“I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11
Charlene Cammon gazed through the cabin’s wall of palladium windows to an expanse of dew-kissed Smoky Mountains beyond. Lush evergreens danced in a perfectly-synchronized ballet as a summer breeze sang through arms outstretched to the cerulean sky. After days of rain, not a single cloud hinted. Through the window, the scent of pine swirled to nibble her nose. Beyond the open pasture, like a fragrant green carpet rolled open, the gentle serenade of a lazy river soothed as rivulets turned to diamonds beneath fingers of light.
If Charlene trained her line of vision hard enough through a small grove of trees flanked by a splash of wildflowers, and then continued on down along the river’s edge for a quarter mile or so, she could barely glimpse the outline of another cabin. But that was the extent of the population around here—well, that and the squirrels and an occasional possum she’d noticed on her drive in late last night—that surrounded her. No traffic, no crowds, and no Internet, except for what she was able to access on her iPhone. And that, thankfully, proved to be iffy, at best. If she stood on the front porch with her arm stretched toward the sky, facing slightly east, and the air was clear…
Anyway, there was nobody bombarding her day and night for interviews, book-signings or battles over edits. Just coffee and the plethora of thoughts scrambled in her brain like a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.
The setting here in the Smokies of East Tennessee proved to be beautiful, pristine…all but perfect. So, why did she suffer from an oddly uncomfortable churning in her belly? What was the problem that seemed to follow her wherever she went lately?
Charlene tore her gaze from a flock of birds that swooped in on a cacophonous symphony of chatter to alight in the grove of trees. She turned back to the laptop she’d opened and queued on the desk in front of her. The screen stared back at her, filled with a single page as empty and white as a Siberian crevasse. Things were not exactly going as planned. She’d expected to awaken this morning to ideas that had somehow magically been infused into her brain while she dreamed. She’d write the next great American novel—or at least the inspirational romance she’d been contracted to crank out—in record time and then head back to the city. The book would prove to be another bestseller, right?
Wrong. Forget the bestseller status. As things now stood, it failed to be even a glimmer on the radar. Instead, Charlene struggled to type a single word onto the page. This morning she woke to find there was no magic—nothing—waiting for her to discover. Not even a shard of coal in the proverbial stocking.
Absolutely, positively nothing had come to mind as she slept—nor did it now, three long and painful hours later. Not a single creative thought—not one fleeting idea. The story Charlene had so painstakingly mentally plotted and planned months ago when she’d pitched the anemic synopsis to her editor was now dead before it even hit the hard drive. The intention to finish (actually, to get started) was there but the words Charlene was looking for…well, they just refused to cooperate.
Charlene figured it was sort of like craving the most scrumptious chocolate layer cake complete with indulgent fudge filling, a light buttercream frosting adorned with slivers of chocolate, and perhaps a handful of ripened cherries nestled on top. With an award-winning recipe located and the go-ahead given, production soon commenced. But, upon further inspection of the necessary supplies, no vanilla extract could be found in the pantry, no cocoa powder and only one egg instead of three. And the chocolate shavings...well, they would be AWOL, as well. Forget the cherries.
And, to top things off, in this baking scenario all the stores are suddenly and inexplicably closed—no, they’ve gone out of business—so there’ll be no blue-ribbon chocolate layer cake unless things get very creative in the kitchen.
Creative…not happening in this kitchen and not in the office—well, technically Charlene assumed it was not an office but actually a loft because of the sofa-sleeper tucked into one corner—either. Not here and not today, at least as far as she could tell.
So, instead of the story waiting to be written, Charlene’s thoughts drifted back to the city—and to Tom. What a heel he’d turned out to be. With thoughts of the man she’d dated for nearly a year came a sharp jab of pain. She knew now what it felt like to be dumped. For nearly half-a-decade she’d sprinkled the heart-tugging heroine-gets-jilted storyline into her romances here and there, but she’d never experienced such a heartbreaking debacle firsthand.
The clipped, stabbing words he’d so carelessly slung at Charlene crashed through her mind…
“You’re busy all the time now, Charlene. Your nose is always buried in a notebook, and even when it’s not, that faraway look…well, I can practically hear the story wheels spinning. Your deadlines have trumped our relationship and you have, in effect, sliced me right out of the picture. And now you have a string of book-signings coming up.” He’d shaken his head at her, his gaze cold and condescending. “It’s just not working for me anymore. You’ve changed…”
He didn’t want her to do the book-signings? Charlene had been blind-sided by the realization. In the beginning, at the onset of their relationship, he’d been loving and supportive. But slowly he had begun to resent her writing and all that it brought.
