Hanna settled into her desk chair and started a to-do list: help with dinner cleanup, get groceries, cancel the help-wanted ad for the trekker.
Satisfaction flowed through her as she mentally checked off the task of finding a guide. That was one big burden off her mind. And the phone calls she’d made this afternoon totally relieved her of all skepticism about Micah Gallagher. The pastor had great things to say about the man. Words like integrity and hardworking had been used to describe him. And the fact that he attended church every week further convinced her that he wasn’t a thief or mass murderer.
She had almost decided against calling the foster father, but her inner sense of security demanded she be extradiligent about screening her new climber. The foster father had reiterated everything the pastor had said and had added independent and loyal to the list of adjectives describing him. Micah’s climber friends were both away on trips of their own, but the receptionist confirmed that Micah had been lead trekker for the past few years.
She would offer Micah the job this afternoon if she saw him again. He obviously needed a place to stay, so she’d just need to subtract the cost of lodging from the figure she’d planned to pay. Having him right on site was a positive, anyway. If guests decided on a spur-of-the-moment trip, he’d be available. He might not even want the job when he heard what she paid. His salary was probably higher at the Majestic than she could afford.
Part of her almost wished he would turn down the job—the part of her that was drawn to him. It had been a long time since she’d been drawn to any man, and her one and only experience with a relationship made her even more timid about having Micah around all the time. In many ways, it had been a typical college romance, but Hanna had only been able to open her heart to a point. Jess had been patient, but even after a year’s time, she’d not been able to endure his touch. Understandably, Jess grew weary of feeling rejected.
The relationship likely would have ended on its own, but when Gram needed help with the lodge, she’d taken the opportunity to escape, putting college on hold indefinitely. Jess had seemed almost relieved, but not nearly as relieved as she had been. It had been too soon, she told herself. She just needed time.
Avoiding relationships had been easy these past few years at the lodge. There weren’t many young, single men around, and those who did come stayed briefly. Even her church lacked eligible bachelors and was filled with seniors and middle-aged married couples. No, there hadn’t been much opportunity for dating, and Hanna was glad.
But now that would change. At least, it would if Micah took the job. He’d be living on the grounds, eating meals with them when he wasn’t on a climb. What worried her the most was this attraction she felt.
She breathed a laugh. She’d just been without a male companion for too long. Maybe she’d forgotten what it was like to be around a man. But she knew it was more than that. Micah had a certain presence. A strength. And that strength drew her and repelled her at the same time.
You’re thinking too hard, girl. She suddenly remembered her intentions to work on the van and added it to the list. She had to get the thing running before next week when she started shuttling guests to and from the airport. Almost every registrant had requested the service when she offered it. And she’d gotten the used van for a bargain, knowing she could fix the problem.
After dinner, Hanna gathered her tools and went to work.
Micah slowed to a walk and took his heart rate. He was within his zone. His body had long ago acclimated to the higher altitude, and now he could easily run five miles a day. Except for days when he climbed. That was a workout in itself.
He liked the Higher Grounds property. The still lake and lack of people gave an ambience of solitude and peace. Birch, willow, and oak trees dotted the area, and a fresh cushion of pine needles layered the ground. It was a refreshing change from the bustling Majestic property. He wondered if this would be his last day here or if it would be the first of many. He didn’t like having his future up in the air and was anxious to know what Hanna had decided. He’d checked the office before his run, but she was not there.
When he came to the drive, he turned and slowed his pace a bit, allowing his heart rate to come down gradually. The gravel crunched under his running shoes, joining the orchestra of warbling bird calls.
Rounding a bend, he saw a pair of denim-clad legs protruding from beneath a Chevy van. Maybe he would know where Micah could find the manager. “Excuse me.” The body inched from under the vehicle. “Could you tell me where I can find—” The body had a head, and it was a woman’s. Hanna’s. “Oh. It’s you.”
She smiled, and the streak of grease settled into the dimple on one side of her mouth. “Hi.” She sat up, wiped her hands on a rag, and took the hand up he offered. “I’m glad I caught you. I wanted to talk to you about the job.”
Her face was devoid of makeup, a fact he’d missed earlier. But her dark complexion and wide eyes didn’t need it. “Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“I called your references, and you come highly recommended.”
