Claustrophobic Christmas

CLAUSTROPHOBIC CHRISTMAS (A Tallwood Tale)
By Jody Wallace
Length: Novella (32K)
Rating: R
CURRENTLY OOP

ravel Queen Survival Tip #23: If you get stuck in an ice storm, find a hot guy to keep you toasty.

Travel agent Darcy Burkell has a secret. She doesn’t precisely jet around the world despite what’s implied in her popular newsletter about vacation destinations. When she hires photographer James Jones to illustrate her stories, they become close cyber-friends, comparing notes on exotic locales, vacation spots, and much more.

James is sure that Darcy in the woman for him—someone who’ll travel with him instead of expecting him to stay home all the time. Putting his ideas into action, James shows up at Darcy’s office unannounced and suggests they take a holiday trip together.

Darcy is too embarrassed to admit her phobia and turns him down flat. She knows what kind of woman he wants, and she’s not it. But her resolve is tested when she and James become gridlocked by an ice storm. Impassable roads force them to spend hours together in his vehicle…shivering. And cuddling.

But will the fires still burn between them after Darcy confesses her big secret?

Warning: This title contains dreadful weather, a medium-sized misunderstanding, jelly beans that taste like boogers and coitus interruptus by redneckus.

Note: This title is loosely connected to other Tallwood books including What She Deserves, The Worst Christmas and Kiss the Bride.


***** Excerpt of CLAUSTROPHOBIC CHRISTMAS *****

Chapter 1 (approximately 3800 words…hopefully soon to be re-published!)

Darcy noticed his ass first. It was perfect, cupped in old denims that weren’t too tight or too loose, the faded outline of a wallet in his back pocket. It was an ass that enticed her to drop her papers or beg him to check the pressure in her tires, just so she could watch him bend over.

Of course, she could check her own tires, even change them if she had to. She had a bookcase of nonfiction and how-to books. She never knew when she might need to identify animal tracks of the Southwest or give advice about deep sea fishing.

Yeah. Or change a tire.

Darcy maneuvered around the welcome desk of the crowded Arkansas rest area, hoping for a better angle of the man. As it was right before Christmas, this place was travel central. People milling and gabbing, waiting for bathrooms, watery coffee and the feeling to return to their “sitters”, as her Pop termed it. She tiptoed past a squabbling family to peek around the hotel coupon display at the man she’d spotted.

There he and his butt were. Nice. Very nice. She deserved something nice after the stress of the past couple of days. He was taller than he’d seemed from across the room. His shoulders were broad, and he was dressed for the weather—a thermal undershirt and a T-shirt over that. Dark blond hair brushed his nape. From where she hovered, she couldn’t tell if his front lived up to his back.

The man rearranged the coat tucked under his muscular arm, making space for an old woman who also wanted to read the state map. They exchanged a few comments, too quiet for Darcy to hear. There was something familiar about his posture, about the way he shoved his hair back and tilted his head toward the lady beside him.

She booked a lot of vacations for outdoor enthusiasts. Snowboarders, bikers, hikers, kayakers, wilderness junkies. He had that look about him, a kind of suppressed energy that said he didn’t belong under a roof, growing roots and gathering dust.

And then there was the national park logo on the back of the guy’s T-shirt and his battered hiking boots. She was canny, all right. She’d make a great detective, as long as detecting didn’t involve surprises, small spaces, other people’s germs and confronting suspects.

This guy—this guy was clearly not her type. She could tell just from his tush. But who would it hurt if she ogled him a little longer? The guy, maybe, if he disliked being objectified, but he’d survive. The truth was, Darcy couldn’t bring herself to return to the confines of her car just yet. She could only tolerate it so long before she needed a breather.

When she traveled, she made a lot of stops.

A lot of stops.

Thus she was behind schedule, as usual. Her tardiness was made worse by the fact she’d been delayed at the office this morning. Ironic, considering one of her top travel tips for clients was always set out earlier than you think you need to.

