Crouched in the Tennessee mountain brush, Delaney Wilkins pushed up from her knees and moved farther into the thicket for a better view. Beneath the canopy of laurel and oaks, the scent of wet earth and decomposing leaves rose thick in the air around her. She craned her head to look between the trees. Some blackened, others gray, trunks stood in varying stages of decay, victims to the slew of storms that ripped through the area several years back. And among them, two strangers. By the outline of their build, the rough jerk to their movements, they appeared to be men. But gender didn’t matter. Trespassers were trespassers and they were on her land.
Delaney held her breath, suppressing all thought but one. No one was supposed to be in her part of the woods. Did they venture too far off the USFS trail and get lost?
Her instincts hummed. These two were up to no good, she was sure of it.
They seemed too intent on whatever it was they were doing to be lost hikers. She could hear their voices but was unable to make out the details of their conversation, or what—exactly—they were doing. Damn it, she had to get closer.
A quick survey of her surroundings told her the answer wasn’t here. Not unless she wanted to take up cliff diving down the slope before her, causing a ruckus that would obviously reveal her presence. Delaney scanned the upper ridge beyond the men. The trail behind her would take her to the top, but it was a twenty minute hike at a good clip. But they could be gone by then. She dropped her focus back to the strangers. There was one other way. She spied the narrow trail leading off to her left. It was a footpath she had forged years ago, one created as her secret weapon in games of “hide and seek” played with her cousin, Jeremiah Ladd. At one time, she had used the trail to kick his butt. At the moment, it would serve to get her thirty feet closer. Unfortunately, the pace she’d have to travel to remain undetected would have to be excruciatingly slow.
Delaney considered her options. Her Palomino, Sadie, was tied to a post at the base, the landmark her family had built to mark the opening for this trail. If she had to get anywhere fast, she knew Sadie would take her. Physical confrontation didn’t concern her—not with a pistol holstered snug in her boot.
Gravel and sticks crunched behind her. A thunderbolt of fear slammed into her. Shooting hand to boot, she whirled, ready to pounce.
“Hi,” came the hushed greeting.
With a sharp intake of breath, Delaney recovered from the initial shock and took in the unexpected sight of Nick Harris, the real estate developer determined to buy her family’s property—but what the hell was he doing here?
There, in the middle of the path, the six-foot-four man stood like a fool.
“Get down,” she hissed, her pulse continuing to hammer as she waved him toward the ground. Surprise swirled around a sudden suspicion teeming in his swarthy black eyes as he spied the hand sliding free from her boot. With a quick check on her quarry, she growled under her breath, “And be quiet!”
Squatting, he glanced in the direction she’d been looking and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” she said, her focus darting between him and the men. “Why are you following me?”
“I saw your horse tied to the post and became concerned.”
Across the woods, the men rose to their full height and it was then Delaney got her first decent look at them. One was tall and bulky, the other was short and wiry. Wearing tattered cowboy hats and dirty T-shirts, they weren’t tourists. Were they squatters?
Laughter punctuated the quiet, drawing Nick’s quick attention. “Who are they?” he demanded.
“Don’t know,” she replied, wondering what the men would do next.
“Let’s get out of here.” He pulled at her arm. “Those men could be trouble.”
Delaney shot him a hard glance and jerked away from his grasp. “Those men are trespassing on my land. If anyone needs to get out of here, it’s them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “If they’re trespassers, you need to call the police.”
She scoffed at the notion. Calling the police would not help her discover why they were here. It would only alert the men to the fact that she was onto them. The larger man suddenly slapped the shorter on the back and said something, but not loud enough for her to discern the first word. Within minutes, the strangers collected their belongings and took off in the opposite direction.
Delaney shot to her feet. Where were they going? That trail didn’t lead back to the government forest land. It led straight back to her cabin.
“I’m getting you out of here,” Nick said, his voice closing in on her back.
Delaney wasn’t going anywhere, especially with Nick Harris. “I’m going after them,” she said, right after she searched the area below where she’d first seen the men.
“Oh, no you’re not.” Nick encircled a large, firm palm around her bare bicep.
Hot and unwelcome against her skin, his hand tightened. The hair on the nape of her neck prickled in rebellion. She looked up into his face, noting his thick brow gathered in a storm of its own. “Excuse me?”
“I’m not about to let you run off and chase after strangers. Those men could be up to no good.”
“You’re damn right they are—and on my property!” Delaney yanked her arm, only to find it immovable. “Let me go,” she spat.
At the force of his objection, she stopped. Glaring at him, Delaney performed a rapid assessment of the situation. While trained in physical defense, taking on the over two-hundred-some pound muscular Mr. Harris was not what she wanted to be doing at the moment. She wanted to get over there and find out what those two men had been doing. She wanted to follow them to see where they were going. She stared up at Nick, her displeasure intensifying as she noted the hint of amusement in his eyes. “Why are you here again?”
“I told you. I saw your horse back there without you on it.” He relaxed into a smile. “I became concerned.”
Dimples carved into his cheeks on either side of his mouth, compliments to the slight cleft in his chin centered within his angular jaw. Black-brown eyes appeared seamless beneath his heavy brow and deeply tanned skin. His appearance was one of rugged masculinity that seemed right at home in these woods, his short, dark hair rich and full, combed away from his face. But this was Ladd land. Her land. He had no business interfering.