She sounded like there was a but coming, so he said nothing as her lashes swept down over gray green eyes.
“But I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay you what you’re worth.” She met his gaze firmly. “I can offer room and board, of course, but the additional income won’t be what you’re used to.” She quoted a figure, and Micah noted the way she crossed her arms defensively. She was expecting him to turn down her offer or perhaps dicker with her over his salary.
“Actually, I don’t need much. A roof over my head, food to eat, and very little else. I accept your offer.”
Surprise was evident in the way her finely arched brows inched upward. “Oh.” Then a grin tugged at her lips. “Well, let’s get you settled then.”
followed her to the lodge, his eyes skimming her trim figure from the ponytail
He forced himself to look away. At the big oak, at the rustic lodge, at anything but the alluring sight in front of him. Maybe taking this job wasn’t such a good idea. The last thing he wanted was an attachment. When they reached the office, he took a seat across from the desk and watched while she opened her reservations book.
first trip will be next week. I have a family who wants to hike up
He nodded. He could do that trip blindfolded. “Did you want to have a regular weekly schedule or just go with reservations?”
She asked how they worked it at the Majestic, and he explained their regular schedules.
“That sounds fine. Why don’t you work up a tentative schedule with both day trips and overnighters, the most popular treks, and I’ll take a look at it. How did you schedule days off?”
“I have a standing appointment on Thursday nights, so I always had Thursdays off. Sundays too.”
“Why don’t you work the schedule around those two days, then, if that’s all right with you.” She handed him employee papers to fill out.
“Fine.” He began filling out the forms.
The phone rang, and she grabbed the cordless. “Higher Grounds, may I help you?”
Micah jotted down his social security number.
“What’s wrong, Nat?”
He looked up, and Hanna placed her hand over the mouthpiece and whispered, “Just leave them on my desk when you’re done.” Then she slipped out the door.
Hanna entered the empty kitchen, letting the louvered doors swing shut behind her. By the sound of her sister’s voice, she could tell Natalie was fighting tears. Nat had been rambling about tidying up after lunch, but hadn’t yet gotten to the point.
“And it fell out of his pants, right there on the floor. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, Hanna. Why would he do it?” She sounded hysterical.
Hanna’s mind spun as she tried to decipher some kind of meaning from her sister’s meandering words. “Now, wait, Nat. What fell out of his pants? I’m not following.”
“A condom!” The word brought on a flood of tears and sniffles.
Hanna paused in the taut silence.
“I’m on the pill, Hanna!”
Hanna wilted and squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh, Nat.”
“We haven’t been very close lately. He’s been so busy at the bank, and I’ve been busy with the kids and church, but . . . an affair? How could he?”
She heard the torment in her sister’s voice, wished she could take it away. What could she say? “Maybe it hasn’t gotten that far yet. The package wasn’t empty, was it?”
“No.” She sniffled again, and Hanna heard the baby squealing unhappily in the background, then a muffled, “Alex, get off him!”
Nat just didn’t deserve this. She would never dream of having an affair. Hanna could hardly believe Keith would either.
“Do you really think he hasn’t done anything yet?” Nat asked. “Who could it be? He’s never home, and I thought he was working. But what if he wasn’t working at all? What if he was spending all that time with her?”
Hanna smiled stiffly when Mrs. Eddlestein entered the kitchen, then lowered her voice, ensuring that the hard-of-hearing woman wouldn’t hear. “I don’t know, sweetie. Could it be someone at the bank?” Hanna tried to recall if she’d seen anyone at the bank when she’d gone to sign papers. No particular woman stood out in her mind.
“There are plenty of women there, but most of them are married or overweight. And you know how Keith feels about extra pounds. At least, on me.” She sighed into the phone. “He’s lost weight lately himself, and he’s been wearing cologne every day!” she said, as if she’d just put two and two together. “Why didn’t I see this coming?”
“You had no way of knowing. Your mind doesn’t work that way. What about at church? Is there anyone there you can think of?”
“Church? Keith hasn’t been to church in weeks.” A fresh wave of tears started. “Oh, Hanna, he went out of town two weeks ago! What if he was really with her?”
