Alas, I have to work early, early this morning, so I can ditch early to watch my kid perform in the school program - ahh, the talent, the crowds, the parking five miles away - such bliss does the Holiday bring.
Have I mentioned that I hate Christmas? Perhaps I mentioned it last year. Yeppers, I am sorry to report that I have a very Grinch-like attitude about the season. I don'd sent cards. I haven't decorated or put the tree up. I HAVE made Spritz cookies and shopped, oh yes, indeedy - I don't mind that part so much. Don't panic - the tree will get put up, oh, sometime during the coming weekend, perhaps, provided I talk myself into vacuuming up the dog hair.
And then I will go to work. This is my lucky year - I'm scheduled to work day shift on December 20th, and the evening shift from December 21st right through to December 25th. So I won't even have the weekend to spend with my family. (I don't hate my family, by the way - I just hate the frenzy of the season and how it is impossible to spend enough time anywhere to make anyone happy).
December 26th the tree will come down and get packed away until the week before Christmas NEXT year.
And don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the tree - just... well, our house is what you might call "lived in" - and the addition of Christmas decorations just seems to turn "lived in" into "total chaos."
Anyway, enough of my Bah, Humbuggery...
I'm working on a new and exciting thing I call... (drum roll, please).... Het Porn.
Yes, my friends, I am writing an erotica book wherein one protagonist is male and the other is FEMALE. I know this is a stretch for me, but as a female married to a male for oh, about twenty years now, I think I can handle it.
So what inspired this, anyway? (As I'm sure you are asking).
Well, definitely not Fifty Shades of Grey. There are no antique books, no helicopter rides, no crazy rich millionaires. Oh, yeah, there aren't any virgins in the story, either. Or college students. It was a little bit inspired by something else that I read, although I couldn't tell you the title or the author for the life of me. I was intrigued by the "snowed in" concept.
So, without further ado, meet Piper Matthews and Ian Graff...
(working title) Snowbound with Ian Graff
Piper couldn't believe her rotten luck, being sent practically to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota on December twenty-sixth. "Don't forget your snow shoes," her boss quipped, as he handed her a travel voucher.
"Nice," she said, and "Thanks," giving him a scowl intended to communicate her complete and utter lack of sincerity.
This is how it went down: She was the most junior assistant with the literary agency that represented Ian Graff.
The publisher – a big one – called a week before Christmas to demand Graff's latest manuscript, which was already three months overdue. But the agency didn't have it.
Piper was standing in the doorway when Mr. Halstead, her boss, was explaining to Graff's editor that Graff wasn't returning phone calls, emails, or even Facebook pleas.
"I know what's going on," Halstead said into the telephone. "The manuscript is sitting in a desk drawer, finished, and Graff is sitting on it drinking whiskey and convincing himself it's awful."
"What if it really is awful?" Piper asked Mr. Halstead, once he'd hung up the phone.
"Aren't you supposed to read the authors we represent?" Halstead asked.
"Yes," she said.
"And have you?" he asked.
"Of course," she replied. "As many as possible."
"Are Ian Graff's books ever awful?"
Piper blushed. Graff's books were shocking and strangely erotic, but no, never awful.
Mr. Halstead saw the answer in her face.
"Well, there you go. It won't be awful. And the big 5-star publisher just settled the matter – we're to send our most junior assistant to collect the manuscript. In person."
"But sir," Piper started to argue, "that would be – "
"You," he said, with an emphatic nod.
"Wouldn't his editor, someone who has rapport with him, would be a better choice?"
Halstead laughed. "Graff hates his editor. Says the little fucker ruins every book he edits. I'll book you a flight right after Christmas. And a car."
And here she was, standing at the car rental kiosk at the airport in Duluth, MN, programming Graff's address into her phone's map application while the infant male on the other side of the counter searched his computer for her reservation.
She was staring at the long miles of straight on the digital map when the kid's soft chuckle caught her attention.
"What?" she asked, but he only chuffed out more of his strange laugh while clicking keys.
