Excerpt from Christmas at the Inn on Cloud Hill


Chapter One

Rocky saw it first and let out earsplitting, rapid-fire barks.

A quarter of a second later, Daniel Brooks saw it and slammed his foot on the brake. The tripped-out Jeep he’d rented an hour earlier after landing in Aspen, fishtailed before skidding to a stop on the packed snow and ice covering the old stone bridge crossing the Crystal River.

He’d just missed the young deer in the middle of the road by three feet.

“That was close. Too close.” Daniel looked at his lone passenger, his two-year old chocolate lab who he had automatically pulled against his side when he hit the brakes to keep his dog from flying off the seat. “You okay, boy?”

The dog’s tail began to wag, but the instant Daniel released him, Rocky moved to the passenger seat, stood up on his hind legs with his thick paws on the dash, and started barking again. Tail wagging and a little bit of whining in the mix, he acted like both a fierce police dog hunting down an escaped prisoner and a puppy who wanted to play.  The first part was odd to see of his usually sweet dog, but so was having a young mule-deer standing in front of them with glowing eyes.

Yeah, he was the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Daniel looked around for his mother or other deer. From what he knew from growing up in the country and visiting this area, mamma deer usually traveled with several generations of deer.  Not another animal stirred, except for Rocky next to him.  Odd.

Pre-order on Amazon“Quiet, fella. You’re going to give yourself a stroke.” Daniel rubbed his own chest, where his heart was still racing a million miles an hour from the near collision. Hell, he should’ve been paying better attention instead of letting himself be distracted while driving on a dangerous road through a veil of densely falling snow. But he was excited when he saw the Christmas lights on the other side of the river. He’d reached his destination–Cloud Hill.

Twinkling through thick, snow-covered fir, aspen and spruce trees were green, blue, red and white lights on the homes and businesses of the tiny Rocky Mountain community. He’d been so sidetracked by glimpses of them that he’d nearly missed his turn onto the narrow two-lane road that crossed the bridge and curved to run right down the middle of Cloud Hill. He could’ve run into a whole herd of deer if Rocky hadn’t sounded the alarm. If one had been around. Not an exaggeration. There were more deer than people in this high elevation village–population ninety-two.

Daniel often questioned whether that number had been overstated when he visited as a child and adult. There just didn’t seem to be that many people who lived there or in the few houses on the mountain high above Cloud Hill adjacent to the National Forest. He smiled. Ninety-two or two people, it sure as hell was a welcome number after five months on tour to sold-out venues of tens of thousands in so many freaking cities he couldn’t remember them all.

“Yeah, Rocky, I’m living the dream,” he sighed, hating how thankless he sounded for reaching his goal of being the number-one country music artist for the last three years. Exhaustion did that to him. It turned him into a grumpy, ungrateful fool when the truth was he loved his work. He was in Cloud Hill for three and a half weeks to remedy that character flaw. His phone would be silent. All of the countless calls he usually dealt with in a day were gloriously being forwarded to his manager. And, there would be no cheating. There was no cell phone service in the area.

Daniel yawned. The excitement of arriving in Cloud Hill and nearly crashing into the deer hadn’t thwarted his fatigue. Nothing much did. He’d been so damn tired lately, he had been falling asleep at the most inconvenient times–during staff meetings, right before going on stage for a big concert, while eating dinner. He planned to sleep for two straight days as soon as he climbed into the feather-bed in the guest loft apartment at his uncle’s house. Hell, he might sleep until he had to return for a performance in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

“This staring contest is getting old, Bambi,” he said, looking at the grayish brown deer. “Or should I call you Rudolph since it’s almost Christmas. You don’t have a red nose, but you have little antlers. You’re a cute dude deer. A young buck.” A frightened young buck, he realized by the way the deer was breathing heavily, evidenced by the puffs of clouds as his warm breath hit the frigid early morning air. “How long does one of these deer in the headlight showdowns last?”

Rocky’s bark settled into a low, threatening growl followed by a trailing whine.

“Relax, boy.” Daniel petted the long, soft fur on the back of his neck before shifting his vehicle into park. He looked past the deer to the other side of the bridge into Cloud Hill.

Relax. Yeah, that was exactly what he intended to do.

He laughed softly. There was certainly peace, quiet…and a lot of Christmas lights here. The colorful lights, swaying gently in the soft breeze on the historic Inn on Cloud Hill, made a beautiful display for sure. There were four stories of multicolored twinkling bulbs, outlining two wings of the Victorian building with its tall clock tower separating them. Although he couldn’t make out the details at this dark, moonless hour, it seemed every building he’d seen through the trees while driving in, was decorated with the same wattage and color lights, as well. Given what he knew of the people of Cloud Hill from when he spent summers and winter breaks there visiting his grandparents, he imagined that was planned. There was a visual uniformity that had been maintained since the late 1800s, when the village’s Swiss-style, craftsman-era cottages and businesses were constructed.

“It looks like a scene from one of those Hallmark Channel Christmas movies the girls in the band have been watching every night,” he said to Rocky, who had given up on growling at the deer and was now staring it down.

The hair on the back of Daniel’s neck rose. What the hell was that about? A Norman Rockwell painting made him feel a sense of danger? He looked beyond the pretty and shiny through the large flakes of falling snow. The tall spruce trees lining the narrow unplowed road ahead of him were bowed with a heavy coat of white. It hadn’t been plowed for hours and the snow looked undisturbed. The wooden handrail on either side of the bridge had a cap of undisturbed white too. Even the deer standing like a fur statue had snow accumulating on the tips of his crooked Y-shaped antlers.

Rocky growled without much energy as Daniel fought to keep his heavy lids from closing once and for all for the night. He raised the temperature on the heater a few notches, and rubbed at the rough stubble on his face. “I’m pretty much done here,” he said to the deer, knowing he neither could hear him nor would understand him if he did. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

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