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The tiny cabin was a cobwebbed hovel. An abandoned relic left over from an era that predated air-conditioning and bed springs. Casually, coolly, completely in command, Jennifer Dade scanned the room. Yes, the cabin predated indoor plumbing, as well.
She glanced at the manager of the campgrounds, a tan, thirtysomething woman, who had lake-green eyes that seemed as weary and faded as the once-white apron she wore. Yet there remained a quiet dignity, as if she was not yet resigned to rejection. And no, it wasn't that Jenn wanted to be rejecter-girl and take her business elsewhere, but the dirt…
As if on cue, Jenn sneezed, and then met the woman's eyes. They were steady. Unflinching. Joan of Arc, prepared to be martyred at the stake.
Why now? Why this?
The place was borderline unlivable, and Jenn did have limits to what she'd put up with. She had standards. High standards. She thought of her last boyfriend, Taj, the twenty-four-year-old drummer with a love of the Cartoon Network. Mostly high standards.
The manager noticed her hesitation—understatement of the year—and patted the head of the cherubic chubster who was clinging to her hip.
"You don't want to stay here, do you? You're here for the Summer Nights Festival, and you're expecting something a lot nicer, right? There's a bunch of bed-and-breakfasts up the road. The Wildrose Inn is the nicest, and I heard they had a cancellation. If you make it there before high tea, you might get in."
"The Wildrose Inn?" Jenn breathed the words, shal-lowly transported by the idea of a towering Victorian with rambling rosebushes that dotted the lawn. Tea on a silver platter…and a toilet. It sounded heavenly, with mass appeal. Commercial appeal. The sort of commercial appeal that would insure Jennifer's job.
The little girl piped in, flashing her big, blue Oliver Twist eyes and a grape-juice stain that extended from nose to chin. "It's all right, Momma. Somebody else will come soon. We'll find a renter. I know we will."
Watching the kid, Jenn felt something tug at her heart, and she wasn't sure if it was the first stirrings of maternal instincts—which frankly terrified her—or her stubborn impulse to drop a quarter in every panhandlers box, even though she knew it would only perpetuate the very impracticability of the homeless plight.
However, if she wanted to keep the job of her dreams, she needed to fight these urges. For the next two weeks, Jenn was on assignment, and her computer needed electricity. Ergo, if there was no electricity, there was no job.
So, even if she wanted to stay here, she couldn't. Problem solved.
She almost smiled until she noticed the black-plated plug in the wall. Okay, electricity was here.
Still, the readers would love the Wildrose Inn. Presidents had probably slept there. There was probably a charming love story about the ghosts that roamed the halls. Because of course, there would be ghosts at the Wildrose Inn. And a five-star chef who thrilled the critics.
The sad-faced kid began sucking her thumb. Jenn felt her womb contract, pulse, sigh. No. Be strong.
"It wasn't exactly what I had in mind. I was expecting something a little more…"
"Fancy," finished the woman, no stranger to the obvious.
Time for a new tactic, something that didn't make her feel like such a martyr-killer.
"This is the deluxe cabin?" asked Jennifer hopefully. Maybe the paper had made some clerical mishap, and Jenn had landed the supersaver accommodations instead? Times were tough; it was a possibility.
"My ex was a wilderness freak," the woman explained. "He loved the sounds and smells of nature, and bought this place for a song. Of course, then he leaves me to run it. Not that I want to talk bad about Emily's father—" she covered her daughters ears "—but if I called him an asshole, I'd offend thousands of butt cheeks everywhere."
Sorrowfully Jenn shook her head. "Been there, bagged that, sobbed at the ending. We're a gullible gender. Too softhearted to stand up for what is best for us. No, it's all about sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice."
It was a habit of Jenn's. Promote camaraderie, create intimacy, inspire trust. It was the key to her reporter's way, the secret to getting to the very heart of strangers in the span of sixty minutes or less.
But not this time. The woman heaved a self-sacrificing sigh, uncovered her daughter's ears, and then smoothed at nonexistent creases in her apron.
"You'll be happier at the Wildrose. It's really nice. They have these great down comforters, and in the afternoon, Sven will do massages. His name isn't really Sven, it's actually Mario, but still, he has great hands."
Her apple cheeks blushed a dark scarlet, and Jennifer suspected the woman knew Mario's hands in the most intimate sort of way.
Sentimentality and guilt warred with her need to do this feature right, and Jenn glanced at the kid who was now milking this one for all it was worth, her grape-stained chin wobbling, her wide eyes brimming with tears.