It had been a lot of work to get where she now stood—to climb the mountain, so to speak. Had the success changed her?
Since the night Tom walked out on her six months ago, Charlene’s muse had gone dry as the Sahara Desert, which wasn’t working for her at all. Writing was her lifeblood, her job for goodness sake. She’d taken a leap of faith and quit her day job as kindergarten teacher to make it happen. She had no intention of returning to the classroom, yet a lack of written words equaled no book releases and thus, no income.
Hello runny noses and untied shoelaces. Bring on story time and the scissors and glue.
No, though she’d loved the time she’d spent in the classroom and there were days she missed sharing stories and instilling a love of learning in the children who crossed the threshold into her room, she couldn’t go back. Because even more meaningful than the income, writing made her feel alive. Why couldn’t Tom understand that—any of that? Why hadn’t he tried just a little bit harder to figure her out?
Because he didn’t fully love her, that was why. At least that was her best friend Brynn’s take on things when Charlene stumbled onto the doorstep of the apartment they shared downtown, sobbing, to pour out the story. As the shock cleared, Charlene realized Brynn was right and Tom’s jilting didn’t really come as a surprise at all. The signs had been revealing his lack of commitment for weeks, maybe even months. Charlene had just been avoiding the obvious. Now she saw through new eyes and she was thankful to have learned the lesson earlier rather than later.
Once her tears had dried, a thin veil of anger set in. As the CEO of an investment company, Tom hadn’t had any trouble leaving Charlene behind as he jetted to the corners of the country on business trips several times a month. Yet Charlene always managed to welcome him back with open arms and a hot meal. She’d supported him at every turn, looking toward what she hoped would be a bright future together. She had offered him her heart and her love but, in the end, he had failed to do the same for her.
No point in mulling it over now. The relationship had fizzled and died…end of story. Not exactly the happy ending had expected.
Yes, the implosion of her and Tom’s dating life would make a neat little twist to the plot. But the twists and turns made up Charlene’s real-life story—not the one waiting to be written.
An impending deadline loomed and Charlene needed to hustle. At the rate she was going, she’d never finish another book ever again.
The thought sent chills through her, and she reached for her coffee mug. More java…she needed more. That was it, the caffeine would help. Perhaps another cup of coffee and a brisk walk along the river would get her creative juices flowing. The mountains…the river seemed to call to her. Why not take a break and clear her head. Sitting here was doing no good at all.
She closed the laptop and pushed back from the desk, stretching kinks from her back and neck as she rose. Both maladies came with the writing territory and usually she didn’t mind suffering through them because a sore neck equated to a higher word count. But today there was nothing to show for the stiffness along her spine—or the soreness in her backside—so she merely grimaced and sighed.
As she turned from the window a flash of red caught her eye through the glass. Near a grove of trees along the river’s edge she saw something skitter across an outcropping of rocks. She watched, holding her breath. Was it a bear? Brynn had cautioned that black bears made their home here, and deer as well, but Charlene had yet to see either.
Of course, she’d arrived merely a dozen hours ago following her final book signing of the most recent tour, and had pulled into the drive in the dark of night.
She expelled her breath, laughing out loud. Of course whatever she’d caught a glimpse of—if indeed her eyes weren’t playing tricks with her—wasn’t a bear. After all, bears didn’t dress in red—or anything else, for that matter. There was nothing to be afraid of. A walk would do her good.
Charlene padded down the stairs and into the kitchen. She found her hiking boots strewn at the back door where she’d kicked them to the side last night. One small suitcase sat on the kitchen table and she knew two more waited in the living room while a fourth rested at the foot of the bed she’d slept in last night. She’d packed with plans to spend the summer here—or at least as long as it took for her to finish the book she was working on.
Sort of working on…right? And at this rate it might take a year.
Thank goodness for Brynn and her gentle—OK, not so gentle—nudge to get away from the city for a while. She’d found this cabin for Charlene and had even worked out the details of the booking. Apparently she had connections with the owner through her work as an ER nurse at County General. Merely one day ago she’d handed Charlene the keys and paperwork for a two-month lease with the option to remain for a third month, and said good bye to her with a not-so-gentle shove through the apartment door.
The rest was history. Well, not yet, but it would be soon enough.
Charlene tugged on the boots, laced them and then took a moment to run her fingers through her unruly mass of hair. She’d slept hard on it and now the curls that spilled nearly to her waist were a bit tangled and matted. Not that it mattered…chances of running into anyone on her walk were about one in a million.
