Not many people knew about the little campground, populated by enormous teepees and elevated cabins, fire pits and a dock and a tire swing over the water. The campground was close to the road, and neighbors lived nearby, so it wasn’t large or fancy, but the place itself filled her soul. Some nights she’d sleep in the teepee, but tonight felt like a good night to sleep under the stars.
She turned off the highway and down the one-lane road, the stress melting away. She turned the corner, and saw a chain across the driveway leading to the campground. Frowning, she pulled up into the driveway as far as she could get, her bumper hanging out into the road a little, and she opened her door.
She stood and inspected the campground. No cars at any of the teepees, but of course it was still pretty early, and not a lot of people came here anyway. But the Adirondack chairs were tipped forward to lean against the fire pits, the swing was pulled in from the river and hung on a tree.
The camp looked…closed.
The chain was padlocked to a pole that she didn't remember being there before. With a huff, she stepped over the chain and marched toward the office, just a room off the activity room. She didn’t get an answer when she knocked, so she walked around back to the house. Mr. and Mrs. Langston owned the place, and lived around back, so they were always available. Mrs. Langston liked to make it homey, but now no hanging baskets adorned the porch, no plants were in the stands, no wreath on the door. The house looked lonely, and a strange truck was parked in the driveway.
She marched to the door, thinking of her car parked awkwardly at the driveway, and knocked firmly.
After a few moments, the door swung open to reveal a large man in a damp white t-shirt and jeans, wearing heavy work gloves, and with flecks of white in his dark hair. He was maybe her age, maybe a little younger, and maybe not so bad looking under that scowl.
“Can I help you?” he asked, his tone impatient.
“I have a reservation for this weekend. Lori Cervantes. I have the teepee farthest from the road.”
“We’re closed. You got an email and a refund.”
She forced herself not to take a step back in shock. “You’re closed? What are you talking about? It’s summer, your busy season. Why would you close?”
“It’s all in the email,” he said, and started to close the door.
She didn't know what came over her, but she stepped forward and slapped her hand against it, holding it open.
“I had a reservation. I’ve been looking forward to this all week. What is going on?”
He sighed, cocked his hip and leveled a look at her.
“My folks retired. They’re selling the place, and I’m fixing it up. Therefore, no guests. It’s all in the email.”
“Well, I don't read my email when I’m off work,” she countered, then his words sunk in. “They’re selling? When did they decide?” She tried to remember the last time she’d been out here, but she couldn’t. She’d spent a lot of time talking to the Langstons, getting to know them, especially when she’d come out here alone.
“I don't know, they’ve been talking about it for months. Finally decided they didn't want to do all the work this summer. My siblings and I have been trying to talk to them about it for years.”
“What are they going to do now? They’re moving completely?” She couldn't wrap her head around that. They had loved this place so much.
“They want to buy a condo at the beach, just for themselves. Retire and have a good life.”
Lori hadn’t thought about them being that old, since they were younger than her own mother. She rocked back on her heels. She was at a loss. Sure, she’d only driven an hour to come out here, but she had needed this escape after a rough week at work, making sure all the vendors were paid at the end of the school year.
“What if I help?”
“What if you what?”
“What if I help you get it ready to sell? I know how to paint, and I can clean, and, I don't know, take care of landscape or whatever you need me to do.” He appeared to be working by himself, so why wouldn't he take her up on her offer?
His frown deepened as he looked down at her. “Why would you want to do that?”
“Because I want to spend the weekend out here.” She gestured toward the river. “This place—means a lot to me. I would like to help.”
He looked her up and down, like he couldn't believe she was capable. She wanted to flex her muscles, to let him know she worked out and was more than capable of learning whatever he needed her to do.
“I don't think it’s a good idea.”
“Why? Because you want to do the work all by yourself?”
He glanced back over his shoulder into the house, and his shoulders sagged a bit. He turned back to face her. “I don't even know you.”
She stuck a hand out at him. “I’m Lori Cervantes from San Antonio. I’ve been coming out here like six times a year for the past four years. I’ve had dinner with your parents on several occasions.” She cast back in her memory for mention of their son. The Langstons had three children, but the one they talked about most often was their daughter, who lived in San Diego. “You’re Jackson? A firefighter? Or Justin, the IT guy?”
His frown morphed into surprise. “Yeah, ah. Jackson. Huh. But no, I can’t ask you to help me with this.”
“You didn’t. I offered. And if you’re selling it to someone who doesn't want to run it as a camp, this might be my last chance to stay here.”
Jackson looked at Lori for a long moment, a tiny curvy woman with jet-black hair, straight as an arrow, sweeping her shoulders. Big eyes in a tiny pixie face made her look like a doll, except he’d never seen a doll with such a stubborn expression.
Sending her away should be easy enough. He’d refunded her money. He had no obligation to her.
But something in her voice told him she needed this, and hell, if she knew his name, knew his job, knew his parents, maybe she did feel invested in the place.
He backed away from the door, motioning for her to enter. “You’re going to get dirty.”
For the first time, he saw hesitation in her expression.
“Do you have a job for me…out here? I’ve, ah, I’ve been inside all week and I was really looking forward to being outside. I can run a mean weed-eater.”
