Hello and happy Saturday night!
I’m about to call it quits for the day after a busy morning at the Farmer’s Market and an afternoon of sunshine and assorted odd jobs and chores. I hear a book and a glass of wine calling my name. (Ahhhhhh, right?! 😍) Before I sign off though, I’m so excited that I had to share. REELING is coming out soon, soon, SOON, and I can’t wait for you all to read it . . . In fact, I’m so excited about it that I wanted to give you a sneak preview. Sooooo, on that note, without anymore blather from me, here it is. Enjoy! (I hope it leaves you reeling and wanting more!)
Reeling by Ev Bishop
~ Chapter 1 ~
The long drive into River’s Sigh B & B was beautiful. Mia understood that, even while she struggled to suppress a low buzz of terror. Despite being nestled securely in her car, her heart pounded and her breath quickened. She was fenced on all sides. Thick trees cast long-armed shadows. A jungle of dark, impenetrable brush sprawled beyond the edges of the gravel road. The autumn sunshine dappled the ground with splashes of gold, but failed to brighten the formidable forest. It was like even nature was warning: anything—anyone—could hide here.
The website hadn’t been exaggerating one bit when it called River’s Sigh B & B a “wilderness retreat.” If she wasn’t driving along an obvious road, it would be easy to believe she was in the middle of absolute nowhere. It was both horrible and perfect.
“You can do this,” she muttered. “You can and you will.” She caught a glimpse of her strained expression in the rearview mirror and crossed her eyes at herself. “Or you’ll go crazy trying, which isn’t saying much since you’re practically certifiable already.”
She wondered if everyone talked to themselves the way she did, but decided it didn’t matter. The running conversations she held aloud were the least of her problems.
Her peppy little Mini Countryman zoomed around yet another bend, and then, all at once, she was finally there. A large round parking area lay empty before her, except for one old pickup that had seen better days. Here and there, barely visible through the trees and bushes, Mia caught glimpses of colorful tin. The cabins’ roofs, she assumed. Another slippery eel of doubt swirled in her stomach. She’d known River’s Sigh B & B was remote, but she’d envisioned the cabins being closer together, not hidden from view of the main house and from each other. Maybe she should’ve brought her mom or her sister with her, after all.
“Get out of the car,” she commanded through gritted teeth. “You can’t live like a prisoner forever.”
She let out a shuddery exhale, eased her hands off her steering wheel, and tugged her plaid schoolboy cap lower around her ears—a difficult thing to do with all her hair tucked up inside it. It seemed to take her forever, but eventually she was standing outside the car, her big rolling suitcase beside her and her large rucksack over one shoulder. She clicked her key fob and heard the car’s doors lock. She clicked again to be certain. Then she walked the perimeter of the vehicle and tested each door handle just to make extra sure. Out of habit, she peered into the backseat too, knowing full well no one could be in there. She’d checked at her last gas stop and had driven nonstop since then, but what could she say? Insane as it revealed her to be, she was incapable of resisting the urge to check.
Mia had just pressed her forehead to the passenger side’s window, appreciating its cold smoothness against her anxiety flushed face, when someone called her name. She practically jumped out of her skin—and banged her head on the window’s rain guard. Rubbing her temple, she backed away from her car and spotted the source of the voice: a smiling woman in faded jeans and a comfy looking flannel shirt, knotted at one hip. She was close to Mia’s age from the looks of it, so early thirties maybe, with a riot of long curly reddish hair. An old stiff-legged wire brush of a dog accompanied her.
“Mia!” the woman said again, but then her smile faded a little and she slowed her pace. “Mia Clark?”
“Yes, sorry, sorry. That’s me, yes. I mean, hello.” Mia groaned inwardly. It was like she was an imposter of herself. Even after all these years, this babbling mess she’d become was an unfamiliar stranger. And the worse part was that she was actually better now than she had been.
“I’m Jo and this is my faithful friend, Hoover.” The dog gave a solemn nod in greeting, and Jo held her hand out.
