The Promise Of A Lifetime

© 2004 All Rights Reserved
by B. S. Raven
Disclaimer see Chapter 1


Chapter 3

The sense of space in the vast park was almost overwhelming. For years, she’d heard Dr. Eckersley refer to it as the most “astonishing park with the bluest skies” in the world, but she’d assumed it was just another catchphrase from his dinosaur dig here ten years ago. But this one was true. She’d never seen sky like this in her entire life, nor had she ever sensed the vastness of any other park she had ever been in.

Squinting against the glare of sunlight off the hood of her champagne colored Bentley, Finley’s expression became thoughtful. This drive across New York had certainly been an eye-opener for her. It was during the long journey that she finally realized what a narrow textbook concept she had of her native land. Having lived all over the world most of her life at one archeologist dig after the other with her parents, Finley was fairly knowledgeable about the heavily populated areas of notable countries and the very isolated facilities in some small, unfamiliar locale, but it wasn’t until these past few days that she realized how little she knew about her own home state.

The much frequented tourist attractions of the park were definitely outweighed, in her opinion, by the vast forest wilds of the Adirondacks, and had filled her with a feeling of solitary awe. The miles and miles of forest were punctuated with craggy outcrops and countless crystal-clear lakes. There was a raw, wild beauty about it, but there was also a haunting aura of isolation. The silence of the uninhabited forest wilderness was eerie, almost smothering in its intensity, and Finley had never experienced such an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Driving for the last two hours through the park, she had captured a real sense of the Adirondack six million acre region with its spectacular imagery, and evocative lingering aura of seclusion. Yet, her sense of loneliness was usurped by a persistent sense of contentment, which was beyond any rationale she could imagine. “Loneliness and contentment simultaneously. Strange. Very strange.” The blue-eyed woman said.

The towering trees that crowded against the mountains and valleys in every town ap­peared like immobilized Goliaths, giants that domi­nated the fertile sweeping virgin woodland, subsisting on enormous patches of lush quantities of undergrowth. And she was intimidated by it all. Now, as she traveled north from New York, the timber heaved and buckled into the foliage austere ravens of the vast park, and Finley experienced an uncomfortable feeling that she’d been royally conned.

Her Director at the museum had inundated her with propa­ganda on the wonders of the Adirondack, thundering from his soapbox of enthusiasm, “It has everything, Finley…the lakes are so blue, the foothills are so green and, the mountains laden with timber until you hit the high rugged peaks, which have snow year round. It has farms, fields, and an abundance of wildlife. You drive through the Adirondacks, Finley, and you’ll see for yourself. It’s God’s land.” Finely grinned. Hedrick Eckersley was probably the most articulate salesman, the most fervent evangelist for the Adirondacks in all of America.

Her smile faded as she adjusted her sunglasses, and a slight frown appeared. One of these days, though, she was going to regret her tendency to get swept into situations by other people’s enthusiasm. And she had a nagging suspicion it was going to be much sooner than she expected.

When Dr. Hedrick Eckersley had first suggested that she take an extended assignment to the recently discovered and unexplored site, and away from her very demanding job as his deputy director, she had shrugged it off. But when he offered her the opportunity to go solo to investigate the potential site, stating it sounded as if it was possibly a four-winged prehistoric species that might be a bird, her interest had been sparked. She had been at the Microraptor Gui site, named in honor of Chinese paleontologist Gu Zhiwei and the discovery of a four-winged dinosaur that apparently glided from tree to tree. Now that she was rapidly ap­proaching her destination, she was beginning to won­der if tier decision had been a wise one, especially when it had been so strongly colored by Dr. Eckersley’s enthusi­asm, her own curiosity and an unfulfilled fantasy of unearthing her own major find.

Her curiosity had been aroused by Dr. Hedrick Eckersley, himself. Even before she went to work for him six years ago, Finley had been well aware of his impres­sive record as the most famous, dedicated paleontologist in the world. He had tirelessly served the Museum for over twenty years and a teaching professor at the university for over thirty. He seldom became excited, but Fletcher Bucannan’s description of the find really sparked his interest. When told the site would require stamina and a lot of hiking, he knew he couldn’t perform the feat, but immediately thought of Finley.

Finley knew everything there was to know about his public and private life. For all his affability, there was a certain reserve about the man with most people, but not with her. Many listed him among their most trusted and valued friends, but no one knew him better than her own parents, or herself. Even though he had just turned sixty, he was still any struggling paleontologist’s dream come true…a man who was honored, trusted, intelligent, successful and revered by renown archeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists the world over. He possessed a natural charm, an unquestionable, gentle manliness. Over the years a multitude of idle, unfounded rumors had surfaced about his private life, but he’d never even bothered to acknowl­edge them. Dr. Hedrick Eckersley always told Finley, her private life was ex­actly that: private; and his private life was exactly that: private. Although she knew he had never married, she often wondered if he had been more than friends with a now deceased professor at the university. But, as he had said many times his private life, like hers was just that, privileged and accepted as such.

She loved him as her Godfather, and if he wanted her to do the investigating of these bones, she was most willing to comply. Finley wasn’t especially happy about certain aspects of the forest, which she knew had its abundance of rats, bugs, insects, and vermin of every kind that haunted the undergrowth and brush covered areas. Those particular features were at the bottom of likes list. The sense of adventure and discovery of a lifetime had invigorated her, until the thought of sleeping with the various pest and critters en­cased her anticipation with a cloud of dread, if not out and out anxiety. “Those features don’t even make the bottom of my list, because…because I can’t even list them.” Her body shivered at the thought of the some rat racing across her foot during the night.

No one had ever been allowed any personal glimpses of Finley, no one, except her family, Dr. Eckersley and Susan Seger. It had happened fifteen winters ago, shortly after the famed professor had arrived at a Montana dig at which her parents had requested his expertise and examination of some bones they had discovered. He had brought a young woman with him. A scandal had been uncovered involving a se­nior married, female member of the University and the young paleontologist. When accusations were shouted across the campus, Eckersley, who held such an influential post at the University and at the museum, offered her the six months position as his research assistant at the Montana site to get the young woman away from the scrutiny of the academic world.

Only Finely and Eckersley, had ever knew how close the young woman had come to being branded and dismissed from any position in her chosen field. Susan had taken an interest in the very intelligent goddaughter of her mentor, allowing her to help with the picking of the bones, measuring, and even the time consuming brushing. Within a month, eleven year old Finley not only knew she would become a distinction paleontologist, but her personal preference was girls. Susan talked to her about being too young to come to such a drastic decision, and encouraged her to weigh her future, and her sexual preferences, and pointed out the near fiasco with her own life. Finley thanked her, but her mind was already made up. She liked girls, so what?

Hans Jorgensen had been so impressed with Susan’s work he kept her on at the site as paleontologist for two years. A research assistant on the dig caught her interest after the first six months and the two followed the Jorgensens from site to site for ten years before Susan obtained a teaching position at a prestigious New England University. From time to time, Susan and her companion would visit Finley and her family.

Finley, after having completed her high school requirements at an early age, went off to the University, out to several prestigious digs, then a prominent position at the Smithsonian before settling at the Natural Museum under Dr. Eckersley. Now she was on her way to the Adirondack Park and an unforeseen and unanticipated change in her life. For, unbeknown to the young woman, her world, as she knew it was about to be turned up side down.

The young woman reflected on the conference with her godfather that led to her to this assignment less than a week ago. For some reason, he really wanted me to take this assignment. Hmm, I wonder why?

It had been very late and she was exhausted, but she’d continued to go through box after box of old files, looking for the in­formation she needed She was seated at a table in her office with ­five cartons filled with thick file folders stacked around her, a nearly hopeless task ahead. The futility of what she was doing, combined with fatigue, finally wore her down, and in a fit of frustration, she’d thrown a file across the room, then buried her head in her arms and wept. Finley hadn’t heard him come into the office and wasn’t even aware of his presence until he patted her reassuringly on the shoulder and commented wryly, “Don’t despair, Finley. Nothing is ever so bad that it can’t get worse.”

