When Ethan agreed to work at a sawmill his family is purchasing, he didn't foresee getting fired on his first day. He should be mad at the fiercely outspoken female foreman, but something about her seems disconcertingly familiar -- even though Ethan is sure he'd remember meeting a stunning beauty like Anna Segee before.
Anna has never forgotten Ethan -- or the schoolgirl crush she had on him before her father whisked her off to Canada. Now the shy, gangly girl is grown up and back in Oak Grove with a new name, new confidence, and a newly inherited mill of her own. Her superb reputation in a male-dominated industry hasn't come easy, but even harder will be ignoring the sexy man Ethan has become. . . .
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The man appeared out of nowhere, walking directly into the path of the loader Anna Segee was driving. She jerked the wheel to the right and hit the lever that lowered the forks, to drop her center of gravity, but she couldn't stop the heavy load of logs from shifting. Tires screeched for purchase on the frozen ground as the loader skidded into the ditch, causing her cargo to scatter like giant toothpicks.
Anna barely had time to cover her head as she was tossed against the side of the cab, then down to the floor as the massive machine rolled onto its side with a jarring thud. A log crashed through the windshield, raining crystals of glass over her like hail as several more logs slammed into the cab with deafening bangs, drowning Anna's scream in the chaos.
Then everything went suddenly still but for the rapping knock of the huge diesel engine. Anna cautiously lowered her arms. She was alive, apparently, and except for the throbbing pain in her right shoulder, she didn't seem to be hurt. She reached over and turned the key in the ignition to put the beast out of its misery, hearing it cough once before it fell eerily silent. Anna closed her eyes, but couldn't block out the image of the man's horror when he had realized he was about to be crushed by several tons of logs and machinery.
Lord, that had been close.
Trembling with delayed shock and no small amount of anger, Anna twisted around the heavy log wedged in her seat and pushed at the door of the cab. It wouldn't budge. Feeling the cold February air on her face, and realizing the side window had blown out as well, she banged her hard hat against the metal casing as she popped her head out and looked toward the loading ramp. The man she'd barely avoided was just picking himself off the ground, brushing a mixture of dirt, snow, and bark off his pants.
Anna grabbed the tire iron wedged behind the seat. A lumber mill was no place for idiots, and the stupid fool had nearly killed them both with his inattention. Using the tire iron to knock away what was left of the glass, Anna scrambled out the window and climbed to the ground. She waved away several men running toward her and stalked toward the idiot gaping at her, still hefting the tire iron. He took a step back as she advanced, held up his hands in supplication, and sheepishly grinned.
A log suddenly fell behind her. Anna turned just in time to see it roll off the loader, taking the headlights with it and forcing two men to jump out of the way to avoid being crushed. What a mess. The expensive loader was sitting on its side in the ditch, its cargo strewn around it like scattered bowling pins. And to her experienced eye, there were several thousand dollars' worth of damage to the big rig.
She repositioned her grip on the tire iron with a growl of disgust, turned back to the man, and stepped straight into his oncoming fist. Anna's brain rattled inside her hard hat again as her head exploded in pain, lights flashing in the back of her eyes as she crumpled to the ground amid angry shouts.
"Aw, shit! Dammit. I didn't know she was a woman!" she heard above her, the voice backing away. "She was coming after me with that tire iron. Dammit, I didn't know!"
Anna wanted to stay right where she was, motionless and curled up in a ball; the less she moved, the less it would hurt. But as much as she'd like to see the idiot taught a lesson, that lesson might turn into murder if she didn't get up. So she rolled to her side and pushed herself up on her hands and knees, then stood, finally opening her eyes to see four men from her crew backing her attacker against the saw shed. Two other men rushed to her side to hold her up, but she shrugged them off. "Leave him alone," she said through the pain in her jaw. She stepped up to the four men just as one of them drove his fist into the idiot's belly. "Dammit. Back off!" she snapped as she shoved them away.
