Tobias blew past Laura without a word as he stalked back down the path that welcomed him through the iron gate. Stanley snatched a coat from a nearby coat rack, scooped up two pairs of keys, one for his car and the other for Pine Ridge. When he located his massive garage, he walked in, unlocked his car door and filled the driver’s seat. He saw Tobias looking back at him under hooded eyes as he was trapped at the gate. Stanley stuck the key in the ignition and gave it a turn and listened to the car purr. Pulling out, he met Tobias at the secure wrought iron gate then rolled down the passenger window.
“How far did you think you could get?”
“Let me out of here!”
“Get into the car Tobias.”
“Get into the damned car Tobias!” he barked out in a gruff tone.
Tobias stood there defiantly debating what to do, but in the end he threw his bags into the back seat and slid inside the car. The gate doors opened to release them so that they could get on their way.
“Where exactly will you be staying?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet.”
Stanley handed over Pine Ridge’s keys to him without a word. Tobias didn’t need any explanation because those keys were seared into his mind.
“Now you have a place to that that belongs to you.”
They rode in silence until they settled in front of Pine Ridge. It had been close to eight thirty at night and all the lights were on in the cabin. Christmas lights lined the roof and wrapped around the porch banister. Tobias turned and looked at Stanley in suspicion.
“What exactly haven’t you told me?”
“Go see for yourself.”
Blowing out a weary breath, he opened the car door, climbed out out and trekked to the front door that had Pine Ridge seared into the wood. He glided the key into the hole, turned and twisted the knob and pushed the door open. He disappeared inside only to storm out seconds later.
“Who is she and why is she in Pine Ridge?!” he yelled at an already awaiting Stanley who had been leaning on the passenger side door.
“Why didn’t you ask her?” he replied calmly.
“Who is she?” he demanded.
“Her name is Winter Rose.”
“Who gave her the authority to live in my cabin? Get rid of her!”
“Your father gave her the authority to be there and she isn’t living in Pine Ridge. As for getting rid of her, that’s not going to happen.”
“Was she sleeping with my old man?”
Stanley ran a hand down his face, “No. Why don’t you calm down. Ms. Rose was the cook for your father and she also takes care of any cleaning that needs to be done. She’s the one whose kept Pine Ridge in pristine condition. You ought to thank her.”
“Well I don’t need her here. I’ll get rid of her myself.”
“You don’t have the authority to do that.”
“The hell I don’t! Everything was left to me.”
“Gregory may have left everything to you, but you can’t touch Ms. Rose. You see, I neglected to tell you that she’s under contract with your father. The only way Ms. Rose will leave is by her choice and her choice alone.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m very serious. Ms. Rose served your father well and it’d do you good to learn what she knows. Ms. Rose has a wealth of information concerning the lodge and your father’s other ventures. Make it easy on yourself an cooperate.” Stanley patted Tobias’ shoulder then rounded his car to fill the driver’s seat once again. Once inside, he lowered the passenger window and said, “Don’t forget your bags.” He looked down at his feet where his bags rested and looked back at Stanley in astonishment. “Don’t be a stranger, you hear?” With that he rolled up the window and drove off.
Tobias pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger and gazed up to gray skies. What more could go wrong, he thought. Snatching up his bags, he trudged back into the cabin and shut the door behind him. Dropping his bags at the door, he watched her with unflinching eyes. There Winter sat on a plush cream colored couch staring back at him posed in a slightly threatening yet humorous stance. She remembered her husband used to try to bully her into things she didn’t want to do. Once, he tried to talk her in to fixing Christmas dinner for his folks. Never mind the fact that he didn’t ask if she wanted company for Christmas! When his parents arrived sharply at 7:00 PM, they’d brought food in tow, no doubt it was his mother Mary Anne’s idea.
Mary Anne never liked the fact that her son had fallen in love with a poor black girl from Georgia, and no less married her. His father Franklin on the other hand was a good man. He often stopped by unaware to Mary Anne. Sometimes he snuck money into their home only for them to find it in drawers, under coasters, and even in the mailbox. When Winter asked him why he did it, he flat out denied it. She saw the mischief in his eyes and didn’t press it any further. Franklin had done a lot for her and Ryan. When Ryan’s birthday rolled around, Franklin recruited Winter into a surprise party though Ryan hated surprises. Franklin waved it off and swore up and down that her husband would love it. Sure enough he was right. She still missed Ryan and Franklin too. When Ryan died of cancer at the age of thirty, Mary Anne all but ordered Franklin to cut ties with Winter. She’d said now that their son had passed, there was no need to keep communication, after all, she’d never borne them any grandchildren.
