The Gamble

By: Kristen Ashley

Chapter One

Timeout





I looked at the clock on the dash of the rental car, then back out at the snow.

I was already twenty minutes late to meet the caretaker. Not only was I worried that I was late, I was worried that, after I eventually made it there, he had to drive home in this storm. The roads were worsening by the second; the slick had turned to black ice in some places, snow cover in others. I just hoped he lived close to the A-Frame.

Then again, he was probably used to this, living in a small mountain town in Colorado. This was probably nothing to him.

It scared the hell out of me.

I resisted the urge to look at the directions I’d memorized on the plane (or, more accurately, before I even got on the plane) that were sitting by my purse in the passenger seat. There was no telling how far away I was and what made matters worse was that I was doing half of what I suspected, but wasn’t sure, was the speed limit.

Not to mention the fact that I was exhausted and jetlagged, having been either on the road, on a plane or in a grocery store the last seventeen hours.

And not to mention the fact that, yesterday (or was it the day before? I couldn’t figure out which in changing time zones), I got that weird feeling in my sinuses which either meant a head cold was coming or something worse and that feeling was not going away.

Not to mention the further fact that night had fallen and with it a snowstorm that was building as the moments ticked by, starting with flurries now I could barely see five feet in front of the car. I’d checked the weather reports and it was supposed to be clear skies for the next few days. It was nearing on April, only two days away. How could there be this much snow?

I wondered what Niles was thinking, though he probably wasn’t thinking anything since he was likely sleeping. Whereas, if he was off on some adventure by himself, or even if he was with friends which was unlikely as Niles didn’t have many friends, I would be awake, worried and wondering if he made it to his destination alive and breathing. Especially if he had that niggling feeling in his sinuses which I told him I had before I left.

I had to admit, he didn’t tell me he wanted me to ring when I got to the A-Frame safe and sound. He didn’t say much at all, even when I told him before we decided on churches and dates that I needed a two week timeout. Time to think about our relationship and our future. Time to myself to get my head together. Time to have a bit of adventure, shake up my life a little, clear out the cobwebs in my head and the ones I fancied were attached (and getting thicker by the day) to every facet of my boring, staid, predictable life.

And, I also had to admit, no matter where I went and what I did, Niles didn’t seem bothered with whether I arrived safe and sound. He didn’t check in, even if I was travelling for work and would be away for a few days. And when I checked in, he didn’t seem bothered with the fact that I was checking in. Or, lately (because I tested it a couple of times), when I didn’t check in and then arrived home safely, sometimes days later, he didn’t seem bothered by the fact that I hadn’t checked in.

The unpleasant direction of my thoughts shifted when I saw my turn and I was glad of it. It meant I was close, not far away at all now. If it had been a clear night, I figured from what it said in the directions, I’d be there in five minutes. I carefully turned right and concentrated on the ever decreasing visibility of the landscape, making a left turn then another right before heading straight up an incline that I feared my car wouldn’t make. But I saw it, shining like a beacon all lit up for me to see.

The A-Frame, just like it looked on the internet except without the pine trees all around it, the mountain backdrop and the bright shining sun, of course, they were probably there (except the sun, seeing as it was night), I just couldn’t see them.

It was perfect.

“Come on, baby, come on, you can make it,” I cooed to the car, relief sweeping through me at the idea of my journey being at an end. I leaned forward as if that would build the car’s momentum to get up the incline.

Fortune belatedly shined on me (and the car) and we made it to the post box with the partially snow-covered letters that said “Maxwell” signifying the beginning of the drive that ran along the front of the house. I turned right again and drove carefully toward the Jeep Cherokee that was parked in front of the house.

“Thank God,” I whispered when I’d stopped and pulled up the parking brake, my mind moving immediately to what was next.

Meet caretaker, get keys and instructions.

Empty car of suitcases and copious bags of groceries, two week’s worth of holiday food, in other words stuff that was good for me, as per usual, but also stuff that was definitely not, as was not per usual.

Put away perishables.

Make bed (if necessary).

Shower.

Take cold medicine I bought at the grocery store.

Call Niles if even just to leave a voicemail message.

Sleep.

It was the sleep I was most looking forward to, I didn’t think I’d ever been that exhausted.

In order to make the trips back and forth to the car one less, I grabbed my purse, exited the car and slung my bag over my shoulder. Then I went to the boot, taking as many grocery bags by the handle as I could carry. I was cautious, the snow had carpeted the front drive and the five steps that led up to the porch that ran the length of the A-Frame and I was in high-heeled boots. Even though it was far too late, though I had checked the weather forecast so thought I was safe, I was rethinking my choice of wearing high-heeled boots by the time I hit the porch.

I didn’t get one step across it before the glass front door opened and a man stood in its frame, his front shadowed by the night, his back silhouetted by the lights from inside.

“Oh hi, so, so, so sorry I’m late. The storm held me up,” I hastily explained my easily explainable rudeness (for anyone could see it was snowing which would make any smart driver be careful) as I walked across the porch.

The man moved and the outside light came on, blinding me for a second.

I stopped to let my eyes adjust and heard, “What the fuck?”

I blinked and then focused and then I could do nothing but stare.

He did not look like what I thought a caretaker would look like.

He was tall, very tall, with very broad shoulders. His hair was dark, nearly black, wavy and there was a lot of it, sweeping back from his face like a stylist had just finished coifing it to perfection. He was wearing a plaid, flannel shirt over a white thermal, the sleeves of the shirt rolled back to expose the thermal at his wrists and up his forearms. Faded jeans, thick socks on his feet and tanned skin stretched over a face that had such flawless bone structure, a blind person would be in throes of ecstasy if they got their fingers on him. Strong jaw and brow, defined cheekbones, unbelievable.

Though, in my estimation, he was a couple days away from a good clean shave.

“Mr. Andrews?” I asked.

“No,” he answered and said no more.

“I –” I started then didn’t know what to say.

My head swung from side to side, then I looked behind me at my car and the Cherokee then back around and up at the A-Frame.

This was the picture from the website, exactly it. Wasn’t it?

I looked back at him. “I’m sorry. I was expecting the caretaker.”

“The caretaker?”

“Yes, a Mr. Andrews.”

“You mean Slim?”

Slim?

“Um…” I answered.

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