Icy rain pounded the windshield then fell away like tiny
diamonds from a broken necklace.
"It never sleets in South Louisiana!"
Goldie Rios hit her hand on the steering wheel of her
compact vehicle, wondering how a perfectly good Saturday in
early December had gone from a day of Christmas shopping and
a late dinner to driving down this dark, deserted road all
Nervous and tired, she grabbed the locket she always wore,
clutching it briefly with one hand before taking the wheel
of the car back with a tight grip. Oh, yes. She remembered
with belated bitterness how her day had gone from bad to
worse. She'd just dumped another loser of a boyfriend, and
right in the middle of a swanky uptown restaurant at the
mall near Baton Rouge. The whole place had gone silent, the
only sound Goldie's seething response to Loser Number Five's
whining excuses for being seen with another woman one hour
before he'd met Goldie for dinner.
The woman was not his sister, his mother, his aunt or his
niece. And Goldie was pretty sure she wasn't his
grandmother, either, since the cute blonde clung to him in a
way that bespoke intimacy rather than family bonds.
She should have listened to her friend Carlaâ€” before
Carla called her from the other end of the mall and
told her to casually walk by the pet store. She'd warned
Goldie that this one was too smooth, too confident and too
good-looking, but Goldie wasn't good at listening to other
people's advice. Carla was right. He was in the pet store,
buying a cuddly Chihuahua while he cuddled the cute blonde.
Goldie watched, horrified and hurt, from behind the
Gingerbread House at Santa Claus Lane, while the man she'd
been dating for six months kissed another woman. And bought
her a dog. He'd never once offered to buy Goldie a dog. In
fact, he'd told her he was highly allergic to animals. So
after waiting for him to meet her for dinner, Goldie smiled,
chatted with him, ordered spaghetti and meatballs and then
"accidentally" dumped half her meal onto his lap before
telling him that they were finished. It was a standard
metaphoric mode of dumping a boyfriend, but now she
understood why a lot of women took this route. It made a
statement to the world and it made her feel good.
Or at least it had until she'd left the mall in tears.
After driving for an hour in rain that turned to sleet,
she'd realized she'd somehow missed the main exit to Viola,
Louisiana. Now she was trying to get home through the back
way. Bad idea on a night like this and considering she
wasn't all that familiar with the roads around here. If she
hadn't been so depressed and distracted, she might have
thought long and hard about the sanity of taking this remote
shortcut. Too late now.
Easing the little car along, Goldie sent up a prayer for
safe travels while the radio personality announced yet
another road closing due to icy conditions.
"If you're inside, stay there," the perky broadcaster
advised. "If you're traveling, stay on the main roads."
Goldie sputtered a reply. "You don't say."
She was not on a main road. And the sleet was getting
heavier while the temperature was dipping below freezing.
Soon these roads would be slick with ice. Her cell phone
rang but since she had both hands glued to the steering
wheel and the service out here was questionable at best,
Goldie ignored it. Probably Carla calling for details about
the breakup. Or maybe Grammy wondering why she wasn't home
yet. But she didn't dare talk on the phone and drive in this
mess at the same time.
Goldie listened as the "Jingle Bells" ring tone died down,
her eyes misting as a wave of loneliness hit her square in
her soul. "I guess I'll be alone again this Christmas," she
said out loud just to hear herself talking.
No puppy dog for her. And no more snuggling or cuddling with
Number Five, either. Five losers in five years. Could her
life get any worse? She'd been making the same old mistakes
with men since she'd graduated from college and worked in
Baton Rouge. Now she'd just have to focus on doing her
weekly column on being organized long-distance from Viola
while she stayed with her recuperating grandmother through
the holidays. In spite of coming here to help Grammy and in
hopes of finding some true meaning in her life, Goldie was
as confused as ever. Some advice columnist she was. How
could she tell other people how to stay focused and
organized when she couldn't even keep a man? When would she
find what she was looking forâ€”that perfect fit in a
And why did that matter so much, anyway? She'd never been
one to chase after the dream of marriage and family the way
some of her single friends did. By Goldie's way of thinking,
relationships were highly overrated. So why did she keep
dating the wrong men? Maybe so she could break up
with them and prove her theory? And keep her heart safe in
She held to the steering wheel as she came to a curve, the
trees crouching across the road causing her to lose sight of
the asphalt. And that's when she hit the patch of slick
black ice. The car lurched then shimmied before suddenly
changing direction. Screaming, Goldie tried to remember how
to steer into the skid, but it was too late. Her car kept
slipping and sliding until it went into a careening,
screeching turnaround. She looked up, her scream now locked
inside her throat, as the car headed right toward the wide
trunk of an ancient cypress tree.
The alligator was cooperating. The humans all around the
eight-foot reptile, however, were not.
"I want him gone, Rory."
"Me, too. I can't sleep at night, knowing that creature is
hibernating right here at my dock. Rory, can you just take
him outta here?"
Rory Branagan shivered in his waterproof work boots and his
insulated raincoat. His gaze moved from the sedate alligator
buried in a self-made bunker of water and mud near the bank
to the couple standing in the icy wind. In the yellow glow
from the security light, he could see the fear in the
couple's eyes. "I understand, Mr. Johnson. But this gator is
just doing what alligators do in winter. He's hunkering down
for a good long rest."
Alfred Johnson kicked his cowboy boots into the
sleet-covered grass near the shallow pond behind his house.
"His snout is sticking up out of the water. 'Bout scared my
poor wife to death. He coulda grabbed little DeeDee and ate
"He's not that hungry right now, sir," Rory observed,
shaking his head. "And your poodle shouldn't be out here
near the water anyway." At least not on a night like this
one. And surely these nice people knew that if they lived on
a bayou, they were bound to see alligators.
