Time slowed as the deer stepped out onto the snowy highway and Riley swerved briefly into the next lane, only to realize that a pickup truck was headed her way. She braced herself for the inevitable collision with the doe as the truck passed safely. The sound of the car hitting the deer with a blunt thump and the look of terror in the doe's brown eyes was etched in her memory before the air bag inflated, knocking her senseless.
Consciousness came with confusion. What was she doing in the dark? Why was she so cold? Something was wrong! She felt around her; fabric and a steering wheel. She was in a car, trapped. Why was it so dark?! Blood pounded in her ears and she tried to scream. Pathetic cries, desperate with fear broke through the tightness in her throat. Groping for the seatbelt release, she freed herself then found the door handle. The door was stuck! The passenger door didn't budge but an inch. Riley scrambled into the back seat and checked the doors, both jammed.
Her eyes had adjusted somewhat to the dim light filtering through the back window and she began looking for something to use to break the window. Her violin case. It would probably do the trick but she hesitated. She would have to remove the instrument as not to damage it. She began to unfasten the case but then stopped, and listened.
A sound from somewhere above her! Scratching and scraping. She cried out with renewed hope, "Is someone there?"
"You're alive! Thank God!"
Her relief came out in a desperate plea. "Help me!"
Something hard struck the car as the remains of shatterproof glass collapsed in her lap along with about a cubic foot of snow. She cried out with shock from the cold and joy at the pale light filtering through the snow that buried her. A shovel moved about, clearing the snow from the window just inches from her face. Soon after, a bearded face appeared through the broken window.
"Give me your hand," her rescuer said. Riley reached up with both hands. Strong hands pulled her up part way, then her rescuer put her arm around his neck to give her some leverage. With a little more effort, she was lifted out of the wreck. He set her down on her feet but her knees buckled and she sank into the snow. Giant sized snowflakes fell soundlessly around her.
"Are you alright?"
"I think so," she said. "Just give me a minute."
"Is there anyone else in the car?"
"No." Riley said, struggling to recall where she was and why she was in the car alone. Great, tall pine trees, their branches burdened with accumulated snow, surrounded the wreckage. "Where am I?"
"In a snow bank, God-knows-where, Utah. More importantly where do you want to be?"
"Um uh, Ski trip. Deer Creek, actually."
"Let's get you outta here. Do you have any bags or anything that you want to take with you?"
"I don't know. Let me think… Yes, there's shopping bags, and stuff," Riley said, remembering vaguely that she'd been shopping in town before she'd headed up highway 89. "Where's the road?"
"Up there." Her rescuer waved his hand up toward a slope. Not a steep slope but a slope of which she was at the bottom, about two hundred feet from the road. Riley shakily rose to her feet. Jeans and panties were all she had between her bare bottom and the snow. Her boots were more for fashion than protection, but the will to survive overpowered any complaint she might have. Her brown leather jacket was thin, though the rose colored cashmere sweater beneath offered some value against the cold.
Her rescuer wore classic cut jeans, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket over a blue and gray flannel shirt and a cap with some logo of no importance to her.
He shoveled the snow away from the car so he could open the door and began removing her luggage and purchases from the back seat. Riley watched him. He had medium brown hair and a short beard that covered much of his face, and a rather nicely-shaped behind. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. He brought her brown leather handbag and handed it to her. "Thank you," she said, "Thank you for everything, stopping and digging me out like you did."
"You're thanking me? Really?" he said, incredulous.
"Yes," she said, taken aback. "I don't know how I would have ever gotten out on my own." In just a few hours her rented SUV would have been completely buried in snow, invisible to the world.
"True enough, but when someone makes a split second decision not to involve you in a head-on collision, I think you kinda owe them something. Something like digging them out of a snow bank so they don't die the torturous death of being buried alive!"
"Still, I thank you very much," she said politely. He was smiling at her. Damn! He'd just saved her life and therefor claimed the distinction of being the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
A catchy tune chirped and he reached inside his coat pocket for his cell phone.
"Wynn Kannon here. Yes, she looks to be alright. Yes, she's talking, a bit shaken, I'm sure but she seems to be fine, no broken bones, cuts or abrasions. Sure. Yeah, she's right here." Wynn handed her the phone. "It's nine-one-one dispatch. They want to talk to you."
