Melting Snow.

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Chapter 6

The next two weeks were painstaking. Colton longed to see her face but remained on the ranch the first few days and worked almost non-stop fixing the large sliding doors to one of the barns. Whenever supplies were needed, he sent one of the ranch hands into town with a check.

Alfredo and the others expressed their worry for him as he barely spoke and they had to force him to stop and eat at least once a day. Colton pushed himself to work harder and tried to forget the pain.

As he finished fluffing hay in one of the stables early the next week, the radio that was playing in the background sounded out the weather alert noise. “This is a public weather announcement for the north west territory of Montana. A moderate snow storm is developing in the region and may hit as early as 6AM tomorrow morning.”

Colton moved to the barn door and looked up at the dark grey clouds forming overhead. It was time to check on her. He called Alfredo who was with the others in the back pasture removing a fallen tree and told him he was heading out for about an hour and would be back.

The diesel engine moved quickly down the familiar washed out driveway and up under the willow tree. He knew she would still be at work. He walked around the outside of the house and inspected the walls again then pulled up onto the roof and re-inspected the shingles. Everything was still holding up good.

Next he pushed the door open and made sure the house hadn’t shifted any causing the paneling to move. It was freezing inside. He walked into the bedroom and saw where she had moved the mattress closer to the fireplace on the far wall. Her blanket and pillows were in their usual mound on top of the bed.

None of it would be enough but it was only a moderate storm. Maybe it would be enough to finish convincing her that she needed another place to stay. Even if only temporarily.

Colton returned to town, bought a small propane heater and went back to set it outside the door for her to find when she got home from work that evening. Then he turned his truck around and headed back to the ranch.

The plant employees were told not to come in the next day because of a predicted snowstorm moving into the area. Anabelle straightened out her paperwork as the last of the line workers trickled out to the parking lot. She wasn’t sure how many days it would be before they were called back to work but she wanted everything neat and in order when she returned.

“You comin’ Anabelle?” asked the short, stout plant manager. “Yes sir,” she replied, “just getting a few things straight before I closed up.” She savored the last of the warmth in her office before she left and stepped outside in the harsh winter air and wrapped herself up against the piercing winds.

The storm didn’t blow in quite as fast as predicted but it could be seen forming overhead. Colton gathered all the workers on his front porch the next morning to speak to them all together. “We’ve done just about all we can do now. The storm’s movin’ in so it’s time for y’all to move out. Go home and be safe and warm with your families while we wait out the storm. I’m paying you all a full day’s work regardless of us leaving out early. Go ahead and start home before that storm gets here and blocks everyone in.”

They all thanked him and started for their vehicles. “Call us if anything happens and you need us Colton,” Called Alfredo. “We’ll make it back out here for you.” Colton thanked his friends for their dedication and wished them all safe travels. He stood on the porch and waved as the last truck disappeared down the hill.

Alone again he moved indoors later that day and started dinner. He seasoned fresh beef short ribs with a family special blend and starting warming up some olive oil in a pan. While the oil took a minute to warm up, he sliced a few handfuls of small red potatoes and seasoned them on a pan. He placed the ribs into the pan on the stove and put the potatoes in the oven and set the timer. While he waited to turn the ribs he switched on the radio, which picked up his favorite golden oldies country station.

He moved back to the stove and flipped the ribs as Hank Sr. started moaning through the radio speakers. When the potatoes were pulled out of the oven he slid them onto a plate with the ribs and sat himself down at the dining room table with a tall glass of tea. He offered grace and began his meal while Dolly Parton sang loudly on the radio and the wind began to howl outside.

