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Water exploded from the split in the pipe and soaked Alisha Hearne’s dirty jeans. “Of course,” she muttered as she jumped back.
She was in danger of totally losing it today. Stressed didn’t begin to explain how she felt. She hurried into the cabin, opened the small door to the electrical panel, and pulled out the fuse that controlled the well. After turning the old fuse to the OFF position, she reinserted it. With water no longer being pumped through the antiquated galvanized iron lines, she went back outside to get a closer look at the damage. Between her wet jeans, some snow on the ground, and a breeze that carried cold air down from Mount Lynx, she should have put on a jacket.
The split started where the pipe went under the cabin. She didn’t want to think about how far it might extend into the laughingly-called crawl space or whether there was more than one split in the line.
Well, she told herself as she shook off her jeans and positioned herself so the sun reached her back, did she expect anything different? She hadn’t been to the cabin, located in Montana’s Flathead National Forest, since last fall and then only briefly. More to the point, the pipes had been subjected to winter’s sub-zero temperatures since they’d been put in back in the 1940s. They were breaking down. Also, any water left in the line would freeze and expand. At least she’d had the forethought to bring several jugs of water with her. She could turn off the valve between the pump and house, attach a hose to the pump, and have access to water that way.
Instead of dealing with yet another repair, she’d love to go for a long walk along the lake, to watch daylight end and night engulf this beautiful place. There were only a handful of cabins at this side of the lake, and the people who owned them were respectful of their neighbors’ space and desire for quiet. That was what she’d love to try for a change of pace, quiet. Peace.
A high-powered screaming distracted her from her immediate problem. The sound was coming from Lake Serene some fifty yards away, a boat going over the fifteen-miles-per-hour speed limit. Accompanied by the now awake Bruce, her eighty-pound mutt who’d been dozing in the sun and didn’t care that pine needles were sticking to his short, black coat, she headed for the dock, jumping over water streaming from melting snow as she did. Except for the berms around the cabin, most of last winter’s snowpack had melted. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to drive to the one place where her mother had felt at peace.
Not thinking about that now…
The dock listed so far to her right she remained safely on the bank. No way could she straighten the dock on her own. She’d stopped by the resort and asked the manager if he could recommend one of his employees to do the work. He’d offered to send someone over to look at her project. Even though the resort’s new owner had sent an email to every cabin owner letting them know he was anticipating a mutually beneficial relationship, she didn’t expect anyone to show up so soon.
Bruce looked around for a dry spot and gingerly lowered his rear end to the ground. Three pine trees had lost their hold on the bank and fallen into the lake. They provided waterfowl with perches but she’d have to find a way to haul them to shore and cut them up so she’d have firewood.
Add it to the list.
Feeling overwhelmed, which she hated, she stared at the ground. As a child, Lake Serene had been her idea of the perfect getaway. Having to wear her grown-up hat was another story.
Sighing, she shielded her eyes and stared out at the still body of water that three weeks ago had been covered with snow and ice. Even with the irritating sound, she mentally slipped back to lazy afternoons spent fishing here with her mother. They’d bonded over trout, bragging rights, and whose turn it was to clean their catch. As for whether her mother had wished their conversations had gone deeper—no, she wouldn’t go there.
The offending boat appeared. Whoever was pushing the motor’s limits was kicking up an impressive spray of white as he entertained himself by creating figure eights. At least he wasn’t at the lake’s south end with its fish-rich deep hole and the Silent Creek inlet where fishermen were undoubtedly planning his demise. She didn’t understand someone who wasn’t cued into those around him and only cared about himself.
She let out a yelp and whirled to face the speaker behind her.
“Sorry. Guess you didn’t hear me for all the noise that fool’s making.”
“Doc!” she exclaimed as she hurried to the lakefront path where her closest neighbor was leaning on his trademark walking stick. Bruce was already sniffing Doc’s coveralls. So much for warning her of intruders. She hugged the man she’d turned to more than once for tools, advice, and the occasional handyman service. Doc, a retired dentist, had understood that her mother hadn’t always been able to pull herself together enough to tackle repairs. He’d gone out of his way to help Alisha in ways that went way beyond supplying nails and paint brushes.
By putting hammers and saws in her hands, Doc had played an important role in the strong, independent woman she’d become.
“I was hoping I’d see you.” Doc hugged her back. “Our family’s so grateful to you.”
“I was just doing my job,” she said. They both knew it was more than that.
“You worked your tail off. When I think of what might have happened if I hadn’t thought to call you—you stopped my daughter and her husband from getting into a financial disaster with that house they almost signed on.”
“It was in bad shape. Your instincts about the seller and his agent downplaying defects were right.”
Doc smiled. “Carolyn is my baby girl, always will be. She thought I was being overprotective until you told them the same thing. What we’re most grateful for is how much time you devoted to finding them a place they could afford.”
“They’re happy with it?” She saw no point in telling Doc she seldom handled residential properties. She’d found advocating for Carolyn and her husband to be deeply satisfying—worth the arguments with her father.