Mia shook Jo’s hand gingerly and cringed again, knowing she was giving a wet fish of a handshake, but grateful she was able to touch Jo at all. It was another bit of progress, however pathetically small.
“It’s nice to meet you in person, Jo. I appreciate the special arrangements you’ve made for me.”
Jo shook her head. “It was nothing. The season slows down about now anyway and—” She shook her head again.
“What?” Mia asked.
“It’s just a bit surreal. You’re really you. Your voice . . . it’s Mia Clark’s.”
Mia was surprised by a tickle of true humor, not the put on, wise cracking kind she specialized in these days. “Well, I guess that makes sense. I am Mia Clark, after all.”
“Yes,” Jo agreed. “And I’m an idiot. Please ignore my blundering. I feel like star struck kid. I had all your albums when I was a teenager—and we’re around the same age.”
Bingo, Mia thought. “Albums, hey? Yep, we’re from the same era all right.”
Jo laughed, picked up Mia’s massive suitcase like it weighed nothing, and started walking. “You probably hear this all the time, but you were a huge inspiration to me when I was a kid. There you were, having this crazy successful life when you’d started out with nothing just like me. You gave me the idea that maybe if a person worked hard enough… then, fast forward twenty years, you call to book a three month stay. I actually thought you were my sister Sam prank calling me. I almost hung up.”
Mia rubbed her chin, then became aware of the pensive gesture. Aiming for casual, she stretched her arms out in front of her, like she was stiff from driving, and looked around instead. “Seems to me you have a lot. Must’ve worked hard.”
Jo’s stride didn’t slow, but she followed Mia’s gaze and sounded a little awestruck. “Yeah, I really do. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”
Mia remembered when she’d felt like that. Full of gratitude and mingled disbelief—that you could get paid for doing what you loved to do most in the world. It seemed like forever ago. Jo had expressed surprise that she was “really” Mia Clark, but what would shock Jo even more was the knowledge that despite Mia’s claim a moment earlier, she really wasn’t herself anymore, not in any way that counted. “You know there are wheels on that, right?”
Now Jo’s step did falter. “Sorry, what?”
“My suitcase weighs a ton—but it has wheels. I feel bad about you carrying it.”
Jo looked down, then waved her free hand dismissively. “I’m strong, and I don’t want the gravel to wreck the rolling mechanisms.”
The parking lot and the safety of Mia’s vehicle were long gone now, the greenery on either side of the trail was wilder, and they still hadn’t reached her cabin.
“So what’s it like being famous?” Jo asked.
Mia stopped so abruptly, it was like her rolling mechanism suddenly broke. Her rucksack thudded painfully against her hip bone and she wished she’d put it on properly, not just slung it over her shoulder. She couldn’t do this. If this was what staying here would be like, she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
What if other people found out she was here? Jo seemed nice, but she was obviously a fan. And fans talked. It wasn’t like Mia Clark was a big name or anything anymore, not even remotely, but even one wingnut from the past could . . .
Her heart hammered so loudly she was sure Jo could hear it. She laughed—a shrill, mirthless cackle. “I’m not famous anymore, but oh yeah, it was totally awesome. I mean what’s cooler than being the object of other peoples’ fantasies, right? And if you can collect a stalker or two? Well, that is the best, the absolute best.”
Jo almost dropped Mia’s suitcase and her face turned brick red, but Mia couldn’t stop. “Seriously, there’s nothing cooler than having people obsessed with you—some so far gone that even when you’ve been a nobody again for more than a decade, they still track you down, infiltrate your inner circle, your family, then attack you and leave you for dead because of some bizarre, imaginary betrayal.”
Jo’s hand flew to her mouth. “I’m so sorry—”
“No,” Mia muttered abruptly, remembering her therapist Brenda’s advice to stop taking her pain out on everyone else in the world. “I’m sorry.” The apology came with difficulty, like it was being pulled out of wet cement—which was a pretty good analogy for how she felt mood-wise these days. “You were just making small talk. You’re curious. It’s normal. I . . . have a tendency toward sarcasm, badly timed jokes, or weird rants when I’m anxious. I’m working on it, though—hence this ridiculous, humiliating confession.”
