Garrett(6)

By: Anne Marie Winston



The cottage was perched above the lake with decks on three sides. It was surrounded by towering trees and from the back, looked quite unprepossessing. It had been built into the hill so that the second-floor section that jutted out to the back had a wide garage-style door at what was ground level there, so that the boats and outside furniture and supplies could be stored there through the winter.

He walked down the hill a little way and stepped out onto a rocky outcrop above a small pebble-beached cove. Ahhh. He took a deep, cleansing breath of the fresh, pine-scented air. "It's good to be here," he said aloud. As he stood motionless, absorbing the utter peace that was one of the hallmarks of the little lake, the eerie laugh of a loon floated out over the water.

Garrett chuckled in response. This wouldn't be so bad. Even though he'd arranged to have an office's worth of equipment, including fax and computer, delivered tomorrow, he'd still feel like he was on an extended vacation. But the momentary buoyancy faded as he envisioned himself sharing the small rooms with Robin's little fling.

The stutter of a poorly tuned engine could be heard in the distance, and he looked around, distracted from his annoyance. The sound was rare enough to make him scan the lake with a frown. Usually, back this far, there was little to suggest other humans were around. Only canoes and rowboats were allowed on the lake and there was a bare handful of other homes scattered along the shores. When summer ended, nearly all of those would empty out as summer residents returned to their real lives again.

The engine grew louder instead of fading, and he turned. It almost sounded as if someone were heading toward his cottage. But unless the caretaker had fogotten something, he couldn't imagine why anyone would be back here. There were clear No Trespassing signs posted both at the end of his small lane and at the larger one that led to the road.

He surged up the bank, reaching his own sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle just as headlights played across the cottage and red brake lights flared. A door opened and a figure straightened from the driver's seat of a small, battered-looking car.

"This is absolutely beautiful!" Ana Birch said. Garrett just stared at her. How in the hell had she managed to get organized fast enough to arrive here at practically the same time he had? He'd never known a woman who could pack and travel in less than a day's time. His mother would have needed at least a week to get ready. And that would have been pushing it.

"Have you been here long?'' She bent and touched her toes in one lithe motion, drawing his eyes to the long, smooth line of her back beneath the T-shirt she wore. As she placed her palms flat on the ground and swayed from side to side to stretch out her back, her bottom stuck up in the air in an incredibly provocative manner. He caught himself in the middle of wondering just how limber she really was and banished the thought. She might have bewitched Robin but he, Garrett, knew what she was.

"I—ah, just arrived.'' His voice sounded rough and uneven to his own ears. "How did you get here so fast?"

She shrugged, straightening and flipping her hair back over her shoulders, drawing his gaze to the shining, curly mass. "I didn't really have much to worry about," she told him. "I packed everything I thought we'd need, stuffed the cat in a box—"

"The cat! I never said anything about sharing my cabin with a cat."

She shrugged. "I'll just have to keep her in my half, then. As I was saying, I hopped in my car late last night and started driving. When I stopped for breakfast, I called the bank and the restaurant and quit, effective immediately. I can get another job or two like that easily enough when I get back if I need it."

"Jobs? You worked for a bank and a restaurant?"

"Some of us don't have a fortune at our disposal," she told him tartly. "What on earth did you think I did for money?"

The question fell into the space between them like a hand grenade with the pin ready to fall out. He bit his tongue, knowing that if he said what he'd thought, there would be open warfare in the cabin for the next month. It was going to be bad enough as it was without picking a fight with her.

"Never mind." She turned away and walked around to the trunk of her car. "I already know the answer to that."

There was an odd, wistful tone in her voice that made him, for one strange moment, feel guilty for the way he'd treated her. Then he reminded himself that she was nothing more than a gold digger, snagging an old man and talking him into putting her in his will. Two jobs...no wonder she was looking for an easier way to make a living. She hadn't really loved Robin, he was sure. He'd had his own experience with the fickle nature of a woman's love for anything but money, and nothing could convince him other wise.

