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Abby's anxiety increased with every mile she drove away from the main road.
She tightened her hands around the steering wheel, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Only twenty minutes had passed since she'd exited the freeway, but it seemed like longer. Her daughter, Brooke, was sitting in the passenger seat. She yawned into her hand, unfazed by the increasing remoteness and looming trees. At dusk, the branches took on menacing shapes, forming an oppressive canopy overhead.
"You didn't have to come," Brooke said.
Abby rolled her neck to relieve tension. "I wanted to."
Abby studied her daughter's pretty face. It was hard to believe Brooke was almost nineteen. She was a young woman now, strong and confident. Abby's heart ached to look at her. "What?"
"You don't like hiking."
"I love hiking."
Abby made a noncommittal sound. She didn't like backwoods camping because it meant being cut off from modern amenities, but she'd travel to the ends of the earth for Brooke. "I'll stay in the cabin. We can go on a few day hikes."
"You'll be bored."
"Never," Abby said, lifting her chin. She'd brought plenty of reading material, only half of which was work-related.
"Just don't try to coordinate activities, okay?"
Abby was the wellness director at Seaside Retirement Center in San Diego. She planned exercise classes, therapy sessions and outdoor excursions for the residents. It was a challenging job that required close attention to detail. Brooke had often complained of Abby's tendency toward scheduling every moment.
OCD, she called it.
"You won't even know I'm there," Abby promised.
Brooke sighed, shaking her head.
They didn't discuss the main reason Abby had tagged along. She didn't trust her ex-husband to show up. He'd canceled last year's trip at the last minute. Ray Dwyer was a successful plastic surgeon, always running late or flaking out. He showered Brooke with expensive gifts instead of giving her his full attention.
Ray was supposed to arrive tonight with Lydia, his current wife, and Leo, her son from a previous marriage. Leo was about Brooke's age. The combined families would spend a week at the cabin, hanging out and exploring the wilderness. Brooke got along well with Lydia and Leo. She was an easygoing, well-adjusted child of divorce.
Abby wasn't so well-adjusted. She'd been co-parenting with Ray for seven years, and they were civil. Under normal circumstances, Abby wouldn't impose on their vacation. She didn't try to limit his visits or interfere in his relationship with Brooke. He'd taken her to Hawaii two summers ago. Ray was a good fatherwhen he made the effort.
But if something went wrong and Ray changed his plans, which happened all too often, Brooke would be on her own. Abby didn't want her daughter traveling through the High Sierras by herself or hanging out alone at the cabin. It was easy to get lost in this area, by vehicle or on foot, and there were innumerable dangers. Last fall, a young couple had disappeared while camping in these woods. The boyfriend had turned up in a shallow grave. The girl's body was never found.
Abby shivered to think of what might have happened to her. A lost child was a mother's worst nightmare. Abby had been separated from Brooke for several days after the San Diego earthquake. The agony of not knowing if her daughter was dead or alive still haunted her. She continued to struggle with anxiety and overprotectiveness.
Abby had missed Brooke terribly since she'd gone off to college. They were still going through an adjustment period. Abby had been looking forward to reconnecting with her over the summer. Instead, Brooke had been traveling with friends and jumping from one activity to the next. Abby wanted to sit her down and hold her close, but Brooke seemed determined to maintain her newfound independence. Maybe she thought keeping her distance would make it easier to leave again.
Abby smothered the urge to ask Brooke how things were going at school again. Every time she reached out, Brooke retreated a little more.
"Where is this cabin, at the edge of nowhere?" she asked.
"Practically," Brooke said with a smile. "It's tucked right up against the mountains, close to the trailhead."
Brooke lived for adventure. She had the temperament of an extreme athlete, always pushing herself physically, game for any challenge. She was a track star at Berkeley. Whenever Brooke wasn't making Abby proud, she was driving Abby crazy with worry.
The cabin at the end of the road was no rustic shack, thankfully. It was an impressive getaway, sturdy and sprawling. Abby knew it boasted a full kitchen, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. There was a fireplace and a stocked fridge. Ray might not be reliable, but he didn't skimp on luxuries.
She parked next to a beat-up motorcycle in the driveway. "Whose is that?"
"It must be Leo's," Brooke said, her eyes bright with excitement. Not bothering to bring in her bags, she hopped out of the car and bounded to the front door.
