Wren Matthews took the last of the cranberry-walnut bread from the oven and set the small loaves to cool on the oak sideboard.
The aroma of freshly baked bread and brewing coffee mingled with the hearty scent of beef stew simmering on the stove.
Jaunty strains of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” spilled from the radio tuned to a local station so she could catch the weather report, blunting the sound of the winter weather howling outside her door.
Yesterday, it had been a sunny sixty degrees in the Davis Mountains. But this morning, the temperature had plummeted, bringing with it a vibrant electrical storm.
She had finished her Christmas baking just in time to start the evening milking. At the thought of the heavy chores waiting for her, Wren sighed and closed the oven door.
Sometimes the overwhelming responsibility had her thinking of selling the dairy and moving into town, but she simply couldn’t bring herself to part with the farm. The modest homestead had been in the Matthews family for three generations. She couldn’t bring herself to give up. It was the only life she’d ever known.
Wren washed her hands at the sink and peered out at the cedar trees whipping in the wind. The branches made an eerie scratching noise against the window screen.
It was tough running the place on her own. If only she could find reliable help. Someone to live in the loft apartment over the barn. Someone strong and hardworking. Someone who would keep to himself and leave her be.
But good help was difficult to find in this sparse country where her nearest neighbor, the Markum Ranch, was three miles away.
Perhaps she should advertise for a dairy hand on the social media network for the Rascal, Texas community. For a while,one of the boys from the high school, where she taught freshman English, had assisted her. Then six weeks ago, Jeff had injured his knee playing football, and Wren found herself straggling to meet the dual obligations of school-teaching and dairy farming all on her own.
Thank heavens for Christmas break. With any luck, she would find someone before school restarted after the new year.
Problem was, she was shy around people she didn’t know. Very shy. She required a boarder as introverted as herself. Someone who wouldn’t want to talk her ear off or become fast friends. Someone who preferred solitude as much as she did.
She turned off the oven, untied her flour-stained, red-and-green apron—with miniature Santa Clauses embroidered across the front—draped it over the cabinet and limped to the back door.
Her old hip injury flared in damp weather and, much as she hated to give in to the pain, she’d been forced to down two aspirins earlier that evening to ease the ache.
“And now it’s time for the six o’clock news,” the announcer purred, followed by lead-in music.
Half listening to the broadcast, Wren worked her feet into the yellow rubber boots she’d left drying on newspapers spread over the parquet entryway. While the radio announcer gave a rundown on world and state news, Wren went about her business.
She lifted the heavy down jacket, that had once belonged to her father, from the coat tree in the corner. Shrugged into it. Pulled on the worn leather gloves she took from the pocket.
“The storm moving through the Trans-Pecos is expected to worsen late tonight, plunging temperatures to an all-time record low,” the announcer warned. “Bring the pets and plants inside and don’t drive if at all possible. This is a night to curl up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book.”
Now that sounded like Wren’s idea of a perfect Friday night.
The icy wind wailed like a mournful banshee around the wooden door frame, chasing a chill down Wren’s spine. If it weren’t for the cattle, she’d make sure the door was locked tight, crawl inside her four-poster bed and take the radio announcer’s advice.
But the cows had to be milked and she was the only one to do it.
Here goes nothing. She rested her hand on the knob at the same time a knock barked at the door.
The sudden noise reverberated in the room like a gunshot blast. Startled, Wren jumped and jerked her hand back. Her stomach churned, and her chest tightened.
Pressing a palm to her mouth, she waited. Prayed it was just a tree branch breaking loose and slamming against the side of the house.
The knock came again, denying any fanciful explanations. Someone was at her door.
Who could be visiting in this storm? An eerie sensation lifted the hairs at the nape of her neck.
She didn’t get many guests out this far from town—her pastor, some of the little old ladies from her church, one or two teacher friends from the high school, that was about it. In Rascal, she was known as the kooky crippled spinster who lived all alone on her aging dairy farm. And who, at the naive age of nineteen, had once been swindled by a charming con man.
