And then the princess kissed the frog--"
"--and do you know what happened then?"
Though she'd heard the story a hundred times or more, five-year-old Micahlyn Harper solemnly shook her head.
"Nothing!" Nolie said. "He just sat there in her hands, still an ugly old frog, and then he jumped into the water with a splash and-- Oh, blast." Seeing a faded yellow mailbox a few yards ahead, she reached for the directions tucked beneath the visor and scanned for the reference to the mailbox. The sudden blare of an approaching car horn made her drop the paper, steer back into her own lane, then grip the steering wheel with both hands as they sailed past their turn.
They were almost there . . . and it wasn't dread but anticipation that had her stomach tied in knots, she lied to herself. For the first time in her twenty-five years, she was on her own, solely responsible for herself and Micahlyn. They were making a new start in a new town far from the wide spot in an Arkansas road where they'd both lived their entire lives. They were beginning an adventure.
One that, according to her in-laws, was certain to end in disaster.
So far, they'd been more right than wrong. Nolie and Micahlyn's great journey to Bethlehem, New York, had begun three days ago with a flat tire outside Little Rock and been livened up by a speeding ticket outside Memphis, a dead battery in the middle of Pennsylvania, and a second flat in New York. As if that wasn't enough, the farther they'd gotten from Whiskey Greek, the more resistant Micahlyn had gotten. She'd whined each night she'd had to sleep in a motel room and each morning she'd had to eat a breakfast that wasn't lovingly prepared to her specifications by her grandma. She'd fussed about the long hours in the car and had marked their crossing the New York state line by throwing up a Happy Meal, two jelly doughnuts, and a carton of chocolate milk in the backseat. Instead of asking, "Are we there yet?" she'd been satisfied with frequent repetitions of, "Can we go home now?" She'd heard her grandpa declare she would hate Bethlehem, and, by God, she was determined to prove him right.
Fortunately, Nolie was more determined to prove him wrong.
She turned around at the first chance, then headed back up the mountain. When she saw the yellow mailbox up ahead, she slowed and put on her left-turn signal. After an eighteen-wheeler blasted by fast enough to rock her car, she turned into the narrow dirt lane, then drew a deep breath.
The lawyer who'd settled her great-grandfather's estate had warned her that the two houses she'd inherited weren't anything fancy. They'd been built at a time when money was tight, and the old man had never seen reason to improve on them when his cash flow improved. The smaller of the two cabins had been rented, though, nearly a month ago, to a woman from Boston, so at least they were livable and providing a little income. And as far as fancy . . . heavens, her best friend back home in Whiskey Creek hadn't gotten indoor plumbing until they were in third grade, so sleepovers had meant middle-of-the-night trips to the outhouse. She didn't require fancy.
All she wanted was a place that was clean and in good repair, that provided a sense of security as well as shelter from the cold and rain, with running water and windows to open for cooling breezes in the heat. Oh, and this was important--it had to be hers. No more living like a guest in someone else's house, barely able to make a move without advice or interference. She needed her own home for her own little family.
Follow the dirt road to its end, the lawyer had told her. They would come to the unoccupied cabin first, then fifty yards farther down the road was their Boston neighbor. Nolie hadn't thought to ask whether the woman used the cabin for a weekend getaway, or if she'd taken a year's sabbatical from her job in Massachusetts. Maybe the woman had kicked the city's dust from her heels for the slower pace of small-town living. She supposed she would soon find out, since being neighborly was something everyone did well in Whiskey Creek.
The road was narrow, wide enough for only one vehicle in most places, and wound through dense woods. Twice the car bumped over rough-hewn bridges that spanned a pretty little creek, and several of the curves could challenge any hairpin in the Ozark Mountain roads she knew so well for sharpness. After what seemed like a mile and a half, maybe two miles, they chugged up a rather steep incline and then they were there.
The cabin stood on the left side of the road, set back about twenty-five feet. Trees shorn of their branches and laid end to end marked off a double-wide parking space, but otherwise it was difficult to tell the difference between parking space, yard, and road. All three were dirt and liberally covered with pine needless, and all three sprouted hardy weeds here and there, along with a few ferns, vines, and other shade-loving plants.
