Dru Lawrence's uncle Ben came to the monthly meeting armed
with a police report on J.D. Carver. "He's clean," he said, slapping it
down on the long, rustic conference table. "He hasn't been arrested as
an adult, and his juvenile record is sealed."
"You needn't sound so disgusted, darling," Aunt Sophie said,
reaching across the table to pat his hand before she snagged the report
to read for herself. "That's actually good news."
But Dru could understand where her uncle was coming from.
Star Lake Lodge had been a family-owned business for four generations,
and they'd all been shocked right down to their flip-flops to discover
that Great-aunt Edwina had left her share of it to an outsider. And an urban outsider, at that. Edwina had been an absentee co-owner for
so long, leaving them to run it as they'd seen fit for so many years,
that Dru had nearly forgotten it wasn't theirs alone.
"Maybe," she said slowly, "Carver's just stopping by to
get a peek at what he inherited. He probably won't even stick around
and we'll end up sending his checks like we did Edwina's."
"I wouldn't count on it, hon," Uncle Ben said. "I got the
impression from his terse note that he's ready to settle right in and
take up the reins."
Sophie suddenly pushed back from the table and walked over
to the open window. She bent in front of it and held the neckline of her
blouse open to catch the breeze blowing the green-and-tan gingham curtains
into the meeting room. Dru got up and went to the built-in oak buffet
against the far wall. Reaching past a collection of native baskets, she
picked up a pitcher of water and splashed some into a glass. She carried
it over to her aunt, stopping along the way to align an oil painting of
snow-covered birch trees with the other landscapes that adorned the barnwood-paneled
"I don't know much about Carver," Dru admitted as she resumed
her seat. "Except that he was one of Great Aunt Edwina's boys.'
To tell the truth, I don't even remember her all that well, aside from
bits and pieces." Edwina had been like Dru's parents, a sometime visitor
who'd flown in and out of her life. She'd known her great-aunt mostly
as a sophisticated, soft-spoken summer drop-in, here for one week each
August and then gone again, back to her plush home in Seattle.
Sophie rolled the glass back and forth against her temple
and smiled in fond reminiscence. "You would have liked her, if you'd gotten
to spend a little more time with her." She returned to the table and gave
the report a delicate nudge with her fingertips. "I always admired Edwina
a great deal. And J.D. was special to her. He was the first boy she ever
"And the one she fretted over having mismanaged," Uncle
"I do remember that!" Dru straightened. "At least I remember
sitting beneath your kitchen table as a kid while you grown-ups visited,
and I remember her worrying over the way she handled some boy. The boy
with her father's watch."
"That was J.D."
"I got the impression she cared for him a lot."
"Yeah, she did. He's pretty much the reason she got into
taking care of all those troubled kids." Ben sighed. "Edwina had excellent
instincts about people. And I guess when it comes right down to it, the
shares were hers to do with as she wished." He looked at Dru. "Soph and
I aren't as hands-on around here as we used to be, though, hon, so you're
the one who's gonna have to work with J.D. on a day-to-day basis. What's
your vote on all this?"
"Well, contesting the will is pointless from everything
I've heard, Great- aunt Edwina retained her full mental capacity right
up to the day she died."
"The woman was sharp as a tack," Ben said.
"Then I don't see where we have any choice but to respect
"I agree," Sophie said. "And if we're going to do this,
let's do it right and give J.D. a warm welcome."
"Of course," Dru added dryly, "I also think I deserve a
huge raise for taking on a new headache."
Ben looked up from his notes, peering at her over his reading
glasses. "We'll definitely look into that at next month's meeting.
This month, though, we've got a big problem. The repairs needed around
here are mounting up. We've got to find a way to hang onto competent workmen."
The gas gauge on J.D. Carver's vintage Ford Mustang read
Empty when he arrived in Star Lake, Washington, one day ahead of schedule.