The old lady near the map hurried off, flipping open her cellphone as she went, but Mr. Dream Jeans loitered like he had nowhere to go. Was he not running late like everyone else? Rushing home for the holidays before the grey skies made good on their promise of nasty weather? Darcy’s father was going to chew her out for hitting the road after the all-powerful Weather Channel had predicted record snowfalls for the Southeast.

It didn’t matter that she hadn’t seen a single flake. The Weather Channel had predicted snow and that meant it was going to snow. There’d be drifts over cars. Houses. Drifts that forced the entire Southeast to walk to school uphill both ways.

Come to think of it, snow might liven things up. Darcy hadn’t seen anything in the miles of scrubby terrain other than SUVs filled with fighting kids and the occasional family dog.

Until now. The man-scape was highly preferable to a picturesque snowfall. She wasn’t going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house anyway, just to Pop’s to join the rest of the Burkell clan.

Darcy feigned interest in the brochures, but her eyes were on the prize. Her heart beat faster, like it did right before she hooked a new client. His ass was probably taut and muscular beneath the denim. And tan. Every inch of him tan.

From behind, she could pretend he was anyone she wanted. But as she’d recently wanted someone very much, someone she couldn’t have, that was probably not what she needed to be imagining.

She mentally added a large, unkempt moustache and chewing tobacco to his image.

He shifted his weight, his hand moving to his face. Stroking his large moustache? Picking his nose? She couldn’t tell. He was focused on the wall map like a new route through the flatlands between Little Rock and Memphis was going to magically appear.

She could have told him there was only one good road out of Arkansas, and the faster you drove it, the better.

She herself wasn’t getting anywhere mooning over his heiney. She had hours to drive before she reached Tallwood. With one last glance at the man’s fine assets, Darcy turned to go.

Which was when he turned too, glancing her way with eyes as blue as the wide Texas sky.

No moustache. No tobacco.

No stranger.

A jolt of awareness shocked through her like lightning. She knew this man. He frowned.

“Holy hell,” he said. “Darcy?”

She could say no and pretend she had a doppelganger. Or a moronic twin named Dingdong. But he’d grown up in the same town she had and knew good and well there was only one Burkell girl.

“It’s me.” With a forced laugh she added, “Pretty incredible coincidence, huh? Of all the rest areas in all the states, you had to walk into mine.”

He didn’t smile. “It’s not that much of a coincidence. We’re headed the same direction at the same time, and this is an obvious pit stop.” He didn’t mention the rideshare he’d suggested when he’d dropped by her office yesterday…unannounced.

She did not, did not, did not like surprises.

“Good point. I do always stop here on the way home.” Darcy lowered her gaze, feeling the same nervous muddle that had caused her to misfile a week’s worth of vacation itineraries during his visit. She wasn’t prepared for this.

Man, she hated surprises. Surprises and loss of control. Also, elevators and anything lemon-flavored.

“Hmm,” James said. She realized he was staring at her. “You look different out of the office.”

“Thank you?” She was wearing sweats and sneakers and her hair was snagged in a messy bun. To top it off, she had on her glasses and no make-up. Great for traveling, terrible for running into a guy who’d driven across two states to ask her out, only to be rejected.

Forcefully.

After all, she’d had to convince him and her libido both it would never work.

“Not exactly a compliment, Darce.” His Southern accent had a honeyed twang that weakened her knees, even when he was saying mean stuff.

Clearly he was still pissed.

“You don’t look so hot yourself,” she lied. He looked hotter than he had twenty-four hours ago, if that was possible. The scruff that had grown on his cleft chin only emphasized his square jaw and general aura of masculinity.

Creases formed beside his mouth when he frowned, but he didn’t stalk out the door in a huff. “It’s been a long couple of days.”

Darcy chewed her bottom lip, considering. James was mad at her for what he’d interpreted as her leading him on, which she totally hadn’t done. For one, she hadn’t realized his feelings went beyond friendship. For another, in six months of correspondence, he’d never mentioned the possibility of real life interaction—because apparently he’d taken it for granted.

Running into each other now was so awkward she could barely force herself to stay in the room. On the other hand, if she talked to him, it would be that much longer before she had to get back in the car.

She loved talking to him. She hated driving long distances. It wasn’t a tough decision.

