She used to love him. No, not just love. He’d been her world, laughter, and dreams, her everything.
Then life had ended what had been beautiful.
Except it wasn’t that simple.
Despite her pounding head, Shyla Croft struggled to push her soon-to-be ex-husband to the back of her mind where she managed to keep him most of the time. She hadn’t thought of him in weeks—all right, in days, maybe—and wouldn’t have been snagged by the past if he wasn’t due any minute.
It was her fault. She could have traveled to his place or had the papers delivered to him. Instead, wanting him to see and maybe understand what she’d been doing with her life over the past year, she’d asked him to meet her here. To her surprise, he’d agreed.
He hadn’t arrived, yet. In the meantime, she needed to get more pictures of the Lake Serene area for the brochure she’d been commissioned to produce. She’d been at the remote Montana lake for the better part of an hour but other than bringing in what she’d need in the way of food and personal belongings for a three-day stay, she hadn’t made good use of her time—unless communing with nature counted.
It felt so good to get away from traffic and noise, to smell clean air and embrace what humans had had no hand in creating. To be one with her mountain surroundings. To imagine the lake and surrounding mountains buried under winter’s snow.
As she broke several carrots into pieces and tossed them about the exterior of the cabin she’d be using, she noticed a red squirrel watching from the shade of a Lodgepole pine.
“The carrots aren’t for you.” She informed the crazy-cute rodent. “So leave them alone. I bought a big bag of unsalted peanuts for you and your kin. Let me finish here and I’ll feed you.”
Instead of agreeing, the lively red-brown creature with wide black eyes and a bushy tail scurried to the closest carrot chunk. It picked up the piece in its front paws and started nibbling, its mouth moving in double-time.
“You’re killing me,” Shyla whispered. “How can I be mad when you’re so adorable?”
Mad. Confused. Conflicted.
She’d mulled those words and more for months before deciding she couldn’t be separated forever. She had to get it over with. Give Jes his freedom. Her parents had asked if she hated Jes for his role in the breakup but even when she told herself she wished she’d never met him it had never been like that.
Jes was who he was, just like she was.
She broke the last carrot into pieces and tossed all but one as far from the squirrel as she could. Then she bit into the last one.
“Not bad,” she told her companion. “Your teeth are better designed for this than mine. Thanks for joining me. I don’t like to eat alone.”
The truth was she’d eaten alone for much of the past year and, in many respects, solitude had allowed her to get in touch with herself. If it hadn’t been for the protracted thinking time, she might not be here today with the professional cameras she’d left on the cabin’s front stoop—doing what made her feel complete.
All right, mostly complete.
Just a little ragged and unsettled.
The sound she’d been dreading and looking forward to pulled her into reality, and she faced the narrow dirt road leading to the evergreen-scented, resort-owned cabin. Summer dust billowed up from the approaching vehicle. She’d wondered if Jes had bought new transportation. From what she’d heard, he could. Instead, he was still driving the big battered SUV they’d made love in more times than she wanted to remember.
What else hadn’t changed since the last time she’d seen him?
And why hadn’t he gotten rid of something that had to remind him of her?
Her palms started to sweat, prompting her to wipe them on her denim shorts. She wanted him gone and could hardly wait to see him. She also wished she didn’t care what Jes saw and recalled when he looked at her. Fortunately, he probably wouldn’t tell her. He seldom had.
“That was part of it,” she muttered as her husband exited the vehicle. “You revealed so little of a personal nature to me.” Of course he’d seldom been around but that was another story or rather another layer to what had gone wrong.
The man who used to increase her heart rate every time she saw him paused with his hand on the door. She didn’t blame him for not knowing how to handle this any better than she did. Then he started toward her, walking with long, solid strides, a man who could never find enough hours in each day for everything he needed or believed he needed to do. His gait said so much about the way he approached life, his type-A personality, his drive. At the same time those steps reminded her of when that energy and commitment had revolved around her. When the nights weren’t long enough for all the lovemaking they craved.
Was that the problem, why she hadn’t filed for divorce earlier? She’d been unable to exorcize the intimate memories.
Well the time had come. Surely he was as ready to end this chapter as she was.
Of course he was wearing jeans. She could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she’d seen him in anything else. Like her, he had on a T-shirt but where hers was pale yellow with a multi-colored butterfly over her breasts; his blue one sported the logo for Silent Wheels.
He looked good. Strong and tall. Able to survive the ungodly demands on his time. Masculine down to his core. Light brown hair overdue for a trim. Grey eyes, steady. Large, tanned hands at his sides. Wide shoulders and broad chest stretching the extra-large shirt. No belly. Thighs, hard. Feet encased in dusty tennis shoes. So familiar. Confusing her when she needed things to be simple.
Not smiling at her. Not frowning either.
I used to love you, Jes. It had been so easy.
“You let your hair grow,” he said when he was close enough to talk to—and for her to feel his presence. “And that’s your natural color.”
She nodded. Back when she spent her days in an office, she’d played the professional woman game with manicures, weekly hair appointments, and clothes that said success. These days she either let her brown on brown hair bunch over her shoulders or tamed it with a single braid. Today she’d opted for a braid.
And more makeup than the dash of lipstick that usually sufficed these days because, well, she was going to see him.
Get over it. This is about cutting ties and moving forward.
“I didn’t know if you’d be able to meet with me here,” she said because it was the only thing she could think of. Why hadn’t she realized how hard this was going to be? Get the words out. Make this as easy as possible for both of us. “I just thought, well, the divorce papers are ready. My lawyer said if we could get someone to notarize our signatures it wouldn’t matter where the signing took place.”
“You found someone?”