She filled her coffee mug with what remained in the coffeemaker’s glass carafe and carried the ceramic with her as she went. Thank God for the homey accommodations of a full kitchen and a small but sufficient laundry closet set off to the side. Perhaps later she’d indulge in the garden tub, complete with jets, she’d discovered in the master bath.
The cabin was a winner, and the price was more than reasonable. Given the cost, Charlene had half-expected to find a dump. But Brynn had hit a grand slam when she booked this place. Charlene checked the counter where her cell phone sat, charging. She’d have to give Brynn a call later and thank her.
But, for now, Charlene locked the cabin’s front door and tucked the key into her pocket. She did a perfunctory sweep of the pasture-like yard—just in case a bear decided to say a morning hello—before setting off toward the river.
Gage Kenner tossed fishing tackle to the side as he searched for the perfect materials for today’s fishing jaunt. Catching flathead catfish could be tricky, especially this time of year, and it took a strong line and a sturdy hook to do the job. Today, Jenna wanted to join him. Maybe sitting along the river together—if Gage could get the kid to sit still long enough—would give her the chance to open up to him a little. She said she wanted to come along, and she’d spent the morning digging up night crawlers and then dumping them into a plastic container that had holes poked into the lid. He’d see what she was made of when it came time to bait the hook.
When it came right down to it, since Jenna had mentioned she’d like to cast a line, fishing was just about the only thing Gage figured he had in common with his eight-year-old niece. So he was doing his best to gather the tackle together and get going. But the last guest who’d stayed here in this cabin had made a mess of things in the equipment room, so it was taking a bit longer than he expected. Usually he and Scott made rounds once a month or so to check on things at the pair of cabins they owned together, though the drive was quite a haul from the city, but a lot had changed over the past several months—too much—and Gage had neglected the inspections. He’d been,
Boy had it. In Gage’s wildest dreams—scratch that, nightmares—he could have never imagined the turn of events his life would take. Who knew a trip to the obstetrician would send his brother and sister-in-law to their early graves and his niece to live with…him? Three years ago, when Scott and Sarah had mentioned they’d drawn up a will, making him Jenna’s guardian in the event of their demise, it had seemed an unnecessary formality—not something that might actually ever come to fruition. But indeed that was exactly what had happened—nearly four months ago.
A lifetime ago.
Jenna still cried herself to sleep without fail every night, and when she wasn’t crying lately a sullen look usually masked her freckle-dusted face. Gage just couldn’t seem to connect with her and at every turn he felt like a failure. The grief counselor said to give it time; there’s no handbook for uncles who become built-in daddies overnight.
Daddies…he was now a daddy. It was sort of like living in an alternate dimension. Daddy was a word that had been banned from Gage’s vocabulary up until the fourteenth of February—Valentine’s Day. Now it had morphed to a living, breathing reality. Gage oscillated between being furious with his older brother for dying and leaving him here alone to sort out the pieces of this mess—and heartbroken because he missed Scott so terribly that at times it seemed nearly impossible to breathe.
Yet Gage had to be strong for Jenna. Tears might be shed, but, barring the funeral, Gage chose to mourn privately. Public bouts of sobbing were Jenna’s alone—at least as far as the kid knew. Seeing Gage’s tears would do nothing but set her back, and that was the last thing either of them needed.
Gage craned his ear toward the yard. Was the kid crying now? She’d woken up with wet streaks running along her cheeks, but had still somehow managed to devour the bread he’d toasted and slathered with strawberry jam. Then, without so much as changing out of her pajamas or combing her hair she’d dashed off through the yard with Bandit barking at her heels. What a contrast the two made…Jenna small, slim, and delicate for her age, while the hulking tan and black Mastiff lumbered behind, herding her like a stray calf. Gage was thankful for the intelligent and kid-friendly beast who’d come to live with him nearly two years ago. Even if Gage himself had failed to make a connection with Jenna, Bandit had somehow managed the next-to-impossible in merely an instant.
“Jenna!” Gage called toward the doorway. She’d been quiet for a while, and Bandit was nowhere to be seen, either. That usually signaled both were into something they shouldn’t be. He just prayed this time it didn’t include chasing and corralling skunks. Gage could understand Bandit’s curiosity concerning the wildlife found here in the cove. But little girls were supposed to be preoccupied with dolls and tea parties and princess movies, weren’t they? Not Jenna…no, his niece was a whirling dervish—full-speed-ahead and into everything, twenty-four seven with no slowing down in sight.