Anna pointed at the hunched, gasping man. "This is a sawmill, not Disneyland. You can't walk around here with your head in the clouds. Do you know what happens to a body when twelve tons of timber and steel run over it?"
"Yes, ma'am," he acknowledged with a gasped cough.
And there it was again. That grin. Was it a nervous reaction, or was he really an idiot?
"Look," he said, stepping toward her. "I wouldn't have hit you if I'd known you were a woman."
Anna took a step back and pointed at the mangled loader. "That piece of equipment costs more than you can earn in two years, but I had to ditch it so your heirs couldn't sue us right out of business. Now who the hell are you, and what are you doing walking around my mill yard?"
"I'm Ethan. I work here."
"Not anymore, you don't. You're fired."
Anna reached down for her tire iron before she looked back at him. "We don't pay people to be stupid. You're a walking accident, and next time someone could be killed."
"I hired Ethan this morning," Tom Bishop said as he hustled over. Her aging boss wrapped one arm around her, moved her hand so he could examine her jaw, then gave her shoulder a fatherly squeeze. Anna stifled a wince as pain shot across her back and down her arm.
Tom Bishop owned Loon Cove Lumber, and he had the right to hire and fire anyone he wanted. But as his foreman, Anna was annoyed that Tom hadn't told her he was adding to her crew.
"I'm sorry, Tom. I didn't know she was a woman," Ethan said. "And she was coming at me with that tire iron," he added in his own defense, pointing at her right hand.
Tom took the heavy tool from her and gave it to one of the men. "Haven't I told you that piece of hardware would get you in trouble?" he said, sounding more like her father than her boss.
Anna gaped at him. "The man just wrecked your loader and struck one of your crew, and you're scolding me?" She stepped out of his grip. "I'm firing him, Tom," she said with all the grit she could muster. She turned to Ethan. "I want you off this property in sixty seconds."
It was the idiot's turn to gape. He looked at Tom. "She can't fire me," he said.
"Now, Anna," Tom said, looking as shocked as Ethan. "Don't be rash. Maybe you can give him another chance. It was an accident."
"You know my rules. There's no second chances when it comes to safety. I run a tight yard."
"But, Anna," Tom entreated, darting a worried glance at the man in question.
Anna cupped her swelling jaw. She had to get some snow on it soon or she wouldn't be able to open her mouth tomorrow. "It's either him or me, Tom. Your call."
"But Ethan's worked in the woods all of his life," Tom told her. "The Knights own a logging operation on the other side of the lake. He knows his way around machinery."
Anna shot her gaze to Ethan on an indrawn breath. Good God, this hard-punching, devil-handsome, grinning idiot was Ethan Knight? Her Ethan Knight? It took all of her willpower to merely raise a brow at the man who stood as tall as a mountain and looked to be made of steel.
He also looked like he couldn't believe his fate rested in the hands of Tom Bishop's female foreman. "He's probably here because he stepped in front of a skidder at home," she told Tom. "It's him or me," she repeated.
Tom looked around at the gathered men waiting to hear which worker he chose, but Anna spoke first. "Davis," she said. "Escort Mr. Knight to the gate, and make sure he doesn't destroy anything else on his way out." She turned toward the wreckage. "Come on, people. We have a mess to clean up."
There was a heartbeat of silence before a dozen or more men suddenly scrambled to follow her orders.
"Jeeze Louise," Keith said as he fell into step beside her. "You've got balls, lady."
Anna kept walking, not looking at Keith. "Tom needs me more than he needs to worry about some accident-prone idiot. I know it, and he knows it."
She suddenly stopped and bent at the waist, propping her hands on her knees and taking deep breaths. The throbbing in her head was only slightly worse than the throbbing in her shoulder, and she felt like she was going to pass out.
"Jeeze, boss lady. We can take care of the loader. Go home," Keith told her, putting an arm around her waist, obviously afraid she was going to fall flat on her face -- which was fast becoming a possibility.
