It should have been hot. Hot like the beach on the Atlantic Ocean in late June, with heat radiating from the white sand causing mirages in the distance. But here in the highlands of northern Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian Plateau where all of the green mountains were the same height, the weather was cooler.
In the morning, the birds sang their dawn chorus, and the pink and gold sunrise lit up the dew-coated grass like miniature Christmas lights. People opened their windows and doors, letting the cool, brisk breeze off the lake waft inside, stirring dust motes from the corners. They draped light sweaters over their shoulders and ambled to the lake, walking along the grassy shore and around the extinguished campfires, with coals still wet from the midnight quenching. The smell of smoke and wet ash mingled with earthy aroma of mud.
The low, swampy marshes next to the lake were replete with grasses, rushes and reeds. Songbirds grasped cattail stalks with tiny clawed feet and warbled throughout the day.
Spence could see why Erin loved the mountain lake, with its variety of summer life. Migrating birds were the most obvious, but during morning walks, they stepped carefully along the path that led to the lake, avoiding the small piles of rabbit doots, their hands in front of their face to wipe away errant spider webs, woven in the night. They saw evidence of deer and raccoons and otter, from tracks left behind. Erin especially loved the red-tailed hawks that flew lazy circles in the sky over the meadows, and perched in trees near cornfields, watching for mice and voles.
The lake was surrounded by farmlands and residences. The wild had been tamed more than one hundred years ago, and kept at bay each season as cabin-fevered residents fled the memory of snow and ice for lakeside summers spent floating inner tubes on water, fishing, roasting marshmallows over campfires and sleeping under the stars.
It was because of the harsh winter that the people of Pennsylvania rejoiced in summer. They spent more than six months in a season of barren trees and icicles, watching snow pile higher, and when it thawed, they rejoiced, taking no sunny day for granted. Art shows graced community parks, baseball games were played, hot dogs and chips and lemonade the standard Saturday lunch. They craved the outdoors and being at the lake: People pulled on bathing suits, frisked in the shallows, rigged fishing poles, and launched kayaks.
Spence, on the other hand, took summer in stride since the seasons didn’t vary as greatly in North Carolina’s coastal areas. The winters were more overcast than cold, and the tourists were fewer and far between. Mainly, for a man of the ocean like Spence, winter meant less fishing and less scuba diving. The ocean tended to be a bit more turbulent and cooler in the winter, but around his weathered-gray house, the landscape stayed the same: A vista of sand dunes, sea oats and sea grasses.
The sea gulls didn’t leave, nor did the pelicans. The moon continued to pull the tides from the shores of the beach and the Pamlico Sound, leaving empty seashells and hapless horseshoe crabs in its wake. The occasional storm would move through, with rain pelting the oversized windows and sliding glass doors, the sound magnified against the metal roof. He never had to dig his way out. Sand shifted, and sometimes it piled up into new dunes, but it never caused him problems like snow and ice.
Now, temporarily free from family ties and concerns, he took a long, rambling ride to Peachy’s store. He kept the car windows rolled down, letting the wind ruffle his hair. The radio was turned on and loud, and his left hand rested out the window, his fingers drumming the warm metal.
The sound of a siren broken his reverie, and he looked in the rearview mirror. A police cruiser was behind him, lights flashing. The siren burped on, then off, more like a friendly request to pull over. He did.
While Spence waited for the officer to approach his door, he reached into his back pocket for his wallet. He palmed his license and waited. In the side mirror, he watched as the tall, lanky officer climbed out of the cruiser, and slipped the brown felt hat on this head.
Spence experienced a flash of deja vu as Sheriff Alec Boone sauntered to the driver’s side door. He recalled meeting Boone two years before, when Erin first brought him to Pennsylvania. In fact, it was on a trip to (or from, he really could recall) Peachy’s when Boone pulled their rental car over.
Spence frowned, wondering what the officer wanted to discuss. The family-friendly sedan had North Carolina license plates, and he was fairly certain they were current. Erin took care of registering the new car she bought after Louisa was born.
