Mercy Mountain Series
When the road you’re on turns rocky you could end up nestled in the foothills above Ashnee Valley, Colorado near the Mercy Mountain Lodge. Owned by the Mannis family, the dilapidated resort is in need of tender loving care. So are the lives of the women who arrive there. Each woman brings her unique charms and strength influencing the evolution of the lodge over time and a blossoming of romances through the generations of Mercy Mountain.
A little east coast meets western. A little big city meets small town. A whole lot of resilience, new beginnings and lasting love
Cozy Christmas Crush:
A Mercy Mountain Holiday Novella
Crushes aren’t just for kids . . .
Just ask forty-something Rafe Mooney. He’s been crushing on psychiatrist, Dr. Cindy Wheeler since he read her first book years ago. Sure, his attraction began based on her smarts, and her author photo, but now they’ve become friends in real life too. He may be a big strapping, former military, hottie – but he still gets all kinds of tongue-tied around the doc.
Doc Cindy, as everybody local calls her, is an Ashnee Valley, Colorado native. Known for her impeccable style and career aspirations, she’s one put-together woman. That’s why dragging her feet on finishing her latest book is so darn frustrating. Come hell or high snow, she’s spending the holidays isolated until her manuscript is done.
When a snowstorm hits, it’s Rafe who offers to follow Cindy to her cabin in the mountains to make sure she arrives safely before he drives out-of-state to visit his family.
Could ending up stuck together in a secluded cabin be the perfect recipe for a cozy Christmas and a Happy New Year?
Rafe Mooney pulled his truck into the gas station and cut the engine. This was the last gas station for fifty miles between Ashnee Valley, Colorado, and…well…anywhere else. At the pump ahead of him sat a mustard-colored Jeep SUV with temporary plates. A tall, slender woman with black pants, boots, and a short, white, puffy coat opened her gas tank cover. A fur-lined hood hid her face from view. He liked her red scarf and gloves. A classy flash of color.
Good snow tires on the vehicle, he noted. Any direction right now meant heading into a winter storm. The snow wasn’t bad in the valley yet, but west of here had close to fifteen inches already, and according to weather warnings, the total was expected to accumulate to twenty-four inches or higher in the next two days.
Fortunately, he planned to head south to New Mexico to see his mom and dad for Christmas. At eighty years old, his parents didn’t travel much anymore. He looked forward to a quiet holiday enjoying Mom’s cooking, football on TV, and the short stack of books he’d been meaning to get to.
He set the gas pump to fill and went inside the small convenience store to grab a coffee for the road. When he returned, he gave a friendly wave to the lady in front of him, who waved back.
“Hi Rafe,” she said and pushed her hood back. “It’s me under here.”
“Hey,” Rafe said to Cindy Wheeler. Doc Cindy as everybody called her in town. Ashnee Valley’s resident psychiatrist.
“I couldn’t see your pretty. Your face. Meeting you here is…” He cringed. He always turned into a blithering idiot whenever she was near. “Fancy meeting you here.”
Cindy walked his direction. “Are you heading home for Christmas?”
“I am. Is this a new SUV? You’re keeping on top of the storm?”
“Brand new and yes I’m trying to keep ahead of the storm. I need to get a move-on though. I’m headed up to the mountains. It’s coming in fast.”
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“Hawkeye. I’ve rented a cabin for a week and a half, possibly two, depending on how long it takes me to finish the final revisions of my book.”
“So, you’re spending Christmas working. Why doesn’t that surprise me.” Rafe laughed.
Cindy tipped her head side-to-side. “I have a few fun things planned too. I’ll have a tree to decorate. Plus, a couple new recipes to try.” She shrugged. “How about you?”
Rafe closed his gas tank cover. “Seeing my folks. It will be nice.” He grinned. “A break from working and all the Mannis family madness.”
“They are a big, busy family, aren’t they?” Cindy smiled.
“Especially with their Mercy Mountain Lodge having guests for the first time.”
The wind had picked up in the short time they chatted. Ice chunks stuck to the fur on Cindy’s hood.
“It’s snowing,” he said.
Okay blockhead, that’s obvious.
“You’re right. I better get going or I’ll have to scrape the windows again. It’s going to be late by the time I get up there.”
Rafe glanced again at her SUV. It appeared loaded to the ceiling. “You have a lot of stuff in there.”
“I do,” she agreed. “A couple suitcases, tree decorations, my baking supplies, four coolers of food. Plus, my laptop and reference books, of course. I’m staying at that cabin until my work is done, come hell or high snow.”
“How about I follow you up there to help you unload? I’m not in any hurry. I can get on the road a little later than planned tonight. My folks aren’t expecting me any particular day or time as long as I arrive by Christmas.”
Cindy put her red-gloved hand on his arm. “Thanks, Rafe. But that won’t be necessary. I know how to drive in the snow. I’ve been up to Hawkeye before. I know the way.”
“Yeah, but this is a big storm.” He hesitated not wanting to press too hard. “There’s no cell reception for part of the way, until you’re out of the canyon.”
He took a glance at the sky. “It’s dark already.”
Cindy tilted her head, studying him. “You know what, I’m going to say yes. I guess I would feel more comfortable. It’s a very generous offer. Thank you.”
He flashed a lopsided grin. “I’m a guy.” He shook his head. “I mean I’m a very generous guy.”
