Authors: Elizabeth Sinclair
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal Romance
"Then is this some kind of dream? Since I'm not really here, I can leave anytime simply by… waking up. Right?"
Shaking her head, Clara grasped Carrie's hand. She dropped her gaze to their hands, made a soft
sound with her tongue, and then spoke as if to herself. "This is always the most difficult part." Then she shook herself as if to clear her thoughts. "Get to the point, Clara." She raised her gaze and fixed it on Carrie. "I can assure you, this is not a dream from which you will awaken. You
really here, and I'm afraid you can't leave."
Oddly, that she couldn't leave didn't alarm her. Carrie wasn't at all sure she ever wanted to leave here. This place, Clara, the cottage, all felt so secure and safe, and she didn't know why, but that seemed to be very important to her.
Clara squeezed Carrie's fingers. "The village is a permanent home to just the few of us who live here. For others, such as you, this is but a stopover in time. Like a short nap in the middle of a long, tiring day."
Again, Carrie was taken aback that Clara seemed able to read her thoughts. But she had too many questions to ask to dwell on that one fact. "How did this place, this village," Carrie asked, waving her hand to encompass all beyond the window, "come to be?"
Clara smiled. "That's a question almost all the Assignments ask, but none quite as soon as this." She adjusted her seat and then appeared to settle in to relate the beginnings of Renaissance. "Way back, when this area was being settled by religiously persecuted immigrants from England, a newly married couple, Michiah and Rachel Biddle, made their home here. They built a cabin just beyond the glen. Shortly after that, Rachel gave birth to a son, Emanuel." A warm glow lit Clara's eyes when she spoke the name. "When Rachel became ill and almost died, a distraught Michiah came to the hilltop to pray for her life. While there, he noticed a glowing mist gathering in the glen and ventured into it. When he came out, his wife was well, and he related to his young son the peace and the love he'd found there. After both his parents passed away, the teenaged Emanuel, despondent and determined to find this place his father had told him of, sat on the hilltop for weeks, waiting for the mist to appear. When it did, he walked into it, and no one from the outside ever saw him again. Since that time, Emanuel has lived within the mist and helped heal tortured souls."
Carrie had seen the village Elder, a man named Emanuel, pass by the house earlier and Clara had told her who he was. "Then the man I saw today is his ancestor."
Clara shook her head and smiled. "No, my dear. That
"But that can't be," Carrie protested, her eyes wide. "That would make him—"
"As old as time," Clara said. Her blue eyes twinkled. "But then, time is relative, isn't it, my dear?"
"And the Camerons' cabin?" she asked. Even as she asked, she was certain that the very idea that this might be the same cabin that the Biddles had built was too far-fetched.
"Michiah's and Rachel's cabin," Clara said softly. "The Gateway to the village. Steve and Meghan are the Gate Keepers, and Irma is a Guide. They help the needy find their way here."
Carrie was stunned. But even before she could ask more about the cabin, another question tumbled into her mind. "What if I hadn't found the library when I did?"
Clara smiled, but said nothing.
Then Carrie recalled the glowing path of light that seemed to guide her to the front door of the library and the inexplicable pull she'd felt urging her along the path. "I was guided there, wasn't I?"
Clara nodded. "By Emanuel."
"But why? And what if I'd refused to come?"
Clara smiled knowingly. "Over the years, I have learned not to question Emanuel's wisdom. You'll find he doesn't take no for an answer often, and this was one time he would have firmly stood his ground. The need he felt in you was much too urgent."
Christmas Eve, the Gateway Cabin
Dr. Frank Donovan pulled his snow-covered car in beside the cabin that was the home of his two best friends, Dr. Steve Cameron and his wife, Meghan. For a long time, Frank sat in the car staring at the cabin that Steve had renovated to meet the needs of his family. A new bedroom had been added for their daughter, Faith; another small room could be converted to a nursery for future Camerons; and the living room had been enlarged to include an expansive bay window. Normally, the window abounded in green plants that Meghan nurtured like a second child, but today a massive, twinkling Christmas tree engulfed the entire space and spilled a rainbow of colored lights over the snow outside.