“My whereabouts and well-being are none of your concern,” she said, making no effort to conceal her annoyance at his gallant show of male dominance, “and I hereby officially relieve you of duty. I can take care of myself, thank you.”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
She grumbled under her breath. She could stay and protest, wasting precious time, or she could feign conciliation and take Sadie after the men. No doubt they were taking the back way out. Nick didn’t mention anything about a horse of his own. Delaney savored a private smile, a plan forming in her mind. There was no way he could stop her once on horseback. “Fine,” she retorted and headed back toward the trail, taking the incline in three long strides.
Once on the path, she walked as fast as she could, eager to lose him.
Nick caught up with her easily, matching her stride. “Do you have much trouble around here with trespassing?”
“Some.” Boots jarred her legs as she navigated the hard-packed, uneven clay, littered with rocks and roots. As they walked side-by-side, Delaney couldn’t help but notice her five-foot-five inches and a buck twenty in weight were dwarfed by comparison to Nick.
“How do you handle it?”
Anger rose hot and fast in her breast and she turned on him. “Why? So you can map out a response to silence the trouble, once you swindle the property from my uncle?”
“I’m not trying to swindle the property,” he said, his tone measured and even, as though it required effort for him to remain calm.
“Aren’t you? Ernie already said no. Why are you still here?” she asked, taking him in from the side as she marched down the trail, passing an opening that revealed a river. Water crashed over rocks and gullies and fallen logs as it made its way down. It was Zack’s Falls, one of Ladd Springs’ many assets.
Nick raised his voice over the roar of waterfall. “I’m a patient man, Ms. Wilkins. I understand he needs time to think it over. I’m willing to give it to him.”
“You don’t know my uncle.”
“Why don’t you tell me about him?” he asked, his voice drenched in friendship and camaraderie. “I’m not a bad guy. I’ll make it a win-win proposition for everyone.”
Delaney didn’t like the abrupt switch from rawhide to velvet. Nick was trying to con her and she was not a woman easily conned. Well, not anymore anyway. “No sale,” she told him.
Nick raised a brow. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.” She flipped her face up to meet him directly. “No sale—in every sense of the words.”
Delaney didn’t speak for the remaining ten minute trek to her horse. She had nothing more to say to the man. He was here to get her uncle to sell the property, land that bordered the Tennessee/Carolina state line on one side, the public forest managed by the United States Forest Service on the other, and was chockfull of rivers and creeks, waterfalls and springs. She’d grown up on this land, buried her mother on this land. In her family for over six generations, this property was not only priceless, but of sentimental value. None of which Mr. Harris cared about. He wanted to develop it, build some fancy hotel and spa and exploit the natural resources of the property. He didn’t care what it meant to her family. But that was neither here nor there. Uncle Ernie would not sell to an outsider. At least they had that much in common, Delaney mused sourly, as she pushed a branch out of her way.
The trail opened to a small patch of grassy field, tall strands of willowy green littered with tiny purple and yellow blossoms, butterflies hanging low and plentiful. Between here and the property, a river flowed, the same one that wound down along the trails from Zack’s Falls. Sadie neighed at the sight of her owner and shook her blonde mane in excitement. Warmed by the sight of her mare, Delaney begged off. “Thanks again for your concern, but I’ll be okay from here on out.”
He eyed her warily. “Where you headed?”
“Back to the cabin.” As if it was any of his business. She grabbed the worn leather bridle and unwrapped it from the post. Holding it in her left hand, she seized Sadie’s mane, reached over her back, and hoisted herself up and on, slinging her right leg over the rear end of her horse. Sliding into a seated position front and center behind the horse’s neck, Delaney gently pulled the reins secure and looked down at Nick. It occurred to her that this was a much better view of the man. A handsome man, but a meddling one nonetheless. “See you around.”
“Doesn’t it hurt to ride without a saddle?”
“Not a bit,” she replied. In her book, there was no other way to ride a horse. After a quick rap to her rump, Sadie took off at a gallop, tail waving high and proud.
Nick crossed arms over chest and watched her go. Delaney Wilkins was like poetry in motion. A natural on bareback, she rode with the fluidity gained by a lifetime of experience. Not only did she move as one with her horse, but her skin glowed with the same silky suede coloring of her Palomino, her white blonde hair—a similar glossy mane in both length and style—crashing in waves down her back as she rode. Her light brown tank revealed fit upper arms, small round breasts and a narrow waist. Then there were her jeans. Nick felt a surge in his loins. He’d never met a woman who wore a pair of Levi’s like Delaney did—rough, ragged, the ripped edges of white thread shredding around heavy brown boots, boots that looked to be the one and only pair she owned. Yet somehow he found the shabby attire sexy as hell.
She was sexy as hell. Which would be a bonus if he could convince her to stay on and manage the stables of the hotel he planned to build. And he would build it. Ernie Ladd was a tough old goat, he’d give him that. But when it came to negotiating land deals there was no one better to get the job done than he. Patience was a virtue. Setting fire to greed was part of the process. Nick understood that once the kin folk got wind of the money he was offering, they’d press the old man to sell. Legacy was a powerful driver. But dollars were more powerful.