How could You let this happen to Nat, God. And to the boys. “Are you going to ask him?”
“What if he’s in love with her? What if he wants to leave us?”
Hanna didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t married, had never even come close. Who was she to give advice? “Have you thought of calling Mom and Dad? Or Paula?”
“I can’t do that. Mom and Dad would never forgive Keith, and he’d never be able to face them again if they knew. And Paula’s not exactly the most sympathetic ear in the world. I need advice; that’s why I called you.”
“I don’t know what to say, Nat.” Silence crackled between them. She watched Mrs. Eddlestein taking a fresh batch of crescent rolls to the dining room. “You’re going to have to ask him what’s going on. Maybe there’s some other explanation.” She could hardly fathom that the man who had risked a sizable loan for her would betray his own wife.
“Do I tell him what I found, or should I just ask if something’s going on?”
She rubbed her temple with her free hand. “If you started a discussion about your relationship, do you think he’d open up?”
“He’s been so distant lately. Why didn’t I see this coming? I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Let’s assume nothing has happened yet. Maybe the relationship has just been heading in that direction, and he wanted to carry protection just to be on the safe side.”
“I need to confront him about it. Tell him what I found and see what he says. What if he’s in love with her?”
Sympathy swelled in Hanna, and she wished she were there to hold her sister and let her cry on her shoulder. “Let’s just assume he isn’t until you know differently. Do you want me to come over?”
She heard Alex begin to wail in the background. “I gotta go, Hanna. Alex bumped his head. I’ll call you later.”
She said good-bye, then jabbed the off button. Oh, God. You have to help her. The words jammed in her mind like cars in rush-hour traffic.
Later that night as Hanna sat behind the computer, she wondered how Nat was doing. Was she confronting Keith even now? Help her, Lord. Give her the words and the strength she needs to handle this.
She kept remembering Keith’s kindness to her in extending the loan. She knew his loan committee must have looked at it unfavorably, and yet he’d done it anyway. Life could be so complex. She dragged her hands over her face.
The screen saver kicked on, and she realized she’d hardly gotten a thing done. She continued transferring the reservations from the book to their old computer, Methuselah. Even though it was ancient by today’s standards, it still worked and even allowed her to access the Internet through free software. She’d recently invested in a program that allowed her to see at a glance how booked they were for any given week or month. Soon, she’d put all the guest information directly into the computer when she took reservations and use the book for backup only.
Gram entered the office. “How are we doing for June?”
Hanna paused her tapping and clicked on the button that would show June. “Here we are.” She pointed at the screen. “We’re half booked most nights and sold out for the third weekend. Not bad, huh?” Well on the way to the 38 percent increase they needed over last year.
“That’s wonderful!” She squeezed Hanna’s shoulders. “This is going to work out just fine. All your ideas were just the thing. Thank God for giving me such a brilliant granddaughter!”
“If I were brilliant, I would’ve done this two years ago.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Gram grabbed a paper from the desk and handed it to her. “There was a young man in while you were grocery shopping. He was interested in the watercraft position and I had him fill out a . . . oh, drat, what’s the word?”
“That’s it. Anyway, I skimmed it, and it looked pretty good, so I asked him to come back at seven tonight for an interview. I hope that’s all right with you.”
that’s great, Gram, thanks.” Her grandmother went to the front desk to check in
a guest, and Hanna studied the form. Devon Garret was a third-year business
She finished keying in all the guest information and, before she knew it, rolled around. A golden-haired young man arrived, looking to be about her own age and wearing a baby blue polo with white Docker shorts.
He extended a hand. “Hi, I’m Devon Garret, and I have an appointment with Hanna Landin.”
shook his hand, noting his smooth, cool palm. “I’m Hanna, nice to meet you,
She took a seat behind the desk and gestured toward an opposite chair. “My grandmother gave me your application, and I’ve had a chance to review it. Did she fill you in on the nature of the job?”
“I’d be responsible for maintaining the boats and arranging for their rental. I think your ad said something about running an airport shuttle?”
“That’s right. Not all the guests require this service. Some of them rent a car and, of course, some of them drive here from their homes. I’m assuming you have a driver’s license, and there would be no problem with that?”
