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Connor MacKenzie slid his rental car into the gravel driveway behind the old log cabin and was pulling the keys out of the ignition when the cheap metal key ring scraped against his palm. He swore as it bit into the bumpy, scarred flesh, skin that still felt too tight every time he flexed his hands or made a fist.
Still, today was one of the good days. All through the flight and the two-hour drive from the airport through winding back roads he’d been able to feel everything he touched.
The worst days were the ones where the numbness won. Days when it took everything in him to fight back the angry roars, when he felt like a wounded lion crammed into a four-by-four-foot cage in some zoo, just waiting for the chance to escape and run free again. To be whole and king of the jungle again.
His hand stung as he pulled off his seat belt and slammed the driver’s-side door shut. He needed to get out to where he could see the water, breathe it in. Calm the fuck down. Get a grip.
This lake, deep in the heart of the thick Adirondack woods, would set him straight.
It had to.
He’d come from another lake, from twelve years in California’s Lake Tahoe fighting wildfires. But he couldn’t stay there another summer, couldn’t stand to watch his brother and friends head out to fight fire after fire while he went to physical therapy and worked with rookies in the classroom, teaching them from books and trying not to notice the way they stared at the thick scars running up and down his arms from his multiple grafts.
Coming to Blue Mountain Lake had been his brother’s idea. “Dianna and I want to get married at Poplar Cove end of July,” Sam had said. They’d been planning a big wedding for late fall, at the end of fire season, but now that Dianna was pregnant, their schedule had moved up several months. “After all these years, especially with Gram and Gramps down in Florida full-time, I’m sure the cabin needs work. Might be a good project for the next few weeks. Better than hanging around here, anyway.”
Connor had wanted to camp outside the Forest Service headquarters until they agreed to sign his umpteenth round of appeal papers, the papers that would put him back on his Tahoe Pines hotshot crew. He’d been jumping through one Forest Service hoop after another for two long years, working like hell to convince the powers that be that he was ready—both mentally and physically—to resume his duties as a hotshot. Up until now they’d said there was too much risk. They thought it was too likely that he’d freeze, that he might not only take himself out, but a civilian too.
Bullshit. He was ready. More than ready. And he was sure this time his appeal would be approved.
But he could see what Sam was saying. Getting at the log cabin with a saw and hammer and paintbrush, running the trails around the lake and going for long, cool swims might do something to settle the agitation that had been running through his veins for two years.
Things were going to be different here. This summer was going to be better than the last, a sure bet it would be a hell of a lot better than the two that he’d spent in a hospital.
This summer the monkey that had latched itself onto his back, the persistent monster that had been slowly but steadily strangling Connor, was going to finally hop off and leave him the fuck alone.
Moving off the gravel driveway, Connor walked past the grass and through the sand until he was at the water’s edge. He looked out at the calm lake, the perfectly still surface reflecting the thick white clouds and the green mountains that surrounded it, waiting for the release in his chest, for the fist to uncoil in his gut.
A cigarette boat whipped out from around the point and into the bay, creating a huge wake on the silent midday shore, and the cold water splashed high, up over Connor’s shoes, soaking him to the knees.
Who was he trying to kid? He wasn’t here for laughs this summer. He was here to push past the lingering pain in his hands and arms.
He was here to force himself into peak physical shape, to prove his worth to the Forest Service when he got back to California after Sam’s wedding.
He was here to renovate his great-grandparents’ one-hundred-year-old log cabin, to work such long, hard hours on it that when he slept he would outrun his nightmares, the god-awful reminders of the day he’d almost died on the mountain in Lake Tahoe.
He was here to be alone. Completely alone.
And no matter what he had to do, he was going to find the inner calm, the control that had always been so effortless, so innate before the Desolation fire.