Abby followed Brooke up the walk, pocketing the car keys. She was relieved that Ray and Lydia hadn't arrived yet. It had been a long drive. She needed a few minutes to collect herself, to take deep breaths and smooth her hair.
When Leo answered the door, Brooke tackled him with an exuberant hug. He stumbled backward, laughing in surprise. Although she was tall for a girl, almost his height, he didn't drop her or fall down. She clung to him for a few seconds and let go, squeezing his shoulder for good measure. "Is that your motorcycle?"
His lips curved into a smile. "Yeah."
"Take me for a ride."
Abby had never met Leo before, and he wasn't quite what she'd expected. He had a mop of jet-black hair, in dire need of cutting, and ragged clothes. His Green Day T-shirt, torn jeans and high-top sneakers gave him sort of a punk-rock edge. Although he didn't look like a jock, his physique appeared strong and lean.
Instead of agreeing to mount Brooke on his death machine, he cleared his throat and glanced at Abby.
"You must be Leo," she said, stepping forward. "You look exactly like your mother."
He didn't seem embarrassed by the comparison, as some boys might have been. But then, his mother was beautiful. "Thanks," he said easily.
"I think he looks like his father," Brooke said.
Leo frowned at this comment. Abby had only seen Leo's father in photographs, and in the infamous video clip that Leo had uploaded to YouTube. The pro baseball player had been falling-down drunk in the footage. It hadn't cast him in a very flattering light.
"Your dad is seriously hot," Brooke added. He grimaced in distaste.
"Will your bike hold both of us?"
Abby studied the motorcycle with trepidation. Brooke was an adult now, so she couldn't forbid this activity. "There's only one helmet?"
"She can wear it," Leo said.
Brooke let out a squeal and ran toward the motorcycle, hair flying.
Abby rubbed her temples, trying not to visualize deadly accidents. Maybe she shouldn't have come on this trip. It was bound to be one anxiety attack after another. "Brooke, you should put on real shoes. Flipflops aren't safe."
"She's right," Leo said.
Sticking her tongue out at Leo, Brooke opened the car door and grabbed her hiking boots. She sat down in the driveway to put them on quickly. Her jeans offered minimal protection against injury, but her tank top left her arms bare.
"And a jacket," Abby said.
"Oh my God, Mom. We're not going on the freeway."
Leo sided with Brooke this time. He was a teenage boy with a motorcycle, so his judgment was questionable. "I'll keep it under fifty, Miss
"Abby," she murmured, waving her permission.
He climbed aboard the bike and released the kick-stand, passing the helmet to Brooke. She tugged it on and settled in behind him, curving her arms around his trim waist. With a loud pop, he started the engine. Seconds later, they were off.
Abby stood in the driveway for a long time, listening for the sound of screeching tires. Dark crept into the corners of the balmy evening, bringing a chill that only Abby could feel. Brooke and Leo, with their superior circulation and raging hormones, would be warm enough. She'd never considered the possibility that the stepsiblings might have romantic feelings for each other. Not that Brooke's overzealous embrace indicated as much. She was friendly with everyone, and often seemed unaware of her effect on men.
Abby unloaded her bags from the vehicle and went inside the cabin, sighing. The interior was beautiful, with high ceilings and exposed wood beams. A bouquet of purple wildflowers rested on a glass-topped coffee table in front of a leather couch. Abby found a room with a worn duffel bag on the bed, obviously Leo's. Bypassing that and the master suite, she retreated to the opposite end of the cabin to stake her claim.
In the bathroom, she washed up and scrutinized her appearance. She was healthy. She ran five miles on the treadmill every other day. Her figure was still good.
Since the divorce, work and motherhood had taken up most of her energy. She'd dated a physical therapist for several years, but their relationship had fizzled in recent months. Her daughter's absence had made her realize that something else was missing in her life. She'd rather be alone than settle for the wrong person.
It was a little embarrassing to be the fifth wheel at Ray's cabin, single and unattached. His betrayal with Lydia had devastated her. Maybe the missing piece was inside Abby, and she'd never be able to give herself completely to a man again.
Sighing, she reached for her favorite distraction: her cell phone. She'd found that redirecting her thoughts often helped her stay calm. Daily exercise, relaxation techniques and steady breathing worked, also.
Abby called her favorite person: Ella.