“That reminds me,” she said, trying to sound friendly, but not too friendly. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you how impressed I was with your latest batch of photos.”

He shrugged. “It’s what you pay me for.”

“They’re perfect. Are you, uh…?” He looked at her with one eyebrow raised, so she rushed out her question. “Are you still going to work with me? I don’t want to lose my location photographer over a mix-up.”

“Darcy, we emailed every day I was near a computer. We talked on the phone for hours at a time. What else can that mean?” James sighed and ran his hand through his hair.

“It means you’re a good conversationalist. The rest was a misunderstanding.” She knew what would happen if she got romantically involved with a man who had a travel bug as fierce as James’s—humiliation and heartbreak.

Hers.

He shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t think my understanding is what was missing.”

She’d assumed after yesterday their…association, for lack of a better word, was over. She’d assumed working with him would be out of the question. Her Pop would no doubt tear into her for rejecting that poor Jones kid—the weird one who ran away from Tallwood to take “pitchers”—but what could she do? She had to protect herself.

“Can we please let this go?” she asked. “I told you. I have a…a friend. Boyfriend. I’m not a cheater. I can’t, I mean, it’s not that I don’t want to…” Have sex with you for hours and then talk for hours afterwards.

“But you won’t.”

“I—”

Yesterday she’d kept the desk between them and he’d never touched her. Not once. Today he put a finger on her lips to silence her.

She wanted to lick him. She kept her mouth tightly shut.

“You’re right, Darcy. I’ll let it go.” He left his finger there a moment before withdrawing.

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth. Nope. No traces of him on her skin. “If you’re not comfortable working for me—”

“I’ll still work for you.” He smiled slowly, like he wasn’t willing for any agreeableness to leak out. “But I might ask for a raise.”

“I’ll consider it.”

Six months ago, James’s sister in Tallwood had learned from Darcy’s brother that Darcy needed custom photography for her travel agency materials. She’d convinced James to send Darcy his portfolio. Because Darcy had kind of known James in high school, she’d been happy to give him a trial run. It turned out he was good at what he did. Really good.

Soon they were calling and emailing on a personal basis instead of a work basis. They shared a common background and a number of interests, like exotic locales. When he’d shown up at her office without warning, a twinkle in his eye and an offer on the table, she’d nearly had a heart attack.

Now the shock of seeing him was merely causing palpitations. She wasn’t in danger of keeling over from amazement and unbridled lust.

After one more long glance at her, James returned his attention to the map, his posture relaxed. She wished she could relax that easily.

He indicated the wall with his hand. “Did you need to see the roadmap?”

“Sure.” She didn’t—she had so many maps memorized, it wasn’t funny—but it was an excuse. She inched closer.

There was no desk between them, no computer. What did he smell like? Taste like? What would it feel like to hug him? She hadn’t yesterday. She’d been too scared.

“Thanks,” she managed.

He nodded. “You’re welcome.”

“Are you looking for alternate routes? The weather’s supposed to get ugly.” The storm, if it happened, was predicted to hit northeast of Texas, otherwise known as Arkansas.

“There’s just interstate.” He tapped the Plexiglas between Little Rock and Memphis. “Always did hate this stretch of road. I bet I’ll hate it more with ice and snow tossed in.”

“I know what you mean,” she agreed, glad they could chitchat in the way of travelers. Or in the way of travel agents, trying to convince clients they’d been there, done that and could sincerely recommend it. “We don’t get much winter weather in this part of the country. The roads are especially tricky because folks don’t know how to handle snow and ice.”

He was a head taller than she was. She didn’t usually date tall guys. They took up so much space. Another reason to tell him no.

“Can you handle snow and ice?” he asked.

“Turn into the spin, don’t stomp on the brakes, go slow, keep a count of five between you and other cars, pack kitty litter in your trunk.” She recited her memorized tips for winter driving safety, which she’d never used in Dallas. “Not the clumping kind.”

He chuckled. “No, not the clumping kind.”

She’d made him laugh. What else could she say to lighten the mood? He was en route to visit his family for the holidays like she was. No children, unmarried, and thirtyish, also like she was. He’d been three years ahead of her in school and they’d had one class together. Photography. He’d been a lot better at it.

