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"Please follow the highlighted route" Jenna Gardner tapped the tiny screen on the GPS and silenced the voice of her invisible navigator once and for all. Not only because the high-tech gadget seemed to be as confused as she was by the tangled skein of roads winding around Mirror Lake, but because Jenna was tempted to take its advice.
She wanted to follow the highlighted route right back to her condo in the Twin Cities. "You passed it, Aunt Jenna!"
A panicked cry reminded her that going home wasn't an option. Not for awhile, anyway.
Jenna glanced in the rearview mirror. Once again, she experienced a jolt at the sight of the two children in the backseat.
Silver blond hair. Delicate features. Wide blue eyes.
Jenna had met Logan and Tori for the first time only three days ago. The children were practically strangers.
Strangers who were the mirror image of her younger sister, Shelly, as a child.
For a split second, Tori met Jenna's gaze. Then she buried her face in the tattered scrap of pink flannel that doubled as a blanket.
Jenna pressed her lips together to prevent a sigh from escaping.
One step forward, two steps back, she reminded herself. The five-year-old girl was adjusting to the idea of having an aunt the same way Jenna was getting used to the idea of having a niece and nephew.
"You have to turn around," Logan insisted.
"Are you sure?" Jenna tipped her Ray-Bans down and tried to peer through the hedge of wild sumac that bordered the road. "I don't see anything."
"Uh-huh. It's back there." Logan, the self-appointed spokesman for the two siblings, nodded vigorously.
Under the circumstances, Jenna was willing to give the boy the benefit of the doubt. She put the car in reverse and began to inch backwards.
In Minneapolis, a dozen horns would have instantly chastised her for the move. But here in the north woods of Wisconsin, the only complaint Jenna heard came from a squirrel perched on a branch near the side of the road. More than likely voicing its opinion on her presence rather than her driving skills.
She spotted a wide dirt path that could have beenif a person possessed a vivid imaginationa driveway.
Pulling in a deep breath, Jenna gave the steering wheel a comforting pat as she turned off the road. Her back teeth rattled in time with the suspension as the vehicle bumped its way through the potholes.
Logan leaned forward and pointed to something up ahead.
"There it is."
Well, that explained why Jenna had driven right past it. She'd been looking for a house.
The weathered structure crouched in the shadow of a stately white pine looked more like a shed. Jenna's gaze shifted from the rusty skeleton of an old lawn mower to the faded sheets tacked up in the windows.
Why hadn't her younger sister admitted that she needed help? Why hadn't she accepted Jenna's offer to move in with her after Logan was born?
Throughout her pregnancy, Shelly had claimed that she and her musician boyfriend, Vance, planned to marry before the baby arrived. But when Jenna had visited her eighteen-year-old sister in the maternity wing of a Madison hospital, there hadn't been a ring on Shelly's finger. Not only that, she'd been alone. Faced with a choice, Vance had decided that a gig at a club in Dubuque was more important than being present for the birth of his child.
Shelly had made excuses for himthe same way their mother had made excuses for their father every time he'd walked out the door.
While Jenna was pleading with Shelly to return to Minneapolis with her, Vance had sauntered into the room. The guy might have been a mediocre guitar player, but his acting skills were nothing short of amazing. He'd apologized to Shelly for not being there and promised that she and the baby could travel with the band as their "good luck charms."
When Jenna had asked her sister if she was willing to sentence her child to the nomadic lifestyle they'd experienced while growing up, Vance had turned on her. Accused her of being a troublemaker. He'd convinced Shelly that Jenna was jealous of their relationship and didn't want them to be happy.
The stars in Shelly's eyes had blinded her to the truth. She had embraced Vanceand turned her back on her only sister.
Jenna hadn't seen or heard from her again. Had no idea where Shelly was or even how she and Logan were doing. Until last week.
She'd been sitting at her desk, sipping an iced vanilla latte and working on her next column for Twin City Trends, when she received a telephone call from a social worker named Grace Eversea.
It didn't matter how gently the young woman had tried to break the news, each piece of information had punctured a hole in Jenna's heart.
A house fire. Shelly in a rehab center for prescription drug abuse. Seven-year-old Logan and Tori, the niece Jenna hadn't even known existed, in temporary foster care.
As the children's closest relative, Jenna had been asked if she would be willing to help. She could think of a dozen reasons why she shouldn't get involved and only twovery smallreasons why she should.
Forty-eight hours later, after being granted a temporary leave of absence from the magazine, Jenna had packed her bags and driven to Mirror Lake, a small town where people knew each other's name and each other's business.
The kind of place she had deliberately avoided for the past ten years.
Her plan had been to take her niece and nephew back to Minnesota. But when Jenna met with Grace Eversea, the social worker had explained it would be in Logan and Tori's best interest to remain in familiar surroundings for the time being.
Jenna could see the wisdom in Grace's suggestionespecially after learning that Tori and Logan had run away when they'd heard that she was on her way to Mirror Lake to meet them.
Jenna and the children had already spent several days at the Mirror Lake Lodge at the invitation of Abby and Quinn O'Halloran, the couple who owned the charming bed-and-breakfast, but she didn't want to impose on the newlyweds' hospitality any longer than necessary.
Until Shelly returned, Jenna decided that her only option was to move into the cabin where the family had been living before the fire. She'd been assured there had been only minimal damage to the interior and the local fire chief had pronounced the structure safe and sound.
But now, looking at the place her niece and nephew had called home, Jenna wasn't sure she agreed with either description.
"Are we getting out, Aunt Jenna?" Logan ventured. Jenna realized she hadn't moved. "Of course we are." Forcing a smile, she slid out of the driver's seat and went around to open Tori's door. "You're first, Button."
A corner of the blanket dropped, unveiling a pair of periwinkle eyes that stared back at her with guarded apprehension.