Turning away from the water, he stared back at the log cabin. The words poplar cove were etched on one of the logs, the name his great-grandparents had given the Adirondack camp in 1910. He forced himself to look for its flaws, for everything he’d need to tear down and rebuild this summer. The paint was peeling beneath the screened-in porch on the front where the storms hit hardest. Some of the roof’s shingles were askew.
But even as he worked to be dispassionate, he mostly saw the precision detailing his great-grandfather had put into the cabin a hundred years ago: the perfect logs holding up the heavy corners of the building, the smaller logs and twigs that framed the porch almost artistically.
Eighteen summers he’d spent in this cabin. Ten weeks every summer with Sam and their friends under the watchful but loving eyes of their grandparents. The only people missing were his parents. One time he’d asked his mother why they couldn’t come too, but she’d gotten that funny, breathless, watery-eyed look that he hated seeing—the same look that she usually got when she was talking to his dad about his long work hours—so he’d dropped it.
He couldn’t believe it had been twelve years since he’d stood here.
After signing up to be a hotshot at eighteen, Connor’s summers had been full fighting wildfires. Any normal July 1st this past decade would have seen him in a west coast forest with a 150-pound pack on his back, a chain saw in his hand, surrounded by his twenty-man, wildland firefighting crew. But the last couple of years had been anything but normal.
Connor had never thought to see the word disability next to his name. Seven hundred thirty days after getting caught in a blowup on Desolation Wilderness and he still couldn’t.
Still, even though he belonged in Tahoe beating back flames, as he stood on the sand, the humid air making his T-shirt stick to his chest, he felt in his bones how much he’d missed Blue Mountain Lake.
Heading back to his car, he grabbed his bag from the truck, slung it over one shoulder and headed for the steps off the side of the screened-in porch that stretched from one side of the house to the other.
Most of his indoor time as a kid had been spent on this porch, protected from the bugs and the rain, but open to the breeze. His grandparents had served all their meals on the porch’s Formica table. He hadn’t cared that his teeth had chattered on cool mornings in early summer while he downed a bowl of Cheerios out there. He and Sam had lived in T-shirts and swim shorts regardless of the cold fronts that frequently blew in.
One of the porch steps nearly split beneath his foot and he frowned as he bent down to inspect it. Guilt gnawed at his gut as he silently acknowledged that his grandparents could have hurt themselves on these stairs. He should have come out here in the off-season, should have checked to make sure everything was okay. But fire had always come first.
Something grated at him there, so he reminded himself that the bones of the log cabin were sound. He’d heard the stories a hundred times of how his great-grandfather had cut each one of the logs himself from the thick forest of pine trees a half mile from the lake. Still, time took its toll on every building eventually, no matter how well constructed.
Taking the rest of the stairs two at a time, ready now to see what other problems awaited him inside, Connor reached for the handle on the screen door.
But instead of turning it, he stopped cold.
What the hell?
A woman was dancing in front of an easel, swinging around what looked like a paintbrush, white cables dangling from her ears as she sang in a wildly off-tune voice. Every few seconds she dipped into her paint and took a swipe at the oversized canvas.
He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Some strange singing, painting woman on his porch was the last thing he wanted to deal with today.
Still, he couldn’t help but be struck by how pretty she was as she did a little spin before squirting more paint onto her easel and sweeping her brush through it. He was close enough to see that she wasn’t wearing a bra under her red tank top and when she wiped at the damp skin on her neck and the deep vee between her breasts with a white rag, his body immediately responded in a painful reminder that it had been too long since he’d been with a woman.
He quickly filled in the rest of the sensual, unexpected picture. Curly hair piled on top of her head and held with some sort of plastic clip, cutoff jeans, tanned legs, and bright orange toenails on bare feet.
It took far longer than it should have for him to snap himself out of the haze of animal lust that was wrapping itself around his cock. Another time he might have walked in with a smile and charmed the panties right off her. But he hadn’t come to the lake to get laid.
A woman had no place in his summer, no matter how well she filled out every one of the boxes on his checklist.
For whatever reason, the woman was trespassing.
And she had to go.