His thin lips curved into a smile. “No problem at all. You’ll notice I have experience working with the public.”
“Yes, I see that.” She set his form aside. “Look, I have to be honest. This job doesn’t pay much.” She named the figure and noticed he didn’t seem surprised. “You’ve held good positions every summer.”
“I’ve been very lucky in summers past. But this summer is my last break before entering the business world and, quite frankly, I had a heavy course load last semester and will have another heavy load in the fall. I’d really like to take on something less . . . challenging my last free summer.”
“Good enough. Do you have your own accommodations, or will you need a room?”
“I have my own.”
This was turning out better than she thought. Yesterday she was fretting because she was short two employees, and now the positions were filled with men who were overqualified for their jobs. “I haven’t had a chance to call your references, so why don’t I just plan on calling you tomorrow and letting you know.”
He stood and extended a hand. “Sounds great.”
been doing it all day.
She, volunteer director of Marriage Enrichment. What a laugh. She was arranging for couples to spend weekends away learning how to develop a better marriage, and hers was falling apart at the seams.
How could she have been so stupid? She picked up Alex’s clothes from the floor and threw them in the laundry basket. She almost wished she’d kept the boys up for a while. Normally she welcomed the quiet after a hectic day, but tonight she dreaded it. She would have time to think, really think, about what Keith was doing. Was he with her even now? She’d called his private line at , and there had been no answer. Her throat clogged with tears she refused to shed.
How dare he. She’d done nothing but be a good wife and mother. She’d never even looked at another man. No one had been more faithful than she’d been.
She poured herself a glass of orange juice, knowing she needed something in her empty stomach, and headed back to the family room. A framed eight-by-ten of her and Keith on their wedding day caught her eye. She paused to stare disgustedly at it. How naive she’d been! Standing there, face to face with Keith with rosy cheeks and adoring eyes. And him. Look at him, staring at her with promise in his eyes, making pledges he was now mocking.
She tore the picture from the wall and flung it across the room, spilling her juice in the process. The photo hit the brick fireplace and shattered. Her heart thudded heavily in her chest. She suddenly understood why cartoon characters had smoke coming from their ears when they were angry. There was so much heat and fury in her, it was a wonder her own ears weren’t steaming.
“Mommy?” Alex called from his room.
She took a deep breath. “It’s all right, honey. Mommy just dropped something. Go to sleep.”
Nothing was all right. Her world was falling apart and, with it, the boys’ world, too. What would become of them if Keith left? She’d have to return to work for starters.
The mantel clock struck nine and began its chiming. Lately Keith didn’t come home until ten or even eleven. When he did, she could never hide her anger. It either manifested itself though barbed replies or stony silence. Neither worked. She could recite his excuses as well as he. Do you think I want to work this late? Don’t you think I’d rather be home, sacked out in front of the TV? Successful businesses don’t just happen on their own, you know. I’m doing this for you.
Ha! What a joke. Rage tore through her like a violent wind, and she set down her half-empty glass before she threw it too. After fishing a towel from the drawer, she got down on the floor to mop up the mess.
What would she say when he came home? How would he react? Would he tell her the truth? Would he tell her who it was? Did she know the woman? Oh, please, God, don’t let it be someone I know.
She tossed the towel in the washer and went to clean up the shards of glass on the hearth. She picked up the big pieces first, then moved on to the tiny fragments, almost wishing she’d cut her hand. Anything to take her mind off the internal pain she was feeling. She retrieved a broom and trashcan and swept the last of the glass slivers into it. If only cleaning up her marriage could be accomplished as easily.
Headlights chased across the expansive living room wall, then she heard the familiar squeak of the garage-door opener. Natalie settled herself on the couch. Help me, God, please help me.
The door clicked open, and she waited in silence until Keith rounded the corner. “Hi,” he muttered, then proceeded to empty his pockets of change and business cards onto the desk.
Her mind flew back a scarce twelve hours ago when it had fallen from his pocket. It seemed like days ago, not hours. She wondered if he had one in his pocket now. No, she thought bitterly. He’d probably already used it. She observed him with new eyes. Suspicious eyes. His pants hung loosely on his hips, and even his face seemed thinner. Had he lost weight for her?
