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On Tall Pine Lake
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BOOKS BY DOROTHY GARLOCK
After the Parade
The Edge of Town
A Gentle Giving
High on a Hill
The Listening Sky
Love and Cherish
More than Memory
A Place Called Rainwater
Ribbon in the Sky
River of Tomorrow
The Searching Hearts
Sins of Summer
Song of the Road
This Loving Land
Train from Marietta
Wild Sweet Wilderness
Wind of Promise
Home, Arkansas, 1980
EXCUSE ME." Nona had come out of the small grocery store carrying two heavy sacks of groceries and run head-on into a man coming into the business. She hadn't hit him hard, but she felt the red sting of embarrassment just the same. Glancing up quickly, she saw that he was definitely a city man. He didn't look like a person who belonged in Home, Arkansas.
His clothes were expensive, certainly too new to have been worn long, unlike those of most men in town, who wore faded work clothes that had seen many washings. His head was bald, but the black mustache on his upper lip was thick. Nona wondered why bald men were compelled to have hair on their faces. It was hard to tell if he was young or old. The coldness of his dark eyes unnerved her. Her mind absorbed these impressions in a few seconds. She hadn't realized that she'd been staring until he reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
"Apology accepted," he mumbled through uneven teeth. Even from those two words, Nona could hear an accent, but one that she couldn't place. With an expanding smile, the man added, "You're Mrs. Conrad, aren't you?"
"No," she answered, "I'm Miss Conrad."
"I was told you managed the camp at Tall Pine Lake. My friend and I are looking for a place to fish. Do you have a vacancy?"
"Not for a couple of weeks." The words came out of Nona's mouth before she'd given them any thought. Even though most of the cabins were currently empty, something unpleasant about the man prompted her to lie.
"That's too bad," he said.
His eyes began to roam across her body before settling on her breasts. "But then it might be worth waiting for." The thumb on the hand that held her arm began to move across her skin in a caressing motion. Suddenly angry, Nona tried to jerk her arm away, but the man's grip tightened.
"Let go." Her voice was loud and strong. She felt a quiver of fear and looked around to see if anyone was near. Her hopes leapt as she saw a deliveryman carrying a large box coming her way.
But before she could call to him, the strange man abruptly released her arm, stepped back, and opened the door for the deliveryman, who quickly disappeared inside the store. Nona feared that the stranger would grab her again, but instead he said gruffly, "I'll be seeing you, Miss Conrad." With that, he turned and walked away.
For a moment, she stood frozen in front of the store. He knew my name!
Shaking the thought loose, Nona hurried to her car. Bright sunlight bathed the small town, and the first hint of the July heat hung in the air. The leaves of the tall maple and oak trees fluttered in the light breeze.
As she moved down the sidewalk, Nona caught sight of her reflection in the large window of the hardware store. Mr. Finnegan's window was full of saws, hammers, nails, and even an antique cast-iron stove, looking out of season in the warming weather. Amid all the clutter, there was still enough space for her to clearly see herself, a slim woman with a mop of fiery red curly hair that floated around her face like a halo. It was what drew people's eyes to her. She wore slacks and a tucked-in shirt. Nona thought of herself as only passably pretty. Although small, she appeared taller because she carried herself proudly. She considered her large sky-blue eyes her best feature. They sparkled when she was angry or extremely happy. She had a light sprinkling of freckles across her nose. When she was younger, she had hated her red hair, but now she had to either accept it or dye it, and she didn't want the bother of that. She had grown used to being called "that redhead."
Nona finally reached her car, a ten-year-old Ford, dust-covered from its travels down the dirt roads. When she moved to open the driver's door, she was startled to find another hand there before hers. In that split second, her heart sank at the thought that the strange man had followed her. But when she looked up, she found the bright eyes of a tall cowboy in a battered Stetson and a faded plaid shirt.
"Ma'am." A smile lit the man's handsome, sun-browned face. "A pretty woman shouldn't be carrying such a load."
"That's all right. My husband will be here shortly," Nona said defensively.
"He's a lucky man," the friendly cowboy said as he opened the car door. "But until he gets here, let me help." Nona placed her bags on the seat and pushed them across to the other side. After she got into the car and slid under the wheel, the man shut the door behind her and stood at the open window.
"My pleasure. Good day, ma'am." He smiled warmly as he put his fingers to his hat brim. His grin was contagious; Nona couldn't help but return the smile.