Gage was in serious need of a vacation—a grown-up vacation, not one with an eight-year-old tagging along. His niece should have come with a homing device and a beacon. That would certainly make it easier to keep tabs on her. Each day he respected—and missed—Scott even more. How had his brother managed to keep his wife happy, work, and raise a child without losing his mind?
Gage had no wife, he was on leave from his job, and as far as raising a kid, well, he still hadn’t found his rhythm in that department.
“Jenna…Bandit!” Gage dropped the tackle onto the workbench and side-stepped toward the doorway. He peered out, scanning the yard and then veering off toward the tree line that skirted a section of the river. About half-a-mile down he glimpsed the second guest cabin that he’d owned with Scott—and now managed on his own—nestled into a ridge at the foot of a grove of pines that opened to crisp, summer-green pasture. He’d meant to run by there this morning and check on the guest who had arrived late last night. Most of the people who came to stay were couples who wanted a weekend getaway. But word had it this one had arrived alone and the contract Gage had issued was good for up to three months. Odd…but Brynn Rodale, the ER nurse he’d spent some time working with at County General, had mentioned the friend she’d requested the rental for was some kind of writer named Charlie something-or-other. Cammon, that was it—Charlie Cammon.
Go figure…this Charlie guy was probably one of those weird artsy-fartsy types—a loner who had difficulty making face-to-face conversation and didn’t know the first thing about fishing or sports or…well, fill in the blank. He’d probably keep to himself, which was perfectly fine with Gage. Anyone who spent their life making up stories had to be an odd sort, for sure. Gage, well, he had a hard enough time keeping up with the details of his own life without making them up for someone else’s…especially someone fictional.
Yep, getting over to the cabin wasn’t ranking too high on his list of priorities at the moment. He’d check on Mr. Spin-a-Story later.
Way later…after he located Jenna and Bandit. Now that was quickly shaping up to be a priority.
Where had the kid and the wayward beast-of-a-mutt wandered off to? It wasn’t as if they’d get abducted out here in this stretch of wilderness—beside the second guest cabin down the road there wasn’t another rental place or even a residence, for that matter, for miles.
But the outdoors might prove to be an enemy, Gage realized as a ripple of fear coursed up his spine. Hadn’t he warned Jenna time and again to stay far away from the river while she was playing outside alone? The water level was high right now from a recent deluge of rain and small areas of rapids could be dangerous—especially since Jenna liked to climb the rocks. And, Gage remembered, he’d spotted a black bear while hiking through the backwoods yesterday. Mostly the creatures avoided people unless food was involved—or unless they were provoked by a curious eight-year-old.
Not to mention the snakes and wasps and whatever else might be skulking about. Was Jenna allergic to bee stings? Gage had no idea. He’d learned about her allergy to shellfish when he’d introduced her to shrimp one evening a few weeks ago. That had resulted in difficulty breathing and a harrowing trip to the County General ER.
Good grief. What had Gage been thinking to bring a child—a little girl—out here to the cabin for the entire summer?
Gage jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and drew a deep breath. As an emergency medical pilot and paramedic he’d learned long ago not to panic over anything. He reminded himself that he’d come here with Jenna because she needed time away with him—and his attention—in order to find a path through whatever emotional damage had been wrought by losing not just one but both of her parents in a single, senseless accident. And Gage needed the time to get his head on straight and figure things out. Like it or not, both his and Jenna’s future had been irrevocably detoured to new and unexpected destinations. Somehow, some way, Gage had to unravel a trail that joined the two back together—and he prayed he’d find one sooner rather than later.
Yes, he’d prayed…over and over again. God seemed to be unavailable to his calling. He’d try again later and hope for a different result.
But the praying had to wait. First he needed to locate Jenna. Temper flaring, Gage told himself when he found her he’d shelf the gentle talking-to meant to remind her that it was wrong to wander off. That manner of discipline, for all intents and purposes, had proved to be woefully ineffective. No, this time he’d give her something that would insure she’d remember to keep her feet firmly planted in the vicinity of his vision—where she’d be safe.
Because if anything happened to Jenna, Gage could never forgive himself. He’d given his word to Scott and Sarah that he’d watch over her. He’d promised…
“Bandit, come back here!” Gage took off toward the river, yanking his hands from his pockets to cup them around his mouth as he bellowed once more, much louder, “Jenna!”
Leave a comment below for a chance to win this week's giveaway.