Excerpt from A Little Christmas Magic
From atop her ladder, Beth Lannigen blew on her bare hands to warm them, then tugged on the string of lights and stretched past her comfort zone to reach the next permanent hook she'd installed along the roof's edge several years ago.
At the sound of crunching footsteps behind her, she smiled. Her six-year-old son was returning from his sledding spree down Eve MacDonald's hill and would want some hot chocolate. She could use a cup herself. "Done already, Jamie? I was going to get the toboggan in a few minutes and join you."
"Is this yours?"
At the booming voice Beth startled and looked down at her unexpected guest. A tall, somber-looking man dangled her squirming son by the scruff of his coat in one hand and held his saucer in the other.
"Jamie! What are you doing to my son? Let him go this instant!"
Just as her foot left the top rung to hurry to Jamie's rescue, a dog scrambled around the corner of the house, tripped over its own feet and slammed into the ladder, knocking it right out from under her.
Her heart surged in her throat. Panic bubbled through her like a boiling teakettle. Reflexively she clutched the rain gutter's edge with both hands to regain her balance. For Jamie's sake, she bit down her screech of terror.
Pulse zigzagging madly, she searched for a soft landing area and gulped. Two stories looked much higher hanging from the roof's edge than standing safely on a ladder.
"I'm going to fall." She hadn't meant to say anything, but suddenly disaster seemed inevitable. Visions of broken legs and broken arms danced in her head.
"You're not going to fall," the gruff voice below her said. "Hang on."
Try as she might, Beth couldn't get a good view of what was happening on the ground. Through the haze of fear, only the sounds reached her. Jamie's saucer hit the ground with a thunk, his boots with a plop. Snow crunched. The ladder squealed and rattled as it was righted. And with each second Beth's hold on the narrow gutter got more tenuous, her thoughts more frantic. I can't get hurt. Not in front of Jamie. That thought alone kept panic, if not completely at bay, at least in check.
"Mom! Come down, come down!" "I'm okay, Jamie. I'll be right there."
"The ladder's right under you," the gruff voice said.
With her foot Beth reached for the solid feel of aluminum but couldn't find it.
"To your left," the stranger directed.
Muscles shaking from her effort, she closed her eyes and regrouped. As she reached for the ladder once more, her grip slipped. The meat of her palms caught the gutter's sharp side. Pain sliced into her bare hands. Tears burned her eyes. She bit her trembling lips and whimpered.
"Mom! Come down!" The blur of Jamie's bright-green coat caught her side vision as he rushed to the ladder.
"No, Jamie, stay where you are!"
No sooner had she started to speak than strong arms dragged Jamie down from the first rung and set firmly on the ground.
"I'll help her," the stranger said. "You stay here and make sure the ladder stays still."
Her arms shook from her effort to hang on. Her shoulders ached. Her fingers cramped. Tears of pain stung her eyes. She couldn't fall. Not in front of Jamie. He couldn't see his mother in a broken heap. But she wasn't sure how much longer she could hold on. Taking in a shaky breath, she forced herself to speak calmly.
"Jamie, why don't you go inside and get my gloves?"
"But I gotta hold the ladder for you."
She swallowed hard and strained to speak in an even tone.
"I really need my gloves, sweetheart. My hands are cold."
"O-okay," Jamie said, hesitation making him stammer. "I'll be right back."
When the back door slam, she gave a sigh of relief. Then panic surged through her in a sense-stealing wave. As heavy footsteps tromped up the ladder rungs, her hold on the gutter failed. Arms cycling backwards, breath rushing out of her in a whoosh, she fell onto the stranger, taking him and the ladder with her to the snow-covered ground. With his arms wrapped protectively around her, he cushioned her landing with his body, which drew an oomph of discomfort from him.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Thoughts raced like an avalanche through her mind as she rebounded off the hard body below hers and bumped the ladder out of the way. She scrambled around and knelt beside him. He just lay there, eyes closed. His skin had an ashen, unhealthy color. She'd killed him! A fresh wave of alarm flooded her. She grasped the front of his jacket and shook it.
"Hey, mister, are you all right?"
"Fine," he grumbled, and reached up to rub his ribs.
The dog, looking like an overcooked, understuffed sausage, crawled over whimpering an apology. With her hands feeling stiff and cold and stinging with pain, Beth didn't try to pet the animal.
"It's okay," she crooned to the dog. "Are you all right?" The dog rolled over, exposing its pink belly. "Is she yours?"
"No," the stranger barked, as if owning such a scrawny mutt was an insult.
The tone of his voice made her remember what had gotten her into this predicament in the first place. Her concern for his condition flew away and was replaced by her responsibility as a mother. She stood up, fisted her aching hands and brought them to rest on her hips. The blood in the scratches stung and burned, but her anger blazed hotter.
"Why were you manhandling my son?" A slow throb pulsed in both her hands, bringing out her contrary side.
"He was trespassing."
The man rose like a disgruntled bear roused from a nap, yet a sense of power and presence radiated from him. As he dusted the snow from his jacket, he scowled at her from beneath dark brows, and she sensed a mighty grip on control under the keen sharpness of his gaze. She couldn't tell what color his eyes were, but whatever the color, friendly wouldn't describe them.
"Trespassing!" Beth tripped over her tongue as she tried to sort through the barrage of conflicting thoughts assaulting her. This was her new neighbor? She'd known Eve MacDonald had sold her family home. Eve had been uncharacteristically closemouthed about the new owner, but Beth had assumed nothing would change. Rockville, despite its hard name, was an amicable town. Who was this man with the hurt eyes? Where had he come from? Why was he so surly? The slow burn in her hands turned into a full-blown fire, but her thoughts refused to sort themselves into order.