Chapter Twelve – Trouble in Paradise
by Laura Breck
Candy flinched at the words Mitch hurled at her. “Never figured you for a user, Candy.” If he hadn’t slammed the bedroom door when he stormed out, she might have responded impetuously, shouted something just as hurtful. Something she would have regretted.
She hadn’t risen to a high position in the corporate world by overreacting emotionally. Her psychology classes taught her to illuminate, evaluate, and communicate. And that's just what she was going to do.
Using every pillow on the bed to prop herself up against the headboard, she took a deep breath.
Mitch hadn’t liked her flippant attitude. And it wasn’t that she didn’t care… If she let herself, she’d care more than was smart—or safe. Together, they’d been spectacular. But they barely knew one another. Hell, they’d spent more time sniping at each other than cooing and sighing.
It had to be loneliness. Out here in the woods, isolated and leading a rustic lifestyle, he’d latched onto her as a respite from his solitary existence.
Her amateur psychoanalysis made perfect sense. She grinned. Now she needed to test it on him and see if she could smooth out the wrinkles in their temporary situation.
After digging through his drawers and closet, she slipped into fresh backwoodsman apparel. Another flannel shirt, this time green, and a pair of black sweats.
Padding barefoot to the bedroom door, she inched it open and listened. Nothing. She headed down the hall to her room but stopped when she spotted him at his computer.
Before she could say a word, he killed the monitor and stood. “Storm’s let up for a while. Another heavy band is coming through in an hour or so.”
Funny, her heart had dropped at the thought of the storm ending, opening the door for her to leave. It rebounded when she heard there would be more snow. Maybe she should analyze her own loneliness issues before diagnosing his.
He brushed past her. “I’m going out to haul in a couple more trees I felled last spring. We may need more firewood than I have split.”
She followed him. “Can I help?”
Stopping abruptly, he turned. “Yeah. Maybe it would be good for us to get out of the house for a while.” His gaze locked with hers and his jaw worked, as if an apology fought to free itself.
She imagined how he felt. He’d snapped out those cutting words in the bedroom without thinking them through first. Just let his emotions drive him. Where did that come from? Her training pointed to the possibility of a deep scar somewhere in his past.
“Let’s get out of here while we can,” she said. “We’ll talk about…things…later. When we're back inside.”
He nodded and looked away. Turning, he put a hand on the side of her neck. “Sorry, Candy. I didn't mean it.”
“I know.” But they still would be having a long chat later. He wasn't getting off that easily.
It took five minutes to outfit her in a voluminous jacket, waterproof pants, hand-knit mittens, hat, and scarf. She could barely make it out the door wearing the four pair of wool socks that made his boots less floppy.
Mitch shoveled a path to the garage and hauled open the door. “Wait here.” He went inside and manually opened the roll-up door.
Light flooded the space as she peered inside. Tools and gadgets and gas-powered lawn implements.
The roar of a motor startled her. Mitch swung his leg over the seat of a four-wheeler. Major barked and jumped excitedly, circling the vehicle as Mitch drove it out of the garage.
“Hop on.” He grinned at her and patted the seat behind him.
She’d never done this before, but it looked like fun. Waddling over, she put her hands on his shoulders and eased a leg over. He helped her place her feet on the back pegs, and with a roar, they were off.
It was beautiful. He'd chosen a perfect plot of land to call home. His property was thick with trees, and for a short way, they followed alongside a river. He wove his way through the forest as she held on with her arms around his waist, her body pressed to his.
When he leaned back and took them speeding down a hill, she giggled, feeling as excited as Major. The dog rushed ahead, stopped to dig and sniff, caught up again, and repeated the process.
Too soon, they stopped at a clearing where a dozen tree trunks lay piled in a pyramid. He turned off the engine.
She got off, her legs tingling from the vibration of the motor.
Mitch hefted a thick chain from the box at the back of the ATV and trudged through a snowdrift to the pile of trees. Wrapping the chain around one, he rolled it off the pile, and then wrapped another length of chain around the second.
He seemed so competent. Never hesitating, just doing what needed to be done. Candy admired that. In her life, every plan had to be checked and double-checked before taking action. She could learn a lot from this man.
After hooking the chain to the four-wheeler, he said, “Keep Major by you. Move back a ways, too.”
She called the dog, and when he came, slid her hand into his collar. “Let’s go see what’s over here.”
The dog walked along beside her without trying to tear her arm off. “Good boy.” Who would have thought she’d become pals with this slobbering beast?
The motor gunned as Mitch eased the vehicle forward, hauling the two logs behind him. He turned off the engine and walked back to check the chains.
“That you, Mitch?” a voice called from behind them.
Major barked and tugged to get free.
“You can let him go,” Mitch said. He held up a hand in greeting as Major ran toward the voice. “Hey.”
Candy hadn't noticed the small, dark house tucked into the woods. On the porch, a tall man stood, wearing bib overalls and sporting a graying military-style haircut.
The man shouted, “Come over for a drink?”
Mitch cupped his hands around his mouth. “Can’t, Jeb. Gotta put up some wood.”
“Next time,” the man answered, petting Major.
Mitch glanced her way. “Let's go.”
“Who was that?” she asked as she climbed on behind him.
“Jeb Nobell, my neighbor.”
As they followed the four-wheeler’s path back to the house, she thought of her neighbors. Not acres away, but separated by sixteen-inch walls. What a different lifestyle he led.
They made slow progress hauling the load. Major caught up to them halfway back.
At the garage, Mitch unhooked the logs, tucked the vehicle away, and came out of the garage with a chainsaw. Major growled as Mitch yanked a cord and brought the tool to life.
“I know, boy. I’m not a fan of those things, either.” Candy brushed the snow off the dog’s head. “Let’s be useful and do some shoveling.”
Major leapt and snapped at every shovelful she tossed until she was laughing so hard she had to lean on the shovel.
The chainsaw droned and whined from the backyard as she shoveled a path from the front door to the flattened tow truck. Was it his? Or did the garage own it? She hadn’t even asked. She took a peek inside what was left of the side window.
From the backyard, the chainsaw squealed and popped, then died abruptly.
Mitch yelled, low and long. “Shit!”
Major’s ears shot up.
Candy straightened, holding her breath.
“Candy. I need help.”
The dog took off at full speed.
Her heart raced as she plowed clumsily through the snow, encumbered by the big boots and loose pants. Panic flashed through her, and her head spun. Dread choked in her throat.
She came around the back of the house and stopped dead.
Mitch held his arm. The snow was speckled with blood.