"What?" she asked again, louder. Maybe if she ripped the ring right out of his nose, he'd pay attention and answer her.
"Oh," he said. "Well. You've reserved a sub-compact. And you're going where again?"
"Past Ely. Past everywhere, to a place that will surely be hell."
"But colder," he pointed out.
"Definitely colder," she agreed.
"Well, here's the deal. We're supposed to get a foot of snow this evening, heck, maybe more than that. The cute little Corsica you reserved? It's never going to make it."
"What? No. There can't be that much snow." She looked around for a window, wondering if a hotel might be a better idea than a rental car.
"There could be that much. Probably more, up past Ely. But if you get going quick, at least it'll be at your tail the whole way."
"What will be?"
"The storm." He tapped at his keyboard again, then smiled. "Here we go. I've got a nice 4-wheel drive sport utility for you. That should do it."
Not ten minutes later, Piper sat baffled behind the wheel of a vehicle three times larger than anything she'd ever driven. California girls have no need of snow monsters with huge tires.
The counter kid told her to push in the 4WD button and leave it pushed in until she dropped the truck off again. She stared at the console until she found what button he'd been talking about, then started the truck and activated four wheel drive.
She drove out of the covered parking lot, and into what might almost be daylight, except for heavy gray clouds, and big fluffy snowflakes that melted gently on her windshield. Well that wasn't too bad. Her phone GPS gave her three right turns, and then a couple hundred miles straight, so how hard could it be? All she really had to do was keep the truck on the road.
Which she managed to do for one hundred and ninety miles, despite the fact that the snow started coming down faster, and the wind picked up and swirled it around. She still had plenty of time to ruminate about whether breaking up with Bryce Howard had really been all that great of an idea. If she'd have made up with him, surely he'd be the one driving, while she sat contentedly in the passenger seat reading a book.
She felt a little sad when she thought of Bryce, and a little guilty. The reasons for the break up were hard to pin down. Sometimes she wondered if it was just her lack of creativity that led her to end the relationship, the fact that she had no idea what to get him for Christmas. They'd been dating for almost two years, and somehow she felt pressured to find the perfect gift that proved how well she knew him. Four times she'd gone shopping, determined to find something, and all four times she'd failed.
Intellectually, she wanted to wow him. Trouble was, emotionally she didn't even care all that much. He was into football, and basketball, and sometimes hockey. Last year she'd bought him a gift subscription to Sports Illustrated. This year, all she could find to give him was goodbye.
Obviously something was missing on her part of the relationship. And during the break up conversation, Bryce told her exactly what it was. "You have no passion," he'd told her. "You're distant and emotionally closed, and yeah, it frustrates me, so you're probably right – we're not meant to be together. I hope you find your passion, Piper."
At least he hadn't called her frigid. She'd made it a point to offer him sex several times a week, partly because she knew men needed that, but also because she knew frequent sex was an important element of a healthy relationship. And really, she didn't mind it – their coupling wasn't terrible. She only made "to do" lists in her head about half of the time; the other half she made sure she slipped deeply into a fantasy and had an orgasm. Sometimes the fantasy was awfully close to a scene from one of Graff's books, but she didn't want to think about that too deeply.
The worst part was that Bryce forgave her for the break up, that he seemed to hold no animosity toward her, and even called her on Christmas night – last night – to ask if she was doing okay. She almost asked him to come with her to collect Graff's manuscript, but she was still angry that he'd accepted the break up so easily. The thought of being trapped in a car with him for several hours left her feeling… well, cold.
She laughed at herself. She knew Bryce was a little bit on target with his assessment, and yes, the truth does hurt.
It was full-on dark when the GPS instructed her to take a left turn. She hit the brakes and cranked the wheel, but somehow the truck kept going straight.
She had no idea what to do. It was like the moment she hit the brakes, the truck suddenly became possessed by demons determined to shove her, headlight-first, into a the snow bank. The ass-end of the truck swung around so she was heading back the direction she'd come from, only now in the wrong lane.
