Rose's hard work has turned a ramshackle lakeside cottage into a year-round home. She's counting the days until her brothers lose the bet they made that she'd need their help when a hew challenge arises. A trucking company wants to ruin her paradise by building a truck depot on adjoining property. Two other people have cottages on the lake--a strange man who pokes around in storm gullies--and the vice-president of the trucking company. It doesn't look like either one of them will come to Rose's rescue. City-bred Clay returns to his grandfather's Florida fishing cabin to commune with his memories and reflect on the principles he learned there. He's grateful to Rose for rescuing him from his citified ways. But why can't she see that she can't stand in the way of progress?
A Hard Shell Word Factory Release
Jane Bierce is celebrating twenty-five years of romances, in a career spanning print, audio and and electronic publication. After many years of raising a family, she is semi-retired to rural Tennessee where she quilts, gardens and still writes romance.
Squinting against the glare of the Florida afternoon sunshine, Rosemarie Davis pulled her blue Honda Civic off the two-lane highway onto the dusty lime rock road that skirted Palm Lake. The classic rock lyrics she'd been singing died in her throat as she noticed the red-and-white sign stuck into the ground at the edge of a tract of nearly treeless land.
"Whoa!" she breathed, easing the car to a stop and studying the sign.
Rezoning Hearing before Planning and Zoning Commission
The blanks that followed were filled with black-crayoned squiggles illegible at this distance. The rest of the sign was obscured by tall weeds.
Shaking her head at civilization encroaching on her paradise, Rose eased her foot off the brake and onto the accelerator. Even if the gathering thunderhead looming overhead decided to empty itself sometime soon, there would still be plenty of time this evening to hike back up here to get a better look at the sign. But right now Rose was uncomfortably hot, sticky and parched from a long day at the Brooksville branch of the Florida State Employment Service where she tried to find jobs for people who were out of work.
The bumpy dirt road headed down toward Palm Lake, then veered right as though forming the boundary between the thick jungle surrounding the lake on the left and the sparsely wooded, almost regular hillocks to the right. Palm trees, oaks and jack pine were a lush canopy over the three old cottages that clung to the shore at distances that insured privacy.
Each cottage was served by electricity from a single line strung between weathered old poles. There were no telephones out here. Rose cooked her food and heated her water with propane gas. But she thought the solitude was worth the inconvenience.
The road turned left and plunged into the thicket of palmetto scrub. Rose noticed a strange automobile parked in the unused driveway of the first cottage where a rusted mailbox still said Dowling in chipped black paint. Slowing to get a good look at the obviously expensive white car with the Fulton County, Georgia license plate, Rose also saw the gleaming boat-trailer backed up to the ramp that stood crumbling at the edge of the lake and noticed an aluminum rowboat riding the gentle ripples.
Impulsively she swung the Honda into the driveway behind the newer car which sat in the dappled shade of a moss-hung live oak. Last Thursday, she'd noticed someone had hacked the worst of the weeds from the small yard. On Friday, a broken window had been replaced and the cement blocks forming steps to the rickety porch had been realigned. Those chores could have been done by a hired workman. The car and boat, however, meant someone was on vacation.
Rose slipped out of the driver's seat, straightened her pale blue cotton slacks over her slightly rounded hips and tugged her white knit shirt away from the sweaty flesh of her back.
Stepping stones she'd never noticed until the lawn had been mowed led toward the porch and Rose tried to reach them without getting sand in her leather sandals. What she'd say to whoever was in the cottage was something she'd determine when she got to the screen door. Right now she was enjoying the shade of the trees and the old porch.
She rapped tentatively at the wooden screen door. When there was no immediate response, she knocked a little harder.
"What the--" a deep masculine voice drawled from inside the cottage. There was the loud, echoing thud of a piece of luggage being dropped to the floor and a low oath. "Who is it?" the voice asked a moment later with Southern politeness.
"Your next-door neighbor," Rose called back cheerfully, glancing at the rough board-and-batten walls of the cottage and trying to decide if, were the choice hers, she would paint them white or try to match the weathered gray.
"I'll be there in a minute," the occupant said, as though he was doing something physical at the same time as he was answering.
"Take your time," Rose encouraged.
She felt more than heard the footsteps of large, bare feet over aged linoleum as he neared, then stepped from behind, the peeling old door. Rose stared up into the face of one of the handsomest men she'd ever seen. His eyes were the blue of the early morning sky. His hair, spiking out as though he'd just toweled it and hadn't had time to comb it, was very blond, even damp. His face was square, his jaw firm, his mouth classically sculpted over the suggestion of a cleft chin.
Rose blinked and stepped backward, more as a defense than to allow this man to open the screen door. His tanned arm opened the door with a display of perfect muscles. He was wearing nothing but a pair of faded blue running shorts that covered very little.