“And you’re sure,” she asked without acknowledging his blunder, “it won’t set you back too much on your trip?”
“Not at all. I’ll follow, help you unpack and be on my way.”
“Okay then, let’s go.” Cindy patted his arm.
He stood enthralled as she walked away, unable to avoid checking out her cute little butt in those pants. He’d been crushing on this woman since he saw her photo on the jacket of her first book years ago. Smart as a whip too. He’d read her book on sibling grief from cover to cover even though he had no personal experience with the topic as an only child.
Her SUV moved forward with two beeps to her horn, at which point he realized he still stood outside his truck daydreaming about her intelligence and those mesmerizing eyes the color of brandy. He got in the vehicle, set his coffee in the cup holder, started the engine, and pulled out of the gas station. At the light she waved at him in her review mirror. He blinked his headlights in response.
After an hour on the road, he had the windshield wipers going full speed as they wound their way through Dark Horse Canyon. Normally, he’d calculate they had another thirty minutes to go, but it might take longer once they got closer to Hawkeye and off the main road.
The cabins were familiar to him. He’d stayed there before with the Mannis brothers for fishing weekends. The last two miles had an especially steep pitch and the area overall remained isolated. Enormous relief had swept over him when Cindy agreed to his suggestion. She was independent and capable. He knew all that. Nonetheless, the thought of her vehicle possibly getting stuck in the snow made him shift uncomfortably in his seat, even now.
Cindy started pumping her brakes as they came toward the stop sign for the turn heading out of the canyon. Rafe chuckled at the adorable way she bounced in her seat, bopping her head back and forth in the SUV. She waved back at him again, then turned right. As he followed, he flipped on his radio and found a station playing “Jingle Bell Rock” imagining this to be the song she listened to.
He thought about the topic of her latest book. The physical and emotional progression of intimacy in relationships. She’d mentioned it back in September when he’d been at lunch with his friend Jim. He might be in his forties, but there could be something there to learn.
Maybe I’ll invite her to lunch again after the book comes out…to… discuss it more.
At the next turn, this time to the left, he followed her, heading up the incline to the cabins, keeping an eye on her SUV. His truck fish-tailed behind but he held his speed steady to reach the top of the hill. They were at eight thousand feet elevation with a nasty wind howling as he parked alongside her in front of one of the cabins.
Wasting no time, she had her hood back on and had opened her trunk by the time he got out of his truck. Cindy dragged two suitcases behind her through the snow on the short path to the front door. He came around to the back of her vehicle, put a box of books on top of one of the coolers and followed.
“You go inside,” he said when they reached the door. “I’ll bring the rest.”
He pulled his hat lower and nodded. “You’ll probably need to get the heat turned up.”
“I bet you’re right.” She found the key under the mat, unlocked the door, and stepped inside.
Rafe returned to the SUV, retrieving two plastic tubs labeled X-mas tree decorations. As he walked up the path again, the front porch light came on, guiding his return in the near white-out conditions. He’d need to take it slow going back through canyon before he could get on the highway to head south. Setting the tubs just inside the door, he made his way back and forth three more times to the Jeep.
“Thank you so much.” Cindy walked toward him when he stepped inside and shut the cabin door. She was still wearing her coat but had removed her boots and turned on every light inside.
He surveyed the cozy living room with leather furniture and a big screen TV. The far wall had a huge window. It was too dark to tell what the view would be, whether forest or maybe she’d even be able to see down to the Talking Fish river.
“This is nicer than the cabins I’ve stayed in before.”
“I didn’t realize you’d been here,” Cindy said as she picked up one of the coolers and set it on the small dining table-for-two next to the kitchen.
“I’m an honorary invitee to the Mannis fishing weekends.” He smirked. “Now I can see they’ve been renting the cheap cabins.”
Cindy laughed. “I’m not very rustic, as you can probably imagine. This is one of the fancy cabins. Would you like to come in to warm up for a bit?”
He glanced out the window closest to the front door at how the snow wasn’t letting up. “I better not. It might take a while going back through the canyon.” He put his hat back on his head. “Slow. I’ll take it.”
She walked his direction unzipping her coat and hung it, along with her scarf, on the hooks by the door.
“I think you should stay tonight. It’s late and the snow isn’t slowing down. There’s a comfy couch, or so it looks. You could head out in the morning.”
He shook his head. “No, thank you though. I’m going to hit the road. Good luck with your book. Merry Christmas.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Did you feel relieved when I said yes to letting you follow me here?”
“What? Of course.”
“Well, I’ll feel the same sense of relief if you get some sleep and then leave for New Mexico when it’s daylight.”
He pushed his hat up, then pulled it down again.
“I’m going to worry,” she added with a pointed look.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You’d worry about me?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “I might even get angry if you go. I don’t like to worry.”
His grin broadened. “You’re a psychiatrist who listens to people’s darkest secrets and that doesn’t make you worry?”
Her eyes glinted with humor.
“I have more control over that type of situation. I haven’t figured out how to control weather. Come on.” With a hand to his elbow, she turned him to the door. “Go get your stuff.”
He hesitated on the porch as she held the door open about two inches to keep snow from coming inside. “There’s a game on TV and one of the coolers is mostly beer,” she shouted over the wind and shut the door.
Well, if you insist.