The dryness in his tone struck her funny and she found her shoulders shaking with a mixture of tears and unexpected laughter. Wiping her face, she sat back in the chair and with a deep sigh, looked up at him. “Thanks a lot,” she said, her tone as dry as his own. “I really needed to hear that.” His famous smile was a little ragged as he patted her shoulder again then went to her desk and wearily slouched into the chair behind it. “I’m beginning to think that anyone who gets involved in the machina­tions of bureaucracy is either the village idiot or to­tally insane.”

His goddaughter propped her chin on her hand, her previous sense of hopelessness over preparing the standard projects projections procedures for the upcoming fiscal year gave way to amusement. “May I quote you on that?” He laughed as he leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head.

“The board of directors would wet them­selves in utter delight if you did.”

His expression grew solemn as he stared off into space, his face lined with fatigue. After a moment of silence he turned his gaze to Finley. “Have you been able to nail down those dates?”

She shook her, head, defeated sag to her shoul­ders. “Not yet. I’m afraid it’s going to take a while. Can’t decide which is of the least importance, Anchorage or Arizona, and I can’t find the Florida paperwork anywhere.”

He pursed his lips and nodded, ”I’m really terrible with paperwork, Finley, and I have to accept the blame for the boxes in such a disarray,” a frown furrowing his brow.

Finley shook her head, “It’s okay Professor, I’m surprised you were able to prepare any schedules accurately with no assistance, and with the disaster in the storage-morgue last year.”

Again he gazed off into space, inhal­ing deeply, he leaned forward and rested his arms on top of the desk. He solemnly studied her for a second, then spoke, determination in his voice. “We’re wast­ing your time and talent on those reports. I’ve decided I’m going to give those to Hammonds.”

His young Deputy Director couldn’t have been caught more off guard, and she stared at him in disbelief. Finally she found her voice and stammered, “B-but you can’t.”

“Why not?”

The thought of a junior researcher doing the projected reports left her speechless, and it took her a moment to gather her thoughts. “Be­cause you and I both know, Hammonds doesn’t have the inventiveness, ability or the knowledge to do the scheduling as you or I do. Besides that, it is one of my favorite duties. And if you believe that, I’ll tell you those were saber tooth tiger bones from the Anchorage dig.” She frowned.

He gave her a warped smile, and for the first time since she started working for him, Hedrick Eckersley looked his age. “I’m not a young man anymore, my dear, and I’m getting tired. I need to turn more responsibilities over to you Finley, and Hammonds had to start taking responsibilities for his research. Besides, I’m thinking about retiring from the museum and only teaching part time.”

She had found it impossible to meet his unwavering gaze, and she dropped her eyes and began to fiddle with the papers scattered before her. “I can under­stand that. But don’t quit now. You have to see this next schedule through.” He made no response but continued to stare at her. She had begun to think she’d overstepped her bounds, and then she saw a tiny hint of humor gleaming in his eyes. She flashed him a smile and pushed the is­sue. “And besides, if you quit, I’m not ready to take over for you and you know the bureaucracy might promote someone like Hammonds or Cortex to Director, and I’d be out of a job.”

He gave her an amused look as he tipped his head toward the boxes of files. “With that concept ahead of you, I’m surprised you still want it.’’

She’d left her chair at the table and was kneeling on the floor, picking up the papers that had scattered from the file when she’d thrown it across the room. Tucking her hair behind, her ear, Finley looked up at him and grinned. “Since I’ve started working, I’ve developed a habit of eating regularly and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. Besides that, I haven’t made that one discovery that we all dream about.”

Hedrick chuckled and nodded, “Finley, we both know it isn’t the money. You are one of the wealthiest women in the world, but this work is in our blood. No, I have to correct that, it’s in our cellular level.” He chuckled.

There was more fact than fiction in that statement, Finley silently acknowledged as she stuffed old projections into the file folder. She had wanted to work for him as soon as she’d graduated from university with her PhD, but the Smithsonian offer was so much more beneficial, he had insisted she accept it, if for nothing but the experience. But the real truth was that she absolutely loved working with him.

She stuck the last sheet in the folder and stood up. A feeling of apprehension settled on her as she qui­etly studied him. He was hunched over her, a preoccupied expression on his face as he slowly rolled a pen between his fingers.

With her voice muted by uncertainty she asked, ‘Okay, Dr. Eckersley, you aren’t in here for project timetables, so come on, out with it?”

The lines on his face seemed to be more deeply etched when he raised his head and looked at her. Without breaking the silence, he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, withdrew a single folded piece of paper and handed it to her. Her spirits soared when she unfolded the heavy white bond and saw the familiar green insignia on the letterhead.

“I was on my way to deliver this to you at home, but I saw the light on in here.”

As she stood there staring at Hedrick’s writing and the address in upper New York, the only coherent thought that surfaced was ‘I can’t go off on some assignment and leave this schedule for him to do’. But when she fi­nally looked at him, she saw him with clearer vision, her belief in his invincibility no longer distorting her view. The man was exhausted, both mentally and physically, and right then he looked old, very old…and very alone. “You need to take this assignment for me Finley. I don’t want anyone else to have it. It could be nothing, but I have at hunch that this is significant. I can’t explain my feelings to you, but I believe it is essential for you to…to take this assignment.”

Her tone was gentle. “Will you hang on to this,” she asked, indicating the proposed assignment, “and give me until the weekend to dig through this mess?”

“You may never find the back-up documentation we need, you know,” he responded, quietly preparing her for defeat.

“Yes, I will.”

Hedrick watched her for the longest time, then said quietly, “I hope you know how proud all of us are of you.”

A rueful smile appeared as she refolded the proposed assignment. “Yes, I get the feeling all of you waver between pride and exasperation.”

He responded with a snort of amusement and Finley looked at him. Her face sobered as she scruti­nized his expression for some clue to what he was thinking. “Do I have until the weekend?”

He dragged his hand across his face and sighed. “Yes, you have until the weekend.” He lowered his eyes and stared at his clasped hands, his face sud­denly haggard.

She gazed at him, concern darkening her eyes. “What is it?” she asked softly.

There was a long silence, and when he finally spoke, his voice had a sad, reminiscent timbre to it. “There are times when I wonder why I’ve kept on going.” There was something in his tone that made her realize there was a specific reason why he drove himself so hard, a reason why he had never married. And for Hedrick Eckersley, it was a very personal reason.

After that night, after gaining an unexpected in­sight into the man, Finley’s compassion was aroused. And when Finley’s compassion was aroused, she mothered with unrelenting dedication. Instead of looking upon him as her immediate supervisor, and godfather, she began dewing him as a favorite confidante and unique individual. Not only would she accept this assignment, which seems to mean so much to him, but also she’d finish the projected schedule prior to the weekend, or die trying.

At first he had viewed her actions with a certain amount of amusement, but he began to depend on her more and more. In time, she became his confidante, and she was responsible for everything from approving his itinerary, to filling in at his classes, to editing his speeches, to keeping him informed on even the smallest matter that might im­pact his department. An alliance of mutual trust and respect developed between them, and after working so closely together for so long, they’d reached a point where they could read each other perfectly.

They shared a solid rapport, and Finley knew she was closer to him than anyone else was in New York, yet there was still that private part of his life she knew nothing about. She’d catch him in an unguarded mo­ment, a haunted look in his eyes, an expression of such loneliness carved in his face that it would make her want to cry. The reason, she suspected, would be found here in the place he still considered home and the quiet cemetery plot in upper New York.

