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Authors: Desiree Douglas

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BOOK: Cabin by the Lake
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She cleared her throat and stepped outside. The scowl on his face slid away when he saw her and was replaced by an easy smile.

“May I?” she said, motioning toward the step where he was sitting.

He scooted over. “Be my guest.”

“I was wondering if we could have a little talk,” she began.

Amusement twinkled in his eyes.  “About Ace Colbert, Attorney at Law?”

“No!” she exclaimed, taken aback by his attempt at humor at her expense. “Why would I—”

“I just thought you might be seeking some advice in the love department.”

“What? No! Stop it!” This conversation had derailed before she even got started on her agenda. “I just met Ace. He was only being nice, taking me to lunch on my first day.”

“You looked very, um, familiar with him.”

She felt the heat begin in her cheeks, remembering the inappropriate way Ace had put his arm around her. She had to regain control of this exchange. “My life, in general, is none of your business,” she said firmly. “I’d like to talk to you about my aunt.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “She’s a wonderful woman.”

“Yes, she is. You know she’s a widow, don’t you?”

“I know. That’s very sad.”

“Yes, it is. I want to ask you something important, Mike. And I want you to be completely honest with me. Okay?”

He nodded and leaned back comfortably on his elbow.

“You said you were in the construction business, right?”

“Right.”

“I don’t mean to pry into your personal life, but—”

“Then don’t.”

She felt her temper flare. “You came out of nowhere,” she said. “You have ingratiated yourself into my aunt’s life, into her home, for heaven’s sake. You’re a complete stranger, and she’s taken you in like her long lost son. Surely you can see my concern.”

He looked at her with no emotion and said nothing.

“Okay, let me be blunt,” she continued. “Are you planning on scamming Vivian? Are you some kind of gigolo, looking for an older woman to fall for you and take care of you? Did you find her on a computer dating site? My aunt is not a wealthy woman! In fact, I’m here to help her out financially.”

“Is that so?” he said. “I understood that you were here to start over or something, and that she was helping you out.”

She reeled as if she’d been slapped in the face. “She said that?”

He saw that his disclosure had wounded her and he was instantly sorry. “Not in so many words, but that was implied. Perhaps I was mistaken.”

“Perhaps you were,” she shot back.

“Then tell me your story,” he said.

“My story is my business. The past is in the past. You tell me your story, Mr. Mike Rodgers.” Then, as an afterthought she added, “Is that even your real name?”

“That’s my real name.” He grinned. “You
are
a suspicious little thing, aren’t you?”

“You’re a suspicious character.”

“What are you running from, Lydia?”

“What are
you
running from, Mike?”

“Touché. Perhaps we’d best leave it at that,” he suggested.

“You got your supplies. I thought you were leaving on your journey to ‘find yourself,’” she said, making air quotes with her fingers. “Is that it? Or are you having an early mid-life crisis?”

His eyes narrowed, the humor leaving his face. “Something like that.”

The dog ambled over and put its head between theirs, as if breaking up a fight. “Ugh, you stink,” she said, pushing it away. “I’m giving you a bath.” She got up, tired of the cat and mouse game she and Mike had been playing.

To her surprise, he joined her as they filled a galvanized tub with water from the garden hose and soaped up the dog with the only thing she could find, which was her own shampoo. Soon they were both soaking wet and laughing as if that last uncomfortable conversation had not occurred.

Mike had a boyish, playful side that she found extremely appealing. He was funny and impulsive, and didn’t mind at all when the slippery dog escaped his grasp and he went sprawling in the mud they had created. “Come here, you mutt,” he growled, chasing the dog as it zigzagged across the lawn, leading him on a merry chase.

She was helpless with laughter as they rinsed the reluctant dog, a job which required both of them working together to keep him in place. When they were finished, the dog showered them with water as it indignantly shook out its coat.

For this brief span of time, she had not thought about the shame of her past, or the danger that loomed in the form of Mike Rodgers. She was in the moment, having fun, as carefree as she had been as a child, playing and laughing with abandon. She didn’t care that her hair had come loose and was hanging in damp strands around her face, or that she was splattered with muddy water. It was really the first time in a long while that she completely forgot about the world around her and was simply caught up in ridiculous fun.

