Excerpted from “A Dundee Christmas” by Brenda Novak
When the rattle-trap truck crested the slight rise that showed Dundee, Idaho looking so stark and barren beneath several feet of snow, Cierra Romero nearly swore. She would have—those words were the easiest English to remember because she’d even heard them growing up in Guatemala—except she’d promised God if He’d get her safely to this town, where she could find work, she’d leave all the bad habits she’d picked up behind. “Fu…dge! You gotta be freakin’ kidding me!”
The farmer and his teenage son who’d brought her all the way from where her last ride had ended—a place called Boise—glanced at each other and started laughing.
Cierra lowered her eyelids but watched them as closely as she could without letting them know it. She’d heard that expression a lot since coming to the states. Had she said it wrong? Or was it merely that they had never heard those words spoken with such a strong Spanish accent?
She didn’t know, but now that they were making fun of her, she was glad she hadn’t bothered to listen when they’d given their names. Cierra made it a habit not to grow too familiar with people if she could help it. Especially Americans. These men would drop her in Dundee and go on their way to whatever place they’d mentioned—the name had been unintelligible to her—and she’d never see them again.
It was better not to get attached. To anything. She’d even had to give away the kitten Charlie had waiting for her when she deplaned in Las Vegas—because all her dreams had died when he did, including her ability to take care of anyone or anything she loved. Maybe she’d never felt deeply for her American fiancé. She hadn’t gotten to know him well enough for that. Fifty years her senior, he’d chosen her from a bride Web site, and although he’d brought her to the U.S. more than two months ago, he’d spent the majority of that time in his office, running his business.
But she mourned him all the same. Maybe he was as perverted as those who disapproved claimed he was for wanting to marry someone so much younger, but he’d been kind to her and, with the money he’d sent, generous to the three younger sisters who were living on their own in a squalid flat back home while counting on her to provide for them. Too bad he’d had a stroke and died the day before the wedding. If he hadn’t run into some unexpected complications with finishing up his divorce, they would’ve been married right after she arrived, and she wouldn’t be floating around America on an expired Visa, hoping to find a way out of her desperate circumstances.
“Dundee ain’t what you expected?” the farmer said.
Hadn’t she already made that clear?
Remembering that she didn’t want to upset anyone, that she was living in this country only by the grace of God and would be sent back to utter hopelessness if anyone turned her in, she averted her eyes to hide her flare of temper. As feisty as any Latino princess—at least, that was what her parents used to tell her before malaria took them to their graves—she knew she had to appear somewhat docile if she hoped to get along as a foreigner in such a small community. “It will be fine.”
“But you don’t even have a suitcase.”
Because she’d had to leave it when she’d caught the man who’d given her a ride to Salt Lake City hiding behind the building the moment they stopped for gas, using his cell phone when he was supposed to be in the restroom. Afraid he was calling to report her, she’d run off with all her clothes, toiletries and extra money still locked in his trunk. “Someone waits for me,” she said and desperately hoped that was true. Arlene, Charlie’s ex-wife, hadn’t been the nicest person in the world. Although she’d stepped in to handle the funeral arrangements and had eventually taken enough pity on Cierra to send her to work for some brother she said she hadn’t seen in years, Arlene had been the most vocal about her objections to Charlie’s plans—and the most unfriendly when Cierra first arrived in America. Cierra had overheard her telling Charlie’s neighbor that it wasn’t fair that he’d toss her out like an old shirt after she’d been with him for so long just to indulge his pedophilic fantasies. She said he was too old to sire the baby he longed to have, the baby she herself had never been able to give him, and that he didn’t need to bring in such a young girl to do that, anyway. She said he was marrying a baby.
“Good. I’m glad you have a place to go because it’s awfully cold,” the farmer said. “You wouldn’t want to spend much time in the snow. Skinny little thing like you would freeze right quick. This area’s experiencing record lows, just in time for Christmas.”
Christmas… She’d been expecting a ring, a cake, a warm, dry place to live—for the next few years, at least. It was supposed to be her best Christmas ever. She’d believed, for once in her life, she’d have the money to buy presents.
But maybe what’d happened served her right for being so reluctant, in her heart, to marry an old man, even for the sake of her sisters.
“What day is it?” she asked, suddenly realizing that she no longer knew. The days were beginning to blur together. It was difficult to think when she was so hungry….
“December 16th,” the farmer’s son supplied.