Nick began the haul back to the main house for another go-round with the old man. He hadn’t added a single new property in over five years, but after the gem he’d opened in the rain forests of Brazil, it was understandable. Visions of a particular brunette slipped into the forefront of his mind, stirring the pot of need. Feisty and fantastic, she had been a great distraction, but so had his attorney. Nick beat the big guys to the punch in securing a property in South Americas’ largest growth market. Fueled by the rising domestic traveler in search of eco-luxury, property value had exploded, but so had his headaches as he fought lawsuit after lawsuit. Most were bogus claims stating he didn’t receive proper authorization from the Brazilian government, while others were straight-up accusations of corruption. None of which were true. Nick played by the rules, even agreed to the extortion tactics for financial contributions to the Amazon rain forest preservation fund. As the leader in boutique eco-hotels, he was more than happy to make these financial contributions. It was his business to conserve resources, work his hotels into the environment with minimal impact. He simply didn’t like to be forced to contribute or be accused of skirting the law. Mandatory anything rubbed him the wrong way. But then again, he had learned a long time ago, greed usurps all. A concept to which his investors were not immune. The pressure to produce was on. Between expensive litigation and a weak economy, Nick needed to inject new excitement into his hotel chain, and Ladd Springs would do the trick.
Nick returned to the farmhouse, the main estate on the property—if one could call it that—and found the man in question sitting in one of two threadbare rockers. The woven backs were torn from years of use and neglect, much like the wood-framed home where eaves hung precariously from rusty nails and posts were scarred by chips and nicks. The floor itself was warped and split, as though someone built the house a hundred years ago and hadn’t touched it since. It was lived in, but not cared for, much like the owner himself. Nick considered the old man, rocking back and forth in his chair, pipe dangling from the corner of his clenched mouth, and could only imagine what the house looked like on the inside, but he didn’t expect an invitation to be forthcoming.
Nick strolled up to the porch. He cleared his throat and donned a friendly tone. “Hello, Mr. Ladd.”
Ernie Ladd regarded him with a guarded stare. “What do you want now?” he spat between the hard line of his lips.
The Ladd clan weren’t an affable bunch, that was for sure. Even the good-looking ones. “I’ve come to talk.”
“We ain’t got nothin’ to talk about, I already told you.”
Nick pasted a smile on his face, a move handy when met with hostility. “I understand. It’s a lot to think about. Have you discussed it with your family?”
“No and I ain’t going to. There’s nothin’ to discuss.”
“Who you talkin’ to, Ernie?” A younger man walked out of the house, allowing the screen door to slam closed behind him with a loud whack. He was slim, early-thirties, with a scruffy jaw that matched the old man’s. The lines in his face were softer, but just as uninviting. Was this Ladd’s son?
“This here land poacher,” Ernie griped back.
“Huh?” The younger man’s expression zipped closed. “What are you talking about?”
Ernie pulled out his pipe and pointed at Nick. “This here fella is trying to rob me of my land, that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Whoa…” Nick held up his hands. “I’m not trying to rob anyone of anything. I’m offering to buy the land, for a pretty penny I might add.” The last part he directed toward the stranger.
“You call that pretty?” Ernie leaped to his feet with more agility than Nick would have believed him capable. Standing on two legs that looked like sticks with knots for knees stuck into work boots that looked three sizes too big, and with his black belt sash pulled high and tight over a bump of a belly, he glared. Beneath his ball cap, Ernie Ladd’s ears poked out and his eyes popped with fury behind large horn-rimmed glasses sitting on the edge of his nose. The man was so bony, so pale, Nick swore his cheeks were about to push clear through his skin. “It’s called stealin’, is what it is!”
“Calm down, Mr. Ladd, calm down.” Last thing Nick needed was for the old man to die of a heart attack. “We can talk price if you want. I’m willing to discuss what you need.”
“He don’t need nothin’ from you,” the younger man piped in.
“And you are?”
“The name is Clem. Clem Sweeney and I’m here caretaker of this property and close personal friend of the family.”
Caretaker? But he thought Delaney took care of the grounds. The horses, for certain, though he recalled mention of another female tied to the property, a friend or neighbor. Was this Clem related somehow?
“It don’t matter,” Ernie grumbled. “I’m not sellin’ to the likes of him.”
“It’s not yours to sell.” Delaney strolled around the edge of the house and trucked up the side steps. All the men turned to her. In no hurry, she appeared more tired than agitated, her long hair pulled back into a ponytail, accentuating the round of her cheeks, her button of a nose. Other than mascara, she wore no makeup, made no fuss with her appearance. But then again, a woman as beautiful as Delaney Wilkins didn’t need the help.
Ernie scowled at her. “Hell it isn’t.”
“It belongs to Felicity,” she said, fatigue escaping in a soft sigh. The rise and fall of her breast became a magnet for his eyes. “Ashley is my witness.”
“That woman is crazy. She don’t know a thing.”
Ashley? Nick turned and caught Clem staring at Delaney, with a flicker of fury. Was there bad blood between them?
“She was my mother’s best friend. I’d say she knows a thing or two about the situation.” Delaney looked to Nick then, brown eyes flashing like a cat’s. “Either way, you’re not part of the equation, Mr. Harris. I’d kindly suggest you begin searching for another property.”
Sounded like a dismissal to him. Too bad he didn’t take hints well. Nick stood firm. “I offered a fair price for the land, Ms. Wilkins. You should talk to your uncle. There would be enough to go around.”
“This isn’t about money, Mr. Harris. But I imagine that’s something you wouldn’t understand.”
