Tricia Hunter was an extraordinary beauty...before a horrible bus accident left her irreparably scarred. In an effort to accept the things she cannot change, she heads to her uncle's cabin for some time alone.
Forest ranger Jesse Reynolds recognizes Tricia the minute he sees her, but nothing flickers in her eyes. That's fine by him. The same accident that stole her good looks killed his fiance, and he simply can't bring himself to feel sorry for Tricia like everyone else in her life seems to do.
Thrown together in the autumn woods, they are faced with the past, an uncertain future, and a struggle to find out why God allows terrible things to happen.
Tricia Hunter dropped her bags on the scratched wood floor of her uncle’s cabin and took a deep, cleansing breath. She could already feel the potential of this place. The musty scent of old smoke from the stone hearth mingled with the tangy aroma of falling leaves. This was just what she needed, a hideaway in the middle of the autumn woods with a crackling fire, a stack of cozy quilts, and a wide window that let in a pool of golden afternoon sunlight.
There wasn’t a mirror to be seen in the place, and Tricia smiled wryly. That was probably what she needed most, time without having to look herself in the face.
Tricia raised her hand to touch the scars running along her jaw line, her fingers moving over the puckered skin with absent-minded familiarity. As much as she hated these scars, she was becoming more accustomed to them. She hadn’t made peace, exactly, but the shock was gone now, and in its place was a sort of confusion. Who was she now that she looked… like this?
She opened the door to a bedroom, and her gaze moved over the double bed that nearly filled the space, leaving room for only one tiny bedside table. Seeing no other door that might lead to a bathroom, she closed her eyes and cringed. So that actually was an outhouse she’d seen. She’d hoped that there was some other explanation for the little shack, but unfortunately, it made perfect sense. A kitchen sink was going to have to do for bathing, and the air inside was already feeling quite chilly in the autumn morning. This stay was going to be more rustic than she’d imagined.
“Maybe I should have gone to a resort instead,” she muttered, but she didn’t really mean it. She’d come here for a reason. She had a lot of things to think through, and spas and shopping didn’t leave her enough silence and solitude to hear herself think, let alone listen for God’s voice.
Outside, a truck’s engine revved, and she glanced out the window to see a black pickup pull into the drive. It rumbled for a moment before the engine shut off and the driver’s side door opened. A tall, broad-shouldered man hopped out. Whoever he was, the outdoors suited him. The sunlight that filtered through the red and golden leaves touched his auburn hair and caressed the rugged lines of his face. He dropped a hat on his head and swung the truck door shut with a bang. When their gazes met, he touched the brim of his hat in a polite salute. Tricia pulled away from the curtain, her cheeks warming when she realized she’d been staring.
His footsteps echoed on the stairs leading to the door and she opened it before he had the chance to knock, flashing him a smile.
“Good—” he started, but then his face blanched and he quickly cleared his throat. He looked down, then brought his gaze back up with a recovered smile.
Nice save. “Hi.” She tried to ignore that familiar sinking feeling when her scars evoked this reaction.
“Good morning, ma’am.” He said, this time without a hitch. “I’m the park ranger. I wanted to come by and make sure everything was OK.”
“I think so.” She gave him a reassuring smile for his efforts.
“Good.” Whatever his first reaction, his discomfort seemed to seep away. His dark eyes moved over her face. When she raised her eyebrows, daring him to ask her about those ugly scars, he met her gaze easily.
“I’m Tricia Hunter.”
“Tricia Hunter…” There was something in the way he repeated her name. “I’m Jesse Reynolds. Nice seeing you.” He held out his hand. His rough, calloused fingers folded gently around hers, and he paused, expectant.
Tricia cleared her throat and released his hand.
“It’s been a dry summer, but we’ve gotten two or three heavy rainfalls, so using the fireplace shouldn’t be an issue.” He nodded in the direction of the hearth. “You’ll need it tonight. It’s been dipping well below freezing.”
She nodded and his gaze moved over her face again, lingering on the scars that crept down her jaw line.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said after a moment. “What happened?”
Tricia was used to the question. With scars like hers, people’s curiosity held no bounds. She was past being offended, though. She gave him a shrug. “A highway accident.”
Jesse made a thoughtful sound in the back of his throat. “It must have been bad.”
“It was.” Tricia raised an eyebrow. “You should have seen me before. This is after all the plastic surgery the doctors can do.”