But then, it never read anything else the needle had been stuck
there since he'd bought the car in '93. The car's trunk held a few of
his favorite power tools, a tool chest, and a fully loaded carpenter's
belt. The backseat held two table saws. He also had an antique gold watch
in his pocket, an old canvas army duffel containing everything else he
owned in the world, and a raft of emotions he'd give a lot to deny sitting
heavy in his gut.
His life back in Seattle had gone to hell. It was his own
fault, but knowing that didn't help. His friend Butch he didn't even want
to think about right now. And Bob Lankovich, the man who'd given him his
start in construction and through whose company's ranks J.D. had
risen to become foreman was in prison. J.D. didn't want to think
about Bob, either. Or his idiot son, Robbie.
He was just tired of the whole freaking mess the threats,
the being a pariah. In Rat City, for chris'sake. How could anyone do anything
bad enough to be a pariah in a neighborhood known as Rat City? His unexpected
inheritance from Edwina Lawrence was nothing if not timely. It was an
excellent time to get out of town.
He laughed without humor. Of course, Edwina was just another
can of worms. He ought to open a damn bait shop between her, Butch,
and the Lankovich mess, he was ass-deep in worms.
J.D. rubbed at the tension knotting the back of his neck.
He was pretty much down to his last option. He'd given up his studio apartment,
sold the tools he couldn't fit in the car, and cleaned out his bank account.
There was nothing left for him in the city where he'd grown up, and nowhere
to go if this didn't work out. So he planned to make it work, come hell
or high water.
He pulled up in front of the fieldstone-and-timber lodge
that he now had a half interest in, and parked the car. Then he simply
sat there for a moment, breathing in the rich scent of evergreens and
lake. Reaching into the watch pocket of his jeans, he stroked a finger
over Edwina's father's gold timepiece, which she had left him along with
her share of the lodge.
The same watch she'd once accused him of stealing.
More than Robbie Lankovich's threats, or J.D.'s disillusionment
over Butch's collecting on a debt he'd always known would one day be collected, Edwina's ancient betrayal still had the ability to bother him.
He snorted softly. Bother. There was a nice, understated
way of putting it.
It still had the power to twist his gut into a mass of knots,
and that wouldn't do. Climbing out of the car, J.D. shouldered his duffel
and stared up at the imposing shingle-roofed fieldstone porch that ran
across the entire front of the inn.
It was bad enough that he still allowed a childhood injustice
to color his life after all these years. But right now, he particularly
needed to focus his concentration.
Because five would get you ten that he was about two minutes
away from a no-holds-barred dog fight with Edwina's relatives over the
share of this lodge that she'd bequeathed him.
Dru thanked the front desk clerk and hung up the phone.
Oh, God, he was here. She straightened in her chair, aware of her heart
rate bumping up a notch. J.D. Carver was out in the lobby. He wasn't supposed
to be here until tomorrow.
She'd believed she was fully reconciled to the new situation.
She'd honestly thought she was prepared to meet Edwina's beneficiary and
welcome him into both the business and the Lawrence clan. But if the sudden,
apprehensive tripping of her pulse was anything to go by, she'd merely
been fooling herself.
Standing, she checked to see that her sleeveless white polo
shirt with its discreet lodge logo was neatly tucked into her walking
shorts, then smoothed her hands over the crisp hunter-green material that
skimmed her hips. She took a deep breath and blew it out. Okay, she was
ready. She just wished he hadn't arrived early; it destroyed their plan
to greet him as a family.
Dru squared her shoulders. Big deal; she'd just have to
tough it out on her own. She'd been meeting and greeting people professionally
since she was sixteen years old. Besides, Aunt Soph and Uncle Ben were
just over at the cabin they'd reserved for Carver's use, putting on a
few finishing touches to make him feel at home, so she'd have backup shortly. Not that she'd need it. She headed for the lobby. Just think
of him as a long-lost cousin.
