Audra Lane strode with manufactured confidence to the vacation rental cabins' main desk and faced the man she thought was the registration clerk. She curled her bare toes against the warm polished wood flooring and took a deep breath.
“You're probably wondering why I'm wearing this trash bag.”
That was it. That single syllable delivered without inflection or emotion in a soft, bluesy baritone.
Audra's swagger stalled. She tugged her right earlobe.
Maybe that was his way. His manner wasn't unwelcoming. It was just spare. He'd been the same when she'd checked into the rental cabins in Where-the-Heck-Am-I, Ohio, less than an hour earlier.
In fact, the entire registration area was just as spartan as the clerk. Despite the large picture windows, the room seemed dark and cheerless in the middle of this bright summer morning. There weren't chairs inviting guests to relax or corner tables with engaging information about the nearby town. It didn't even offer a coffee station. Nothing about the room said,
Welcome! We're glad you're here.
There were only bare oak walls, bare oak floors, and a tight-lipped clerk.
What kind of vacation spot is this?
Audra pushed her questions about the room's lack of ambience to the back of her mind and addressed her primary concern.
She wiped her sweaty palms on her black plastic makeshift minidress. “I'd left some of my toiletries in my rental car. I thought I could just step into the attached garage to get them, but the door shut behind me. Luckily, I found a box of trash bags on a shelf.”
She stopped. Her face flamed. If he hadn't suspected before, he now knew beyond a doubt that she was butt naked under this bag.
Oh. My. God.
She'd ripped a large hole on the bottom and smaller ones on either side of the bag for a crude little black dress, which on her five-seven frame was
Audra gave him a hard look, but his almond-shaped onyx eyes remained steady on hers. He didn't offer even a flicker of reaction. His eyes were really quite striking, and the only part of his face she could make out. When he'd checked her into the rental, she'd been too tired after her flight from California to notice his deep sienna features were half hidden by a thick, unkempt beard. His dark brown hair was twisted into tattered, uneven braids. They hung above broad shoulders clothed in a short-sleeved, dark blue T-shirt. But his eyes . . . they were so dark, so direct, and so wounded. A poet's eyes.
How could the cabins' owner allow his staff to come to work looking so disheveled, especially an employee who worked the front desk? Did the clerk think he looked intimidating? Well, she'd been born and raised in Los Angeles. He'd have to try harder.
Without a word, the clerk turned and unlocked the cabinet on the wall behind him. He chose a key from a multitude of options and pulled a document from the credenza.
“Sign this.” He handed the paper to her.
The form stated she acknowledged receipt of her cabin's spare key and would return it promptly. Audra signed it with relief. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome.” He gave her the key.
A smile spread across her mouth and chased away her discomfort. Audra closed her hand around the key and raised her gaze to his. “I don't know your name.”
“Hi, Jack. I'm Au . . . Penny. Penny Lane.” When he didn't respond, she continued. “Thanks again for the spare key. I'll bring it right back.”
“Thank you.” Audra turned on her bare heels and hurried from the main cabin. That had been easyârelatively speaking. At times, she'd even forgotten she was wearing a garbage bag and nothing else. It helped that Jack hadn't looked at her with mockery or scorn. He'd been very professional. Bless him!
Jackson Sansbury waited until his guest disappeared behind the closed front door. Only then did he release the grin he'd been struggling against. It had taken every ounce of control not to burst into laughter as she'd marched toward him, the trash-bag dress rustling with her every step.
He shook his head. She'd been wearing a garbage bag! Oh, to have seen the look on her face when the breezeway door had shut behind herâwhile she'd been naked in the garage. Jack gripped the registration desk and surrendered to a few rusty chuckles. They felt good. It had been a long time since he'd found anything funny.
He wiped his eyes with his fingers, then lifted the replacement key form. A few extra chuckles escaped. She'd signed this document, as well as the registration,
Jack shook his head again. Did she really expect him to believe her parents had named her after a Beatles song?
Jack lifted his gaze to the front door. She'd given a Los Angeles address when she'd registered. Who was she? And why would someone from Los Angeles spend a month at a cabin in Trinity Falls, Ohio, by herself under a fake name?
“Benita, when you told me you'd made a reservation for me at a vacation rental cabin, I thought you meant one with other
” Audra grumbled into her cellular phone to her business manager, Benita Hawkins.
Although still tired from the red-eye flight from California to Ohio, she felt much more human after she'd showered and dressed.
“There aren't any people there?” Benita sounded vaguely intrigued.
“The only things here are trees, a lake, and a taciturn registration clerk.” Audra's lips tightened. Her manager wasn't taking her irritation seriously.
“Hmmm. Even better.”
Audra glared at her phone before returning it to her ear. She could picture the other woman seated behind her cluttered desk, reviewing e-mails and mail while humoring her. “What do you mean, âeven better'?”
“I told you that you needed a change to get over your writer's block. You're having trouble coming up with new songs because you're in a rut. You see the same people. Go to the same places. There's nothing new or exciting in your life.”
That was harsh.
Audra stared out the window at the tree line. She'd noticed right away that none of the windows had curtains. The lack of privacy increased the cabin's creepiness factor.
A modest lawn lay like an amnesty zone between her and a lush spread of evergreen and poplar trees, which circled the cabin like a military strike force. In the distance, she could see sunlight bouncing on the lake like shards of glass on the water. The area was isolated. Audra didn't do isolated. She'd texted her parents after she'd checked into the cabin to let them know she'd arrived safely. Maybe she should have waited.
“This place is like Mayberry's version of the Bates Motel.” She turned from the window. “How is this supposed to cure my insomnia?”