“They’re delighted, especially since Rance didn’t have to change schools. And with my son-in-law gone as much as he is, it eases my mind knowing my baby’s in a safe neighborhood in a house without any question of asbestos.” Still smiling, Doc studied her. “So how’ve you been?”
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Okay. I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch better this winter. I meant to.”
He squeezed her arm. “Your dad died. I knew you had your hands full.” He jerked his head at the lake. “This is the third afternoon that moron’s been at it. I’m guessing he works at the resort. Can’t be a cabin owner or guest. We know better.”
The resort consisted of a lodge that included a restaurant, meeting rooms, bar, and the reservation office for the motel rooms, cabins, and studios that were clustered around the lodge. The complex was more than a mile away by boat and over four by vehicle. Except for at night when she could see the distant lights, she was barely aware of the commercial establishment’s existence.
“Have you seen what they’re doing there?” Doc scratched the top of Bruce’s head. “There’s some serious work going on.”
“I went there on my way here a few hours ago. After seeing the picture you emailed me of the dock yesterday, I enquired about hiring one or more of the workmen to repair it.”
“Good thinking. As extensive as the resort remodeling is, there’s probably some experienced tradespeople. Did you take the grand tour?”
“No. I wanted to get the cabin open and aired out.”
“Bet it was musty.” Doc shook his head. “I still have a key. If I’d known you were coming, I could have taken off the shutters and put on the screens so you could have the windows open. I was inside, otherwise, I would have heard you drive in.”
She looked in the direction of the cabin Doc and his wife had bought when their children were little. She could barely see it for the evergreens between the two lots. Ponderosa pines and other seedlings fought for every inch of soil not taken up by mature trees. Beautiful as they were, the evergreens also represented a fire danger in summer and needed to be thinned.
Another item for her must-do list.
“The access road has more ruts than I remember,” she said. “Not that I’m complaining. Not having it paved keeps most visitors away from us.”
“That might change if the new owner has his way. He’s going to do everything short of putting up billboards saying this way to Lake Serene.”
“You’re exaggerating. The Forest Service would never allow billboards.”
“What I’m saying is it’s going to be different.”
She knew a little about the proposed improvements the well-heeled owner intended to implement. Some, like allowing water skiing on a lake known primarily for its fishing, would never fly. Of course if she decided to sell, it wouldn’t affect her.
“Darn it,” Doc grumbled. “He’s heading this way.”
Taking her cue from the older man who’d already started toward the shore, she trailed behind him. Doc was right. The crazy boat driver appeared to be checking out the thirty-some small docks belonging to private cabin owners. At least he’d slowed to trolling speed. At the rate he was going, he’d reach her dock in a couple of minutes, so she planted herself as close to the listing structure as she dared. She didn’t care what had brought him here. She just wanted to give him a piece of her mind about his disregard for what this high mountain lake stood for. She studied Mount Lynx across the lake. Although it was May, the top was still buried under snow and intimidating to her. By late summer the sharp edges would show. She’d never climbed it, but when she was growing up, she convinced herself she could tackle it no problem. She just wasn’t sure whether she’d have to carry a sleeping bag and plan on having to stay the night.
Night, alone near the top of the area’s most imposing mountain. Away from all responsibility.
The motor’s high growl triggered something inside. She’d been under a lot of tension lately and didn’t need this idiot adding to it. She needed to smell what was left of the snow, the water, pine, and dirt. To be renewed.
Now that he was close, she realized this wasn’t one of the nearly-derelict boats she remembered the resort renting out. At least twenty-feet long, it had both a trolling motor and an outboard she figured was least ninety horsepower. Judging by the shiny sides and immaculate pedestal fishing seat, the craft was new. Envy nibbled at her. Being at the controls of the craft would be a blast.
As it eased around partly-submerged trees and closed in on her dock, she concentrated on the man with his hand on the steering wheel. It was hard to be certain, but she guessed him to be in his early thirties. The wind had been having its way with his longish, dark brown hair while his slightly canted nose and cheeks were wind-chapped. He had a square jaw, deep-set eyes shielded by shaggy brows, and a serious slant to his mouth.
Over a blue T-shirt, sporting a motorcycle logo, he wore an unsnapped grey windbreaker that speed had pushed away from a chest made for physical labor. This was no indulged teenager, not this man with his broad shoulders and big, strong, tanned hands. Because he was sitting low in the boat, she couldn’t see his lower half.
Easy girl. Get your libido under control.
“Where’s your life vest?” Doc called out.
When the man didn’t immediately respond, she wondered if he was debating answering. If he gave Doc a hard time, she’d give him a piece of her mind.
He shifted into neutral and indicated behind him.
“Crazy as you’ve been driving, I’m surprised you thought of safety,” Doc grumbled. “There’s a speed limit here.”
The man shrugged. The boat had started to turn away from the shore; it swayed with the waves it had created.
He put the motor back into gear and came alongside the dock. He stood and reached out so he could grab the one remaining cleat. He wrapped a tie rope around it and sat back down.
“This yours?” he asked Doc, indicating the listing dock.
“No,” she said. “It’s mine.”
“Needs work all right.”