It was like watching a little Meryl Streep, and Jenn had always been a sucker for Meryl Streep and her ability to convey heart-wrenching melancholy with only a quiet look. This kid had those same Oscar-winning genes in spades and knew it.
Unfortunately it wasn't completely an act.
Mind made up, Jennifer nodded. "I like this place. Sometimes I think it's important to get away from the distractions of the everyday world. A place where I can turn off the television."
"And chuck the cell phone in the lake when the ringing gets too loud."
The woman laughed, a relieved laugh, and Jenn smiled to herself.
"Not a problem. No cell reception for miles."
Miles? Miles? Longingly Jenn stroked the new iPhone in her jean pocket, knowing she could never chuck it into the lake. All the hiking and nature apps that she'd loaded especially for this assignment? Pointless.
Techno-gadget lust versus the good of human kindness.
Her sigh was long and slightly overdramatized, but at least now the manager looked calmer, and the kid looked more than a bit self-satisfied.
Yes. She was a sap, and for the next two weeks, she'd be a rustic, outdoorsy sap, and hopefully they didn't have poison ivy.
"Welcome to Harmony Springs. I'm Carolyn, and this is Emily."
Now that Jenn had made peace with her decision to abandon all the comforts of a postindustrialized society, she set her suitcase on the floor. "What do people do for bathrooms?"
Carolyn started to laugh. "We're not that rustic. There's a men's bath and ladies' bath right down the path. You won't be able to miss it, but it gets dark at night, so keep a flashlight handy. You brought your linens and soap, right?"
Sneaky Emily was watching her, daring her to back out of the deal now, not that Jenn was considering it—much. "Oh, yeah. I'm all set."
"Perfect. We'll get out of your hair. There's a movie every night in the main lodge, and a horseshoe tournament at dusk."
"Wow. I think I'm going to love this place," gushed Jennifer, and Carolyn smiled gratefully.
"You're a nice person."
"Sometimes. But I had an ex who dragged me on sur-vivalist training for two weeks. I ended up with a sunburn and a bad case of poison ivy, and the pièce de résistance? He dumped me because I wasn't tough enough to hack it. I think I can make it fine." With or without three-ply toilet paper.
Really? Asked the snide little voice in her head.
"One last thing—we keep the grounds really quiet here. We only have two guests now, but Cabin Three really appreciates his privacy."
"He doesn't like children," muttered Emily, and Jenn kept her smile to herself. Obviously Cabin Three did not take kindly to having his emotions manipulated for capitalistic purposes.
"We don't know that, Emily," scolded her mother.
"Yes, we do. He tells me that all the time."
"I'll make sure to stay out of his way," Jenn assured them both, liking Cabin Three more and more.
Now that Emily's sales job was complete, the little girl threw open the wooden door, and dashed out of the cabin. She ran in unlaced sneakers, jumping down stairs and over rocks. Watching her unbridled freedom, Jenn envied that ability to run, laces whipping out wildly, uncaring of the consequences that might doom her to a bruised knee or, for example, losing the job of her dreams.
Before Carolyn could trail after her daughter, Jenn had one more thing she wanted to know. "Can I ask you something?" she asked.
Carolyn halted on the wooden porch and nodded, her eyes watching her child. It was always the loving mother who looked over the world with guarded eyes, wanting the best for their kids, wanting them to avoid the bumps and bruises of life. In that respect, Jenn's mother was exactly the same.
"Why don't you leave here if you're not happy?" she asked, not wanting to think about her overcautious parents at the moment.
Carolyn sucked in her lip, the way people do when they have an answer ready, but they know it's the wrong answer, so they chew on their mouth and their words, hoping to find a more socially acceptable way to spit it out. Almost all of the Dade family were notorious lip-suckers—except Jenn.
"I thought about leaving, about starting over, but not yet. One day, I'm going to wake up and know that I'm ready, but right now, I wake up, and I go to work. Doing the cleaning and the laundry, running the movie, keeping Emily somewhat well-adjusted. That's enough for now. It makes me happy. It makes Emily happy, and if Emily is happy, then I'm happy."
"But don't you want more? Don't you feel like you're settling?" Jenn had an irrational fear of settling, of living her life on the terms as defined by Great American Societal Credo #32, A Woman Must be Successful and Recognized on Her Financial Merits, a well-trod treatise on the postfeminist era female.