Luckily she'd been driving so carefully that two other trucks had been held up behind her for the last however many miles, and they both stopped to help.
One man got behind the wheel of piper's truck and somehow coaxed it back onto the road, the other dispensed advice, pretending with great skill that he wasn't laughing at her. "Slow sown before turning, and keep your foot off the brake pedal. Never, ever slam on the brakes. The snow will get you every damn time."
Piper memorized those words because her GPS showed no less than five more turns.
Once the vehicle was facing onward, she climbed back behind the wheel.
She didn't see another car for miles, nor did she see a gas station, a restaurant, or a bait shop. And the radio was coming in crackly. She played tree-field-tree until the snow-filled gusting wind nearly blew her off the road, and then she ended up slowing to a crawling 20 miles per hour. Great. It was going to take her just as long to drive the last twenty miles as it had taken to drive the first two hundred.
The wind was the worst part. The snow almost seemed to brighten the world, and she was able to keep the road in the headlights as long as she went slow. But the wind blew the snow into swirling tornadoes in front of her, and there were long moments that felt like driving completely blind.
She hadn't seen another car since her foray into the snow bank, and found she was gripping the steering wheel so tightly that her fingers were stiff. If she went off the road now, she could be stuck for hours. Days, even.
Thank God the highway department marked upcoming crossroads with yellow signs. She'd have never seen the turn otherwise.
The roads got narrower and went further into the woods every time she turned.
"I'm coming, grandmother," she laughed to herself. "And hoping to avoid the big bad wolf."
This was absolutely awful, like some kind of surreal nightmare. Who would have ever put Piper out in a storm driving a truck? She longed for her hyper-responsive-if-vintage 82 Corvette. Dolly wouldn't let a little snow get in the way of speed.
The GPS directed her through two more turns, and then she was looking for a fire number. She had to stop driving forward for long enough to Google images of 'MN fire numbers', because she had no idea what she was looking for. Google showed her a small red numbered sign, almost like a license plate, but smaller. A number, not even a full address.
She tried to memorize the number, which was a good thing, because within five minutes her phone announced, "Attempting to connect to network," and it kept making the same announcement every two minutes until she turned it off.
The storm howled around the truck, making swooshing and whistling noises. The windshield wipers were working hard to keep the windshield free of ice and snow, but every once in a while a frozen chuck got trapped by the wiper blades, and left a streak right across her field of vision on every back swipe. At one point she'd opened her window and hung her head out, watching for fire numbers, wondering if it wouldn't have been smarter to hunker down in a hotel room by the airport.
A red sign appeared with the correct sequence of numbers. She cranked the wheel without slowing down, and the truck cooperated by sliding into the turn, then sliding down a hill. And it kept sliding, off what was supposedly the driveway, between two trees, past another tree, and into a clearing, until yet another tree leapt into view and stopped the vehicle with a gentle crunch.
Oh, thank God.
A house that looked like a giant log cabin appeared just a few yards in front of the headlights.
Popular belief has it that those who live in the wilderness don't want be bothered. Piper suspected this was 100% true of Mr. Graff, because who the hell would live way the hell out here otherwise?
She switched off the engine and basked in her successful arrival for a few minutes, listening to the relieved tick-tick of the cooling engine. She took a deep breath, leaned back in the seat, and closed her eyes. She could almost take a nap right here, but her bladder was threatening to burst, so she pushed open the truck door and stepped out into the storm.
The cute and quirky heel of her designer boot promptly slid out from under her and she found herself sitting on the ground, half underneath the truck, admiring the taste of fresh, fluffy snow. It looked like white cotton candy, and the air smelled familiar, like her childhood. Wood stoves, and icicles, the tang of fall, the inevitability of winter. A slush puppy consolation prize.
She squeezed a handful snow into a ball. It was crisp and squeaked like Styrofoam.
It was also really cold, and she remembered why she'd moved to California. The brand new winter coat that perfectly complimented the red tones of her chestnut hair was obviously designed for fashion, not warmth, and sitting in the snow wasn't helping her bladder.
