Read the first 5 chapters of The Loneliest Cottage! – Melissa Storm
Melissa Storm
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Read the first 5 chapters of The Loneliest Cottage!

Chapter 1

The call came in while Lauren was at work. Her eyes practically crossed as she tried to make sense of the never-ending spreadsheet before her. She’d never cared for numbers, but when you graduate with an English degree in the twenty-first century, you take whatever job you can get.

In her case, it was data processing for a large New York-based company that sold their data to other data centers, so together they could invade people’s personal space with the kinds of ads that stalked you around the Internet with an uncanny ability to know where you’d been and what you might buy.

Personally, she hated it.

Which is why she was all too happy for the distraction of whatever waited on the other end of that call.

She took off her headphones and picked up her cell phone. “Hello?”

A man with a deep, unfamiliar voice greeted her. “Lauren Dalton?”

“Yeah,” she confirmed, doing her best to sound friendly but busy, just in case this was a sales call. She didn’t have the money to buy anything even if she wanted to, which is why she was here at this mind-numbing job trying to make a few bucks so she could one day maybe pursue what she really loved.

That is, once she figured out what that might be.

The man on the other end of the line took a long breath out. “I’m Officer Reed. Is this Lauren Dalton, daughter of Edward Dalton?”

Panic gripped at Lauren’s heart. She clearly wouldn’t like whatever this man had to say, so why on earth was he dragging it out? This moment needed to be over, and it needed to be over now.

“What happened to my father?” she whispered, hardly capable of pushing the words out.

“I’m sorry to inform you that your father was involved in a traffic collision and has passed away.”

Lauren let out a loud hiccough of a sob, eliciting irritated stares from the neighboring cubicles.

“There was a deer. We think he died instantly. I know this is a hard time for you, but when you can, you need to come claim his effects at the station.”

Dead? How could her father be dead? She’d just been home for Christmas. He’d given her a scrapbooking kit and a shelf full of novels, and she’d given him a fancy new coffee maker. How could he enjoy his morning lattes if he were dead? How could they take their yearly spring break trip to Disney World if he was gone from this world? And what about in the future when she got married—who would walk her down the aisle then?

She needed to be sure. “Can I see him?” she asked, choking back another sob.

Her father had been the only family she had left. Her mother had died when Lauren was too little to have formed any lasting memories of her, and both her parents had been only children, just like she was.

It had always been Lauren and Dad against the world.

But now it would just be Lauren, all by herself, and the world made a mighty opponent when you had no one to face it with.

“If that’s what you want.” The officer rattled off the location of the morgue and waited as she wrote it down on a sticky note.

“I’ll be right in,” she told him and hung up quickly after he’d given her the address. She looked back at the wall of numbers on her computer screen. Is that what people became once they were no more, just a series of numbers and data, likes and dislikes, buyer profiles and click behavior?

The thought made her sick. It would be up to her to make sure Edward Dalton was remembered for the incredible man he’d been and not just as part of someone’s marketing quota for the year.

She shut her computer down, gathered her things, and went to find her boss. When she couldn’t find her in the office, she checked the conference room, where, sure enough, Joanna Brocklehurst was wooing a couple of well-groomed, bored-looking clients.

“Lauren!” her boss gasped as the employee barged into the room and demanded an audience. “My apologies,” she murmured to the clients, rising to her feet to meet her wayward employee.

“I’m going home early today,” Lauren said and turned to leave again before the door had even managed to swing shut.

Mrs. Brocklehurst chased her out into the hallway. “Excuse you, you can’t just barge into a meeting like that, and you can’t leave early on reports day. You have responsibilities.” She emphasized the word reverently, as if nothing could be more important than her work for data corp.

“Yes, I have responsibilities and I need to go see to them. I’ll be back on Monday, probably.”

“Monday? But it’s only Wednesday. I’m sorry, but I can’t grant you time off with such short notice.”

“Fine, then I won’t be back. At all. I quit. Good luck with the reports.”

