Athletic career woman meets good-ole-boy for a five-day backpacking trek in the rugged North Carolina mountains. Appalachian born Wes triggers Suzanne's resentment and her desire amongst boars, bears and Girl Scouts. Suzanne's pack and old hurts lighten as Wes' easy charm helps her truly see the hope and allure of spring flowers, love and forgiveness.
Maggie gives an overview of the book:
"You want my daughter’s safety to depend on the outcome of a hand of poker?" Billy Bowers whispered to his brother.
John Bowers drained his glass and put it down, adding to the rings on the scarred game table. "Any better ideas? Wes doesn’t have a stake in her welfare. He’s got no reason to agree. This’ll give him one." John shuffled the cards. "Damn that Suzanne. She may be my niece but I’ll still call her the most bull-headed woman alive."
Billy craned his neck toward the stairs but saw no sign of Wes. "At least she’s talkin’ to you. She hasn’t spoken to me in ten years.
The two of them turned and raised questioning eyebrows at Conard, Wes’ brother-in-law.
"I’ll play along," Conard said. "He’s pulled a few stunts on me over the years."
Wes returned from the bathroom upstairs and settled in his chair. Tallest and youngest of the four, Wes wore jeans, a faded Appalachian State University t-shirt and leather work boots. "You guys finish stacking the deck while I was gone?"
"Who us?" Billy said, wiping his hands on his Hawaiian shirt, then realized Wes was kidding about the cards. "Would we set you up like that?"
"I’m innocent," Conard said.
John dealt the cards, and the four men sat poker-faced playing the hand. Wes added the winings to his meager stack of ones and finished his Budweiser.
"Have you talked to Suzanne lately?" Billy leaned back from the scarred oak table.
John shifted in his chair. "A few days ago. You know she’s been working too hard since that promotion. Sounded like hell."
"Gets that from her mother – working hard I mean – obviously not from me." Billy sipped the last of his iced tea and John continued to shuffle. "I worry about her, you know. Wish I could do something to help her."
Wes glanced between the two older men and shook his head. "You guys are just alike. I don’t care how different you look. Both of you determined to do all you can for little Miss Independent. From your stories, Suzanne doesn’t need or want your help." Wes shook his empty can. "I’ve never met the woman but I know more about her than you to do. Leave her alone."
These weekly poker games at Wes’ house might be the only way for Billy to catch up on his daughter, but enough was enough.
"That’s right Billy," John said. "Beat yourself up for something that happened a long time ago."
"I need a refill." Wes got up from his chair. "Anyone need something to drink?"
"I’ll take one." Conard saluted his brother-in-law with his empty can. He was a round-faced guy with sandy hair and ready wit. Conard sported an Atlanta Braves t-shirt which he would sooner die than part with, though Wes’ sister had threatened to throw it away for years.
"I'll take care of my own." John grabbed his glass, drained the ice into his mouth, and followed Wes upstairs to the kitchen sink. He pulled his own bottle of single-malt scotch from the cabinet.
Wes took two beers and a pitcher of sweet tea from the refrigerator. "That hard stuff’ll kill you, old man."
"Not before my niece gives me a heart attack. She’s driving me crazy." John dumped meltwater from his glass. "Now she’s got a crazy idea to use my place for a week’s vacation."
"Your place is a mite isolated, isn’t it? It’s practically inside Pisgah National Forest. I mean, it's great for you and your consulting – anywhere with internet will work – or for me when I want to get away. What does she plan to do there?"
"That’s not the half of it. She’s only using my place for a jumping off point. She’s planning to hike for a week. Get this – she plans to 'walk the city grime off her body' as she put it. Her therapist told her to get away for a while." He poured himself a stiff one.
"Who’s she going with?"
"You’ve got to be kidding."
They returned to the card table, and Wes handed the sweet tea pitcher to Billy and the other beer to Conard.
John continued, "Trouble is, I don't feel comfortable with her being alone in these mountains. Plus, it’s harder than she thinks. She’s can’t hike that long -- five days, six to eight hours a day, steep rocky slopes. It’s not like a jog around a track."
"She could fall and break something, Conard volunteered. "Then she’d be up a creek for sure."
"Exactly my point!" John brought down his fist for emphasis.
Billy poured the tea into his glass. "Her mother was independent -- or started out that way." He put the pitcher down and stared at the glass in front of him. "She should have left me, you know . . . I’m the reason she died early."
John sipped his drink. "Worrying over that doesn’t help now. One day, you and Suzanne’ll have to settle your differences. I'm sick and tired of being in the middle of your father-daughter mess."