If she was trying to insult him, she was going to have to try harder. “I understand perfectly. But sometimes money supersedes sentimentality.” Nick knew for a fact the taxes were due and for the third straight year would go unpaid. “I’d hate to see you lose this property to a stranger.”
“You’re a stranger.”
Touché, he mused. “But I’m offering you a way to stay connected. Or didn’t he tell you?”
She tapped her uncle with a healthy dose of suspicion. “Tell me what?”
“He’s a liar!” Ernie cried and returned to his seat.
Clem was close at his heel, as though soaking it in like a sponge. Was he concerned about losing his job? Was there a piece in it for him? If so, Nick could use his employment to sweeten the deal. Responding to Delaney, he said, “I offered to split off a hundred acres for the family, land you would keep in the deal.”
“Interesting.” She arched a brow toward her uncle. “But no deal. This property belongs to my daughter. Period.”
“Your daughter?” This was the first he’d heard of a daughter—of Delaney’s, or anyone’s. When she didn’t expound, he turned to the old man for answers. “I thought you and your son owned the property.”
“My son doesn’t own nothin’. That’s my father’s name and me.” He jabbed a crooked finger to his chest. “He’s dead which makes me sole owner. Nobody else.”
“This property is my daughter’s rightful inheritance,” Delaney corrected.
Intrigued by the new twist, Nick asked, “How old is she?”
“Should I be having this conversation with her?”
“Not on your life.”
He forced himself not to laugh. Mother Bear just swaggered onto the porch, claws drawn. But it was just as well. Nick didn’t care who he dealt with when it came to the sale. “Does she plan on keeping the property?”
“None of your business.”
Nick took in the lot of them. Opposition to his proposal was the common denominator that bound them together. But staring down the edge of his life, he doubted the old man was looking to get rich. Not at this point in the game. He’d bet his resistance had to do with maintaining control. Ms. Wilkins, on the other hand, was looking out for her daughter’s interests, though he suspected neither had the means to manage or pay for the horses, let alone the taxes and upkeep. One of the little nuggets he discovered from the local town clerk was that Delaney had a good head on her shoulders and a thriving bookkeeping business, but not much in the way of cash in her pocket. Then there was the Sweeney fellow. A man who claimed to be the caretaker, but who Nick’s gut told him was anything but. Well, it shouldn’t be too hard to uncover his stake in the game. Usually it began and ended with green.
“The offer stands, Mr. Ladd. It’s good through the end of the week,” Nick added, tweaking the wrench of pressure. Maybe a time table would be the influence they needed. As it stood, they were pretty hard-nosed against it with nothing to do, but wait until the tax man cometh! Which could take months, years—precious time Nick didn’t have. Not only was he under pressure from his marketing department, but he’d promised investors this project would be started months ago. Nick handed a business card to the younger man, yet settled his gaze upon Delaney, now comfortably leaning against the railing. “If you have any questions, I can be reached at this number. I’m prepared to double my offer.”
“Not interested,” she said.
Clem Sweeney’s small eyes flared as he grabbed the card from Nick.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said, and walked off the porch and back to his shiny black sports sedan.
Clem removed the laser beam from Nick’s back and turned on Ernie. “That man really trying to buy the property?”
“Well, you told him no, didn’t you?”
Ernie whipped around like a mad dog and said, “You heard me, didn’t you?”
“Well…” Clem fiddled with the buckle on his grimy overalls and muttered, “Yes.” He took a step back from the old man. “But did you mean it?”
“Course I did.” Ernie shooed him away and shoved the pipe into his mouth. “I always mean what I say.”
Delaney caught the stony flick in her direction and couldn’t care less. Unlike the rest of the crew, Ernie didn’t intimidate her. He infuriated her. “It’s not yours to sell, Ernie.”
“It’s mine, I tell you—it’s mine and you can’t tell me what to do!”
Ignoring his heated outburst, she shook her head. “This property goes to Felicity.” She pushed off from the railing and strode over to him. Delaney bent down so he wouldn’t miss a single word. The stench of tobacco rising from him would have made her gag—if she weren’t so damn mad. “You made a deathbed promise to my mother that you would give this property to Felicity.” Not her. Of course, not her.
“When did you get so greedy?” he asked her, the skin of his balding forehead coloring to a mix of crimson and ash. “Your mother wasn’t like this.”
“My mother kept her word. She expects you to keep yours.”
Delaney knew she’d just made a direct hit, deep into his heart. Outside of his own mother, his sister was the only one who ever loved him. She cherished him and had she still been alive, would be caring for him now. From cleaning his house to laundering his clothes and cooking his meals, Susannah Ladd would have done it all with a light spirit and loving heart. That was her way.
She’d still be taking care of him, too, had he seen fit to take care of her. If he had paid for her treatment, her mother would have seen a specialist who could have helped her. But he didn’t. Instead, he’d raged at the doctors for diagnosing her in the first place and refused to give them a dime more. Ribbons of melancholy wound around Delaney’s soul. Her mother died as a result and it was because of him.
“You gonna let her talk like that to you?” Clem demanded.
“Stay out of this, Clem.” Delaney raised a hard finger and pointed it directly into his face. “This is none of your affair.”
“Listen here, missy, you don’t treat my friends that way,” Ernie interjected. “Why, I have a notion to give this property to Clem,” he waved a hand to his side. “The way he’s been lookin’ after me all these years, he deserves it, unlike the rest of you lazy-good-for-nothings.”