Sure, it would have been easy enough to explain what had happened and why she needed to go, but somehow, she just couldn’t bring herself to speak of her father in the past tense or to share any part of him with the stingy boss who signed subsistence level paychecks for her employees while vacationing at St. Bart’s.

She’d given too much of herself to this place already. It was time to move on, to make something of the Dalton name, now that it would be entirely up to her to keep their legacy alive.

* * *

Lauren reached the morgue a couple hours later despite driving at least ten above the speed limit the entire time. Perhaps if she drove fast enough, she could turn back time like in those popular ‘80s movies with Michael J. Fox.

But instead of revisiting the happy past, she soon came face-to-face with her new future, and it wasn’t one she wanted any part of.

The mortician had done a good job cleaning him up, but dark bruises still mottled her father’s skin. Cuts and scrapes peppered his arms, though no blood—indeed, no sign of life at all—clung to them.

And when had he gotten so old?

She still thought of her father as the young man with brown hair and a few days’ scruff framing sharp, green eyes she’d always wished she’d inherited instead of her dull browns. She thought of him as the man who’d graciously attended all her school Mother’s Day events since he was her mom just as much as he’d been her dad. He was the man who’d changed her diapers, taught her to walk. He’d had to help her understand her first period, comforted her after her first heartbreak.

He’d been her world, and now—just like that—Lauren’s world had ceased to turn.

The mortician beckoned her forward with a tight-lipped nod.

“Hi, Dad,” Lauren managed to say as she stepped up to the gurney.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the other woman said, even though she had no idea, no idea at all, what had been lost to Lauren that day.

What kind of brave, new world would she face tomorrow? Because certainly Lauren would need to be brave to carry on in a world that no longer held her heart.

“I love you, Dad,” she whispered, kissing her fingers and placing them to her father’s impossibly cold cheek. She bowed her head and murmured a quick prayer. One day they would meet again, but Lauren still had many more days in which she’d need to make it on her own.

And make it she would, because that’s how her father had raised her, and she refused to let him down.

Chapter 2

Lauren drove to her father’s home and let herself in with the key he kept stashed under a colorful frog garden ornament she’d painted for him in the third grade. The house felt as if it, too, felt the loss of its master, even though so few hours had passed since he’d last left it.

Coming home had often been her refuge after a stressful week at work or after yet another bad breakup. This time, she could scarcely recognize the house that had once served as the backdrop to all her most precious memories.

One thing in particular bothered her today, though. Why had her father been out driving that morning, and why so recklessly that he failed to see the deer dart across the expressway until it was too late for either of them?

As a retired school teacher, he didn’t have anywhere pressing he needed to be. And when he did, he preferred to walk through their small town to greet his former students and the neighbors he’d known for years. So why had things been different today?

She’d need to plan a funeral, and no doubt half—if not, all—the town would be in attendance. And she would have to sort his things, settle his estate, make sure everything was buttoned up neatly with her father’s life.

But what happened next?

She no longer had a job, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to bear life in this place on her own. Despite loving her neighbors, she’d now become the one they would all pity and whisper about when she was nowhere to be seen. That’s not how Lauren wanted to live. She wanted to live a big life, one that would honor her father’s memory rather than linger in his shadow.

Lauren found the coffee maker she’d bought her father for Christmas just a couple weeks before and was happy to see he’d gotten the chance to use it. She set it to brew and went to her father’s room to check for clues as to why he’d gone out that day.

It felt strange rummaging through his things when he’d so recently used them, almost like an invasion of privacy. But that was silly. She and her father hadn’t kept any secrets from each other over the years. It’s why their relationship had been so strong. He spoke candidly to her about her mother’s death, about whether or not there was enough to pay the bills each month, about everything.

He’d prepared Lauren for life as best he knew how, which Lauren knew was far better than most young women her age. But he’d never taught her how to carry on without him. They’d both foolishly assumed that such a day would be a long way off, that Lauren would be married, with kids, living her best life—not a freshly unemployed nobody lacking any clear direction.