Anna closed her eyes and tried taking shallow breaths to see if that wouldn't work better. "Is Knight headed for the gate?" she asked, not looking up, not daring to move her head.
"Yeah. He's leaving. And if looks could kill, you'd be one dead foreman right now."
"I'm just going to sit here a minute," she whispered, sidling over to a low stack of lumber and letting Keith help her sit down. "And I think I will go home. See what you can do about righting that loader."
"Are you okay to drive?"
Anna looked up and attempted to smile. "I'll be fine, thanks. I just need a minute."
Keith examined her with a critical eye. "That was a mean punch he threw. Your jaw's already turning purple."
Anna touched her jaw as she looked over to see Ethan Knight spinning out of the parking lot. She also saw Tom Bishop, his face a mask of concern, headed her way. Damn. She didn't want his coddling. Ethan may have caused the accident, but she'd been as much of an idiot to go after him with a tire iron.
"Just look at you, girl," Tom said, the worry evident in his voice. "Come on. I'm taking you to see a doctor."
"No, I'm going home." She motioned for Keith to get to work on the loader. "I'm fine, Tom. Really. I just need an ice pack and some of Grampy's tea."
Tom frowned. "Samuel's tea could skin the hide off a beaver. Don't tell me there's still some of that old rotgut hanging around."
She nodded. "I seem to have inherited a whole case of it along with Fox Run Mill."
Tom rolled his eyes. "Sam must have figured you'd need it, if you intended to keep that ghost camp."
Anna lifted her swollen chin. "I'm keeping it."
"But it's no place for a woman alone, Anna. And don't think I didn't try to talk him out of leaving it to you."
"It's my heritage."
"It's falling down around your feet."
"The main house is sound."
"Which is why the animals have taken it over," he shot back. He took hold of her shoulders to help her stand and held her facing him. "Sell the place, Anna. Save out a couple of acres on the lake if you're determined to stay here, but sell the rest."
Anna stepped back and tucked her balled fists in her jacket pockets. "We've had this conversation before, Tom. My grandfather left Fox Run to me, and I'm keeping it."
Tom put his hands in his pockets with a tired sigh. "It was Samuel's dream you'd come back here someday and restore Fox Run Mill," he admitted. "But you were eleven when he made out his will, and no one was planning to build a resort next door back then. Samuel talked to me just a few months before he died, and said he was reconsidering putting you in the middle of this mess. They're going to keep up the pressure, you know. You can't fight big business."
"Sure I can. By refusing to sign on the dotted line."
"You think that will stop them from putting up their condos? Anna, they'll just build around you."
"Then let them. I have enough land that I won't even see the resort."
"But they need your mile of lake frontage, too. How about the historical society? Couldn't you work out a deal with them, to protect yourself from the developers?"
She shook her head, then immediately regretted it, wincing in pain.
"Then at least get a dog to scare away your ghost."
Anna walked over and picked up her hard hat. "I have a dog," she reminded Tom.
He snorted. "The most Bear could scare off is himself, if he looked in a mirror."
She started walking toward the gate. "I'm not bringing in a replacement while Bear's still breathing. Keith can handle things here tomorrow, Tom. I'm going home, taking some aspirin, and going to bed. I'll be back to work on Monday."
"You need a keeper, Anna Segee."
"I can take care of myself," she said automatically, not taking offense. Tom was, after all, a man. She opened the door of her truck, got in, put the key in the ignition, then looked back at Tom. "Why did you hire Ethan Knight without talking to me first? And didn't his house burn down yesterday? It was the talk of the mill yard this morning. Someone said the Knights were moving into those old sporting camps farther up the lake."
"Then why wasn't Ethan helping his family get settled?"
"I asked him that same question," Tom said. "He told me his dad and brothers insisted he show up his first day of work here, since there wasn't anything for him to do that they couldn't do themselves." He suddenly grinned. "The older Knight boy, Alex, got himself a new wife."
"You still haven't explained why you hired Ethan without telling me."
