"If there's a serial killer out in those woods just waiting for the cover of a creepy storm so he can kill us, I'm going to be pissed."
Carly di Matisse snickered as her best friend Sloane Russo's wild imagination got the best of her ... again. Carly stopped short on the floorboards of the cozy mountain bungalow they'd shared for the last six months, undoing the top button of her chef's whites and tossing her keys on the counter.
"You watch too many horror movies. It's just a little storm. Look, I'm barely wet." Carly raised her arms up as proof. As if offended by her nonchalance, the storm flashed a split of silvery light outside their living room window, immediately chasing it with a crack of thunder to rival the shrieking wind.
Sloane arched a brow in Carly's direction from her perch on the couch before shooting a wary look at the windows. "That's because we have a garage, smartass. I swear it doesn't rain like this in Brooklyn."
Okay, fine. So Sloane had a point. The wind sure didn't shake the bricks of Carly's New York brownstone with its gusting and groaning, and you could forget about being able to hear it from the deep recesses of any big city kitchen. Raindrops crashed over the bungalow with even more force now, like handfuls of angry marbles being pelted at the logs.
Things were definitely different in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, AKA the middle of nowhere. And the spectacular weather wasn't the half of it.
"Yeah, yeah. We're not in Kansas anymore, cucciola." Carly hoped her homesickness didn't permeate her voice as much as it did her chest. God, she hated being so far away from home.
Sloane's head snapped up. "Oh, Carly. I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"
"I know." Lightning streaked the sky, and a near- simultaneous clap of thunder ripped through the night. "So you want a cup of tea? I was going to give that new vanilla chai a whirl, see if it's any good."
Not the slickest subject change in the world, but it'd do. Carly didn't want to talk about the reasons she'd left New York any more than Sloane wanted to tangle with that imaginary serial killer.
"It's after midnight. Aren't you exhausted?" Sloane eyed Carly's sauce-splattered chef's whites, the product of a typical Saturday double shift.
"Weird hours are an occupational hazard. Especially since it's just me in the kitchen now." She flicked on the overhead light in the kitchen, her Dansko clogs whispering over the hardwood as she moved to find the teakettle.
"Weird hours. Don't I know it." Sloane closed the laptop propped over her pajama-clad knees with a mutter. "If I don't get these pages to my editor before I leave on Monday, I'm going to be ankle-deep in a bad situation. Speaking of which," Sloane paused just long enough for it to be noticeable. "Are you sure you're going to be okay all by your lonesome for a whole week while I'm at my conference?"
Carly tested the water rushing from the kitchen faucet, her answer as steady as the stream under her fingers. "In the twenty years you've known me, have I ever not been okay?"
Sloane held up her hands to concede. "Point taken. You are everyone's favorite tough cookie." She padded over to the breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the living room, flinching at a particularly loud clap of thunder as she went.
"I come by it honestly," Carly said, coaxing a burner to life with a turn of her wrist. Her profession dictated she wear a certain amount of toughness on her sleeve. Current circumstances took things one step further, pushing her to wear the rest of her fortitude like a suit of armor.
"Yeah, about that." Sloane winced, tucking the dark swath of her bangs behind one ear. "Travis called while you were at work. Said it was important."
Carly's stomach did a full gainer due south. "Did he say what he wanted?" It figured she'd get hit with this when she was trying to unwind. Travis had always known how to wreck a good thing.
Sloane made a rude noise and a face to match, propping her elbows on the granite counter at the breakfast bar. "You should be so lucky. He just said he needed to talk to you ay-sap. His cheesy expression, not mine."
"Well, shit." This was about as eloquent—and polite—as Carly got when it came to her ex. While she could run a high-pressure kitchen without feeling an ounce of stress, dealing with her soon-to-be former husband was another story altogether. The man was the living embodiment of ulterior motives.
"Personally, I think you should ignore the call and let your lawyer have at him. He's just trying to rile you up. Now that you're not there in person, he's got no choice but to phone it in."
Carly reached for two mugs, dropping a tissue-thin tea bag into each one. "Travis wouldn't spend the energy unless he wanted something. This is a man who manipulated his way into a head chef 's job by way of my coattails, then schmoozed everyone in the five boroughs into believing he was the true talent behind our husband and wife team. Never mind that I'm the one who created the menu at Gracie's from pot to plate while he just stood there looking pretty and taking the credit."
Her voice gave a slight hitch over the name of the restaurant where she'd spent over four years as co-head chef, only to be ousted by the owner when she gave him the either-Travis-goes-or-I-go ultimatum. Of course, the fact that the owner's daughter, Alexa—who also happened to be the restaurant manager—was completely smitten with Travis probably went a long way toward making the decision easy. Carly often wondered if the owner would've felt the same way if he'd been the one to catch Travis and Alexa having sex in the back office after hours. Not that it mattered now.