She took the phone. "I'm Riley Wilcox."
The conversation with the dispatch operator was short and to the point. There were no available officers at the moment but someone would be in touch to get her statement about the accident. She was informed that Mr. Kannon had agreed to drive her to Deer Creek where she could get a room for the night, because the road was closed due to an accident involving a snow plow and a semi with a toxic load at the bottom of the hill. Riley replied that she would be staying at her grandfather's cabin and gave her cell phone number so she could be reached. She assured the operator that she was fine when she was interrogated about her physical and mental condition.
"Thanks for the lift," she said and returned the phone.
"My truck is over there. Do you think you can walk?"
"Yeah, I think so." Riley stooped to pick up her violin case. The handmade European violin was probably the most valuable thing she owned. The action brought on a sudden dizziness and she swayed. Wynn Kannon reached out to steady her.
"Let me help you."
"I'm fine, really."
"Give me your hand. I'll come back for the rest of your stuff." He pulled off his gloves and put them in his pocket.
"Okay." Riley put her free hand in his. His firm grip was warm and comforting making the journey through the snow easier if not downright pleasant. The truck was an extended cab pick-up truck, a newer model in dove gray. Almost six inches of snow had accumulated on the cab indicating some time had passed since it had been parked there. The sun was somewhere behind the thick clouds and sinking fast.
Wynn opened the passenger door and she pulled herself up into the cab. When she was seated and secure, he went around to the driver side, opened the door and started the engine. "It should warm up pretty quick and I'll hurry back." As soon as he was out of sight, she missed him and as the minutes passed she grew more anxious. The snow was coming down is great fluffy flakes, piling up as she watched. In spite of the truck's heater doing its best, the cold settled deeper into her muscles. Her teeth began to chatter and she didn't seem to be able to stop them. When he did come back she was so happy to see him, she had to resist cheering. He stowed her belongings in the back, then slid into the driver's seat. Her teeth finally stopped chattering.
"You were driving a rental, huh? I found the receipt on the seat. You can call them. Let them know that I took pictures of the accident. They'll want them for the insurance claim," Wynn said.
"You've done this before, I think."
"Yeah, but this is a first for you?"
"First and last, I hope," Riley said, taking the yellow receipt. "I'll call them." She found her phone in her bag and dialed the number. She spoke with Brenda, the office manager, giving a description of the accident and her rescue.
"Yeah," Brenda said with confidence. "Apparently, that semi is blocking the road. Are you sure you're alright?"
"Not a scratch."
"What about this fellow? You need to be careful."
"He's here now, says he took some pictures of the accident."
"Let me talk to him."
"The manager wants to talk to you," Riley said and handed him the cell phone.
"Hello, Wynn Kannon here. Deer Creek is just a few miles away… What's your email address? I'll send you pictures of the accident for the insurance company… I called nine-one-one to report the accident… Yeah, she looks alright. I'll give her a lift home. Bye," he said, and handed Riley her cell phone.
"Hi, Riley here."
Brenda said. "Be careful."
"I will and thank you. Bye." Riley disconnected the call.
"She sounded like a mother hen and I was a fox in the coop," Wynn said.
"Yeah, I think she went to school with my mother or something. You know how small towns are. Everybody knows everybody."
Wynn shifted gears and put the truck in motion and soon enough they were back on the road. Eight inches or better had accumulated on the road and visibility was rapidly diminishing. Neither spoke as they drove through the storm. A stiff wind had kicked up and their precarious position with the elements needed no comment. Through the fog, a vague rectangular sign announced that they had arrived at Deer Creek Village. Lights of small business lit the main road but there didn't seem to be many customers out and about.
"Looks like we made it. Thanks again for everything."
"I'm glad to be of help. Glad for a lot of things," he said.
"Glad you're alive, glad you aren't seriously hurt, like cut and bleeding, glad you didn't hit me. You know, just glad things aren't any worse than they are."
"Yeah, me too."
"So, you're meeting your folks up here?" He sounded genuinely interested.