She punched him on the arm when he accidentally squirted her with the hose, and he pretended to be shocked, chasing her as she screamed laughter. When he caught up with her, he grabbed her arm, causing them both to fall in a tangle of arms and legs. The air was suddenly charged with electricity as they found themselves face to face. The laughter was gone and time stood still. For a moment they stared into each other’s eyes.

She didn’t know where things would have gone if Vivian had not shown up, the dog barking at her arrival. She had the feeling that she had been very close to being kissed. That would have been a very big mistake! Thank goodness her aunt appeared in a timely manner from around a curve by the lake. As Mike helped her up and she brushed herself off, she saw that Vivian was not alone.

There was a man with her.

And they were holding hands.

Chapter 6

Vivian sat on the pier, enjoying some much needed alone time. She wasn’t used to being around people much anymore, and for the past few days she felt surrounded by people, not to mention the dog. They should name it, she thought vaguely, reaching down to scratch its back. And then this afternoon, Dugger Vines had shown up out of the blue to deliver a small package. He could have left it in the mailbox, as usual, but this time he knocked on the door to deliver it in person.

She was glad to see him; he had kept his distance since his wife, Carol, and Todd died within two months of each other. Aside from a passing wave of the hand, they hadn’t been in touch. He stood on the porch, aimlessly chit-chatting, until she asked if he’d like a cup of coffee. He eagerly accepted, and they sat in the kitchen and talked while she put the roast on to cook. Then one thing led to another and she found herself taking a walk around the lake with him.

Dugger and Carol had been part of the old gang in school. Before she and Todd became exclusive, Vivian had actually dated Dugger a few times. There had even been a little joke about them back in the day: Vivian and Dugger Vines could never marry, because she’d be Vi Vines and people would think she stuttered! She smiled now at the memory.

Dugger and Carol eventually married and he had been their postman all these years. She and Todd had spent many occasions with the Vines, playing Rook on Friday nights and fishing in the lake on Saturday mornings. Dugger lost Carol after she suffered a stroke, just before Todd’s death, and Vivian had been deeply saddened by the loss of her friend, but they hadn’t shared the pain of loss.

During their walk, she discovered that they had a lot to talk about. It was easy conversation, like slipping into a favorite pair of comfortable slippers. At one point Dugger stumbled over a tree root and she grabbed his arm for support. He laughed at his clumsiness, took hold of her hand, and they walked along, hand in hand, as if that was a natural thing for them to do.

And it
had
felt natural, until she’d felt so guilty being caught holding his hand.

Vivian had married Todd a year out of high school, and he landed an entry-level job with Georgia Power. They moved into a tiny apartment above The Corner Store, where many young couples before them had started out their married lives. The Corner Store was an icon in the community—a convenience store before Seven-Elevens dotted the nation—useful in giving directions to anywhere in town: “You drive till you see The Corner Store, turn left, and we’re the fifth house on the right.” It was torn down thirty years ago to make way for the new Piggly-Wiggly.

That little apartment, filled with hand-me-down furniture, was the social hub of their group. Their friends—Carol and Dugger Vines, and Pete and Ally Simms, who all remained close over the years—felt free to drop in day or night. The Corner Store apartment, right in the middle of town, was on everyone’s way to everywhere.

Her mother had taught her to sew at an early age, and she began to work from home as a seamstress altering clothes for rich ladies, and saved every penny. It was amazing to her what those women spent on clothes, and what they would spend to have it adjusted a quarter of an inch. Her reputation grew, and so did their savings account.

After a year in the apartment, Todd got a promotion, and they moved out to the lake, renting a run-down cabin on the tourist side while daydreaming about owning the magnificent log home straight across the lake, the one with the guest cabin near it. Vivian wanted to live there from the first time she saw it, but she knew they could never afford such a beautiful home. She was just content to live on the lake with her new husband who was dependable, steady and predictable, and she didn’t think she could be happier.