Sloane rolled her baby blues. "Please. You're so much better off out here."
"Am I?" The question crossed Carly's lips before she could tamp it down. "It's not as if Travis had to leave the city to get out from beneath my shadow." She should've known better than to tie herself to him so inextricably in the first place. Everything they'd done in their five years of marriage had been a joint endeavor, with his name headlining. God, with all his sweet talking and that confident trust-me smile, he'd had her convinced it was all just a part of their happily ever after.
More like a bushel full of poison apples, each one stamped with his conniving name. The only way to salvage her reputation among the tight-knit kitchen circles in the city was to hope that out of sight truly did mean out of mind.
And running a kitchen in the Pennsylvania boondocks certainly qualified as out of sight.
Sloane interrupted Carly's thoughts. "Yes, but Travis wasn't offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance to revitalize a restaurant at a beautiful mountain resort. Pine Mountain's executives courted you alone, darling, and with good reason. Once the reviews come in and La Dolce Vita takes off like the superstar it is, you'll be able to write your ticket to any restaurant in New York." She gave a look that dared Carly to argue before adding, "If you even feel like going back."
"You're kidding, right? I'm a born-and-raised city girl." New York was the Promised Land in the restaurant world, and she wanted her place back as a rising star. Badly enough to wait things out in Mapdot, Pennsylvania.
Carly pasted on a smile, forcing herself to ditch the pity-party. "We did get a nice review in the Travel Times on Monday. I guess a local travel guide is a good place to start." In truth, she was learning a ton from running a kitchen solo, and it was good experience while the gossip mongers on the New York restaurant circuit grew tired of churning out her sullied name. "Anyway, the food is what matters most. The kitchen here is on the upswing, and it's only getting better."
"That's the spirit!" A loud burst of thunder took the edge off Sloane's grin, and Carly went right into distraction mode.
"So how are your pages coming along?" Steam curled from the teakettle in thick tendrils, wrapping around Carly's fingers as she poured hot water into each oversized mug.
"Not bad, actually. My editor loved the outline. She said it's shaping up to be my sexiest work yet," Sloane said, waggling her eyebrows.
"Well, it's a good thing you write romance novels. I don't think I'd know sexy if it fell into my lap."
"Oh, that's a load of crap. Those clogs don't fool me, Chef. There's a dirty girl under those dirty chef's whites. You just have to find the right man to share her with, that's all."
"Sloane!" Carly laughed in a quick burst. "Don't be ridiculous. Men are way more trouble than they're worth, both for me and my career. And trouble is something I am definitely not interested in."
"Jaded, party of one, your table is now available." Sloane's laughter softened under the warm glow of the kitchen lights. "Come on, Carly. Not all men are lying slime like Travis."
Carly shrugged, unconvinced. "Let's get realistic here. Any man who's not in my field probably isn't going to understand the weird hours and backbreaking work of it. And any man who is, is competition. The odds of me finding Mr. Right somewhere in the middle don't look too good. And I'm definitely not risking my career over a man. Ever again."
"Well, yeah, but maybe—"
A hard shot of wind rattled the window panes, capturing both women's full attention. Though she was grateful for the interruption, the ferocity of the gale made Carly pause. She narrowed her eyes on the sliding glass door connecting the living room to the deck on the back of the house. "Wow. That wind is really nasty."
"I thought you said it was just a teensy little storm," Sloane protested, knuckles blanching over the handle of her mug.
"It is. Don't tell me you're scared." Carly bit back an amused smile. Tree limbs whipped high over the roof, whistling eerily in the merciless wind, but she remained undaunted.
"Hell yes, I'm scared!" Lightning forked in jagged, steely lines, illuminating the yard beyond the sliding glass door in a blue-gray glow, and Sloane cranked her eyes shut. "Doesn't anything freak you out?"
Carly's smile escaped despite her best efforts to spare her friend's pride. "There's nothing to be scared of." She walked to the door and put her palm to the glass. "See? It's just a—"
A gust of wind smashed into the side of the house, gluing Carly's unfinished sentence to her throat. The floorboards vibrated under her feet, and her eyes flared at the staccato snap of breaking wood followed by the surreal groan of moving earth.
Before Carly could release the scream gathering in her chest, one of the tall, proud oak trees lining the property came crashing toward the house.
Somewhere amid the jangly throng of eight-penny nails in his tool belt, Jackson Carter's cell phone was making one hell of a racket. He slid his hammer into the fraying loop on his hip and palmed his phone, grinning at the caller ID.