Once Ryan was laid to rest, Winter knelt at his tombstone weeping. She ran her hands over that cold slab of stone that chisled his birthdate and death when she heard a familiar voice blaming her for her sons death. Mary Anne said if it hadn’t been for her, her son wouldn’t have had to work so hard to support her. He was sick because of her and it should have been her in the ground instead of her precious son. Franklin drug his wife away and looked back at Winter with apologetic eyes.
Franklin stopped by in the days following Ryan’s passing to check on her, to leave her money, and to ask if there was anything he could do. She declined and suggested he stop coming around for the sake of his own marriage. Winter knew Franklin wouldn’t be able to live it down if Mary Anne caught him there. He begrudgingly nodded and said he was sorry that things ended up this way. He always told her that she was good for his son, that he was the most happiest Franklin had ever seen him. He wished her all the best and if she ever changed her mind, he’d come back without hesitation. But every now and then she’d find small gifts in her mailbox when she came home.
But this man that stood in a territorial stance wasn’t bearing any gifts. She stood to address him with an outstreched hand that remained void.
“Hello, my name is-”
“I know who you are. Why are you here?”
“Well, if you know who I am, then you should know why I’m here.”
“Why did my father hire you, personally? That is out of his character.”
She sighed thinking this was going to be a long night.
“Why don’t you have a seat.”
“I’ll stand.” He moved over by the lit fireplace and leaned against the mantle.
“A few years ago after my husband died, I needed to find work so I applied at your father’s lodge and a man named Clive Mason was the General Manager who interviewed me. He said that I didn’t have enough experience required to fit any position there. When the interview was over, I left the room and started to head out of the building when someone caught me by the arm. It turned out to be your father. He said that I wasn’t given a fair shot a proving myself, so he offered me a position as a cook, house keeper and anything else he could think of. So here I am.”
“Just like that he hired you?” he asked in a skeptical tone.
“Just like that.”
“What’s so special about you?”
“I don’t know. I guess he wanted to take a chance on me.”
“My father didn’t take chances. He believed in absolutes.”
“Well, I don’t have any other answers for you.”
He canvased her body under high scrutinizing eyes and they rested on her wedding ring.
“I thought you said your husband died.”
“Then why are you still wearing that ring? Did you remarry?”
“No I haven’t remarried and I don’t know what to do with this ring.”
“Get rid of it, that’s what. There’s no point in holding onto something from the past.
“Really?” she arched her eyebrows “Isn’t that you’re doing?” she challenged.
Tobias narrowed his eyes at her and spat back, “You don’t know me!”
“I know enough.” she stood fists planted on her hips.
Stalking over to her, he stood towering hoping his height and build brought a sense of trepidation to her soul. Instead, all he earned was laughter from her throat. He looked confused by what she thought was so funny.
“I’ll make your life a living hell.”
“Really?” she mocked in amusement. “You can’t do to me any worse that has already been done.”
“Oh?” he loomed over her.
“Yeah. Here you are trying to intimidate a woman not even half you size or height,” she jabbed a finger into his chest “what’s wrong with you? You’re just a bad kid blowing smoke from your mouth.” she grinned. She left him feeling aloof and unarmed.
“You think this is funny?” he asked in exasperation.
“No, you’re funny. Now why don’t you just calm down. I fixed cornbread and beef stew for your supper since Mrs. Royale informed me of your arrival.” She scooted past him to remove her coat from its rack and slid into it. “My work here is done for tonight. I’ll be by bright and early tomorrow morning Mr. Thiebaud.” With the the last snap of her button, she jammed her hands down into her coat pocket to retrieve her gloves. Pulling them over her hands, she flipped her hood laced with faux fur over her head and tighten the latch of Velcro over her face so that only her eyes were exposed. “See you in the morning.” she stated under a muffled breath.
Turning to leave, she twisted the knob and pulled the door open letting in a gust of artic air and disappeared behind the door. He was left standing with his hands saddled on his hips with a dumb founded expression across his face. Turning on his heels, Tobias plastered himself at the huge living room window to watch her walk through the bare wooded forest that had him so mesmerized as a kid as he watch deer emerged from snow topped trees.
Just who was this Winter Rose anyway? She’d disarmed him not once but twice and even laughed in his face. No woman had ever handled him with such ease. Well, by the time he finished with her, he thought, she’ll be ready and willing to leave Pine Ridge. Then he’d have the last laugh. And how the hell did she know his favorite meal was beef stew and corn bread when only his mother knew that?