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Wind, take me away. Pick me up and let me fly. Allow me to float over the mountains so I can look down on them. Make me feel as I never have. Belonging nowhere and everywhere. Content in my skin. At peace with myself.
A grinding sound greeted Kolina Childs as she exited the Lake Serene Resort vehicle she was using today. The noise ended a familiar internal monologue and brought her back in touch with the land. She strained to make sense of it. No doubt about it, it was man-caused.
Darn it! Darn.
She hadn’t seen anyone around the isolated storage-utility building as she’d approached it, which had been more than all right. Solitude was vital to her and rare these days. As a result, she’d been looking forward to spending a few hours surrounded by nothing except Montana’s Flathead Forest’s evergreens.
As the squeal of gears not quite meshing continued, she stood with a stiff, fall breeze behind her. The oversized sweatshirt she’d thrown over her work shirt pressed against her back and billowed out at her sides almost like wings. She was in trouble if the heavy, grey clouds let loose with what she guessed was snow, but it wasn’t as if she’d never been wet and cold.
There’d been a lot of that in her childhood.
No childhood thoughts today. Her past in all its forms wasn’t welcome.
From what she could tell, the sound originated, not from the large metal building in the middle of a graveled area that was her destination, but a small structure at the base of the inner tube run that lay waiting for winter’s snows to bury it under white layers. Curiosity overrode her need to remain with her own company and today’s task; she headed for the structure that had a large, rotating metal wheel at the top. That was when she saw a thick cable with ropes attached to it all along its length moving up the hill, driven by the wheel. She’d hiked to the tree-crowded level top so knew another wheel and a landing spot was up there.
The inner tube hill was a popular draw, particularly with children, once several feet of snow had fallen around Lake Serene. If she was still here in winter—a big if—she’d try it out. Heck, she might volunteer to stand at the top and unhook the tow ropes for those who’d paid to be hauled up. Anything was better than another day of waiting on the restaurant’s diners at the resort.
Well, almost anything.
She’d nearly reached the maybe twenty-foot tall structure when a tall man in a black windbreaker and worn jeans appeared from behind it. The way he filled out his clothes had her concluding he was in good shape. Whatever he was doing with his life, it included a lot of physical activity. She debated going back the way she’d come, but chances were he’d see her and wonder what was wrong with her.
I’m just a hermit. Not exactly but close.
He acknowledged her with a salute and she responded with a nod. The wheel was making so much noise that carrying on a conversation was impossible. When he pointed up and shook his head, she stopped thinking of him as an intruder on her solitude and decided to see what he was trying to do about the clatter. Civilization had its place but did it have to be this intrusive? A half-dozen oversized inner tubes were stacked nearby. Only two were fully inflated. Hay had been spread over the long, treeless slope to stabilize the dirt when it rained.
After another salute, the man went back to where he’d been. Instead of getting her cleaning supplies from the vehicle, she remained where she was. Obviously he was doing something productive because as the cable’s movement slowed, the grating sound became less intense. Then it stopped. Relief!
The familiar whisper of trees caught by the wind soothed her. The air smelled glorious, and if she was careful about where she was looking, she could nearly convince herself she was standing in the middle of the wilderness, alone.
Feeling less antisocial than she had a few minutes ago, she walked around the slapped-together structure. She couldn’t say why she’d decided to get closer, except maybe for a little bit of unexpected sexual attraction. The man appeared to be in great shape with broad shoulders. He certainly carried himself with confidence. He had both hands in an opening with a small hinged door and was doing something to whatever was in there. Before she could decide whether to ask for an explanation, the overhead wheel started rotating again. Judging by its uneven progress, she concluded the man and not electricity was propelling it.
Watching him from some thirty feet away, she realized she’d seen him before. He was one of the workmen who’d been hired to renovate the Lake Serene Resort although in what capacity she couldn’t say. Staff members came and went. Not all were as loyal to the Flathead Forest as her friend Echo Rose who’d been employed by the Forest Service but had recently gone to work for Fish and Wildlife. Just thinking of Echo’s bear-tracking project made her envious. Then there was the wolf.
Imagining being deep in the wilderness and spotting the elusive predator kicked up her heart rate. Wolves represented the ultimate in what it meant to be wild. She’d give anything to see one.