She returned to the kitchen and poured herself a mug of coffee. Normally she’d soften the taste with extra milk and sugar, but today she lavished the sharp, acidic flavor as it hit her tongue. Carrying her mug with her, she returned to the bedroom and opened up the closet.

Her father’s shirts hung in a straight row, neatly pressed and ready for wears that would never come. In the far corner, a stack of four shoe boxes pressed against the wall. It was where he kept his memory boxes. They’d often leaf through the contents together as he told Lauren stories of her mother and how much alike they’d been, how proud she would’ve been.

Proud of what, though? Lauren wondered with a sad, nostalgic sigh.

She pulled the boxes from the closet and set them on the neatly made bed. She knew the one with the turquoise lid held the memories and photos of her mother. The purple one contained Lauren’s childhood, and the orange her high school years. She didn’t remember a fourth box and now eyed the additional brown cardboard container with suspicion.

Naturally, she opened that one first.

Immediately she was met with neatly stacked newspaper clippings and old Polaroid photos. The Anchorage Daily News, the masthead on the first read. But hadn’t they always lived in New York?

She continued to read the article:

Edward Dalton becomes the youngest musher to place in the top twenty at the Iditarod, beating out several more experienced men and securing his place as a rising star and a serious contender for next year.

Dog racing? Alaska? None of this made sense. Why had her father kept something so innocent from her all these years? And why had he stopped if he was one of the greats?

She continued to leaf through the contents of the box, unearthing pictures of dogs, tightly bundled men, and even an old collar. Clearly this had meant something vital to her father, but again, she could not figure out why he’d keep this, of all things, from her.

She took out her phone and did a search on “sled dogs.” Perhaps there was some seedy underbelly she didn’t know about? The idea seemed ridiculous, especially given how straight-laced her father had always been dating back as far as she could remember.

One of the top results on Google was for the country music star Lolly Winston. Lauren owned both of her CDs and liked to listen to Lolly on the long commute to her old job. Curious, she clicked into an article about the Sled Dog Rescue Organization, a charity founded by Lolly and her husband Oscar Rockwell roughly two years back.

“We need to preserve the last great race, and to make sure retired dogs find loving forever homes,” Lolly had been quoted. “There’s something so beautiful about seeing these dogs in their element both on the slopes and at home.”

Lauren found herself nodding along as she read and, before she knew it, she’d clicked over to the SDRO website, which featured a list of adoptable dogs along with other ways to help.

If you have the heart, they need the home.

Lauren liked that, especially considering it felt like a heart was the only thing she had left these days—and a badly broken one at that.

The longer she stayed on the website, the more it called to her.

These dogs will love you with everything they’ve got. They are so grateful to be rescued, to get a second chance.

A second chance, Lauren thought. I wish someone would rescue me.

And then she found their blog, and at the top of the feed was a picture of a handsome, rugged-looking man standing with a group of nearly thirty dogs.

Shane Ramsey, the post said, has long been considered one of the top racers of the day. Unfortunately, an ill-fated training run with his snow machine has crushed in his kneecap. The injury will require a long and difficult healing process, if indeed healing is to occur at all. Although his condition is stable, no word yet as to whether he will be able to continue racing. Mr. Ramsey is now searching for a handler to help care for his team while he attempts to make a full recovery. All the other teams are already deep into this season’s training, leaving Shane and his team sidelined. That is why he’s come to us, and we are now coming to you. If you have the heart, we have a job and a home for at least the next three months, but for as long as a year. Will you help care for this incredible team? Please enquire at…

Lauren pressed the call button as soon as she recognized that a phone number had been given. The paper had called her father one of the top racers of his decade, and now the blog had said the same thing about this Shane guy. She no longer had a job, a home, anything.

It felt like everything was leading her to this one place, so she took a deep breath and stepped toward her calling.

Chapter 3

About a week later, Lauren found herself driving up a long, lonely stretch of road. Snow walled her in on every side and the pure, clean sky merged perfectly with the thick powder on the ground.