She nodded in the direction of the lake. “At the resort on the other side. I suppose we could have met over there, but this is where I’ll be working.”
“Really? Doing what?”
“It’s kind of involved but at least it’s legal.”
He chuckled. “Everyone should try that at least once.”
There it was, a touch of the humor she’d seen so little of during the last year-plus of their time together. “Also by our being here, if there’s anything you have questions about in the document I figured we’d prefer to have the discussion take place in private.”
“Yeah.” He grunted. “No one’s business but ours. But at Lake Serene of all places.”
“It’s halfway between where we each live,” she said unnecessarily. No way was she going to let him get her off course. “Besides, the resort owner is letting me stay here gratis.”
He nodded. Just nodded with his eyes narrowing a little and frown lines coming and going almost before she noticed them. “It’s also where we spent our honeymoon.”
Honeymoon. Five years ago. Crazy happy and stress-free, barely getting out of bed long enough to go outside to commune with nature. Believing in a lifetime of love with the man who’d put a small, precious ring on her finger.
“I know,” she managed. “I did offer to come to Kalispell.”
“You could have asked me to come to Missoula.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” She wished she could make her voice stronger. “I’m the one who asked for the divorce.”
His sigh tore at her. “One of us had to.”
It was crazy to think this when it no longer mattered but what if they tried to dig into what had gone wrong between them? But for that to happen, they’d have to talk instead of continuing to hide behind silence.
“You could have set things in motion months ago.” She instantly regretted her words.
“So could you.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“I guess what matters is we’re finally getting it done.”
He’d been looking at her but now his attention turned to their surroundings. A powerful, potent mountain formed the backdrop to the forest and made her feel insignificant. Late spring’s sunlight glistened off the lake to contrast with the vibrant green of the evergreens sheltering it.
“This is incredible,” he said. “No wonder Montana is called big sky country.”
Having him touch on something they’d always agreed about grounded her. They’d come here to sign some papers, not try to dissect a marriage gone wrong. “We didn’t go down to the lake until the day we left. I’m sorry we didn’t. With Mount Lynx forming the backdrop, it’s an amazing view.”
“We were otherwise occupied.”
Had his features relaxed? She’d seen Jes only a half dozen times since she’d packed up her belongings and walked out, and he hadn’t been at ease then.
A year ago she’d been awash in the blame game trying to decide which of them bore the most guilt, but twelve months had changed her. Sanded away the sharp edges and made her less defensive. This wasn’t the time or place to start up again. They’d talk about wilderness sunsets and sunrises, safe things.
“Are you in a hurry to get back?” she asked.
She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. It would be easier on her nervous system if she didn’t have to spend more time with him than necessary but he loved Montana’s back country as much as she did. Besides, she might never have reason to talk to him again after today. The thought tightened her throat.
“That’s good,” she said. “It was a long drive for you.”
“Less than two hours.”
What did you think about during those nearly two hours? “Ah, I’ll bet you’d like to stretch your legs. How do you feel about coming down to the dock with me? I want to take some pictures while the sun’s overhead.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“I don’t understand.”
Do you want to? “I’ve been hired by the lodge owner to design a new brochure to highlight the extensive improvements he’s having done.”
“You have? So what—will you need to come back during different seasons?”
“I’m not sure. It depends on the quality of the pictures the resort has in their files. I want at least one great winter shot.”
“That makes sense.”
Instead of asking more about her job, he rammed his hands into his back pockets and started toward the lake. After studying his retreating form, she made a detour to grab one of her cameras and caught up with him. She didn’t know why she’d asked him to keep her company. Darn it, hadn’t living with him taught her how sinfully masculine and irresistible he was? How impenetrable.
Glutton for punishment maybe? Playing with fire? More like crazy confused all over again. Ending a romantic relationship was so darned complicated.
The Lake Serene Resort was barely visible from here. Except for the one she was staying in, the fifty some cabins on this side of the lake were privately owned. The owners leased the land from the Forest Service. Everyone used wood heat and either had wells or got their water from the lake. There were no lawns, no garages, no landlines. The lake froze over every winter and ice subjected the docks to incredible pressure. The one Jes and she were on listed to the left.
A few whitecaps chased over the water, rocking the dock enough that she had to stand straddle-legged as she looked out at miles and miles of unspoiled quiet. It could have been hundreds or thousands of years ago. Even tens of thousands of years ago, she amended as she studied the great mountain beyond the lake.
“Mount Lynx,” she said because Jes was too close and she needed to distract herself from him. “It stands guard over the area. The sharp top makes me think of the Washington Monument.”
“It challenges people to climb it.”
Jes wasn’t a philosophical man. He designed, constructed, worked. Turned his long held dream of adding solar power to bicycles into the business that had claimed most of his waking hours.
“Do you think you could?” she asked. “Climb Lynx that is.”
“Not until I’m in better shape.”
Until? Was he considering it? “You’re in good shape.” Better than I’m comfortable dealing with.
“I haven’t climbed for years.”
He’d once explored the Rocky Mountains with his dad, loving the time the two of them had spent together in the wilderness. Tragically, when Jes was fifteen, Jake Croft’s motorcycle had lost an argument with a semi, and the boy had had to finish growing up without him. She’d tried several times to get him to talk about how the loss had impacted him, but he hadn’t said much.
“Do it,” she blurted. “For your dad.”
Jes stood next to her on the rocking dock with his legs also far apart, the wind in his longish hair, his capable hands still in his back pockets, and his gaze locked on the imposing mountain.
“I might,” he whispered. “I think it wants me to.”
“Maybe it does,” she barely got out. She’d never heard him say something like that. “I’m sure your dad would.”
End of Excerpt