The lights flickered and Dolly was interrupted by the familiar sound of the weather alert. “This is a public weather announcement for the northwest territory of Montana. The moderate snowstorm has escalated into a severe snowstorm. People are urged to move into secure locations. Shelters are opening in these local areas:…” Colton didn’t hear which areas were opening shelters because all he thought bout was his sweet Belle. He had helped her protect herself from what would have been a moderate storm but nothing severe. “… It is crucial to move to a secure location immediately as this storm is rapidly developing. Expected power outages are predicted throughout the entire region. Ensure you have enough water, flashlights, batteries, candles, gas powered heaters, blankets…”

Colton didn’t hear the rest of the typical supply list. He had suddenly realized that Anabelle wouldn’t know about the turn of the weather because she had no way of hearing the warning. All businesses in the area had closed early that day or the day before.

He grabbed a blanket from the downstairs closet and dashed outside into the heavy snowfall. He jumped into his truck and shot down the drive as fast as he could in the already thickening blanket of snow. The snow was even thicker in town and only deepened more the closer he got to her. Finally he found a break in the fencing where her driveway was supposed to be and turned in. Halfway down the drive he could make out an obstruction sticking out in the path.

His headlights reflected off of the taillights of the tan truck and the Louisiana tag she still hadn’t gotten changed. The front end of the truck had slid off the driveway and into the fence. He jumped out and opened the Chevy’s passenger door. The cab was empty. He could tell by the way the truck was leaning that the left front tire was up in the air and the right front tire was bogged down in a washout.

So she had slid off the drive and into a washout against the fence and what? Walked the rest of the way to the shack? Called a co-worker to come pick her up? The thick blanket of snow had already covered up any tracks. He jumped back into his Ford and started back down the driveway. It might have been too late for her to call for help. He had to check the shack; he had to be sure she wasn’t there. As he came to the end of the driveway his stomach lurched. The large old willow tree had blown over, it’s roots stuck out in the elements and its branches engulfed the shack.

Colton, panicked, pulled up to the tree and jumped back out into the storm. “Please don’t be here.” He whispered to himself. “Please be somewhere safe and not in that crushed little shack!”

He climbed through the branches and caught a glimpse of the shack’s boards. The front door was lying on the ground and he didn’t see the small heater anywhere. His stomach lurched; she must have moved the heater inside already– which meant she was home.

He crawled through the open doorway and stood hunched over once inside. “Anabelle! Anabelle please answer me! Please be alright!” He moved through the branches that had broke through the roof and made his way to the bedroom. He found the doorway blocked by one of the larger branches and peered over it into the room. The bowed tree trunk had replaced the room’s roof and bricks from the chimney and fireplace were scattered everywhere. Sitting next to the extinguished fireplace stood the propane heater with a brick through its heating grill. The mattress lay close to the fireplace with the typical heap of blanket and pillows.

No, wait. The mound was bigger now and it gave a shudder. “Anabelle!” Colton yelled. The blanket moved slightly then lay still. He scrambled over the tree branch and crawled across the snow-covered floor. As he knelt next to the mattress he yanked away the blanket. Anabelle was so pale his breath caught in his lungs. Her eyelids fluttered open slightly. “Anabelle! Anabelle wake up!” he shouted as he rolled her limp figure into his arms. “Anabelle please!” he continued to shout and plead as he rubbed his hands rapidly up and down her face, neck, arms and stomach trying to warm her. He kissed her cold blue lips.

“Hang on my sweet Belle! You’re going to be alright!” he coughed as he carried her back across the room, over the branch and worked his way out of the ramshackle shack. He burst through the branches outside and dashed back to his truck. Sliding inside, he grabbed the blanket from the passenger seat and wrapped her in it. Looking back out over the scene he realized the only thing that kept her from being crushed was the thicker tree branches holding the trunk up those few feet above the ground.

He cranked the heater up higher and pointed his truck back toward the ranch. Leaving for a shelter was no longer an option, the storm had moved in full force now. It would be all they could do to make it back to his house.

Hot air blew on her cheeks and her fingers and toes tingled. She shifted slightly and could feel the softness of a blanket wrapped around her. She batted her eyes a couple times and waited for her surroundings to become clear. It was dark but it was oh so warm. The warmth seemed to seep down into her bones and radiate through her muscles. It touched lightly on her skin and drove away the cold that had lain there so heavily moments ago. She shivered as the warmth fought the frost for her body and eventually triumphed.