"Why do you have two jobs?" He opened his car door as he spoke and lifted out the suitcases.

"Employers don't want to pay benefits so they get around it by hiring part-time help," she said succinctly. She shrugged, and lifted out a large box. "The flexibility works just as well for me."

He started down the path. "Follow me and I'll give you the nickel tour of the cottage. I had the caretakers clean and open it earlier today.'' But he couldn't keep himself from wondering why she worked two low-paying jobs. She seemed bright enough. Surely she could find something more suitable. She did, answered his cynical side. Bewitching an old man.

Unaware of his thoughts, she said, "Good idea." She hefted her box with both hands. "I'll have to go and meet them. Did you tell them I'd be arriving?"

"No," he said shortly.

There was silence behind him as they came to the porch. He set down the bags and unlocked the door, then picked them up and shouldered his way through the door, leaving her to follow with her unwieldy box. She wasn't there by his choice, he told himself fiercely, and he wasn't going to spend thirty-one days being courteous, holding doors and carrying everything in sight. In fact, it was probably better if they established ground rules first thing.

He headed straight for the stairs, ignoring her, and took his bags to his bedroom. When he came down again, she was still standing in the living room, looking out through the plate glass at the lake. It was nearly dark now so he knew she couldn't see much.

He said, "The bedroom to the left at the top of the stairs is mine. You can have the other one that has a lake view. The one to the back is—'' he caught himself "—was Robin's den."

She nodded.

"This is the living room and back there is the dining area. Those doors lead to the deck. The kitchen's through here and—" he moved through the house "—this is my office. There's a half bathroom in the hall and a full one upstairs. Laundry room is opposite the downstairs bath." He paused as he realized just how intimate this enforced cohabitation was going to be. "Tomorrow we'll make up a schedule of who gets the bathroom and the kitchen at what times. You'll have to help chop and stack wood, too."

Her eyebrows rose. "You don't buy it by the cord?"

He shook his head. "Nope. A lot of it's broken limbs we salvage from the previous winter's storms. If you want to share this place fifty-fifty, you'll have to share half the work." He doubted she was used to lifting a finger to do much more than some light cleaning. After all, she'd sold her own home rather than deal with maintenance and upkeep. Cleaning. "The caretaker's wife comes in once a week to clean," he told her, "but you'll have to do your own laundry, dishes and pick up any messes you make."

She simply nodded.

There was an awkward silence.

"Well," he said. "I guess I'll finish unloading."

Ana awoke to the sound of a bird trilling insistently right outside her window the next morning. The quality of the light coming through her window told her it still was very early. She'd been exhausted after the long drive and unloading her car last night, and she hadn't expected to wake at dawn, but she knew she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep now.

She threw back the light blanket and sheet with which she'd made her bed last night. Roadkill, the cat, leaped off the foot of the mattress where she'd been sleeping with a startled hiss and disappeared beneath the bed. She chuckled. "Relax, girl. I bet you'll come out of there fast enough when I return bearing food." She sat up and put her feet on the floor. Brrr! Even in midsummer, the night was cool.

Sliding her feet into sandals, she went to the window. Her bedroom looked out over the lake, and from this floor, she could see the earliest of the sun's rays making the water sparkle and dance, casting outsize shadows from anything in its path. The cabin was situated on the west side of the little lake, facing the sun, and its warmth was just beginning to steal over the horizon. She'd stopped at the little general store for directions and soda last night, and the clerk had told her the lake was small. But looking north and south, she couldn't see either end. Across the lake, there was a wooded shore. Farther down, just one other house peeked from between the trees, its dock floating out from the shore into the water.

A dock. She looked down and saw that Eden Cottage had a dock as well. The sight automatically brought a lump to her throat as childhood memories came flooding back. When she was young, her mother had rented a cabin along the Choptank River each summer for an entire week. It was their one annual splurge. Her mother, Janette, had loved the water and had taught Ana to swim as a very small child. They'd rowed on the river, swam and dived, held weenie roasts on their small stretch of pebbled beach and laid on the dock stargazing after dark.

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