How he envied the Camerons. They had everything he'd ever wanted and almost had, until—
He forced the thought from his mind. Thinking about it only dredged up the guilt, and that depressed him. If he sank any deeper into that black abyss, he was afraid he'd never claw his way out. To rid him of the guilt was, after all, why Frank found himself sitting in his car outside the Camerons' cabin in a blizzard on Christmas Eve.
Steve had told him about the cabin and its special qualities, and a mysterious place that lay in the woods beyond the cabin; a place, Steve had said, that could heal Frank and help him to get on with his life.
He didn't believe a word of it, but what the hell? He'd tried everything else, and since he'd had to call for another surgeon to take over for him during two heart surgeries last week, he knew it was past time to kill the demons that haunted him. If it meant putting an end to the ever-present sound of the screeching of tires, the crunching of metal, and the echo of Sandy's screams, and the nights when he awoke bathed in a cold sweat to a room filled to overflowing with despair, loneliness, and self-loathing, then he'd be a fool not to try it. If gaining that end meant giving Steve the benefit of the doubt, then so be it.
Steve had told him of his trip to this special place and that it helped him understand his role as a pediatric oncologist and the loss of young lives with which he had to contend almost on a daily basis. If it could bring Steve the same kind of peace of mind, then maybe, just maybe, there was hope for him, as well.
He shivered and glanced at his watch and realized time had gotten away from him. He should have been here an hour ago. With the lousy road conditions from the blizzard that had covered the southern part of New York State the night before and all day today, and with the heavy holiday traffic, he should have left earlier. But he didn't, and he knew why. Afraid to acknowledge the false hope it might give him, he had put this off as long as he could.
Resignedly, Frank opened the car door and climbed out. He made his way toward the front porch. The freshly fallen snow crunched under his boots. As though his feet contained lead weights, he slowly climbed the steps until he reached the porch and stood outside the rough-hewn door. He stomped the snow off his feet, then raised his hand and knocked.
Moments later, Meghan and Steve stood in the open doorway,
written all over their faces. The enticing aromas of cinnamon, new pine, and freshly baked cookies wafted out to greet him. A crackling fire spread homey warmth through the room, warmth that reached out and beckoned to him to come inside.
Steve wrapped his arm around his wife and smiled. "We were beginning to think you wouldn't make it."
Frank leaned against the door frame and stared at his closest friend, uncertain whether or not he should go inside. "I almost didn't. I still don't see what all this is going to accomplish." He glanced around him at the very ordinary-looking cabin. "This cabin may have been the thing that brought you back to life, but I think I'm beyond resurrecting."
"It was not the cabin, but what is out there," Steve said, motioning with his free hand toward the thick wall of trees surrounding the cabin. "And no one is beyond resurrecting, my friend. This place will teach you that, if you let it." Steve snuggled Meghan closer to his side. "There's a miracle waiting for you there. All you have to do is open your heart to it."
Perhaps because his sentiments had been written plainly on his face for her to see, Meghan smiled at her husband, then at Frank. "Faith and trust, Frank, that's all you need."
As he looked at the two of them, a painful twinge squeezed Frank's heart. He remembered when Sandy had smiled up at him like that, her beautiful blue eyes full of adoration and trust.
. The word lay heavy on his conscience, and though he hadn't spoken it aloud, bitterness filled his mouth. His shoulders slumped. Sometimes he felt as though they bore the weight of a thousand tons of lead. How misplaced Sandy's trust had been, and he'd proven that to her in the worst way possible.
Resigned, Frank stepped into the light just beyond the threshold.
Steve's expression told him how terrible he looked. He wasn't stupid, and he'd seen his own reflection in the mirror that morning. He knew lines etched his face, he had dark circles rimming his eyes, his mouth had forgotten how to smile, and his mismatched clothes bespoke how little attention he'd paid to how he appeared to other people. In short, he looked like hell. He should just turn around and go home instead of inflicting his misery on these two wonderful people on a night when they should be surrounded with love, happiness, and peace on earth.
Steve must have read his mind. Without another word, he took Frank's arm and hauled him the rest of the way inside and then closed the door behind them. Resigned to being there, Frank began unbuttoning his coat.
