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The Aerie perched on an outcropping of rock that thrust straight out from the hillside. Its entire front wall was made of glass, providing a bird's-eye vantage point that wasn't for the faint of heart. From the second-floor gallery, Chantal Leduc could see across the lake to the line of distant mountains that held the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. Above it all stretched a wild and endless expanse of sky that never failed to lift her spirits.
The view was only one of the reasons she loved this place. She loved the homey smell of wood smoke that lingered in the log walls, and the solid, here-to-stay sound her footsteps made on the plank floors. There were misty mornings when the lake was a mirror and the air was so pure it tasted sweet. On clear nights, the stars were as thick as the pebbles on the shore. Every winding trail strewn with orange pine needles and each majestic spruce that swept its branches up the hillside had a regal, timeless beauty. Here was the peace she'd struggled to achieve. Here was sanctuary.
None of that would change simply because he was coming. He would only stay a week. She could manage that.
Chantal curled her hands around the gallery railing and peered into the lobby. The boy who looked up at her was all pre-adolescent arms and legs, as eager to please as a puppy. His father was the cook, his mother the resort's accountant and assistant manager. The pair had been part of the package when Chantal had taken over the business, although they felt more like family than employees. She remembered how Henry had been a mere toddler the first summer she'd come to work here. Some of the furniture in the dining room still bore the scratches of his toy trucks. "Yes, Henry?"
"I think that's them," he said, pointing out the window.
She scanned the sky, and her hands tightened on the railing. He'd picked out what she hadn't yet seen. There was a speck to the southeast above the horizon that glinted in the rays of the lowering sun. Though it was too far to distinguish any details, it had to be the helicopter they were expecting. No one strayed this far into Maine's North Woods by accident. "Let your dad know we'll be serving dinner in an hour," she said.
He waved and disappeared beneath the gallery. Chantal could hear the rhythmic thump of the aircraft now, vibrating through the walls and windows. She remained where she was and watched the speck grow larger while she went through a mental checklist. Linens. Towels. Food and liquor. Wood for the fireplaces. Gas for the outboards.
The storage batteries from the solar panels were fully charged and should handle their power needs, but there was also plenty of extra fuel for the emergency generator. "Rustic luxury" was how she described the atmosphere in her brochures, and that's what she aimed to deliver. The Petherick Corporation had paid handsomely for the exclusive use of the lodge for a full seven days.
The request hadn't been unusual. The Aerie's isolation made it an ideal site for corporate retreats. Chantal wasn't the only one who had discovered the restorative powers of this place. She had a growing client base of city-weary executives. Normally she enjoyed providing the means for them to unwind, do team building or entertain their customers. This was what she did, and she was good at it. She should be feeling a pleasant glow of anticipation right about now.
Yet what she felt was too intense to be called pleasant. Major Mitchell Redinger would be on that helicopter. And the knowledge made her feel like an inept teenager, as awkward and eager to please as Henry.
On the inside, anyway. Outwardly, it had to be business as usual. So what if Mitch was on his way here? It shouldn't make any difference. He was part of the delegation from the army that the Petherick Corporation was trying to woo. He would eat the food she had chosen, sleep in one of the bedrooms she had decorated, watch the same sunrise that she did and perhaps stroll the same pine-needled paths. Just like any other guest.
Yes, and that's how she had to treat him. Like any other guest. It had been seventeen years, after all. He might not even remember the last time they'd seen each other.
But she did. Oh, God, how could she forget a humiliation like that? Every excruciating moment of it had been burned into her memory.
"Miss Leduc, did you lock the door to the meeting room? I can't get it open."
Chantal drew in a steadying breath, straightened her spine and turned away from the railing. One of the college students who had hired on for the season was balancing a tray of water glasses in one hand while she used the other to shove against the door at the far end of the gallery. She should have realized at the Aerie, only the guest rooms needed locks.
Chantal eyed the wavering glasses as she hurried forward. "Hang on, Rhonda," she said. She grasped the knob in both hands and gave it a sharp, upward jerk. The latch clicked immediately. "The wood swells sometimes," she said. "Especially when we get the kind of downpours we had last week. It's one of the lodge's idiosyncrasies."
Rhonda thanked her and carried the glasses inside. She was followed by her brother, Tommy, another student, who was carrying a large bottle of purified water on his shoulder. He installed it on the cooler opposite the long slab of polished pink granite that served as the top of the conference table. The room faced the hillside rather than the lake. Only yards from the window, a living wall of evergreens blended with maples that had been colored by frost.
The room Chantal had prepared for Mitch was at the front, with a view of the water. She'd thought he would enjoy that. And for her own peace of mind, the selection put him as far as possible from her own suite at the back of the staff quarters. Cowardly, perhaps. Unnecessary, for sure. He was no more likely to care whether he saw her now than he had cared seventeen years ago.
She gave the meeting room a quick scan to ensure there were sufficient chairs, though there would be only nine in the party, then headed for the back staircase and went to check on the progress in the kitchen. By the time she walked into the lobby, the helicopter was practically level with the front windows. The black-and-gold logo of the Petherick Corporation flashed from its gleaming-white fuselage as it did a hovering turn to line up for its landing. She pressed her palm to her stomach, annoyed to feel butterflies.
That was how Mitch always used to affect her. He'd been tall, dark and as dashing as any young girl could dream. A romantic hero who had come to life in an army uniform. In her eyes he'd been perfect.
Of course, the reality had been something else entirely, she thought, pulling on her jacket as she stepped outside. No man could have lived up to the expectations she'd put on him. In her head, she knew that. She understood it wasn't fair to resent Mitch simply because he hadn't shared her fantasy.
But he'd been her first love…and the first man to break her heart. No woman ever forgot that. How on earth was she supposed to pretend indifference?