“Writing will cure your insomnia.”
“Have you been to these cabins?”
“No. When I was growing up in Trinity Falls, Harmony Cabins went into bankruptcy and was abandoned. They've only recently been renovated.”
“I'm coming home.” But first she'd take a nap. The red-eye flight was catching up with her. She wasn't safe to drive back to the airport.
The cabin itself was lovely. The great room's walls, floors, and ceiling were made of gleaming honey wood. The granite stone fireplace dominated the room. But a large flat-screen, cable-ready television reassured her she'd have something to do at night. The comfortable furnishings that were missing from the main cabin were scattered around this room, an overstuffed sofa and fat fabric chairs. The dark dÃ©cor was decidedly masculine. That would explain the lack of curtains at the windows. Men probably didn't think about details like that.
“You promised me you'd give it thirty days, Audra.” The clicking of Benita's computer keyboard sounded just under her words. “I sent the rental a nonrefundable check for the full amount of your stay in advance.”
Audra frowned. Benita's check had allowed her to register as Penny Lane. “It was your check, but my money. If I want to cancel this anti-vacation vacation, I will.”
They both recognized the empty threat. The cost of a monthlong stay at a rental cabin was too much to waste.
Benita's exasperated sigh traveled twenty-four hundred miles and three time zones through the cell phone. “You owe the record producer three hit songs in four weeks. How are they coming?”
Audra ground her teeth. Her deadline was August 4, twenty-five days from today. Benita knew very well she hadn't made any progress on the project. “How can you believe this place is the solution? You've never even been here.”
“Do you really think I'd send you someplace that wasn't safe? I have family in Trinity Falls. If there were serial killers there, I'd know.”
Audra tugged her right earlobe. She was angry because she was scared, and scared because she was outside her comfort zone. “I don't want to be here. It's not what I'm used to.”
“That's why you
to be there. And this is the best time. Trinity Falls is celebrating its sesquicentennial. The town's hosting its Founders Day Celebration on August ninth. I'll be there.”
“One hundred fifty years. That's impressive.”
Benita chuckled. “I'll see you in a month.”
Audra stared at her cell phone. Her manager had ended their call. “I guess that means I'm staying.” She shoved her cell phone into the front pocket of her tan jeans shorts and turned back to the window. “In that case, I'll need curtains.”
The chimes above the main cabin's front door sang. With three keystrokes, Jack locked his laptop and pushed away from his desk. The cabins had had more activity today than they'd ever had before.
Jack hesitated behind the registration desk. It wasn't a surprise to see the chair of the Trinity Falls Sesquicentennial Steering Committee had returned. Doreen Fever was a determined woman.
“Afternoon, Doreen.” He knew why she was there. She wanted every citizen to be involved in the festivities surrounding the town's 150th birthday. The problem was, Jack wasn't a joiner.
“I'm still amazed by how much you've accomplished with the rentals in so little time.” Doreen gazed around the reception area.
Doreen was the sole candidate for mayor of Trinity Falls. She also was the artist behind the bakery operation of Books & Bakery, and the mother of Jackson's former schoolmate, though she looked too young to have an only child who was just two years younger than he was. Her cocoa skin was smooth and radiant. Her short, curly hair was dark brown. And her warm brown eyes were full of sympathy. Jack didn't want anyone's sympathy. Not even someone as genuine and caring as Doreen.
“I hear you have a lodger.” Doreen folded her hands on the counter between them.
How did the residents of Trinity Falls learn everyone else's business so fast? His guest hadn't even been here a full day. “Not by choice.”
Confusion flickered across Doreen's features before she masked it with a polite nod. “A young woman.”
“I'm glad to see the cabins' renovations are going well and that you're taking in customers.”
Doreen gave him a knowing smile. “The elementary school was grateful for your generous donation. I take it that was the check from your guest? Are you sure you don't need that money to reinvest in the repairs?”
“The school needs the money more. I appreciate your stopping by, Doreen.” He turned to leave.
“Jack, you know why I'm here.” Doreen sounded exasperated.
Good. He could handle exasperation. Pity pissed him off.
He faced her again. “You know my answer.”
“The town will be one-hundred-and-fifty-years old on August ninth. That will be a momentous occasion, and everyone wants you to be a part of it.”
Jack shook his head. “You don't need me.”
“Yes, we do.” Doreen's tone was filled with dogged determination. “This sesquicentennial is a chance for Trinity Falls to raise its profile in the county and across the state. You, of all people, must have a role in the Founders Day Celebration.”
“That's not necessary.”
“Yes, it is.” Doreen leaned into the desk. “This event, if done well, will bring in extra revenue.”
“I know about the town's budget concerns. I have an online subscription to
The Trinity Falls Monitor.
” Reading the paper online saved Jack from having to go into town or deal with a newspaper delivery person.
Doreen continued as though Jack hadn't spoken. “If we host a large celebration with high-profile guests, we'll attract more people. These tourists will stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and buy our souvenirs.”
“Great. Good luck with that.” He checked his watch for emphasis. It was almost two o'clock in the afternoon. “Anything else?”
She softened her voice. “I know that you're still grieving Zoey's death.”
“Don't.” The air drained from the room.
“I can't imagine how devastated you must feel at the loss of your daughter.”
“Doreen.” He choked out her name.
“We understand you need time to grieve. But, Jack, it's been almost two years. It's not healthy to close yourself off from human contact. People care about you. We can help you.”
“Can you bring her back?” The words were harsh, rough, and raw.
Doreen looked stricken. “I can no more bring back your daughter than I can resurrect my late husband.”