Delaney frowned. Though one wouldn’t know it to look at him, Ernie Ladd was a wealthy man. Not by his own hand, but his father’s. Grandpa Ladd inherited almost two thousand acres of land—beautiful land—land that became a hot commodity in the world of real estate. One of the most incredible tracts of unspoiled land in eastern Tennessee, it had been in the Ladd family for as long as anyone could remember, giving home to generation after generation. Lush with trees and valleys, creeks and falls and springs, the property became the envy of the state. Everyone had heard of Ladd Springs. Some claimed the springs were akin to the fountain of youth. But with envy came greed. Thirty years back, Grandpa Ladd sold off half of it to a developer. In one day, with the swipe of a pen, mountains and streams that had belonged to her family for over three hundred years were gone. And why?
Because he didn’t want to work anymore. Grandpa Ladd wanted to stay home and make moonshine. What a waste. Not only did he sell a section, but he forbade the extended family from setting the first toe on the remainder. It was his, he said, and his alone. When he died, it went to his oldest son, Ernest Lowry Ladd. Grandpa Ladd made sure of it by putting Uncle Ernie’s name on the title before he passed. Ernie’s brother Albert was a good-for-nothing-loafer and not entitled to a dime, he’d said. And women? Well, according to him, women shouldn’t own property. He viewed them as simply another expense in life, a mouth to feed.
So Ernie Ladd became sole owner of Ladd Springs, inheriting the remainder of his father’s money as well. Delaney knew for a fact there was almost a quarter of a million dollars left in his account, yet he wasn’t paying the taxes. Stubborn fool. Eventually the two issues would cross paths and Ladd Springs would be caught in the middle. “Mom wanted this property to stay in the family and I intend to see that it does.”
Ernie stuck out his chest. “I decide what happens from here.”
No surprise, Ernie was back in full fighting mode. But the saddest part was that he was dying of cancer. Cancer. The doctors told him he had a few years at best, but instead of enjoying his last days on God’s green earth, he chose to fight.
Fight—to his dying day. Ernie would rather jeopardize the Ladd Springs legacy than leave it to her. And now he was threatening to give it to Clem?
Delaney shook her head and walked toward the steps. No way in hell would Clem Sweeney take ownership of her home, but at this point, it was a matter for the courts. If Ernie remained firm in his commitment to deny his son Jeremiah any right of inheritance, then Delaney and Felicity were it as the only other blood relatives,. In Delaney’s mind, there was no reason for him to go back on his promise to his sister. Susannah made him swear that the property would stay within the family, and that he would take care of Delaney and Felicity—to which Ernie agreed. Wrote it down so Susannah could see it with her own eyes. Albert would be looked after, of course, maintaining his right to live on the property until his dying day. His two sons were another story. One was in jail, the other on the run.
Jeremiah could certainly contest the transfer, but it was unlikely he would. Gone for twenty years now, he wasn’t in the picture and no one around here would draw him in. Even his ex-girlfriend Annie Owens wouldn’t call him, and she claimed to be the mother of his child—the same child she was squawking about getting rights to the property for. As if Ernie would ever agree to giving Jeremiah’s offspring rights.
As it stood, if Ernie continued to refuse, it would leave Delaney to deal with the probate process. It was a headache she didn’t need, one her mother would have never wanted her to endure.
“I’m going home,” Delaney announced. She’d get nowhere arguing another second with the man. “I’ll have Felicity come by around eight.”
Like a pacifier to a babe, it settled the issue as she knew it would. For all her uncle’s bluster and blow, he had a soft spot for Felicity. Delaney rounded the railing and caught the intensity in the gaze Clem fastened on her uncle. It struck her as odd, coming from the dullest tool in the shed. She hesitated. Was she missing something?
When Clem realized she was staring at him, he cleared his expression, replacing it with sugar and sunshine. “Have a good evening, Dell.”
Unsettled by Clem’s sudden shift, Delaney returned to her hillside cabin. Located behind the main house, her small home was situated on the ridge about twenty yards up, tucked away within a cluster of trees and rocks. It was accessible only by a narrow, winding trail—a steep path which she climbed with ease. Ease, because she’d been hiking it for years. Upon reaching the top, she was only mildly winded and closed the distance to the tidy hideaway that once belonged to her mother.
Built from roughhewn logs secured together by thick swaths of cement, it was square in shape, single story with a tiny loft. It was precariously perched on the mountain’s edge, built for her by Uncle Ernie and Albert during high school. They dubbed it her private little corner of heaven. Tears pricked at the memory. It was her mother’s special place, the safe haven she sought when she needed to get away from the stress of life, the demands of family, the gruff presence of her father. Grandpa Ladd was no different from Ernie in that both were thorny by nature, the elder compounding trouble when he drank, swelling his heart with anger and his mouth with obscenity. Delaney remembered bits and pieces of his rage from her own childhood, but it was the tales Uncle Albert told that set her heart on fire. Not only was Grandpa Ladd’s heart hard as rock, but his hand was swift with a belt, whipping the boys on a regular basis. Knowing them as she did now, Delaney could understand they might have deserved some of it, at least on occasion. But her mother?
The bastard even took the leather strap to her. Delaney grabbed a sanded smooth railing, kicking her boots hard against the top porch step to remove as much dirt as she could.