"I learned about this place from my cousin." Graham Petherick leaned closer to Mitch and shouted into his headset over the noise of the engine. "He spent two weeks here this past June, said the togue practically jumped into his boat. That's what the locals call lake trout."
Mitch craned his neck to look out the window. There was a wooden dock and what appeared to be a boathouse at the lakeshore. A long, switchbacking staircase rose from the water's edge to a large building constructed mainly of logs and glass. Like the staircase, the structure appeared to cling to the bare rock. An observation deck jutted from one side while a mix of maples and pine cloaked the hill on the other where the slope was less steep. Although, to call it a hill didn't do it justice. Before it had been worn down by glaciers and a few millennia of weather, it would have been a mountain. "I didn't know you were a fisherman," he said.
Graham laughed. "I'm not. Never saw the appeal of trying to outwit a fish. I'll take a rifle over a fishing rod any day."
That figured, Mitch thought. Graham had made his first million more than four decades ago manufacturing firearms. He was currently building another fortune by producing far more powerful—and more expensive—firepower for the U.S. Military. He was a good businessman and never failed to deliver high-quality products. Much of the Petherick Corporation's success was due to its policy of understanding what the customer needed ahead of time.
That was the purpose of this week in the North Woods with the company's top executives. It wasn't about sales, it was about determining the next direction the development department should take. From what Mitch had understood, they were looking into a new signal-dampening device that could neutralize an enemy's detection systems. Graham had invited Mitch and three other army officers because he'd expected to pick their collective brains, not their wallets. Not at this stage, anyway.
The helicopter drifted over the roof of the lodge and headed toward a cleared area on the crest of the hill above where a white circle had been painted on the rock. Moments later, the landing gear bumped against the ground. Graham buttoned a red-and-black plaid jacket over his paunch, slapped Mitch on the shoulder and moved toward the exit door. "Grab your gear, ladies and gentlemen," he shouted. "My pilot wants to get back by nightfall, so once this bird leaves, we're on our own."
The men and women from Petherick Corporation who had accompanied Graham didn't appear as enthusiastic about their destination as their boss did. They consisted of two vice presidents, the company comptroller and the director of research, and they looked as if they'd come straight from the office. The backwash from the prop blades tore at their suits as they ducked their heads and dragged their wheeled suitcases across the rocky hilltop.
The army men were dressed in more casual clothes. From what Mitch had heard, the general and both of the colonels who'd been invited on this trip often consulted with the Petherick Corporation. They spent most of their time riding desks at the Pentagon. He'd hate being saddled with a duty like that—he far preferred to be in the field with his men. Since this was Mitch's first time at one of Graham's brainstorming sessions, he hadn't met these officers before today. He wasn't familiar with anyone here except Graham.
And Chantal Leduc.
It had been almost two decades since he'd seen her. He'd been surprised to learn she'd ended up at a resort in Maine, of all places. That was a puzzle. He couldn't picture the pampered child of his former commanding officer wanting to live in a setting this uncivilized.
The whine of the rotors increased, sending grit and dead leaves rippling across the rock. The helicopter lifted off more quickly than it had landed, did a quarter turn and dipped its nose toward the water as it headed back across the lake. Before the noise of its departure could fade, a slender woman had emerged from the woods at the crest of the hill and walked toward them.
She moved with the easy grace of a dancer, as if she heard music that no one else could. Black denim clung to her long legs and the curve of her hips. A suede jacket the color of chocolate hugged her shoulders while the evening breeze sent the ends of her long, dark hair teasing around her face. Her smile, her body language, everything about her projected control, confidence and poise.
This couldn't possibly be Chantal.
"Welcome to the Aerie," she said, offering her hand to Graham, who was in the lead of the group. "I'm Chantal Leduc."
Mitch tried not to stare. It was her, all right. Her voice still had the distinctive, smokey undertone that he would recognize anywhere. Instead of the bubbly enthusiasm that used to infuse her words, she now spoke with unhurried, perfect enunciation, just as her mother had. Once again, he was struck by how odd it was to find her here. Chantal had adored her mother and had been on her way to becoming a carbon copy of her, but that woman would have been more comfortable on the veranda of a plantation house, ordering the servants to bring her more mint juleps. She wouldn't have been caught dead presiding over a resort in the wilderness.
A loon warbled its howling cry from somewhere on the lake. Several people in the group startled and looked around nervously. Chantal calmed them with a smile and paused to explain what they'd heard.
A boy and a couple who appeared to be in their early twenties arrived to help carry the guests' luggage. Only Petherick's suit-clad people accepted the offer. Chantal politely directed everyone toward a graveled path bordered with rounded stones that led downward through the trees. Mitch slung the strap of his duffel bag on his shoulder. Although she had smiled vaguely in his direction, she hadn't yet met his gaze.
She had to have known he was coming. Was she trying to postpone the awkward moment, or did she intend to ignore him for the entire week? She'd had a penchant for disregarding reality when she'd been a teenager. He wondered whether that hadn't changed. He stepped forward before she could follow the others. "Hello, Chantal."
To her credit, there was no hesitation in her response. "Good evening, Major Redinger." She didn't offer her hand. Instead, she gave him the same, gracious smile that she'd given when she'd talked about the loon. "It's nice to see you again."
"It's been a long time."
"It has indeed, Major."
Major, not Mitch. She was drawing a distinct line. He wasn't sure why that irritated him. He should be pleased. "How is the general?" he asked. "I haven't seen him since he retired."
"My father's well, thank you."
"I heard he moved to Arizona."
"Yes. The drier climate seems to agree with him."
"Yes." She inclined her head toward the gap in the trees and started moving once more. "I hope you enjoy your stay at the Aerie. I'll show you to your room so you can unpack before dinner. Our cook is preparing grilled trout with blueberry sauce."