She got to her feet, sludged carefully through the snow to what looked like the front door, and looked for the door bell.
She pulled open the storm door, then had to grip onto it because the wind threatened to rip it out of her hands, maybe right off the house altogether.
A sign on the inside door read, "No bell. Don't knock. Go away."
Nice. That was welcoming.
And knocked again.
And waited some more.
She finally pounded on the door as hard as her cold hands would allow.
It cracked open. "What do you want?"
"Mr. Graff? Sir, the agency sent me –"
The door closed.
Oh for God's sake.
She pounded again, and yelled, "Mr. Graff. Please."
The door cracked open again. "You shouldn't be out driving tonight. There's a terrible storm going on, if you hadn't noticed."
She stamped her feet and pressed against the door, managing to wedge it open a full four inches. "Oh, I've noticed."
"In that case, you should leave before you get stranded."
"Too late," she said. "I don't think I'll get my truck out of your yard tonight."
The door opened wide enough for him to stick his whole head out. "Are you an idiot? Why'd you leave the driveway?"
"I didn't leave the driveway on purpose. Can I please use your bathroom? I've been driving for hours."
He turned his eyes on her, and they were so angry that she almost let go of the storm door. Almost.
She'd had him in her head as an old curmudgeon, probably in his sixties, maybe even seventy-five, an image that became more cemented the further she drove into the wilderness. She was a terrible judge of ages, but he was certainly no older than forty, maybe younger.
His hair was sticking up in all directions, kind of wild, and his eyes were a piercing blue, framed by dark lashes that matched the rings around his irises.
Piper was startled. No one had ever said he was good looking. The picture of him on the jackets of his books showed his profile in front of a keyboard, the glow from the computer monitor casting his face in shadow.
"Who are you again?" he asked.
"Piper Matthews, from Halstead Agency."
He snorted. "Fucking Halstead. I don't answer his calls so he sends a minion, hmm?"
"Can we talk about this after I use the bathroom?"
"I don't like people in my house."
"Obviously, or you'd live somewhere more convenient."
He sighed, and ran a hand through his crazy hair. "All right. You can come in for five minutes."
The door opened enough for her to slide into a tiled foyer. When she let go of the storm door, the wind grabbed it and it flew to the limits of his hinges and stopped with a loud crack.
"Nice. Ruin my yard and then break my door. I knew I should have put a gate at the end of the driveway."
"I am so sorry," she started to say, but he waved her off. "The bathroom is down the hall, first door on the right."
She bent to unzip her boots. "Don't worry about your boots," he said. "It'll just slow you from leaving."
She settled for wiping them on the unwelcome mat, and bolted down the hall, her heels clicking sharply against the tile.
The log cabin was unexpectedly modern inside. The entry and hall had high ceilings, two-toned walls in coffee colors divided by a chair rail, and a hanging light fixture in some kind of contemporary art design. From the look of the outside, Piper would have expected more naturalist décor, antlers or something. But no.
The bathroom was perfectly modern, as well, and she was infinitely grateful he hadn't sent her to the back forty to look for an outhouse.
She felt much more able to face him after that.
He was still standing in the foyer when she came out of the bathroom. She walked toward him, heels clicking.
"Is that what you consider snow boots?" he asked.
She looked down at her feet. The suede of her boots was dark with moisture, and they were probably ruined. "They're boots. I live in California. I certainly didn't expect to drive into a storm of epic proportions."
"What?" she asked, puzzled.
"You have two minutes. So talk fast."
He couldn't kick her back out into the storm, could he? He wouldn't. "Halstead sent me to pick up your manuscript. It's late, and the publisher is going nuts."
He snorted. "Oh, whatever. They love having something to bitch and moan about. Tell them to pull something from the slush pile to publish. It'd have to be better than the trash that you're calling a manuscript."
"Mr. Graff, you have a contractual obligation, and –"
"Fuck my obligation. The manuscript is a piece of shit. I have to rewrite the whole thing."
"I'm sure that's not true –" she tried again, but again his voice shot through her words.