Easier said than done, Dru decided a few moments later as
she looked at the man squatting in front of the massive fieldstone fireplace.
Even from the back, he didn't look like her idea of a cousin.
He appeared to be one supercharged mass of muscularityfrom
the spot where his dark hair brushed the tanned skin of his neck, right
down to his work-boot-clad feet. A pristine white T-shirt stretched across
wide shoulders and clung to the narrowing wedge of his back until it disappeared
into a worn pair of jeans that hugged his muscular thighs and butt. Her
heartbeat inexplicably picked up.
She cleared her throat. "Mr. Carver?"
He twisted to look at her over his shoulder. His dark eyebrows
met over his nose, and for just a moment he seemed to still. But it must
have been her imagination, for he said in a neutral tone, "Don't call
me mister. My name's J.D." He rose to his feet in one smooth, powerful
He was downright intimidating at his full height when faced
head-on. His T-shirt hugged the planes of his chest and the six-pack of
muscles in his abdomen; it stretched thin over his biceps. Energy poured
off of him in almost palpable waves. Dru took a reflexive step back.
Then she caught herself and thrust out her hand. "J.D.,
then. And I'm Dru Lawrence. I'm the general manager here." Looking up
into his eyes, she discovered that what she'd mistaken for brown was actually
a dark hazel-green, ringed with an even denser green. "Welcome to Star
Nerves zinged when he wrapped his callused hand around hers
and shook it firmly, and it was all she could do not to jerk free. What
was the matter with her? She'd met plenty of well-built guys before,
for heaven's sake it wasn't like her to act like a high school girl
confronted with the star jock. Resisting the urge to rub her hand down
her shorts to remove the heat that lingered when he relinquished his grip,
she dragged her think cousin advice to the forefront of her mind
and mustered up a courteous smile.
He indicated the fireplace with a jerk of his square chin
and didn't bother smiling back. "That andiron is nearly in two pieces.
It needs to be pulled out and soldered back together."
Good God, the man certainly didn't lack brass he hadn't
even been here ten minutes and already he was offering criticism? An uncharacteristic
impulse to invite him to kiss her rosy red cheeks and she wasn't
talking the ones she could feel glowing with temper here surged
up Dru's throat. "I'll make a note of that," she said evenly, and forced
another smile. "Is this your bag?"
She'd already bent to pick up the canvas duffel when his
hand whipped the bag out from under her nose. Stuffing her own hands in
her shorts pockets, she straightened. Smacking him would not be
an auspicious way to start off the partnership. "I'm sure you'd like to
freshen up after that long road trip. I'll show you to your cabin."
"Dru!" Sally Jensen, their front-desk manager, rushed up.
She flashed an apologetic smile at J.D., got hung up gawking at his chest
for a moment, then dragged her gaze back to Dru.
A genuine smile quirked Dru's lips for the first time since
she'd clapped eyes on her new partner. Whew. For a moment there she'd
thought she was sliding into something risky, and she didn't do risky. Clearly, J.D. Carver was simply one of those men who elicited strong
female reactions she probably would've had more to worry about if
she hadn't noticed his hunky body. "J.D., this is Sally Jensen,
our desk supervisor. Sally, J.D. Carver, the new part owner."
J.D.'s dark eyebrows drew together, but Sally had already
turned back to Dru. "Brian Kebler just called in sick."
"Wasn't he scheduled to take a party of waterskiers out
"Yes, the Jacobsen clan at three o'clock. I've already tried
to get a replacement from the backup list, without any luck. If you can't
think of anyone else I can call, we're going to have seven disappointed
"How about Monica White? Is she working the lunch shift
today? She's been driving boats since she was old enough to see over the
steering wheel, and she expressed an interest once in filling in."
"I'll check to see if she's here. If she's not, I'll give
her a call at home to see if she can come in. But what do I do if she's
"Comp the kids an ice-cream party in the Eagle's Nest."