Thinking back, Delaney couldn’t imagine her mom enduring anything so brutal, yet she never once mentioned it, never once spoke a cross word against her father. Granted her mom didn’t speak many kind words either, but from what Delaney had learned, the man deserved a tongue lashing and then some. Checking her boots, she grunted. The stuff stuck like glue, more a mix of wet dirt and heavy clay. Nothing short of scrubbing the boots clean or soaking them in the creek would do the trick, but she kicked off as much as she could.
Whatever. She jogged up the steps. None of it would see the inside of the cabin. Delaney had a rule against shoes in the house, same as her mother before her. Stopping at the engraved glass front door—the glass panel an antique she picked up at a local junkyard—Delaney tugged her boots free and set them alongside the welcome mat. Felicity could sweep the rest of it off the porch this evening, once she returned from her visit with Ernie.
Inside, the smooth wood floors felt comforting to her socked feet. Turning on the chandelier, a petite wrought iron piece she’d picked up at an antique store in town, she breathed easy. Coming home was like stepping into another world, a world free of trouble and stress, where she could unplug and get back to the basics of living. Like food. The bag of fresh okra in her refrigerator promised a delicious addition to her fried chicken tonight. Her energy pitched and heaved in a sudden wave of exhaustion, but she had to hurry. Felicity would be home shortly and she needed to get dinner started.
An hour later, Delaney reached into the oven and pulled the tray of cornbread from the oven, the sweet scent of corn billowing in a hot cloud around her face. At the sound of scuffling on the porch deck, she turned to see her daughter’s slender figure through the glass.
Within seconds, Felicity let herself in, her pink socks stark against the wood floors as she breezed indoors. “Smells good in here.”
“Best air freshener known to man,” Delaney replied, bumping the oven door closed with her knee, placing the pan of golden bread loaves on the waiting quilted pad. The fried chicken was cooling on a platter lined with paper towels and covered with foil while the okra continued to sizzle stovetop in a cast iron pan.
“You won’t hear any complaints from me.” Easing the backpack from her shoulder, Felicity set it down beside the leather sofa and joined her mother in the kitchen. “I’m hungry.”
“Good. I made extra. Thought you could take a few with you for Ernie.”
She nodded. “He loves your cornbread.”
But never said a word to her about it. Not once, not ever, not so much as a thank you. He reserved compliments for one person only. Felicity. Delaney considered her child. From her delicate features and soft-spoken manner to the tender shade of strawberry blonde hair currently pulled back into a ponytail, Felicity reminded Ernie of his sister Susannah. Not only was she the spitting image, she treated him with the same gentle affection, despite his carrying on. Delaney lightly pinched Felicity’s chin. “He’s lucky to have you.”
She waved off the praise. “He’s not so bad. And he gives me an opportunity to practice. Let’s me play anything I want.”
“Because everything you play is beautiful.”
“She rolled her eyes. “Mom.”
It was a ritual Felicity had begun less than a year ago, but one the man now lived for. Each and every night, she sat and played her flute for him. Soft and serene, like a beast lulled to submission, he sat and listened to her play. Song after song, she practiced her craft. Fluting was Felicity’s passion. One day, she hoped to play professionally as part of an orchestra, but that was only a dream. Her grades were good, earning her a partial scholarship, but it only covered the first year. Delaney’s fear was that she wouldn’t be able to afford the next three.
“Don’t ‘mom’ me. It’s true. You need to further your training, and why he doesn’t see that is beyond me. We need title to the property so we can sign on for the logging before they go elsewhere.”
Felicity’s hazel gaze clouded. “Are you sure that won’t ruin the land?”
Delaney wiped her palms against the white cotton apron tied at her waist. “You won’t even notice. They want to work the north side of the property. A patch of about a hundred acres. We’ll never see them.”
Felicity sank to a barstool. “A hundred seems so much…”
“Clearing the forest is good for the land,” Delaney told her. “The trees will grow back and we’ll have plenty enough money to pay the property taxes and your tuition.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t go to UT. It’s causing so much trouble—”
Delaney held up a stiff hand. “I don’t ever want to hear those words come out of your mouth again. You’re going. That’s final.”
Felicity’s small mouth closed as instructed, but the hint of frown upset Delaney. Her daughter should not feel guilty about getting an education. She shouldn’t be dragged into the mess of Ernie’s foul disposition, nor should she have to endure threats from a complete stranger. Nick Harris’s image formed in her mind. While the man seemed nice enough, looked nice enough—nicer than anyone would ever hear her admit to—he did not have her daughter’s best interests at heart. He wanted this land for himself, for his hotel. Delaney needed it for her family, her daughter’s future. The two were incompatible goals.
Delaney brushed the stressful thoughts from her head, hushed the clamor of her pulse. She didn’t want to think about it right now. She wanted to enjoy Felicity. Loosening a mini loaf of cornbread from the black iron bake pan, Delaney slathered it with butter, set it on a plate and slid it toward her daughter. “So how was school?”
“Good.” Felicity picked up the yellow bread and held it before her mouth. “The Parker boys asked me to be their date for their graduation party.”
Delaney gaped at her. “Both of them?”
Felicity smiled and said, “It’s the current running joke between them.” She bit off the end of the bread.
Identical twins, they forever teased Felicity. They claimed to have lost their combined heart to her—it was she who had to choose. “And you said?”
