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Leo Cavallo had a headache. In fact, his whole body hurt. The drive from Atlanta to the Great Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee hadn't seemed all that onerous on the map, but he'd gravely miscalculated the reality of negotiating winding rural roads after dark. And given that the calendar had flipped only a handful of days into December, he'd lost daylight a long time ago.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard and groaned as he registered the glowing readout. It was after nine. He still had no idea if he was even close to his destination. The GPS had given up on him ten miles back. The car thermometer read thirty-five degrees, which meant that any moment now the driving rain hammering his windshield might change over to snow, and he'd really be screwed. Jags were not meant to be driven in bad weather.
Sweating beneath his thin cotton sweater, he reached into the console for an antacid. Without warning, his brother's voice popped into his head, loud and clear.
"I'm serious, Leo. You have to make some changes. You had a heart attack, for God's sake."
Leo scowled. "A mild cardiac event. Don't be so dramatic. I'm in excellent physical shape. You heard the doctor."
"Yes, I did. He said your stress levels are off the charts. And he preached heredity. Our father died before he hit forty-two. You keep this up, and I'll be putting you in the ground right beside him "
Leo chewed the chalky tablet and cursed when the road suddenly changed from ragged pavement to loose gravel. The wheels of his vehicle spun for purchase on the uneven surface. He crept along, straining his eyes for any signs of life up ahead.
On either side, steep hillsides boxed him in. The headlights on his car picked out dense thickets of rhododendron lining the way. Claustrophobic gloom swathed the vehicle in a cloying blanket. He was accustomed to living amidst the bright lights of Atlanta. His penthouse condo offered an amazing view of the city. Neon and energy and people were his daily fuel. So why had he agreed to voluntary exile in a state whose remote corners seemed unwelcoming at best?
Five minutes later, when he was almost ready to turn around and admit defeat, he saw a light shining in the darkness. The relief he felt was staggering. By the time he finally pulled up in front of the blessedly illuminated house, every muscle in his body ached with tension. He hoped the porch light indicated some level of available hospitality.
Pulling his plush-lined leather jacket from the backseat, he stepped out of the car and shivered. The rain had slacked off. .finally. But a heavy, fog-wrapped drizzle accompanied by bone-numbing chill greeted him. For the moment, he would leave his bags in the trunk. He didn't know exactly where his cabin was located. Hopefully, he'd be able to park closer before he unloaded.
Mud caked the soles of his expensive leather shoes as he made his way to the door of the modern log structure. It looked as if it had been assembled from one of those kits that well-heeled couples bought to set up getaway homes in the mountains. Certainly not old, but neatly put together.
From what he could tell, it was built on a single level with a porch that wrapped around at least two sides of the house.
There was no doorbell that he could see, so he took hold of the bronze bear-head knocker and rapped it three times, hard enough to express his growing frustration. Additional lights went on inside the house. As he shifted from one foot to the other impatiently, the curtain beside the door twitched and a wide-eyed female face appeared briefly before disappearing as quickly as it had come.
From inside he heard a muffled voice. "Who is it?"
"Leo. Leo Cavallo," he shouted at the door. Grinding his teeth, he reached for a more conciliatory tone. "May I come in?"
Phoebe opened her front door with some trepidation. Not because she had anything to fear from the man on the porch. She'd been expecting him for the past several hours. What she dreaded was telling him the truth.
Backing up to let him enter, she winced as he crossed the threshold and sucked all the air out of the room. He was a big man, built like a lumberjack, broad through the shoulders, and tall, topping her five-foot-nine stature by at least four more inches. His thick, wavy chestnut hair gleamed with health. The glow from the fire that crackled in the hearth picked out strands of dark gold.
When he removed his jacket, running a hand through his disheveled hair, she saw that he wore a deep blue sweater along with dark dress pants. The faint whiff of his aftershave mixed with the unmistakable scent of the outdoors. He filled the room with his presence.
Reaching around him gingerly, she flipped on the overhead light, sighing inwardly in relief when the intimacy of firelight gave way to a less cozy atmosphere. Glancing down at his feet, she bit her lip. "Will you please take off your shoes? I cleaned the floors this morning."
