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Online Romance Novel -- Chapter 6
By the afternoon of the first day of the new year, Haley and Jeff had settled into an uneasy, overly-polite relationship. The tension between them had begun to ebb after Haley had suggested they move the mattress from the bed to the floor in front of the fireplace. Then she had announced that the curtained-off bedroom area was the official bathroom for the duration of the storm.
The expression on Jeff's face had been priceless. There was no doubt that he was a city boy through and through. Haley had hastily stifled her laughter. She wondered if the astronauts had suffered the same embarrassment in figuring out bathroom privileges in the cramped quarters of the space shuttle.
After placing the mattress between the sofa and the hearth, she and Jeff had retreated to neutral corners. Haley had dug out what she called her snowbound busywork, an unrecognizable crocheted rectangle, a ball of yellow yarn, and a crochet needle. She tried her best to ignore Jeff as he paced around the narrow confines of the cabin like a caged wolf.
Finally, when his restlessness began to grate on her nerves, she broke the silence between them. "There’s a basket of books in the bedroom next to the bed if you want something to read, Mr. Talent."
"Look, this formal mister and doctor stuff is a little ridiculous under the circumstances, don’t you think?" Jeff grinned.
"You’re right. Call me Haley."
"And I’m Jeff."
"All right, Jeff. Why don’t you check out my little library. Reading will make the time pass faster."
With a grunt she interpreted as thanks, he ducked behind the patchwork curtain.
To Jeff’s surprise, instead of finding botanical texts or science fiction, as so many scientists read, he discovered romance novels in the big wicker basket. Still, reading anything, while cooped up in the cabin, was better than doing nothing. He grimaced and began to dig through the paperbacks, reading the back cover blurb of each before neatly stacking them on the floor next to the basket. After several minutes, he sighed and selected one that seemed less syrupy than the others. At least it promised a mystery in connection with the love story.
Feeling more than a little disgruntled at being stranded in the remote cabin rather than sitting in a window seat of a sleek plane winging his way back to civilization, he returned to the sitting area and settled on the opposite end of the couch from Haley.
He sneaked a glance at her. She wasn’t anything like what he’d expected. For one thing, she was a lot more attractive with her shining mane of rich brown hair than he’d imagined. He’d known she was a brilliant botanist, but he was surprised by her dry sense of humor. Since he’d interrupted her solitude, she’d amused and irritated him in equal measure, but she hadn't bored him. At the moment, she was scowling fiercely as she tried to pluck a knot from the rather strange yellow thing she was making with that ball of yarn.
He’d watched his grandmother crochet before. Gram had talked a mile a minute while her needle flew, creating beautifully even stitches as she turned out everything from afghans to baby caps. When Gram crocheted, she never had the fierce scowl that marred Haley’s features.
Haley Gant was an enigma. Though he admired her refusal to be cowed by his authority, he still didn’t know her well enough to trust her with the real reason he’d braved the Montana winter to seek her out. Maybe she didn’t know anything about the European cartel, but then again, maybe she did. The Frenchman was known for romancing secrets out of vulnerable women scientists.
Covertly, Jeff looked Haley up and down. A slender woman with a stubborn chin and startling gray eyes. Her eyes were as changeable as the Montana weather, but he'd finally decided they were definitely gray. Not gray blue or any other fanciful color, just gray. He found them strangely appealing.
Could the Frenchman romance research secrets from her? Haley didn’t look like anyone’s picture of vulnerability. Still, he’d reserve judgment until he had more of the facts about her project. And until he knew her a little better.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. They each pretended to be deaf when either had to duck behind the curtain when nature called. Night fell early on the cabin. Actually, Haley thought, laying down her yarn disaster, night didn't fall so much as the little daylight faded away.
She stretched and yawned loudly. "Soory. I’m bushed after no sleep last night. I think I’ll fix us a bite to eat then retire for the night."
"Sounds good," Jeff said, laying aside the novel he’d been reading. "What can I do to help?"
Haley shrugged. "Dinner will be canned soup and cheese toast. Not exactly the gourmet fare you’re probably used to, but filling nevertheless."
"Hey, give me a break. Just because I’m not a country boy doesn’t mean I eat nine course meals every day."
Haley smiled. "You're right. Sorry. Guess I’m so bored that needling you passes for entertainment."
"The boredom part I can understand, though once I got into the book, the time’s actually passed pretty fast."
"Really? So how do you like the romance novel you’re reading?"
He stretched before replying. "Well, I’d never have bought this book, but it’s really quite good. It’s definitely not what I thought a romance novel would be."
"Well said." Haley beamed at him. "If more men read romance novels, maybe they’d find the answer to that age-old question."
"You mean, what do women want?" Jeff grinned. "Judging by what I’ve read in this book, women want pretty much the same as men. And just as often."
Haley blushed and decided not to pursue the subject any farther. "Why don’t you come help with the grilled cheese sandwiches."
They worked in companionable silence to prepare the simple meal. Haley stirred the pot of soup, watching the letters of the alphabet float around the tomato-tinged broth. It was weird having a man in her cabin, but, to her surprise, he seemed perfectly at home as he cut slices from the block of cheddar, laid them on whole wheat bread, and arranged them on the old iron griddle.
"Just set the griddle next to the fire,” Haley directed, handing him a couple of thick pot holders. “The cheese will melt in a couple of minutes. Then transfer them to a plate and leave the griddle sitting on the hearth."
"I think I can figure it out," Jeff said.
Then to her surprise, he winked at her.
A shiver of excitement scooted up Haley’s spine. She blinked in surprise and watched him saunter off with the griddle of cheese-covered bread.
