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So this was it! Allison Sawyer parked in front of the rustic-looking log cabin, turned off the engine and rested her head on the steering wheel of her blue Audi.
"What's the matter, Mom?"
She put on her brightest smile and looked back at five-year-old Dudley. "Everything's fine, son. Just fine." She'd come to the right place. He'd never find them there. With the help of her older sister, Ellen, she hadn't left any tracks to follow, or at least she'd hoped so. She got out, looked around and breathed deeply the Adirondack mountain air. She unlatched Dudley's car seat, and he jumped out of the car, grabbed her hand and gazed up at her with a broad smile on his face. He loved the outdoors, and woods were all around them. She felt as if she was about to burst.
After a lifetime of trying to please first her father, whom she adored, and then her much older ex-husband, now she had to please only herself.
"I don't really have any idea who I am," she said under her breath as she unlocked the cabin door. "I guess I'm in for a surprise." She walked into the cabin, which for the foreseeable future, would be her home. She looked around. Not bad, she thought. It could have been far worse, and the chances of Lawrence Sawyer finding her were remote.
Alexandria, Virginia's muggy summer heat did not appeal to Brock Lightner any more than the garden parties and formal shindigs of his fancy friends and neighbors. He had no intention of trussing himself into a summer, white tuxedo like a turkey stuffed for Thanksgiving, just to escort his unattached female friends, society matrons and politicians' wives to the round of Beltway receptions and parties. When he told them that he was a privateinvestigator, their gazes would sometimes move from his face to his crotch. He had tried to let them know that just because his occupation was sometimes dangerous, it didn't necessarily indicate sexual prowess. Now he was sick of it, and vowed that there'd be some changes made.
That morning Brock locked the back door of his Alexandria town house, got into his SUV with his German shepherd, Jack, and headed for the cabin he'd had custom-built to his specifications in the Adirondack Mountains. The one thing he hated about his mountain retreat was that he'd be without his piano for nearly a year. From now on, when he got the urge to make music, his guitar would have to suffice. As he drove, he envisioned the changes he'd make in his life. For starters, his days as a private investigator were behind him. When he returned to Alexandria, it would be to resume his career as a lawyer. For the next twelve months, though, he planned to write a memoir about his adventures as a private detective.
After the seven-hour trip, Brock arrived at Indian Lake shortly before sundown. He found his cabin just as he'd left it the previous September and settled in. At dusk, he noticed a light coming from the only other cabin within miles and decided that he'd better check it out. As far as he knew, the cabin had not been occupied for the past two years.
"Come on, boy," he said, patting Jack on his haunches. "Let's go." He jogged up the hill wondering what and who he'd find. He rubbed Jack's back, his signal that the dog should be gentle, and knocked on the door. Brock heard someone slip the door chain into place before cracking the door ever so slightly to take a look at him.
From what he could tell, the woman peering out at him was tall. He smiled at her and the door opened a tiny bit more. Shock waves coursed through him as he got a good look at her beautiful, oval-shaped brown face with its flawless skin. He'd never seen such eyes, large, light brown almond-shaped orbs beneath long black lashes. He wondered if he was seeing a mirage. The slight wrinkle that flashed across her forehead gave her a look of vulnerability. He immediately felt the urge to protect her. But why would he want to protect a woman he hadn't even gotten a good look at?
He inhaled deeply and heard himself say, "I'm your neighbor down the hill. I just arrived today and was surprised to see anyone up here. This place isn't usually occupied, so when I saw a light, I thought I'd check it out. My name's Brock Lightner."
The woman closed the door, appeared to test the strength of the security chain and opened the door a little wider than before. "Glad to meet you," she said in a soft, refined voice. This time he got a good look at the beauty before him. Just the woman to take his mind off his work, he thought.