"Good thing I was holding tight to DeeDee," Mrs. Johnson
stated, completely ignoring Rory's advice. "Now, it's too
cold and wet out here to be arguing. Are you gonna rustle
this thing outta here and get him away from my family?"
Rory looked down at the big leathery snout sticking out of
the water, thinking Marge Johnson might be petite but she
was fiercely protective of the things she loved. That
included her family and that barking pile of white fur she
called DeeDee. Well, he couldn't blame the woman.
"I think this one here was â€˜icing' his snout because of the
sleet and this frigid water, Mrs. Johnson. He probably
wouldn't hurt you as cold as it is out here, since he's not
interested in food right now. But if this weather clears and
we get some warmer days after Christmas, he could pose a
"So get him," Mr. Johnson instructed, his tone as sharp as
the crystals of sleet hitting Rory's broad-brimmed rain hat.
"I don't want that gator showing up for Christmas dinner
later this month."
"And I don't want him around my grandbabies," Marge
insisted, shaking her head, her hair so stiff with hair
spray Rory could see tiny ice particles shimmering like a
crown on her head. "We've got kids coming home for the
holidays and I've got too much to do. I can't be worried
about my grandchildren out here by the water."
Rory nodded, steeled himself against a messy job and thought
it was nights such as this that made him wish he was in
another line of work. But his job as a nuisance hunter for
the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries paid the
bills. And he loved his work on most days. This wasn't a
typical day in Louisiana, though. It rarely got this nasty
around these parts during the winter. But the sleet was
getting heavier by the minute. The forecast for the next
couple of days didn't look promising. A rare but sure ice
storm was coming, whether Rory liked it or not.
And that old gator was getting real cozy in his nice little
cave here on the shore of Mr. Johnson's shallow, marshy
pond. If Rory didn't help the poor creature, Mr. Johnson
might take matters into his own hands and just shoot the
reptile. Rory's conscience couldn't allow that to happen.
Nor could his job with the state.
"I'll see what I can do," Rory told Mr. Johnson. "Let me
just go to my truck and get my equipment."
"Fair enough," Mr. Johnson replied, satisfied for now at
least. "Go on inside, Marge. You're shivering in your wader
boots out here, honey."
Rory stomped up the slope toward the driveway, listening to
Marge's concerned questions as her husband guided her back
to the house. His vibrating cell phone made him stop at the
back of the truck.
"What's wrong?" Rory asked into the phone. The call was from
his house and that meant trouble. Having two boys ages six
and ten with no mother always meant trouble.
"It's all right."
As always, his mother's voice was calm and firm. "Mom, are
"Yes, I'm sure. I just wanted you to know that we're headed
over to my house. The boys were getting bored waiting on you
and I need to get home anyway to bake cookies for the youth
Christmas party at church this Tuesday. Now I have two eager
helpers. We're going to make some with cinnamon and
sprinkles and lots of icing. That's where we'll be. I
offered to let them spend the night but they wanted to be
home with you in case this sleet turns to snow. Something
about making a gigantic snowman first thing in the morning.
You can pick them up when you're done."
Rory smiled at his sons' high hopes. "Are you sure you can
make it back in this weather?"
"Rory, I've lived on Branagan Road for over thirty-five
years. I think I can drive the mile from your house to mine,
"Of course you can." His mother didn't take any bunk and she
sure didn't listen to anyone's advice. And that was one of
the main reasons Rory loved her.
"Don't worry so much," Frances Branagan declared. "Now let
me get on home before it does get worse."
"Thanks," Rory said, appreciation coursing through his
chilled bones. "You're my favorite mom, you know that?"
"I love you, too. Be safe."
He hung up, spoke a prayer of gratitude for his dear patient
mother and then set about figuring how to wrestle the
unfortunate alligator snoozing down in the pond.
Goldie's feet were cold. She sputtered awake, then groaned
as she glanced around. She was in her car, in the dark, on
an unfamiliar road. And her head hurt with all the
viciousness of two fencers slicing each other to the death,
the clanging and banging of her pulse tearing through her
temple with each beat of her heart.
She'd wrecked her car. In the ice storm!
Moaning, she pushed at the air bag surrounding her, glad
that it had at least saved her from going through the
windshield. Then she touched a hand to her head. It was wet
and sticky with blood. Weak and disoriented, she groped for
the seat belt then after slipping it loose, moaned again
when the restraint lifted from her bruised midsection.
Automatically reaching for her locket, she clutched it
tight. She had to find her phone and call for help.
Her phone, which earlier had been in the seat with her
purse, was nowhere to be found now. And she was too dizzy to
go digging under the seat.
What should she do? She had to call someone. With great
effort, she tried to open the door. After what seemed like
hours, the door cringed ajar and a blast of arctic air
flowed over Goldie's hot skin. Taking in the crunched front
end of her car, she held on to the door as light-headedness
washed over her again. She managed to stand, to find her
purse. But the phone was lost in the recesses of her
shopping bags, notebooks and laptop case. And even if she
could find it, she probably wouldn't have very good service.
Goldie gave up on the search and, still woozy and confused,
stood and glanced around the woods. She saw a light
flickering through the trees.
"A house," she whispered, her prayers raw in her throat.
"Maybe someone can help me."
Without giving it much thought other than to find warmth and
aid, she slowly made her way along the icy road, her purse
clutched to her chest, her head screaming a protest of
swirling pain. It was the longest trek of her life and none
of the walk made any sense to Goldie. Her brain was fuzzy
and her pulse was on fire with a radiating pain. All she
could think about was getting out of this freezing sleet.
"Must have a concussion," she voiced to the wind.
When she finally made it to the front door of the house, she
was cold, wet and numb with shock. But she knocked and fell
against the cool wood, her prayers too hard to voice.
No one came to the door.