"Okay; that might work. Thanks." Sally spun on her heel
and hustled off.
"Oh, Sally, wait." When she turned back, Dru said, "Make
Uncle Ben Plan B instead of the ice-cream party. He might be available
if Monica can't do it. If neither of them is free, though, go to Plan
Sally flashed her a thumbs-up.
Dru turned back to J.D. and found him watching her with
those aloof hazel eyes. He had a strong blade of a nose, the bridge of
which looked as if it had been broken more than once, and a wide mouth
with a full bottom lip. "Are you ready?"
He shouldered his duffel and nodded curtly.
"You're not exactly Smiley the Social Hound, are you?" Oh,
shit, where had that come from? Generally she was diplomacy personified,
but something about this guy just breezed right past the guards she normally
placed on her tongue.
His gaze did a fast slide over her, then returned to her
eyes. "Depends on the situation."
Dru shrugged and headed down the hallway to the wing exit.
It was no skin off her tush if he never smiled. Maybe he had bad teeth
Which didn't quite explain this sudden compulsion to flap
the neckline of her shirt to promote a little air circulation to the overheated
Injecting an almost military erectness into her posture,
she coolly informed him, "Star Lake Lodge has been in business since 1911."
Dru opened the door to the stairwell. "It has thirty-one rooms, including
four suites, and we have eight cabins, seven of which are available this
summer. The one we've prepared for you was put out of commission this
past winter when it sustained storm damage." It most likely would've remained
closed had they not been pressed for a place to put him up. In recent
years, repairs and maintenance had turned into their largest headache,
since craftsmen who could handle the jobs were scarce around here. "I'm
afraid the porch roof is still a mess."
J.D. shrugged. "I can live with that." He pulled his gaze
away from the sway of her hips as she preceded him down the interior staircase,
and focused instead on the fat, glossy brown braid that hung down her
back. "I expected you to just stick me in a room somewhere." Like in the
She spared a glance over her shoulder. "This and the ski
season are our busiest times, which means we're booked to near capacity.
And that means you'd be forced to move from one room to another
every couple of days, which isn't a whole lot of fun. We want you to be
Yeah, right. He was suspicious as hell of do-gooders.
Dru's fine, upstanding great aunt had seen to that.
Not that he'd been perfectly content before Edwina Lawrence
had barged into his fourteen year old life and turned it upside down.
Bouncing from foster home to foster home was less than ideal for any kid,
but at least there had been a pattern to his life; he'd understood the
rules. And rule number one had been: don't get too comfortable. For sooner
or later and usually it had been sooner he'd be out on the
Not getting your hopes up was the first rule of survival,
but Edwina had been different, and it had sucked him in, lulled him into
forgetting a lot of hard-won lessons. She'd chosen him he hadn't
been foisted on her by an overworked social worker. And the fact that
she was unlike anyone he'd ever known had been a seduction all on its
They'd met the day he'd tried to steal her purse. It had
been one of his stupider moments, but he'd listened to his friend Butch's
pitch of easy money and had given in to the lure.
The fragile looking little old lady had taught him that
crime didn't pay, though. Not only had she hung onto her purse, she'd
gotten a good grip on him, to boot. The only way to break loose would
have been to hurt her. When Butch had taken off running, leaving him to
face the music on his own, J.D. had heard the mental clang of barred doors
slamming shut, and thought he was headed to juvie hall for sure.
But instead of turning him in to the cops, the way any right
thinking individual would have done, she'd taken him home. Then she'd
made arrangements to foster him, and had offered him the run of her place.
He'd fallen in love with her that day.
She'd taught him there was an entire world far removed from
the decaying streets and alleyways of the inner city, which was all he'd
known up until then. But what she'd offered with one hand, she'd taken
away with the other, at the very moment he'd finally relaxed his guard
and begun to believe he was worthy of the clean new life she offered.
And where once he had idolized her, he'd begun to bitterly resent the
very breath she drew.