Finley’s wandering thoughts were dragged back to the present when a white road sign with the green park emblem on it flashed past. She pulled onto the shoul­der of the road and stopped, then extracted a road map from the narrow space between the emergency brake and the bucket seat. Pushing her sunglasses on top of her head, Finley refolded the map to isolate the last leg of her journey. Assured that this was the right turnoff, she slid the map back in the slot, replaced her glasses, and after checking for traffic turned west on the secondary highway.

The foothills rose before her, blocking out the dis­tant panorama of the mountains. As she continued due north, she was surrounded by nothing but dense, rolling hills. There was a quality of desolation about this part of the country that she hadn’t expected. It seemed so fertile, so lush, even more forest then how she had pictured it from Hedrick’s descriptions. Deep inside, her personal thoughts became unsettling. She didn’t know the reason for the disquieting and somewhat alarming sensitivity creeping into her awareness.

Ever since she was a toddler, Finley had harbored a love affair with bones. The idea of spending time working solo on a find held enormous appeal. So with her judgment colored by Hedrick Eckersley’s enthusiasm, Finley took his word that the job would be a piece of cake.

Finley scowled to herself. Solo meant she would have to be her own cook. Well, she might have to find a part-time cook…but, the hard nose Park Director had set some stiff rules for the investigation and one of them was no unauthorized personnel at any time. “Damn, I’m going to either get fat from having to eat peanut-butter sandwiches, or loose weight rapidly from canned soup.”

The narrow highway became more twisting and Finley blocked off her glum thoughts to focus her full attention on her driving. Cut into a steep bank, the road wound its way down into a deep ravine that had been carved by centuries of erosion. The drone of the engine changed pitch as Finley shifted into a lower gear while she navigated the sharp curve at the bottom of the gully. The sound of her passage echoed hollowly as she crossed a narrow wooden bridge that spanned a small stream, which lost itself in the random growth of wild berry bushes and strong, full bodied willows. A long in­cline zigzagged out of the ravine, and she geared down again when the engine protested the long, steep climb.

As she approached the crest of the hill, Finley ex­perienced the same feeling she had from time to time when she was small: that she had reached the edge of the world and there was nothing on the other side. But there was. And it was so breathtaking it was beyond description. She pulled over on the gravel shoulder and switched off the ignition, overwhelmed by the vista that was spread out before her.

The ridge of beautiful, rolling hills formed the natural rim of a valley that opened up to the most spectacular view she’d ever seen. Off in the distance, the snowcapped Adirondacks Moun­tains loomed up in majestic splendor, creating an im­pregnable barrier that thrust jaggedly into the clear blue October sky, their imposing fortresses shaded in hues of blue, purple and gray. A high range of hills, densely covered by coniferous forest, rose against the base of the mountains and added a misty dimension of dis­tance to the diorama. Here the range was heavily lined with coppices of poplar and aspen scat­tered across the landscape, their crowns brushed with soft wisps of green, some yellow, reds from the first signs of fall foliage. Sturdy sentinels of fir and spruce towered above the newly budding trees, their dark green boughs accen­tuated by the delicate shades of new growth. The sky, blue and endless, encompassed it all. The colors were magnificent. From the purples, blues and grays of the mountains, to the variegated greens of the forests, to the rusts, ambers and gold’s of the rolling grassland…it was an artist’s palette, and she ab­sorbed every nuance of it.

Finley had no idea how long she sat there, en­tranced by the beauty before her, but when she finally stirred and reluctantly started the car, she felt as though she had just been given a long, cool drink af­ter a very tiring journey. Maybe she hadn’t made a mistake, after all. The feeling of expectation grew as she covered the final miles, her host of doubts no longer badgering her. It was the strangest sensation, but she suddenly felt as if she were coming home. Coming home, and yet, she had never been in this area, and didn’t know one person there.

That feeling became even stronger as she crested a small rise and saw a group of buildings off to the right. It all seemed so familiar. “The buildings are set off to the north in a little hollow that’s a fair distance from the main road,” he had said. Suddenly, her few small doubts became very large ones. But why? She didn’t have the answer, but felt an explanation was on the horizon.

What did she really know about these people, anyway? Hedrick often talked about his year of excavating the dinosaur skeleton, and felt as though he knew something of the park’s employees, but they were still strangers to her. He had deliberately avoided divulging the park director’s sex. If Finley knew she would be dealing with another strong-willed woman, she might not accept the assignment, and his sixth sense told him, Finley needed to meet Fletcher.

Clayton had told her when he gave her directions. “The first thing you’ll see. is a windbreak of spruce trees along the highway and the big green barn were the park’s horses were housed. There’s a typical park gate, with a large rock wall entrance. You can’t miss it.’’

As Finley slowed to turn into the gate, she glanced up at the impressive row of gigantic spruce that lined the far side of the drive. Their roots went deep into this fertile land. The lane curved down into a sheltered hollow, and Finley felt a rush of warmth as the house and build­ings came clearly into view. Several acres of land ad­jacent to the road had been left untouched, and thick stands of poplar and pine were scattered across the rolling terrain. The driveway, which angled sharply across the yard, separated the raw untouched land from the lawn surrounding the Park’s Headquarters and Administrative building. She had been directed to the rear of the chief structure to the combination mess hall and ranger barracks.

The huge old-fashioned dwelling, which faced the gravel driveway, looked like it had been recently painted, its black trim standing out sharply against the forest green. A veranda stretched across the front of the building, the still-bare branches of vines tan­gled profusely along the spindled rail and up the pil­lars at the corners.

A high hedge of crate myrtles, which was just beginning to show the last touches of fall, bordered the east side of the yard. Through the bare branches, Finley could see flashes of sunlight off the metal roof of all the building. Another windbreak of trees was located a fair distance behind the barracks, which, she suspected, hid the rest of the parks many buildings­ from view.

The setting was picture book perfect. She followed the driveway around to the back of the quarters where the road continued on, disappearing into the trees. Finley parked her new Bentley beside a row of forest green park vehicles, and as she switched off the igni­tion, her uncertainties came marching back in full force. Taking off her sunglasses and hanging them on the sun visor, Finley combed her fingers through her shoulder-length, curly hair, and then mentally squaring her shoulders, she climbed out of the car. She was just passing through the broad opening in the hedge when the screen door opened and a woman with salt and pepper hair came out. She was above medium height with a surprisingly good figure, and as she came down the steps, she brushed her khaki slacks, which had smudges of flour across the front of them.

Ah, a cook. Thank goodness! And probably someone’s grandmother. The driver contemplated. However, this was not exactly a grandma of the first order; not the kind that spent her winter evenings knitting mitts or mending socks, Finley was willing to bet. This was a woman who liked to be where the action was, who liked to face new challenges. But her face had compassion and humor written into it with every line, and her green eyes held a warmth and understanding put there by years of laughter. And as she came to­ward Finley, her face wrinkled with a huge smile as she stretched out her arms in a gesture of unaffected wel­come. It was as though she’d known the younger woman all her life, and Finley felt suddenly very much at ease.

“You have to be Finley Jorgensen,” Andrea Bucannan said warmly as she clasped the younger woman in an enveloping hug. “Hedrick’s told me so much about you, I think I’d know you anywhere.”

The salt-and-pepper headed woman released her and Finley, who was several inches shorter, smiled up at the older woman. “I am. And you must be Mrs… ?”

“Andrea , dear. Andrea ,” she corrected firmly. “Don’t make me feel any older than I already do.” A large tan-and-chocolate curly haired dog, the obvious product of wildly indiscriminate breeding, came bounding around the building, his stubby tail wagging furiously. He rollicked around in front of Andrea in a delirium of excitement, and she pushed him aside as be jumped up against her. “Down, Icarus! Down,” she commanded sternly. “Don’t get so rowdy.”