It took her a moment to reconcile herself to what right now was about. Oh, yes, the workman. Echo’s contractor boyfriend, Rey Bowen, was in charge of the resort’s renovation and undoubtedly would know who this man was. Usually she avoided the construction workers because a number of them were rowdy, noisy, and sometimes hard-drinking. They intimidated her more than she wanted to acknowledge. Several had tried to talk her into attending one of their impromptu parties but she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested. Darn it, Montana’s mountains should be for appreciating nature, not crazy behavior and casual hookups, which she sucked at.
Like her sweatshirt was doing, this man’s windbreaker hugged his body. The breeze kept it flattened against his broad back and highlighted no-nonsense shoulders and muscled arms honed by physical labor. His dark hair was so short his scalp showed. She guessed he cut or shaved it himself. When he turned his head, she noted that his stubble hazed his prominent jawline. She wished she could see his eyes. As it was, she was left to speculate which wasn’t hard since he was obviously fixated on what he was doing.
He appeared to be fairly young, maybe late twenties. Obviously he knew enough about machinery to be trusted to work on the lift’s mechanism. That was what she needed, an always-in-demand skill.
Darn it, no! She wasn’t going there today! She was here to clean up the part of the storage-utility building so it was ready for visitors to warm up in during the winter, not beat herself up because, although she’d done many things in her twenty-five years of life, she didn’t want to continue any of them.
A prickling sensation at the back of her neck brought her back to the moment. The man was looking at her. Feeling exposed, she dug up a noncommittal smile. He did the same. So far so good. Nothing to get uptight about.
“Did you need something?” he asked. His hands were still buried in the mechanism.
“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just…”
“Don’t apologize. There. Maybe.”
The wheel stopped rotating. He straightened, wiped his hands on his jeans, and for the first time gave her his full attention. A lot of attention. His eyes were a rich chocolate and too intense to ignore, not that she wanted to. A shiver raced through her.
Shocked by her response to a man when she hadn’t experienced one since her fiancé’s death, she wrapped her arms around her waist. Any second now she’d get her equilibrium back.
“I know you, don’t I?” he asked. “What’s your name?”
“Kolina. Kolina Childs. I work in the restaurant.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” He continued to study her, specifically her eyes. He wasn’t checking out her body. “And you’re friends with my boss’s girlfriend. I’ve seen the two of you together.”
“Honest, I haven’t been stalking either Echo or you. I couldn’t help but notice two attractive women. It’s a common male weakness.” He started to extend his big hand toward her then stopped and stared at his palm. “Believe me, you don’t want that grease getting on you. I’m Terron Sax, known for my strong back and punctuality. Also for misplacing hammers and stepping on the random nail.”
It surprised and pleased her that he wasn’t trying to impress her. She liked his ability to laugh at himself. “I hope you’re up on your tetanus shots.”
“I consider those shots regular maintenance. So, what brings you out here?”
She explained that because there were few visitors at the resort now that summer was over, Melinda, who was in charge of the restaurant staff, had handed Kolina the key to the building she should already be in.
“I brought a shop vac, broom, mop, and cleaning supplies.” She explained. “Guess I’d better get to work.”
He winked. “I can tell you can hardly wait to get started. You’re not going to want to hear this but you’ll need to keep an eye out for mice. I found two nests in the supply room.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course. The buggers are everywhere.”
“Mice don’t bother you?”
“No. Do they bother you?”
He chuckled. There was something intriguing about the sound, a man totally enjoying the moment. “Point taken. I’ll try not to make sexist comments around you.”
She didn’t see asking how he felt about mice as a sexist remark but then she wasn’t much good at the man-woman thing. Usually, she compensated by avoiding getting close to the opposite sex so why did she want this conversation to continue?
“I spent a lot of my childhood living in the boondocks,” she said. “Believe me, I’m used to critters.” She indicated where his hands had been. “Problem solved?”
“Let’s hope so. My technique consisted mostly of putting lubricant on everything that moves. How about we see if the screeching no longer drives us crazy?” He winked again. “If it doesn’t, we could give it a try.”
He pointed at the inner tubes. “How about we hook up a couple of these and let the mechanism haul us to the top. I’m thinking having hay on the slope will make for a slick surface. Kind of like a playground slide.”