He saw wariness in her eyes. Smart, actually. She didn't know him, and she probably didn't want to be alone in the house with him.
“Yeah, I mean, sure. If you’re sure. You know how to run a weed eater?”
She lifted an arm to flex, and he felt a smile tug at his lips.
“Let me get it for you.”
He walked past her and headed toward the garage. He lifted the door to reveal the full but mostly-neat garage, and walked over to pick up the weed-eater, leaning against the zero-turn lawnmower. Her big eyes took on a gleam as she looked at the tractor.
“Can I do that?”
“Ah. It takes some getting used to. I don't want you to land in the river.”
“I won’t go near the river until I get used to it.”
He actually enjoyed using the mower, but mowing the property was time consuming, and her taking over would save him a bit of time, to be honest. “Let me get it out for you.”
She watched closely as he turned the key, pulled in the handles and guided the machine into the yard. Then he shut it off and hopped off.
“You have to be in the seat to get it to start,” he said, motioning for her to take his place. He tapped the key when he did. “This starts it.” He tapped the lever. “This adjusts your speed. Start slow. Pull this knob to start mowing, but maybe you should drive it around a bit first.”
Her hands rested on the bars. “And these?”
“Pull them toward you. Push to go, pull to stop, pull the right to turn right, pull left to turn left. This is a zero-turn, so it will respond as soon as you pull.”
She nodded, her focus on the ground before her. He stepped back.
“Okay, take off,” he said.
She started the mower, and her take-off was a bit jerky, but she got the machine moving, heading for an open patch of lawn between the common room and the river. He watched her long enough that he was convinced she could handle it, and he went back inside.
He liked hearing the run of the mower as he painted, even as the shadows grew longer. He had a work light clamped to the ladder to illuminate the room, but he wanted to check on Lori and see how she was doing.
He was surprised, when he stepped out, to see that she’d made great progress. All the common areas were mown neatly, and she had gone close-ish to the river, stopping just before the slope. She had pretty good control of the thing, too, he saw, as she whipped back around in his direction and stopped the machine.
Her bare skin was flecked with bits of cut grass, her skin glowed with sweat, but she was grinning.
“You mastered that thing pretty quickly.”
Her grin widened. “I play a lot of video games with my kids. Once I started thinking of it that way, it was pretty easy.”
Her kids. Huh. He didn't know why he hadn’t thought about her having kids, especially kids old enough to play video games. And yet they weren’t here with her today.
She turned the key and handed it to him, then stood to rise, staggering a bit, then laughing at her own instability. “My arms are like noodles, holy cow. I hadn’t anticipated that.”
He caught one of her arms to steady her, and they felt nothing like noodles. Taut and strong. Warm. He helped guide her to the ground and then released her.
“The place looks great. You did a lot of work. I didn't mean for you to do so much.”
“I don't mind working for my room. Speaking of, do you have the key handy so I can go in and take a shower? Although I have to say I was tempted to just jump in the river. I really feel like I need soap.”
He grimaced. “I haven't cleaned any of the rooms yet, changed the sheets or stocked with soap.”
Her shoulders sagged, just a little. Then she perked up again. “I can change the sheets and wash them and all that after I shower. And I brought my own soap and shampoo, so you don't have to worry about that. I just need access to the washer, and some detergent.”
Man, did nothing deter her? Most people would have taken the hint and headed out by now. “Sure, okay, I’ll get you the key. You said you like the one farthest from the road?”
“Yes, please. Number six.”
“You, ah, how many times have you stayed here?” he asked as he turned to lead the way to the house.
She hesitated a moment, looking at the mower, before she fell into step with him. “It depends. I came out almost every other week when my divorce was first final. Sometimes I’d bring the kids, sometimes by myself. It’s just so peaceful here. But it’s been a few months this time. My daughter just graduated, you know, and I wanted to be closer to home any time she went out. I still do, to be honest, but she’s got to grow up, and she can always call her dad or her brother to be with her until I can get there.”
“How old are your kids?” He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that she had a kid who had graduated.
“Sophia is eighteen, Andrew is twenty-one.” She swept her hair back from her face as she said it.
“You’ve got to be kidding. You don't look old enough to have kids that old.”
“Well, I started young, and it helps that I’m short. People think of short people as being younger, for some reason.”
“No, it’s—” He shook his head, not wanting to insult her. “I’ll get you the key.”
When he returned, she smiled up at him. “You’ve been working hard, why don't I set up the fire pit? I brought beer. And stuff for s’mores. It’ll be a nice way to unwind.”
“Ah.” He looked toward the river, back at the house. He was tempted, but he had so much work to do. “I can keep going a few more hours in there with the lights.”
“Oh.” She took a step back, bouncing the key in the palm of her hand. “Okay. Well, if you change your mind, I’ll be over there. Unless you object to me starting a fire.”
He looked back at her. “No, no, that’s fine. You go enjoy yourself.”
“All right.” The lilt in her voice told him she thought he was making the wrong decision, as she backed away, a smile curving her lips.
He thought about teasing her, asking her if she would be all right with her noodle arms, but no, better to just let her go do her thing. She’d come here to be on her own, anyway, hadn’t she?
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