Finley’s eyes lit up and she laughed. For some rea­son, his name seemed oddly appropriate. At the sound of her laughter, he stopped his bouncing and perked his ears in her direction. He inquisitively tipped his head to one side as he studied her with bright eyes, and then pushed his head toughly against her thigh, blatantly begging for attention. Finley stopped to stroke his glossy coat. “Well, hello Icarus,” she said as the dog crowded against her legs, wagging his tail so hard he looked as if be were hinged in the middle.

“Aren’t you gorgeous.”

From behind her came a light jingling and the sound of shod hooves on gravel, then the unmistakable creak of a saddle. “Gorgeous is stretching it a bit, don’t you think?”

Straightening up, Finley turned around. A woman mounted on a magnificent horse was silhouetted against the sun, the blinding brilliance radiating be­hind her in a fiery corona. Feeling strangely breath­less, she shrugged, her expression still animated. “That’s a matter of opinion. I think he’s wonderful.”

“I suspect the feeling is mutual.”

The tone of Fletcher’s voice flustered her and she groped for something to say. Andrea unwittingly came to her rescue. “This is my daughter, Fletcher. And Fletcher, this is Hedrick’s Finley.”

There was a slight hesitation, then Fletcher Bucannan signaled her mount with a light touch of her heel, and the horse moved forward out of the masking bright­ness of the direct sunlight. The animal, which tossed his head with a nervous arrogance, was a dark brown stallion with jet-black mane and tail. Finley didn’t know much about horses, but she did know enough to realize that this was a superb specimen of horseflesh. She glanced up at the rider and a strange flutter unfurled in her midriff. Fletcher Bucannan wasn’t so bad, either.

With her astride the restless animal, it was hard to judge how tall she was, but everything else about her registered with startling clarity. This woman literally ra­diated an aura of power and womanliness. She was impressively shaped with long lean legs and strong physical statue, but beneath her unquestionable virility, beneath her phys­ical forcefulness, there was something... some indefin­able quality that drew Finley. She wondered what kind of person really lay beneath the straightforward, crisp image.

Fletcher Bucannan did have a strong-willed no-nonsense persona. She looked as if she had just ridden off a high-jump course for the national championship or even the International Shows. She was dressed in green drab uniform-style shirt that fit her like a second skin. Threaded through the loops of her uniform trousers was a wide black shinny belt that sported a strapped in firearm. A long knife could be seen protruding from its scabbard built into the side of her highly polished black boots. The broad brim of her green uniform Stet­son heavily shadowed her face, but even that couldn’t conceal the strong, yet feminine jaw-line. She was, in every sense, a woman’s woman.

It was Fletcher Bucannan who finally interrupted her thoughts. Resting one arm on the saddle horn, she leaned forward and extended her other hand toward Finley. “Welcome to the Adirondacks State Park.” Darn his hide! Dr. Eckersley, never indicated that he was sending a woman. Darn, darn, double darn. I knew I should have forgotten about stumbling upon that site. How in name of all that is holy am I going to leave her at the site alone? It wouldn’t be safe. It’s obvious she is strictly a museum staffer. How many people would come to a park in a half million-dollar vehicle, wearing a five thousand dollar Armani suit and a thousand dollar pair of heels? He sent me a friggin city slicker.

Finley felt vaguely suspended as she met the park directors’ steady gaze. Placing her hand in Fletcher’s, she was bombarded by disturbing new impressions. Beautiful? No, not ex­actly, but there was a compelling attractiveness about her, an attractiveness that was unfeigned and inde­structible. Her eyes were hazel, flecked with gold and amber, and the thick long lashes accentuated their hypnotic intensity. Her dark eyebrows were slightly raised and showed a faint radiance in the sun.

There was something very intriguing about Fletcher’s face, something that touched her in the most profound way. It revealed a depth of character, an inner strength, but it also revealed an imperviousness that had been carved by disillusionment. It was the face of a woman who had forged on alone, a woman whose sensuous mouth had been hardened by grim determination. And Finley felt an immediate affinity for Fletcher that she had never felt for another human being. Her keen awareness of her as a woman had an immobilizing ef­fect on her, and she was conscious of nothing except the warmth of Fletcher’s touch and her unwavering gaze. Damn! I won’t get caught up by another strong-willed female. I won’t be crushed by any façade of liking this woman and allowing her to rule me. NEVER!

“I just made a fresh pot of coffee,” Andrea said, shattering the spell. “Why don’t you take a break, Fletcher?”

Finley, even though her defenses went up, was unwilling to break physical contact with the woman. Finally she reluctantly withdrew her hand from the park directors’ grasp.

The change in Fletcher was immediate. It was as if some vital link had been broken, and her expression was suddenly shuttered as she scrutinized Finley. The director stared at her a second longer, then glanced at her mother. “I can’t right now, Mom. Jamison and I are doing the last minute prep for the Jr. Rangers weekend trip.” Shifting her weight in the saddle, she gathered the reins and cued the stallion with a barely perceptible move­ment. As the horse and rider turned, Fletcher glanced down at Finley and touched the brim of her hat in a gesture that was as old and as traditional as honor itself. “Hope you enjoy your stay here,” she said stiffly.

It was obvious that she had, for some reason, with­drawn behind a wall of cool politeness, and that bothered Finley more than she liked to admit. Her voice was uneven when she responded, “Thank you. I’m sure I will.”

Their eyes connected, and. for a split second Fletchers’ guard was down, and Finley experienced a sudden galvanizing rush that set her heart hammering wildly against her ribs. Hid beneath that electric undercur­rent of sexual chemistry there was another, less pleas­ant feeling. Whatever initial attraction there was between them, it would go no farther. Fletcher Bucannan would see to that. The mounted woman gave her another salute, and with an undetected signal the powerful stallion snorted and arched his neck, then pivoted on his hind legs, fighting the restraint of the rider. But the rider’s discipline was relentless. No one…not man or beast…nor any woman would ever breach this female’s control. Or at least so she thought. But all of that was about to change.

“My daughter worries me,” Andrea said, an anxious frown appearing as she watched horse and rider dis­appear around the building.

Finley glanced up at her companion. “Why?”

Before Andrea could answer, horse and rider reappeared. Fletcher dropped from the saddle and stood stiffly before Finley. “Ms. Jorgensen, I’m very disturbed by your presence here. Dr. Eckersley never once indicated you were a…uh…a female.” She blurted out. “Not only is the security of the site imperative, but your safety now has to be considered.”

Finley saw red at the statement. “I’m very aware of the necessity for the protection and sanctity of the find, Ms. Bucannan. I assure you I’m quite capable of taking all measures essential for the care of not only the excavation, but of my safety.” Her hands went to her hips in her ‘don’t give me any guff’ stance.

“That remains to be seen. But I can’t and won’t allow you to camp out by yourself in that part of the park. It…”

WHAT? Camp out? As in the open or a tent of some kind?”

“That was the original plan.” Fletcher answered in a firm pitch. “A campsite at the base of the overhang.”

“Nothing was said about camping out with rodents, and vermin running over me at all hours of the night, or joining me in a sleeping bag.” Her voice chilled.

“Just where did you expect to sleep, here at the lodge and be transported back and forth every day? What kind of paleontologist are you, haven’t you ever done any field work?” The park director met her angry gaze evenly.

“Why you incorrigible…egotistical…pigheaded…know-it-all. I’ve spent months on a dozen or more excavations in all kinds of weather, from the dry, baking deserts, to snow so deep that even the ice blocks had to be thawed to get to the bones. I just don’t want to sleep with rats, or any other type of rodents, or pests that might decide to nibble on my toes, nose, ears or fingers, whether I’m asleep or not.” Finley responded through gritted teeth, her hands still firmly on her hips.