"Yeah, something like that. It's more like a skiing holiday with my cousins. There's four of us the same age. Lisa's flying in from Chicago. Faith and Sadie are driving up from Phoenix. I should call them."
"But you don't live here. Utah, I mean," Wynn said.
"What? What makes you think I don't live here?"
"Oh," Riley said, a little surprised.
"So where did you grow up, go to school?"
"Really? You don't sound like LA."
Riley laughed a little. "Is that right? Maybe you could tell me where I really grew up. You know, so I'd know. I'm completely confused on the matter. I thought I grew up in LA."
"Sorry, you sound east coast."
"I attended the New England Conservatory. Must have picked up a hoity-toity accent. My mom and grandma grew up here though. Grandma still lives here, in Kanab—not in the mountains. What makes you an authority on our countries dialects?"
"I drive truck. It's one of those things you notice."
"So where's your truck?"
"Evanston, Wyoming. I'm on my way to Santa Fe to visit my in-laws. Holiday visit," Wynn said, his voice trailing off.
For the first time, Riley noticed the gold band on his left hand. "Your in-laws. Isn't that nice." She didn't mean to sound disappointed. "Your wife is in Santa Fe?"
"Yeah, but it's not like it sounds." He paused. "Sharon, my wife, died sixteen months ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Riley felt awful. "What happened?" She couldn't help asking.
"Cancer. She put up a fight, but in the end it took her."
"Oh, my goodness, I am very sorry." Riley didn't know what else to say.
"Thank you, but I don't want you to feel bad. I was just saying." Wynn fell silent and Riley grieved for him.
By the time they were driving down the main road of Deer Creek Village, visibility was diminished to sixty feet and the snowfall seemed to get deeper every minute. Riley felt a knot of anxiety growing inside her and she had to clench her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering.
"Tell me where to go," Wynn said.
"Wow, it's been a long time since I was here. So much has changed. Take a left up here at the corner then go straight. There's a road where we turn next. Look for a wooden gate and a mailbox with the number eight-five and the name Wilcox. Then it's only another quarter mile or so away." Not wanting to ramble on like a chatterbox as she usually did when she was nervous, Riley fell silent, watching the road anxiously. Better than a foot of snow covered the road, while drifts much deeper surrounded them.
"There it is!" She suddenly recognized the wooden gate and the gnarled old cottonwood tree, but the mailbox was covered in snow. Wynn hit the brake, but the truck continued briefly skidding in the direction of the large tree. Riley couldn't suppress her cry of panic, covering her mouth in embarrassment when Wynn expertly brought the vehicle under control.
"Sorry about that. Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yeah, sorry I screamed like that."
"No problem," Wynn said, but his voice held a grim note as he shifted gears and the truck lurched forward. The road wasn't paved and that half mile proved harder to manage than Riley had anticipated. Several times the tires spun uselessly and Wynn would shift gears again, each time putting his truck's engineering and power to the test. By the time they arrived at the cabin, the snow was two feet deep and piling up fast and it occurred to her not for the first time that she had under estimated the forces of nature at eight thousand feet.
The cabin wasn't a grand modern structure like many that graced the mountain but a sturdy old fashioned log construction sheepherder's cabin with a not-so-new addition for storage.
"You get inside. I'll bring your things in," Wynn said. Riley didn't argue. She found the key in the secret hiding place above the door where Grandma had told her it would be. The door opened easily and Riley found the light switch. The wood floor squeaked as she walked into the room but everything was as she remembered. Except for the layer of dust that naturally occurred after months of being empty, it was clean. The original plan allowed for the one room with a steep staircase going up to the loft. To the right of the front door along the other wall, a rock fireplace, hearth and chimney were the focal point of the room. The leather couch facing the fireplace was almost new but the classic style fit the antique flavor without being flashy next to a wooden rocking chair and a tanned leather recliner. The rust colored plaid curtains were faded but still performed their simple task. The kitchen occupied the far wall with a gas stove and refrigerator clearly styled from the fifties. The homemade wood cabinets lacked doors, but instead, plaid curtains hid the contents. An old fashioned wood burning cook stove stood next to the back door. From the opposite wall of the fireplace, a door situated between the stair case and the kitchen led to the bathroom which was built as part of the addition.