It struck him that she wasn't particularly friendly, or maybe she was just being careful. After all, a smart woman wouldn't open her door to a strange man in such an isolated place, especially not at night. "Nice to meet you," he said. "I hope we'll be good neighbors." There was an awkward silence between them. Then he tightened his hold on Jack's leash and said, "Well, I'll be headed home."
He'd never felt anything like that before. And he knew if she wasn't married, he'd be back there, and not just once. He sensed that she was there alone. If a man had been with her, he would have been the one to open the door, because darkness had already set in.
Allison quickly closed the door after Brock Lightner left so abruptly. His visit raised concerns, but they revolved around her fear that he was someone her ex-husband had hired to follow her. She had remained in Washington, D.C., after the divorce, but avoiding her rich and powerful ex-husband had been a full-time job. After living for short periods of time in North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada to throw him off her trail, she decided to settle in this remote cabin near Indian Lake, off Route 28 in the Adirondack Mountains.
Allison's marriage to Lawrence Sawyer had been rocky. When they divorced, she was given sole custody of their son after her husband was charged with child abuse, a decision that Lawrence regarded as a personal insult and for which he swore revenge. Being a single parent barely thirty years old might have tested some women. But Allison's relationships had convinced her that it was probably for the best.
"Who was that man, Mommie?"
"He lives down the hill. But I want you to remember that you're not to talk to strangers. And if anyone tries to grab you, remember what I taught you to do?"
Allison was startled when the phone suddenly rang. She twirled around and rushed to answer it. "Hi," she said, recognizing the voice of her older sister, Ellen. She sat down. "My God, you won't believe it but there's someone else nearby."
"I've never seen anyone like him. That man smiled and my blood turned red hot."
"You're kidding me," Ellen said with a note of disbelief.
"Well, you won't find anyone like that here in the nation's capital. Be careful."
"I plan to. It would be just like Lawrence to try to trick me with a good-looking man."
"You always said you had the strength of Hercules. Now you can prove it to yourself by resisting this guy."
Allison slumped in the chair. "I am not looking forward to it." She hung up the phone and turned to see her son, Dudley, staring at her with a quizzical expression on his face.
"Is the man coming back to see us, Mommie?" Dudley asked after Allison had read him a bedtime story and tucked him in.
"I don't know. We don't know him, so we have to be careful. Close your eyes and imagine you're on a nice sunny beach while I read another story about the little boy who loved to build sand castles." She read until he went to sleep, turned out the light and went to her room.
Why am I suddenly so awfully lonely? This isn't like me, Allison thought as she lay in bed. She gazed out of her window at the moon, cold and distant, shining through the trees. "He's tantalizing, all right," she said aloud, "but I'm not falling into that trap."
As they usually did on Saturdays, Allison and Dudley got into her car the next day and drove to the only supermarket within twenty miles. When she approached the butcher's counter, she saw Brock and spun around, hoping to get out of his way before he saw her. But apparently she did not move fast enough.
"Well, how nice to see you again," Brock said. "Maybe you can give me a few tips about cooking beef. I'm not familiar with this cut."
When he stood at her door the night before, she had glimpsed very little of him other than his remarkable face and impressive height. Now her breath shortened at the sight of his lean, muscular thighs and beautifully shaped legs protruding from Bermuda shorts that covered one of the nicest, tightest butts she'd ever seen on a man. She wasn't quite sure of her facial expression, but she was certain that a gaping mouth didn't flatter her.
"I, uh I beg your pardon," she said.
He repeated the request and stepped closer. "This is a lot for a guy to figure out. Which steak is tender?" A grin floated across his face. "Maybe it isn't steak. I want something to grill in a hurry that will be tender."
"Try that filet mignon," she said, pointing to the cut of beef. He stood in front of her and she couldn't move away. "Would you mind ?"
His gaze was on her and he didn't smile. Her hand went to her chest as if she could stop the racing of her heart, and still he stared. His eyes seemed to draw her to him. Trembling, she must have swayed toward him because his hand reached out to steady her. He didn't release her and he kept his gaze locked on hers, holding her captive.