“Told them I’d have to think about it.” She cast a dramatic gaze toward the ceiling and said, “Because they’re so different, I’d have to decide what kind of night I want grad night to be—fun or funner.” She giggled. “It’s such a dilemma!”
“Funner is not a word.” Delaney dipped her chin and peered at her daughter. “Please tell me I’m not wasting my money on flute lessons when you should be tutored in grammar.”
Just joking. Delaney shook her head at the incessant “text turned speech.” JK. IDK. LOL. It was like some kind of new language with these kids.
Felicity peeked beneath the foil of fried okra. “Are these from Ashley’s garden?”
“They are. Picked them myself.”
“Travis and Troy want to go riding this weekend. Is that okay?”
The mention of riding led Delaney’s thoughts back to this afternoon. “Yes. But I don’t want you in the woods by yourself.”
She furrowed her brow. “Since when?”
Since we have strangers lurking between the trees. “Since today.”
It was Felicity’s one word rebuttal spoken with emphasis to insist, I’m an adult now. You can be honest with me. On one level, that was true. But her daughter was not strong on self-defense. It wasn’t in her nature. “There’s been some trouble with trespassing,” Delaney informed her. “And until we can get a handle on it, I don’t want you out there by yourself.”
Delaney knew Felicity understood. Ladd Springs adjoined the USFS—public land—and it happened that on occasion people ventured onto private property. That property was Ladd property. But to do so, they had to ignore posted signs against trespassing, which meant anyone on their land were people willing to ignore the rules. Not exactly the nicest slice of population.
“Okay,” Felicity agreed. “I’ll make the boys stay with me.”
“Tough life you have,” Delaney teased, breathing a sigh of relief as she tested the temperature of her bread. Her daughter was mature. She knew there was danger out in the world and she was willing to be smart about it. While she refused her mother’s offer to teach her how to shoot, Felicity wouldn’t purposefully test fate.
After dinner, tray of cornbread warmed by the oven in one hand, her long, slim, velvet flute case in the other, Felicity traversed the path with ease, careful not to slide on the rocks as she took her shortcut down to Uncle Ernie’s house. Leaping over a rock, she hit level ground with a thud, raising both plate and case in sync to keep them level. Crossing the narrow bridge, she took in the thick scent of trees in the air, the moist smell of earth, the constant movement in the creek below. She loved being outdoors. Felicity could almost feel the crisp chill to the water, the slimy texture to the rounded rocks that shifted in color from tans and browns to grays and blacks. The wall of trees surrounding the small clearing was drenched in gold, the sky a gorgeous blend of violet, blue and orange. Early May, days were longer now, leaving plenty enough sunlight to light her way. But later, when the night turned black, her mom would insist on making the return trip with her. It was her prerogative, she’d claimed.
Not that she didn’t appreciate her mother’s watchful eye, she did. She understood where her mother’s over-protectiveness came from and understood it would not change. Ever. Actually, she considered herself fortunate to have a mother who cared so much. So many kids at school didn’t. Half their parents were gone, the other half present but checked out. Unlike the Parker boys. Their mom and dad were checked in and totally charged. Actually, their house ran like a zoo, the back door swinging open and closed as kids came and went. Travis and Troy were the youngest of eight, or as Mrs. Parker called them, “momma’s little surprise bundle at the end of the litter.”
Felicity smiled as she recalled their dual request for her company to the prom. Felicity, we’ve wrestled four times and are two for two. Either you choose, or one of us gets hurt.
I’ll go with both of you. She giggled, pleased with herself. She adored the attention, but truth be known, there was only one Parker boy for her. Boots clapping up the steps, Felicity tucked visions of him away and rapped on the wood door. “Uncle Ernie, I’m here!”
Letting herself in, she saw her uncle teetering down the stairs. “Well, you don’t have to yell about it.”
Felicity’s instincts were to rush over and steady him as he made his way down, but the one time she did he got mad at her. “I don’t need no help gettin’ around my house,” he’d hollered. So rather than assist, she patiently waited until he landed on the bottom step, his white knuckle grip locked solid around the wooden post. She held out the tinfoil-covered paper plate. “Mom made cornbread.”
He eyed it warily. “It any good?”
Felicity suppressed a smile. Uncle Ernie was so suspicious. He acted like it was tainted with poison! “You know it’s the best.”
“I don’t know any such thing,” he grumbled under his breath. “But I’ll trust your word.”
As expected. Felicity put the bread on the bulky coffee table, the top made from old planks salvaged from the barn that used to sit on the property, the legs knotty sticks made from pine branches. “I learned a new piece this week.”
“Alrighty.” Ernie ambled over and settled himself in his Lazy-Boy, the seams of which were split open on a top corner. Shifting his weight from side to side, he wedged himself into the seat, his body fitting into the ratty piece of furniture as if he were part of it. “Okay, honey. Play away.”
Albert Ladd trudged in from the kitchen. On the heavy side, he moved at the speed of molasses. Dressed in denim coveralls and white T-shirt, Felicity never saw him in anything else, nor did it seem like he ever combed the thin hair that fell from his bald head. Long and stringy, it hung clear down to his shoulders and looked downright un-kept. But that was her great uncle, bless his heart.
“Did I hear the princess?” he asked.
She grinned. “Hi, Uncle Albert.”