"Wow! When was this place built?" Wynn stepped inside carrying Riley's suitcases.
"In the nineteen twenties or thirties, sometime around then. My great gramps built it back in his sheepherding days."
"It's in remarkable condition."
"Grandpa Bert kept it up until he died last year. He was an avid fisherman. Grandma doesn't come up here anymore. I think she misses him too much. And she likes it in town." Riley followed Wynn out the door to bring in groceries. The snow was knee deep so it was with some difficulty that she managed to bring in several bags of groceries.
Once the truck was unloaded, Riley began to put groceries in the refrigerator. When she finished, she noticed how Wynn seemed to hover with his hands in his pockets. She hadn't invited him to stay! How awkward! Recovering quickly from embarrassment, she said, "I hope you're not vegetarian because we're having steak and mushrooms for dinner tonight. If you'll get a fire going, dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes."
"Not a vegetarian, and I'll a start a fire, but if I'm going to get a room for the night I had better get going. Are you going to be alright if I leave now?"
"No! You can't leave now! That road is a nightmare. You'll get stuck halfway out there and have to walk back anyway. Mr. Martin has a tractor. We'll call him in the morning. He'll clear the road and then you can drive out of here and still be at your in-laws for Christmas. You can sleep here. There's a bed in the loft and the couch is a hide-a-bed if you're more comfortable that way."
"The couch is fine like it is. Are your friends still coming? You said there were four of you."
"Oh, that's right. I was going to call them. They'll never make it up the driveway without a four-wheel-drive, and that's if they made it up the road before that terrible accident. Oh dear, I hope they didn't cause the accident. No! I can't let myself think like that until I know more. It's so cold for them to be out in a night like this."
"I'll see to the fire," Wynn said, walking out the back door.
Riley reached in her purse for her cell phone and placed a call to her cousin. It rang through as Wynn came inside with an armload of wood and began to arrange the wood for the fire.
Sadie picked up on the third ring. "Hello?"
"Sadie, it's Riley."
"Where are you?"
"Cedar Mountain, at the cabin. Where are you?"
"Las Vegas Airport. Faith's here, but Lisa's still in Chicago. Her flight was cancelled and we're stuck because of the storm. Are you alright? How's Grandma?"
"I'm fine. I saw Grandma and spent some time with her this morning. She's doing good. When is your next flight?"
"I don't know. The storm has been unpredictable and we're grounded until it clears," Sadie complained.
"It should clear up soon, I expect. We'll have plenty of time for the slopes. I just hope Lisa can make it. Let her know where I am so she doesn't worry. You take care. Bye now, I'll see you soon." Riley replaced the handset. "Lisa's in Chicago. Sadie and Faith are in Vegas. Looks like it's just us for dinner," she said, looking at Wynn. He crouched in front of the fireplace and began to arrange the wood.
"You didn't tell her that you were in an accident."
"Why make her worry? I'm fine."
"Neither did you tell her that you invited a stranger to spend the night."
"Are you scolding me?"
"Someone should." Wynn stood up. The fire began to burn brighter and he closed the screen.
"Now you're freaking me out. I should call the police and let them know I have a rapist slash murderer in my cabin." Riley shifted, setting her hand on her hip in a manner that issued a challenge.
"You don't have to do that for Christ sakes! You're safe. I called nine-one-one on my cell phone to report your accident. If anything happens to you, I'm the first person they're coming after," Wynn protested.
"Now that's settled, I'll get those steaks on the fire," Riley said.
She rinsed a cast iron frying pan under the tap and wiped it clean before putting it over the gas flame to heat. She washed another smaller pan, rinsed the sliced mushrooms and put them on to cook, stirring a large pat of butter in with the mushrooms.
"Did no one ever tell you not to put cast iron under water?"
"You've got to be kidding! It was dusty. I washed it!"
"Iron rusts if it gets wet."
"I'll bet this pan's ninety if not a hundred years old. I'm sure grandma washed it in soap and water and it's not rusty. There's no hot water. The pilot light needs to be lit in the water heater," Riley said, feeling criticized.
"I can do that."