"You're sure of what? What the hell do you know, anyway, junior assistant?"
She raised her hands into the air, a gesture of helplessness, or maybe supplication. "Okay, okay, I don't know anything. Please. Just give me a draft or something, and I'll be on my way."
"Didn't you hear me? Not fit for public consumption. Now, get the hell out of my house."
He yanked the door open, and made as if to shove her out into the snow.
She caught the door frame, before he could push open the storm door. She could hardly see the truck from here, although she knew it was only a few steps away. "Are you kidding? I can't go driving away in this weather."
"You managed to get here, didn't you? I don't see what the difference is."
"It took me hours to get here. And, if you didn't notice, my truck is parked in your front yard. How am I going to get it back onto the road?"
"I certainly don't know. Sounds like a personal problem."
He spit the last two words right into her face, and she caught the distinct odor of liquor on his breath.
"Are you always this mean, or just when you're drunk?"
He straightened his back to stand at his full height, a full foot taller than her five feet and two inches, and a gleam flickered into his eyes. "I'm usually meaner. Fortunately, you've arrived unannounced on a good day, and have a chance to escape..." His voice trailed away as he stared into her eyes for a second, then very obviously let his gaze fall to her feet and travel up the length of her body, with a slow deliberateness that made his just looking feel like a touch, and made her feel as if her clothes had fallen away. When his inspection again reached her eyes, he added one more word: "…unmolested."
Piper suddenly remembered a scene from his last book. The park ranger, after he'd tracked and found the city-slicker who'd been lost in the woods for days. The way he'd a peeled off her wet clothes back at the ranger station, piece by piece until she was naked and starting to be afraid. And then he'd wrapped her in a sleeping bag in front of the fireplace, crawled in with her, and soaked her in a warm, wet heat that had nothing to do with the fire.
She felt her face go hot. God. Why think about that now? The book was a best-seller, sure, but a bit too graphic for Piper's taste.
She grabbed the edge of the inner door and wrenched it out of his grasp, pulling it toward her, then stepping out of the way as it slammed shut. She leaned her back against the brushed and painted steel.
"I'm not leaving without the manuscript."
He stared at her. "You manipulative little wench."
She gave him her best and very sweetest smile. "Possibly. So. Do you have a guest room, or a couch, or a piece of floor you can show me, so I can get out of these wet pants and go to sleep?"
"I'll get you out of those wet pants."
"Thanks, but no thanks, Mr. Graff. I don’t do drunks."
His head reared back as if she'd actually slapped him, but his eyes glittered again, and he laughed. "Oh, you don't, do you? Ah, well, that's a shame." They glared at one another for several heartbeats, and he was the one that capitulated. "Fine. You can stay the night. But in the morning we're going to wrestle your truck back on to the road, and you can be on your way."
"With the manuscript," she said, trying to suppress her smile.
"With a kick in the ass," he answered, eyes narrowed with ferocity.
But Piper could see a smile playing around the edges of his lips.
He'd sent her to the truck for her bag, and though she'd been reluctant to go outside, worried it was a trick and he wouldn't let her back in again, he assured her that he was a man of his word. Either way, a night spent in the truck wouldn't be pleasant, but it wouldn't kill her, either.
When she opened the back door of the SUV to grab her suitcase, the wind caught hold of it and yanked it so far open that the hinges groaned their protest with a sickening creak. She reached blindly into the interior. Purse – check. She slung the strap over her shoulder. Suitcase – check. She had to set the suitcase in the snow at her feet because she needed both hands to first pull, and then push the truck door to get it closed again.
As she struggled back toward the front door of the log cabin, ice particles swirled around her head, the cold shards stung her cheeks. She revised her earlier thought. A night out here without heat might actually kill a person.
"Wow, it's nasty out there," she sighed when she reached the relative safety of the foyer.
Graff just looked at her.
Even drunk, he was so self-possessed – standing there completely still without visible emotion – that it was almost creepy. People shift from foot to foot, fidget with their hands, whistle… but he watched her as if she were an interesting specimen.