She started the car, put it in reverse, and began to back out. The loud blast of a horn caused her to slam her foot down on the brake. Glancing quickly over her shoulder, Nona saw the deliveryman frown at her before driving his truck past her and down the street. Damn that bald-headed man! He's got me rattled. When the road was clear behind her, she eased out and drove out of town.
Home, Arkansas, was a small town at the foot of the Ozark Mountains in the southwestern part of the state, the main supply hub for a twenty-square-mile area. Home had received its unlikely name more than a hundred years earlier when a travel-weary family from Ohio paused to spend the night along a clear stream. The man looked around, liked what he saw, and declared, "We're home."
The town now consisted of only two rows of business buildings lining a main street: the grocery store, hardware store, barbershop, pool hall, gun shop, and two cafes, Alice's Diner and the Grizzly Bear Tavern, where a man could get nearly anything that he wanted to drink. Nona had learned all of this when she and Maggie came to town to attend the Baptist church, a small clapboard building that sat on the edge of town. Church was the ideal place to catch up on the local gossip.
The Ozark Mountains loomed over a wild and unsettled terrain. The merchants in Home depended on hunters, fishermen, and campers for their livelihood, and the region drew them in droves. But this was not only a haven for hunters; hippies had also been settling here for the last ten years. The town was usually peaceful until sunset, when the roughnecks came to town and the bar was crowded to overflowing. Nona was becoming fond of Home and its wooded surroundings.
She drove east along a road that snaked through a heavily wooded area. The sound of the car's tires crunching over loose stone echoed off the looming pines that lined both sides of her route. She had traveled this road at least once a week since she and Maggie, her sister, had come to manage the camp, and had never been nervous about traveling it, but now, for some reason, she was uneasy as she drove away from town. Was it that the bald-headed man had held on to her arm so tightly? The encounter bothered her more than she was willing to admit. She would feel more comfortable when she made it to the turnoff to the camp. A little afraid but determined, Nona concentrated on her driving.
After a couple of miles, Nona became aware of a black car coming up quickly from behind her. In the rearview mirror, she could see a truck behind the car. It was probably old Mr. Wilson, who lived on the other side of the lake. He was almost eighty years old. Fearfully, Nona gripped the wheel. There was nothing along this lonely stretch until she came to the camp. She kept her eyes on the road and waited.
Checking the side mirror, she was surprised to see the car pull out to pass her! Tapping lightly on the brakes to keep from spinning out of control, Nona saw that the driver was the bald man who had grabbed her arm at the store. The black car passed her and barreled on down the road. The man in the passenger seat hadn't even glanced at her. The car rounded a bend and was soon out of sight. For the next several miles, Nona kept expecting to see the car blocking the road, the man out, a gun in his hand.
Nona rounded an easy curve in the road and came within sight of Tall Pine Camp. She could not remember it ever looking so inviting. The manager's house itself wasn't much; it was the largest of the buildings but was otherwise identical to the seven other cabins set back from Tall Pine Lake. All of the buildings were roomy and painted a crisp green. As she turned onto the lane leading to the cabins, Nona was proud of what she saw. With Maggie's help she had cleaned away the brush and clipped the hedges from around the cabins.
Approaching the three-room house she shared with her sister and Mabel Rogers, a longtime friend, Nona surveyed the camp grounds. A battered old house trailer sat near the lake. Russell Story, the old man who lived in the trailer, had been hired by the owner to take care of the boats and the bait for the camp. He also cleaned, filleted, and packed the fish in ice for the camp guests. Mabel had won him over with her apple pie, and in return he kept them well supplied with fresh fish.
"Oh, for crying out loud!"
The words burst from Nona as she turned her Ford into the drive in front of her cabin. For the second time in the last three days, the man who was staying in cabin number two had parked his pickup in her drive and she couldn't squeeze past it.
"Some people have a lot of nerve," she muttered angrily. She pressed her hand down on the horn and held it there. The horn's blaring bounced off the buildings and over the lake. Nona hoped it sounded as belligerent as she felt.
"Nona! Chill out!" Maggie shouted as she came down the steps of their cabin and knocked on the window of the passenger's side.
Nona let up on the horn, leaned over the seat, and rolled down the window.
"He isn't here," Maggie yelled over the knocks and ticks of the idling engine. "He took his dog and went off into the woods."
"Not here?" Stress lines formed between Nona's eyes and the corners of her mouth, turned down in a frown. "Well then, I'll just park behind him and see how he likes it."