One Thursday afternoon a year later, Todd took her for a drive and insisted she wear a blindfold, which she was very uncomfortable with.

“Where are you taking me?”

He had been acting strangely the last few weeks, leaving home with no explanation, snatching up the phone when it rang, claiming it was a wrong number, and then driving to a pay phone. She knew that, because after a week of this, she’d followed him. Was he having an affair? She was sick with the thought, although she really couldn’t believe it. He was as warm and loving as ever. He never talked much, but he was a touchy-feely man, always reaching for her hand or taking a minute when he walked past to massage her shoulders while she sewed.

“I’ve got something to show you,” he said.

“Why can’t I see? You know I don’t like surprises.” She felt grumpy, and she didn’t like suspecting that he’d been keeping something from her. They’d never had secrets between them, and she was a little frightened.

“You’ll like this one.”

“It’s not my birthday.”

“No.”

“It’s not our anniversary.”

“No.”

“Well, what then?”

“I got you a Happy Thursday present.”

She had started Happy Thursday presents when they lived over The Corner Store. Every other day of the week had significance, but mundane Thursdays were just waiting for Fridays so you could start your weekend. Their gifts were small, maybe just a card from Todd or a pair of turquoise earrings. Once she had stitched a tool belt out of canvas; it was practically free, but he used it all the time, proving himself to have a real talent for tinkering around the house. They hadn’t done Happy Thursday presents since they moved to the lake.

But it
was
Thursday.

“I didn’t get you anything,” she said, dismayed. “I thought we quit that silliness.”

She reached up to rip off the blindfold, and felt his big hand clasp hers and drag it to the console between them. The warmth of his touch was strong and reassuring. She had a poor sense of direction, and she had no idea where he was driving. It was quiet; no traffic sounds. She felt the car slow as he navigated curves and suspected he was driving around the lake. But why? They didn’t even know anyone on this side of the lake—the wealthy side, as she thought of it.

Finally, he slowed the car to a crawl and she could hear gravel crunching under the tires. “Todd, really, I’m not enjoying this.”

“Patience, Vivian. You’ve got to learn patience.”

“Don’t preach to me,” she snapped. But she knew he was right. She wanted to be in control of her life at every moment, and she didn’t like not knowing what was around the corner.

“You know I don’t like—”

“Surprises, I know.” He stopped the car and turned off the engine.

“Can I take this blindfold off now? I feel like a hostage.”

“Not yet.” He got out and opened her car door, firmly guiding her as they walked down a slope. Soon they stepped onto a pier, she knew, because their feet made hollow clomping sounds as they walked. Guy’s Fish Fry Shack? No, she didn’t hear people talking and laughing, or smell fried hushpuppies. She only heard the peaceful sounds of the lake.

He positioned her where he wanted her, both hands on her shoulders. This was so out of character for him. She could
feel
his excitement.

“Okay, you can take off the blindfold.”

She took it off and looked past him across the lake, where she could just make out their rented ramshackle cabin in the distance, the middle one in a row of rentals that had seen better days. She looked at him blankly.

He turned her around and she saw the stately log house of her dreams, up close and personal for the first time. She gasped. “Todd, this is private property! What are we doing here?”

“It is private property,” he said. “It’s
our
private property.”

“What do you mean?”

“I bought it this morning. Happy Thursday!”

She was stunned. “What do you mean? How can that be? We can’t afford this.”

He rocked back on his heels and stuffed his hands in his pockets, proud as he could be. “As it turns out, we can. Old man Moore passed away a couple months ago, and his children wanted a quick sale, so they sold cheap. I got a heads-up from Pete, and he helped me pull it off. If we’re careful, we can scrape by.”

In spite of the thrill she felt at Todd’s words, she felt betrayed; annoyed that she had been kept in the dark. “But this was such a big decision! How could you leave me out of such a momentous thing as this, something that affects our lives so dramatically?”

He looked crushed. “I thought you’d be happy.”