“You gonna play us a song?” he asked, and walked slowly to his chair.
“Yes, and it’s a new one.” Retrieving the shiny flute from its black velvet case, she pulled a sheet of music from her portfolio, set it on its stand and prepared to play. Shaking the hair from her face, Felicity brought the mouthpiece to her puckered lips and warmed up by blowing a steady stream of air into the instrument.
Hands folded across his small protrusion of a belly, Uncle Ernie laid his head back against the chair and closed his eyes.
Felicity straightened. She pulled her abdomen in, focused on her diaphragm, aligned her fingers on the keys and blew a steady stream of air into the flute as she held it high to her side to her side. Breathing in and out, she played a tune composed by Charles Griffes. The piece reminded her of the ebb and flow of the property’s numerous streams and creeks, sweeping rhythm moving high and low, spanning a broad range of timbre. Along the waterways were her favorite spots, the ones she sat by for hours. When she was younger, she used to sit by the water and read. Now, she played the flute. Slow, fast, her fingers danced along its length, hitting keys in rapid succession as she released herself to the power of the music. Swinging and bowing, her head and arms moved in rhythm as she played, dipping and pausing, escalating the pace toward the grand finale.
The door slammed . Felicity cried out, her breath expelled in a rush of fright.
Ernie shot forward in his chair.
Clem Sweeney stood just inside the threshold.
“Damn it, Clem! You nearly gave me a heart attack!”
Tall and lanky, his blue plaid shirt looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. “Sounds like an angel is playin’ in here,” he said, his smile dripping with creep.
Felicity’s heart thudded hard against her ribs. She swallowed hard. Clem was not one of her favorite people. He was rude, crude, and took every opportunity to leer at her whenever she was within eyesight. Her mother didn’t care for him either. She grew up with the man, so she should know. And if she knew he was here, she’d have a fit.
Drawn to the plate on the table, Clem stepped forward. “Is that cornbread I smell?”
“It’s mine,” Ernie warned him, “so keep your grubby hands off it.”
Albert watched the exchange wordlessly.
“Felicity here make it?” he asked greedily, though the hunger she discerned in his eyes had nothing do with the food.
Felicity stood. “I should go.” She glanced between the two men, her mood for music dunked in ice water. She didn’t want to be anywhere near this man.
“Sit down—you’re not going anywhere,” Ernie commanded. “Clem’s the one who has to go.”
“But we have a meeting,” Clem said, his attention jarred free from her, latching on to Ernie. “You scheduled it yourself.”
“It can wait.”
A meeting? Felicity’s mind whirred as she glanced between the two. What could these two possibly have to meet about?
“I ain’t waitin’ no more. You put me off last night, and now I’m here.”
Ernie’s eyes practically popped out of his bony skull. “You keep this up, and I’m not givin’ you a thing.”
The image of her Uncle Ernie frightened her, more skeleton with eyes than old man with a beating heart. But the comment served to silence Clem. Hurriedly, Felicity collected her instrument and music, closed up her case. Tucking the portfolio under an arm, she turned for the door. Through the front windows, she could see the sun had almost set. If she hurried, she could make it before complete dark. “I’ll come back tomorrow.”
Moving past Clem, she held her breath against the stench of cigarette smoke that clung to him—it was in his clothes, his hair and from experience she knew that if she looked, she’d see nicotine stains on his fingers, too.
Fleeing the cabin, Felicity dashed down the steps and over the creek bridge, her heart pounding. But more than the initial surprise from Clem’s arrival, it was nerves that battered at her now. Her mother’s warning about trespassers slithered up her spine. The sound of rushing creek and whisper of wind usually appealed to her, but at the moment only served to scare her.
Forcing her legs to keep pace, she trekked up the path to her home. Her mother would not be happy knowing Clem showed up. Nor would she like the fact that her daughter had decided to make the trip back on her own. But taking the time to call for her mother’s escort seemed silly and would keep her near the wretched man all the longer.
A branch snapped in the woods below her. Felicity froze at the sound—but only for a second. Was someone there? Her heart kicked into overdrive, adrenaline pummeling her muscles into action. It could be a deer or a rabbit. It could be a bear.
Making it to the porch, she ran up the steps, not pausing until she was at her front door and her mother’s figure was in sight through the glass. Felicity breathed in and out, calming her pulse. As she gathered her wits, the door opened in a rush.
“What are you doing here?”
Partly relieved by her mom’s aggressive stance, the lamplight washing over her, Felicity lifted her pant legs to remove her boots. “I left early,” she said, purposefully vague. Although grateful for the safety of her mother’s strength, she didn’t want to worry her.
“Why didn’t you call me? It’s dark outside.”
“It wasn’t when I left,” Felicity said.
Her mother walked inside and closed the door behind her. “You know how I feel about it, Felicity.”
The hard edge in her mother’s voice demanded explanation. She turned. Met by the expected displeasure circling like wolves, she said, “Clem Sweeney showed up so I left. But, honest, it was still kinda light out. I figured if I hurried, I could make it.”
Her mother stilled. “What was Clem doing there?”
Working to smooth out the final bumps in her pulse, Felicity replied, “I don’t know. He said something about a meeting.”
“A meeting?” She paused. “What does he have to meet with Ernie about?”
Felicity relayed the conversation and her mother frowned. “You stay away from him, you hear me?”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Felicity nodded. There would be no argument on that point.