"I was doing his father a favor." Tom looked down at the ground, then back at her with serious eyes. "Ethan didn't recognize you. Is that the real reason you got mad and fired him?"
Anna would have scowled if it wouldn't have hurt. "I'm relieved he didn't recognize me."
"Somebody's bound to put two and two together one of these days," Tom warned. "Then what are you going to do?"
"I'm not eleven anymore."
"Samuel sent you to live with your father in Quebec because he knew it was impossible for you to live here." Tom shook his head. "And nothing's changed in eighteen years, Anna. Hell, half the men in this town have a history with your mother."
Anna glared at Tom. "You've spent the last three months convincing me Samuel sent me away because he loved me, so maybe you should consider that he brought me back for the same reason."
"He never stopped loving you, Anna," Tom whispered, his eyes clouding with emotion. "You were all he talked about."
"Yeah, well," she growled, looking out the windshield of her truck. "He didn't love me enough to stay in contact. He sent a confused, heartbroken little girl to live with complete strangers, and he never once came to see me. He didn't even write or call."
"That was your father's doing," Tom countered. "Andrè Segee insisted that if he took you, the break must be clean." He lifted a brow. "I don't recall you trying to contact Samuel, once you came of age."
Anna twisted the key in the ignition and started her truck. "I wasn't about to chase after someone who didn't want me."
Tom touched her sleeve. "Samuel loved you more than life itself, Anna. He spent eighteen lonely years living with his decision to send you away. And he didn't dare call or go see you once you grew up because he preferred to live with the hope that you could forgive him, to risk the reality that you never would."
Anna closed her eyes. "I forgave him," she whispered. She looked back at Tom, her eyes wet with tears. "I was simply too stubborn to make the first move."
"Not stubborn," Tom said, squeezing her arm. "Scared. You were just as scared as Samuel." He pulled his hand away and rocked back on his heels. "Ethan Knight was what . . . twelve, thirteen when you left?" He shook his head. "That boy spent the entire summer with his arm in a cast because of you. And even though you've changed a great deal, he'll recognize you eventually. Then what are you going to say to him? 'I just thanked you for rescuing me eighteen years ago by firing you'?"
"Then why did you put me in such a terrible position?" Anna snapped. "Of all the people you could have hired to work here, why Ethan Knight?"
"Because Grady Knight asked me to."
"You can't run a business hiring men for favors, Tom."
"I hired you as a favor to your dead granddaddy," he said, puffing up his chest.
"No, you hired me because I'm the best damn foreman you could ever hope to have."
Tom let his chest sink back into his belly with a sigh of defeat. "Dammit, Anna. What am I going to tell Grady Knight?"
"You tell him to keep his son away from large machinery."
"Ethan's more competent than most men. All the Knights are. Half our sawlogs come from NorthWoods Timber."
"Then what's he doing at your mill? Why isn't he seeing to his own business if he's grown into such a hotshot logger?"
Tom's gaze dropped to the ground. "Grady said Ethan wanted a change of scenery," he muttered, his voice so low Anna had to strain to hear him.
She gave Tom a hard look. "And what would you be telling Grady now, if I'd run over his precious son?"
All the color drained from Tom's face. "Hell, Anna. You saved Ethan's life."
"For all the thanks I got," she muttered, touching her jaw.
Tom's eyes grew misty again. "Thank you for being the best damn foreman I could ever hope to have," he said thickly.
Good Lord, she had to get out of here before she started bawling. She ached from head to toe, and this conversation stirred uncomfortable memories for her. "Go back to your office and shuffle some papers," she gently told him. "And call Grady Knight if it will make you feel better, and tell him to be thankful his son is alive. And tell him that I fired Ethan, not you -- that it was out of your hands."
She closed the door, then rolled down the window. "Oh. And while you're at it, tell him he might want to keep his son away from their wood chipper. Ethan's liable to get eaten up."
She put the truck in gear and headed for home.