Jo gave her a strange, contemplative look that Mia found hard to decipher, then smiled equally cryptically. “I can’t wait for you to meet my sister Sam. Her husband’s an author with a tight book deadline, so she’ll be around lots this fall. I think you’ll really click.” Her smiled faded a smidgeon—no doubt reading the extreme skepticism in Mia’s expression. “Or you totally, totally won’t.”
Mia had nothing to say to that—and her lungs were trying to squeeze themselves shut with a sudden onslaught of fresh stress, so she doubted she could get a word out even if she wanted to. She stood there utterly mute, knowing she seemed horribly rude, but unable to do much about it.
When Jo realized she wasn’t going to get a response, she, to her credit, continued on like they hadn’t just endured a big awkward pause. “Anyway, like I said earlier, I’m an idiot—and a totally unprofessional idiot, at that. I didn’t mean to hammer you with questions or bring up things that I should’ve realized would be painful.” Her amber eyes looked genuinely contrite, which made Mia feel extra bad. “I’ll stop badgering you immediately, and please don’t worry. I haven’t told a soul about you coming here and I won’t. As per your instructions, the only people I informed about you are my sister, my niece, my husband and that guy you and I talked about. That’s it—and none of them will spill a word either.”
Mia’s breathing still hadn’t returned to normal and her voice was still sharp with nerves. “Good, good. I mean I don’t want you to think I’m some weird diva or something, and I can’t imagine the press finding out about my . . . holiday, or even caring if they did, but just in case there are rumors or someone does ask about—”
“No one will say a word,” Jo repeated firmly. “You want privacy and autonomy, and that’s what you’ll have.”
They started forward again and Jo continued talking, still warmly enough, but with a less familiar, more businesslike tone. “This is Minnow cabin. If you cut through the bush, it’s not far from yours, but for now we’ll stick to the main trails, so you learn the layout of the place.”
The cabin Jo pointed to was tiny and enchanting, with cedar siding, a red tin roof and an itty-bitty sheltered porch that housed a large black rocking chair. A slab of polished wood nestled on the porch railing, forming a beautiful yet practical table. It held a clunky pottery mug, a toddler’s sippy cup and a stack of children’s picture books.
“My niece Aisha and her little daughter Mo live here. Aisha’s the onsite staff member I told you about. I know you want solitude, but this is a lot of it, especially for some people. It can be hard to understand what it’s like until you live in it. She won’t bother you one bit, but she’s nearby if you want her.”
“Thank you,” Mia said softly.
Jo nodded, and as they continued along the winding trail, she pointed out other cabins by name, some hidden through the bushes, some out in the open. Mia was particularly struck by a tall skinny one standing off by itself, surrounded by massive cedars. It had row upon row of windows and reminded Mia of a lighthouse. A funky wooden sign identified it as “Spring.”
It felt like they’d been walking forever when the branches overhead grew denser, blocking out most of the sky, the gravel path narrowed into a soft duff trail, and the forest pressed in closer on each side. A cabin so large it was more like a full-fledged house appeared.
“Coho,” Jo said, then elaborated. “It’s empty right now and will probably stay that way since it sleeps eight people, and the prime fishing and holiday season is over for the year.”
A mixture of relief and disappointment seeped through Mia. When she’d asked to be as far away from the main house as possible, she’d had no clue what that really meant.
Just beyond a copse of orange and yellow leafed birch trees, a little cedar cabin with a river stone chimney and a matching patio area popped into view. Mia’s flip-flopping emotions somersaulted away from trepidation and solidly back to optimism.
Jo finally stopped moving. “And this is Sockeye,” she said, flourishing her free hand. “Yours for as long as you want it.”
