And it was, but not in a way she felt like putting into words. It would make her sound young, girlish, and silly, and she wasn’t any of those things anymore. The road curved gently through the foothills, jagged outcroppings of rock shading the pavement. Trees marched up the steep hillsides, their ranks thick and varied. The pines were tall, thin, bowing in the autumn wind. The maples were all in tatters, their tops bare, striated limbs tickling at the pine boughs, their lowers heavy with brilliant yellow and orange leaves. The sycamores were white and bare. The cypress looked like shadows between the hardwood trunks. Morning sun gilded the crests, teasing at what lay beyond, making her hungry for higher elevations and loftier views. And above them, the sky was such an intense blue it looked ready to crack, the finest of glazed china.
Behind the wheel, Chris leaned forward to peer through the windshield, up toward the hills. “Especially this time of year,” he agreed. “It’s quiet up here. Just the trees.”
Just the trees and the two of them.
Jess had toed off her heels long ago and had her bare feet propped up on the dash, bright red-polished toes wiggling against the heat coming through the vents on either side of the glove box. She was sleepy, and a little queasy, but mostly excited. Exuberant, little-kid excited.
And nervous as hell that her little sister would destroy her livelihood. Speaking of which…
She reached for her phone and Chris stayed her with the “agh” sound you’d use to call a dog off the dinner table. “We’ve only been gone an hour,” he said.
“Right. And do you know what kind of damage Jo can do to a place in an hour?”
“Come on. Have a little faith in your sister.”
“I don’t have to. My little sister has faith in the fairies that go behind her and pick up her messes. Meaning me. Which means – ”
“That unless I chuck your phone out the window, I won’t get a minute of time with you all week. Right?”
If he hadn’t given her a rather devastating grin after he said it, she might have walloped him. As it was, she leaned over and flicked the shell of his ear with her middle finger.
“You deserve worse.”
“Ooh, you gonna give it to me when we get there?”
“Only if you promise not to be that cheesy all week.”
He pantomimed zipping his mouth closed and Jess rolled her eyes, turning her gaze out through the window again. They were passing a little log cabin tackle shop with gas pumps out front; it looked like someplace Goldilocks would stop for porridge. Goldilocks: Chris called her that sometimes. “Because you’re gold,” he say, mussing her hair, “and because you’re high maintenance.”
She smiled at her faint reflection in the window and was content to be quiet, and let the sun warm her face.
Eventually, the road leveled out, and the pines came crowding up along the shoulders, a dark tunnel of branches that blotted out Jess’s window-watching.
“Not far now,” Chris said, and the truck slowed; he clicked the blinker on.
Jess sat up straighter, pulling her feet up under her on the seat. “Really?” She heard the breathless catch to her voice and caught him flick a glance in her direction, smiling at her excitement. “Where’s the turnoff?”
And then she saw it. It wasn’t paved. Her excitement dimmed. Don’t jump to conclusions, she told herself. Your driveway didn’t used to be paved either.
Chris steered them down a narrow, rutted drive that reminded her a whole lot of the inn’s when she’d first bought it. Branches slapped across the windshield, most of them hazy with cobwebs.
“It’s been a while since Dad’s been up here,” Chris explained before the left front tire caught a dip that sent them slamming against their seatbelts. Jess heard their bags go tumbling in the backseat. “Not since that storm.”
She grabbed the handhold in the door to steady herself against the bouncing. “What storm?”
They rolled through a puddle the color of…something she’d rather not think about.
“That real bad freak thunderstorm a month ago? Yeah, he meant to get up here, but he caught that cold, and then…well, you know how old people say they’re ‘busy’ all the time.”
“So it’s been empty for how long?”
“Few months, maybe. But Dad keeps the place super clean. It’s that whole Marine thing, ya know?”
The truck jostled through an ungodly rut, and then they emerged from the trees amid a dark little glen floored with moss and dark, slippery stones. The autumn leaves were piled in yellow drifts, still clinging to branches in places, bright little flags of color. Slanted bars of sunlight fell through the branches. And the cabin…
“Oh my God!”
Chris stomped on the brake and the truck lurched to a halt. “Holy shit,” he said in a shocked, flat voice.
The cabin was built of rustic dark logs with a cedar shingle roof, a little cozy front porch with rocking chairs marking the front door. It had a stacked stone chimney and gingham curtains hanging in the windows.
And a dead pine tree embedded in it.
Jess felt every last drop of anticipation leave her system in a flood of shaking nerves. A rush of hormones brought tears up the back of her throat that she choked down. She took a deep breath. “Chris, baby,” she said slowly. “Has there always been a tree in the living room?”
In a matching tone, he said, “That’s the bedroom, actually.”