It was eight miles from Loon Cove Lumber to Fox Run Mill, and Anna spent the drive trying to figure out how this day had gone so terribly bad. Probably because it had started so badly, just ten minutes after midnight, when her ghost had returned.
Bear, who was deaf in one ear and could barely hear with the other, had slept through the visitation, but Anna had been awakened by a noise coming from the old stables. She'd gotten out of bed and looked out her upstairs window, but hadn't been able to see a thing. She also hadn't been brave enough to venture out into the moonless night to investigate.
Instead she'd crept downstairs, made sure the house was locked up tight, and then taken Samuel's old shotgun back to bed with her. This morning she'd found nothing in the stables to account for the noise, but she could sense that someone had been in there. Things just weren't right, though it was more of a feeling than something she could put a finger on.
Then, when she'd gotten to work, the head sawyer at Loon Cove Lumber had met her with the news that the parts for the carriage that rode the logs into the saw blade were on back order, and their number two saw was going to be down for several days while they fabricated the new parts themselves. And then an idiot -- who turned out to be Ethan Knight, of all people! -- had stepped in front of her loader. If old Samuel Fox were alive, he'd say tree-squeaks were causing her troubles, or maybe those pesky side-hill gougers.
All through her childhood, Samuel had filled Anna's head with tales of the gremlins who lived in the forest and wreaked havoc on the loggers intruding on their domain. As a child she'd sat on his knee and listened to his tall tales -- and had believed the miniature monsters existed. Which was why she still refused to venture outside at night. To this day, Anna was petrified of the dark -- almost as much as she'd been afraid of seeing Ethan Knight again.
Her twelve-year-old knight in shining armor certainly had grown into a handsome man. His eyes were even more arrestingly blue than Anna remembered. And even through his bulky clothes, Ethan's masculine strength had been evident.
Anna had grown used to rugged men over the last eighteen years, hanging out and eventually working in her father's logging and mill yards in Quebec since age eleven. She had four burly half brothers, a brawny and somewhat autocratic father, and three uncles on her daddy's side. Except for a stepmother and an absentee mama who was mostly a memory, Anna had been brought up in an all-male world and had learned to look beyond gender. Usually, she didn't even notice the brawn.
But she had today.
Ethan Knight could make a woman drool in her sleep. And Anna knew her anger had been as much at herself for noticing his looks as it had been at his stupid stunt. Her first reaction, upon seeing him step in front of her rig, was that she'd gladly ditch the loader before she'd harm one hair on his beautiful body. Why had that popped into her head?
Anna feared it was genetic, that her mother's legacy was instilled in her so deeply, her true nature had inadvertently spilled out. But she had successfully fought her hormones since puberty, so why had they surfaced today? And why with Ethan Knight of all people?
Anna refused to dwell on the reasons.
She finally stopped her truck in front of the main house of Fox Run Mill, shut off the engine, and with a sigh, rested her forehead on the steering wheel. Lord, she ached. Her jaw was throbbing so painfully, she feared several teeth might be loose. Ethan Knight sure did pack a powerful wallop.
The scratch of tiny claws on the windshield and flutter of tiny wings on the glass made Anna look up to find Charlie perched on the wiper. The tiny chickadee tapped on the windshield with his beak, and Anna smiled, only to grab her jaw with a moan. She opened the door and slid out of the truck, and Charlie landed on her head.
"I don't have any seed, little one," she told her tiny friend, who was now working his way down her hair to sit on her shoulder. "You'll have to wait until we get inside."
Several more chickadees appeared, dive-bombing her with frantic urgency. By the time Anna made it onto the porch of the old house, she was covered with birds hitching a ride to dinner. Her spirits immediately lifted.
These little sprites were the one true constant in her life lately, and appeared from the cover of the forest that surrounded Fox Run Mill whenever she stepped outside, ever present, ever playful, and always hungry.
Samuel must have tamed them. From birth to age eleven, Anna's life at Fox Run had been filled with wonder and discovery, exploring the old mill site of a long-dead empire that had been passed down for generations. She couldn't even fathom how many generations of chickadees Samuel had fed over the years.