"Thanks" Riley said gruffly, and removed two rib eye steaks from their packaging.
"Where is it?"
"In the bathroom. You'll see it."
She put the steaks in the hot pan where they sizzled with a proper intensity.
"Do you want salad?"
"Yes, thank you. Do you have a match?"
She found the matches in a drawer and tossed him the box. Next, Riley opened the fridge and bent forward to retrieve the fresh vegetables, not realizing the view she offered her guest.
Wynn couldn't help looking. She had a perfectly shaped behind, and hips that swayed with hypnotic rhythm, stirring a primary impulse. She stood up, juggling lettuce and an assortment of vegetables. Rich mahogany hair reached her waist in loose, wavy spirals and pale hazel eyes framed by dark finely arched brows offered striking contrast to her tanned skin. Her lips, void of make-up, were naturally full and the color of an exquisite rosé. Everything about her was perfect, and his conversation skills suffered from his inability to think of anything else.
He shouldn't be glad Riley's cousins were stranded in Las Vegas or Chicago and wouldn't be joining them tonight. If she'd sent him away, he was moderately sure he'd been able to drive through the storm and find a room in the small resort community, but at some point it didn't seem right to leave her alone so soon after being in a collision. What if she suffered internal injuries, a concussion? A chilling thought. The nearest hospital was better than twenty miles away under ideal conditions.
Wynn turned away. That water heater needed him and he needed to think of something else. The water heater fired up easily and he returned to the kitchen.
"Here, open this," Riley said and handed him a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. Wynn obeyed. She wiped off the sturdy wooden table then covered it with a white table cloth embroidered with a colorful fruit motif. She set the table and served the salad before dishing up two plates loaded with steak and mushrooms in wine sauce. Wynn poured the wine in two glasses. They sat down at the table facing each other.
Neither spoke for a moment then Riley said, "Eat, it's getting cold."
Wynn tasted his steak with a little caution, not that he wouldn't have choked it down regardless of the flavor at some point. He'd eaten his share of burnt, over seasoned and downright tough steaks so he was relieved and pleased to find it exceptional. "It's very good," he said.
"Glad you like it, but it's hard to ruin a rib eye."
Wynn laughed as though he found irony in her declaration.
"What is so funny?"
"Nothing. It's not funny, just a sad memory."
"Oh my goodness! Your wife. Was she a terrible cook? No! I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry!"
"You've nothing to be sorry about. But no, she didn't cook anything like this." Or much at all, he could have added but didn't.
"I shouldn't have said anything so personal. I owe you one. Ask me a personal question. We'll be even." Riley insisted.
"Of course it is. I'll feel better for screwing up so badly."
"So you'll feel better if you answer a personal question." Wynn regarded her with caution in his eyes though a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.
"Only one, and nothing disgusting or perverted."
"You know me so well."
"I'm just saying."
"Where's the boyfriend?"
"Fiancé, maybe. Where is he?"
"There's no boyfriend or fiancé. See, that wasn't so bad."
"I said only one question."
"But I was just starting to enjoy the game," Wynn said, but relented and cut into his steak. They ate in awkward silence until Riley couldn't take any more.
"Safer topic then. One question at a time. I choose the subject," she suggested.
"Not exactly fair."
"Ok. We take turns, one question each per subject but relationships are off limits."
"Oh, the proverbial forbidden fruit."
"No!" Riley laughed in protest.
"Yes! Don't you know that's how the mind works?"
"It doesn't matter. Relationships are off limits."
"I guess it's your turn to ask me something," Wynn said.
"Well, since you know where I grew up, it's only fair that you fess up."
"I was born and raised in Connecticut and went to Brown University. You already admitted to the conservatory so I threw that one in to settle the score."
"Wow! That just opens up a whole new set of questions. What did you study?"
"That's a separate question." Wynn teased her with a grin. "It's my turn, my question. What is your passion?"
"My what?" Riley felt her face grow warm. One fantasy of a passionate nature came to mind but she was sure he wouldn't be talking about...that.
"Your interests, righteous causes."
"Oh right. Let me think. I'm for women's causes, like equality in the workplace and the arts. I love the arts. I'm not terribly religious but I'm not without a soul either. Now, it's my turn to ask you what you studied."
