Fletcher cocked her head to listen to a distant sound. That’s a supped up four-wheeler, and not some teenager out for a bit of brush riding either. She strained again to determine the direction of the sound. Hmm…to the East and within the off limits area. I could swear that’s the same motor I heard on Saturday while on the trail with the Jr. Rangers. Fletcher cupped her ear once more to hear the motor being revved someplace off in the reserve. Either poachers, illegal hunters, or… “Whoever it is, they’re up to no good I wager. What could they be doing this far into the park and so close to this site?” She spoke to the non-responding forest ridge and then turned and looked back up to the overhang.
The park director had exited the cavern several times to study the area to see if there was any feasible place that a base camp could be erected, so that there wouldn’t be such a long or difficult hike to the site.
“This is going to be tougher than first anticipated. No logical or convenient place, and I’ll be darn if I’ll allow any trees or cover to be disturbed for a campsite. That one spot over there would hold one small tent, but other facilities would have to be up on the ridge closer to the fork.”
She climbed back up the embankment and entered the opened end cavern.
“Finley, we need to grab a bite to eat before we head back.”
The paleontologist was busy taking measurements with a small cloth tape she had removed from her pants pocket and didn’t reply.
Fletcher went over to the woman and tapped her on the shoulder, “I said, it’s time to eat something before we start back.”
Finley looked up, but went back to her measurements and entering them into the small notebook sitting on a rock. “I’m not hungry. You go ahead and eat.”
Fletcher turned and picked up her backpack and sat down on the ledge. She unzipped the bag and removed the lunch. After sitting it on the ledge along with a bottle of water, she went over to the paleontologist and placed her hand on Finley’s shoulder again. “I said, we are going to eat something now and start back. Come on, get up.”
The seated woman realized the standing woman’s tone didn’t allow for any debate, so she placed her brush in her breast pocket and laid her pen down on top of the small notebook she had been writing her observations in.
The ranger sat down on the ledge and picked up a sandwich. “Should have made thicker sandwiches or taken more time with the filling,” she said as she pulled open the zip lock bag.
“Right now, any kind of sandwich sounds great,” Finley said, watching Fletcher twist the bottle of water open and hand it to her. “Didn’t realize I was hungry until I smelled the apples.” She accepted the bottle of water and picked up a sandwich. “Looks good.” She stretched her shoulders before she leaned back against the cavern wall as she took a large bite of the sandwich.
“A soft bed wouldn’t come amiss, either. Two days and nights in the woods and not much sleep have these old bones aching.” Fletcher looked around for somewhere to lay her hat and then tossed it on top of the knapsack near her elbow.
The acknowledgment that Fletcher had a few aching muscles of her own cheered Finley immeasurably, because her throbbing heel only added to her aching muscles. She exercised and did martial arts maneuvers often to keep in shape, but she hadn’t keep up with her hiking or running and it was now showing. Suddenly the prospect of a shared picnic lunch with the tall woman sprawled out on the ledge beside her lost its somewhat tense qualities and she started to relax.
“I’m not sure about the order of the menu,” she said. The ranger had divided the provisions in two neat piles. “But at least we should manage to keep body and soul together until we get back to HQ and the new cook’s first meal.”
Finley smiled and unbuttoned a deep shirt pocket, hauling out two granola bars, which she added to the picnic fare. “My contribution. It never hurts to have a few more calories.”
After that, they ate in a contented silence, broken only when a screeching hawk flew past the large opening. “Was that a red-winged hawk?” Finley asked as she bit into the apple.
“This area has several dozen. You recognize him from the similarities of the ones at the refuge?”
“Yes. I’ve grown rather fond of the injured one from the feedings.” Finley laid the apple core down and picked up the granola bar. “You know, this is a very important and valuable find, Fletcher. Now I understand why you were so concerned about the security and safety of this place,” she said softly. “You were prepared for this and I can tell you have some real concerns.”
