First priority was to find them lodging, someplace where the boys could fish and hike and generally soak up Mother Nature, which she had been promising to let them do for months. Not too isolated, not too crowded, not too far from home. Woods, mountain air. This place had been perfect. Now she might have to take what she could find. Rescheduling the trip would cause innumerable problems. She had arranged with the boys' teachers to excuse them this week. Undoing all that would be a pain.
The clerk at the main desk of the lodge listened sympathetically when she told him about the storm damage the cabin had sustained.
He scratched behind his ear. "'Course, those places up there on that ridge are privately owned."
"I know that, but I've already called my friend who owns it. She gave me permission to see that things are cleaned up and the window repaired. She'll pay the bill. Could you find someone to take care of that for me?"
"Sure, sure. See no problem with that. I can have someone out this afternoon to get started."
"Thank you. Now we need a place to stay. We'd like to rent one of your cabins for the week."
Alicia mentally counted to ten. "Yes, this week. Right now."
He must have had a terrible itch behind his ear, for he was scratching it again. "Don't have any available, little lady."
Alicia clenched her teeth against the chauvinistic slur and instructed Adam to keep his fingers out of the ears of the buffalo head mounted over the mantel of the lodge's fireplace. She tried cajoling. "Surely you have something. I don't care how large or how small--"
"Nothing," he said emphatically, and flipped open a reservation book. "Let's see here.... We'll have a cabin that sleeps six on December fifteenth. Not many folks come up here around Christmastime, you see."
When he said nothing, he meant nothing. She spent a half hour plugging the pay telephone with quarters trying to find them an alternate recreation spot within driving distance. She wasted her quarters and her time.
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do." She placed a consoling hand on each boy's shoulder. "We'll have to go home and plan another trip."
"That's not fair. You promised!"
"David, I know it doesn't seem fair. I was looking forward to this week off too."
"No, you weren't. You don't care if we have to go home. You didn't want to camp. You're a silly girl. You're glad
everything's been ruined!"
"Now listen to me, young man--"
The jeep braked just a few feet beyond the porch of the lodge and Pierce stepped out of it. He looked breathtakingly handsome in a plaid flannel shirt with a down vest over it. "What's going on?"
Before Alicia could open her mouth, Adam and David ran toward him spouting a barrage of broken sentences that more or less told him what had happened. Over their heads, he looked at Alicia.
"David," Pierce said, fishing in the tight pocket of his jeans for a dollar bill, "will you and Adam go into the lodge and buy me a newspaper, please?"
"Come on, Adam," David said wearily. "They're gonna talk grown-up again and don't want us to hear."
As Adam followed his brother through the door, he was heard to say, "Remember when Carter had to talk grown-up to Mom? They made us go away all the time."
Embarrassed, Alicia looked up at Pierce, but he was smiling. "I think they're making kids smarter these days."
She didn't feel much like smiling, but she managed a wobbly one. "I think so too."
"Now, what happened?"
Slowly, and in more coherent detail, she explained what had happened. "They're not reconciled to the fact that this outing wasn't meant to be."
The soft urgency in his voice brought her head up and she met his eyes. They were hot, burning into hers. She couldn't look at them long and averted her head. "No, I don't think it was. Everything's gone wrong. I'm not the outdoorsy type and they know it. Of course they blame me for this fiasco."
He propped his shoulder against a redwood post that supported the porch's overhang and gazed out over the gravel road and into the dense woods on the other side. He was weighing a decision. She somehow knew this and stood by silently, unable to move away, compelled by some unknown force to wait him out.
He spoke with methodic precision. "Why don't you and the boys stay with me?" He turned to look at her. "In my cabin."
Unconsciously, she twisted her hands together. "We can't."
"Why? Because you know I want to make love to you?"
Four things happened at once. Her eyes rounded. Her face paled considerably. She gasped sharply. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips.
"I'm not a man to mince words, Alicia. Let's be frank. From the first time I saw you in the light, standing dripping wet by the front door, I've wanted you in bed with me. Before that actually, when you were bending over the fuse box. Even when I thought you were another man's wife, I desired you. And you knew it."