The 16th? Really? That meant it was Los Posadas, the first of the nine days of candlelight processions in her country, where children and adults alike carried the statues of saints through the streets to reenact the holy family’s quest for lodging in Bethlehem.
The farmer brought them to a shuddering stop in front of a drugstore. “This okay?”
Since she didn’t yet know exactly how to find Arlene’s brother, one corner was as good as another, wasn’t it?
“Fine. Gracias, senior.” Bracing for the cold, she offered them both a polite smile and got out. But as she reached into her pocket to retrieve the slip of paper Arlene had passed along to her, she realized that what she was doing wasn’t so different from the re-enactments going on at home. She had nothing but this address and a stranger’s promise that she would be given shelter. What she found when she actually arrived would be anyone’s guess.
* * *
“Someone’s at the door,” Brent said. “I’d get it, but…I’m a little tied up here.”
Ken Holbrook lifted his head. They were both working off the kitchen, which was next to the living room, but he hadn’t heard anything. “I don’t think so.”
“You might want to check. Maybe Mom and Dad came up, even though we told them to let us get this place out of mothballs first.”
“No, they had other plans.” If anyone was at the door, it was more likely their real father. Since Ken had retired from professional football and returned to Dundee, Russ had been dogging his every step, doing his damnedest to talk him into yet another loan, which he called “an infusion of working capital,” for whatever business he was starting next. “No one’s here,” Ken said, hoping it was true. “There’s a storm watch going on.”
Scooting over to be able to reach his toolbox without compromising his position on the floor, Brent dug around blind since he was lying on his back and still had his head partway inside the furnace, and retrieved his wrench. But at the sound of a light tap, he froze. “There it is again. I’m pretty sure that’s a knock.”
This time Ken heard it, too. Had Brent invited Russ to the cabin? It’d be like him. Brent didn’t feel the same resentment toward their real father that Ken did. He’d been in elementary school when Russ was so busy screwing up all their lives, which had somehow imbued him with more forgiveness. But Ken didn’t ask Brent, didn’t want to talk about Russ because he knew it would only lead to an argument. Russ was the only thing they ever argued about.
With the wind kicking up, Ken still held out hope that it wasn’t a visitor, especially their father. “I’ll see what’s going on. Just get the damn furnace fixed.”
Leaving the cardboard box he’d been unpacking, Ken strode into the living room and peered through the peephole Gabe had drilled in the front door when their mother married him and they came to stay in this cabin that first summer. Because they didn’t have any heat, Ken didn’t plan on opening up if he didn’t have to. It was already cold enough to see his breath. But the moment he spotted a petite woman with long dark hair standing on the porch without a hat, boots or much of a coat, he yanked the door wide—and gaped at the zip-up sweatshirt she wore with blue jeans and snow-covered tennis shoes.
They had a visitor, all right. But it wasn’t their father….
Angling his head, he checked the drive for a vehicle.
Other than his own Range Rover, which he’d parked outside because there wasn’t room in the garage, he couldn’t find one. How had she gotten so far into the mountains without a car, and dressed like that? “Can I help you?” he said uncertainly.
Dark-chocolate eyes, framed with the longest lashes he’d ever seen, appealed to him from a café au lait face. She was somewhere in her mid-twenties, and she was pretty. Really pretty. He felt as if he’d just found Selma Hayek on his doorstep. But he was fairly confident the lack of color in her lips wasn’t a good thing.
“I—I’m Cierra,” she said, rolling the r’s, and reached out to give him a piece of paper that’d been crushed in one hand. Before he could accept it, however, she swayed and would’ve fallen had he not let it go and caught her instead.
A clang, and subsequent cursing, indicated Brent had dropped his wrench, but Ken could soon hear his younger brother jogging toward him. Nothing Brent did was ever very subtle. Although he was only twenty-one and still in college, he was bigger than Ken and, at 6’2” and 210 lbs, Ken had never been considered small—except, maybe, when analysts compared him against the front line in football.
While he held her, “Cierra’s” eyelashes fluttered as if she was fighting for consciousness but, a second later, she lost that battle and her eyes closed.
“What is it?” Brent asked, coming up from behind.
Ken turned to show him what he’d caught, and watched his brother’s mouth drop open.
“Wow!” he breathed. “That’s exactly what I wanted for Christmas. How’d you know?”