Mia shook her head. “I . . . I love it.”
Jo laughed. “You haven’t even seen it yet, but thank you—and yes, I think you will. It’s stocked with the items you requested. You should be good to go.”
“Great. Thank you.”
“That said, we serve breakfast in the dining hall every day between eight and ten. I know you want to keep to yourself and do your own thing, but don’t hesitate to join us if you’re ever in the mood. We don’t need advance notice.”
Mia nodded as Jo put her suitcase down and handed her a set of keys.
“And last but not least,” Jo continued. “The gentleman we discussed on the phone got back to me. He’s willing to give you self-defense lessons, and he’s aware of what you need to conquer first.”
Mia was suddenly freezing, and her palms itched and sweated. There was no doubt left in her; she’d tried to do too much too fast. Definitely. She assumed a flippant, joking air. “So the hermit will come down from his mountain? I’m impressed.”
Jo raised an eyebrow. “Be careful what you wish for. He’s a good guy like I said, but saying he’s not a people person is an understatement beyond compare.”
“Got it. Sounds like a gem.”
Jo shuffled her feet a bit, as if trying to hold something back. “Okay . . .” she said eventually. “I guess that’s it for me. Have a great night, enjoy your months with us, and please don’t be a stranger. If you need anything, I’m here to help.”
“I appreciate it, but I’m still hoping to make myself pretty scarce.”
Jo nodded. “Just stick to the clearly marked trails on the map I e-mailed you, and follow the advice we discussed on the phone. If you do, you should be more than fine.”
She turned to leave, but Mia stopped her. “And self-defense hermit guy, when is he coming by?”
“Tomorrow afternoon, one-ish, in the main dining hall.”
“I’ll be there.”
Jo’s chin bobbed again, then she lifted her hand in farewell and jogged off down the trail. She was completely out of sight in what felt like seconds. Mia set her rucksack down by the stone fire pit and pivoted in a slow circle, taking in her surroundings. Sockeye’s deep purple door gleamed welcomingly, showy and dramatic against the cabin’s rich cedar siding. Its jade and silver fish-shaped door knocker made her smile. The stone patio held two low-seated Adirondack chairs and a funky cast iron chiminea. She instantly pictured herself sitting out here on cool evenings, wrapped in a blanket, fire roaring away, cozily reading a book or writing in her accursed journal.
Reveling in the heady scent of pine trees, dirt and sunshine, with only the quaint cabin and ancient forest for company, Mia felt like she’d fallen back in time. She wished such a thing were actually possible. It would be lovely to rewind the clock of one’s life, making damaging events and people disappear like they’d never happened.
Around her, the trees were silent, yet seemed to breathe. Mia told herself it was a comfortable solitude and almost believed it. She’d come a long way and had a lot further to go, but she’d make it. She would reclaim her independence and never make the mistake of letting anyone get close enough to fool her or hurt her again. She would regain her confidence and spontaneity—or die trying.
Didn’t you already almost go that route? a nasty part of her brain quipped.
“Not funny,” she snapped back.
She slipped her cell phone from her pocket. No service out here, but it still told the time: barely noon. She had hours of daylight left, and it was gorgeous and sunny—delightfully and unseasonably so, in fact. She shouldn’t, and she wouldn’t, waste her first day.
She grabbed a water bottle from her pack, then unlocked the purple door—which, in her head, she was starting to refer to as the purple door of possibility—and shoved her luggage inside. She shut and relocked the door without bothering to explore the cabin’s interior. No doubt she’d have a night full of insomnia to do that.
Looking back the way she and Jo had come, Mia hesitated. She could retrace their steps and reinforce knowledge of terrain already covered, or—she glanced to her left, studying a thin trail that meandered off into the woods—she could kick-start this final step in her healing process with a bit of oomph. So really there wasn’t a question, after all. Moving at pace she told herself was for maximum cardio benefit and not out of transparent bravado, Mia headed out on the unfamiliar trail to destinations equally unknown.