Her surroundings started to swim into view and she could sense the familiar aroma of cattle and sweat. Had he come for her? She could slightly make out the thick sheet of snow falling outside the window and feel the world shift to the right in tune with a familiar knocking sound that resonated in her mind.

Painfully, she lifted her gaze upward and could see his masculine features which had shadows cast eerily on them by the green glow of the dashboard lights. His prominent jawline was set firmly as he clenched his teeth. Those electric blue eyes paired with the green glow made them take on a deep purple color. Those deep-set eyes were focused straight ahead as he plunged them deeper into the storm.

Where was he taking her? What would happen? Her mind still felt half frozen. She could hardly think. Her weariness couldn’t keep her from studying his dark beauty and it also couldn’t mask the fear that was once again swelling inside of her.

Suddenly the vehicle made an abrupt stop. The sight Anabelle caught through the snow was breath taking even in her groggy and confused state. They were stopped in front of a generations old Montana ranch mansion. The front porch was made of a beautiful mahogany, supported by great stone pillars and led up to the first floor of the log mansion. Lights glowed warmly out of the large arched windows from the second level of the home where a deer antler chandelier could be seen hanging.

Colton gathered her closer to him and it sent a sharp icy pain through her side. She moaned and twisted slightly as if to escape the pain. Colton looked down at her and elation flooded his face. “You’re awake!” he said huskily. He suddenly looked as if 20 years had been taken off of his features. “You were so cold and pale. I couldn’t get you to respond to me. Your heartbeat was so faint sweet Belle…” He pulled her against his chest and nuzzled her hair, breathing warmly on her.

He wrapped the blanket tighter around her. “Alright, it’s going to be cold again but I’m going to get you inside as fast as I can. Stay awake!” and with that he pushed open the truck door and the unwanted wind and snow slammed into them like an icy enemy. Colton shut the truck door and slung his arm across his face while holding her tight against him with the other arm.

He pushed hard against the now screaming winds and the sharp sting of the snow and hail. His boots thudded heavily up the wooden stairs and across the porch. Finally they reached the front door and pushed their way inside. Once the door closed behind them, shutting out the unbearable elements, the warmth of the home encased them.

The delicious aroma of seasoned beef wafted out of what must have been the kitchen to the left and a sweet scent of apples and cinnamon came from the right. Her mouth watered at the savory scents. Anabelle gazed up at what to her seemed an unbelievably tall ceiling. The antler chandelier she had viewed from outside hung overhead from a large log-ceiling beam. She glanced around has much as her pounding head would allow her to and took in the scene before her.

The entire mansion was a rustic log cabin with generations of rustic interior designs. A wooden winding stairwell on each side of the foyer spiraled up to the second floor. On the far side of the opened area of the second floor stood a straight staircase that led to a large set of closed double doors, a third floor master bedroom perhaps. A slight view into the kitchen on the left past the swinging saloon style doors revealed hardwood cabinets and marble counter tops. Beyond the foyer, the house opened up into the dining room with floor to ceiling windows for what was sure to be an astonishing view.

Once Colton had his boots off, he turned quickly to the right into the living room and set Anabelle on the brown leather couch. He strode across the room and knelt down by the massive stone fireplace and lit a fire that was of a reasonable size within minutes. “I’ll be right back.” He said to her as he dashed out of the room. A large, spotted cowhide rug lay at the center of the living room floor with three cowhide leather couches around it. An antler chandelier hung from the ceiling in this room as well.

The entire place was very warm and calm. It was incredibly spacious and yet completely cozy. She shivered from her snow soaked clothes as the warmth of the fireplace hit her from across the room. Soon Colton returned and handed her warm, dry clothes. “Are you strong enough to change?” he asked as he knelt down by her. “I can uh… help you change discreetly if your strength isn’t up enough yet. I’m not attempting anything malicious!” he added hastily, “But you do need to be rid of those wet clothes and fitted into something dry.” Anabelle thanked him and assured him that she was recovered enough to change herself.