Though he frowned, he complied. Before she could say another word, he gave her home a cursory glance, then settled his sharp gaze on her face. His ubermasculine features were put together in a pleasing fashion, but the overall impression was intensely male. Strong nose, noble forehead, chiseled jaw and lips made for kissing a woman. His scowl grew deeper. "I'm tired as hell, and I'm starving. If you could point me to my cabin, I'd like to get settled for the night, Ms .?"
"Kemper. Phoebe Kemper. You can call me Phoebe." Oh, wow. His voice, low and gravelly, stroked over her frazzled nerves like a lover's caress. The faint Georgia drawl did nothing to disguise the hint of command. This was a man accustomed to calling the shots.
She swallowed, rubbing damp palms unobtrusively on her thighs. "I have a pot of vegetable beef stew still warm on the stove. Dinner was late tonight." And every night, it seemed. "You're welcome to have some. There's corn bread, as well."
The aura of disgruntlement he wore faded a bit, replaced by a rueful smile. "That sounds wonderful."
She waved a hand. "Bathroom's down the hall, first door on the right. I'll get everything on the table."
"And afterward you'll show me my lodgings?"
Gulp. "Of course." Perhaps she shouldn't have insisted that he remove his shoes. There was something about a man in his sock feet that hinted at a level of familiarity. The last thing she needed at this juncture in time was to feel drawn to someone who was most likely going to be furious with her no matter how she tried to spin the facts in a positive light.
He was gone a very short time, but Phoebe had everything ready when he returned. A single place mat, some silverware and a steaming bowl of stew flanked by corn bread and a cheerful yellow gingham napkin. "I didn't know what you wanted to drink," she said. "I have decaf iced tea, but the weather's awfully cold tonight."
"Decaf coffee would be great. .if you have it."
"Of course." While he sat down and dug into his meal, she brewed a fresh pot of Colombian roast and poured him a cup. He struck her as the kind of man who wouldn't appreciate his java laced with caramel or anything fancy. Though she offered the appropriate add-ons, Leo Cavallo took his coffee black and unsweetened. No fuss. No nonsense.
Phoebe puttered around, putting things away and loading the dishwasher. Her guest ate with every indication that his previous statement was true. Apparently, he was starving. Two large bowls of stew, three slabs of corn bread and a handful of the snickerdoodles she had made that morning vanished in short order.
As he was finishing his dessert, she excused herself. "I'll be back in just a moment." She set the pot on the table. "Help yourself to more coffee."
Leo's mood improved dramatically as he ate. He hadn't been looking forward to going back down that road to seek out dinner, and though his cabin was supposed to be stocked with groceries, he was not much of a cook. Everything he needed, foodwise, was close at hand in Atlanta. He was spoiled probably. If he wanted sushi at three in the morning or a full breakfast at dawn, he didn't have to look far.
When he finished the last crumb of the moist, delicious cookies, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up to stretch. After the long drive, his body felt kinked and cramped from sitting in one position for too many hours. Guiltily, he remembered the doctor's admonition not to push himself. Truthfully, it was the only setting Leo had. Full steam ahead. Don't look back.
And yet now he was supposed to turn himself into somebody new. Even though he'd been irritated by the many people hovering over himwork colleagues, medical professionals and his familyin his heart, he knew the level of their concern was a testament to how much he had scared them all. One moment he had been standing at the head of a large conference table giving an impassioned pitch to a group of global investors, and the next, he'd been on the floor.
None of the subsequent few minutes were clear in his memory. He recalled not being able to breathe. And an enormous pressure in his chest. But not much more than that. Shaken and disturbed by the recollection of that day, he paced the confines of the open floor plan that incorporated the kitchen and living area into a pleasing whole.
As he walked back and forth, he realized that Phoebe Kemper had created a cozy nest out here in the middle of nowhere. Colorful area rugs cushioned his feet. The floor consisted of wide, honey-colored hardwood planks polished to a high sheen.