It had taken her eight days of non-stop organizing to wrap things up in New York, and she was ready for this clean break from her life. As expected, her father’s funeral had been well attended, and thanks to his intense commitment to keeping everything neat and tidy, readying the house for sale hadn’t taken much, either.

He’d left her a neat bundle and a modest nest egg with which she could build something new for herself. She would be okay, but she wasn’t quite sure as to the particulars yet.

An eagle soared into her view from above, and she wondered if it might be a good omen. Freedom. She hadn’t realized she’d needed freeing from her life, but free she had become.

Might as well make the most of it.

As she drove farther and farther from Anchorage, she started to wonder whether she’d missed a turn off. But given that there were hardly any turn offs, twists, or anything other than straight, flat road, she couldn’t see how that would be possible.

Finally, at last, when Lauren was certain she’d fall asleep at the wheel from the boring monotony of white, white, and more white, straight, straight, and more straight, she found an old, worn sign that proclaimed Puffin Ridge just ahead.

“Just” of course was relative, because after her turn she still needed to drive another half hour to find the address she’d scrawled onto a sticky note and slapped upon the dash.

1847 Thornfield Way loomed perfectly into view as she navigated her way down an icy incline and toward a homely looking cabin made of red cedar and situated amidst the clearing of a large pine forest.

Her brakes stuck as she attempted to slow, but luckily there was more than enough snow to pad her stop. Here it was, her new home for the next three to twelve months.

She applied a fresh coat of lip gloss and ran her hands through her chestnut hair, using the rearview mirror to check her appearance. Good enough, she decided and grabbed up her shoulder bag to head inside.

A middle-aged woman with gray liberally streaked through her strawberry blonde hair greeted Lauren at the door. Oh no, had she missed that turn after all? Was this the wrong house?

“You must be Lauren. Come inside before you catch your death,” the woman said with big sweeping gestures as she ushered Lauren in.

“Hi, are you Shane’s… wife?” The woman looked more of the age to be his mother, but Lauren didn’t want to insult her when she may well be the only person around for miles.

The woman laughed heartily, and Lauren immediately liked her from that moment on. “Goodness no. I’m Mary Fairbanks. I’m the next closest thing to a neighbor Mr. Ramsey has, so I’ve been filling in while he was short of help. Speaking of, now that you’re here, I best be off. I have a casserole in the oven back home.”

Lauren found it odd that a woman at least a dozen years Shane’s senior would be calling him Mr., but she was far more concerned about being left alone when she had no idea what was expected of her.

“Wait,” she pleaded. “Is Shane here? Can you take me to him before you go?”

“Mr. Ramsey,” Mary enunciated over the ruckus of barking that rose from outside. “And, no, he’s gone to town for a doctor’s appointment. It’s just you and the dogs this afternoon. Why don’t you go say hi? They’re out back in the kennels, as I’m sure you guessed.” She looped a thick home-knit scarf around her neck, then shrugged into her coat. “I really need to go, but we’ll see each other again sometime soon. Nice to meet you, dear,” she said as she reached for the door knob. She paused and looked back at Lauren as if forgetting something. “Oh, and good luck.”

Lauren thought she heard the old woman murmur “you’ll need it” as she stomped down the walk and out of view.

Chapter 4

Lauren watched Mrs. Fairbanks until she disappeared over the horizon, leaving her alone in the strange, new place that would now be her home. The house was messily kept with stray papers cluttering many a surface and a basket of laundry crowding the narrow hallway.

Would this be her job now, too?

She was here for the dogs, no question, but wondered if perhaps the man might need her even more. Had she taken on more than she could handle?

No, life with Shane Ramsey and his merry team of huskies may prove to be a challenge yet, but at the very least it would be interesting—and at best, it might help her uncover secrets about her father’s past.

And she would start by saying hello to her charges.

After fishing a knit cap from her bag, she headed out back where several long rows of colorful, flat-topped dog houses sat in sharp contrast to the surrounding mountains of snow. As soon as they saw her, the dogs began to pull against their ties, some of them jumping up on top of their houses to gain a better vantage point.