Maggie stood by the car with her hands on her bony hips. At fourteen, she was a pencil-straight girl with light brown hair who had just begun to emerge from her childish awkwardness. While she and her sister were both slim, Maggie was already taller than Nona, who was twelve years her senior. Maggie's legs seemed endless, and her blue eyes shone large in her perky, freckled face. She wore blue jeans and a faded T-shirt. Not at all shy, she had an openness that was a large part of her charm. She made a frown of her own as she watched her sister park directly behind the truck, then get out of the Ford.
"Take a pill, Nona. Why are you so mad? You'd think this is the only parking place in the whole world."
"I'm not mad . . . just exasperated." She was still shaken from her encounter with the man at the store and on the road. "Ours is the manager's cabin, number one," she explained impatiently. "This is our drive. He has his own drive. It's simple. Why does he insist on parking on this side of his cabin?"
"Seems to me you're making a mountain out of a molehill," Maggie retorted with a shrug. She gathered up one of the bags of groceries and leapt up the steps like a young colt.
Nona edged through the front door that Maggie held open, dumped her large sack on the table, and sighed. A thin woman in slacks and a sleeveless shirt stood in front of the sink peeling potatoes. She turned and smiled at the two girls, her high cheekbones rosy with rouge, a cigarette hanging from her bright red lips.
Four years earlier, when Nona and Maggie moved into an apartment after the death of their parents, Mabel Rogers, a widow, had been their neighbor. A woman who had no family of her own, she had taken the two girls to her heart. Mabel had volunteered to care for Maggie while Nona was at work, a blessing to both the sisters. They loved her dearly. She had been "Aunt Mabel" to Maggie since they'd met. When Nona had taken the job of managing the camp, it seemed only natural that Mabel would come with them.
"Hi, Mabel," Nona said.
"Is something wrong, dear?" Mabel asked with concern. "Why were you honking the horn?"
"She's having a fit, Aunt Mabel."
"A what?" Mabel asked, wrinkling her brow.
"You know. Losing her cool."
"I am not!" Nona said nothing about what had happened in town and on the road to the camp. There was no point in worrying Mabel and Maggie. "There's the whole out-of-doors for him to park in, yet he insists on putting that pickup in our drive!"
"He's really very nice," Mabel said. "Handsome, too," she added, with a wink at Maggie. Pushing a strand of henna-colored hair behind her ears, she began unloading the sacks of groceries.
"This one is Mrs. Leasure's," Nona said. "I'll have Maggie take it down to her."
Once everything had been placed on the table, Maggie wailed, "Nona! You didn't get my Seventeen magazine!"
"I had to choose between a magazine and raisin bran. The bran won. Our grocery dollars will only stretch so far, you know. When I think of how fast our money is going, I get panicky."
"Did you call Little Rock again?" Mabel asked.
Nona was reluctant to place a long distance call on the camp telephone. "I tried to call while I was in town, but they said Harold was out to lunch."
"That's a heck of a note," Mabel mused as she carefully folded the empty sacks.
"I think it was a lie. He just didn't want to talk to me."
"Did you try to call the man who hired you?"
"We've been here for several weeks and haven't heard a word from the owner of the camp. Isn't that a bit strange?"
"I suppose so," Nona admitted. "I send everything we take in, plus the bills, to the accountant. Unless we get more bookings in a hurry, there'll be only the bills to send. To make matters worse, the pump on the well is acting up again. It'll cost a mint to have someone out here to fix it."
As she took a load of groceries over to the cupboard, Nona stumbled over a big dog stretched out on the kitchen floor. The mutt with the yellow coat looked up from where he lay, and then plopped his head back down onto the wooden floor. "Maggie! What's Sam Houston doing in here? I've told you time after time to leave him outside. He gets hair all over the place."
"Sam Houston doesn't like the dog next door."
"That's because he's a coward! It's time he decided if he's a dog or a pussycat," Nona declared.
"He's no coward."
Nona knew that Maggie regarded her complaints with the usual teenage tolerance for adult's irritations, but she couldn't help insisting on what was right. The mass of red hair curled around Nona's face, and little tendrils of it clung to her cheeks and forehead. She blew the bangs away from her forehead and decided that rather than argue with Maggie, she would take Sam Houston and go outside.
"Come on, you mangy hound."
"You're gonna hurt Sam Houston's feelings, calling him that."
"I should call him a hairy, worthless, mangy hound."
Following Nona through the kitchen and out the back door, Sam Houston lumbered down the steps and eased himself into a cool spot of shade at the base of the porch. Nona sat down on the steps, rested her chin in her hand, and let her mind drift. She found herself back in Home, the strange man's hand on her arm. Inwardly, she shivered. Most of the men she had encountered since coming to the camp had been polite and rather bashful. This man had been quite different.