Two comfortable groupings of furniture beckoned visitors to sit and enjoy the ambience. Overhead, a three-tiered elk antler chandelier shed a large, warm circle of light. On the far wall, built-in bookshelves flanked the stacked stone fireplace. As he scanned Phoebe's collection of novels and nonfiction, he realized with a little kick of pleasure that he was actually going to have time to read for a change.
A tiny noise signaled his hostess's return. Whirling around, he stared at her, finally acknowledging, if only to himself, that his landlady was a knockout. Jet-black hair long enough to reach below her breasts had been tamed into a single thick, smooth braid that hung forward over her shoulder. Tall and slender and long-limbed, there was nothing frail or helpless about Phoebe Kemper. Yet he could imagine many men rushing to her aid, simply to coax a smile from those lush unpainted lips that were the color of pale pink roses.
She wore faded jeans and a silky coral blouse that brought out the warm tones in her skin. With eyes so dark they were almost black, she made him wonder if she claimed Cherokee blood. Some resourceful members of that tribe had hidden deep in these mountains to escape the Trail of Tears.
Her smile was teasing. "Feel better now? At least you don't look like you want to commit murder anymore."
He shrugged sheepishly. "Sorry. It was a hell of a day."
Phoebe's eyes widened and her smile faded. "And it's about to get worse, I'm afraid. There's a problem with your reservation."
"Impossible," he said firmly. "My sister-in-law handled all the details. And I have the confirmation info."
"I've been trying to call her all day, but she hasn't answered. And no one gave me your cell number."
"Sorry about that. My niece found my sister-in-law's phone and dropped it into the bathtub. They've been scrambling to get it replaced. That's why you couldn't reach her. But no worries. I'm here now. And it doesn't look like you're overbooked," he joked.
Phoebe ignored his levity and frowned. "We had heavy rains and high winds last night. Your cabin was damaged."
His mood lightened instantly. "Don't worry about a thing, Ms. Phoebe. I'm not that picky. I'm sure it will be fine."
She shook her head in disgust. "I guess I'll have to show you to convince you. Follow me, please."
"Should I move my car closer to the cabin?" he asked as he put on his shoes and tied them. The bottoms were a mess.
Phoebe scooped up something that looked like a small digital camera and tucked it into her pocket. "No need," she said. She shrugged into a jacket that could have been a twin to his. "Let's go." Out on the porch, she picked up a large, heavy-duty flashlight and turned it on. The intense beam sliced through the darkness.
The weather hadn't improved. He was glad that Luc and Hattie had insisted on packing for him. They had undoubtedly covered every eventuality if he knew his sister-in-law. Come rain, sleet, snow or hail, he'd be prepared. But for now, everything he'd brought with him was stashed in the trunk of his car. Sighing for the lost opportunity to carry a load, he followed Phoebe.
Though he would never have found it on his own in the inky, fog-blinding night, the path from Phoebe's cabin to the next closest one was easy to pick out with the flashlight. Far more than a foot trail, the route they followed was clearly an extension of the gravel road.
His impatience grew as he realized they could have driven the few hundred feet. Finally, he dug in his heels. "I should move the car," he said. "I'm sure I'll be fine."
At that very moment, Phoebe stopped so abruptly he nearly plowed into her. "We're here," she said bluntly. "And that is what's left of your two-month rental."
The industrial-strength flashlight was more than strong enough to reveal the carnage from the previous night's storm. An enormous tree lay across the midline of the house at a forty-five-degree angle. The force of the falling trunk had crushed the roof. Even from this vantage point, it was clear that the structure was open to the elements.
"Good Lord." He glanced behind him instinctively, realizing with sick dismay that Phoebe's home could have suffered a similar fate. "You must have been scared to death."
She grimaced. "I've had better nights. It happened about 3:00 a.m. The boom woke me up. I didn't try to go out then, of course. So it was daylight before I realized how bad it was."
"You haven't tried to cover the roof?"
She chuckled. "Do I look like Superwoman? I know my own limitations, Mr. Cavallo. I've called my insurance company, but needless to say, they've been inundated with claims from the storm. Supposedly, an agent will be here tomorrow afternoon, but I'm not holding my breath. Everything inside the house got soaked when the tree fell, because it was raining so hard. The damage was already done. It's not like I could have helped matters."