Chapter Four – Candy Heats Up
by Alison Henderson
Standing alone in the freezing darkness, Candy wrapped her arms around herself as a deep shiver chased through her body. Her teeth chattered. She clamped her jaws tight and rubbed her upper arms in an attempt to rev up her circulation through the soft cashmere. She wiggled her toes in her tight, pointed boots. Anything to get warm. She’d never imagined Georgia could be so cold. She’d locked her winter coat in the trunk of the rental car along with her suitcase for the drive to the airport, thinking she’d be plenty warm in her sweater and skirt with the car’s heater running.
Her suitcase. Damn. Damn. Damn. Her rustic savior in denim and flannel had whisked her away to this icebox in the woods without her suitcase. And she’d let him. Suddenly, all she could think of were her cozy wool slacks, warm socks, and favorite fuzzy slippers imprisoned in the trunk of the wrecked car.
“Hey!” she yelled into the empty blackness.
Pipes clanked somewhere but no response came.
“Hey!” she called again.
More clanking. Then doggy toenails clicking on the hardwood floor.
Candy raised her voice. “Mitch!”
She jumped as a flashlight beam danced across her face. “Don’t do that,” she protested.
He swung the light toward the wall so she could see him without being blinded. “What do you want?” he asked.
“We need to go back.”
“Go back where?”
“To my car. I need my suitcase.”
He stepped toward her, gripped her shoulder, and marched her to the front door. When he opened it, an icy blast blew up her short skirt, and Candy recoiled. Mitch aimed the flashlight out into the whirling maelstrom of white. “I don’t think so.”
Her heart sank. He was right. Only a fool would venture out in a storm like that, and he didn’t strike her as a fool.
Mitch shut the door with a firm click. “Looks like the power may be out for some time. The lines are down, and I couldn’t get the generator started.”
“Won’t the power company come out to fix it?”
“Not ’til the storm’s over, and there’s no telling when that’ll be.”
Great. Now she was doomed to freeze to death in Middle-of-Nowhere, Georgia, with a complete stranger and his sloppy dog—if she didn’t starve first. She felt a whine coming on and couldn’t muster the strength to suppress it. “But I can’t stay here in the dark with no clothes and no food.”
Mitch laughed. “I have food. We just won’t be able to cook it on the stove. Besides, I thought you said you grew up in the woods. What happened to your survival skills?”
“I ditched them for civilization.”
“Well, better bring them back. You’re going to need them.”
Candy closed her eyes. She never should have come on this trip. She should have stayed home in her comfortable apartment on the upper West Side where she had heat and light and…do what? Spend the holidays alone? Ever since her mother died, she’d dreaded spending holidays by herself. That’s why she’d wanted to keep the office open. If she worked straight through this cursed time of the year, she barely noticed. Tears tickled the back of her throat, and she balled her fists.
I will not cry. No matter what.
But she made no promises about pouting. “I’m cold and wet and need a hot shower.”
Mitch raised his left brow at her tone, but she didn’t care. Let him think she was a spoiled princess. At least he was in his own home.
Then he smiled, and a tiny flame of warmth flickered inside her. “You’re in luck. We may not have heat or light, but we do have hot water.”
“The water heater’s gas. Just don’t take too long. The pump’s running on the back-up battery, and I don’t know how long it will last. I’d hate to have to resort to melting snow for water if the power doesn’t come back on in a couple of days.”
“A couple of days!” That wasn’t possible, was it?
He shrugged. “You never know. Follow me. I’ll show you the bathroom.”
Candy didn’t balk when he grasped her small, cold hand in his big, warm one and led her down the dark hall to a compact, white, spotlessly clean bathroom with an old-fashioned claw foot tub. A large, round rain showerhead projected from the wall above it.
Mitch turned the taps to adjust the temperature, then pulled the valve for the shower. Water cascaded down, and clouds of steam boiled up to fill the frigid room. He opened a cupboard and handed her a thick, white towel. “Here. Remember, don’t take too long.”
“But I don’t have anything to wear.” Her sweater and slip of a skirt were damp from the snow.
“I’ll leave something next to the tub for you.”
“I won’t be able to see.”
“I’ll leave you the flashlight.” He set it on the toilet seat, aimed at the ceiling.
“Now you won’t be able to see.”
He heaved a sigh. “I’ll be fine. I know every board and nail of this place.”
The door clicked sharply behind him.
It crossed her mind that stripping down to nothing in the house of a man she’d known less than an hour might not be the brightest move. But common sense didn’t stand a chance against the siren call of hot water. Thirty seconds later, she stood stark naked under the spray as the glorious heat brought her chilled flesh back to life.
With a sigh of regret, she turned off the water much sooner than she would have liked and poked her head around the curtain. In a neat pile on the bath mat lay a pair of gray sweat pants and a red plaid flannel shirt. She grabbed the towel and rubbed her skin briskly to generate as much heat as possible before slipping into the clothes Mitch had provided.
They were obviously his. Candy tightened the drawstring of the pants and rolled the legs until her toes peeked out. She felt warmer already. Then she pulled on the soft, worn shirt and turned the cuffs several times to free her hands. A pair of thick wool socks completed the ensemble. She wiped a dry end of the towel across the steamy mirror, peered at her image, and stifled a snort. Definitely the Anti-Fashionista. It was a good thing no one she knew could see her now.
When she opened the bathroom door, a faint glow drew her down the hall toward the living room. She turned off the flashlight and followed the light. When she stepped into the living room, her breath caught in her throat. A dozen lit candles flickered on the coffee table, end tables, even the windowsills. Mitch knelt in front of a crackling fire in the stone fireplace, tucking more kindling around the logs. He turned his head toward her then rose in one fluid movement.