Steve stopped him. "We're going out again in a minute, so you might as well leave it on."
"Out? Where? I thought I was supposed to spend Christmas Eve here with you." Then it occurred to him that they must be going tonight to that
that Steve had told him about.
Instead of answering, Steve and Meghan simply smiled conspiratorially at each other and pulled on their coats.
Moments later, during which time Frank had voiced several inquiries about their destination that went unanswered, they climbed toward the crest of a small hill. The newly fallen snow lay thick and white across the ground and muffled their footsteps, making it seem as though they weren't really there. Inexplicably, Frank glanced behind them at the indentations in the snow to confirm that they
actually there. He laughed at his own foolishness and turned back to the hill.
Then Frank saw him. A man stood atop the hill. Mist swirled at his feet, making him look as though he were standing on a cloud. A long, flowing, white robe, cinched at the waist with a ropelike belt, cloaked his large frame. The ends of the rope, tied in knots to prevent them from fraying, almost touched the ground. A snowy beard hung almost to his waist. Even from this distance, Frank could feel a strange kind of warmth emanating from the man's eyes. He smiled at Frank and held out his hand, but not to shake it. The hand lay palm up, much like a parent would offer his hand to a child to guide him through danger or over hazardous ground.
Unable to believe what he was seeing, Frank blinked several times, waiting for the image to vanish. But each time he opened his eyes, the man in the long robe was still there, smiling at him.
Despite the man's friendly demeanor, Frank drew back. "Who in hell is that?"
Steve laid a hand on Frank's shoulder. "That is Emanuel. He'll be taking you with him."
"Taking me where?" Frank tried to back away, but Steve blocked his way and held firm to his friend's shoulder.
"To a place the likes of which you have never seen before," Meghan said, her voice soft and dreamy.
Releasing Frank to pull his wife into his embrace, Steve grinned. "It's where I found Meghan, where my life turned around, and I became a whole man again." He kissed her cheek. "I promise if you go with Emanuel, when you return, your troubles will be gone. Isn't it worth trusting him for that?"
Frank hesitated. He wasn't at all sure about going anywhere with a dude who looked like he'd just stepped out of a biblical epic. Besides, where could they go? To his knowledge the only thing that lay beyond this hill was a small glen full of trees, and beyond that, the Hudson River. The man kept smiling at him, and it seemed to reach down inside Frank and tug at his resistance. Still, he fought the urge to take the extended hand.
He turned to Steve. "What about my patients, my job?"
"I've arranged everything. Dr. Carlson will take over until you come back." Steve paused as though giving Frank time to think about it. "You have always trusted me as your friend before. Please take my word for it; you will not regret going with Emanuel."
Frank glanced at the robed man and then at Steve and Meghan.
"The choice has to be yours, my boy," Emanuel said softly, his voice sounding like the wind blowing through the pines.
Frank thought about it. What did he have to lose? If Steve was right and this guy could work miracles, then he had everything to gain. "What the hell? I can't feel any worse than I do now."
He covered the few feet separating them and took Emanuel's hand. Instantly, an overwhelming sense of peace washed over him. Emanuel smiled and ushered a dumbfounded, but docile Frank into the glen where an expanding, thick, glowing fog lay heavy over the snow-covered ground.
Inside the Gateway Cabin, the interior of Meghan's lantern glowed unusually bright. The increased brightness caught Steve's attention from where he sat on the sofa facing the blazing fire and cuddling his wife. "Look at that. What do you suppose is happening right now?"
Meghan snuggled down within his embrace and grinned. "Wonderful things," she said simply. "Two people are about to find themselves and each other, and if they allow themselves to heal enough to look, the one true miracle—love."
With rising apprehension, as the man and Emanuel approached him, Alvin silently appraised his Assignment. He'd been told the man was a doctor, a pediatric cardiologist. At a distance he seemed youthful, too youthful, to be a surgeon who held tiny lives, literally, in the palm of his hand. But as the man drew closer, Alvin could see the lines that marked his handsome face, aging him prematurely, and the sadness that had taken up residence in his eyes. Alvin knew those telltale details all too well. On the few occasions when he'd allowed himself to look in a mirror, he'd seen them in his own face.