The loud blast from a car horn startled her, but then a secretive smile curled on her lips. The man in the next cabin was back and wanted to move his truck. Not much fun is it, buster? she thought. She went back into the kitchen and peeked out the window. A tall, well-muscled man in faded jeans and an old plaid work shirt was standing beside his truck, his hand firmly pressing on the truck's horn.
"Nona! Do something!" Maggie wailed.
"Not yet," Nona replied with a grin. "Let him stew for a while."
At a loud knock on the door, her smile widened. She stayed in the kitchen while Maggie opened the door.
TELL YOUR SISTER TO MOVE HER CAR. Better yet, call her to the door and I'll tell her myself." The deep masculine voice reached into the kitchen, where Nona stood at the sink and stared out the window into the thick woods surrounding the camp. The voice sounded angry.
"I'm busy right now. I'll be out in a minute," Nona called. A bright little devil with a pitchfork in his hand danced before her eyes, and her lips tilted at the corners. The man in cabin number two knew he had parked his pickup in her spot. It would do him good to wait a bit.
"She'd better move it now, unless she wants it run over by a moving van."
The booming words jerked the smile from Nona's face. What in the world was he talking about? She went quickly to the door, flung open the screen, and stepped outside.
"A moving van?"
"Yeah. A big truck that's used to haul furniture," he said as if explaining it to a toddler.
Nona folded her arms over her chest and stared at the man with a mixture of exasperation and confusion. Her blue eyes were analytical as they roved over his not-quite-handsome face and light brown hair. She'd only ever viewed him from afar; Mabel had checked him in when he arrived. He'd said his name was S. T. Wright. This was the first time she had seen him up close.
"Look here," she began, deciding that they needed to come to an understanding. "The cabin is furnished. You knew that when you rented it. If you want to bring in some of your own things, that's your business, but you'll have to store the furniture that we provided. We don't have the facilities to store it here."
"I've no intention of storing that stuff," he responded. "It wouldn't even make good firewood. Then again," he pondered, rubbing his hand along his stubbly chin, "maybe it would." Smile lines bracketed his wide mouth and his green eyes glinted as he assessed her.
"Burn it?" she gasped. "I'll call the owner and have you arrested!"
"You won't need to call very loud." The man grinned. "I'm not deaf."
Nona stiffened visibly. She opened her mouth to speak but couldn't force any words to come out. "Wha—" she finally managed.
"I'm the owner."
"You're the owner?" Shock flooded through Nona's body as she took in the full import of his words. This was the owner? This was her boss for the summer? Color came up her neck and flushed her face.
"The one and only."
"I'll need some proof of that. Mabel said your name was S. T. Wright. If you're the owner, why didn't you say so when you checked in?" Chin up, her body taut, Nona was mindful of the thudding in her chest and the pounding in her head. Mustering the remaining fragments of her self-possession, she locked her blue eyes to his green ones and refused to look away. The way that he looked at her, amused and confident, irritated her.
"I didn't lie. My name is Simon Thomas Wright and I didn't know when I checked in if the owner had accepted my offer," he replied. He appeared to be amused by her proprietary attitude.
Suddenly, the screen door banged open behind Nona. Maggie and Mabel nudged their way past her to stand on the porch. Nona knew they had been listening to every word.
"Holy cow!" Maggie exclaimed. "You really bought this run-down place? You got ripped off."
"Hard to believe, I know." Simon spoke to Maggie, but his eyes watched the conflicting emotions play across Nona's face. "But yeah, I really did."
"What the heck for?" Maggie asked with the unabashed frankness of youth. "This place is a dump. And besides, it's way out in the middle of nowhere. Someone took you, but good, mister!"
"We'll see, won't we?" was his only answer. He spread his long, slim legs and hooked his hands in his hip pockets, evidently intending to offer no further explanation. He lifted a brow at Nona as if to ask if she had anything to add to Maggie's assessments.
Nona looked directly at Simon for ten full seconds. She felt, suddenly, as if this man was not a stranger at all. There was something about him that nudged at her memory, teasing her. She tried to capture the elusive thought but couldn't. Embarrassed at having drifted away from the conversation, she tried to regain her poise.
"What's your dog's name?" Maggie asked, glancing at the big black and brown dog at Simon's heels.
"Yep. At first I was gonna call him Geronimo, but that was too long."
Maggie's eyes twinkled and she gave him one of her pixie grins. "I see what you mean. It would take a while to call, 'Here Geronimo,' 'Here Geronimo.'"
"So I called him after my other Indian hero, Cochise."