Jenna recognized the look of someone who no longer trusted easily, and her heart wrenched. Within the space of a few weeks the little girl had been separated from her mother and then from Kate Nichols, the foster care mother she'd become attached to, before being placed in Jenna's care.
"It's okay, Tori." Logan patted his sister's hand and the sweetness of the gesture pierced Jenna's soul.
How many times had she comforted Shelly when they were growing up? Protected her from dangerboth imaginary and real?
Jenna mentally pushed the thought away. Her life was different now. She was different now.
She reached for the buckle on the booster seat but Tori shrank back.
"Don't wanna get out!"
Jenna hesitated, wondering if the little girl was remembering the night of the fire. Once again, the reality of what she'd agreed to flooded through her, eroding her confidence. She wasn't a child psychologist. She wasn't even the type of person that small children flocked to.
When it came right down to it, Jenna knew she was everything that two traumatized children didn't need.
But right now, she was all they had.
"What's the matter, sweetheart?" Jenna summoned the bright, confident smile that had taken her from proofreader to Twin City Trend's most popular columnist.
Tori leaned over and whispered something in her brother's ear.
"She's afraid of wolves." To his credit, Logan didn't laugh.
Jenna bent down and looked her niece in the eye. "You don't have to worry about wolves, sweetheart. They stay away from people."
Tori's gaze fixed on something over Jenna's shoulder.
"Even that one?"
Jenna whirled around and felt her knees buckle. An enormous animal, its shaggy coat a mottled patchwork of grays and browns, was slinking down the shoreline.
Keep going, keep going.
Almost as if it had heard Jenna's silent plea, the creature paused for a moment and lifted its nose to the wind.
The wedge-shaped head swung in their direction.
Jenna's breath gathered in her lungs as the animal changed direction and started to lope toward them.
Devlin McGuire had just finished unloading the last of the gear from his SUV when he heard a muffled shriek near the lake.
Definitely human. Unmistakably feminine.
Mirror Lake, both the town and the small body of water it had been named after, didn't attract many tourists in the summer but Dev had noticed lights in the windows of the vacant cabin next door the last time he'd been home.
He had hoped his new neighbors would have moved on by the time he returned, but apparently they were sticking around a little longer. Soaking up some sun and enjoying the peace and quiet of the lake.
Something Dev would have appreciated himself right about now.
Shouldering his canvas backpack, he took a step toward the cabin. Less than ten yards away, a shower with hot water waited. And a porterhouse steak in the freezer
Another shriek. This one sent a flock of crows swirling into the air like smoke from a black powder rifleand carried a distinct edge of panic.
Dev decided the porterhouse could wait a few more minutes.
Making his way through the narrow strip of woods that separated the two cabins, he caught a glimpse of a vehicle parked in the driveway. As he stepped into the clearing for a better look, he stopped short at the sight that greeted him.
A young woman sat on the hoodthe hoodof a sleek, charcoal gray Audi, peering down at something.
At the base of the front left tire, Dev spotted a large animal stretched out on the ground.
Adrenaline surged through his veins and carried him forward. He sprinted across the yard, boots crunching over the patches of sun-scorched grass.
The woman's head jerked up.
A shimmering curtain of silver blond hair parted to reveal the kind of face that ordinarily graced the cover of celebrity magazines. Porcelain skin. High cheekbones. Big blue eyes that, if it were possible, seemed to get even bigger when he skidded up to the car.
"What happened?" Dev ground out.
"It it just came out of nowhere"
Dev wasted a precious second to scowl at the woman. "How fast were you going, anyway?"
"Fast? I wasn't I didn't hit it. I was" A low growl snipped off the rest of the sentence and the woman skittered backward.
Dev dropped to his knees and the shaggy head snapped around, fangs bared around the object locked between its jaws.
Relief mixed with the adrenaline as Dev came face-to-face with a pair of intelligent, albeit guilty, brown eyes.
"Violet, no. Drop it."
"Violet?" the woman squeaked.
"That's her name." Dev held out his hand and received a soggy shoe with a ridiculously high heel in return. He scrubbed a thumb over a tooth mark in the leather, winced when it didn't come out. "I'm sorry she scared you. Violet might be the size of a Volkswagen Bug, but she's harmless."
"It it looks like a wolf."
Which explained why she'd taken refuge on the hood of her car. Sort of.
"Your average timber wolf doesn't wear a collar." Dev buried his hand in the thick ruff of fur around the dog's neck and jingled a pink, heart-shaped tag as proof.
"I thought she was going to attack me."
Dev arched a brow. "So you threw a shoe at her?"
"I didn't throw it. It fell off." She was glaring at him now, not Violet.
Dev was getting the distinct impression that the blame had somehow shifted from the dog to its owner.
Violet bumped his arm, her pink tongue unfurling in a cheerful doggy grin, content to let him clean up the mess she'd made. Typical.
Dev buried a sigh and reached out his hand to help the woman down.
She didn't move.
It occurred to Dev that he probably looked a little rough. A razor hadn't touched his face for over a week and his camo fatigues had been washed in a spring
The breeze shifted and Dev saw the straight little nose twitch.
And dried by the campfire. Yup. Now she thinks you 're a serial arsonist. He scraped up some of the manners that had gotten a little rusty from lack of use. "I'm Dev McGuire."
"Jenna" Her lips compressed as if she regretted revealing that much information. "Just.Jenna."
Dev wondered what he could say to reassure her that neither henor his dogwere a threat.
"I live next door."
Eyes as blue as the forget-me-nots scattered along the shoreline fixed on a point beyond his shoulder, as if she were gauging the distance between the two places.
Now she moved. Away from him.
Dev's lips tipped in a rueful smile.
Apparently that wasn't it.