Colton left the room and she removed her wet clothes and replaced them with the dry ones. A few minutes after she had finished Colton reappeared with a cotton western shirt in hand. He gathered her wet clothes and returned to the foyer. He laid the shirt in his hand over the banister of the far staircase and removed his clingy wet t-shirt.

Anabelle’s breath caught. She hadn’t meant to watch him change shirts and obviously he had left the room so as not to make her uncomfortable. As he pulled the t-shirt over his head the muscles in his back rippled. His sun-tanned skin was taut over his muscles making each flex and relaxation clearly visible. He slipped the cotton shirt around behind him to slide it up his arms. As he twisted to work the shirt up, a glimpse of his tight abs could be seen from the side. His biceps bulged in the restriction of the shirtsleeves as he moved to snap up the front.

Anabelle couldn’t help but admire him. She watched as he closed the last top snap and then she raised her eyes to get a brief glimpse of face before he went back up the stairs. She could feel her face blush bright red when her eyes locked onto his and she realized that he had been watching her watch him. He smiled at her and winked before bounding back upstairs. She hadn’t died in the snowstorm but she might just die of embarrassment!

Colton threw the wet clothes in the washer, smiling to himself the whole time. He was overjoyed that his sweet little Southern Belle was awake, warming and safe at last. It had been close, but she was going to be all right. She must not have been stuck in the harsh cold quite as long as he had imagined considering how well she was recuperating. Perhaps the elements just wore on her faster because of her small size.

He chuckled happily as he thought about catching her eyeing him in the foyer. Her bashfulness at being caught was adorable. He didn’t allow his hope to get up to high though. He still needed to tread lightly with her. She may be giving in to herself and admitting she might feel something but she likely wasn’t going to admit it to him yet.

He still frightened her, he could tell. She was sure to still be exhausted from her ordeal so he was going to tend to her needs first and foremost. After he could see significant improvement in her he might start to try opening up to her again. Maybe after everything that happened and seeing how he tried to be there for her and went back for her she might accept him more.

Maybe if he played his cards right, the night might end in another kiss. Even if she only allowed him a small kiss on her soft little cheek, it would still be a great triumph.

He headed back down stairs and tried to hide his amusement at her embarrassment. He retrieved what was left of his dinner from the dining room and warmed it back up. The meal smelt rich with salt, oregano, parsley and that strong aroma of beef. He walked into the living room and slowly sat down beside her on the couch.

She blushed and tried to look away but the smell rising off the dinner plate wafted under her nose and caught her hungry attention. Her stomach growled angrily and she blushed even more as she hung her head down. The poor girl sounded starved.

“I figured you’d be pretty hungry after all of that. You should eat, it’ll help you get your energy back up.” He said coolly. He got a bite of potatoes on the fork and moved it to her mouth. She sniffed and slowly pulled the food off the fork in one gentle bite. She swallowed the first bite and looked longingly at the plate, shifting her weight trying to unnoticeably move closer.

Colton carefully moved his arm around behind her and pulled her closer so that she was resting against him as he fed her off of the plate. She didn’t seem to mind having his arms around her and ate eagerly. As she ate, he would nuzzle her soft hair and sniff the familiar scent of Georgia peaches and sweet tea.

When the meal was finished, she yawned contently and her eyelids drooped sleepily. Colton had her curled up next to him and couldn’t be happier. He was holding her– he was finally holding her. He sat there for a long while just watching her nap against his shoulder while the storm raged furiously outside. Suddenly, a loud pop sounded through the house and startled her awake. The lights went out and all sounds of electricity in the house ceased.

Anabelle looked about groggily and then rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “It’s alright sweet Belle.” He whispered to her, “the storm knocked out the power.” She yawned and made a little stretch followed by a squeak. He chuckled and stroked her hair. The couch they were on quickly began to chill so close to the window. Colton retrieved some more blankets and pillows and moved one of the other couches closer to the blazing fireplace.

