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"Good morning! What a beautiful day," Trudy Lynn said, stepping out onto the porch of her cabin to greet her elderly hired hand. "Don't you love the Ozarks this time of year?"
"Yes'm." Will took off his sweat-stained baseball cap and held it in front of him. "Morning, Miz Brown. Can't say it's too good, though. Maybe you'd best sit down."
She shaded her eyes and braced for the worst. "What now?" The look on Will's leathery face made her heart sink. "Not more of the same?"
It wasn't fair. Not after all the sacrifices she'd made to keep this business going. She'd hung on and finally prospered when other campgrounds and canoe rentals around her had closed. This year, she'd even managed to buy a bit of new equipment.
"What did they do this time?" Trudy asked nervously.
"Took out three more of them new red canoes. Looks to me like we'd best put 'em in storage and use the old ones for now. You can't keep buyin' new ones if some-body's gonna go knockin' holes in 'em."
Pensive, she stood at the porch railing and gazed fondly at the neat campsites arrayed beside the Spring River. Oaks and hickory had greened up, while dog-woods were almost done with their blooms. Every day, new varieties of wildflowers appeared, some with blossoms so tiny they could hardly be seen. The only thing spoiling the picture was the knowledge that someone despised her enough to try to ruin her.
"Okay," Trudy told Will. "Take Jimmy and have him help you load what's left of my best canoes on the spare trailer. I'll tow it down to Serenity and rent a storage spot to park it. I just hate to back down like this."
"What else can we do?"
"Nothing. We can't stay up every night to stand guard and still hope to function well during the day, especially not when peak season gets here. Besides, it's too dangerous for amateurs like us. And hiring a real security man would cost way too much."
"How 'bout that ornery little dog of yours? We could tie him down by the boats. He's sure to make a racket if anybody strange comes around."
Trudy Lynn laughed softly and shook her head. "You know Widget barks at everything, including rabbits and deer. He'd sound false alarms and keep us running all night long."
"Prob'ly." The stooped old man nodded sagely.
"Okay, Miz Brown, I'll fetch Jimmy and we'll load up them new canoes for you. He's not gonna like doing it, though."
"What my cousin likes or doesn't like isn't your problem, Will. It's time he learned that his brains aren't the only reason I hired him. It shouldn't take all day to keep our accounts current. When he's not busy in the office I expect him to lend a hand outside, not sit around playing computer games."
"That, I gotta see."
"You will. I promise," Trudy Lynn said, smiling.
"He's my kin. I can always threaten to tell Grandma Earlene if he doesn't behave. Otherwise, I'll fire him, just like I did that Randall boy."
The old man put his cap back on and hesitated, squinting against the bright sunlight. "You be careful who you rile up. So far, all we've lost is a few boats. I don't want to lose you, too." Smiling wryly he added, "I'd never find another job as easy as this one. Not at my age."
She chose to take him seriously in spite of his jesting tone. "You be careful, too, you old coot. I'd never find another helper as savvy and hardworking as you are." Will's throaty chuckle warmed her heart. "Now get going."
"Yes, ma'am. You gonna be tending the camp store?"
"No. The new girl's a fast learner. She can cope with the store. Farley's had enough training to handle canoe launches by himself till you're free. As soon as you and Jimmy get that trailer hitched and loaded, bring the truck up here, and I'll head for Serenity."
Watching Will shuffle away, Trudy Lynn marveled at his devotion. He was a jewel, all right, but he was no kid. How much longer could he keep working? Every spring she had to train a new batch of local teens because her prior employees had either grown up and moved away or sought better-paying, year-round jobs. Trying to operate both the campground and canoe rental without Will's steady support seemed like an impossible task.
She huffed in disgust. If the vandalism kept on as it had been—or escalated—she might not have to worry about doing without Will. There wouldn't be any business left to run.
Once in Serenity, Trudy Lynn decided to stop at Becky Malloy's to unwind before driving back to camp. She knocked on the screen door of the old stone house and was welcomed with a pleasant, "Come on in! I'm in the kitchen."
"It's just me." She pushed open the screen. "Mmm. Smells good in here. Has your aunt Effie been borrowing your fancy oven to bake again?"
