A Short Story by Christina Sinisi: Sassy
The Blue Ridge Mountains huddled over the valley, their peaks old-man gray with fog and rocks blocking the sun.
Maggie swept the back porch free of mud and slush. When her father returned from scouring the hills for deer with his new buddies from work, he’d track in more of the same. Every day, every hour, her only goal seemed to be some small progress against the encroaching outdoors. It was the one goal she allowed herself since coming back home, defeated by the cost of graduate school and living on her own.
A tinny knock on the screen door startled her out of her pit of doom and gloom.
Without thinking, Maggie swung the door open. “Oh, wow, it’s colder than a penguin’s butt.”
The man was tall with broad shoulders and a jawline that rivaled the mountain edges. Attraction hit her upside the head like a two by four, along with a blast of wind. Despite him wearing a camouflage jacket and orange vest with the John Deere cap like every other hunter, she was mesmerized. He backed up a step at her turn of phrase. “Good morning. I don’t think it’s that cold.”
His accent wasn’t from around here. It was her turn to retreat and wonder why she hadn’t bothered to check for strangers. “Well, we’ll have to disagree on that.”
“Okay.” He looked down his narrow nose at her, not normal, since she stood almost six feet in the bedroom slippers she wore around the house. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he spoke every word like she might be too dumb to understand, “but I’ve lost a dog. She loves warm kitchens and table scraps so I thought she might have come in your yard.”
Maggie glanced down at her sweat pants, thermal shirt, and slippers. “Um, I haven’t been out in the yard.”
“She’d have whined to be let in.” The stranger scanned the enclosed porch as if she’d stashed his dog in a corner. “She’s a good dog and I’d hate to lose her. It’s just that the temperature dipped further than I thought it would.”
Maggie squeezed her arms around her middle. “It’s colder than the weatherman predicted, that’s for sure. Well, if I see your dog, how would I let you know?”
He took off his cap and ran gloved hands through a full head of hair black as embers. “You could call me. I might be a hunter, but I do have a cell phone.”
So the 2x4 level of attraction had all been on her part, according to the aggravation dripping from his tone. She matched him smart aleck for smart aleck. “Then let me get your number as I also have such a device.”
His grin threw her off guard. “Okay, I deserved that. Um, but can I come inside and get us both out of the cold anyway?”
He could be an axe murderer, but if her father had invited him to hunt on their land, probably not. Maggie gave him the side eye, and then shrugged. “Sure. Just in case, I want you to know I have a broom.”
The door shut behind him and he bent over, laughing. “What are you proposing to do with a broom?”
Maggie smirked. “My plan is to hit you with it, in case you try any funny business. That would distract you long enough that I can disappear in the gun room right there.” She nodded to the right with her chin, and then realized she really shouldn’t have shared that information.
The stranger shook his head. “Well, now that you’ve told me where the weapons are, and warned me of your plan, I don’t believe you have surprise on your side.”
Maggie sighed. “I guess not.” She stuck out her hand like a jack-in-the-box popping out of nowhere. “My name’s Maggie. How do you know my father?”
He sobered, and gold flecks in his brown eyes reflected sunlight bouncing off the snow through the porch glass. “I don’t. My cousin dropped me off at the end of a dirt road about a mile from here. I’m Hunter.”
The warmth of his hand clasped in hers did nothing to ease her shock. “Um, right. I just let a complete stranger in the house.”
“I’m not dangerous.” He crossed his fingers over a broad chest. “I swear. Cross my heart. Hunter Jackson. Grew up in Lexington. Not far from here.”
Maggie’s pulse picked up at the sight of that lean hand. Well, now he was inside the house, somewhat like inviting a vampire over the threshold, might as well go whole hog. “Why don’t you come in the kitchen? The wood stove is fired up and you can get warm. Are you hungry?”
Even as she asked the question, her chest sagged. She was turning, not into her mother who practiced a mean corporate law, but her grandmother who had lived and died in this very house. It was nine in the morning, way past breakfast.
Hunter stopped in the middle of taking off his jacket and aimed that dangerous smile at her, again. “Really? I’m starving. My cousin insisted we leave before dawn so we could have the best shot, pun intended, at finding this eight-point buck he’s been trailing. No time for breakfast and I am not a fan of beef jerky and black sludge coffee.”
Maggie’s spirits lifted. Her father ate anything that didn’t eat him first. Her mother watched her weight and her sisters ate at the restaurants where they waitressed more often than not. Since feeding people was her love language, she suffered. “Oh, you poor thing. I made sausage gravy and biscuits this morning. And my coffee is the opposite of sludge.”
He shoved his flannel sleeves to his elbows. There was something about a man’s veins in his forearms and his lean fingers rubbing his palms together that started a spark, in her.
His smile seemed continual. “Sausage gravy and biscuits. Homemade?”
“From scratch.” Of course they were. She chalked his doubt up to modern women and their ways. Of course, she’d been on her way to a Ph.D. before the money ran out. “You can have a seat and I’ll dish some up for you.”
“Have you lived here all your life?” He cleared his throat. “Where is here, exactly? My cousin woke me up, drove, and we parked. I have no idea how to get back home. Have pity on me.”
Maggie snorted. “I am. I’m feeding you, aren’t I?”
Hunter sat at the table, in her father’s chair, and she didn’t say a word. If her father got back early, there would be you know what to pay. The biscuits and gravy were still hot because she’d cooked for herself and she’d slept in.
“Oh, wow, those look amazing.” His lack of an accent bothered her.Maggie remembered his earlier questions. “I have lived here all my life and generations before me. We don’t know when we arrived, but there’s gossip that a Childs came over as an indentured servant on the Mayflower.” Maggie poured the coffee and placed her grandmother’s porcelain cream pitcher next to his elbow. “You’re outside Fincastle. My guess is your friend parked on Johnson’s land. Nobody lives there.”
“Sounds about right.” Hunter chewed. “These are amazing. Here, put your number in my phone in case any stray dogs wander by.”
His cell phone appeared on the table.
“Wait.” She backed away as if the technology was from Satan. “Why don’t you have an accent?”
Hunter narrowed his eyes at her and wrapped a protective hand around his plate. “My family moved around a lot and we never stayed in one place long enough for me to get an accent. Please don’t take my food.”
“I would never.” Maggie grabbed his phone and put her number in his contacts. “Don’t you eat my food and then ghost me.”
The intensity of his gaze said either her biscuits, or something about her, had worked. “I would never.”
His phone vibrated on the table, hopping around like a pack of hunting dogs. “That’s my cousin. He said to meet him by Johnson’s cattle guard. Do you know where?”
She nodded. “It’s at the top of the hill, next right. Can’t miss it.”
He left, but not before handing her the empty cup. “I’m going to need a refill in about a week.”“I’ll keep a pot on the stove.”
Maggie watched his tall form recede against the blue sky and the gravel road. When she could no longer see him against the morning glare, she made her way into the den, aka the gun room. “Now, what am I going to do with you?”
The hound had the most expressive eyes she’d ever seen.
Her phone buzzed. WE’LL PICK SASSY UP ON THE WAY DOWN.
“How in the world did he know?”
Sassy nestled back into her makeshift nest by the other wood stove.