Even now, ten years later, Wren blushed at the memory of Blaine Thomas and her youthful mistake.
She’d been lonely and vulnerable after her parents’ death. Easy pickings for the likes of smooth, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth Blaine. He’d used flattery and compliments to make her feel loved when he’d only been after her money. She’d almost lost the farm because of her foolishness and she’d sworn never again to trust a handsome man.
The knock was bolder, more insistent the third time.
Who could it be? She cocked her head and struggled to muster enough courage to answer the door.
Maybe it was a neighbor in distress. You can’t leave someone standing out in this storm, she scolded herself.
And yet, a snake of fear winding around her heart kept her rooted firmly to the floor. Wren placed her hands over her ears. Go away, go away, go away.
“Is anyone home?”
The voice was strong, masculine, demanding. It sharpened Wren’s dread.
“I need help.”
Too readily, she recalled those terrifying moments eleven years ago. In the wee hours of the morning,she had found herself in a similar situation, dragging her wounded body from door to door, begging people to let her in while her parents’ mangled car lay overturned on an icy street. She had practically crawled on her crumpled, bleeding leg and she’d gone to three houses before a kind elderly couple had finally opened their door to her.
That single word rent her heart and snuck past her defenses as nothing else would have. What if this man needed her as badly as she’d needed assistance that awful night her parents died?
Resolutely, she put the chain on the door then edged it open a tiny crack. A streak of lightning illuminated the ebony sky, highlighting the figure on her porch.
A hulking stranger loomed in the darkness. The sight of him snatched the air from her lungs. Gasping, Wren slapped a hand over her mouth and took a step backward.
The man was very tall, towering many inches above her own petite five-foot-two-inches, and he was powerfully built, with wide shoulders and large muscular arms. He wore a white felt Stetson, a denim jacket, and worn cowboy boots like most of the ranchers in Presidio County. His dark blue eyes were deep-set and watchful, his countenance enigmatic and forbidding.
A fresh chill ran through her.
“I’m stranded,” he said.
His sharp, clipped speech told her the man wasn’t a Texan despite being dressed like a cowboy. A Northerner, she guessed. Chicago, perhaps? The clash in clothing and speech concerned her. He wasn’t what he looked like.
The man waited expectantly, his head angled to one side, cold rain blowing into the house around him. Instinct begged her to slam the door and lock it tight against him.
And yet, she hesitated.
“What do you want?” Wren squeaked, her heart pounding, one hand wrapped protectively around the door.
“To come in from the wet and cold.”
He spoke in a commanding timbre. His voice reminded Wren of the eerie tone her father had used when he had told ghost stories around the campfire.
“I’m sorry,” she shook her head. “I can’t help you.” She began easing the door closed.
“I understand,” he said. “I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t take a stranger into my home either.” Hunching his shoulders, he turned and started down the steps.
Wren slammed the door behind him and slid the deadbolt home. Her pulse, thready and weak, slipped through her veins like water. Her whole body trembled violently, and she sagged against the door to keep from falling over.
Maybe she should call someone. Tell them she was alone with a stranger at the door. But who could she call?
Taking a deep breath, she tried to calm down. “Steady, Wren, just step across the floor to the phone and notify the sheriff. That’s all you’ve got to do.”
In the Davis Mountains, a landline was still a necessity. Just a mile outside the Rascal city limits and cell phone reception diminished significantly. This far out and it was non-existence. She might as well be on the dark side of the moon.
Ugly images kept springing into her mind. Images of that dark, threatening stranger standing outside her window with a sharp knife clutched in his hand, waiting for the opportunity to hurt her.
“Stop it,” she hissed under her breath. “Call the sheriff. Now.”
Wren put one foot in front of the other, clenching her jaw to block out any other unnecessary visions. Her fingers shook, and she dropped the phone twice before she managed to get it to her ear.
The line was dead.
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