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What was that infernal noise?
Simon Adams winced as he lost concentration yet again. Turning from the pair of boots he'd been working on for the last three hours, Simon grunted. That famous country singer in Nashville would just have to wait a while longer to get his handmade boots.
Right now Simon had to go outside and find out what was going on across the fence in what used to be a vacant vacation cabin. A cabin nestled in the riotous spring beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia near the little river town of Knotwood.
There it went again. The banging and knocking, the giggling and shouting.
Simon didn't like people.
His brother's dog, Shilohhe really didn't like the dog eitherfollowed Simon out the double doors of his workshop, barking at the unusual noises echoing over the woods and trees. Obviously Shiloh was more excited about this intrusion than Simon. They both enjoyed the quiet of the countryside, but the dog craved company.
"Quit your whining," Simon said to the big golden retriever. "We don't need company today."
Stalking up to the fence line, he couldn't believe his eyes. Someone was moving into the big, sprawling cabin next to his. Okay, maybe a hundred yards from his, but still too close for comfort.
Shiloh barked again, a friendly let's-go-see-who-it-is kind of bark.
"No," Simon told the dog. "Why didn't you go into town with Rick anyway?"
Shiloh appeared sheepish then turned to stare at what looked like an army of people in all kinds of sizes and shapes lining up in front of the house to unload a big passenger van. Small people.
"Great. Kids." Just what he needed. He didn't really like kids, either.
Shifting on his old work boots, Simon ignored the fresh spring air filled with the scent of honeysuckle and the sound of birds chirping in a church choir harmony. He pushed thoughts of his deceased wife Marcy out of his mind. He'd never hear his own children laughing. And he didn't want to hear these particular childrenseven of them at last countnext door to his studio day in and day out for who knew how long. They only reminded him of what he would never have.
"This is not good, dog," he said to Shiloh. Not good at all. He liked his seclusion. He liked being alone.
Frustrated, he turned to go back inside when a woman emerged from the cabin and clapped her hands together. "Finish up and we'll start the camp-fire and cook some hotdogs. The best you'll ever eat in your life, I promise."
The woman had dark curly hair falling in layers around her porcelain face and a pretty smile that could probably charm those twittering birds. She wore jeans and a bright pink shirt, a plaid scarf notched around her neck at a jaunty angle, making her stand out against the green woods.
Shiloh barked his approval and before Simon could hide, the woman glanced over and looked right at him. Then she came prancing over to the fence.
"Hello, neighbor," she said, waving as if he were a long-lost friend, her perky smile broadening, her eyes as blue as the sky. "I'm Shanna. Shanna White."
He really didn't like perky. "Simon," he said with a grunt while she bent down to pet Shiloh through the fence.
"You're Rick's brother," she replied, smiling at Shiloh. "Cari told me all about you." Then she lifted up to stare at him. "She also told me you don't like to be bothered. Sorry if we interrupted your work."
That was certainly direct. Simon stumbled through his words. "It's okay. Nice to meet you."
"Same here," Shanna said. "We'll be here during spring break, doing the usual thingshiking, fishing, rafting on the river, cookouts around the campfire."
"And how long is uh spring break?"
Giving him a mock frown, she said, "All next week. We're here from today to next Saturday. I'd better get back to the troops. I have one very young one over there and even though her grandmother came along to chaperone, Katie's a handfuleight years old and wanting to hang with the older kids. I'm sure we'll see you again, though."
Relieved, Simon nodded and turned to hightail it back to his own place. Today was Saturday. One whole week. He didn't want them to be here for spring break. He didn't want to see them again. He didn't want to engage in small talk.
He didn't want to engage at all.
But he couldn't help looking back and listening to the sound of Shanna White's enticing laughter floating over the trees. How was a man supposed to drown that out?
About an hour later he smelled smoke. Since he didn't have a fire going in the massive fireplace centered on one wall in his workshop, Simon decided this smoke might be coming from another fire. A campfire or grill, maybe?
A hint of lighter fluid wafted across his nostrils.
Then he heard shouts. Glancing out the big window, he saw the source of this new interruption. His neighbor was trying to start a campfire behind her cabin. And all of those little hooligans were helping her. More like hindering her, Simon thought on a huff.
He watched while she doused the wood with lighter fluid then touched a match to the wood. He kept on watching when one of the kids kicked at the wet wood and said something no preteen should ever say, when the fire seemed to spurt and then fizzle.
Fascinated in spite of being interrupted, Simon went out onto the porch and listened.
"We ain't never gonna get this fire started, Miss Shanna. And I'm starving."
"Just relax, Felix. We'll figure this out."
"Were you a Girl Scout, Miss Shanna?" one of the younger girls asked.
"I don't think she was," the older teen Simon recognized as Brady Stillman said, his tone bored and full of tempered anger. Simon had seen the kid around his brother's general store in town. He worked there after school.
"I was in Scouts until my daddy left and my mom had to go back to work," another kid chimed in. "We learned how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together. Want me to show you?"
"No," everyone said together.
The smile forming on Simon's face surprised him even while it irritated him. Good grief, he had work to do.
He turned to get back to that work when a flash of blue-smoked flames caught his eye. Good, they got the fire started.
Then he heard kids hollering and screaming, followed by that lilting little voice shouting, "It's okay, kids. I've got this under control."