This generation, however, had spawned a little daredevil she'd named Charlie. He was the boldest of the birds, and sometimes got into more trouble than his rapidly beating heart could handle. He was constantly wiggling into any pocket he saw, searching for seed. More than once Anna had pulled his panicked little body out of entangling clothes, then had to spend the next ten minutes calming him down.
Still, he never learned. Just last week an unsuspecting visitor -- a developer from Boston hoping to talk her into selling -- had found his shirt pocket frantically squirming, and had beat at his chest in horror. Charlie had spent the following two days healing in a box beside the woodstove.
"Shoo, guys," she said as she walked through the door of the house, sending a flutter of tiny black, gray, and white bodies to the curtain rods. Bear scrambled out of his bed beside the woodstove, his eyes blinking with sleep as he lumbered arthritically toward her.
"Hello, Bear. Anything exciting happen today?" she asked as she sat down in an overstuffed chair and pulled Bear's head onto her lap. He looked up at her with nearly opaque eyes and gave a wheezy woof.
"I know how you feel, pup." She scratched behind his ears. "No ghostly visits today? No resort people knocking on my door?" She tickled his chin. "No historical fanatics snooping through the outbuildings?"
Anna bent forward and kissed his nose. "You wouldn't know if the roof caved in on top of you, would you, old boy? Come on. I'll give you something for your aches, and then I'm taking some of your medicine myself." She slowly rubbed her jaw on his broad head. "You might not have noticed, but I kinda got beat up today."
When all she got for sympathy was another soft whine, Anna stood and walked to the kitchen. Bear's toenails sounded on the floor behind her, letting her know he was following. But before she could dole out the pain relief, Anna had to set out some sunflower seed on the shelf beside the window. The frenzy that had followed her and Bear into the kitchen finally settled into a polite meal as half a dozen chickadees descended on the shelf.
Anna noticed all the acorns had disappeared, and her gaze followed the trail of dusty squirrel tracks leading to the tiny hole cut in the outside wall, covered with a flap of leather. Samuel must have decided that if he didn't want the squirrels ruining everything in sight, he'd better feed them as well.
Anna put some water to boil on the stove, then opened the cupboard. She took down a brown bottle of pills and ran her finger over the name typed on the prescription label. Samuel Fox. Gramps, she used to call him. Anna held the bottle to her chest as she groped behind her for one of the kitchen chairs, sat down, and burst into tears.
"Oh, Gramps," she whispered. "Such a waste of eighteen years, just because we were both too stubborn to make the first move."
Bear lumbered over and settled his head on her knee with a whine. Anna blindly reached out and petted him. "I know. I know. You miss him, too," she said, soothing her old friend's broken canine heart. The kettle on the stove began to whistle into a rolling boil, and Anna gave Bear one last pat and stood up. "Maybe it's Gramps roaming the mill at night," she told him as she wiped away her tears. "Maybe he's our ghost."
Anna poured the boiling water into the teapot and left it on the stove to steep. She returned to the cupboard, put back the bottle of pills and took down the buffered aspirin, went to the fridge and got a slice of cheese, then folded one of the buffered aspirin inside it.
"Here you go, pup. This will make you feel better," she said as she fed Bear the medicinal treat. Then she popped four aspirin in her mouth and washed them down with a glass of water. If she had survived Ethan's punch, a couple extra aspirin weren't going to kill her.
She grabbed an old towel from the rack and opened the back door, scooped some snow off the porch railing into the towel, then tied it in a knot and gingerly touched it to her cheek. A little late with the ice pack maybe, but it still felt good. Back in the kitchen, she poured herself a cup of tea, then made her way into the living room, pushed several magazines off the couch, and lay down with a sigh. Her tea forgotten on the coffee table, Anna fell asleep in less time than it took to get comfortable -- and dreamed of Ethan Knight charging to her rescue that long-ago summer.
Copyright © 2007 by Janet Chapman