Chapter One of Three
She peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn. Even though it was only three-ten in the afternoon, with her luck, there’d be no vacancies. Everything about this trip had gone wrong—flight delays, lost luggage, and a chipped tooth just for starters.
Danner McKay grumbled to the silent interior of the vehicle. “Who leaves warm Las Vegas and travels to the frigid Scottish Highlands for Christmas? A feel-sorry-for-me divorcee who refuses to spend the holiday alone while her ex remarries. That’s who."
The compact car hit a patch of ice on the nearly deserted road and spun into a couple of do-nuts while she fought for control. Her neck did a whipping motion with every spin. She’d swallow in fear if she had a bit of spit remaining in her mouth. Her foot off the gas, the demon car finally slowed.
“What idiot rents a car online without checking which side of the road everyone drives on?” She leaned her forehead against the steering wheel. “Me, that’s who. For a woman with a PhD, I can do some pretty dumb things.” Granted, the University of Nevada where she taught biology had a high opinion of her intelligence. At this moment, she didn’t quite agree with their assessment.
For the past three days, she’d been a mass of nerves trying not to wreck the rental on these twisty, narrow Highland roads. She hadn’t relaxed for a moment of this ill-conceived trip. Back home, tracing her ancestors’ roots sounded romantic and fun.
And just where was the fun in all of this?
And just where was the fun in all of this?
Danner took a deep breath and straightened in her seat. She didn’t think it was possible, but the snow was falling harder. The lighted sign before her was no longer visible. Or was it behind her now? After several revolutions, she no longer knew which direction the car was headed.
She should have given more credence to Mrs. Campbell’s remarks at breakfast this morning, but the owner of the quaint Bed and Breakfast was always spouting something strange. “Och, the snaw will be an arse-dragger by this afta’noon. Any numpty oot driving in it has a hovercraft full o’ eels, so he does.”
The Scottish and their sayings—if she only understood them. Still, Danner had to admit this amount of snaw was the most she’d ever experienced in her life, much less driven through.
And, like an idiot, here she sat.
And, like an idiot, here she sat.
A truck barreled down on her, its honking horn pierced the storms quiet. Her normally organized mind quickly zipped into confusion. Which side of the road was she on now? Where was she supposed to be again? Right side, or left? In an effort to simply get out of the way, she pressed on the gas to reach the side of the road. Before she got there, the truck—no it was a tour bus—sped by, creating a powerful, slushy wind current that shuddered and blew her tiny car off the icy road. It slithered down an embankment.
Unable to think of a way to stop its momentum into the foggy, snowy abyss, Danner panicked. She jerked on the emergency brake. The car spun and slid backwards before it ran out of ground and dropped.
I’m going to die!
After a moment of freefall, her neck snapped back amid a loud crash. Metal screeched. A second later she lurched forward to bash the steering wheel as the car’s body crunched and echoed. The seatbelt cut into her breast momentarily snapping off her air. Jarring shuddered through her body—and then eerie silence amid stark stillness.
Am I dead?
Someone’s heart is pounding in this car and I’m the only one in it. Has to be mine.
Maybe I’m still alive. Warm coppery-scented liquid is trickling over my eyes. My head hurts. Do you hurt when you’re dead?
Danner wiggled her toes in her sneakers. She raised her thighs a couple inches off the seat three times. Relieved to know the lower part of her anatomy worked, she shrugged her shoulders twice to test her arms. Her fingers opened and closed. Pleased everything responded to her mental commands, her hands went to her eyes to wipe away the moisture. They came back blood-covered.
The view from her rearview mirror showed a large grey boulder holding the scrunched compact in place. Her trembling fingers extended to depress the ignition button. It was senseless to keep the car running when it couldn’t go anywhere. She needed to nullify the potential fire hazard; she had a nearly full tank of gas, or petrol as the Scots called it.
A chill took root and began to grow inside the car. She couldn’t sit there forever. She’d have to get out and go for help. Which way, she hadn’t a clue.
Something thudded on the windshield and Danner jumped. Two little paws brushed away the snow and the black nose of a fox’s pointy red-face pressed against the glass to peer inside. His black eyes seemed to take in her predicament. A series of rapid, high-pitched yelps followed, almost as if it were asking her if she was okay. And wasn’t that the silliest thing?