"Would you prefer the guest room, or a 'piece of floor', as you so eloquently put it?"
There was something wicked in his expression, almost a dare, and she paused, repeating the words, trying to figure out why giving her a choice was so distinctly amusing to him.
As if the answer weren't completely obvious.
"Guest room, if it's not too much trouble," she answered.
"No trouble. Just a bit of a pity, because the other could have been so much fun."
She didn't even want to know, so she didn't ask, just followed him past the bathroom she'd used and around the corner to the right. It was a lot of hallway for what, from the outside, had looked like a moderate-sized house.
The guest room was the first door on the right around the corner. It was orderly and had the same coffee colored walls as the foyer. Her toes happily sank into deep rich carpeting as she noted a full-sized bed, a nightstand complete with a reading lamp, and a small desk aligned perfectly beneath two framed sepia-toned photographs.
Her eyes widened as she looked at them more closely.
Each was a nude woman entwined with some kind of smooth rope.
One was in repose, possibly on a bed; the other seated in a simple, ladder-backed chair.
The ropes wound around their upper arms, and around their necks to an elaborate knot in the hollow of their throats. From there the ropes split, dividing their breasts, and coming together again in a sort of coil around their torsos, before another split between their legs and more coils around thighs, calves and ankles. The women's eyes were soft, lips parted as if they were panting with arousal.
Piper's eyes couldn't stop tracing the pattern of rope, and the fact that it was wrapped around their necks caused the back of her own neck to prickle.
"Shibari," Ian said, and his breath was hot and way too close to her ear. Piper jumped, and he was standing so close that her feet got tangled amongst his until she lost her balance and fell into him with a startled cry.
His hands caught her around the waist and kept her from falling, his fingers splayed along her rib-cage, thumbs resting just beneath her breasts.
"I've got you, no worries," he said, and she could see crinkles of humor around his eyes.
She flicked her eyes toward the photos, and back to him, and he noticed. Oh, he definitely noticed. The humor disappeared and a more serious look took over. "We'll probably be snowed in for days, you know," he said. "Shibari is a lovely way to pass the time."
Piper had no idea what he was talking about. She pulled away from him, gently, and he let her go.
She pulled open a narrow, vented door and wasn't surprised to find a closet. She set her suitcase inside, just to have something to do. "What is Shibari?" she asked, as she maneuvered the case onto its side and unzipped it, lifting the lid to give her clothing some air.
"Intricate rope bondage." She could hear amusement in his voice. "Painstaking, time-consuming, and therefore photographed for posterity. Or purely for personal enjoyment."
A flash of memory came to her, probably another scene from one of his dirty books. Not the one with the park ranger and the hiker, but a different one… an urban setting. Something, something… with sushi, or rice paper wrapped egg rolls, a challenge, and the white rope.
The woman – what had been the issue there? Claustrophobia, maybe? Or a terror of not being in control?
Piper couldn't remember. But she did remember that the woman struggled at first, hating the tight ropes around her body. And while she fought, she was at his mercy, legs spread and tied to the bed frame, his fingers touching her most intimate flesh. She'd cried and shuddered and quivered… and then – surrendered.
And did he debase her then, defile her?
No, he did not.
He fed her sweet wine from his own lips, brushed his fingers over her skin, and described to her the many ways he found her utterly beautiful.
Piper turned away from the closet and looked at the photographs again. Both women had dark hair. One was thin, with an almost concave navel, her pubis smooth and waxed. The ropes held her labia apart, clitoris in full view, swollen with arousal.
The other had a fuller body, large breasts and wide hips, black curly hair hiding her nether parts.
"Which do you prefer?" Piper asked, and immediately wished she hadn't, because maybe it sounded like she was seeking his reassurance, comparing herself, although she didn't look a bit like either of them. And she didn't want to have him thinking that she wished she did.
"Each has her charms," he said, and then, "Redheads have charm as well, although their stubborn temperaments can be exhausting." He grinned at her. "They have a bit of the devil in them, you know."
