Natalie Anderson

Modern Romance June 2015 Books 1-8

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got it all planned out,” said Jake with a note of skepticism.

      “Can’t go as belly-up and ass-backward as the last plan did,” Granger commented dryly.

      “Cherokee’s a small town,” Jake said. “I’ve met some of the people.” He was thinking about Mina and her grandfather. “They’re nice people. I don’t want them to get caught in the middle of a drug fight.”

      “Then make sure there aren’t any confrontations in town, Jake. Follow Betts’s guys into the woods. Take them down there.”

      “Got it,” Jake said. He knew there was no use arguing with Granger when he had his mind made up. “I’ll let you know where to send the needed equipment.”

      They said their goodbyes, and Jake put his cell phone away with a grimace. Granger sat in his office all day, issuing orders. He hadn’t been in the field in so long, he’d forgotten that real people were out here. People they’d taken an oath to protect.

      Two hours later, after being released from the hospital with a prescription for pain pills and the suggestion to take it easy for a couple days, Jake checked into a hotel in Asheville, took a hot shower and then crashed for the night.

      Tomorrow he would rent a car and head back to Cherokee.

      Chapter 3

      On Sunday morning, Mina was on a ladder polishing the twin wooden totem poles that flanked the entrance to the lodge. She made it a habit of doing this last task just before new arrivals were expected. The two-story entrance never failed to impress the guests who thought the intricately carved door, with its images of deer, bears, foxes and elk, lent an authentic air to the lodge.

      Her grandfather’s intention when designing Beck’s Wilderness Lodge was to marry two cultures: his—African-American—and his wife’s—Native American. Everywhere in the lodge were reminders of the cultures: throw rugs, wooden sculptures, woven baskets and wall hangings. Three stories in height, the pinewood lodge had guest rooms on every level, plus there were cabins on the property’s periphery for those who wanted more privacy.

      Mina hummed as she worked. She was looking forward to taking guests on camping trips in the mountains, showing them where the fish were biting or where the rock climbing was good.

      “Hello, Mina,” said a deep masculine voice from behind her.

      Mina instantly recognized that voice. She smiled and turned slowly so as not to lose her balance on the ladder.

      Jake grinned up at her. “I have to say, you look good from this angle,” he joked. “But then, you look good from every angle.”

      Mina laughed and climbed down. “Jake, what are you doing here?”

      * * *

      Jake’s brain took a minivacation as his eyes feasted on her feminine curves in jeans and a T-shirt, and the way her skin seemed to glow.

      He could have stood there all day, watching her, but his brain finally kicked in again, and he considered her question. When he’d gotten to Cherokee, he’d taken a room at a small motel in town. The next day the special equipment Granger had promised to send had arrived. While he was waiting for Betts’s men to put in an appearance, it had occurred to him that during their information-gathering regarding the plane crash, they would inevitably find out that Benjamin Beck, who had a reputation as a mountain man in these parts, was instrumental in leading rescuers to the crash site. Therefore Jake thought he should be nearby should Betts’s men decide to interrogate Benjamin Beck and his granddaughter. That’s why he was here on this fine Sunday morning.

      But he couldn’t tell that to Mina, of course.

      “The company I work for has plans to salvage the plane’s cargo. I’m just waiting for the team to arrive so we can get started. In the meantime, I need a place to stay. Do you have any rooms available?”

      * * *

      Mina continued to smile at him. Her eyes roamed over his face. The cut on his forehead was healing nicely. He was freshly shaven. In jeans, a light jacket and a polo shirt underneath, he looked fit and healthy, vibrantly alive. The way he was looking at her made her blush, and she hadn’t done that in a long time. Before she knew it she’d be giggling like an airhead, and she couldn’t have that. It was undignified.

      Besides, she shouldn’t let herself get carried away. Even if she was wrong about his being a drug dealer, he could be a very handsome nutcase. Someone who’d fixated on her because she’d come to his rescue.

      What was it he’d asked? Oh, yeah, were there any rooms available? Her heart thudded agitatedly. “We’re booked up,” she told him apologetically. If there was one guest in the whole world she didn’t want to turn away, it was this man. Then she remembered something. “But there’s a cabin left. I’m afraid it costs a bit more than a room.”

      “I’ll take it,” Jake said without hesitation.

      Mina beamed at him. “All right, follow me.” She looked down. “No luggage?”

      “Still in the car,” Jake said. “I’ll get it later.”

      Mina stepped off the porch and Jake followed. The morning air was cool on her skin. The sky was a pale blue with a few cumulus clouds. The pungent scent of the surrounding pine forest was in the air, which, to Mina, made this day a sensual treat.

      “I never did get your last name,” she said to Jake as they walked toward the cabin, which sat about fifty yards from the lodge.

      “It’s Wolfe,” said Jake. “And yours?”

      “Gaines,” Mina answered.

      Their eyes met briefly, and Mina looked away. “Where are you from, Jake Wolfe?”

      “Originally Crystal River, Florida,” Jake said. “But my family moved to the Bronx, New York, when I was seven, so I consider that home, now.”

      “New York,” said Mina, delighted she’d been right about his accent. “When we met, I thought you sounded like you were from there. I met quite a few people from New York when I was serving.”

      Jake nodded. “I imagine you’ve met people from all over the world.”

      “That’s true,” said Mina pleasantly. But she didn’t want to talk about the military, so she quickly asked him another question. “You must travel a lot, too?”

      Jake smiled. “A little too much for my taste,” he said. “My dream is to someday own a small farm with pigs and chickens and maybe a cow or two. To sit on the porch with my wife and bounce the grandkids on my knee.”

      Mina laughed. “You’re much too young to be entertaining thoughts like that. And what does a man from the Bronx know about farm animals?”

      “My grandparents owned a farm in Crystal River. I would go there every summer. Those were the happiest times of my childhood.”

      “Well, we don’t have any cows, but we do have horses. I can take you on a trail ride, if you like.”

      “I like,” he said with keen interest.

      Mina shook her head. “You are an enigma, Jake Wolfe. I would never have taken you for a farm boy.”

      “Tell me more about you,” Jake urged. “I’ve been wondering why you left the army. You’re so young to have made captain. You must have been on the fast track.”

      “I’ll tell you someday, if you stick around long enough,” Mina promised, “but not today.”

      They arrived at the cabin, and Mina bent to retrieve a key that was hidden beneath a potted plant on the porch. She saw Jake watching her with a surprised expression. “Crime is practically nonexistent around here. But we do suggest you keep the key with you at all times.”

      She unlocked the door, and they stepped inside. Jake expected something rustic. Instead