Darcy had a tendency to babble when she was nervous, and talking to attractive men who weren’t hiring her to book a Caribbean cruise made her nervous. But so did small spaces, large people, and riding in vehicles she wasn’t driving.

“This weather is terrible timing, don’t you think? So many cars on the road, and they’re all in a hurry. Terrible timing. I bet everyone at home is stuck to the weather station right now. Pop plays the Weather Channel 24/7.”

“You can’t control the weather, that’s for sure.”

That was one of the things she hated about it. Bad weather ruined her best-laid travel itineraries. The agency had a cancellation policy to protect them from vacationer’s remorse, but still.

She and James lingered by the map another moment before he rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. His shirt pulled tight across his chest, snagging her attention like a flashing beacon. Wow, he was really…defined.

She barely registered it when he said, “What time did you start out this morning?”

She yanked her gaze back to his face. “Huh, what?”

One deep dimple appeared in his cheek. What was he grinning about? “When did you get on the road this morning?”

“Noonish? I had to stop by the office first.” And find the vacation itineraries she’d been too ruffled to file in the right place yesterday.

“I figure we’ve got four more hours.”

“This is a little more than half way.” She always stopped here. She always stopped everywhere.

He cocked his head to one side, considering her. She felt every stain on her lime-green sweatshirt like a hot poker, branding her as a fashion victim. “How often do you drive home?”

“Several times a year.” She hadn’t wandered far from Tallwood until she’d moved to Dallas. Now that she was in Dallas, about the only place she went was Tallwood.

“Do you ever fly? I bet you can get some good deals as a travel agent.”

“It’s still cheaper to drive,” she said. No need to tell him the answer was actually, Are you nuts? I never fly. Airplanes are teeny, suffocating death traps.

“So where’s the boyfriend? You don’t spend Christmas together?”

First tip on her Travel Queen list for female tourists? Never admit you’re traveling alone. To anyone. Instinct and embarrassment took over.

“He’s in the car,” Darcy blabbed.

“Maybe we’ll run into each other over the holidays and you can introduce me. Tallwood’s pretty small.”

She’d heard the term “gimlet gaze,” and that’s exactly the kind of gaze he used on her. A gimlet, pointy stare. “He won’t be around the whole time.”

“He who?”

“He…eeth. Heath.” She was so going to Hell.

“How long will Heath be around? I’m home until the twenty-ninth. We could meet for dinner.” There was that pointy gaze again.

Darcy crossed her arms. “What’s with the twenty questions?”

“I’d like to meet this mystery man I never heard about until yesterday.”

“He’s not sure how long he can stay.” Crap. She was digging herself in too deep. She didn’t have much experience creating imaginary boyfriends, and there was no how-to book on it, either. Now her family would tell his family she hadn’t brought a man home at all. “I may just drop him off.”

“Where?”

“His, uh, house? I mean, his family’s house. In Memphis.”

“He doesn’t want to meet your family?”

She shrugged, hoping that was sufficiently mysterious.

“He should make an effort.” James kind of smirked. “I hear you have options.”

Darcy blushed. If only he knew how ill-suited they were, he wouldn’t have bothered in the first place. “James, you agreed not to—”

“I know, I know. Sorry.” He pointed at the map, tracing several segments of road where the interstate veered close to bodies of water. “When the ice hits, it’s gonna get ugly here, here and here. I hope you and your…boyfriend…have blankets and food because it could to be a long, cold night.”

She nodded sagely, but inside she shriveled. He was trying to be sociable, share travel tips, and she was lying to him. If anyone understood the desire to share perky travel tips, it was Darcy Burkell, Travel Queen. Maybe she needed Santa to bring her a copy of How to Turn Hot Guys Down Gracefully instead of Little Known Hiking Trails of the Grand Canyon or A Claustrophobic’s Guide to Dallas Without Elevators.

“I’m set,” she assured him. “I have a boatload of Christmas candy, and I bought a couple drinks from the soda machines.”