"Hey, Luke. What's doing?" Jackson wiped his brow with a bare forearm. Man, this weather was a far cry from the storm they'd had a couple days ago. Although considering June was almost over, it was really about time for some heat.
"You tell me. How's Mrs. Teasdale's fence coming?" his boss replied.
Jackson took a step back to double-check his work, inhaling the crisp scent of the pine boards he'd been hammering into place for the better part of two days. "Your timing is perfect, actually. I just finished the build. All it needs is stain and seal coat, and it'll be good to go."
"I'm going to send Micah out there to finish it. I need you on another job, and it looks like a doozy." The unspoken apology hung in Luke's voice, and Jackson fought the urge to groan.
"Why does that sound like a disaster right off the bat?"
"Because it probably is. I just got a call from old man Logan about that bungalow he rents out. You know the one, off Rural Route 4?"
Jackson had lived in Pine Mountain since the beginning of his double-digit days, plus he'd done local contracting work for Luke for nearly a decade. If Jackson didn't know every property in Pine Mountain by now, then shame on him.
"Yeah. It's the log cabin-looking place, right?" He walked the length of freshly built fence to make sure he hadn't missed anything before doubling back to the front of Mrs. Teasdale's aging cottage.
"That's the one. Well, apparently that storm we had the other night was a bit too much for one of the old oak trees on his property, and the wind actually uprooted the damned thing."
Jackson let out a stunned whistle as he popped the locks on his pickup truck. "Did it hit the house?" Those trees had to be sixty feet tall. Oh, man, this job was going to suck.
Luke snorted. "Relax, I'm not sending you on a demolition. The tree fell across the backyard, but it wiped out part of the deck in the process. The arborists just got done hauling away the last of the tree, and now that we can get a good look at the damage, Logan wants us to see if anything can be salvaged. I told him not to get his hopes up, but if anyone could do it, it'd be you."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Jackson grinned and slid into the driver's seat. At six foot four, fitting his large frame behind the wheel wasn't an easy job. "Tell old man Logan his deck is in good hands. Or what's left of it, anyhow. I'm on my way."
One of the beautiful things about living in a small town was that it was just that, and the trip out to Rural Route 4 took less than ten minutes. Jackson pulled up to the tasteful little bungalow and got out, inhaling the fresh summer air as he sauntered to the front of the house to ring the bell.
The strains of some old R&B song were clear from the porch, even through the firmly closed front door. Jackson rang the bell anyway, but after the second try, he gave up. Clearly, someone was home and having the Tuesday morning of a lifetime. He chuckled, picturing some hard-of-hearing old lady getting her Motown groove on inside the house. Far be it for him to interrupt a good time, he thought as he ambled around toward the backyard. All he needed to do was to take a look at the damage, anyway. In and out, no problem.
"Huh," Jackson murmured, realizing that the muffled music was decidedly clearer back here. He recognized the song blaring through the open windows as an oldie his sisters used to sing along with on the ancient boom box in their bedroom. Right, yeah. Kind of a girl mantra, something about being a natural woman. He whistled along with the song as he approached the deck, most of which was thankfully still attached to the house.
"Well, at least it's ground level." He shrugged and examined the deck with a practiced eye. Although much of it was still intact, the tree had taken out the entire far row of railings and pickets, along with a good couple feet of floor boards, clipping what had once been a square into a rectangle with one hell of a rough edge.
The three stairs leading from the yard to what remained of the deck were still anchored in place, and Jackson mounted them easily even though the far side of the deck had sustained enough damage to make it a bad idea. It was the only way he was going to get a good enough look at the point of impact; plus, if the boards ended up giving way, it wasn't as if he'd fall more than a foot or two.
He was crouched down low to examine the missing boards and busted railing when the most horrific attempt at song filtered loudly through the screen door.
"Ouch." Jackson winced at the spectacular racket over his shoulder, biting back a laugh. It was absolutely wrong to eavesdrop on a client belting out oldies in the privacy of her own home, even if she was doing it with nothing but the rolling screen that accompanied her sliding glass door between them. The woman's voice was an audio train wreck, and his curiosity jumped like a trout at daybreak. One peek wouldn't hurt, would it?
As soon as he caught sight of the woman through the screen door, all bets for a quick look-see were off. The image of an old lady went up in smoke, replaced by a curvaceous, dark-haired woman in a skimpy bathrobe. Her eyes were shut tight, pretty face turned up to the living room ceiling as she wailed out the song with all her might. Common decency dictated he step back from the house and pretend he hadn't seen her. He needed to walk away, and he needed to do it pronto.