"But I would never do anything about it." Her protests died in her throat from surprise. When he was certain she would hear him out, he continued. "First, you would probably be insulted if I even tried to coax you into my bed. I'd never want to risk offending you." He drew a deep breath and turned away from her again to stare vacantly into the distance. "Secondly, I have reasons not to get involved with anyone right now. Viable, prohibitive reasons. Especially since ..."
She swallowed. "Since?"
He swiveled around to face her. "Never mind." He smiled. "Knowing that I would never take advantage of you or compromise you in any way, will you consent to sharing the cabin?"
She rubbed her forehead with her thumb and middle finger while she groped for a sound reason not to accept. His invitation was seeming less and less absurd. "I'm not afraid of you. I don't think you're a man of uncontrollable impulses."
He laughed then. "Don't press your luck. I still find you damnably attractive. If you were to come out in that black nightgown I found last night, all these vows of celibacy would be shot to hell."
She blushed and hurriedly changed the subject. "I can't let us interrupt your vacation. Do you have any idea what the boys can be like when they get wound up?"
"No," he replied solemnly. "I missed parenting altogether. But I'd love to know what it's like. Your boys are a delight and I'm already looking forward to having them underfoot."
She shook her head in bewilderment, unaware that the gesture made the sunlight shimmer in her hair. It was all Pierce could do to keep his hands out of it. "I don't think you know what you're letting yourself in for."
"Let me worry about that." He took a step forward, not too close, but close enough to smell her morning cologne, close enough to feel her body heat. "Please say you'll stay. I want you to."
Throat arched, head thrown back, she peered up into his face, trying to decide if she had heard a trace of quiet desperation in his entreaty or if she were imagining it. How old was he? Early forties? His face had the firm stamp of mature masculinity on it, but wasn't coarse. His brows were thick and often spoke eloquently for themselves. A finely sculpted nose, long and narrow and slightly flared at the nostrils, went well with a full and sensuous lower lip. Looking at his mouth made her think shamefully erotic thoughts.
For that reason alone she should refuse his invitation. There were many reasons not to accept. Capsulizing them, it was just plain stupid and highly irresponsible to spend a week with a total stranger. Despite his manners and cultured voice and obvious intelligence, she knew nothing about him beyond his name and that he had a living mother and no wife. But instinctively she trusted him. She chose to trust her instincts. "Are you sure?"
His answer was a broad grin. Just then the boys came bounding out the door of the lodge with Pierce's newspaper. He scooped Adam up in his arms, straining biceps Alicia couldn't help but be impressed by. "Guess what, fellows. You're going to stay with me this week. So the only place you're going now is to help me unload your car at my cabin."
They whooped with noisy glee. "Can we ride in the jeep? We've never ridden in a jeep before."
Pierce laid a hand on David's shoulder. "Yes, you may ride in the jeep, but first you have an apology to make to your mother, don't you?"
Both Alicia and David looked up at him in bewilderment. "What for?" David asked.
"I heard your tone of voice and what you said to her when I drove up. You were blaming her for something that was beyond her control. Do you think that's fair?"
David's chin fell almost to his knees. "No, sir," he mumbled into his chest.
"You're the man of the family. As such, you should know to accept things graciously when there's nothing you can do to change them. Don't you think so?"
"Yes, sir." The boy turned to his mother. "I'm sorry."
Alicia knelt down and hugged him hard. "Apology accepted. Now let's concentrate on having a good time, all right?"
David smiled tremulously. Pierce curved his hand around the back of the boy's neck and steered him toward the jeep. "Why don't you sit in the front seat this time and help me navigate?"
"Can I too, Pierce?" Adam wanted to know as he trotted after them on his chubby legs.
"Next time." He glanced over his shoulder to see Alicia standing where they had left her. "Coming?" he asked softly.
She nodded. "I need to make arrangements with the clerk for the repairs on the cabin. I'll follow in our car." As she watched them go, she wondered why there were tears in her eyes.
Excerpted from Send No Flowers by Sandra Brown. Copyright © 1999 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.