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Frozen rain fell from steel-gray clouds, pinging off the blacktop and pattering into Smith Mountain Lake. Aside from that the day was silent, the summer bustle of guests replaced by winter solitude. Jasmine Hart was glad. People brought cash, but they also brought baggage, and she wasn't talking the kind that held clothes. Marital strife, teens with secrets, men and women hiding from the world and from their problems. She'd dealt with them all during her time at Lakeview Retreat, but that had been years ago.
Now she had her own baggage, her own secrets, her own reasons to hide, and dealing with people wasn't something she wanted to do. It seemed, though, that she had no choice in the matter. One phone call in the middle of the night, one brief conversation with her mother-in-law's best friend and Jasmine had been on a plane and flying from New Hampshire to Lakeview, Virginia. Three days later, she was caring for her mother-in-law and readying the neglected retreat for the first renter it had had in seventeen months.
Which just went to show how quickly things could change.
"Jazz! Hey, Jazz!" Karen Morris hurried across the slippery pavement, her round cheeks flushed, her brown eyes filled with youthful exuberance. A college student who worked part-time at Lakeview Retreat, Karen had enthusiasm and peppiness to spare. Jasmine tried hard not to hold that against her.
"Ms. Sarah. She's awake and asking if the cabin is ready yet."
"Tell her I'll have it ready before our guest arrives. Then you'd better head home. The weather doesn't look like it's going to clear."
"Ms. Sarah said I should give you a hand cleaning the cabin." Even as she said it, Karen'sgaze was darting toward the rusty Impala she'd driven to work that morning.
"She probably didn't know how bad the weather was getting."
"Maybe not, but I can't afford to get fired from this job." Karen glanced at the car again. Obviously, the thought of leaving appealed to her. Jasmine couldn't blame her. The once-bustling retreat had become a lonely place, haunted by memories and silence. Or maybe that was only Jasmine's perception of it. Maybe to others it was the same peaceful lakeside resort it had always been.
She forced her maudlin thoughts away, refocusing on Karen. "Sarah isn't going to fire you for going home when the weather is like this."
"I guess you're right. And it is getting slippery out here. If you need me to come this weekend, I can. It might be good to have an extra set of hands since you've got a renter now." It might be, but there wasn't money for it. At least not in Sarah's coffers. Since Jasmine's mother-in-law didn't believe in taking handouts, even from family, that was the only way the extra help could be paid for.
"I'll give you a call if I need you. Now hurry up and tell Sarah you're leaving. I don't want you out on the roads when it's this slippery." She forced a smile, waving Karen back toward the house, her stomach churning with anxiety and frustration. Things were bad. Worse than she ever could have imagined when she'd agreed to come help Sarah recover from surgery. Payback for staying away so long? Probably. And probably Jasmine deserved it.
Icy wind sliced through her thick sweatshirt and heavy parka, stealing her breath and reminding her of home. New Hampshire would have snow this week. Here in Lakeview, there'd be frozen rain, drizzle, thick clouds. The lake. Memories of Christmases and laughter. The girls dancing around the living room of Sarah's modest home. John. Solid. Dependable. All three frozen in time, suspended in her mind as they had been, not as they might have become.
Three years tomorrow.
Maybe she shouldn't keep track.
She forced the thoughts and images from her mind, refusing to dwell on the past or to contemplate the empty future. One moment at a time. One day at a time. That was the only way she'd survive.
The first of Sarah's five guest cabins was just up ahead. Small, cozy, great view of Smith Mountain Lake, it was the perfect place for solitude and peace. It wasn't what the renter had wanted though. He'd done his research online and called with a particular rental in mind. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, set on a hill overlooking the lake, Meadow Lark cabin had always been reserved for large families. In years past, a single-occupant renter would have taken a smaller cabin or looked for a rental somewhere else. Things were different now. Sarah couldn't afford to turn business away, and Eli Jennings was welcome to Meadow Lark.
Wind buffeted the cabin, shaking windows and shutters as Jasmine stepped inside. January wasn't kind. It brought gray clouds. Cold weather. Loneliness. Death. Maybe Jazz was in the minority thinking that, but she doubted it. There had to be plenty of other people who'd just as soon skip the month.
She pulled linens from the closet, inhaled staleness and age. They'd have to be washed. She'd do the curtains in the bedroom while she was at it. No sense doing a partial job. It was an adage her mother had lived by. One she'd taught Jazz. Lately, though, doing nothing seemed preferable to doing anything at all.
Three years. Ticking by. One slow moment at a time. Drifting through her fingers like air. Gone.
And now she was back where it had all begun. Back where she'd met John, where he'd proposed, where they'd spent every vacation for thirteen years, where the girls had laughed and giggled, learned to fish, to boat, to dance in the moonlight and in the sun.
Jazz blinked back tears and shoved the linens into the small washing machine, started the water and realized too late that she didn't have detergent with her.
"Wonderful. Now I've got to go back to the house." Back to the modest rancher and its memory-filled rooms. Back to Sarah and her broken hip and strangely blank eyes. As much as the retreat had changed, Sarah had changed more, fading, shrinking, becoming a shadow of the vibrant woman she'd been.
Jazz shoved the cabin's door open with more force than necessary, stepping out onto the covered front porch and nearly walking into a tall, broad-shouldered he-man. Dark blond hair cropped short, hazel eyes surrounded by lashes any woman would be proud of, a scowl that sharpened the hard edges of his jaw and cheekbones.
She shoved the thought away as quickly as it came. Noticing men and what they looked like felt too much like a betrayal. "Can I help you?"