His broad chest under its dusting of golden hair was as strikingly muscular as his arms and tapered to a flat abdomen and slender hips. His legs were almost indecently long and well-developed, covered with a curling mass of hair. He definitely was a man who was not afraid of exercise and sunshine. What Rose assumed was a white T-shirt dangled limply from his other hand.
"I just wanted to say hello and offer anything you need that you might have forgotten," Rose said breezily, trying to cover her inward reactions to the masculinity displayed before her.
The man's low chuckle was tinged with irony. "How about fifteen year's worth of forgotten experience?" he asked cryptically, his eyes sparkling as though joking with himself.
"I beg your pardon?" Rose said, pausing before taking a step into the cottage's sitting room.
"I haven't been here in almost fifteen years, not since I was a kid, and in ten minutes, I realized I've forgotten nearly everything Grandpop taught me," he said. His eyes broke contact with her as he tugged the white T-shirt over his head, barely settling it over his trim rib cage before extending as hand toward her. "Clay Dowling, ma'am. Your welcome is gratefully acknowledged. I didn't intend to vent my self-recrimination on you."
"What's wrong?" Rose asked. "Can I help you with something?" When he didn't respond but merely smiled encouragingly at her, she realized he was waiting for her to introduce herself. "Rosemarie Davis," she pronounced.
"A red Rose," he said, pointedly looking at the top of her auburn head. "I just came in from taking a swim and found out the pump doesn't work. I brought food with me but forgot to bring a can opener. Of course, I can run to the store in town and get another can opener, but I thought I was so self-sufficient!"
Then he laughed, filling the old cottage with a sound it probably hadn't heard in years. Someone had evidently cleaned the place thoroughly because it wasn't dusty or overpoweringly dank. But Rose had to acknowledge she wasn't particularly anxious to sit on any of the shabby upholstered furniture. She felt a ripple of smugness knowing her cottage was gleaming with fresh paint, hand-sewn curtains, lush potted plants and wicker furniture padded with her own handmade pillows.
"You're welcome to borrow anything you need from me," Rose offered. "Did you prime the pump?"
"Prime the pump? Pour water down the casing before you--" Rose started to explain, conscious of using her hands as she talked; going through the motions she'd had to use with annoying regularity until she had put in her electric pump. "Well, of course, you don't have any water to prime it with! I'll bring you some." She turned toward the door to leave. "I'll come right back with a jug of water and help you."
"Are you insisting, ma'am?" he asked.
"Darn right," Rose said and scampered back to her car as the screen door slammed behind her.
He followed her out, trying to catch up to her to open the car door, though she was perfectly capable of doing it for herself.
"I'll be back as soon as I've changed and rounded up some water for you," she promised, trying to look up at him. Unfortunately, what she saw was his white T-shirt plastered against his chest by a breeze which seemed to pop up from nowhere. "I think we're going to get some rain soon. Good thing, too! The rainy season has been slow coming this year. The dust has been awful."
Enough of this prattling, she admonished herself, finally fitting her key into the ignition. "I'll be right back," she shouted over the roar of the engine as she eased the car backward into the road.
Clay Dowling waved and, she noticed when she checked in her rearview mirror, stood watching after her. My, he was a picture!
When she reached her cottage, Rose turned a blind eye to the dusting she'd promised herself she would do, knowing the dry weather would just make more work for her anyway.
Barely taking the time to scoop her shoulder-length auburn hair into a high ponytail, Rose changed into a pair of white shorts and a pale pink cotton blouse.
In her small kitchen, she took two empty plastic milk jugs from under the sink and filled them from the tap, hardly conscious of the electric pump under the house kicking on when she was filling the second one. Then she took what was left of a bottle of drinking water from her small refrigerator and put a full bottle in its place.
She rummaged through a drawer and found a can opener, which she stuffed into the pocket of her shorts.
Getting the two heavy jugs and one lighter bottle out to the car was not easy, but Rose had done more difficult tasks in the last year. Points she lost on gracefulness she made up for on determination.
Clay seemed to have stood rooted to the spot in his yard the whole time she had been gone. Rose drove slowly into the driveway and jumped out of the car reaching back in to retrieve her cargo.
Effortlessly, Clay took the two heavy jugs from her and carried them into the cottage, managing to open the door without even a pause. He strode across the sitting room and abruptly swung one jug onto the sink counter.
"There," he said defiantly. "You see if you can get it to work."
"All right," Rose replied. She put the third container down on the littered kitchen table near the fly-casting rod and a transparent box of fishing flies.
As she stood on her tiptoes so she could lean over the pump to look down the casing, Clay moved closer to her. She felt the need for more space. Even though all the windows of the cottage were open and a breeze stirred, she found it hard to breathe. And each breath she drew was filled with Clay's woodsy scent mingled with honest perspiration.
"Could I have that pan over there?" Rose asked. She motioned toward the small rusted saucepan sitting on a shelf, probably original equipment in the cottage. The relief she felt from his moving away was short-lived. Clay handed her the pan and braced himself with one hand on the edge of the old sink intent on watching her every move.