Nolie parked between the tree trunks, shut off the engine, then went back to gripping the steering wheel tightly. Her dominating impression of the cabin was simple and immediate--it was very brown. Brown planks, brown shingles, brown porch, brown paint on the trim. Even the window screens, in bad need of scrubbing, appeared a murky rust-brown.
Her second impression was that Great-Grandfather Legare must have liked the rustic look. The posts that supported the porch roof were slender tree trunks, stripped of their limbs and bark. The railing was more trunks, turned horizontally and supported every eight feet by fatter naked trunks. The bench pushed against the wall was a tree trunk split in half, bark still intact, supported by sturdy branches lashed together in an X shape. The front door was massive, the axe marks visible even from a distance, and a pair of antlers hung crookedly above it.
After a steadying breath, she forced her fingers to release the steering wheel, then looked at Micahlyn. Her daughter was listlessly toying with the hair of her favorite Barbie and paying zero attention to the fact that they'd arrived. It was as if she believed if she ignored it, it wasn't real. She wanted so much to be home with Grandma and Grandpa, and why shouldn't she? It was the only home she'd ever known, and she had no clue that it was the most suffocating, restrictive place on earth. Of course, Obie and Marlene had treated her differently than they had treated Nolie. Micahlyn was the grandbaby they loved more than life itself, while Nolie had been the daughter-in-law foolish enough to not curl up and die when their son had. She'd been selfish enough to want a life, to want some say in raising her own daughter, to--God forbid--have a relationship with a man sometime.
"We're here, Micahlyn."
Her daughter ignored her.
"Come on, babe. Let's start unpacking the car, and then we can have a look around our new home."
At that, Micahlyn gave her a narrow-eyed look. "My home is in Arkansas."
"No, honey, your home is with me, right here in Bethlehem. Come on. Once we get the car unloaded, we'll go into town and see if we can find a place that serves ice cream for lunch."
Once again the kid ignored her. With a sigh, Nolie got out of the car, took a box of cleaning supplies from the backseat, and climbed the five steps to the porch. There she was stopped in her tracks by the sight of a heart, pierced by Cupid's arrow, carved into the post on the left. Shifting the box to her right hip, she drew her fingers over the outline. Long ago someone had carved initials in its center, but all that remained now were scars and gouges. The result of a broken heart? Impossible. According to her grandmother, her great-grandfather hadn't had a heart.
Shaking her head wryly, she crossed to the door. The lawyer had changed the lock as she'd requested, adding a shiny brass dead bolt to the old knob. She fished the key off her ring, propped back the screen door with one foot, and opened the door.
The air that drifted out to greet her smelled musty. Fair enough, she supposed, since the place had been closed up for a year. Once she stepped inside and put the box down on a dustcloth-covered lump, she took a deeper breath and identified the faint aroma of tobacco underlying the must. In the one photograph she'd seen of Hiram Legare, he'd been clenching a stogie between his teeth. A nasty habit, her grandmother had said, fitting to a nasty and heartless man. That was the one and only time she'd ever talked about him to Nolie.
The living room was paneled--brown again--with a mostly brown rug covering a plank floor the same color. A rock fireplace filled one wall, with built-in shelves on either side, and the furniture was better than she expected. Peeks under the cloths revealed a leather sofa--brown, of course--and an easy chair in a heavy floral print, as well as a recliner and a rocker. The drapes at the windows were past saving, but out here in the woods, with no neighbor but the woman from Boston, what need did she really have for draperies?
Pausing in front of the picture window, she watched her daughter play. Micahlyn had gotten her looks about equally from her mother and father. She had Nolie's red hair and fair skin, poor thing, and her stubborn jaw and blue eyes, and Jeff's ears, nose, mouth, and eyesight. Her glasses' lenses were thick and magnified her eyes, giving her the look of a solemn little owl. A sad little owl at the moment.