* * *
Late that night, footsteps woke Haley. She blinked and sat up, disturbing the cocoon of blankets on the mattress. The air in the cabin had a more pronounced chill than earlier in the evening.
Jeff paced back and forth in the small space behind the couch. He rubbed his arms with every step. Haley sighed. She’d known he should take the mattress next to the hearth, but he wouldn’t hear of it. She wore long johns. She suspected Jeff hadn’t had the forethought to wear thermal underwear beneath his business suit.
At bedtime, he'd vehemently insisted she take the mattress. He said he’d sack out on the small couch. Though she'd protested that she was better able to withstand the night on the couch, he’d scowled as if she'd questioned his manhood. Then he'd removed his shoes and bedded down in his starched white shirt and trousers. Now, she noticed, he wore his overcoat and shoes.
"What’s wrong?" she asked, blinking sleepily, and knowing perfectly well what was wrong.
"It’s freezing in here." Jeff punctuated his words with slaps up and down his arms as if to keep the circulation going. He stomped his feet too.
Haley really did feel guilty now. She’d been sleeping like a baby tucked up in a warm crib as she lay on the mattress, right next to the hearth, the warmest spot in the cabin. Wryly, she said, "Let me guess. You didn’t take the time to purchase thermal underwear?"
"I didn’t know I’d be camping out in Siberia. I expected to be on my way back to New York by now."
Haley rolled her eyes. She dared not use the kerosene heater. That would be lit only if they couldn’t get out and get firewood from the shed. "Okay. Throw another log on the fire and take off your shoes and coat."
"Why? So they can turn instantly to ice?"
"No, because you don’t wear shoes and an overcoat to bed." She turned back the cover and scooted over closer to the couch, leaving the half of the bed near the fireplace vacant. "Come on. Climb in. I wouldn’t want to be accused of homicide by winter storm."
Jeff didn’t hesitate. He shucked his shoes and coat in record time and practically dived beneath the thermal blankets.
"Thank you," he said fervently.
"Just two rules." Haley arranged the blankets over her to her liking. "One, no snoring. Two, stay on your side of the bed." She eyed him with as much seriousness as she could manage given the situation.
"I promise you your virtue is safe with me," Jeff said with a grin as he scooted to the far edge of the mattress and closest to the hearth.
"Somehow I have a feeling I’m a distant second compared to the warmed stones of that hearth." Haley chuckled softly.
After a moment, Jeff sighed deeply, obviously content in his new sleeping arrangement. Haley grinned. Last night, if anyone had told her she'd be sharing her bed with her fantasy dream man tonight, she'd have laughed out loud.
"Did you ever read that poem Cremation of Sam McGee?” Jeff asked suddenly.
“By Robert Service?" Haley countered with a giggle.
"I see you know the poem," Jeff replied dryly. "Well, I swear I know just how relieved old Sam felt when he got torched." Chuckling, he added, "A little cremation would feel pretty good right about now."
His wry comment surprised a laugh from Haley. Despite what he considered hardship, he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. She turned on her side, facing him. She felt remarkably contented at the moment. Warm, relaxed, and cozy. Not at all the way she usually felt around attractive men like Jeff.
"What made you interested in folk remedies, Haley?" he suddenly asked. "And, why Montana wildflowers? Why not some nice warm state like Florida? Surely they have wildflowers?"
"There’s much truth in folk remedies. Maybe some poultice used by the native peoples of this continent might be the next revolution in antibiotics or antivirals."
"I know it’d sure make EnviroMed dance for joy."
"As for Montana’s wildflowers, that’s easy. They have colors that shout, ‘Look at me.’ In the spring when they start popping out, it’s almost like a miracle. Besides, I spent a lot of my formative years in this state. If you’ve read my file, you know who my father is. He did several research projects on Montana’s native grasses. I was usually his unofficial research assistant."
Haley warmed to her subject. "You’d be amazed at how many wildflower varieties there are here. Montana has about twenty-five hundred kinds of flowering plants. They grow everywhere. High in the mountains under winter snow, in woods, or in the prairies. The native peoples used them to dye clothes, to heal their sick, and to eat. Berries of the kinnikinnick when cooked pop just like popcorn. Juice from the toadflax relieves the itchiness of mosquito bites."
In a soft voice, she told how the native people had taught Lewis and Clark to eat the root of the bitterroot, the state flower of Montana.
Jeff wondered if Haley knew how sexy her voice was when she was relaxed and drowsy and warm. He liked the sound and asked questions just to keep her talking.
"Does the sound of that wind ever get to you when you’re alone here?" he suddenly asked.
"Not really. I guess I’m used to it. Does it bother you?"
"A little, though I imagine if I stayed here long enough, it would be so much background noise, like the sound of traffic in the city."
As the night aged and the wind howled, Haley and Jeff continued talking, first about their respective careers, then about their lives.
Haley heard the note of wistfulness in his voice when he talked about the workaholic existence he’d led, moving from one corporation to another with little time for friends or relationships.
Jeff listened while Haley described life with stern Franklin Gant as a single parent. He heard the longing for family as she talked about her childhood split between battling parents. He drifted to sleep as he listened to the quiet murmur of her voice.
After a few minutes, Haley heard Jeff’s breathing shift to a deeper, heavier rhythm. The quiet crackle of the fire lulled her. Heat radiated from his body. As she was falling asleep, Haley felt unaccountably disappointed that her virtue was safe, just as her handsome houseguest, lying mere inches away, had promised.
What would it take to change that situation?
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