Easy Fletcher, hold your tongue. Eckersley wasn’t a man that tried to put one over on you. He was sincere, and a very honorable man. But why the heck did he send me this…this…this. Oh, Sky Mother she is going to be a pain in the butt! “Well, we’ll work out something, but we can’t do it until after the weekend. We weren’t expecting you until Monday. All the equipment has been packed, but we can’t take the mule train to the site until the first of the week, as we have a Jr. Rangers Campout this week…”

Mules! Mule train, as in horses?” The paleontologist interrupted her.

“Yes. The equipment will be trucked part of the way, then loaded onto mules and some horses and we’ll ride to the site….”

“I don’t do mules, horses, donkeys or camels, Bucannan. Why can’t we go by vehicle, or at least be helicopter dropped close to the site?”

Fletcher shook her head in disbelief. “The closest clear area for landing one of the choppers is nearly four miles from the area. We would have to backpack in the equipment from there or use the mules and horse to pack the supplies in. Same for vehicles, only it would be a good six miles via truck then we’d have the same problem getting the equipment to the site.”

Andrea Bucannan stood off to the side, taking in the clash between the two women. Hmmm, sounds almost like a squabble between an obstinate old married couple. The veterinarian’s mouth dropped open. She quickly placed her hand over her lips. The older woman breathed slowly; an impression began to form before her eyes, an inkling of a somewhat more accurate overview of the two women standing before her. This is going to be rather interesting to watch. Should be somewhat humorous. They are definitely going to butt heads.

“It makes no sense to continue in a heated discussion. We’ll just have to work out something the first of the week. I have preparations to complete for the Jr. Ranger outing.” Fletcher turned and quickly remounted her stallion. “Mother will set you up with some quarters in the barracks for now.” She pulled the bridle of the horse sharply and touched its flanks with her boot. But no sooner had the animal moved, then she pulled up on the bridle again. “What kind of name is Finley for a woman? That’s so deceiving.” She snapped.

Finley’s hands went back to her hips. “What kind of name is Fletcher for a woman, you flea brained nudnik?”

“Argghh.” Her right hand touched the stallions’ neck and off they went at a gallop.

“Urghhh.” The young paleontologist watched the figure until animal and rider disappeared out of sight.

***


Chapter 4


“Clearly you two didn’t get off to a good start.”

The shorter woman sighed and shook her head. “That’s putting it mildly. Your daughter is without a doubt the most annoying woman I’ve ever met.”

“She can be at times, but usually she is very reasonable.”

She turned to face Andrea and sighed, then gave her a wry smile. “Forgive me, Mrs. Bucannan. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

“None taken, Finley, and please call me Andrea. You didn’t come all the way up here to badgered by my daughter.” She patted the younger woman’s arm then mo­tioned toward the house. “Come in. We’ll have a cof­fee, then I’ll show you around, and get you settled in one of the larger living accommodations. She will probably be busy until dark. They will be leaving at seven in the morning.”

“I’m very qualified to be here, Mrs. Bucan...Andrea.”

“Rest easy, young lady, Hedrick Eckersley explained your credentials fully, he simply left off the part about your gender.” The older woman flashed her a thumb-up along with a warm smile.

Finley studied her as they walked up the worn rock path, silently marveling at the salt and pepper coloring and thick­ness of the woman’s hair. As they stepped into the covered porch Finley caught the smell of cinnamon and ginger, and suddenly she felt home­sick for her own paternal grandmother… maybe all grand­mothers smelled of cinnamon and ginger.

The porch was part of a large addition that had been built onto the entire front of the building. From it, doorways led to the left and to the right, the one on the right obviously opening up to a large sitting-recreation area.

Through open double French doors, she could see a long table with about twenty chairs.

Andrea indicated the large open area with a wave of her hand. “We added this part about fifteen years ago. We needed a kitchen for the workers and some sort of living quarters for the cook, when we had one.” She pointed toward the door on the left. “I’ll take you on a quick tour to show you your room.”

“You aren’t the cook?”

Andrea Laughed, accepting the backhanded compliment gracefully. “Everyone wishes I were, but no Finley, I’m not the cook. I’m head veterinarian here.

“I didn’t mean…I saw the flour on your pants and you smell so good.”

“Oh child, think nothing of it. I try to prepare something of a decent dinner for the duty personnel. We lost our full time cook when she went off to attend the firefighters school. Fletcher has filled the position twice, but the workers are really hard on anyone new, and both lasted only a few days.” She laughed. “You interested in taking on the cooking duties while you’re here?” She teased, laughing softly.

“Heavens no. I wouldn’t last one meal, Andrea. I can’t even boil an egg properly.” Finley joined Andrea’s laughter, only slightly embarrassed.

“Oh, well, guess I’m stuck a few more days at the job. There is supposed to be a new cook coming on Monday. After you get settled in, we’ll have that coffee and a large slice of chocolate cake.”

“Sounds yummy.”

Finley followed her, absorbing every detail as they entered the enormous kitchen. There was a large U-shaped work area with fairly new white paneled ­covered cupboards. Above the sinks, there was a large window facing west, offering a spectacular view of the mountains and foothills, and Finley mentally acknowledged that no job could possibly be tedious with a view like that. Well, not for some people.

Adjacent to the work area was the eating area, which was furnished with a massive table that would easily seat a dozen people. Finley remembered the official dinning area, but suspected that most of the workers ate their meals in the comfort of the kitchen. She didn’t blame the, the aromas coming from the stove caused her mouth to drool. Along the north side of the kitchen there were four more windows that over­looked the backyard and the windbreak of trees be­yond. Although the walls could do with a fresh coat of paint, the whole place looked as though it had been scrubbed thoroughly with a brush recently. The room had certain hominess about it that Finley found very appealing. All the woodwork around the windows and doors was oak, the color darkened to a deep mahogany shade by repeated paintings. The window ledges were wide and old-fashioned and held several pots of flourish­ing red geraniums.

“They come from the hothouse,” Andrea said, “We have flowers of every description year round.”

Finley nodded. She enjoyed flowers, and wanted to have her own garden one day, ‘someday’. The younger woman scanned the floor and stifled a chuckle. It was covered with old red and gray inlaid tile that showed faint trails of wear and spattered paint. All of the wooden chairs around the huge solidly built table matched and looked hand crafted; and the stove, which was enormous, looked like an old converted wood burner, but it was obviously gas. To the right there was a standard wood-burning stove that was used in the winter months when the gas truck couldn’t get through the snowdrifts.

“Your room is in here. I believe you’ll like it better than the standard two bed quarters shared by the duty staff,” Andrea said as she led Finley around a corner to a short hallway that had two doors on either side and another door at the far end. “Fletcher stayed here off and on for four years, while her home was being built. We keep it for visiting vets, instructors, etc.” The door on the right led into a small bathroom that bowed a big old tub with clawed feet, and even from the doorway, Finley could detect the weird, wavy flaw in the mirror that covered the ancient medicine chest.

The door to the left led into a spacious bed-sitting room. And stepping into it was like stepping back in time. The furniture was old and a little worn, but that didn’t detract from the ageless beauty of it. Finley ran her hand appreciatively over the rich wood of the massive burl walnut dresser, which was still graced by the original beveled mirror set into a hand-carved frame.

The bed was metal, its most recent coat of paint being white. It was a marvelous old filigreed thing with a wild variety of curlicues, doodads and baubles twisted and turned into the elaborate design. A handmade patchwork quilt of various prints and ginghams amply covered it. The once-intense colors had faded with age and countless washings, but the intricate design was still distinct. Finley noticed that everything was just as spotless as the kitchen area. Must be cleaned regularly for the visitors.

There were two well-worn armchairs, which were upholstered in a deep maroon embossed velvet material, standing on either side of an old lamp table that was, Finley was sure, made out of solid cherry wood. A settee of the same fabric and color sat across from the chairs. Two colorful hand-braided rag rugs lay on the dark wood floor, one beside the bed and one covering the floor beneath the two chairs. Old-fashioned fringed blinds and lace curtains covered the three long narrow win­dows on the far wall. And in Finley’s eyes, even with the signs of age and wear, this room was perfect.