She wanted to stamp her foot, or throw something at him, but that would prove him right, so she merely raised her eyebrows. "A bit arrogant, are we?" she said.
He certainly had a lot of personality, now that his grumpy side had settled down.
He shrugged and turned toward the doorway. "Is it arrogance or confidence? Maybe I’m just that good."
He winked at her and went out the door.
Bastard, she thought, but then almost laughed.
There was a door set into the wall a couple feet to the right of the pictures, and Piper opened it to see the same bathroom she'd begged to use earlier.
Her slacks were wet up to the knee, and the bed looked like heaven. She was having a rousing debate with herself about pajamas versus clean clothes, when her stomach gave an audible rumble. She shucked the wet pants and slid into jeans and a loose, comfortable green top.
She looked best in green.
Ugh. Where did that thought come from? Surely Ian Graff didn't care what she looked like. And she shouldn’t care if he did. She was only here for the manuscript. In fact, Halstead gave her the impression that if she didn't have the manuscript when she returned, she might not have a job.
If Ian Graff wasn't going to give it to her, she would have to steal it.
She almost groaned. Really? Was she capable of that level of deception?
Her stomach complained of hunger again. Okay, she'd revisit that question later. Next question: wander around looking for the kitchen and something to eat, or trudge out into the raging blizzard and get snacks from the truck?
Since she'd just put on dry pants, the kitchen was a lot more appealing.
Piper hoped Mr. Graff had taken his drunken ass to bed. That would be good.
She opened her bedroom door and peeked out. All was quiet and dark, except for small square blue lights that were plugged into outlets every ten feet or so along the baseboards of the hallway, providing enough light to find her way. She tip-toed down the hall toward the foyer, then past it. The first door she encountered was to her left. It was painted a dark shade of gray. She opened it to find a set of stairs leading to the lower level. She shuddered and closed it softly. She didn't like basements. Cobwebs, spiders, slithery centipedes, sewer covers, and leaky hot water heaters. No thank you.
The hallway ended in an arched entrance rather than a doorway, and there she found a very pleasant kitchen with a butcher block island, a breakfast nook, and… Ian Graff.
He was stirring something in a pot on the stove, and it smelled heavenly.
"I suppose you're wandering around my house because you're hungry," he said.
Piper had stopped moving the moment she'd seen him. Was he going to be friendly now, or go back to being the rude ass he'd been in the foyer?
"It was a long, stressful drive," she said. "Especially for a city girl. But, hey, I think I have some beef jerky in my truck." She turned to leave, suddenly feeling skittish and off-balance.
"Oh, knock off the shy girl act," he said. "As if I'm going to buy into that after you bullied your way into my house."
Piper didn't know whether to laugh or blush. So instead of either, she shrugged, and said, "It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it."
"What, break into my house and violate my privacy?"
"No, collect your shitty manuscript."
He threw back his head and laughed, and something funny happened in the lower part of Piper's stomach.
Hunger pains, surely.
He opened a cupboard door and took down two bowls. Opened a drawer and removed two spoons. When he turned to set them on the center island, his mouth had a tightened smile, like a smirk, and he said, "Yes."
"Yes, you'll give me the manuscript?"
"Not the shitty manuscript. What I said about redheads."
Piper rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
Ian Graff tipped the pot from the stove over each bowl. "I wonder if you'd work so hard to prove me right if I hadn't mentioned it?"
"It's cliché," Piper said. "Redheads and their fiery personalities and their stubbornness. And it's more brown than red."
"Clichés tend to be based on some kind of truth. That's how they become clichés."
"But you're a writer. You should know to avoid them."
"I should know to avoid a lot of things," he said, as he picked up the bowls and carried them to a small table in the breakfast nook. "But I don't."
"Why not?" she asked, settling herself onto a plain wooden ladder-backed chair.
An image of the Shibari girl tied to the chair flashed behind her eyes, and she felt her shoulders tense. Don't look, she told herself. It's not the same chair. It can't be. That would be… what? Unsanitary? Crude?