Spence grinned and slipped into his standard, “good-old Southern boy” routine. “Howdy officer, what can I do for you today?”
Boone nodded, his face a blank slate, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. “Mr. Spence, good to meet you again. I heard you were visiting.”
Spence nodded once before noticing that Boone wasn’t looking at him. His face was lifted and he was staring into space. Before he could speak, Boone continued.
“Sir, were you aware that you have an infant seat on top of your car?” Boone asked, then stepped back as Spence jerked the car door handle. He jumped from the car and looked up. Large tanned hands swept long, sandy curls from his face and he groaned.
“Awww, crap. I meant to leave it at the cabin for Erin.” He reached for the infant seat and tugged, its platform wedged under a luggage rack. He wiggled it free, then opened the door to the back seat and put it back in its usual place. He glanced around the floor and seat, rummaging through toys and books and discarded bottles as if searching for something.
“Are you looking for this?” Boone asked.
Spence tried to straighten and bumped his head on the interior roof of the car. He turned and saw Boone offering a colorful patch of cloth.
“Thank you, Boone!” Spence took the ragged blanket with gratitude. “I don’t think I would be allowed in the house without this. Where did you …?”
Boone titled his head behind him. “You passed by me at the crossroads, and I saw the empty seat then,” he said. “You lost the blanket abut a mile back. I figured it was important.”
“You have no idea,” Spence said. “The things I used to think were important? Not so anymore.”
“I’m learning,” Boone said, as he pointed to an irregular, milk-colored stain on his otherwise clean shirt.
Ten minutes later, Spence pulled into the parking lot at Peachy’s. Much had transpired since his last visit. The sprawling collection of mismatched shops clabbered together was giving way to a large shopping complex clustered around an outdoor courtyard. Trailers, that served as temporary contractor’s offices, squatted along the perimeter, and fencing kept the curious from walking into construction zones. Large signs sported architect renderings of the future Peachy’s Mall with its inner courtyard would double as a skating rink in the winter, and a splash pool in the summer. A movie theater and an arcade promised to keep youth occupied while adults shopped. Or vice versa.
Spence strolled through the main entrance and did a double-take. The coffee shop was still there, as well as the grocery store, but plastic sheets covered the gaping openings of the hair salon and the old video rental store. Plywood sheets were nailed across the hardware store. Cardboard signs promised grand openings of each shop or business in the coming months.
Change had come to this quiet, quaint corner of Pennsylvania, and Spence liked it. Of course, he thought the original Peachy’s complex had been a hoot, with its eclectic collection of shops and storefronts, each owned by a member of the Peachy family, but the improvement was in line with the family’s history of growth. The new mall was the brainchild of Jack Frey, a member of the Peachy family, and his architectural firm had fought long and hard to make his dream come true.
Spence continued to explore, stopping for an ice cream at the new French Bistro operated by Jack Frey’s bride. She introduced herself to Spence and told him about Frey’s plans for the rest of the shops, including the gas station operated by his cousin, Cindy Peachy.
“She’s resisted him so far, but I don’t think she’ll hold out much longer,” Mrs. Frey said. “Jack is relentless, like one of his bulldozers. He’s not asking Cindy to change much, just let him build a facade so the station looks like the rest of the mall. She vetoed his convenience store idea, but I think he’s won her over with the promise of a six-bay garage. Right now, she can only fit two cars in there. He’s even building her a taller bay for her new tow truck.”
Spence ate his ice cream cone as he listened to the young woman, nodding and making non-committal noises. He tossed the bottom half of the cone into his mouth, then wiped his hands on a flimsy paper napkin.
“Thank you, ma’am, for the update. I’ll be sure to let Erin know all the details.” He sidled closer to the door. “Be seeing you.”
As he turned to go, he bumped into a woman, knocking a shopping bag from her hand. He mumbled his apologies, bent to pick up the bag and handed it to her.