“It’s all a little old-fashioned, I’m afraid,” Andrea said. “But on a large active park such as this, new furniture is never a priority.”

Finley grinned knowingly. “You can’t convince me that you’d ever part with a single piece of this gor­geous old furniture.”

Andrea shrugged, her smile a little sheepish. “Well, no I wouldn’t, but sometimes young people don’t un­derstand that. Fletcher does. You see, all this came from her room when she lived at home. She moved it here, not appreciating the mundane furnishings previously in here. She still comes in here every now and then and just sits and thinks, or reads, and decided that it would remain for our visitors. ”

“Well, I certainly do. I’ll enjoy every minute I spend in this room, believe me.”

“I hope so.” She smiled warmly at Finley and mo­tioned toward the door.

“Now I’m sure you’re more than ready for that coffee and cake. I’ll get someone to help you with your luggage later.”

“Thanks, but that won’t be necessary, I can handle it myself. I could use a large slice of that cake though,” she said smiling.

“Come on then,” Andrea said.

Having left the bedroom, Finley turned to leave the way they’d come, but Andrea pointed toward the door to the left. “No, we can go into the main portion of the barracks this way. This door was here when we added on, so we just left it.”

She opened it and entered another short hall. Again, there was a bathroom on the right and another door on the left, which was closed. Andrea motioned to it. “This is the cook’s quarters.”

Finley only caught a glimpse of the enormous liv­ing-rec room as she turned and followed Andrea down an­other wide corridor toward the kitchen, but it was enough to comprehend just how large the resident-barracks quarters actually were. Why do I feel so comfortable with this place? She thought. Not like any dig I’ve ever been on, and certainly I’ve never felt so at ease in being in new surroundings. I’m so content here.

The timer on the oven pinged, and picking up a pair of potholders that were lying on the counter, Andrea opened the oven door. The mouth-watering aroma of hot cinnamon buns came wafting out, and Finley’s empty stomach responded.

“I hope you aren’t one of those women who’s constantly dieting,” Andrea said as she slid the cookie sheet onto a rack on the counter

Finley laughed and shook her head. “Not me, Andrea. I tried it once and hated it.”

The older woman nearly bent double with laughter. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m afraid this preoccupation with thinness is not doing the younger generation much good.”

“That was cinnamon I smelt on your clothes earlier, but I thought you said chocolate cake?”

“Three chocolate cakes were made earlier this morning. Cinnamon rolls are my favorites, and Fletcher and Jamison loves them also. So, I make several batches every few days. They just never last though.” She said, looking at the now seated younger woman.

“Could we have cinnamon rolls instead of cake?” Asked Finley.

Using tongs, Andrea broke off four of the enor­mous rolls and put them in a basket, then brought them to the table. They looked and smelled delicious, and Finley eyed them with relish as the older woman bustled around getting coffee, napkins and the cream and sugar.

Placing a side plate in front of Finley, Andrea glanced at the clock above the cupboards. “We made it just in time. The shift changes soon and if we hadn’t already had ours by the time they get here, we’d be lucky to get even a nibble.”

Slowly stirring the cream into her coffee, Finley smiled with fond recollection. “I can remember when we were kids how we’d tear home on the days my grandmother baked. I don’t know why it was, but there was always something very reassuring and comforting about the smell of freshly baked peanut butter cookies when you’d had a lousy day.”

Andrea smiled and nodded her head in agreement. “I know. That’s exactly why I still do it.”

Once again Finley was struck by how totally radiant this woman looked, and she was trying to think of some tactful way of asking how she kept up with so many activities and still looked so vibrant when the older woman spoke. “You have brothers and sis­ters, Finley?”

Finley beamed. “I most certainly do. There were three of us, my two bothers and me.”

“Goodness…you said were?”

“Yes, there are only two of us now. My middle brother accidentally drowned in South American on a pleasure trip in the Amazon five years ago.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that, Finley.”

“S’kay, he was always doing some darn irresponsible thing after another. But he was doing what he loved to do, and we’ve had time to adjust, but we all miss him terribly.”

“I’m sure you do. Were you the eldest?”

“No, the youngest actually. Spoiled a little some say.”

“I can believe that. But you seem to be pretty well adjusted for all the pampering and spoiling.”

“Your daughter believes me incompetent.”

Andrea sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the features of the young woman seated across from her. “Hedrick laid out your credentials fully, so she knows you’re more than qualified. His failure to mention your sex, or your beauty I might add, my dear, does cause concern. Rightly so, I might add. It is an isolated area, and not very safe for anyone not use to the dangers posed not only by the animals, but by human predators as well. A woman alone up there, does pose some complications, and Fletcher isn’t one to put anybody at risk, or in harm’s way.”

“Well he failed to mention your daughter’s either. He knew I’d never accept an assignment where a woma…well, I prefer to work with men. Beside, I can take care of myself. I have a black belt in a martial arts, can shoot better than most men, and handle a variety of knives with expert accuracy.”

“Yes, I see your point; but consider you obviously don’t like forests, camping; wildlife, or riding….oh, and what were you going to eat while you were up there all by yourself?”

“Now there you go assuming just like your daughter. I happen to love the forest, am an avid hiker and backpacker, have camped in lean-tos, tent half shelters and grass huts many times. Having hiked several mountain ranges all over the world, done many whitewater-rafting trips, and competed in the Olympics in cross country skiing and shooting. I can truthfully say, I have no fear of camping, dangerous situations or being alone.” She swallowed her pride and continued to explain. “I love animals, Mrs. Bucannan, all kinds of animals. But I have a horror of rodents and vermin attempting to snack on my body parts. For good reason I might add, having had my little toe gnawed by a big rat while on an assignment. It becoming infected, my foot swelling up the size of a large cantaloupe, my being hospitalized for two months with an infection and still losing the toe has me a just a little afraid of rodents. Andrea, I just don’t want to go through that experience again.” Finley’s eyes never left those of the older woman. “As for riding, I had to learn to ride if I wanted to get anyplace on most of the excavations my parents went on, but my experience with horses and camels weren’t pleasant either, suffering two broken legs, a sprained wrist from being tossed by a mean-willed camel into a dung pile. I would prefer not to ride, but if absolutely necessary, I can stay in a saddle.”

“My dear, you should have spoken up. Fletcher had no idea.” It was all she could do to keep from laughing.

“I would have had she given me the chance, but no…she just jumped my case, assuming I’m a harebrained female, or worse an inexperienced silly- city girl. Does she always judge a person by first appearances?”

“Finley, you have to admit that not many people, much less paleontologist shows up at a potential site in an expensive car that most can only dream about, or in such tailored expensive clothes and shoes.” The older woman stated the obvious.

“Oh!” Embarrassed, Finley felt a grin escape her lips. “I just didn’t think.”

“You obviously are a young lady of means, but you may also be surprised to know that some of the people here at the park are considered well-to-do too. However, they don’t flaunt their wealth quite so vividly.”

“Andrea, I wasn’t flaunting my fortune or worldly goods. I’m a very down to earth woman. I love the simple things of life, but I do enjoy wearing good clothes and comfortable shoes. The car was an early birthday present from my paternal grandmother. She couldn’t stand my driving my thirty year old jeep to work, or having it driving out to their Long Island estate, or being towed after the last three breakdowns in the tunnel.” She laughed.

“A birthday present?” She leaned over the table a little, “And you aren’t rich in your own right?”

“Now, I didn’t say that, Mrs. Bucannan. Yes, I have a substantial trust, from both sides of the family’ and yes, my maternal grandparents are more wealthier than the other side of the family, but I am really ‘have both feet on the ground’ woman. The money means I can do the work that I love to do without having to worry about the pay.”