"Cool. Are you Indian?" Maggie asked, her eyes avoiding her sister's.
"Back a few generations."
Nona said to Maggie, "Don't ask so many questions. Get my car keys, honey," she said, trying to sound firm and in control.
Maggie was in and out of the house in record time. "Can I move the car?" she pleaded.
"If you're careful. But then you've got to take Mrs. Leasure her groceries," Nona murmured absently, her eyes lost in the man's intense gaze. She was convinced that she had met him before, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember where. Her heart was thumping up a storm.
"She told me to call her LeAnn. Don't be so old-fashioned, Nona," Maggie answered.
Nona could see that Maggie was in one of her argumentative moods and decided that the best course of action was to ignore the question.
"I heard Maggie say you were having a fit. That I would like to see." Simon lifted a brow and grinned. "Did something happen while you were in town?"
"Nothing that concerns you, Mr. Wright."
"Anything that happens to one of the people who work for me is my concern."
"The only thing that should concern you is how I do my job."
Sensing the mounting tension in Nona's voice, Mabel chimed in. "She's been working her fingers to the bone cleaning the cabins, raking the yard, and washing curtains. I don't think the cabins had been thoroughly cleaned in at least a year or two."
"I don't have any complaints about her work," Simon said to Mabel. Nona was irritated by the way he was talking to Mabel while looking at her, his green eyes never leaving her face. "She's done more than her share. Speaking of which, she'll be getting help soon. I'm going to hire a handyman to help her."
"That's good to hear."
"By the way, how long has the woman in number six been here?"
"Mrs. Leasure? Two weeks. Her rent is paid up for two more. Her husband had something to attend to somewhere, but she expects him back any day."
"She's pregnant, isn't she?"
"Is that a crime?" Nona asked defensively.
"No. Only an observation," Simon stated calmly. "If she's out here by herself, how does she get groceries or things she needs?"
"When we go to the store, she gives us a list and we bring back what she needs."
Maggie slid behind the wheel of the car and turned on the ignition. The motor sputtered, but refused to turn over. Frustrated, Maggie continued to push the key forward. A grinding sound came from the motor.
"For goodness' sakes, Maggie," Nona said, as she came down off the porch and approached the driver's side window. "You'll run down the battery."
"I can't help it. The darn thing won't start."
Before she could respond, Nona felt a hand on her elbow that gently, but firmly moved her aside. "Let me see what I can do."
"I didn't do anything wrong, did I?" Maggie asked as she got out of the car.
"I don't think so," Simon said with a wink. "These older cars can be stubborn sometimes."
"It's not so old," Nona said defensively. "It's probably newer than that old truck you're driving." She didn't like the way Simon had moved her aside, and she didn't like his know-it-all attitude. "It's only ten years old."
"I suppose you bought it from an old lady who let it sit in the garage for five of those years?" He grinned, stepping back to point at the dents in the fender and the door. Something about that grin set her teeth on edge.
With a wink, Simon got in the driver's seat. As soon as he turned the key, the motor sputtered once, then caught and purred like a contented kitten.
Damn you, car! Nona fumed. It'll be a cold day in July before I wash you again!
"Back in you go, kid," Simon said as he got out of the car and held the door open for Maggie. The younger girl grinned back up at him with a look that was nearly conspiratorial, as if the two of them had set out to embarrass Nona.
"Be careful," Nona called. "Back up carefully."
"Where will I park?"
"Park out front."
Before Maggie could move an inch, Simon contradicted Nona. "Don't do that. Go down and park in the drive of the last cabin."
"She can't drive that far," Nona said hurriedly. "She hasn't taken Drivers Ed yet."
"Then someone should give her a lesson or two before she goes to Drivers Ed." Simon smiled. He pulled open the passenger's side door and got into the car.
Nona paced back and forth across the kitchen floor. Maggie and Simon had been gone for over thirty minutes. From time to time she glanced out the window for some sign of the Ford.
"Damn him," she said irritably.
"She'll be all right," Mabel reassured her. "Simon won't let her wreck the car."
"Why did he have to be the owner of the camp?" Nona said with another quick glance outside. "Something about him is familiar. I don't know what it is, but I have a feeling that I've seen him before."
"He's so handsome, I can't imagine you could have forgotten him."
Nona placed her hands on her hips and stared at the other woman. Giving the man a compliment offended her. "What are we going to do, Mabel? If he's bringing furniture, he isn't intending to leave soon. We won't be much more than cleaners, and I doubt he'll pay much for that."
- On Sale
- Jan 5, 2007
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing