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The Reluctant Fiancee

Chapter One

Forrest

One more check of the building where we store all the snowshoe equipment and I’m pretty much done for the day. Then I get to enjoy one day off with my family before it starts all over again the day after Christmas.

Not that I mind it at all. I love leading the snowshoe hikes for the guests during the winter. It’s one of the activities the Soraya is known for in the area. Sometimes the locals even join in, too, some of them old friends and neighbors who’ve watched my sisters and I grow up.

After locking the doors, I whistle for Bodhi, my one-eyed German Shepherd mix. Seconds later, I spot him bounding toward me, his brown and black speckled coat appearing and disappearing in the fresh snow.

“There you are.” I ruffle his head with my gloved fingers. “You ready to chow down and veg out with Grandma?”

He barks happily in response and I laugh, knowing Mom’s probably going to sneak a few slices of turkey his way when she thinks I’m not looking. But as much as I’d like Bodhi not to beg at the table, he doesn’t have to, not with Mom. She sets out a dish for him during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I adopted Bodhi from the shelter after spending two years backpacking all over Europe and Asia. Before that, I’d served in the Marines for six years, deploying once to Iraq and later, three times to Afghanistan as a scout sniper. I’ve been recruited a few times by friends who now work for private security firms and set up sniper schools, but after everything I’ve seen out there, I prefer being home on the mountain even if most days, it’s boring as hell… like right now when I need to wait for the last guests to arrive at the lodge before I join my family for Christmas Eve dinner. The guests were supposed to arrive yesterday but they were a no-show.

Oh well, it’s their money.

I unsnap the 2-way radio from my belt and press the button. “The guests for the Sunflower show up yet?” I ask as noise crackles and Harry Crowell’s voice comes on.

“Just got in. She’s on her way to ya.”

I almost ask him what he means by ‘she’ when we’re expecting a couple. That’s what it said on the reservations list. But I don’t. Just like me, Harry’s probably eager to join his family for Christmas Eve dinner.

“Thanks, Harry. I’ll take it from here,” I say. “Oh, and Merry Christmas.”

I take the stick from Bodhi’s mouth and throw it ahead of me. It’s a routine we do whenever we go for our walks. I throw the stick far ahead of us and he fetches it then waits until I get there.

“Thanks, kid. Merry Christmas to you, too,” Harry says. “Don’t work too hard, alright? Just holler if you need me.”

Harry has worked as a caretaker for the lodge since I was a kid and knows the property like the back of his hand. These days, he’s retired but he still helps out whenever he can since he and his wife still live on the property and my parents have no intention of asking them to leave. The Crowell’s are family, as far as we’re concerned.

A few minutes later, Bodhi and I arrive at the Sunflower, a two-bedroom rustic cabin that’s a favorite with guests who like having a view of the lake and being closer to the trails. It’s the farthest cabin from the Main Lodge and the one that’s closest to mine.

As Bodhi runs behind the cabin to sniff around, I kick on the sign that bears the cabin’s name. Still sturdy although someone managed to carve out a heart on the post. Probably one of the kids whose family rented the Sunflower a few weeks back.

I hear a vehicle approaching. From the sound it’s making, I can tell it’s going too fast on the dirt road that it’s bound to crack a body frame or two if the driver doesn’t slow down. Headlights slice through the darkness as a white Escalade turns slightly to the right, the left front tire hitting a dip and then straight again as the driver gets the vehicle back on the road.

I spot a woman behind the wheel, her head craned forward as if she can’t really see where she’s going. But then how can she when she’s not using the right headlights? Low beam headlights aren’t bright enough to see far enough ahead of her like the sign I’m standing next to… the same sign she’s heading right for.

“Hey! Stop!” I yell as I step away from the signpost, the Escalade barely missing me as it keeps going straight ahead.

The woman steps on the brakes but it’s too late. The Escalade hits the old sign and I watch it disappear underneath the front bumper. Beside me, Bodhi barks but doesn’t leave my side. He stays by me as I hurry toward the Escalade.

Didn’t you see the damn sign? I almost say out loud but I don’t. I can’t. Because even if I could, I doubt I’d have been able to say a word edgewise, not when the woman behind the wheel is saying two words over and over again.

imsorryimsorryimsorryohmygodimsorry—

It all comes out in this one long drawn out exclamation that I hold up my hands, afraid she’s going to pass out if she doesn’t pause to catch a breath.

“Alright alright alright,” I say as she finally stops apologizing, her eyes wide as she stares at me through the glass window. God, even she’s got me repeating shit. “Look, it was just a sign, alright? It’s no big deal.”

She rolls down the window. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see it until I was right on top of it.”

“That’s because you’re not using your high beams.” I bite my tongue, willing myself not to ask her if she even knows when she can use them. “But don’t worry about it. The sign can be replaced. “

“I’m so sorry.”

“Stop apologizing. It’s just a sign. But you might have a dent on your bumper.”

“That can be fixed.”

“So can the sign.”

She looks at Bodhi. “Does he bite?”