Her sister answered the phone with a throaty giggle. Abby could hear Ella's boyfriend, Paul, in the background. Ella had met Paul at California's Channel Islands last summer, on a previous ill-fated family adventure trip. After Ray canceled, Ella and Abby had stepped in to accompany Brooke. Paul had been their handsome kayak guide. Ella had ended up stranded for a night with him on remote, uninhabited San Miguel. They'd been inseparable ever since.
"We just got here," Abby said.
"How is it?"
She glanced around the bedroom. "It's nice. Ray and Lydia aren't here yet. Brooke went on a motorcycle ride with Leo."
Ella didn't have to ask how that made Abby feel. "I'm sure they'll be fine."
"Has Brooke ever talked to you about him?"
"How old is he now?"
"Nineteen, I think."
"Where does he go to school?"
Not far from Berkeley. But not that close. Abby paced the room, nibbling her lower lip. Ella was ten years younger than Abby, and more like a sister than an aunt to Brooke. Sometimes Brooke confided in her, rather than Abby.
"I have to tell you something," Ella said.
She made a breathy sound. "We're getting married."
Abby almost dropped the phone. "What?"
"He asked me last night. Can you believe it?"
Her sister went on to tell the story of Paul proposing at Rose Valley Falls. They were both outdoor nuts, like Brooke. He'd gone with a nontraditional ring and a rare gemstone that sent Ella into raptures. She was a geophysicist.
"Oh, Ella," Abby said, her chest tight. "I'm so happy for you."
Ella couldn't wait to show her the ring, so she sent Abby the photos via text message. The first was of the happy couple at the falls. In the second, a slim platinum band with a sparkling gray stone graced her sister's slender finger.
Gorgeous, Abby texted back. Love you.
She put the phone in her purse, torn between joy and melancholy. Her baby sister was getting married to a great guy who adored her. The ring was unique and beautiful. Abby should be dancing on a table. Instead she felt like curling up in a corner. To her dismay, tears gathered behind her eyes. She'd been engaged once. She'd shown off her big, traditional diamond and held her head high.
Their situations were different, of course. Ella was twenty-six, with an established career. Abby had gotten married right after high school. She'd been a mother at eighteen. Years later, she'd pursued a degree in nursing and gone to work at Ray's cosmetic surgery office. Her entire life had revolved around him.
Ella and Paul were on equal footing. Ella knew what she was doing. And Paul wasn't the cheating type
Abby sat down on the edge of the bed, plucking at a loose thread on the comforter. The question always niggled at the back of her mind, infecting her chances of having a committed relationship. In her experience, marriages didn't last. Partners strayed.
Love was ephemeral.
The doorbell rang, startling her. It was probably Ray and Lydia. As she rose to answer it, an X-rated image of the couple popped into her mind.
Abby had learned of the affair by walking in on them in flagrante delicto. It was after regular business hours, so the front office was deserted. Ray had a back room with a leather couch for napping between surgeries. Abby had found him there with his pants around his ankles. Lydia had been bent over the couch, her breasts exposed and her skirt raked up. Their expressions had been priceless. Eyes wide. Bodies frozen, midstroke.
Pushing that unpleasant mental picture aside, Abby continued forward. It seemed odd for Ray to announce his presence by knocking, considering that he'd rented the cabin. She glanced through the window blinds to make sure it was him. A stranger was standing there in the dark. He was taller than Ray, his shoulders broader.
"Who is it?" she asked, raising her voice.
"It's Nathan," he replied. "Nathan Strom."
Nathan Strom. Leo's father. Lydia's ex-husband. The world-famous baseball player whose career had gone up in flames.
"Is this the wrong cabin?" he asked.
Abby opened the door warily, giving him a closer study. She recognized him from the YouTube video, though he looked different. A little older, more weathered and clear-eyed. In person, he did resemble Leo. They had the same square jaw and handsome features. Nathan's hair was brown, rather than black, and expertly cut. His clothes were elegant. An expensive watch glittered on his wrist.
Brooke had described him as "seriously hot." That was right on the money.
Abby didn't know how to welcome him. This was the man Lydia had been married to when she started seeing Ray. Lydia had cheated on Nathan with Abby's husband. Ray had cheated on Abby with Nathan's wife.
His appearance here was unexpected, to say the least.
Maybe Ray had invited him. Ray was so arrogant and oblivious that he might not anticipate any tension between them. And now they were supposed to spend the week together in this cabin, pretending no one had been caught screwing in the back office?
The level of awkwardness just ratcheted up ten notches.