Not only am I alive, I’m imagining things. Head trauma, I bet.
The fox jumped off the hood and disappeared.
~ * ~ * ~
Hughen Matheson passed out hot chocolate and bags of candy to the four wee carolers who’d stopped at his cabin to deliver some Christmas music. Although he was sure the Almighty was pleased with their off-key renditions, he wasna so sure the heavens were as enamored of pots and pans turned into drums as he was. He couldna recall when he’d smiled so wide over the makeshift instruments tied around each child’s waist.
Nae one could make a racket like his nieces and nephews. Aye, and he loved them all with a fierceness.
When his brothers decided it was time to go home, the normally noiseless log cabin filled with an unholy din. Och, the wee ones loved their Uncle Hughen, so they did.
Outside, he lifted each one in turn for a hug and gleefully accepted their chocolaty-mustached kisses before setting them on the back of the truck. Six-year-old Lachlan was the last to leap into his arms. His favorite, though he’d never tell a soul, was squeezed a little tighter than the others. And typical for the rascal, Lachlan tugged on the tiny hoop he wore in his ear.
Hamish, his twin brother, covered the precious ones with blankets to keep them from becoming snawlads and snawlassies on their ride across the range of birch, aspen, and Scot pines that separated them from each other. He hugged Hamish before he took his position at the tailgate to make sure they didna get into mischief. Hughen leaned in the open window to embrace Bruce.
Love warmed Hughen’s chest. Family was one of life’s richest blessings.
He waved and bade each one farewell by name as they slowly drove off. Silence settled around him like a blanket of nettles. Being alone was nae way to live.
Hughen stacked logs onto his front porch—enough to see him through the blizzard—before he trudged back inside a house that echoed with loneliness. Och, it had the appearance of Christmas cheer thanks to his sisters-in-law who’d decorated it for the holidays. Bless them, they didna like the thought of his being alone so much since Kaylee passed.
A framed picture of the happiest day of his life graced the mantle decorated with pine and red-berry garland. Both Kaylee and he beamed with joy. Had someone told him on the day of their wedding he’d lose his childhood sweetheart in a few short years, he’d have declared them crazy. A long, pained sigh escaped from his lungs. This was his second Christmas without her.
He moved to the kitchen end of the great room to straighten the mess his nieces and nephews made. Maybe he’d make himself a huge mug of hot chocolate with a healthy dribble of whisky to warm his icy soul. He glanced at the remaining cocoa in the pan. Nae, he’d take the whisky straight. He had a long, lonely night ahead of him.
Ye willna be alone this Christmas Eve, his bear promised him.
He scoffed and downed his whisky. Och? And will auld Saint Nick drop a bonny lass down me chimney? He refilled his glass before returning the bottle to its shelf in the pantry. This drink he’d sip in front of the roaring fire.
His bear budged at Hughen’s chest. What is it? Ye’ve been restless all aft’anoon. I sense unease and I’m nae in the mood. I’ve got me own memories to contend with tonight.
Shift, Hugh! Someone needs me help. A fox is here to take me to her.
His bear was now a frantic presence. Denying his other half would only cause him misery and a colossal bout of heartburn. Bear could be bloody nasty at times. Finally, he agreed to allow his bear to come to the forefront. To keep the shift from tearing apart his clothes, he tugged on the shoestrings before toeing off his boots. He undressed, tossing his things on the leather chair by the door.
Naked, Hughen stepped outside into the howling wind and heavy snaw. A chill skittered over his skin like a spider rushing up a wall to spin a web. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for the change to begin. The last thing his human eyes saw was an excited red fox pacing in front of the wooden steps, nipping and chattering away.
A shimmer of transposing cosmic waves, a whirlwind of mind and soul continuum, and he transmuted from human to bear. Bones cracked and popped as they either shortened or grew. Eyes and ears moved into bear positions. Layers of fat covered muscles. And thick fur erupted from smooth skin. Although the mutation took less than a minute, a heartbeat or two of discomfort existed with his animal’s emergence.
Once his bear was completely in control, it roared repeatedly as it circled in front of the structure. Then it followed the chattering fox in search of who he’d sensed was in danger—his human’s new mate.
Come back tomorrow for the next chapter of "A Beary Merry Christmas."