Panic seized Nolie, tightening her chest. What if her child was right in her insistence that their home was in Arkansas? What if taking her away from Obie and Marlene and forcing her to live in New York caused irreparable harm to her still-developing psyche? What if Nolie was simply being selfish, thinking only of herself and to hell with everyone else, even her own baby, as her in-laws insisted?
She wheezed a couple of times before she was finally able to take a full breath. She wasn't being selfish. She'd made this move for Micahlyn as much as, if not more than, for herself. Micahlyn could only benefit from having a healthier, happier mother, and the past three years had been a painful lesson that Nolie was happiest away from the Harpers. She wasn't cutting them out of their lives completely. She'd stressed to them repeatedly that they could call anytime they wanted, and they were welcome to visit as often as they liked . . . within reason, of course.
She just needed some freedom. Needed to have friends other than her in-laws. Needed to be able to smile at a man without their acting as if she'd desecrated Jeff's memory. Needed to be treated like an intelligent, capable adult--like a person.
She needed to be Noile McVie Harper once in a while. Not Micahlyn's mother. Not Jeff's widow.
Of course, she couldn't tell Micahlyn any of that, and her daughter wouldn't understand if she did. But she would come out of this blue mood. As soon as they were settled in and she'd made some friends, she would be fine.
Repeating that mantra to herself, Nolie set to work. She removed the heavy, dust-coated cloths, opened the few windows that weren't painted shut, lit scented candles, and swept, vacuumed, and dusted. She made frequent trips to the porch and to the car, and each time Micahlyn remained in the front seat, still buckled in, pretending she was someplace else. Nolie tried a couple of times to coax her out, then decided to leave her be.
She was in the kitchen, laying new shelf liner in the cabinets she'd scrubbed earlier, when a bloodcurdling scream sent chills down her spine. She dropped the ivy-patterned paper she'd just finished cutting and rushed to the front door. Micahlyn reached it a few seconds before she did and leaped into her arms, shrieking and clutching Nolie in a choke hold.
"Mama, Mama, the bogeyman's outside!" she wailed. "He's big and scary, and he was gonna drag me off to his cave!"
"Shh, baby, it's all right," Nolie said, patting and bouncing her the way she had when Micahlyn was a baby with teething pains. "It's okay, sweetheart. You know there's no such thing as bogeymen. It's all right, baby, calm dow--"
She wasn't sure what made her look outside just then--the hair on her neck standing on end or the goose bumps racing down her arms--but for an instant she understood her daughter's mistake all too well. Maybe it was no bogeyman that had frightened Micahlyn, but it was definitely a man, and from her vantage point, he looked pretty damn scary.
He stood several inches over six feet, and when he was eating regularly, she imagined he was broad-shouldered and muscular. As it was, he was lean, almost painfully so, and looked meaner and scruffier than a hungry coyote that had cornered its prey. His hair was black and hung, lank and tangled, past his shoulders. His eyes were dark, his jaw was stubbled with a heavy growth of beard, and his skin--like everything else--was also dark, except where the broad pale line of a scar slashed across his ribs. He wore jeans that were faded practically white and slid down his narrow hips, and tennis shoes that should have been relegated to the trash a long time ago.
He looked more like the bogeyman than anyone she'd ever met.
Still shushing Micahlyn, she moved to the screen door and not so subtly secured the hook. He saw her do it, and the corner of his mouth lifted in what she imagined passed for a smile. Of course, they both knew the flimsy screen wouldn't keep out much more than a gnat, and not even that if it was determined to get in. She figured one thrust of his large, powerful hand, and he could reach through the screen and snatch both her and Micahlyn outside.
"C-c-can I help you?"
Some folks might have taken that as an invitation to come closer, but he remained where he was, motionless at the bottom of the steps. "What are you doing here?" His voice was little more than a growl, as rough as everything else about him, and made her want to quake the way Micahlyn was.
Excerpted from Cabin Fever by Marilyn Pappano. Copyright © 2003 by Marilyn Pappano. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.