Excited barks, whines, and howls reverberated across the valley. And Lauren knew then that she had made the right choice in coming here.

Carefully, she approached the cluster of kennels and introduced herself to the first dog, who eagerly leaped up to give her kisses on her cheeks.

One by one, Lauren made her way through the grid of houses, introducing herself to each dog in turn. Her eye was drawn to one dog in particular, a red husky who stood calmly at the edge of the pack, watching Lauren with a cautious eye.

“Aren’t you a pretty one?” Lauren said, making her way over to the dog and kneeling to allow it to sniff her.

A glistening copper tag hung from the dog’s collar.

“Briar Rose, huh?” Lauren said, scratching her new friend between the ears. “Well, that’s a pretty name. And what about the rest of you?”

She turned, startled to find that she was not alone in the yard.

“I thought they were sending a professional, someone with experience,” said a man she recognized from his pictures as her new employer, Shane Ramsey. He scowled as he watched her, clearly displeased with what he saw.

“And how do you know I haven’t got any?” she demanded, rising to her full height but still standing at least a head beneath the stranger who stood supported by two thick wooden crutches.

“Every single thing about you shows you aren’t cut out for this,” he snarled.

“Can we start again, please?” She approached the gate and let herself out to stand with him in the path that had been cleared between the house and the kennels. Reaching out her gloved hand, she smiled and waited for him to accept her greeting.

“I’d rather not,” he said, gathering up his crutches and turning back toward the house.

“Now wait just a minute!” Lauren cried. The sound of her voice cut sharply through the thin air, both alarming the man and exciting the dogs.

She watched as his posture stiffened and he slowly turned himself to face her once more. As he did, however, his left crutch caught a patch of ice, and soon he’d crumpled into the snow, cursing in pain.

“Let me help you up!”

“No, you’ve done quite enough already,” he said. “Just hand me my crutch and leave me alone.”

She picked up the walking aid and held it toward him. When he reached for it, she jerked it away and said, “Not until you tell me why you’re so rude.”

He growled, making a sound not entirely human as he did. The effect, when combined with the growth on his face, gave him a feral appearance. “Because you aren’t the kind of person I wanted to hire. But seeing as there weren’t any other applicants, it seems I’m stuck.”

“Then you should be grateful I’m here. Clearly you can’t manage by yourself.”

“I’m not sure having an inexperienced little girl here is much better.”

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

He snorted and looked away.

“I mean it. I quit my job and moved a few thousand miles to be here. I may not have much experience, but I’m ready to learn. You need to treat me with respect.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then know that I have no problem standing up to you, seeing as I’m the only one with two good legs around here.” She stood as straight and tall as she could, and even though he still towered over her by a good head, Lauren saw him soften as her argument reached his ears.

Much to her surprise, that last comment drew out a smile from the otherwise sour-faced Shane. “Fine. Now can I have my crutch back, please?”

She handed it over and helped pull him to his feet. “There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it?”

He walked away, muttering a string of curses under his breath. Lauren and the dogs watched in silence until Shane Ramsey had let himself back into the house and slammed the door shut behind him.

“Is he always like this?” she asked Briar Rose, slipping her fingers through the fence links to pat the dog’s soft fur.

The dog didn’t respond to the question, but Lauren was quite sure she could figure out this particular answer for herself.

 Chapter 5

Lauren spent the next hour in the company of the dogs. She read the names on their collars and matched them to each dog’s unique markings and personality. Briar Rose had quickly become her favorite, even though she didn’t seem to fit in well with the others—not just her calmer demeanor and slighter build, but also her name.

The other huskies and malamutes were named predictable plain things like Alice, Bob, Carol, Dennis, and so on. In fact, there was a name for each letter of the alphabet—and Briar Rose made twenty-seven total.

While all the dogs were happy to spend time with Lauren, Briar Rose was the one who stuck to her side for the whole of the hour. Lauren was very tempted to bring Briar into the house so she would have at least one friend inside, but she preferred to avoid added confrontation with Shane. After all, it was very likely he’d consider her making a pet of his sled dog “unprofessional.”