It took all her concentration to slosh some water from the jug into the pan, then stand on her tiptoes to drizzle the water into the casing of the pump. In the still of the cabin, she listened for the trickle of the water as it joined more water at the bottom of the pipe. Positioning her tongue just so for luck, she set the empty pan in the sink and reached for the pump handle.
"Let me do that," Clay offered, his hand roughly engulfing hers as he stood behind her, surrounding her. Rose flattened herself against the sink, but found the enamel cold against her bare skin just above her low-slung shorts. Quickly she shied from the sink only to meet Clay's rock-solid body against her back.
"Excuse me," she said and gulped. The sudden warmth she was feeling had nothing to do with the summer afternoon.
A grunting noise came from deep in Clay's throat as he pumped the iron handle up and down.
"Whoa, not so fast! You have to build up a vacuum," Rose cautioned. For a moment, she was interested in the play of the muscles of his arm as he worked the pump.
Suddenly rusty water came spurting from the pump, hitting the saucepan in the shallow sink and splattering over both of them. Rose bore the worst of the drenching. Embarrassed, she looked down at her braless torso and quickly crossed her arms in front of her.
"Do you have a towel?" she asked.
"In the bedroom," Clay said, intent on pumping more water, a kid with a new toy. "Help yourself. Should I keep pumping until the water clears?"
"Yes." Rose agreed, escaping toward his bedroom.
She didn't care if Clay's avid interest in the pump was real or feigned, but she was glad for the opportunity to get away from him. She'd never felt this way about being close to a man. All the boys she'd known in high school and college had been immature, callow, swaggering youths. Without even trying, Clay had invaded all her carefully constructed defenses and taken over her thoughts. Even the slightest touch of his hand sent shock waves through her.
Finding a bright green towel that contrasted garishly with the aged cream walls in the bedroom, Rose clutched one end to her bosom and dabbed at her face with the other. "Clay, now you've gotten the pump going, I'll run back to my place," she called to him, raising her voice so that she could be heard over the metallic creaking of the pump and the fitful gushing of water. "My blouse is soaked and--"
"There're a couple of T-shirts on the top of the dresser," he called back. "Take your pick."
The first one she found was a cutoff shirt that had U of GA written on it above the face of a bulldog. She cringed and put it aside in favor of an oversized dark blue shirt reading Warren Wilson College, Swannanoa, N.C. As she discarded her damp blouse and pulled the dry shirt over her head, she was aware of its scent. It smelled of Clay's clean woodsiness. It must have been with his toiletries when he packed.
On the scarred surface of the dresser stood a framed picture of a grinning boy and an elderly man proudly displaying a string of fish they'd caught. Rose noticed a clear plastic box holding some seashells and an arrowhead that seemed like the one she'd found when she was digging her vegetable garden. She looked again at the lad in the picture and knew it was Clay. She compared him to the full-grown man and nodded appreciatively at the handiwork of the maturing process. Should genetics have anything to do with it, Clay was destined to retain both the healthy shock of hair and strong physique long past the bloom of youth. And she hoped he had also inherited the sense of fun that shone in the older man's eyes.
Rose snatched up her soggy blouse and trotted back to the kitchen. She saw Clay catching a glass of water from the pump, a satisfied grin on his face.
He was about to raise the glass to his mouth when she stopped him. "Hey, don't drink that! Just let it settle for a while and see if it's all right. It would be best to drink the bottled water I brought you and just use that well water for scrubbing."
"Oh! Yes, I guess so." He held the glass above eye level to watch the bottom as the light of a single bulb in the center of the kitchen cast an uncertain beam through the water.
Clay set the glass down on the table and scraped one hand across his jaw. "I -- I shouldn't take you away from your work, I guess."
"You know," Rose said, moving closer to look at the glass of water, "since I've been here at the lake, I've had to learn how to prime pumps and hammer nails and everything. I suppose people used to take all that in stride, but now we have to relearn some things."
"Yeah," Clay said with a shrug of his strong shoulders. "I do recall Grandpop priming the pump now that I think of it. I must have been too small to help him or he would've had me right in the thick of it."
Rose grinned. If that was Grandpop in the picture she has seen, she could imagine him letting Clay help with all the chores and making them fun.
"I suppose you're hungry from your long ride and your swim in the lake," she said. "Why don't you come over to my place and I'll throw something together for dinner?"
Clay took a shoulder-shaking breath that stretched the fabric of his shirt tight across his chest. "That would be awfully nice of you. It's been a long day."
Rose edged toward the door. "Give me a few minutes to get organized, huh?"
"Oh, sure," he said with a wave of his hand. "I have some unpacking to do."
"Come on over when you're finished around here." Rose sprinted to her car before he had a chance to follow.
She backed the car onto the road. "What am I thinking?" she gasped. "I asked him to dinner!"