“I see.” The older woman got up and refilled their coffee cups.

“Uh…do you think that was the impression Fletcher got?”

Andrea tilted her head to one side and thought about the question. “First impressions are sometimes very wrong aren’t they, Finley?” She sidestepped the question by asking one of her own.

“Yes Ma’am.”

“Do you want another roll, my dear?”

“No thank you, I’ll just drink the coffee.”

The old vet thought for a few moments before she decided to put the younger woman at ease. “Finley, even my first impression of you was incorrect. But, your impression of Fletcher was incorrect also.” She sat down in her chair and poured cream in her coffee. “She loves this park, the people that work here, the animals and would do anything to keep it preserved and protected. Her dedication to the park is foremost in her life. She may not have as much money as you obviously do, but her personal recourses are better than most. My husband never flaunted his personal fortune, nor do I, but it remains a reality and upon his untimely death, all the Bucannan holdings passed on to Fletcher. He was just as dedicated to our profession as Fletcher is to hers, and none of us have ever allowed our assets to be a factor in our everyday lives. Now that we’ve had this little talk, I know you aren’t the show off that stood before my daughter twenty minutes ago. There is nothing superficial about you young lady, but you will have to let Fletcher come to that opinion on her own. Give her a few days and don’t be so uptight about possessions and first impressions.”

Finley sat the cup down and a look of relief came upon her face. “Thank you Mrs. Bucannan. I appreciate your openness and kindness.”

“After you finish getting settled for the weekend, if you want to come over to the medical building, I’ll show you our latest additions, eleven of the prettiest little geese you’ve ever seen.”

“That would be nice. Can you give me some general directions to your workplace?”

Getting up from the table, she motioned for Finley to join her. Looking out the window, the vet pointed to a stone walkway leading behind the building, “Just take that path, and about a hundred yards behind the main building you see the medical facility. I’ll be inside someplace. Just ask anyone as you come in and they’ll call me.”

“Thank you ma’am.”

“You need anything else?”

“Not right now, but did you say the chocolate cake would be gone also before dinner?” A crease appeared between her brows.

Andrea laughed, “If I had left them out they would be gone, but no, they are locked up in the pantry, and there are only two keys out right now. The cinnamon rolls will be devoured before you can blink, but I baked those cakes for dinner. You will be having dinner with us, won’t you?”

“Yes, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble. I had planned on going to the nearest restaurant, and I will if I need to, or you don’t have enough.”

Andrea raised her hand, “Forget going out, we have plenty. I hope you like roast chicken and wild rice.” She said finishing her coffee and placing the cup in the sink.

“Yes, I do. Do you need any help with the meal?”

Andrea cocked her eye at the young woman. “Finley, I thought you told me you couldn’t boil an egg?”

“Help…as in setting the table, pouring the drinks, that sort of help?” She explained.

“Sure, we’ll come back from the infirmary in plenty of time to finish the meal. I have the chickens in the oven on slow cook. Do you know how to make lemonade?”

Finley quenched up her face, answering Andrea’s question without speaking.

“Well, it’s time you learned. I’ll teach you. Not much to it, it’s made from a mix, but the crew love it and drink gallons of the stuff.”

“Oh, lord. Only here a few minutes and I get to mess up the evening beverage.”

“Now, now, none of that. I’ll be watching you like a hawk. See you in a few minutes.”

***


It was a combination of breakfast smells, and noises coming from the outside that awakened Finley the next morning. She gave a pleased murmur and stretched luxuri­ously, thinking that nothing could top the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee and bacon frying in the pan. Then the events of the previous afternoon came flooding back and she sat upright to stare around her in suspicion. Sun was streaming over the cheer­ful throw rug on the floor, and the air that came in the window felt as balmy as alpine air was ever inclined to be. The early morning tranquility of the billet was apparently undisturbed; only the smell of food below revealed that everyone was up and stirring, all that is, but her.

She slid over the edge of the mattress and felt with her toes for her slippers, bending down impa­tiently to look for them when they proved elusive.

Then she remembered the speed with which she’d undressed the night before, a maneuver which had precluded niceties like slippers and a robe. She probably wouldn’t have managed pa­jamas if the evening air hadn’t turned too chilly for her usual nude sleeping. She had scurried from the bathroom and hurriedly drew on the challis pajamas and slipped into bed without turning on the radiator or placing her robe or slippers near the bed.

Still barefooted, she padded over by the window to peer at the sounds coming from outside. There were a string of horses and pack animals everywhere. A troop of uniformed clad Jr. Rangers , a dozen or so rangers, and a few civilians busily securing supplies on each side backs of the pack animals. Immediately, her eyes were drawn to Fletcher. The park director walked over to a tall woman and hugged her for the longest time. Finley could tell by the way Fletcher smiled at the woman there was more than fondness between them. A twinge of envy fluttered somewhere within the pit of Finley’s stomach. “Nothing brazen about the open affection,” the young woman dropped the shade, but not before she saw the attractive older woman hand Fletcher a pair of binoculars, lean in and kiss her on the cheek.

“What’s wrong with me? I’m standing here as if I’d just caught my lover flirting with another woman. Good lord, I’ve completely flipped.” She turned to get dressed. The dark haired woman smirked at her image in the old fashion dresser mirror. She looked like a ruffian in the rumpled blue and white challis pajamas with her hair still uncombed.

Finley pulled out a pair of dark brown slacks, a matching silk blouse and russet cardigan sweater and threw them on the bed. She opened the closet door and removed the dark brown Italian leather loafers and tossed them on the bed next to the clothes. She dressed quickly, checked out her reflection in the mirror, “Not bad, Finley, not bad at all,” the paleontologist smiled and pushed the sleeves of her sweater to her forearms as she turned and left the room.

Entering the kitchen, she found Andrea wiping the table. The older woman smiled at her, “Good morning,” she said. “I hope you slept well… all things considered.”

“Yes, very well thank you. It did get a bit chilly. Forgot to ask about the radiator.” Finley smiled back.

“Goodness, I overlook that. Well, I’ll go over that with you before tonight.” She picked up her cup and turned toward the door. “There’s coffee on the stove if you’d like some.”

“Thank you,” Finley murmured before realizing that she sounded a lot like a sightseer, instead of a welcomed guest ‘I’ve made myself at home, if that is okay,” she added as she opened the cabinet and removed a large mug.

“Of course it is, Finley. Help yourself to anything here. You might want to join me on the porch to see the campers off. Then I’ll fix you a big breakfast. Thought you might help me out at the facility some today if you don’t mind?”

Feeling particularly devilish, she checked her tongue for a split second before letting the words roll. “Sounds like fun, but it’ll cost you another chocolate cake.”

“Aahah…a smart woman, but a sneaky one, huh?” Andrea beamed. She is just what Fletcher needs, won’t back down, and won’t give her an inch.

“Not necessarily, just a large sweet tooth,” she laughed. “Can I pour you another cup of coffee?”

Holding up her cup, “Mine’s full, join me on the porch.”

Finley raised the cup to her lips, but stopped as she stepped out onto the porch. There sitting next to Mrs. Bucannan was the woman that had been in Fletcher’s arms only minutes before.

“Sit on this side Finley,” the vet patted a rocker beside her.

“Thank you.” Her blue eyes never left the woman on the other side of the older woman as she sat down.

“Finley, I’d like to introduce you to my oldest daughter, Dr. Margaret Nichols. Maggie this is Finley Jorgensen, the paleontologist that will be staying with us for awhile.”

“Hi Finley, nice to met you,” she leaned forward and smiled.

Relief swept over the younger woman. Her oldest daughter…Fletcher’s sister. Phew! Holding up her mug in a half-hearted salute, “Hi,” was all she could muster.

“Here they come,” a tall man stepped upon the porch and sat on the rail.