"Avoidance is clinical, cowardly," he said, setting napkins, crackers, butter, and bread in between their bowls. "Messy is more fun."
Piper stared at him. Was this the same man who almost made her sleep in the truck in a blizzard? It didn't seem possible. Maybe there were two Ian Graff's – this one, and an evil twin, and they were going to switch back and forth just to fuck with her. "Funny, you didn't seem to care for messy when I first knocked on your door."
"You've grown on me since then."
It was Piper's turn to laugh. "That's bullshit, and you know it."
"Okay," he agreed. "It's bullshit. Maybe I'm just less drunk now and more able to put on my 'nice' face."
He sat down across from her and picked up his spoon.
"So now you're faking it?"
He shrugged. "I checked the weather channel. This storm isn't blowing over any time soon, so I guess you'll find out."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she buttered a slice of bread, then tasted the soup.
It was good. So good she nearly moaned, with a hearty, meaty flavor, a hint of garlic, and what tasted like home-grown carrots, beans and peas. "Bless your black heart for feeding me," she said, and closed her eyes to savor it.
The breakfast nook was made up of three glass walls, and the effect was interesting, a safe cozy feeling of being warm and dry in the middle of a raging storm. The wind howled around the corner of the house, fierce enough that every few minutes the glass seemed to shudder. The snow hit the glass like small beads, tap-tapping and reminding her that it felt like tiny fingers slapping her cheeks.
"It feels crazy sitting here, comfortable and dry, in the middle of the storm."
"Do you like it?" he asked.
"I don't know. Scratch that, yes, I do like it. I'm not sure I've ever seen a blizzard this up-close before."
"We could have sat in the den, in front of the fireplace, all cozy-cozy and insulated."
Piper shook her head. "No, this is wild, and it feels fitting, somehow. The soup is amazing, by the way. Did you make it?"
He smiled down at his bowl. No arrogant smirk this time, no laugh. Then he shook his head. "I write," he said. "Cooking for one is not how I want to spend my time."
"So this is store bought? Wow, tell me the name brand, so I can have it shipped to my apartment in bulk."
Now he did laugh, a sort of chuckle. "I have a deal with a local caterer. She cooks, packages, and delivers. I don't think she'd deliver to California, unless she needed a vacation."
"There's a 'local' somewhere around here? Like, maybe I could have found a hotel?"
"Down the road a bit," he said. "But I hear their soup's not very good."
Piper giggled. He was kind of funny. "How long is the storm supposed to last?"
"We're supposed to get ten to twelve inches tonight, although I think we've got that much already, and then sixteen starting tomorrow afternoon, and continuing through the night."
"Great. Leave it to me to drive right into the storm of the season. Good thing the rental place advised against the Corsica."
"Halstead rented you a Corsica? To drive up here in the winter?" Graff's eyebrows were raised, his eyes wide open for a second, then shuttered into a scowl. "I knew he was an asshole."
He washed the dishes by hand, dried them, and put them away, with an economy of movement born of long habit. And then he walked her to her room.
"I wouldn't have expected such chivalry from the Grumpy Gus that answered the door."
He flashed her a look she couldn't interpret, there, then gone in an instant, and muttered, "Redheads."
She nudged him with her shoulder. "Don't go around making judgments. It's not polite."
"Same to you. It's not chivalry. Just making sure you don't get lost and go wandering into my private spaces. I don't like people in my house."
"Ah. Which rooms should I avoid?"
"All of them."
"Nice." She thought she saw another smirk playing around his mouth. "Seriously?"
"Oh fine. You can have the guest room, the guest bath, and the kitchen. If you cook, you can especially have the kitchen, although you won't find much to work with."
He was serious, and Piper almost laughed out loud. There was no way she was going to limit herself to three rooms. And she wasn't going to cook for him, either.
"What about the cozy den, with the fireplace?"
She could almost see the dismay on his face, but his recovery was quick. "Fine. I'll show you the den tomorrow. Maybe you'll find something to read."
"A manuscript would be great," she said, and watched his face tighten with annoyance.
"Enough. I already told you that's not happening."