been out here on the track from the cabin? She was definitely heading down into slightly lower elevations, and she wondered how far she'd come.
She came to another sharp bend in the path and slid to a stop. The trail appeared to curve around to the left, but there was also a gap between the trees to the right that looked just as wide.
No, the one to the left was definitely wider, but just to be sure, she pulled her phone out of her front jacket pocket so she could check the GPS. She had to remove one of her gloves to interact with the touch screen, and the icy cold grasped her hand, burning all the way down to her bones. It was taking longer than usual for the map to load, and she was standing completely still; the only sounds she could hear were the wind swirling the snow around her and the slight crunch under her skis as she shifted her weight.
Her skin prickled as she realized this was the same oppressive quiet she'd experienced twice before. Her heart began to race, she swallowed thickly, and her breath panted as she tensed, ready to bolt. Very slowly, she returned her phone to her pocket without ever having looked at the map.
There was a soft thump and the quiet tumble of snow dropping from a tree directly in front of her, and she swallowed a frightened gasp. Her eyes flew up, and Bella could only gawk at the man suddenly standing before her, just out of arm's reach. Her eyes roamed over his features: crazy, bronze hair; high cheekbones; a strong jaw; perfectly chiseled lips; broad shoulders; a trim waist. He was, without a doubt, the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
But his presence here, in the middle of this blizzard, in this dense, silent forest, screamed of danger. He wore nothing but jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt. No jacket, no hat, no gloves or scarf. She had a sneaking suspicion he was barefoot, and although his chest moved as he breathed slowly in and out, no clouds of steam swirled about his face, as they did about her own.
What the hell was he? And where in God's name had he come from? There were no tracks behind him leading to where he now stood. But one of the branches overhead, its covering of snow dislodged and lying in an untidy heap beneath it, swayed gently in the still air.
His lips curled up in a smile that hinted at inconceivable pleasures, but there was something else there that made her heart beat even faster, and not from desire. A frisson of fear raced down her spine, and the muscles in her legs twitched, urging her to flee on her skis. It was only then that she took a closer look at his eyes, and her blood turned to ice in her veins.
She'd seen those eyes once before: a figment of her imagination, a vision in a dream, a cold reflection of candlelight. But where they'd seemed to gleam gold from the flames the night before, they now burned blood red.
When he spoke, his voice dripped with honey, laced with the smoke of fine whisky.
For just a few seconds—or perhaps an eternity—time stood still as they stared at one another.
Bella's voice barely came out as a whisper. "H-how do you know my name?"
The man raised an eyebrow at her, and one side of his mouth twisted upward in a smirk. "To answer an earlier question of yours, fucking you, Bella, was all Mikey-boy ever thought about."
She gaped at him, her mind temporarily numb, until with awakening pain she realized her fear had been confirmed. Mike was gone.
Her grip tightened on her poles, and her eyes darted to either side of the man standing before her, judging which direction might give her the better chance of eluding him. But her escape was doomed to failure before she could even move.
In the blink of an eye he was on her, his hands shredding the jacket at her neck like tissue paper before his arms wrapped around her like a vise. From somewhere in the distance—or was it from her own lips?—she heard a blood-curdling shriek, cut short when a sharp pain lanced through the skin at her throat.
His tongue lapped against her neck, and her skin tightened under his mouth as he latched on and pinched with his razor-sharp teeth. The tears in her skin began to burn like hundreds of tiny bee stings all concentrated in that one spot, and her arms flailed in a futile attempt to beat him off.
She ended by grabbing onto his shoulders to keep from falling as her knees gave out—not from blood loss, but from the sudden surge of heat between her legs. He hummed into her neck, the vibrations shooting a tingle down her spine, and one of his hands moved from its encircling band around her waist to cup her between her thighs. He began to stroke her, applying pressure where she was silently begging for it.
Blood bubbled up into her mouth, choking her with its acrid taste of metal, before cold lips pressed against hers and forced them apart. His tongue invaded her mouth, lapping and sucking greedily at the blood. He groaned as he tasted her, and all the while he continued to rub and circle that place between her legs as she writhed in his arms.
As her climax crashed over her in wave upon wave of searing pleasure, her mind began to drift; her vision, of pale skin and red eyes and death, clouded over, narrowing to a single point of blinding light. The burning sting at her throat spread outward, down her chest, her arms, to her fingers and toes, to her groin, where he still held her. Warm, so warm… No—hot. Too hot. She was going to burst into flames. Oh, God, scalding, burning, make it stop!
One last sound reached her ears before the heat consumed all thought, a scream, a whisper…