“That’s putting it mildly. Once this gets out, we’ll have every amateur, and thief in the country tramping and pillaging the park. The destruction to the trees, foliage, rocks and caves will be colossal. They will loot everything that they can get their hands on and there won’t be enough rangers or law enforcement personnel to prevent it.” The tall woman placed the half eaten cake back into the bag and tossed it down. “It was almost out of control when the dinosaur fossil was found a few years back.” She stood up and went to the overhang opening.
“We’ll try and prevent that Fletcher, but it won’t be easy.”
The dark head turned to let her gaze linger on Finley’s face. “Well, it’s not too late to prevent this from getting out of hand. Compliance with the guidelines established with Professor Eckersley will have to be observed completely. You can’t butt heads with me on this Dr. Jorgenson.” There was a decisive bite to her words.
“You mean you aren’t going to let me run the site as I feel best? I thought we agreed on this, Ms. Bucannan, and that we’d work together, with my suggestions being taken into consideration.” The annoyed note was back in her voice.
Fletcher had unzipped her jacket at the remark and was now giving her a clinical look. “I’m willing to compromise on some things, Dr. Jorgenson, but safety and security of not only this site, but the entire park and your person are my foremost responsibility.”
“I don’t envy you any of your accountability, Fletcher, but you have to give me some leeway in this,” she told her, not meeting the dark eyes as she started to put away the wrappings from their sandwiches and granola bars.
“Strict guidelines, and supervision will make this work. Less than complete cooperation isn’t acceptable.” Fletcher said, her voice like granite. “You mean, anything I say will not be tolerated.” The words came out more harshly than she had intended.
“We can discuss the proper course of action together, and your input Finley, but I must have your word you’ll abide by what’s best for every phase of this discovery,” she persisted.
“My god, how could you question my integrity or my willingness to do what’s best…what’s right.” Finley said tersely. The young paleontologist stood up and stared angrily at the tall woman.
Neither said anything for the longest time. Finally the ranger lowered her eyes and motioned to the enclosure. “You want to help me slide the slate back over the stones?” Fletcher walked over and picked up the timber she had used as a lever. “We have a long hike back to the truck and need to get started back.”
“Do I have any choice about going back?” Her hand clinched lightly. Fletcher took a deep breath and replied, “No.”
Her anger escalated as she stomped to the mound and picked up her pen and notepad and rammed them into her inside jacket pocket. She bent down and together they moved the covering back over the mound.
Fletcher glanced around the floor and squatted as she placed all the remnants of their meal back in the knapsack. She waited until Finley picked up her camera and handed it to her before she said mildly, “You aren’t use to the sun here and you might want to put on that sunscreen before we leave.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Finley wanted to tell her that she was far more worried about the blister on her heel. Imagining Fletcher’s reaction to that almost made her burst into tears. Me getting blistered. The whole thing was absurd anyway, she decided. Me getting sunburned is about as absurd as Fletcher’s supervising me on this assignment. The whole thing made as much sense as sending a physical education teacher to guide Sir Edmund Hillary. Then she came back to the present as the ranger’s conversation penetrated.
“There’s nothing ridiculous about it,” she was saying, zipping up the rucksack and tossing it on her shoulder. “Suit yourself about the sunscreen. We’re going back a different way and we need to get going. Right now.”
Fletcher bent over to retrieve her hat so she missed the mutinous expression that came over Finley’s face. Any other approach and she would have meekly agreed. Even if she’d announced that the time in wind or sun was too harsh without protective lotion to make the return hike worth the bother, she would have gone along with the fiction. But that overbearing, dictatorial pronouncement which overruled the slightest objection on her part sent Finley’s common sense flying.
“You can go to hell,” she said just as definitely, leaving little doubt as to where she’d consign Fletcher if she had a choice.
She saw Fletcher’s fingers clench at her side and felt a thrill of satisfaction. Aside from tossing Finley over her shoulder, which was hardly possible on the steep ravine, there wasn’t a damned thing she could do but seethe.
It became abruptly obvious that Fletcher didn’t intend to give her that satisfaction for long. “I don’t anticipate fulfilling your suggestion whatsoever,” she said, her voice sounding as chilly as the wind looming above them on the side of the mountain. “Try and keep up.”