"Why are you so interested?" Carolyn asked, obviously noting the not-so-well-disguised panic in Jenn's voice, which came as much from her own insecurities as it did from professional curiosity.
Jenn decided to come clean, because on a good day, she wasn't this edgy, but this wasn't a good day. It probably wouldn't be a good two weeks either, and although she didn't like to read the writing on the wall, sometimes it needed to be read.
"I'm a journalist. I'm here to write about this town, this place, the Summer Nights Festival, and I'm fighting for my job against a femme fatale who is sleeping with the boss. I don't have a chance in hell of keeping my job, but if I do, then my parents aren't right, and I'm twenty-seven years old, which is too old for my parents to be right, and so I have to come up with something here. Something fascinating. Something illuminating. Something mesmerizing. Something that will titillate my editor far more than the sight of Miss Nolita's naked garbanzos."
Carolyn knew desperation when she saw it. "You're sure you don't want to check out now? The Wildrose has this great chef. Four stars. In fact…"
Jenn held up a courageous hand.
"Let's forget about the chef for a minute. What would you do if you weren't here?"
"I don't let myself think that far ahead."
"Because usually it's not good, and I like being happy. If I don't think too much about tomorrow, then I'm happy."
Most other female New Yorkers aspired to be dancers, or media captains, or heart-free mistresses to high-powered men. All Carolyn wanted was to be happy. Jenn made a mental note to investigate this self-satisfaction concept more fully. Women choosing happiness over the rigid expectations of the world? Story at eleven.
Aaron Barksdale drummed his fingers on the mahogany tabletop, glancing at his watch for the hundredth time, not wanting to look like an impatient male in a frilly, feminine world, but as a writer, he believed in absolute honestly, so yes, he was an impatient male in a frilly, feminine world.
But not impatient without cause. The elegant dining room of the Wildflower Inn was overstuffed with flowers, smothered by the rabid scents of hairspray…and potpourri.
Aaron hated potpourri. Neither was he especially fond of hacked-off flowers that were crammed into vases, and in his soul he knew that a woman's hair was best left soft and unshellacked. Feeling rather justified in his criticism, he leaned back in the pint-size chair and his fingers drummed even faster.
Where was Didi? She was always late, he reminded himself, but that didn't mean he had to like it.
"Excuse me. I don't mean to interrupt, but can you move your chair please?"
At the sound of a woman's voice, his fingers ceased their drumming, and he turned to contemplate this newest irritation. Automatically his mouth curved into the politely expected smile, but it wasn't as difficult as usual.
She had soft brown eyes, possessing that wondrous sort of delight most commonly seen in magazine ads for cleaning products. Her face was long and thin, with a sharp nose well suited to intruding where it didn't belong. But she had nice hair, he admitted, only to be fair. Autumn gold waves that fell past her shoulders, soft and unshellacked—as it should be.
"Your chair?" she repeated in that same no-nonsense tone, and he reminded himself that people must be more dense in frilly, feminine worlds. Trying to oblige, he shifted an inch forward, until his knees lodged painfully against the adjacent chair. All social obligations now complete, he nodded to dismiss her.
"Do you need that much room?" asked the woman who would not be dismissed. "I'm trying to work," she offered as way of explanation, as if everyone chose a dining room as their personal office. Of course, with the hodgepodge of electronic gadgets spread on the table in front of her, he wasn't surprised she needed extra space.
"The chair's aren't that big," he argued, because if he moved any closer to the table, he'd be on top of it.
She looked him up and down, and smiled, patently fake. "You don't look fat."
Fat? Then he noticed the teasing look in her eyes. "Don't get nasty," he answered testily, because Aaron had never handled teasing well.
"I'm trying to work here, but I can't move my elbows. I need to move my elbows," she explained, flexing her arms over the small tabletop, her expression politely determined in that way of people who didn't know when to give up.
"Don't we all?" he muttered, before unhappily adjusting his knees. Trying to block out the rest of the world, his fingers began nervously drumming once again.
She looked up, scowled at his hand.
"I'm making you unhappy, aren't I?" he asked, strangely happy about it.
As soon as he spoke, a heavily embalmed dowager at the next table shushed him. Obviously people in her world enjoyed the oozing scent of bad potpourri and didn't mind having their legs compressed in unnatural positions.
Cranky old biddy, he thought. Probably owned cats.
"Sorry," the younger woman apologized in a stage whisper, with a nod toward the next table. He nearly smiled when the older woman sniffed.
"It's not your fault," he told the younger woman magnanimously.