Keith went to the kitchen, and she heard him grabbing a can of soda from the fridge. When he returned, he collapsed in his Lazy Boy, kicking out the footrest, and flicked on the TV with the remote. Didn’t he notice how quiet she was? Did he think her silence was of the I’m-angry-you’re-late variety? Couldn’t he feel the difference? Couldn’t he feel the cold vibrations in the air?
Apparently not. He was already absorbed in a baseball game.
A commercial came on. “Is there anything to eat in there? I’m starving.”
“There’s meatloaf in the fridge.” If he thought she was going to wait on him, he’d better think again. He was just in the kitchen himself, why couldn’t he get his own? How could he even talk about food when he was betraying her?
Her hand reached down, and she felt for the evidence in her pocket. A visual aid, in case he claimed ignorance. How should she start? With an accusation? What if by some miracle he had another logical reason for carrying around a condom?
No, not an accusation. If she were somehow mistaken, he would never forgive her.
“I hung up your clothes in the bedroom today.” Somehow her voice sounded normal, though her heart felt as though it might explode.
He took a sip of Coke. “Is that what’s got you so upset?”
She gave him an ounce of credit for noticing something was wrong.
“Look, I’ll try to do better, okay?”
“Something fell out of your pants.” She didn’t look at him, but saw him go still in her peripheral vision.”
She fished into her pocket and withdrew the packet, then held it up and met his eyes.
His lips parted, surprise flashed in his eyes. Fear. Just for a moment, then defenses kicked in. “Hey, Nat, it’s not what you think.”
“It’s not a condom?” Sarcasm wormed into her tone. “Gosh, I must’ve misread the package.” She looked closely at it, pretending to read it. “Ultra thin latex condom. Nope, guess not.” Fury seasoned her words, and she reined it in. Get the confession first, then she’d turn loose on him. Maybe if she remained calm, he’d be more likely to confess.
“That’s not what I meant. I meant it’s not mine.”
“Those weren’t your pants?”
“Of course, they were my pants. The condom’s not mine.”
“Then whose is it?”
Did he falter for a moment, or was it her imagination? “It’s Dale’s.”
“What are you doing with it?”
“We played racquetball last week, remember? It fell out of his wallet when we were getting dressed, then by the time I found it on the floor, he’d already left to go on his date. I tried to catch up with him in the parking lot, but he’d already driven away.”
She wanted to believe it. It was an unlikely story, but, oh, how she wanted to believe it. “Why don’t we give Dale a call and straighten this out?
How convenient. And no doubt Keith will get hold of Dale before I have a chance to question him. Why won’t he just tell me the truth and get it over with?
Keith snapped in the footrest and came to her, sinking into the sofa beside her. She refrained from looking at him. Doubt swelled in her mind, and she refused to give in to the hope that hovered just above the surface of her heart. She forced herself to be objective. It was unlikely he was telling the truth. Yet she couldn’t condemn him outright. What if she was wrong?
“Look at me, Doll.” His voice rumbled deeply with the pet name she loved. The one he hadn’t called her for years.
She turned and met his gaze, seeing him through a veil of tears.
“I’m not seeing someone else. I swear.” His blue eyes penetrated her. “I’ve just been working long hours. You know things have been rough at the bank. If you can just hang in there a while longer . . .”
He looked so sincere, sounded so genuine. She looked away. She couldn’t forget the moment she’d seen the condom between her feet. If it had been Dale’s, why would Keith have kept it? Why not just toss it? Besides, Dale was not one to sleep around. And he’d only just begun dating the woman a few weeks ago.
She drilled him with her gaze. “I called your private line tonight, and you weren’t there.”
He looked guilty. “I had to go to the store. We were out of coffee filters.”
“What time did you go?”
His mouth tightened in a straight line. “I don’t know, Nat, you sound like a shrew.” He jumped off the couch and snatched up his Coke, storming toward the kitchen.
So much for the loving patience he’d demonstrated moments ago. Now he was angry and defensive. And he hadn’t given her an answer about the time of his errand.
Moments later he stormed up the stairs without a word, and Natalie knew she would get no answers tonight.