Choices. Either she could try to convince mice to move elsewhere or she could flop down on an inner tube and see if she could get to the bottom of a fairly steep hill without killing herself. Anticipation for the adventure made her grin.
“Are you sure we won’t get in trouble?” she asked.
His attention had gone to the top of the slope. Now it was back on her. “I’m not promising anything but I’m not going to tell, are you?”
“No—unless I break something. Then it’ll be kind of hard to explain with anything except the truth.”
He’d been smiling, but his expression turned serious. “I did something stupid this summer. Believe me, I’m not interested in taking any more risks here. I need the job.”
What he considered stupid behavior wasn’t any of her business. Neither would she tell him she understood his comment about needing to pay the bills. She’d spent much of her life putting emotional space between herself and others and had no intention of changing that. In fact she had only limited knowledge of how sharing was done.
The flip side of her dilemma was that he wouldn’t have said what he had if he wasn’t willing to confide in her. She could let him do that, couldn’t she? Get to know him a little bit.
As if reading her mind, he leaned against the slapped-together shed and contemplated his greasy hands.
“Speaking of mistakes I hope not to repeat, remember how dry it was this summer? Fire danger in the extreme range and a moratorium on campfires and outside machinery use?”
“I’ll never forget.” Back then the air had fairly cracked with dryness and she’d been unable to look at the trees without acknowledging how little it would take to destroy them.
The summer before, her friend Echo had nearly lost her life in a forest fire and this summer’s conditions had been eerily similar. Fortunately a couple of storms earlier this month had ended fire season without a blaze. Much as she’d enjoyed the long, warm summer evenings, she now embraced fall.
“Well, like an idiot—a well-meaning idiot—I figured if I used a chainsaw to take down a few problem trees first thing in the morning when what dew there was was on the ground, there wouldn’t be much danger of a spark causing problems. I had water buckets and a fire extinguisher, didn’t tell anyone what I had in mind.”
“Nothing, thank goodness, but when Rey found out he nearly fired me. Would have if Echo hadn’t stood up for me.”
That rang a bell. So Echo had been talking about Terron.
“Hey,” he said, “if you’re thinking my judgment sucks, I understand. I just thought you might like to have some fun.”
“I would.” I need it.
“Great. The test drive wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable by myself. However, before we get carried away, I’d better take the gears for a test run. The whole responsibility thing. You might want to cover your ears in case I’m wrong about having fixed things.”
Fortunately his lubricant work had done the job. The wheel wasn’t completely silent, but it no longer made her think of a giant’s fingernails on a blackboard. After Terron and she watched the ropes go up and down the hill for a couple of rotations, he shut things down. After wiping his hands on a rag he’d had in his back pocket, he tied an inflated tube to the end of one rope. The other end was attached to the cable via a hook. His every movement fascinated her.
She frowned. “How do I get unhooked for the downhill run?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. You ride up the hill. When I figure you’re at the top, I’ll stop things. You’ll have to get off and set yourself free, then get back on.”
Set yourself free. He’d said just what she needed to hear. She’d been dealing with cabin fever since fall chased away the last of summer and with it most of Lake Serene’s guests. When she’d been crazy busy and earning the tips she’d earmarked for a new-to-her vehicle, she’d been able to ward off most of her restlessness. Unfortunately the prime outdoor weather was either behind her or hadn’t yet arrived in the form of snow. Days were getting shorter and cooler, darkness stretching out.
“What?” he asked. “Am I making you nervous? Maybe you’ve changed your mind about—”
“No.” She found it easier to smile again than she thought it would be. “Actually there’s nothing I’d rather do.”
Was the question a come-on? If he was about to spoil what she’d hoped would be a simple conversation with a new acquaintance.
Did she really want the two of them to act as if they weren’t a man and a woman? It was so darn confusing.
“I want to live in the moment,” she said. Need to.
“That’s what I’m all about.”
Interesting comment. None of her business. “I’ve been trying to decide how long I want to stay at Lake Serene. Unfortunately, all I’ve gotten out of that debate is a headache.”
Once more his expression switched from casual to serious. Every time he made the change, he became more interesting. “I understand. Depending on the weather, I figure there’s enough remodeling work here through next summer. Then I’m sure Robert and Shaw will let most of the crew go.”