"Mommie, Mr. Wood showed me a big dog out there."
Dudley's voice brought her to her senses. "I I have to go," she said, though she wasn't obliged to give the man an explanation. "Come back here. I don't want you near that dog."
"He won't hurt him," Brock said.
"Is he your dog, mister?" Dudley asked.
"Yes, he is. His name is Jack and he won't hurt anybody unless that person hurts him or threatens me."
"Gee, can I play with him?"
Brock glanced at Allison before answering Dudley. "Ask your mother. We'll do whatever she says."
"Come on, son," she said and left without saying goodbye.
By the time Brock finished his shopping and stood outside, he saw no trace of the woman he'd met in the nearby cabin. She still hadn't introduced herself or divulged her name and she avoided calling her child by name. Clearly she had something to hide. Hmm. He'd have to think about that. One thing was certain: she was just as attracted to him as he was to her.
Facing one another in the grocery store, he realized that he'd stirred something in her that made her tremble and almost lose her balance. She had a child, and probably a husband, so he'd better get a grip. He doubted that he had fooled her into thinking he didn't know one cut of beef from another. He'd just needed an excuse to talk to her, and she was probably smart enough to figure that out.
Using his cell phone, he called the telephone company Monday morning and asked that his house phone be connected. "So you're back!" the customer rep said. "For you, anything. It's been pretty dull around here ever since you left last September. You coming to the harvest fest this year?"
"That's months off, Marge. We'll see. How are you?"
"Same old, same old. Only difference is now we got a TV here in the office and a couple of chairs for people to sit in. Did some lucky gal marry you since you left here?"
He couldn't help laughing. Marge asked him that question every year when he returned to his cabin and called to have his phone reconnected. "I'm over the hill, Marge," he said, which was his usual reply.
"Shucks, Brock. Ain't a woman under ninety who wouldn't marry you if she got the chance. Those over ninety would, too, if they could see what you looked like. I'm making biscuits when I get home. Drop by around five-thirty if you want some."
"You didn't have to add that last part. I'll be there. Thanks, Marge, for the welcome." To his mind, Marge offered just enough mothering to make him feel at home, and although she was naturally friendly, she didn't pry. She was probably around sixty, he imagined, and that was part of her charm. That plus the fact that she adored a man she'd lived with for over thirty years and who would have married her if she'd been willing.
He put Jack in his SUV and drove to Marge's house. "Well, don't you look good," Marge said, opening the back screen door and coming out to greet him.
He hugged her. "You're the one. Where's Bob?"
"Come on in. Bob just brought in some pike he caught in the big lake over in Sabael. I cleaned a couple for you. Sit down. Bob's in the shower."
"Have you met my neighbor?" he asked Marge, getting around to the real reason for his agreeing to come to her house.
"Allison? We've met, but she stays to herself. The only reason I know her name is because I work for the telephone company. She'll go up there to the office and pay her bill, but she's yet to introduce anybody to her child. That little boy of hers must be suffering for somebody to play with. He ought to have playmates. I suggested to her that he'd meet some children in Sunday school, but I coulda been talking to the wind."
"Is her husband with her?"
"If he is, nobody up here's seen him. Be careful where you step, son. She's a real looker and she's got good manners, but she's as tight as a drum."
"Why do you think I'm interested?"
Marge threw back her head and released a guffaw. "'Cause you're a young, healthy man with plenty of testosterone. That's why. Here. Try these." She put three hot biscuits on a plate along with butter and homemade jam.
He bit into a biscuit. "You're still rockin', Marge. I could make a meal of these. Why do you think my neighbor shies away from people?"
"You asking me? Why would a young, attractive woman move up here and hide away in the woods with a five-year-old? Every man in Indian Lake has asked me about her."
"How long has she been up here?"
"Since late April. It was still snowing when she got here. Nobody moves here that time of year. People come in the summer."