Finley watched her start down the ravine and then found her vision blurred with the tears, which suddenly filled her eyes. She reached up and pulled her hat down more securely in the only gesture of rebelliousness she could make before turning to start in a straight direction in defiance of the ranger’s zigzag trace. Damn! What is wrong with me? She has gone out of her way to be helpful. She said we’d set up something to make the dig earlier accessible for me…Hell; I don’t want to leave the site. I could have slept there and not come down. Damn! Damn! Double Damn! I shouldn’t have snapped at her.
It was on her second step that she committed the cardinal sin of not watching to see where she was going. As she mopped her eyes, she caught her foot on a protruding tree root and promptly sprawled at full length on the rocky terrain.
“Ohhh!” She let out an involuntary shriek, which changed to a painful moan as her rib cage came to rest against a sharp-edged rock and she slid four, or five feet down the embankment. For an instant she lay where she came to rest, still dazed from the impact. Then, even as she began to push herself erect, she felt a strong arm go around her and a familiar voice saying, “Hold still! Don’t try to move until I can see if you’ve done any damage.”
“I think you’ll find the rock’s still in good shape,” she managed, sitting up despite Fletcher’s orders. Thankfully, Fletcher’s clasp didn’t lessen and she leaned against the taller woman shamelessly as she waited for the landscape to stop going up and down.
Then she became conscious of dampness on her pullover and winced as she gingerly felt her ribs. “It feels as if something is wrong somewhere.” Fletcher said something in an explosive undertone and unbuttoned her jacket with firm but gentle fingers, pushing aside her hand in the process.
“You don’t have to do that...” she objected.
“Be quiet.” Fletcher didn’t raise her voice, but there was something in her tone that prevented further argument
After her fingers probed her bare midriff, she finally decided that she had a little dignity left “I’m perfectly all right, I tell you. Nothing hurts when I breathe…” She broke off sharply as her exploring hand touched a painful spot
“Not much it doesn’t,” she said grimly and daubed her handkerchief against the shorter woman’s grazed skin.
“You know what I mean,” she said, wishing she could simply dissolve in tears the way un-liberated females once had a right to do.
Fletcher let out a ragged sigh of relief, which showed that her air of composure was a little thin, too. “You’ve scraped off some of your top layer but it shouldn’t keep you out of a bikini very long. The main thing now is to get you back to the billet and clean you up a bit. Can you manage to walk?”
Finley caught the worried undercurrent and she tacked on a determined smile. “Absolutely. I refuse to be propped against a boulder and abandoned in this place.”
“That’s the girl.” Fletcher left her shirttail hanging outside her belt but she buttoned her blouse and helped her up. “We can sponge off the dirt once we get up the ravine. There is a stream about a half mile down the trail.”
“Exactly whose dirt are ‘we’ sponging off? Your’s or mine?”
“You must be feeling better,” Fletcher said in a resigned tone. “I’m surprised that you’re not still intent on going straight up the ridge instead of zigzagging a little.”
Since the tall woman was steering her firmly, but gently up the slope while she spoke, Finley didn’t bother to rise to the bait. Even the first few steps had shown her that the trip up the rough ravine would take every bit of will power that she could summon.
“When Dr. Eckersley hears about this, I’ll never live it down,” she said, only half-joking. “And you’ll be entitled to ask for a refund on your guided tour.”
Fletcher shot her a quizzical sideways glance and her arm tightened almost imperceptibly around her shoulders. “You’ve already donated a pound of flesh,” she said. “I’m quite satisfied with that.”
The grueling walk back down the trail blurred into one painfully long passage of time. Finley tried to avoid jarring her bruised rib cage, and Fletcher helped by keeping a firm grip on her shoulders and walking alongside whenever the path was wide enough. By then, the blister on her heel felt even more fiery than her midriff, but she managed to keep from limping until they finally got down to the creek after negotiating the steep part of the mountain path.
There was an ominous angle to Fletcher’s law when she led her to a boulder on the bank. “Sit down there,” she said, “and shed that jacket and pullover. After that, you can take off the shoe.”