The woman watched his movements warily, her exotic brown eyes guarded and her lush red lips pursed.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Spence drawled. “I apologize. If I’ve broken anything, I’ll be happy to pay for it.” He waited for her to check the bag’s contents.
By habit, Katrina Hall studied the tall, tanned man in front of her, taking in his casual beach-themed shirt, loose shorts and boat shoes. His unruly hair was sun-streaked and wind blown. A pair of sunglasses dangled from an unused buttonhole at the top of his shirt.
What caught her curiosity was his complete indifference to her presence, except to apologize for his clumsiness.
Despite the monumental changes in her life during the past year, and the unseen scars beneath her light summer dress, men still fell over themselves when meeting her. Her beautiful face, her regal posture and intimidating presence generally left men speechless and blushing.
It was a fact, and one that irritated her since the age of sixteen. Being beautiful could be a burden and often a stumbling block.
But this man’s eyes were clear and friendly, without a hint of self-consciousness. He seemed composed and sure of himself, as if each day he encountered gorgeous women, and she were just another in a long line.
For several tense seconds, Katrina waited for him to lapse into the familiar, nauseating pattern that was her due. When it didn’t happen, she smiled.
Spence shifted in discomfort as the woman stared at him. He wasn’t used to dealing with rude people, and he didn’t want a blemish on the otherwise perfect day.
“If you want to check your bag, make sure everything’s okay, like I said, I’m happy to replace anything that’s damaged,” he said. His eyes shifted away, right, then left, as if looking for a way out.
Katrina’s smile widened as she realized he genuinely wasn’t awed. She was just another person, a stranger in the mall, an inconvenience.
How refreshing. How wonderful to be nobody.
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s just a pair of shoes. Nothing to worry about. Good afternoon.” She walked away, the smile imprinted on her face.
Spence nodded, then turned away, facing the ice cream counter and meeting Mrs. Frey’s eyes, which were wide in amazement. He shrugged and rolled his eyes as if to say, “That was weird.”
The young woman grinned. She had a funny little story about “Miss Priss” to share with her husband later that night.
It was a leisurely two hours he spent at Peachy’s, and when he returned to the lakeside cottage, he unpacked two bags of groceries, a case of beer, a tiny bathing suit for Louisa, a pair of flip flops for Erin, and a box of pastels and sketch pad for himself.
“Where’s the coffee?” Erin asked, Louisa squirming in her arms, excited by the new purchases.
Spence scowled and drawled, “Dang. Guess I’ll have to go back.”
Erin grabbed the car keys from the table. “That’s okay. I’ll go.”
She placed Louisa on the blanket and sprinted through the screen door. She heard Spence call out, “No, Louisa!” followed by an outraged roar from their daughter.
A momentary flash of guilt caused Erin to pause on the bottom step, then she smiled and kept walking. Summer in Pennsylvania was too short not to steal its bliss.
The End (Again)
I hope you enjoyed my Distracted One-Shot. How cute is Louisa?
Katrina Hall is an interesting character, and you caught a glimpse of her in Distracted: Chapter 16. Can’t recall the encounter? Check it out. If you want to know the rest of Katrina’s story you’ll have to wait for Dead Line, Book Six in the series, When Love Speaks.
Here’s a short synopsis of Dead Line:
Daily News reporter Katrina Hall returns to Eaton after a long trial in the state capital to discover a new reporter’s been hired, and that he’s poached her desk. Territorial and arrogant, Katrina intimidates most people she meets, but not Jack DeSoto.
He’s intrigued and impressed and determined to crack the “Ice Queen’s” veneer.
Katrina becomes competitive after the boss gives Jack DeSoto preferential treatment, and when he’s assigned to help her investigate criminal activity at City Hall, her resentment escalates.
But keeping the Jack at arm’s length isn’t possible, and when a lone gunman sets his sights on Katrina, she needs Jack more than ever. But needing someone is one thing; wanting that person is another. Will he ever break through her defenses? Should he keep trying when everything is a battle? Is Katrina worth the war when all he wants is her love?
Coming soon 💞 Stay tuned