Jesse’s gaze traveled over her face from the sweep of her brow to the tip of her chin. He nodded slowly, almost appraisingly. “It could be worse,” he said finally.
Tricia shot him an exasperated look and turned away. It could be worse. Yes, when you thought about it, everything could be worse.
“Sorry about that.” His tone was sheepish. “I don’t mean to be callous.”
“Well, looking like this has been an…adjustment.” She turned back towards him, waiting for a reaction.
“Hmmm.” There was no pity in his eyes, just curiosity.
She was used to pity. She knew how to deflect pity. This reaction was something she hadn’t encountered before, and nervous chatter welled up inside of her. “People used to tell me I was quite attractive before the accident, you know. I mean, you wouldn’t know it to see me now. I’m still not used to this. In my head, I still look like I did before. Like those war vets who still feel their toes when they lose their legs.”
“Except you can still walk. And feel your toes.”
His dry tone made her cringe. “That came out wrong…” She wasn’t really shallow enough to think that her situation was on par with men who’d lost their limbs when fighting for their country, but the change in her appearance had still been a traumatic event, more so than the pain, stitches, and surgeries to correct the scarring and the hours upon hours of recovery combined. If he’d just react like everyone else, she’d know exactly what to say to him, but this ranger was throwing her off.
“Don’t worry about it.” He gave her good natured wink. “I like the way you look.”
“You’d be the only one.” Tricia pulled a hand through her hair. “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m a nervous talker. Can we rewind and make this a little less awkward?”
“You ask what happened and I’ll say, ‘an accident.’ And that’s where I’ll stop. No more messy elaboration.” She laughed self-consciously.
“OK, if that’s how you wanted this introduction to go. And I’ll tell you that you’ll need to put your garbage directly into the covered box outside and make sure it’s completely shut and locked at all times to keep your site protected from bears.” The flicker in his eyes turned familiar but not exactly warm. He seemed undecided on his opinion about her.
“Bears? Should I worry?” She glanced towards the window.
“Not too much, but it’s always good to be careful.”
She nodded. “That makes sense.”
Jesse’s gaze met hers for a moment. Once more she felt as if he was waiting for something, but she had no idea what it was. Did rangers get gratuities or something? It suddenly seemed possible.
“Well, I’ll be around if you have any questions or need anything.” He gave her a nod.
He turned abruptly back towards the door. “Take care. Winter comes early some years. Like I said, I’ll be around.”
Tricia nodded, attempting to appear more confident than she felt
“Oh.” Jesse placed his hand on the door knob. “Your uncle keeps an ax behind the door.”
“I have wood.” She nodded towards the pile next to the hearth. It must have been left over from whoever used the cabin the month before, along with the half bag of plastic cups sitting on the kitchen counter.
Jesse laughed out loud and shook his head. “You’ll need more than you’ve got there. The wood pile is behind the cabin, but you’ll need to chop it into smaller pieces.”
“How much do I need, exactly?” She eyed the ax uncertainly. Wood didn’t burn that quickly, did it? The idea of chopping wood sounded tedious. She turned towards Jesse with a smile, letting her eyes linger on his a little longer than necessary. The movement was one of habit, a learned behavior that used to get her what she wanted. “You wouldn’t want to give a girl a hand, would you…” She allowed her smile to sparkle in her eyes. “Jesse, was it?”
“That’s right. Jesse.” His tone was dry, and then an amused smile tugged at the corners of his lips. He rubbed one hand over his chin, the sound of his stubble against his palm rasping softly. “If I were you, I’d start chopping, Ms. Hunter.” He gave her a grin and dropped his hat back onto his head. “You’ve got time before dark.”
She sent him a tight smile and he met her gaze, his expression unreadable.
“Take care, now.” He pulled open the door and disappeared into the chilly morning.
As his footsteps clomped down the front steps, she let out a frustrated sigh. Once upon a time, a man would have stumbled over himself in his eagerness to chop wood for her.
She shut the door and leaned against it. Obviously, those days were over. A brilliant smile bought her nothing. A flirtatious laugh held the promise of something no one wanted any longer. Instead, she was left with the reminder that she had two legs and a back strong enough to chop wood. Try as she might to be a bigger person, it was annoying. She was no longer the woman she used to be, and, frankly, she didn’t have to like it.