She instantly regretted her words, but had trouble reining in her irritation. “I’m sorry; I’m just trying to wrap my mind around this.” They stood in silence for a few minutes, Todd looking out over the lake, obviously disappointed by her reaction, Vivian struggling with her need to be in control of her life. She looked at the house and was filled with awe. It was so much more than what she had seen through her binoculars from across the lake. It was elegant and graceful, as if it had grown up out of the ground amid the trees that surrounded it.

And it was theirs?

Tears filled her eyes. “Oh Todd, can we really do this? I can’t believe it. I’m so scared.”

He opened his arms and she stepped into his hug. “I’m sorry,” he said, clearly crestfallen. “I should’ve known this wasn’t a good idea. When it came on the market, Pete said wouldn’t you just flip out if I bought this for you, and I said yeah, that’d be great, and I guess I just got caught up in it. I realize now I should have talked it over with you first.”

She looked up at him, smiling through her tears, finally over her initial negative reaction. That was always the way it was between them the few times they’d disagreed, quickly begun and quickly over. As a peace offering she said, “You always were impulsive.”

“And you were always a fraidy cat.”

“I know. Hey, maybe I can pick up some extra sewing. I did some alterations for the cheer squad at the high school last year, and we talked about the need for all new uniforms. Then there’s the majorettes and dance line uniforms. I think I could expand my business,” she said thoughtfully. “You know, you’re right. I think we can do this!”

Finally, the excitement Todd had been expecting glittered in her eyes. “So, can we go in?”

He dug into his pocket and pulled out a key with a red ribbon tied around it and swung it in front of her face. She squealed with delight, snatched the key, and they ran back along the pier and up the slope to the back door of the most beautiful house she had ever seen.

“Look, they left the rocking chairs!” she exclaimed as they crossed the covered porch.

“And that’s not all,” he said, unlocking the back door. He picked her up, kissed her soundly on the lips, and carried her across the threshold.

Inside, she couldn’t believe her eyes. “There’s furniture! Do we have to wait for the family to clear all this out?”

“No, it’s all ours. The Moore children live out of state, and they came and got what they wanted, and none of them had time to fool with the rest of this stuff. So it’s ours, along with the house, along with the cabin!” He started laughing as he grabbed her and swung her around, and she was amazed at his unprecedented animation.

“Oh, and the cabin, too! We’ll have weekend guests!”

She couldn’t believe it. There were lots of obvious places where furniture and rugs had been removed, but there was so much left in place. They’d never owned anything that didn’t need a book under one leg to level it up, and here were beautiful old pieces of furniture—grown-up furniture, she thought.  She could hardly wait to rearrange and polish and add her own personal touches.

The fireplace was a wonder to her; she’d always wanted one. And this one sat in the middle of the living room wall surrounded by built-in bookshelves. The shelves were littered with a mess of leftover books and aging knick-knacks. She immediately began to imagine her own small collection of books neatly in place beside the older volumes.

“Todd, this is unbelievable! Can we stay here tonight?”

“The electricity won’t be turned on until tomorrow.”

“That’s okay. We can go grab some candles and blankets. We can bring that bottle of wine and some food, and build a fire and have a picnic right here in the living room. Please? Say yes!”

He laughed, as overjoyed as she was, and eagerly agreed. They raced back to their rental cabin and she hurriedly threw items into bags and boxes while Todd called Dugger and Pete to enlist their aid in moving on Saturday. They didn’t have much, but it would be easier with a little help from their friends.

And Vivian was so excited to show Carol and Ally around her new home and get their input on furniture placement, so she elicited promises from them to show up with the guys armed with mops and dust rags. But her girlfriends had been in on the secret and were already planning the first cookout of many for Saturday afternoon.

They were back at their new home in less than an hour, and by the time the sun set they had a fire crackling in the fireplace and candles burning on the mantel, along with every other horizontal surface in the spacious room. It was a magical night, one that she would remember for the rest of her life. She and Todd sipped their Boone’s Farm, wishing it were champagne, and toasted their good fortune. They felt all-powerful with their beauty and youth and the future that stretched before them.

BOOK: Cabin by the Lake
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