“It can wait until I get back home,” she began only to have her interrupt brusquely.
“The sooner the dirt’s out of those abrasions the better,” Fletcher announced, getting out her handkerchief again.
Finley’s hands went reluctantly to the buttons of her denim jacket. “What if someone comes along?” she began, knowing she couldn’t very well complain about Fletcher’s presence. Not without having her head taken off. The assured way that she’d pulled up her pullover at the side of the cavern opening showed that she really hadn’t given it a second thought, but the opportunity to needle Fletcher a little by the younger woman just couldn’t be passed up.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake! The sight of a woman in a bra might shock a stray squirrel or two, but frankly I can’t think of anybody else. The sooner we get it cleaned up the faster you can get it back on before you get yourself a real chill.” Fletcher irritation was apparent, not realizing Finley was baiting her again. “You’ll notice that we’ve posted signs to keep hikers off the mountain and the trails within three miles around here, until further notice.”
It’s so easy to get her riled, she mused. But without another word, Finley unbuttoned her jacket while Fletcher dampened her handkerchief in the icy water. Finley moaned when she raised her arms to remove the crewneck, and drew in her breath sharply when the older woman started gently cleansing the scratches on her chest, but then remained motionless until she’d finished.
Her touch was deft and impersonal, as she made sure the abraded skin was clean, finally applying gauze and tape bandages to the two deepest scrapes from the small first aid kit Fletcher always carried in the backpack. It was afterward, when she was reaching across to remove the wet handkerchief from the other side of the smaller woman, that her hand accidentally brushed the gentle curve of Finley’s breast. She gasped audibly and felt her cheeks turn a fiery red. An instant later she was hoping desperately that Fletcher hadn’t noted her reaction. The touch sent a tingling awareness instantly through her body. If Fletcher had the same sensation, it didn’t show.
“Now take off your shoe,” she ordered.
This time, she knew better than to protest and meekly accepted the handkerchief after she’d bathed her blistered heel in the stream.
The park director watched with narrowed eyes while Finley fashioned a pad from it inside her shoe and then helped her on with her pullover and jacket. When the blue-eyed woman fumbled with the denim’s buttons, Fletcher made an annoyed sound and pushed her hand aside to finish the job herself. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking, and, after sneaking an upward look, Finley hurriedly lowered her own glance once again.
After that, there was no more discussion until they finally reached the parked SUV at the old man’s cabin considerably later that afternoon.
Fletcher helped the smaller woman into the passenger side of the park SUV and shut the door. It had taken twice as long to get down the trail with the injured woman and she needed to get call Maggie to come look at her. She opened the back of the vehicle and tossed in the backpack and slammed the door. Upon rounding the corner of the SUV, Fletcher stopped abruptly. There on the ground, running off to the side of the brush was a red substance, which Fletcher immediately squatted and placed her fingers in lifted to her nose and smelled. “That’s brake fluid.” She wiped her fingers on the gravel and bent down to look under the vehicle. Her eyes followed the flow and watched as a drop of fluid slowly dropped to the ground.
“Must have run over something.” She took off her jacket, and utility belt and tossed them on the front seat of the SUV. “Going to be a short delay. I have to tape a leak in the brake line before we go. I’m going to pull up a few feet so I don’t have to lay in the fluid.” She said to Finley.
“How did you get a leak…never mind. Do you need any help?”
“Must’ve run over something. Thanks, but you stay put. I carry a roll of tape, and can of fluid in the boot. It’ll only take me a couple of minutes. Need to wipe off the access fluid and tape it fast. It should hold until we get down the mountain.” She closed the door gently and went to the back again.
A few minutes later, Fletcher scooted from under the vehicle and stood and brushed the back of her pants and backside before she went around to the other side of the vehicle and opened the passenger door. “Would you mind brushing my back off, I don’t need all that gravel on the seat.”
“Certainly, turn around please…you need to bend down a little,” she said and Fletcher turned and squatted down with her back to the seated woman.