~ Chapter 2 ~
Just him, Wolf and the forest. This was right. Was how it was supposed to be now. Gray took a huge rib stretching breath, and the tightness and stress that had been riding him the past week fell away. Man, the air was good. Sweet and warm and filled with the scent of sunbaked cedar and pine. It felt more like the height of August than mid-September.
His leg was having a bad day, but even that couldn’t dim his mood. He paused by a massive hemlock, braced himself with one hand on its rough bark, and bent to rub his stiff knee. It was great to be outside. No, scratch that. It was essential. True, he was not as strong as he’d once been and though it had been years since the injury, he never got used to it—or forgot his previous self. True, some days his damaged leg felt every stride like it was its first time connecting with the earth. But also true: he could still cover a fair amount of ground quickly and damaged or not, he was still stronger and fitter than a lot of guys. None of that really mattered though. The crucial factors, what made his time outdoors critically important, was that the dead spot in the core of his being was less all-consuming out here. The agony of existing without Celine and Simon, though not obliterated, was eased. Sometimes he even imagined he felt life pouring into him from the trees overhead. It showed him some experiences were worth the sacrifices they called for and that some kinds of gains transcended pain.
Gray straightened up again and took another deep pull of air. For the most part, as shocking as it was, considering everything that had happened, he was content. He could handle physical pain, and the emotional side of things? Well, out here he was so removed from constant reminders that he fared pretty well in that arena too.
A crackle in the dry brush beside the trail and the sound of twigs snapping under the weight of a heavy animal killed the birdsong overhead. Gray smiled and made a soft clicking sound. Wolf crashed through a tangle of salmonberry bushes and appeared in front of Gray, tongue lolling and full of burrs. Gray rubbed his dog’s broad head and scrubbed his ears. Wolf leaned in, his body weight solid and comforting against Gray’s thigh, then bolted out of sight again.
Yep, this was what they both needed all right. To be back where they belonged. To be alone and free from the meddling of busybodies—hell, free from people in general with their prying questions and fury evoking sad-eyed looks of concern. It was too bad he wasn’t completely self-sufficient, or he’d stop his seasonal forays into town all together. Even a few days was a few days too long.
Gray continued down the increasingly faint trail, then eased through an archway formed by two cottonwoods that had grown close together over the years. The small lake, his lake, as he liked to think of it, was a glinting sapphire in the golden sunlight. He skirted a stand of skinny jack pines, then froze. A rush of heat and blood ran to his face . . . and other parts.
There was a mermaid in his lake. And she was beautiful—even from just the glorious back view he had. A cascade of dark hair flowed down the creamy expanse of her bare shoulders and torso. A small waist flared into generous hips and a well-rounded—
Gray clapped a hand over his eyes. What was he? Some kind of pervert? It was like he’d never seen a naked woman before. Okay, it had been a long time, sure, but—he cut that thought off as well. He backtracked as quickly and quietly as he could, desperate to escape before she turned and saw him and thought he was a peeping Tom or something.
Familiar snuffling grunts—not at all humorous now—and a telltale crack of branches told Gray all hope of disappearing unnoticed was in vain. Wolf sprang from the bush and into the clearing, too far away for Gray to grab him. Then, in typical dog fashion, Wolf decided the complete stranger wading in the lake must desperately want to visit him. He charged down the rocky beach and across the narrow strip of sand at the water’s edge.
The mermaid turned as soon as she heard Wolf—and screamed. Repeatedly. Completely undaunted, Wolf splashed through the shallows toward her.
Gray stripped off his backpack, then limped-ran as fast as he could toward the shoreline. “It’s all right. He’s friendly. He won’t hurt you.”
The woman didn’t appear to hear him over her increasingly loud screams. She splashed frantically at Wolf, trying to shoo him, but the dumb mutt interpreted her actions as play.