Shit. J.D. nearly tromped on Dru's heels as he blinked
the past back where it belonged in the past. That was
twenty years ago, Ace. Get over it.
Dru pushed open the outer door at the bottom of the stairs
and the evergreen-laden scent of the country rushed in.
"You mentioned a ski season?" he said. "I didn't see any
lifts around here." And although this was an alpine lake area, it wasn't
the type of terrain he associated with ski resorts.
Dru glanced at him over her shoulder, and the blue of her
eyes was electric in the sunlight. "That's because we feature cross-country
skiing. See that trailhead over there?" She pointed to a hiking trail
that disappeared into the woods down the side of the mountain. "That's
called Treetop, and it connects us to over a hundred kilometers of trails
that can be hiked and biked in the summer or skied in the winter."
She casually touched his forearm, and a muscle under his
skin jumped as if he'd received an electric shock. Face carefully expressionless,
he stepped away, slanting a quick look at her.
"Come on," she said, clearly oblivious. "Your cabin is down
this way." She began to head toward the lake.
J.D. rubbed at the band of heat left behind by her touch.
What the hell was that all about? He'd like to blame it on the fact that
he wasn't accustomed to being touched, but that didn't explain the similar
jolt he'd gotten when he'd turned around and seen her for the first time
in the lobby. His initial reaction had been: want it. She'd looked
so soft and round, standing there. Round eyes, round cheekbones, round
breasts, round ass. He didn't understand it hadn't then, didn't
now. She was pretty enough, in a subtle outdoorsy, girl-next-door sort
of way. But she sure as hell wasn't his type, so that covetous shock of
awareness seemed out of place.
Rat City didn't imbue a taste for subtle or girl-next-door,
and he liked his women brassy. Big hair, big tits, clothing spray painted
on to show every curve.
Watching her stride down the trail in front of him in her
shorts and Keds, J.D. tried to figure out what had caused that uncharacteristic
craving. He had to admit she had a body that would probably be
dynamite in tight clothing. But it didn't take a genius to see she wasn't
the type to wear it. She was too... fresh-faced. She had that silky, swingy
hair, those freckles across the bridge of her nose, those big, guileless,
startlingly blue eyes. He'd bet his last buck she wasn't a woman to hang
out in bars, waiting for some stud to come along and buy her a drink,
like the barflies he associated with. She looked more like one of those
happily-ever-after, put-the-ring-on-my-finger types. And
he checked she wasn't wearing one.
They rounded a curve in the trail and the lake was suddenly
laid out in front of them in all its splendor. Shaped like a Christmas
stocking, it was placid and blue. The sounds of kids splashing and laughing,
the sprong of a diving board, and the occasional shrill blast of
a lifeguard whistle cut through the silence of the woods.
"There's a roped off swimming area and float around the
next bend," Dru said over her shoulder. She veered onto a short spur trail,
and a moment later they emerged from the sun-dappled track into a small
clearing, across which stood a cabin with half its porch roof missing.
A man who looked to be in his mid fifties sat with one hip perched on
the railing, smoking a cigarette, while a little boy in a Star Wars Phantom
Menace t-shirt wielded a light-saber against an imaginary foe.
The kid saw them first and his face lit up. "Mom!" he yelled
and, the plastic light-saber clattering to the floor of the porch, launched
himself off the steps. A second later he hung like a monkey from Dru's
front, skinny legs around her waist, grimy hands linked behind
her neck as he leaned back to give her a huge goofy grin.
you're getting way too big for this." Staggering under his
weight, she nevertheless grinned back and kissed him on the nose.
It was a scene like a hundred others J.D. had observed as
an outsider looking in. Crossing his arms across his chest, he watched
mother and child and congratulated himself on his acumen. There you
go, Bud. All that's missing here is the carpool-mobile.
It doesn't get any further from your type than this.
End of Excerpt.