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The storm took her by surprise. Somehow, lost in a long and elaborate daydream on this sunny, glorious day, Nori Edwards hadn't seen the sky blackening behind her. She was paddling across the silky water of Whisper Lake, oblivious. It should have been a clue when a sudden gust of wind whipped her hair across her cheek. It wasn't. She merely sighed, stopped, braced the paddle on the top of her kayak, and wound her hair more securely back into its ponytail, and kept crossing the bay from Twin Peaks Island.
The distant rumbling of thunder concerned her only slightly. In the two weeks she'd lived here, she'd experienced only one brief five-minute thundershower. The thunder was nothing to worry about, she thought. She'd be home and dry in the lodge at Trail's End before any serious rain fell. If it even fell at all. She was strong and her arms easily fell into the rhythm of her strokes.
She had taken a little time off from the backbreaking work of unpacking, cleaning, clearing brush, sweeping out cabins and unpacking in her lodge, for a relaxing paddle out on the lake. She'd gotten in the habit of doing this, heading out on the lake for an hour or two each afternoon.
When she'd bought this property, known as Trail's End, she'd been assured by the real estate agent that people from Whisper Lake Crossing would be lining up to work for her on the cleanup and repairs.
What he hadn't told her was that every worker, every contractor, every builder, tradesman and handyman from Bangor to Portland was working on the northern Maine highway infrastructure.
Maybe she was going to have to take her search further afield and put an ad in the Shawnigan Sentinel. The town of Shawniganwas nine miles farther down the lake and much bigger than Whisper Lake Crossing.
On the first day she'd walked through the place, she had fallen under its spell. She'd stood on the wide wooden porch and taken in the deep, green smell of the pines, the gently lapping lake. The sun shimmered on it and turned it almost golden. But it was when the agent took her up to the loft that there was no turning back. Log lined, with wide, high, sunlit walls, a massive brick fireplace and cathedral ceilings, it offered a stunning view of Whisper Lake. It would be the perfect orientation for her art studio.
She had stood at the windows and looked out on the lake and thought, I want this place. I have a good feeling about this place. This place can finally be a home for me and my family.
She would buy it. She and her daughters would live in the lodge. They would rent out the cabins. This would be a good place to start a new business, a good place to start over, a good place to paint again.
But that dream would never be realized unless she got some help.
It was getting cooler. She rested from her paddling and zipped her nylon windbreaker to her neck. It was the beginning of June and it was still chilly enough for a sweatshirt underneath. It wasn't the howling wind, two-foot waves and claps of thunder that finally caught her attention—it was the sudden, curious quiet. She stopped, felt a ripple of unease.
The sky to her right was blackening. The distant droning of motorboats was gone. The trees had stilled. Even the birds had stopped their chirping. This sunny, pleasant afternoon on the lake had gone slate-gray and silent. She looked around her. She was farther from home than she realized, farther than she wanted to be. Kayaks should hug the shoreline, not go right out in the middle of the lake. Yet here she was, between the island and the shore.
She located her dock on the hazy horizon and started pushing toward it. She smelled the rain before she actually felt it. Heavy, humid, brassy, it caught in her nostrils. She choked, felt exposed out here, a tiny low-slung boat on a massive body of water.
Thick dollops of water fell here and there. And then the wind started. At first it merely ruffled the lake around her. Gradually, it increased into a snarl.
And then all at once it was bearing down on her and she found herself paddling directly into it. She seemed to be getting nowhere. She zagged a little to the right. Maybe she would have a better chance at the wind if she didn't face it square on.
It's not like she hadn't been warned about the lake. That was a constant theme around Whisper Lake Crossing.
"Whisper Lake," said a woman named Alma whom she'd met at Marlene's Café. "You bought them cottages out there? Them Trail's End cabins? Well, all I can say is mind the lake. She got a mind of her own, she does." And then the woman had gone off shaking her head and muttering, "Bad place, bad place."
Pete and Peach were next. Those two old men seemed to be everywhere; holding court at Marlene's Café, the Chinese restaurant, the post office, Earl's Gas and Convenience.
"So you're the one," Pete had said as he pointed at her about a week ago at the post office.
"The one what?" she'd responded.
"The one who finally bought the place out there. None of us thought anyone would." He spit on the ground before he looked up at some place directly over her right shoulder and said, "Be careful of the lake, then."
The wind whorled around her now, strong and fierce. Rain slashed at her cheeks. No doubt now, she was getting wet, and not just from overhead. Frothy white waves churned over her boat.
She paddled more furiously, wondering if she was making any headway at all, wondering if her new little lake kayak could withstand a thunderstorm of this magnitude.
God, please help me, she breathed.
All around her was sound—crashing rain, slashing lightning, growling thunder, howling wind. The lake was foamy white and no longer snarled; it yelped and snapped at her like a pack of wolves. She opened her mouth in her exertion and tasted cold rain on her tongue. It became harder to breathe.
Her muscles burned as she pulled, pushed, pulled, pushed through the waves. One huge wave rolled right over her small kayak from bow to stern. Would she tip over? What would she do if she lost her paddle? Her bare fingers were cold and cramped and hurting. If only she had worn gloves. She was wearing her personal flotation device, but what help would that be in this cold, cold lake? Plus, nobody would miss her for days. Her daughters were far away at a Christian camp for the summer. And no one else would miss her. She had no one else. Hot tears mingled with icy rain.
The trees along the shore were thrashing crazily, as if the very ground they were standing on had been shaken by a giant hand. Lightning seemed to strike not more than a couple feet away from her on the water. The fine hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and not for the first time she felt her skin prickle.
She began to pray. She hadn't prayed in a long time and so this surprised her.