Becky stuck her head around the corner from the kitchen. "Hi there! Nope, I'm the one making the mess. I hope my cookies turn out as good as Effie's always do. I've got company coming tonight."
"In that case, I won't keep you," Trudy Lynn said. "I just stopped by for a little commiseration."
"I'm getting real good at that. Never dreamed how often I'd be called on to help people now that I'm a pastor's wife. I'm busier than when I was church secretary."
"How's Logan doing? As a preacher, I mean."
"As well as can be expected. There'll always be problems. All churches have them, even Serenity Chapel." She tittered. "Congregations would get along a lot better if they were made up of perfect saints. Unfortunately, there aren't any of those available."
"Amen. Which reminds me of why I stopped by," Trudy Lynn said. "We were vandalized again last night."
"No way!" Her friend's mouth fell open. "What happened?"
"Somebody knocked holes in more of my canoes. I just dropped off the rest of the new ones at the storage yard over on Highway 395."
"That's unbelievable. What did the sheriff say this time?"
"I haven't told him yet. Why hurry? He never finds any clues. I figured I'd stop by his office while I'm in town and fill him in."
"Do you want me to ask Logan to look into it for you?" Becky asked.
"And distract him from his church work? Absolutely not. He's not a detective anymore. Besides, he never did have connections around here—and I doubt anybody back in Chicago has it in for me."
"You're probably right about that." A timer dinged and Becky went to the oven to remove a sheet of finished cookies and replace it with another that was ready to bake. "Well, if you change your mind, all you have to do is ask," she said, resetting the timer.
"I know. Thanks." Trudy Lynn eyed the tray. "I could be talked into tasting a few of those if you have extra. I was so upset I forgot to eat breakfast."
"How about having a cup of tea with me, too? I need a break. I've been at this all morning."
"Sure." Trudy Lynn got two mugs from the cupboard and added tea bags while her friend put a kettle of water on to boil. "So, who are you expecting? Must be important to make you go to all this trouble. You hate cooking."
"I can do anything if I set my mind to it. Dad told me oatmeal raisin cookies are Cody's favorite so I made lots."
"Cody? Your brother's coming?" She felt the flush of her reddening cheeks. "I thought he was long gone."
"He was." Sighing, Becky joined her at the table.
"He got hurt."
"Oh, no! When?" Trudy Lynn immediately reached for her friend's hand. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't even hear about it until yesterday. I guess Cody didn't want anybody to feel sorry for him. Dad didn't find out till Cody called and asked if he could spend a few weeks recuperating at his place."
"How badly was he hurt?"
"Bad enough. His leg was broken. But that's not the worst part. When he told his girlfriend he might always have a little trouble getting around, she ditched him."
"The one he told everybody he was going to marry? That's awful!"
"No kidding. Dad says he's really down in the dumps. That's why I invited him here. My father's at work all day and Cody has nothing to do at Dad's condo but brood about everything he's lost. I figure, if he's here with Logan and me, we can at least keep his mind occupied."
"What about physical therapy? Won't that help?"
"It probably would if he hadn't refused to keep doing it." Becky made a face. "He is one stubborn Viking."
"I'd never thought of him that way before. He does kind of look like paintings of Eric the Red. So do you." She blushed. "The reddish-blond hair part, I mean, not the Viking-raider-swinging-a-sword part."
"Glad we got that straightened out." Becky was chuckling. "Why don't you stop by for supper tonight? Dad will be here and I've already invited Carol Sue to keep him company. We could use a fourth. You liked Cody when you met him, didn't you?"
"Then come. Will won't mind babysitting your camp for a few hours. I don't expect the party to last long. Dad wants to head back up north and Cody'll probably be worn-out, especially after the long drive."
"What if he's not up to being in a crowd?"
"Then I'll just wag my finger in his face and tell him to get over himself, like any spoiled baby sister would." Her smile grew. "I'll probably get away with it, too, since we don't have a lot of history together. At least I hope I will."
Trudy Lynn thought back to Becky's odd past, being kept away from her brother and father because of her mother's lies. She took a bite of warm cookie and chewed thoughtfully before answering, "I hope so, too."