“Wolf! Down. Come.” Wolf heard Gray’s command and froze, but Gray could tell by the prick of his ears that the dog was deliberating whether he should listen or continue doing his own thing. It was, after all, so fun to play chase. Wolf was not the loner Gray was. Not by half, more’s the pity.
“Come,” Gray growled again, then repeated the clicking sound. Wolf’s shoulders sagged and he heaved a deep, hard done by sigh. Finally, he turned and plowed through the water toward Gray. Lumbering up onto the beach, he dropped to his belly and grinned, tongue lolling.
The mermaid was not calmed. “What is wrong with you?” she shrieked. “That animal is a menace. I’m going to call animal control—”
Embarrassment burned through Gray. Wolf was usually a great dog, but he was a dog. He’d been excited, hadn’t meant any harm. And who did this woman think she was anyway? Cavorting buck naked in the middle of nowhere? She was damn fortunate Wolf was a dog, not a bear or a moose—or the worst kind of animal, some less than scrupulous person.
He turned and strode away.
The woman yelled again. “That’s it? You’re just going to leave, no apology, no . . . nothing?”
He turned back. Damn his leg hurt. That sprint across the loose rocks on the shore had been too much.
She was crouched deeper in the water now, so her lower bits were covered, and her arms were crossed protectively over her chest. But Gray had gotten a good, if unintentional, eyeful when she’d been fending off Wolf. The image of her small firm breasts was seared in his mind. He shifted uncomfortably.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re doing or why you’re naked in my lake, but this is private property.”
“What?” She sounded genuinely shocked. Stricken even. But then something in her face tightened. “Are you calling me naked? That’s impossible. The salesperson promised this bathing suit did not make me look nude!”
Gray floundered for something to say. She was acting like he’d called her fat or something . . . Ah, the joke made itself clear—but how to respond did not. What kind of a whack job joked in a situation like this? He was a total stranger. For all she knew, he might be dangerous.
“No,” he finally managed, like a dullard. “I said this is private land. My private land.”
The woman wrapped her arms around herself even tighter and huddled still lower in the water, her poor excuse for a sense of humor finally failing her. “This isn’t River’s Sigh B & B’s property?”
And now it all made sense. This was one of Jo and Callum’s city slickers. Gray sighed heavily and met the woman’s eyes—just her eyes. “Nope. Mine. And I don’t like company, mermaid or not.”
For a second something almost like a sincere smile flashed across her face. “I’m not actually a mermaid, or not a full blood one anyway.”
Gray nodded solemnly, but felt . . . what? Amused? How long had it been since he’d felt that? Maybe even longer than since the last time he’d seen someone else in less than their skivvies. “Jo and Callum’s acres do edge this lake, but on the other side. You went too far.”
She bit her lip and looked like she wished she could disappear.
“What are you doing anyway?” He waved his hand in her general direction. “If you were out and wanted an impromptu dip, couldn’t you have, uh, left your underthings on?”
Underthings? Okay, he didn’t mind being a hermit, but he didn’t want to sound like some bushed weirdo either. He suspected it was too late.
Her teeth sunk even further into her bottom lip, and her eyes—bright cornflower blue, striking against her nearly black hair, though he hated that he noticed—sparkled like she was near tears. Gray felt bad. Sure, she’d surprised him, but it wasn’t like she was committing a crime. Still, he didn’t offer any reassurances. He didn’t want to say anything that might be construed as him not minding that she was there. Because he did mind. Very much.
He turned away one last time and clicked to Wolf, who stood promptly, but threw a mournful glance over his shoulder toward the naked woman he wouldn’t get to play with.
“I feel your grief, buddy,” Gray whispered, shocking himself with the small joke and even grinning a little. The tiny moment of silliness withered instantly, however. He didn’t let himself entertain stupid fantasies—and thankfully they didn’t pop into his head often. Which was for the best. He lived with enough chronic pain as it was.
He strode off without a backward glance, hoping like hell he wouldn’t run into the skinny dipper when he was teaching self-defense lessons to the old musician Jo had begged a favor for.