Wynn hesitated a little too long.
"What? You're a doctor," Riley accused.
"No. Not a doctor."
"But you studied medicine. I see it in your face. You blush! Busted!" Riley slapped her hand down on the table causing the dishes and silverware to rattle.
"Not so fast. New question. What's your favorite movie? Be honest."
Riley let her thoughts travel to her favorite movie and the kissing scene that made her toes curl. "No, that's too personal."
"Then you forfeit your question and have to ask a different, unrelated one or the game is over." Wynn smiled at her and raised his nearly empty glass of wine in mock salute before finishing it off in a single swallow.
The gesture was natural and sexy the same time. His beard, though short, was full, covering the lower portion of his face except his lips. His lips were chiseled perfection. What would it be like to be kissed by those lips, Riley wondered.
"Game over. No more questions," Riley said, mentally shaking herself.
Avoiding eye contact, she rose and began gathering the dishes making a little more noise than necessary in an attempt to dispel the aura of sensuality.
"Do you want some help?" Wynn offered.
"No." Riley didn't mean to sound rude, but she felt flushed and confused.
She heard his chair scrap against the hardwood floor and his footsteps carry him to the other side of the room and thought she heard him mutter, "It's going to be a long night."
Never had she felt such raw sexual attraction toward a stranger. She busied herself with the dishes barely conscious that the water was tepid at best. She heated the cast iron frying pan on the gas stove to evaporate the water. When the pan was hot, she poured a tiny bit of oil in it and spread it around with a paper towel to spare it from the dreaded rust. For some reason she wanted Wynn to know that she knew how to care for cast iron cookware but to point it out to him seemed petty.
Once the dishes were done and it hadn't taken long, Riley could no longer avoid looking at Wynn. He stood at the window looking out at nothing, occupied with his own thoughts. He turned when she approached.
"I'm not a doctor. I didn't finish med school," he said, as if confessing. "The conservatory is pretty impressive. I suppose I wanted to impress you."
"You don't owe me any explanations, you know."
"I do, actually. It would be wrong to let you think that I earned something I didn't. It's a matter of trust."
"Then you should probably know that I don't trust people in general with or without fancy degrees," she said.
"A wise woman."
Riley scowled. "Shut up! You're making me feel old."
"Old? I'm wondering if you're legal."
"Why?" she asked and instantly regretted it. She sounded naïve and stupid. He might be hitting on her and Riley didn't know if she should feel threatened or excited. Her experience with men was limited to one close friendship, a mostly-one-sided relationship in college and a serious teenage celebrity crush on Ben Affleck. "It doesn't matter," she said quickly. "I'm going to take my stuff upstairs and unpack."
Wynn didn't offer to help with her suitcase as she juggled it with two other bags up the steep staircase, but watched with skeptic interest.
The narrow, wood paneled loft had twin beds to the right of the stair at one end and a queen-sized bed, to the left, on the other. Lacking an actual door in the wide doorway, a heavy curtain was pulled back but could be used to divide the room, giving the occupants of the larger bed a modicum of privacy. An antique bureau, minus the mirror, fit snuggly under the dormered window and a wooden chest sat against a short knee wall. Colorful, oval braided rugs on the varnished wood floor gave the room a cozy and timeless feeling.
With no one present to challenge her right to claim the big bed, she dropped her bags on it and began unpacking.
Melody drifted up from down stairs. Wynn must have found the radio. Country music played probably because there was only one station that could send a strong enough signal through the storm. She hoped so.
Wait, Riley thought. Why did she care what music Wynn listened to? He was just a new acquaintance, not even a friend. Well, he'd saved her life which automatically granted him friend status and she did like him. Riley smiled. Yeah, she really liked him.
"Stop it," she said to herself. His eyes were brown. She preferred men with blue eyes. He had a beard. She didn't like beards. But he'd asked about her favorite movie. Why was that such a turn on? She had many favorite movies, and every one of them said something about her. Did he care or was he just trying to make conversation? Why did she want him to care? She didn't, she decided. That was the great thing about him, she didn't have to care if he liked what she liked. He was a decent guy and that was reason enough to be his friend.