The lake was the color of bronze and sky turned into the kind of deep blue-black that nightmares are made of. She could barely make out the shore and ended up paddling off course for a little while before lightning lit up the sky enough for her to see her dock. Just up ahead. Beyond that, her lodge. And home. And warmth. And safety.
Dear God, she prayed, please help me. Don't let me be hit by lightning. I need to be there for my daughters. It was bad enough to lose their father. They can't lose me, too.
There was her dock. She was making progress. Just a little bit, but she was going to make it. A little more paddling. A few more strokes. Keep going. She could see her big wraparound porch and she remembered that she had left all her windows open on this day that had started out so sun filled, so fine. She counted strokes to keep her mind occupied.
Ahead of her and a little to the right it looked like a whirlpool was forming. Could this be possible? She skirted around the eddy as best she could and thought about waterspouts. She knew those tornadoes made of water could be deadly.
Another flash of lightning lit up something else. Or someone. A person? Standing astride at the end of her dock covered in a green hooded raincoat and wearing black boots. It was a person, a man, and he was waving toward her.
His hands were cupped around his mouth and he was yelling something that was immediately swallowed up by the storm. She paddled toward him, new hope surging through her.
When she was close enough she saw that he was a big man. A mountain of a man. Water streamed off the brim of his hat like a waterfall. She couldn't see his face.
Miraculously, she surfed on a big wave and foundered only feet from the dock.
"Here!" he called on the wind. "Reach your paddle toward me!"
She did so. He lunged at it with rain-soaked hands. He missed and she thought he would fall into the water beside her.
She prayed her dock would hold. It was one of the things most in need of repair. Constructed of old gray boards with many missing slats, it was somehow anchored to the bottom of the lake with only two stanchions remaining at the end.
She called. "I'll try to get closer."
"Don't let go your end!" he said.
"I won't," she yelled, but not much strength remained in her arms.
She tried again. This time he grabbed it, held on hard and pulled the kayak toward the dock with brute force. When she was abeam the dock, another problem presented itself. "I don't know if I can get out," she yelled up at him. "The wind is blowing me into the boards."
As best she could she reached forward and pulled the rubber apron that encircled her waist and unfastened it from the rim of the cockpit. The entire bottom of the kayak sloshed with water. She was totally soaked through.
He said, "I'll grab hold of you. I'll hold you. I won't let you go."
The next time the kayak pitched toward the dock he reached out and grabbed onto her PFD and held fast. She hoped nothing would rip. He bent down, reached under her arms and brought her up onto the dock beside him. She held on to him while he grabbed the kayak's line and shoved the boat hard up toward the shore. He took the paddle and threw it up onto the beach, as well. He was amazingly strong.
"Let's get out of the rain," he yelled over the wind.
She merely nodded.
"Careful now, careful there," he said, taking her arm. "The dock is slippery. It's not all that sturdy. Hold on to me. There. I've got you."
His voice was gentle for so large a man. And when her feet wouldn't work, when she shivered so much that she slipped on the slick, wet dock, he lifted her up into his arms and carried her. He didn't put her down until they were up on her porch. "Let's get you in and dried off. You're freezing."
She was, but she was also strangely warmed by his closeness.
Before they went inside, she looked up into the face of her rescuer and mouthed, Thank you.
Who was this man who had appeared out of nowhere?
The sound of the storm had changed. The lightning and thunder had moved on a bit, but the rain was coming straight down and steady, and so heavy she could barely see the lake.
She was still wearing her PFD and the weight of it added to her cold. She took them off and hung them on a hook just outside her door.
She slipped off her sneakers at the same time and left them there, too. She padded off to the kitchen in wet, bare feet, leaving tracks on the hardwood.
"You can leave your wet things here. Follow me into the kitchen. I'll get you a towel."
Her teeth actually chattered as she retrieved a large towel from a hall closet and handed it to the man who had saved her from the storm. "Here," she said. He took off his wide-brimmed oilskin hat and ran the towel over his head. His hair was pale in color and fell well below his ears. Without his hat he looked younger. She guessed him close to her own age of thirty-eight, or not much older.
She was suddenly conscious of her own drenched clothes. "I'll just be a minute," she said to him. "Make yourself at home."
She closed her bedroom door behind her. Make yourself at home? Who was this man she had just encouraged to make himself at home in her house? In her room she quickly shed her wet clothes and donned jeans and a big, comfy sweatshirt. She ran a towel over her hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. Her daughters were encouraging her to grow it. It wasn't quite long enough for a full ponytail, but she kept trying.
When she emerged, he was kneeling in front of the hearth laying in wood for a fire. He had taken off his oilskin jacket and underneath he wore a gray long-sleeved cotton T-shirt and khaki trousers. He had pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and she could see his forearms were all muscle. No wonder he'd had no trouble lifting her out of the water like he did.
Pieces of his hair fell forward over his eyes when he smiled up at her. His eyes were deep and very blue. He said, "I wondered if you'd mind if I made a fire. Warm the place up a bit."
"Mind? That's wonderful," she said. Somehow it seemed perfectly natural that this stranger should be making a fire in her fireplace. She stood there for a moment while he silently lit a match to the newspaper and kindling. When he rose she said, "Now, is there something I can help you with? You drove out here because…?"
"Pretty lucky that I was out here. You were sort of struggling a bit. I'm glad I could come along and help. I was all set to get my canoe down if need be."
She looked out of the window. Another truck was parked right next to her own truck. On his, a long green canoe was upside down over the cab. The two trucks, side by side, looked like a matched set. A dog's head peered out of the truck window.
"You have a dog," Nori said.
A slow smile began on his face. "His name is Chester."
"He looks like he's jumping all over your truck."