Robert Chamberlin had bought the Lake Serene Resort and was investing a lot of money in turning the wilderness lake area into a vacation spot. Robert seldom made the trip from Kalispell where most of his businesses were located, but his nephew Shaw was around most of the time. She hadn’t had much contact with Shaw, which, given his distant, reserved nature, was fine with her.
“What do you think you’ll do when you’re done here?” she asked.
He shrugged. “No clue. Right now I’m trying not to buy problems.”
“Something in construction?” She wasn’t sure why she was asking. He might conclude he had the right to do the same thing.
“Maybe. Do you really want to know? If you’re just being polite—”
“I’m not.” Her honesty surprised her. Fortunately, she didn’t foresee having to admit she enjoyed being around him since she didn’t understand.
“Okay. I’ll take you at your word. Electricity fascinates me.”
“Electricity. I didn’t expect that.”
“That’s me, mystery man. I’d like to learn enough that exposed wires no longer intimidate me.” He indicated where he’d been working. “I’m blowing my macho cover by telling you this but what I did in there made me nervous. I was afraid I’d touch something I’d regret. Seeing you helped me relax a bit. I told myself you knew CPR and would be able to bring me back to life.”
“That isn’t funny.” Not funny at all.
The way his gaze locked on her, she wondered if he’d picked up on her somber tone. “I’m sorry you took what I said so seriously. I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth.”
“It’s all right.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“So I’m forgiven?”
“Good.” For a moment she thought he was going to touch her, wanted him to. “Are you ready to throw caution to the winds?”
Not long ago she’d been prepared to put distance between herself and Terron because of what she’d perceived to be his attempt to put a move on her. Now, maybe because he wasn’t trying to impress her, she wanted to draw out her time with him. Besides, she’d probably been wrong about the move thing.
His body was perfect for a physical lifestyle. He belonged in a place like Lake Serene where he was surrounded by wilderness and sometimes unforgiving weather. He didn’t need city conveniences any more than she did. She could see him climbing Mount Lynx or spending a night camping in the wild.
Playing rugged mountain man.
A few minutes later Kolina stood looking down with the pines sheltering her. She could no longer see Terron and wouldn’t until she and the huge inner tube she’d been sitting on were near the edge of the level area and ready to hit the slope. She’d unhooked the rope. There was nothing left to do but get back down on her belly on the inflated rubber and shove off. He’d be waiting for her.
Fear wasn’t stopping her. Heck, she was looking forward to the thrill of doing something different and exciting. Rather, something she couldn’t define held her back.
Something—a presence she’d sensed more than once over the past week.
Confused, she stared all around. Because of the cloud cover there weren’t any shadows. The world she was standing in was a nearly uniform grey, broken by the brown of tree trunks. She wanted back the evergreens’ vibrant summer green contrasting with a clean blue sky. At the same time, she’d been looking forward to when snow transformed the area.
Movement, maybe, to her right and slightly behind her made her swivel in that direction. If it had been over her head she would have attributed the movement to the wind now lashing the trees, but this had been on or near the ground. She liked to read and was drawn to mysteries and suspense but sometimes when she was alone at night, she had to put down what she was reading because a scene made the hairs at the back of her neck stand up. Darn it, this wasn’t fiction. Instead it was, what?
“Where? Oh, please, where are you?” she asked. “Give me the thrill of a lifetime.”
As the seconds passed and nothing about her world changed, she came back to earth. Just because she longed to see one of the predators didn’t mean he’d magically appear. From what she’d read about them, they weren’t interested in coexisting with humans. However, in addition to being excellent hunters and self-confident, wolves were curious. Maybe, if there was one around Lake Serene, his curiosity would get the better of him. He’d try to make sense of her.
That was what she was keying into, Mister Nosy scoping out the crazy-looking two-legged creature.
It was Echo’s fault. If her friend hadn’t shown Kolina the pictures she’d taken of wolf prints found some twenty miles from the resort, she wouldn’t be obsessing about the creatures.
Time to get back on track. Terron was waiting at the bottom of the hill. If she took leave of her senses and told him what she’d been thinking, would he share and understand her reaction? She got why some people wished the carnivores had been eliminated from the United States but didn’t want him to be like that.
Wanted them to be on the same wavelength.
End of Excerpt