Riley went down stairs with and smiled when she saw Wynn looking at the pictures on the mantle above the fireplace. The one he studied was a black and white enlarged print of Grandpa Bert and his younger brother as boys around nine or ten years-old proudly showing off the rewards of a fishing trip. He moved on to another of Riley and her cousins, with their arms around each other and grinning in pure girlish delight. He turned around when Riley stepped on a squeaky stair.
. "That picture was taken here the summer before I moved to California," Riley said. "The girls in the picture are my cousins Sadie, Faith and Lisa."
"I thought they might be. You look like you were having a party."
"Maybe. I don't remember. It seems like it was just another summer when our parents were caught up their own drama and dumped us on our grandparents. Grandpa liked to come up here and fish and Grandma would let us loose to terrorize the locals. It was like we were sisters rather than cousins. We were each our parents' first born, except, Faith. She's a year-to-the-day younger than Sadie. Lisa is the eldest, as she's always pointing out. I'm ten months younger and Sadie is three months younger than me." Riley paused but decided not the spare the ugly truth. "Now our parents are all divorced and have new families." She dropped on the leather couch with a bounce and turned sideways, putting her legs out in front of her. She pulled her legs up and took off her boots, dropping them on the floor when Wynn sat at the other end.
"You are lucky to have each other," he said.
"Yeah, that's what we always say. Maybe you'll get to meet them before you go."
Wynn didn't respond as though to say that he probably wouldn't be staying that long and Riley let the subject drop.
"You studied violin at the conservatory." He nodded toward her violin, which occupied the recliner.
"Do you always travel with your instrument?"
"Of course not. I had a gig, sort of," Riley admitted.
"Oh?" Wynn said and waited for an explanation.
"I was in San Francisco yesterday for a Music Festival. I stood in for another violinist who is too pregnant to travel on a plane. It was a great opportunity. We didn't get the big prize but we came in fourth. We're just a small orchestra getting started. The competition was really good if that means anything," she justified.
"Of course it does. What did you perform?"
"Träumerei by Robert Schumann."
"A great piece. I like Schumann," Wynn said.
"So do I but I think Clara, his wife, kicked his ass. Her work is amazing. It just gets me how she always talked down about herself while her husband was celebrated."
"Maybe she did it so Robert wouldn't succumb to his depression. Think about it. He already suffered with low self-esteem and depression. Wasn't he suicidal at one point? It was a man's world and to have his wife kick his ass, as you put it, would have been humiliating beyond enduring," Wynn argued. "Not only was she a better composer, she was smarter too, especially if she wanted to keep her marriage together."
"So you think a smart woman will cater to her husband's insecurities?" Riley felt her color rise as her feminist instincts gathered for battle. "Or maybe you think a wife should ignore her own desires and support the illusion that her husband is something more than he is, in order to stay married to a whiny, self-important jackass."
Wynn laughed a little and shifted on the couch so he faced her more directly. "The dude was clinically depressed, suicidal. His hand was injured at one point. Wasn't it? She just didn't want to make things worse for him. Besides, she had a profitable career and probably knew how good she was and didn't have to have constant praise to feel successful. The need for constant approval can be just as addictive as any drug and she didn't need it, though he probably did."
"Everyone needs approval."
"Yes, but from whom? Others of lesser or greater importance, or from oneself?"
"Certainly from one's spouse," Riley contended.
"In a general sense, of course, but in a good marriage partners have to allow each other their differences of opinion and tolerate a certain amount of opposition. Robert may not have been forthcoming with the praise but I don't think he denied his wife's ability. Isn't their romance considered epic?"
"Yes, but some scholars have implied that he became very controlling," Riley said.
"At that time, men were expected to control their wives. The guy was losing control over his mind but had the good sense to check into an asylum. It must have been hell for both of them. I believe she loved him beyond her own need for recognition," Wynn said, shrugging slightly.
"Where did you learn so much about the Schumann story?"
"Old movie. Katharine Hepburn, I think."
"Of course." Riley grimaced. For a moment she thought he might have studied up on classic composers. That would be a longshot. "You like old movies?"
"What's your favorite movie?"
"I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours," he said, grinning.