She settled for a quick goodbye and promise to see the dog again bright and early in the morning, then made her way inside to see about dinner.

Her employer had beaten her to it, though. Shane stood hunched over a boiling pot of water, struggling with a box of spaghetti as he tried to keep himself propped up on his crutches and away from the splash zone of the roiling water. He wore plaid pajama bottoms and a button-down shirt. His feet were bare, which seemed a mistake in this weather even with being indoors.

“Let me help with that,” she offered, rushing across the small eat-in kitchen before she even had a chance to remove her coat or boots.

Shane jerked the box out of her reach, accidentally flinging half its contents to the floor. “Now look what you made me do!”

“I didn’t make you do anything. That’s all you and your stubbornness.” She stooped down to pick up the scattered noodles, but Shane interrupted her again.

“If it’s my mess, then I’ll clean it up.” She watched as he lowered himself to the ground, fresh pain evident in his features every inch of the way. And she allowed him to struggle on his own as she removed her winter gear and pulled her hair up into a high ponytail. During that time, he made hardly a dent at all in the cleaning.

“Why am I here?” she demanded, stooping down and forcing him to look her in the eye. “If you’re going to insist on doing everything yourself, then why did you hire me?”

“I didn’t hire you, the SDRO hired you for me,” he reminded her with a muted grumble.

“Okay, fine, but regardless, I’m here to help. Can you just let me?” She glared at him still, but the hulking, muscular man refused to keep her gaze.

“If that’s how you want it, then be my guest,” he said, gesturing toward the remaining mess and almost losing his balance yet again in the process.

“First let me help you up,” she said.

He groaned but submitted as she looped his arm over her shoulder and pulled him to his feet. Despite his injuries, Shane was still strong and able to bear the brunt of his own weight once Lauren helped him to regain his balance. That was good, seeing as he easily outweighed her by eighty pounds. They were a study in contrasts. Him a large, lumbering, and wild-looking man. Her a small, trim woman whose appearance was neatly kept and movements graceful.

Shane stiffened, bringing them both to a stop. “No, not to the chair. I need to finish making dinner,” he argued.

“What’s for dinner? Spaghetti? I think I can manage that.” She took him to the small kitchen table and sat him down before his mess of papers.

He said nothing as she finished cleaning the debris from the checker-tiled floor and then making their dinner with the noodles that hadn’t already gone to waste. Placing a bowl of pasta marinara before him, she turned to go find solace in her room.

“Wait,” Shane said without looking up.


“Join me for dinner at least.”

“Oh, so now you want to talk, do you?”

He shrugged and glanced at her for a brief moment, his ocean blue eyes clearly concealing secrets within their depths. “I want to learn about this stranger who will be living in my house, yes.”

“Okay then.” Lauren prepared a bowl for herself and sat opposite of him, nudging some papers out of the way to avoid turning them into impromptu placemats. “So what do you want to know?”

He put his fork down and stared at her head on. His eyes were unabashed in sharing their assessment—he didn’t trust her, not yet. “I want to know why you’re here,” he said.

“To help you. We’ve been over that.”

“But why? The organization said you were from New York, and we’ve also already been over the fact that you have no experience, so let me ask again: Why are you here?”

Well, if he didn’t trust her, then she didn’t trust him either. Why else would he be so naturally suspicious of her unless he had something to hide? With any luck, she could stay just long enough to help the dogs, uncover the mystery about her father’s past, and figure out what she wanted to do next. Then she could cut her losses with the grumpy Mr. Shane Ramsey and leave him far, far behind.

She met his eyes, refusing to blink or look away. “I’m here to do a job. That’s all you need to know.”

“I see. So that’s how you want it.” He smiled to himself, picked up his fork, and returned his attention to eating.

“That seems to be how you want it, and I’m happy to comply.” She raised her fork too, a challenge—she would take whatever he had to throw at her, but she wouldn’t take it sitting down.

“Very well,” he said.

“Very well.” They finished their meal in silence and then went their separate ways for the remainder of the evening.

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