The understatement almost made her laugh. “Thanks for pointing that out. Winter’s been a little rough on it.”
He turned his attention to her. There was an intensity in his eyes and something arresting about him, something on the wild side perhaps.
“It took more than one winter to do that much damage,” he said after a short silence. The comment wasn’t judgmental, just a stating of facts.
“Yes, it did,” she admitted. “Are you from the resort? You wouldn’t be able to do a little maintenance on it, would you?”
To her surprise he gave the dock a long, appraising look. “It depends. Are the pilings wood? They might have rotted.”
“I don’t know. I never thought to—I haven’t spent much time here for several years.”
The moment the words were out of her mouth she felt vulnerable. She might have said enough for him to conclude she was alone. Determined to get across the point that she could take care of herself, she walked over to where Bruce was studying the newcomer, and rested her hand on his head. Bruce was a contender for the guard dog of shame award, but with his black coat and bulldog build, he looked intimidating.
“If you work at the resort,” Doc said, “didn’t your boss educate you about proper conduct when you’re on the lake?”
Nothing in the man’s demeanor hinted at his reaction to the criticism. In fact, she couldn’t guess at his thoughts.
“This boat’s built for speed,” he said after a short silence. “It’d be a crime to rein it in.”
“Crime or not,” Doc said, “Lake Serene’s for fishing, not racing.”
“Okay. I get it. My name’s Nate. And for the record, my boss asked me to take a look at this dock. However, I started work at six this morning. Seeing what this boat’s capable of was more interesting than reporting back to him. Are these cabins privately owned? You don’t have anything to do with the resort?”
“You’re right,” Doc answered. “We aren’t part of the resort. There aren’t that many of them, and we look out for each other.”
Nate folded his arms across his impressive chest. “My boss wouldn’t have selected me if he didn’t believe I could be trusted. I can. He’s committed to a positive relationship with everyone who has a stake in Lake Serene.” He looked back over his shoulder at Mount Lynx. “Believe me; I’d never do anything that might lead to me being locked up.”
“Interesting way of putting it,” Doc said. “Maybe because you’ve experienced being behind bars…”
Nate’s mouth tightened. Nostrils flared, he studied Doc who did the same in return.
“I’m going to ignore that,” Nate muttered.
She’d been working for her father’s commercial real estate development business starting when she was in high school and was accustomed to intense conversations but, darn it, she was at Lake Serene, land of well-defined seasons, wood stoves, pure well water, moonlight reflecting off the lake, and sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows, not tension.
When Doc didn’t respond, Nate turned his attention to her. He still looked angry or upset or defensive but not as much as he had a few moments ago. Much as she wanted to defuse the situation, she couldn’t think of anything to say. “I appreciate that you agreed to come over here,” she said.
“Yeah, well.” He shrugged. “I’ve been curious about what’s going on. I noticed a couple of newer cabins but the rest look as if they’ve been here a long time. I figure either the owners pull water out of the lake or have wells. Lake water’s useless in winter, thanks to the ice-over. The access road’s in marginal shape. There’s no fire protection or medical facilities. What’s the appeal?”
“The appeal?” She echoed.
“Yeah. Glacier National Park isn’t that far away. The park’s spectacular, not that Lake Serene doesn’t have a lot going for it because it does.” He leaned forward. Even though a good fifty feet separated them, she felt a connection, a desire on his part for more than a casual explanation. “I’m trying to wrap my mind around what, other than visiting Glacier and the other parks in this part of the state, cabin owners do with their time.”
“Do? For one, we deal with water leaks,” she blurted. “We also hide from tourists and escape the rat race.”
“Plus we scrape paint,” Doc said. “We also chop wood, chase mice out of the cabin and bats out of the attic, replace shutters, screw down ridge caps, clean chimneys, replace old windows, repair siding.”
He frowned at her. “Water leaks?”
“Unfortunately. I mustn’t have gotten all the water out of the lines the last time I drained them.” She shrugged. “Ice swells. Old pipes don’t.”
“You don’t have to tell me. You have cracked lines?”
This was no casual question. He really wanted to know. Maybe she shouldn’t go into details but, darn it, his eyes had a great deal going for them. Besides, if she was going to hire him to right the dock—if he agreed to do the job—she needed to get to know him.
“I’m not sure how much damage there is,” she admitted. “There are some products that promise to seal—”
“They won’t work. To do things right, you need to replace all of the lines with something flexible.”
“You sound as if you know what you’re talking about,” Doc said while she groaned. “Are you a plumber?”
“Yeah.” He slapped at something on his neck, probably a mosquito. “I am. Licensed, bonded, and all that.” He addressed her. “If you want, I can give your husband some suggestions about how to go about it.”
“Tell me.” She didn’t add that she didn’t have much confidence in her ability to tackle plumbing issues. More to the point, she didn’t have a husband.
“How about you show me what we’re talking about?”
“You’re sure? After all, the only thing you thought you’d be doing today is seeing if my dock is salvageable.”
“How about we look at the problem first?”
Feeling a little off balance, she nodded.
End of Excerpt