There was no time to acknowledge his joke. “Fix a place to put her. I think she’s suffering from hypothermia.”
Brent dashed inside, just ahead of Ken, straight to the master bedroom, where Ken had left his bags when they arrived a few hours earlier, and peeled the plastic cover off the mattress. The cabin had been closed up for so long it had a musty odor, but Ken knew that would go away once they aired out the place. At least covering the furniture had kept it from getting too dusty.
“That’s good for now,” Ken said so that Brent wouldn’t bother trying to put on the sheets. “Take off her shoes.”
Brent removed her sneakers so Ken could lay her on the bed. She was already coming around. Moving her head from side to side, she muttered in Spanish. Then her eyes opened, and she gazed up at them with a sort of mute resignation that unsettled Ken. Wouldn’t most women be frightened to awake to the sight of two large men—total strangers—while sequestered in a remote cabin?
This girl didn’t seem to be scared. But if heading back outside into the weather was her only other option, he could understand that it was a matter of preference. Or maybe she was even closer to death than he’d thought.
“We’ve got to get her warm.” He grabbed the blankets they’d dumped at the foot of the bed and waved for Brent to lay down on one side of her while he laid down on the other. Sandwiching her between them with the bedding piled on top was the quickest way he could think of to raise her body temperature. At least her clothes were, for the most part, dry. Otherwise, she probably wouldn’t have lasted this long.
She didn’t fight their close proximity. Her eyes closed again and she remained perfectly still, cold as marble but malleable as a doll.
“She going to be okay?” Brent whispered after several minutes had passed and she hadn’t spoken or moved.
Ken pressed two fingers to the side of her throat. “Heart’s beating.”
“That’s good.” Brent pulled back just enough to get a better look at her face. “Where do you think she came from?”
“Quit being a smart-ass. I mean most recently.”
“How should I know?” Ken responded with a chuckle. Because of the age difference between them, he and his brother had never been especially close, but that was changing. Ken couldn’t wait until Brent graduated from Boise State. Already, they were talking about teaming up to run a series of football camps for kids in the summer.
After a short pause, Brent spoke again. “This seems a little weird.”
Ken propped up his head. “Having a beautiful woman appear out of nowhere?”
“Sleeping three to a bed…with you.”
Ken might’ve laughed, but he couldn’t. He was too busy gasping as their visitor not only moved but slipped her frozen fingers under his shirt and right up against his skin. Her teeth chattered as she attempted to burrow so close he got the impression she’d climb inside his skin if she could.
Brent arched his eyebrows, demanding an explanation for all the wiggling going on.
“I’d say she’s doing better,” he said when he could bring his voice down an octave.
This met with no small amount of suspicion on his brother’s part. “How much better?”
“Don’t get excited. She’s figured out how to maximize the heat I’m offering, that’s all.”
Brent sounded sulky when he answered. “I’m offering heat, too.”
Because she’d pulled away at his initial reaction, Ken covered her hands with his to let her know it was fine to take what she needed. He’d survived worse. “Yeah, but I’m always the lucky one.”
“You can’t get lucky. What about Isolde?” Brent challenged.
Fascinated by the number of women that congregated around professional athletes, his brother always asked about his love life. Because Brent had already been cut from the college team and would never experience the NFL for himself, Ken usually indulged him. But he didn’t like talking about his former girlfriend. “I broke it off before I moved back, and you know it.”
“It’s for good, then?”
Although Ken had spent two years with Isolde, even brought her to Dundee last Christmas, he’d given up trying to make the relationship work when he rejected The New York Jets’ offer to renew his contract. She dreamed of a life in the Big Apple and had aspirations in fashion design; he dreamed of raising a family while adding to the businesses he already owned in his hometown, one of which was a dude ranch in the mountains he loved. He was even toying with the idea of helping their stepfather coach football at the high school he’d attended, which would feed into his summer camps with Brent. “It’s over for good.”
“No second thoughts?” Brent pressed.
Ken had a million of them. Not only about Isolde but about football. He preferred to leave the game while he was still at his best, to go out on top and with both knees functioning properly. But every once in a while he wondered if he’d acted prematurely. Did he have another year or two left in him?
He’d watched quarterback Roger Liggett writhe on the field a year ago while the medics came running from the sidelines, only to learn that Roger would never be able to play ball again. Maybe he’d let that spook him into quitting too soon.
“No second thoughts,” he lied.