Yeah right, Simon thought as he grabbed a rake nestled by the door and headed down the steps. She had it under control all right. Miss Shanna was about to set the woods on fire.
Shanna watched as the fire shot up toward the oak trees and sweet gums, her heart surging in concern. She could handle this. She'd just toss leaves and dirt on it. Yes, that would work. The leaves were still wet from the recent storm that has passed through. Thinking that would do the trick, she called out to the group. "Leaves. Grab some leaves to put on the fire."
That brought a scramble of feet and arms all rushing to gather debris, the chaos mounting while the fire blazed higher and wider. Then a rain of wet, decaying leaves fell down around her, most of them missing the center of the fire and making the whole thing worse by bringing out a heavy fog of smoke.
Coughing, Shanna waved her gloved hands. "That's enough. I don't think that's helping."
"What should we do now?" Pamela asked, her long blond hair falling around her face as she bent toward the fire.
"Get back," Shanna said, yanking the girl away before her curls got singed.
"Can we cook the hotdogs now?" Marshall, known for his outbursts and for pulling practical jokes on his friends, asked with a grin. "They'll sure get roasted in that big fire."
"No, not yet," she said. "We want the fire to die down first." She hoped this inferno would settle down.
Katie's grandmother Janie called from the small back deck. "Need any help, Shanna?"
"No, ma'am. Just stay up there," Shanna called back. She couldn't risk Katie's grandmother falling and hurting herself. "We've got things under control."
Brady waved a hand over his nose. "This fire's getting bigger and bigger. I don't think it's gonna die anytime soon. This whole picnic is lame."
Shanna watched as he stomped off toward the cabin. "Brady, come back here."
Brady kept right on walking.
"I'm with him," Felix said, his dark dreadlocks bouncing with attitude as he shuffled toward Brady. "I'll find a pack of crackers."
"I want hotdogs," little Katie said on a wail. "I want a picnic and some of them s'more things Miss Shanna told us about."
"It's all right, Katie," Shanna said, trying to corral both the growing fire and the disappointed children.
"We'll get the fire down and I'll start the wienie roast, I promise."
She looked up as the fire licked at the jagged limb of a dry-rotted oak tree and then with a whish ignited the tree like kindling. This fire was getting out of control and she had no way of putting it out.
Then she saw Katie smiling and pointing and turned just in time to feel the cold wet spray of water hitting above her head. "What"
Simon Adams stood there with a water hose positioned with a powerful spray toward the tree that had caught on fire. Without a word, he soaked down the blaze.
And he didn't look too happy.
"There's your fire," Simon told Shanna a few minutes later. "Now enjoy your uh picnic."
She at least had the grace to look embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she said, her tone low. "You can go back to work now. I'll take it from here."
Surprised at the way she spun around in dismissal, Simon bristled. He wasn't accustomed to being dismissed, especially after he'd dropped everything to help her.
"You're welcome," he called while she handed out long forked sticks with hotdogs stuck on them and went about supervising this wienie-roast gone bad.
"Hold up, Mr. Adams." She turned back toward him then, her usual perkiness subdued into a look of disappointment and dismay. Was she going to cry?
'Cause he didn't like crying women and he sure didn't have time to console someone who'd been foolish to begin with.
But Shanna White wasn't about to cry. No sir. She came stomping toward him with a bit of her own fire shooting through her pretty edge-of-sky blue eyes, stopping with a skid of a halt inches from his nose. "I do so appreciate your help in getting this fire under control, but I don't appreciate the condescending way you oh-so-carefully explained loudly enough to wake the bears about how to start a campfire and keep it from how did you put that? burning down the whole mountainside."
She leaned closer still, the scent of her flowery perfume mixed with the smell of lighter fluid-engulfed wood. "I'm trying here, okay? These kids need good examples, not some snarky man who has a chip bigger than that old tree on his shoulder. So back off, will you?" Then before he could catch his breath, she added, "Of course, you're welcome to share a hotdog and some s'mores with us, since you did save the day, so to speak."
Dumbfounded, Simon smiled for the second time that day. Then quickly went back to frowning. "I don't want a hotdog, lady. I want some peace and quiet. If you can give me that, then I'll gladly leave you to your own devices. As long as they don't interfere with me or my work."
She glared at him. It was a dainty glare but it meant business. "Well, we wouldn't want that now, would we? We'll try to whisper all week. You know, teenagers and preteens are so very good at that. Don't worry. I think they're all terrified of you anyway. If you'll excuse me, I have some s'mores to make."
Dismissed yet again, Simon stood there with his hands in his pockets, the amused and way-too-interested gazes coming from seven sets of eyes making him hot under the collar. Or maybe it was the scalding takedown he'd just been given by Miss Shanna that had him hot under the collar. Either way, he refused to stand here and be insulted after he'd taken the time to help her.
Simon glanced over at the kids, noting that some of them were actually enjoying cooking their hotdogs on sticks. Then memories of another picnic not far from here swirled like embers in front of his eyes. He could hear Marcy's sweet laughter, see her sparkling eyes, feel her in his arms as he tried to keep her warm. An acute anger and longing filled his heart, causing him to step back from the scene in front of him.
"I won't bother you again if you promise to leave me alone," he said.
And without a word, he hurried back to the studio where Shiloh whimpered at the door. Simon let the big dog out. The dog could go entertain the neighbors. He wanted to be alone. Completely alone. So he shut the door and cranked up the country music he liked to listen to while he worked.