Billy shifted in his chair. "She returns my letters unopened. She won’t answer my calls, probably has that caller ID gadget. Doorman keeps me out of her building.You're more of a father to her than I am." He swallowed hard. "But, I still care about her."
"I’d as soon you dropped that sensitive stuff, Billy," Wes said. "You’ll have me cryin’ in my beer." He turned to John. "I don’t like being alone on those trails anymore myself. I’ve got a friend who's a park ranger at Pisgah. I'll ask him to be on the lookout for her. When’s she going?"
"Next month. May is early in the season, so there won’t be many hikers out. I’d appreciate the park ranger being on the lookout. On top of everything else, the week she picked is the one I have to be in London." John played with the cards, absently cutting them repeatedly. "Didn’t know how to say ‘no’."
Wes gulped from his beer. "You going to deal those cards or make love to them?"
John dealt – slowly – but kept talking. "She only visited a few times and doesn’t know the mountains. It’s so like her to go to extremes. Her therapist suggested some time off, and she decided on a solo hike. She went on and on about the great maps she’d downloaded. – as if maps are going to save her."
They picked up their cards and John sized up his brother, cleared his throat, then asked Wes, "Where are you going while they finish changing your barn into offices?"
Wes considered his cards. "I’ll stay here for the barn changes, they start next week. I'll spend a few days helping Conard here and Mary do some work on their house and hit a hotel for a few more days when they start on this place. The contractor swears he can do the kitchen and baths in two weeks. Can't stay here then – well, I guess I could bunk down here." Wes glanced around at the basement game room. It had been added to his family’s home in the early 80s and it was the one part of the house not involved in the remodeling. "But there’s no bath, I can't get any work done while the computer equipment is being installed, it would just drive me nuts to hang around and just watch."
John tossed his ante into the middle. "Why don't you stay at my cabin?" He maintained perfect deadpan as Billy and Conard, watched, fascinated. "Plenty of room. Better yet, you could go hiking with Suzanne. The timing’s right."
Wes yelped and slapped down his cards. "Oh, no, you don't. Kindly leave me out of this. The way you tell it, she’s not fun, always has a schedule, and has definite opinions on all subjects. Not my type at all. I’d rather stay longer with my sisters. No thank you."
"Suit yourself." John shrugged, rearranging a card in his hand. "Still, it seems like you’d be willing to help out with something this important. Since you’re not doing anything that week anyway."
"It would only be a few days, and you like to hike." Billy chimed in.
John added, "Suzanne's not unpleasant, exactly, just prefers computers to people. She wouldn't be bad company. I’ve seen you with your three sisters. You know how to gentle and kid women to get your way."
Wes groaned. "Don't ask me to do this. She aims to go by herself, she doesn't want company, she doesn't like you interfering in her life."
"You’re right. We'll have to make it look accidental." John's face lit up as he warmed to the idea. "You'll just happen to be there at the same time. She won't have a chance to say 'no'."
"Yea, that’s a super idea," Wes muttered. "Hi, Suzanne. I just happen to be here, so let’s go camping together! Yeah, she’ll love that."
"It could work," Billy said.
"Forget it guys. Get somebody else to . . . Suzanne-sit. I’m out of it."
"Who else could I get?" John said. "You know your way around the mountains. You’ve that southern respect for women. I trust you."
"That's not what I meant. She won't like it no matter how you put it. Right, Conard?" Wes looked to his brother-in-law for support. "Right, Conard?"
"Un. . . . Sure." Conard glanced from one man’s face to another. Then he inspected the tabletop in front of him. " Of course, she might come to be glad you’re there. I mean if she gets in trouble." He snuck a glance at Wes who glowered at him.
"I’ve got it!" John's eyebrows shot up. He squinted at the younger man across the table from him. "Let me sweeten the pot a little. Double or nothing. You win, I pay you double. You lose, and you take a hike."
"The pot’s not that big." Wes squirmed in his chair. He wanted none of this. "Look, I understand both her need for independence and your desire to protect her. But . . ."
John dealt the cards. "At the end of the week, you could bring her to your Mother’s Day cookout. Billy will be there. You could help pull them together."
"I haven't agreed to anything. You're trying to push me the same way you do Suzanne. No wonder she doesn't like it." Wes took in Billy's hopeful expression and smothered a groan.
"It’s a good way to re-introduce them," John continued. "You could talk to her during the hike and smooth the way. Great idea! Glad I thought of it." John grinned at Wes. "Place your bets, boys."
Maggie Bishop is the author of a mystery series, Appalachian Adventure Mysteries, and two romance novels set in the Mountains of North Carolina in the Boone area. "I started with romance and have turned to murder."
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