The long line of animals and riders slowly plodded towards the front of the building. Jamison had the lead, followed by two boys, then Fletcher, who had turned to speak to the prettiest little girls Finley had ever seen.

As they got in front of the porch, Jamison nodded to Mrs. Bucannan, turned and blew a kiss to a woman standing next to a blue Blazer a few feet on the other side of the drive. The woman placed her hand over her heart in response and smiled. Out of the corner of her eye, Andrea saw a large grin cover Finley’s face at the ranger’s affectionate exchange with the women.

Fletcher eyed Finley from top to bottom. Doesn’t she have any clothing that doesn’t scream ‘thousands of dollars’? At least she isn’t wearing pumps, but those Italian Moc’s probably cost more than the pumps she had on yesterday. She’s…she is really attractive. Darn, why can’t she be sensible, at least about clothing…but boy, she sure fills them out nicely. So why does she have to flaunt her figure? AARGGGHH! The tall park director clamped her mind shut to the thoughts.

“Bye Grams. Bye Mom,” both boys shouted at the same time.

“Behave boys, and have a good time,” Andrea waved to her grandsons.

Fletcher touched the brim of her hat and nodded to her mother as she went by. A second nod went to Finley, but the smile had left the rider’s face.

“Be good girls,” the man on the rail grinned at the two girls riding behind Fletcher. “We will daddy,” came the reply.

All eyes watched the group ride down the driveway and onto the path that lead into the forest. No one spoke until the riders were out of site.

“Anyone interested in breakfast?” Andrea stood.

“I’ve eaten, Mom, but I wouldn’t turn down a cup of your coffee.”

“I’ll take a cup too, but my stomach is still to nervous to eat. God, they’ll be gone two full days. You’d think I’d be use to their trips with the Jr. Rangers by now.”

“Preston Hooper, you are such a worry-wart. Not only will Fletcher watch out after those girls as if they were her own, but so will the eleven other rangers.” Andrea teased the man.

“I know Dr. Bucannan, I know. Guess I’m just a typical father. They’re my life.”

“We know,” Maggie and Andrea stated simultaneously.

“Oh, Finley Jorgensen, this tall fellow is Dr. Preston Hooper, head of our town counsel, and our local pharmacist.” Dr. Bucannan made the introductions.

“Hello Ms. Jorgensen.”

“That’s Dr. Jorgensen, Preston.” Andrea corrected.

“Sorry, Dr. Jorgensen,” the tall man nodded again.

“No problem, happy to met you Dr. Hooper.” Finley grinned.

“Preston please,” he said.

“And I’m Finley,” she nodded.

“And I’ll pour the coffee,” Maggie took him by the arm. “Come on Preston, You can get the mugs.” He smiled and opened the door for them to enter.

“Come on Tammy, join us for breakfast and coffee,” Dr. Bucannan waved to the woman starting to get into the Blazer.

“Thanks, Dr. B., but I have to get going. We have three new beginners’ classes this morning. I just wanted to make sure they got off all right. Can I have a rain check?”

“Any time, Tammy. Drive carefully.” She waved to the woman, who waved back.

***


Later that day in the medical facility, Finley sat down next to Andrea who had removed her protective apron and gloves and handed her a bottle of water. “Thanks, I need this,” and drank heavily from the bottle.

“So do I. Do you work at this pace everyday?” She asked, raising the bottle to her lips.

“Not every day. With three vets on annual leave, and two assistants off at special training, we are a little short handed.”

“Umm.”

“If you’re up to it, John could use your help in the aviary for an hour or so before feeding time.”

“Not sure how much help I can be, but I’m willing to give it a try.”

“Good. Finley, do you mind if I ask you something personal?”

The smaller woman looked up at the older one, “Ask away?”

“Not only is your first name a little misleading, My Dear, but your appearance doesn’t fit someone named Jorgensen either. Well, except for the blue eyes. Is there some explanation you’d care to share with me?”

A little embarrassed, Finley felt a grin escape her lips. “No big mystery. My father’s Swedish. And yes, he has the typical blonde hair, and blue eyes with Finley being my grandmother’s maiden name. Family tradition thing.” She raised the water bottle and took a sip. “My mother on the other hand, is Tunisian. I get my copper toned skin, dark hair and temperament from her.”

“Ah-hah, I see. Are they paleontologists also?”

“No ma’am, both are archeologists. Met in Tunisia when Poppa was doing research for an excavation, fell in love, got married, and along came my brothers, then me.” She grinned.

“Your brother is a…?”

“Hans is an anthropologist. He’s marrying an anthropologist in a couple of months. They are already scheduled for a project in the Amazon.”

“Neither of you wanted to follow in your parents footsteps?”

“Hans actually has dual PhD’s in archeology and anthropology, but I’ve ate, slept, and breathed bones since I was able to walk. Oh, I do have bachelors in archeology and geology as well as paleontology, but my PhD is paleontology, my first love.”

“Were you born on one of your parent’s excavations, Finley?”

“No, both Hans and I were born in New York, Long Island actually. My parent’s, and paternal grandparent’s homes are there.”

“Your parents are American? I thought….” She didn’t finish.

Finley laughed, “Nothing really complicated…well, not to me. Both my parents were born in the States. Poppa’s parents were on a holiday, when grandmamma went into labor early. Grandpapa was at the United Nations when Grandmother gave birth to my mother. Poppa has dual citizenship, but mother gave up her Tunisian for American just before Han’s birth. After grandpapa passed away, my Grandmother wanted to be closer to my father who is her only son, so she purchased a place a short distance from their home.”

“Not complicated you say,” Andrea laughter’s brought on Finley’s.

“How about you, Maggie and Fletcher?”

“Hmm…well, it should be obvious that I’m Seneca. Thatcher, my dear husband’s ancestors were English. We met here at the Park, when I was doing my internship. Thatcher was the head veterinarian here for thirty years. When he passed away unexpectedly ten years ago, I moved into that position. Maggie went off to medical school, married and had the twin boys you saw earlier. Fletcher has never been far from the park. Well, except when she went off to college, special training in forestry, park management…Oh, and to get her pilots license. She came right back here and has worked in every position at the park. At twenty-four she was appointed park director, the youngest park director in history.”

“Twenty-four? That is young. She must have just gotten out of college, and she doesn’t look to be thirty.”

Andrea remembered Hedrick telling her Finley had her PhD before she was eighteen, but thought for a few moments before she said, “She’s actually thirty-four. You’re not the only over achiever here Finley. Fletcher obtained her Master’s at nineteen, but she has worked at this park since she was old enough to carry feed buckets to the animals.”

Well, well, well. Not only eye-catching, but seemingly very quick-witted. “You don’t say. You seem very proud of your daughters, Dr. Bucannan, and rightly so.”

“Yes, I am.” Andrea said. “Now, young lady, why isn’t a beautiful, young woman such as you… married…or at least…attached? Or is the fact that you’re not wearing a ring misleading? ”

Something in Finley’s belly actually fluttered. “I…I…well…I just haven’t met the right woman yet,” she stammered.

The older woman brushed a pine needle from the sleeve of her lab coat. Her eyebrows drew together. “Destiny arrives when we least expect it, Finley.” With that pronouncement, she stood and strode off toward her office.

Finley managed to stifle a groan that threatened to become audible. Her cheeks took on a twinge of color and she ran nervous fingers through her nap of dark hair. “It certainly does…and with someone you hadn’t expected.” She said finally, but only her own ears heard her admission.

The fluttering in her stomach continued for the remainder of the day. However, her conscious attempts to block out any thoughts of her earlier declaration, were only partially successful as Fletcher’s image floated in and out of her thoughts repeatedly throughout the afternoon and long into the evening.



***



Chapters 1 & 2
Chapters 3 & 4
Chapters 5 & 6
Chapters 7 & 8
Chapters 9 & 10
Chapters 11 & 12




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