“Only when he doesn’t like someone.” When her eyes widen, I sigh. Does anyone have a sense of humor these days? “I’m just kidding. Bodhi is fine. Look, I’m Forrest Peters and I work here. Did you just come from the Main Lodge?”

“Summer Avila,” she says, shaking my hand. “Harry gave me the keys to the Sunflower along with the map.” She holds up the official map of the Soraya with the other hand. The map was my youngest sister’s idea and it’s like one of those maps you get at amusement parks complete with colorful drawings and a caption that says You Are Here.

“Well, you’re here. Welcome to the Sunflower, your cabin for the next five days.” I peer inside her car and she follows my gaze.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your reservation said two people. Where’s your companion?”

“Oh. Well, he’s… um, he’s late,” she says as Bodhi barks next to me and she eyes him suspiciously. “Are you sure he doesn’t bite?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Bodhi’s a good boy,” I reply, ruffling the top of Bodhi’s head. “Why don’t I help you with your luggage?”

“I know we were supposed to be here yesterday but I forgot all about the reservation and didn’t realize I’d made it until I got the email about check-in and check-out times. By then, it was too late to head out here.”

“You could have canceled it. I’d have issued you a refund, no problem,” I reply. With perfect ski conditions in effect, we’ve received many inquiries about available rooms since most of the big resorts in Lake Tahoe are fully booked. Filling up the cancellation wouldn’t have been a problem.

“Well, I’m here now,” she says, almost defiantly.

“That you are.”

Summer rolls up her window and backs up the Escalade, revealing the broken sign she just ran over buried in the snow. I wait until she kills the engine before picking it up from the ground, the sign that my younger sister Mariah painted when she was ten years old clearly DOA. Dead on Arrival. Or more appropriately, DOSA—Dead on Summer’s Arrival. Even with all the coats of varnish I painted on it since Dad found it in the shed three years ago, it didn’t stand a chance against a city girl in a big ass SUV.

“I’m really sorry about the sign. I’ll replace it,” Summer says when she steps down from the vehicle and I can’t help but notice her boots which sink right into the snow. Why the hell is she wearing boots with heels?

“Don’t worry about it. It’s, at least, fifteen years old.”

She bites her lip, a distraught expression on her face. “Still, I’ll replace it with something.”

I shrug. “If that’s what you want but you really don’t have to.”

I guide her onto the deck of the Sunflower before getting her luggage from the car. I normally don’t go all out to help guests but clearly, Summer didn’t dress for the weather. From her designer coat down to her designer boots, it says city wear more than mountain wear. Already she’s buried her hands into the pockets of her coat and doing her best to bring her shoulders up to protect her neck while I unlock the front door and push it open.

I set her luggage down on the floor next to the door. As I watch her stand in the middle of the living room to survey her surroundings, I can see her clearly. With her clear olive skin and hazel almond eyes, her long straight hair falling over her shoulders, Summer Avila is beautiful.

“Where’s the heater?” she asks when she emerges from the bedroom.

“If you mean a heater you plug in, there’s none in here although I can get you one from the Main Lodge. But the wood stove will keep the cabin warm all night.” I cock my head toward the wood stove in the corner. There’s a stack of firewood in a basket nearby, kindling and all the logs she’ll need for her stay, although I sure hope she knows how to start a fire without burning the cabin down.

I had lit the fire yesterday but after no one showed up, Harry and I decided it was best to wait until someone did.

“Do you need help lighting the wood stove?” I ask as Bodhi, standing outside the door, whines behind me. He knows he’s not allowed to enter the cabins unless the guests let him and so he usually waits on the deck.

“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Summer says.

“What time do you think your companion will get here?” I ask as I pull open the door and step outside. “I can wait up for him at the Main Lodge so he won’t get lost trying to find the cabin by himself.”

Summer shakes her head, her brow furrowing. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll wait for him.”

“Are you sure? Because it’s no problem at all.”

Before she can reply, my radio suddenly squawks and Summer jumps in surprise. I unsnap it from my belt and show it to her.

“Just the radio,” I mutter as my youngest sister’s voice comes through after a brief second of static.

“Where are you?” Harper says in a whisper. “Mariah and Logan are here.”

“Working. But I’ll talk to you in a bit,” I reply, shrugging as I return the radio to my belt. Mariah is coming home with her new fiancé in tow and we’ve all been eager to meet him. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay. I’m sorry for keeping you away from your family,” Summer says. “Thanks so much for all your help, Forrest.”

“You sure you don’t need–”

“I’ll be fine. Really, I’m really not as helpless as I look.” She holds the door open for me, and together with the annoyed look she gives me, it’s a clear sign that she wants me gone.

“I never said you were, Miss.” I step out the door. “I apologize if that’s how it came out.”

“I’m just tired, that’s all. Traffic was crazy coming out here,” she says, sighing. “Anyway, Merry Christmas and good night.”

And just like, that she shuts the door.

I look at Bodhi who cocks his head to one side, one ear up as if asking me, what now? 

I shrug. Oh well. Merry Christmas to you, too, Miss Avila.

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