“The tape work?” Finley asked, removing two twigs from Fletcher’s hair.
“Won’t know until I put some brake fluid in and check the leak.” She stood up. “Thanks.” She said and went around to the hood. “Sorry to ask you to get out with the ribs that way, but I’ll need you to push on the brakes while I put in some fluid,” she called to Finley.
“No problem, give me a second,” she swung her legs out of the vehicle, taking a deep breath as the hit the ground. Walking to the other side wasn’t as painful as coming down the steep path, but a pain shot from her side as she pressed on the brake peddle.
“Hold it down just a minute longer, please. I need to recap it before you let up on the brake.” Fletcher twisted the cap back into place. That was a strange hole in the brake line. Must’ve been a nail or piece of metal I picked up. Glad I spied the fluid. Going down the mountain and curves could have been disastrous. “Okay, pump the brakes a few times and let me see if the temporary repair job will hold.” She said to Finley as she dropped to the ground to look at the repair. “Okay, pump it a couple of times and hold it down,” she called, keeping her eyes on the taped area.
Satisfied with the patch, she helped Finley out of the vehicle and back around to her side. Fletcher drove down the winding road at a slow speed, and the trip back to her house, which was considerable closer than the park office. In route, she called Maggie to meet her at her house to check out Finley, over the smaller woman’s objections.
“You’re going to be checked out, and my place is closer. Besides, I don’t trust the brake line. I’d hate to have the brakes fail going down these twists and turns.” She said looking over at Finley. “There is nothing but ravines and gullies on both sides of the highway. Better we get another vehicle before we go on to park headquarters.” She turned back to watch the road and spoke into the cell phone.
“It’s six-fifteen Fletcher, and I’m at the Dojo with the boys. I’ll ask Preston if he can drop them off at your house when they are finished, or I can wait until they do if this isn’t an emergency?”
“You probably need to ask Preston to drop them by the house. She took a pretty bad fall and hit her ribs on a jazzed rock. Lost a lot of skin, but I think she has some rib problem. She keeps insisting she’s okay, but the house is closer,” exclaimed her sister. “Besides that, the brakes aren’t working all that good and I don’t want to rely on them. I’ll get the park maintenance to bring me another vehicle while they tow mine in for repair.”
“Okay Sis, I’ll see you in about half an hour, and Fletcher, drive carefully” Maggie said as she leaned over and talked to Preston who watching his girls go through their hand-to-hand opponents. “I’ll be happy to swing them by. I’ll bring McDonnell’s for supper, if that’s okay?”
“Better make it pizza, and three large ones at that, no anchovies.” She smiled.
“Would one veggie pizza be allowed?” His lips twitched into a smile.
“Only if you’re willing to share with me,” she replied.
“My pleasure, see you about seven thirty,” he said, a contented sigh passed as he watched Maggie leave floor of the dojo. When the tall doctor reached the door, she turned and smiled at the sitting pharmacist. “Man, life is getting better and better.” He grinned and glanced from one mat to the other to see what his young daughters were doing, then quickly located Calvin and Devlin on the far side of the room as they attempted to throw each other.
Fifty miles away, a burley woman sat on a bar stool and ordered her third beer. She picked up the bottle and headed to a back dark booth as Jacqueline Boudreaux entered the tavern and motioned for her to join her.
“You want a beer, Ms. Boudreaux?”
“No, I don’t have the time and I need to be in Rochester tonight. You called and wanted to talk to me?” She looked around the tavern and was pleased she didn’t recognize anyone. “I told you I don’t want us seen together, unless, you’re ready to be paid.”
“Now don’t go ballistic on me, foxy lady. I ain’t never been in this bar before and I’m sure no one knows me, much less someone like you.” She guzzled several times before she sat the bottle down. “As for my pay…well, we need to wait until the news comes on in about five minutes.” Chris Connor leaned forward over the table and whispered.
“Can’t never tell, there might be report of a bad accident over at the park.” She winked and drank the remainder of the beer before she sat down the bottle.