He picked up Anabelle and moved her to the warmer couch and nestled in beside her. “I thought it was just supposed to be a moderate storm.” Anabelle said. “It was at first,” Colton began to explain, “but it quickly took a turn for the worse and the weather board declared it a severe snowstorm. That’s when I went looking for you. Shelters have been opened up in surrounding areas but we didn’t have time to make it anywhere because everything is so far out. I brought us back here because I knew we’d be safe enough. The power will be out for a few days I’m sure and even after the storm passes we won’t be able to leave until the blanket of snow decreases.” Anabelle looked worried so he quickly added “But we’re fine here. My family has ridden out generations worth of snowstorms in this mansion. It’s not hard to keep areas warm in here. I have plenty of firewood, water and food stocked up. We could live comfortably for over a month in here if we had too.”

Anabelle smiled weakly at him. “Sounds like you’re very prepared.” She complimented. “So… this is your house?” she asked. Colton chuckled “Yes it is little Belle. I inherited my family’s ranch when my parents passed a few years ago. I’ve been reclusive here, barely talking to anyone but my family of workers.” He explained, “Then you came along, like a sunbeam through the snow laden clouds. You gave me a reason to be me again. To feel like me again.”

He caressed her cheek and clasped her small face in his large hand, tilting her face up to his. Her sweetness surrounded him their noses touched. The power lines might have been out but he felt like he could power the whole house with the electricity he had energizing his senses in that moment. He leaned even closer and could almost feel her soft pink lips on his. Would she let him kiss her?

He pressed his lips firmly against hers and silently their mouths moved in unison. His stomach leaped and his heart pounded. She was kissing back! Would she continue? Was she finally opening up to him? He ran his other hand along her arm and took her wrist, guiding her to wrap her arms around him. With one hand above her elbow, he moved the other hand back up her arm, along her shoulder and up her neck to where he could once again tangle his fingers in her dark brown locks.

He pulled her closer and they kissed more fiercely now.

Too quickly the minutes passed by and they pulled apart slightly. He looked deep into her green and blue mingled eyes and knew with all certainty that she was his love. He needed her. “I’m sorry,” she choked almost to quietly to hear. “For what my sweet Belle?” he asked, astonished by the tears forming in her eyes. She nuzzled her face into his shoulder and said muffled “I treated you so wrongly all this time.”

He pulled her face back up to his and forced her to gaze back into his enchanting blue eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for,” he started, “I’ve seen many sides of you over the past few months and have only fallen for you deeper every day. I don’t know what stories from your past play specifically into your fear of trusting someone but don’t let that past keep haunting you.” He kissed her mouth and pulled back to finish, “Whatever hurt you back then, I won’t let it hurt you anymore. I’m not obsessed with reading your pained history; I want to focus on writing your happy future.”

She smiled up at him with the most beautiful, relieved sweet smile he had ever seen grace her lips as the tears dried from her eyes. “It sounds like I have a lot to look forward too, I only hope I can write as good or better a future for you in return.”

Colton flashed an overjoyed smile back at her. He had finally made her his own. “I’ve been waiting for you for so long, I just hadn’t realized it until that day at the store.” He leaned back down and kissed her passionately, sliding his other hand up her arm and down her back. She drew in a sharp breath and pulled back slightly breaking their kiss. He looked at her longingly and moved to pull her back in. “Wait,” she gasped, “I’m not a married woman and I want to live right.”

He smiled and replied “Well I’m not a married man, yet, and I want to live right too. I understand limits Miss Anabelle,” he winked at her, “and I expect you to respect those limits!” he jested. She gave his muscular arm a slap. “Colton!” she exclaimed. He laughed heartily pulled her in again. “I respect you my sweet Belle, you have not to fear about that. I’m an honorable man and expect to keep myself honorable. There will come a day when limits are no longer applicable but that Miss Belle, is when you’ll change your name to Mrs. Stonewell.”

“Now,” he continued as he pulled her closer once again. “Let’s start writing our future.”

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