"That depends." He had a deep Southern drawl that was much warmer than his expression.
"On whether or not you're Jasmine Hart."
"That depends." She leaned back against the door.
His scowl deepened. "On?"
"On who wants to know."
A tiny smile flicked across his hard features before it disappeared. "Eli Jennings. I've got reservations."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Jennings. I'm glad you made it here with the weather being so bad, but, as I told you last night, check-in is at three."
"I was hoping you wouldn't mind letting me check in early. Mrs. Hart down at the main house didn't seem to think you would."
"Sarah would be right on most occasions, but the cabin hasn't been used in a while. It needs to be aired out and cleaned. I'll need time to do it."
"I'll take care of it." The finality in his tone refused any further argument, and Jasmine shrugged.
"You're welcome to move your stuff in now, then."
"Glad to hear it." There went the tiny smile again, a subtle tilting of his lips that softened his hard features, but didn't ease the coldness in his eyes.
He'd said he was a writer when he'd called the night before, but his broad, muscled frame and taut expression belonged on a military man, a cop. A career criminal. Whatever he was, whoever he was, that was his business. As long as he paid the rent on time, she'd leave Eli Jennings and his secrets alone. "I've started the linens and curtains. I'm just running down to the house to get detergent."
"I've got everything I need in my truck."
Jazz pushed away from the door. "Here's the key then. You've got a phone line. Dial-up Internet access. Television with cable. Nothing fancy."
"If I wanted fancy I'd be at the Hilton." His smile took the sting out of the words and stole the breath from Jasmine's lungs. Not a tiny smile this time. A full-blown, melt-awoman's-heart smile. No man should have a smile that warm, that decadent.
She blinked, took a step away. It was definitely time to leave.
She strode toward the porch steps, forgetting the icy rain until her foot slipped and she fell backward.
Hard hands wrapped around her waist, jerking her upright, reminding her of what a man's touch was likestrong, steady, sure.
"Better watch your step, ma'am. The ice is making things treacherous."
Ma'am? She was thirty-three. Not ninety. And unless she missed her guess, Jennings was a few years older. "Jazz is fine. Or Jasmine."
His cold hazel eyes raked her from the tip of her scuffed boots to the top of the knit cap she wore. "Jasmine."
Warm honey. Sweet tea. Deep South manners wrapped in six foot two of attitude and trouble.
Jazz looked away, disconcerted, guilty and angry at herself for being both. "If you need anything, call the house. The number's near the phone."
"If you decide to extend your stay another month, rent is due on the first.You leave before the month is up, there's no refund."
"So you told me last night."
"Just making sure we're clear, Mr. Jennings."
"Eli. And we're very clear." He smiled again, the fine lines near his eyes deepening, his muted hazel gaze now forest-green.
Definitely someone Jazz should stay far away from. She took her time retreating down the stairs, absolutely sure she didn't want Eli's hands on her waist again. It was bad enough that she could sense his steady gaze following her as she maneuvered the slippery path that led to the gravel drive. She didn't need to feel the warmth of his fingers pressing into her sides.
A large SUV was parked on the driveway, and Jazz bypassed it, noticing the details even as she told herself they weren't important. Black tinted windows made it impossible to see inside. Was he hiding something in there? A pet? A person? Something else? If he hadn't been watching, she'd have given in to curiosity and peeked in the front window.
She sidled around the car, her feet slipping out from under her again. She slid forward, banging into the door of the SUV and grabbing on to the hood to steady herself.
"Seems like you're having a little trouble with the ice. Maybe I should give you a ride back to your house." Eli spoke close to her ear, his voice so unexpected, Jazz's heart leaped to her throat.
She straightened, forcing herself to meet his gaze, and ignoring the quick flutter of her stomach as she did so. "Thanks for the offer, but I can manage."
"Suit yourself." He moved past, popped open the back door of the SUV and pulled out two brown paper bags. A box of Froot Loops peeked out of the top of one. It was almost enough to distract Jazz from the rifle case lying across the backseat.
She didn't like firearms of any kind, and was pretty sure she didn't like the idea of her new renter having one in the cabin. "Planning to do some hunting?"
He followed the direction of her gaze, and flashed straight white teeth. "My dad is the hunter in the family. I've got camera equipment in there."
"Strange place to store camera equipment."
"You should see where I keep the rifle."
"Should I ask?"
"Not unless you really want to know." He threw another smile in her direction and started back up to the house, leaving Jazz to wonder if he was serious or kidding.
That was the trouble with keeping people at a distance. You stopped picking up subtle clues about their thoughts and feelings, about their truthfulness or lack thereof. That wasn't a problem when you chose to hide away from life. It became one when you stepped back out into the world.
Or when you were yanked kicking and screaming back into it. Which was pretty much how Jazz's reemergence had happened.
She shook her head, trudging back toward the rancher. Sarah would be waiting for breakfast, probably sitting in the kitchen, her too-thin fingers wrapped around a book, her soft-eyed gaze eating up the fairy-tale story written on its pages. No doubt she'd glance up when Jazz walked in, smile that easy smile of hers that was so much like John's, ask what Jazz thought of their new renter.
Act as if no more than time had passed between Jazz and herself even though they both knew that the truth was much darker and uglier than that. Three years since Jazz had last set foot on Lakeview Retreat land. She'd grieved during that time. Alone. Concerned only for herself. While Sarah had struggled on her own.
Guilt had a taste. It was bitter and hot. Jazz swallowed it down as she stepped into Sarah's house.