"I have a lot of favorites so it's hard to narrow it down to just one, but I'll tell you I like movies with horses. The Man from Snowy River is one of my favorites. The cinematography on location is breathtaking. The musical score is haunting. The story is classic without being dry. The script has a few weaknesses and the casting is alright, but it's still a damn good movie."
"But it's not your guilty pleasure."
"Maybe it is."
"It's not, but that's okay. It's still a great movie."
"So what is your guilty pleasure movie?"
"I thought we weren't sharing guilty pleasure movies, just favorites."
"Fine," Riley conceded.
"300, with Gerard Butler."
"It a man's movie," he said.
"Yeah, blood and gore galore."
"More than that, it's the story of ultimate sacrifice. Every man wonders at some point what he'll do when faced with his own mortality. Will he live a coward or die with or without honor?"
"I suppose the historical relevance justifies the gore," she agreed.
"There was another point to that movie that is pretty much timeless. When evil men or women rule in the name of God, it is only because people give them their own power, most in ignorance. But also greed, fear, and pride corrupt us. That point is made when the Thebans surrender after Leonidas is killed. They didn't want to fight in the first place, but they gave their power to Xerxes out of fear or whatever motivated them. It doesn't seem like there was much in it for them personally. They could have refused to fight for Xerxes in the beginning, not without cost, I'm sure, but if Xerxes had asked for an army of volunteers, he'd come up empty. The point is King Leonidas stood up to the bully when no one else would."
"Okay, okay. The Care Bears have the same message."
"Oh, so The Care Bear Movie is your guilty pleasure."
"No! Of course not!" she laughed and playfully kicked at him, coming in contact with his knee. He grabbed her foot and she squealed. "Don't!"
"Don't what?" He held her foot firmly.
"Nothing." Riley gulped.
"You're ticklish. Don't worry. I don't usually torture my victims." Wynn said. He set her foot down and she pulled her feet close, wrapping her arms around her knees.
"What do you do to them?" Riley wasn't sure where this topic was going to lead, but it seemed necessary to ask.
He hesitated then said, "Nothing. It was just a poorly concocted reference to women I date. But we're not on a date, so the term doesn't apply to you." His voice was flat.
She felt something inside her deflate. His disclaimer shouldn't bother her but it did. "Of course, it's not a date," she agreed quickly. "Were two people killing time with meaningless conversation. It just feels like a date because that's what people do. They get to know each other. It beats the silent treatment."
"Besides, I would never date anyone who thought of me as a victim."
"It was a stupid thing to say. Don't make me suffer because of a word."
"Suffer?" Riley asked with eyebrows raised. He did appear to be suffering from embarrassment, but he deserved it, she decided.
"Another poor choice of words. And I don't think of you as a victim."
"Clearly, I'm not someone you would date."
Wynn stood up and moved to the fireplace and spoke without looking at her. "You're an attractive, accomplished young woman. I would have to be dead six months to not want you. But I won't hit on you. I promise."
He began putting more wood on the fire and stirred it with a poker. "I'll get more wood," he said and reached for his coat.
Riley watched him leave through the back door. Snow blew in when he opened the door and she could see that the snow was falling fast and hard. Stunned by his confession, she felt foolish for provoking him. She wasn't usually a tease and if she felt anything for him it was a profound respect. It was getting late. Though she didn't feel tired, the last thing she wanted was to make him feel uncomfortable so she went to the bathroom and brushed her teeth.
When she was finished, she opened the door to see him crouched with his back to her. Without speaking, she went upstairs, found a clean, flat, flannel sheet in the trunk and pulled a heavy quilt and a pillow from one of the twin beds. With her arms full of bedding she went back downstairs.
"How do you want to do this," she asked.
Wynn stood up quickly and looked at her with some surprise. "Do what?"
"Make up the couch. Do you want to pull it out and sleep on the mattress? I don't know which is more comfortable for you."
"Leave it like it is. It's fine. I can do it." He took the bedding from her and dropped it on the couch. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. Goodnight," Riley said, avoiding his eyes.
Riley walked up stairs, put on her pajamas and slid between cold sheets. Hours passed before she fell into a restless sleep.