He glanced down at her, an errant lock of dark blond hair lapping across his forehead. “That’s a mistake.”

“But you just told me to—”

“Don’t drink anything.” His tongue flicked the corner of his mouth. “Suck on a piece of hard candy, but don’t drink anything till you get near Memphis.”

She stared at his lips, mesmerized. Was it weird when he said “suck on a piece of hard candy” she heard something else entirely?

“Why not? Gotta stay hydrated.”

He appeared to nibble the inside of his cheek before he answered. “I don’t know if I told you, but I used to drive trucks. Long haul. I survived more than a few traffic jams. After a couple hours, certain bodily functions make themselves known. They’re a sight easier to handle if you’re a man.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Anything a man can do, a woman…wait, do you mean peeing?”

His lips tightened as he tried not to laugh. “Yes, I mean peeing.”

Oh God, she’d said peeing to James and he’d said it back. The bathroom was one place their conversations had never extended. Still, no reason for him to be sexist. “Come on. A girl can find a gas station restroom as easily as a guy can.”

She knew it for a fact. She’d visited every interstate gas station between Dallas and Tallwood in the years she’d been making this trip. Also every rest area, scenic overlook, outlet mall, park and historical marker—basically every justification she could find to escape the car.

“If there’s no exit,” he said with a straight face, “there’s no restroom. Just the side of the road and a bunch of bored people watching to see why you’re out of your vehicle.”

“Well. That’s troubling.” She made a mental note to duck back into the restroom and take care of any lingering bodily functions. Also to tout “Don’t drink much until you get there” in her next Travel Queen newsletter. “I wasn’t worried before, but I am now.”

He laughed and took her hand, squeezing it. “If you know it’s coming, you can prepare to deal with it.”

Her brain short-circuited when his big hand enclosed her smaller one. She stuttered something agreeable, but what she was really thinking was how she hadn’t been prepared to meet James. Hadn’t been prepared for his sheer physical appeal, for his magnetism, for the fact he thought he wanted her. Her! She’d been able to fantasize about him safely when they’d maintained a long distance correspondence.

A guy like James was not safe for a girl like her. Their idiosyncrasies would never mesh.

He hadn’t let go yet. He had warm hands. Long fingers.

“You seem nervous,” he commented.

“I am. The image you painted of a traffic jam is nerve-wracking.” His touch was about to spin her into a giant fuzz ball of anxiety. “Do you really think we’ll see ice and snow?”

“Looks like it.” His thumb rubbed the back of her fingers. “You got a full tank of gas?”

“Yeah.” She realized she was smiling like an idiot—where had that come from?—and slipped her hand free. “Thanks for the advice. Do you mind if I use the no-drinking tip in my next newsletter?”

“Gonna give me credit?”

“Of course.”

“I’ll be watching for it.”

He subscribed to her newsletter for more than just the pictures, or so he said, because the pictures these days were mostly his and it wasn’t like he hadn’t seen them. She was meticulous about dotting her i’s and crossing her t’s legally when she used other people’s observations. It was a necessity, all things considered.

Darcy brushed her sweatpants at the hips, wishing she had pockets to stuff her hands into. “I guess we should go.”

He just stared at her as if waiting for something. God, he was good-looking. His eyes were gorgeous, his hair sun-streaked, pushed back from his face by those long, callused fingers. His movements were slow and easy, like he never hurried. Did he know how sexy he was? Did he have any idea she was standing here imagining him naked?

Thoughts fluttered in her brain like moths around a light. If he wasn’t going to ditch her and they got trapped in the snow, they could talk each other through it. Or text each other. Send each other photos. She’d ask for one of his hands. She’d send him one of her…Christmas candy.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t convince herself to suggest it. He didn’t bring it up, either. It didn’t seem like a good idea. Their friendliness had been what had given him the impression she liked him as more than her favorite photographer.

He’d been right. And she was right to lie about it and save them both the trouble of breaking up when their lifestyles proved incompatible.

“Well, James, I’m going to…” She jerked her thumb at the ladies room and scurried away, conscious that his gaze followed her retreating form.

© 2011 Jody Wallace (w/a Ellie Marvel)

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