“In that case, I’ll have a glass of wine…that is, if they know what that is in this…establishment,” she stuck her hand up to catch the eye of the barmaid that was wiping down the other end of the bar. “Be right there,” the woman called.
Jacqueline looked back at Chris, “You say there might be an acci….” She was interrupted by a tall, rather heavy, unshaven man and never got to finish her sentence
“Hello there sugar, how’s about you and I do a little twirl around the dance floor.” Somehow it didn’t come out like a request as he reached for Jacqueline’s arm and pulled her from the booth.
“Take your hands off her, you sack of …” Chris stood up only to be pushed back into the booth by his free hand.
“Once around the dance floor with my arms around you and you won’t want that dyke to even drink with you.” He started dragging the arm, to only be swung around to have his nose meet the flat portion of Jacqueline’s hand in a straight Karate jab. He released his hold on her arm and grabbed his blood gushing nose. “What the hell…” But he never got to finish his sentence either, as a chop to the side of the neck put his lights out and he sank like a sack of potatoes to the floor.
“You okay Lady?” The bartender came rushing over with a baseball bat in his hand.
“I’m fine.” Jacqueline reached over and removed his bar towel from around his neck and wiped her hands off, then tossed the towel onto the table. “My friend and I were just leaving.” She said as she tossed a bill on the table and motioned for Chris to get up.
“Don’t you want me to call the cops? He was way out of line,” the bartender looked down at the unconscious patron.
“No cops, if it’s all the same to you. Just throw his greasy butt out into the back alley and forget about it.” Her tone never changed and she walked pass the head scratching man and out the front door.
“Don’t ever expect me to meet you at some bar again, Connor. You’ll have to pick someplace where we won’t be notice. There is a diner up on Route 178 on the way to Rochester called Pancake Palace, we’ll met there from now on.”
“Sure Jackie, I didn’t….damn you sure surprised the hell out of me. I never figured you for one of those martial arts dames. You dropped him like he was nothing.” She opened the door of the sports car for her employer.
“Don’t call me Jackie and call me on my cell phone when you find out about your mishap, if there is one.” She pulled the door shut and drove away, leaving the burley woman staring at the speeding vehicle.
“Whoa Nellie, that is one spicy woman. I bet she is one hot mama in bed.” Connor turned and crossed the street to her truck knowing she’d never find out if Jacqueline Boudreaux was pleasurable or not.
“I told you I’m okay,” Finley stated earnestly at the Fletcher’s offer to help her up the steps to her home.
The ranger unlocked her front door, pushed it open and stepped aside for the smaller woman to enter. “Best go into the bedroom so Maggie can examine you in private. It’s straight ahead, down the hall and first door on the right.”
Just before she reached the door, Finley turned and attempted to retrace her steps to the handrail. “Where in the hell do you think you’re going?” quickly left Fletcher’s mouth.
Finley didn’t mind Fletcher’s clipped words and was relieved she’d finally reached the porch, which she realized she needed to catch hold of before she fell. “I’m going to the banister, that’s where.” Finley wished that she had enough strength to turn and stride off the porch alone after her declaration but she knew that she’d founder right there in the middle of Bucannan’s veranda if she tried it. Fletcher knew it too. For an instant she thought the ranger was going to call her back. Then her expression softened as she relented. “Okay…couch it is.”
The tall woman kept her arm around Finley’s waist as she led her through the entranceway. Fletcher’s casual air disappeared as soon as they got inside the door of the stone house. She took one look at Finley’s pale exhausted face and swept her up in her arms.
When Finley opened her eyes again, she was lying on a large bed in what she assumed was the master bedroom. Her jacket, boots and socks had been removed and she was covered by a large afghan. Fletcher had disappeared, but when she started to sit up, she reappeared with a basin of hot water and a glass of juice. “Lie still, Maggie will be here shortly.”
“I need to use the bathroom.” The smaller woman uttered flatly.
“I’ll help you,” Fletcher sat the basin and glass down on the nightstand.
“I think I can make it by…”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, just like the front porch. Here,” she reached under the seated woman and lifted her as if she was a feather and carried her into the bathroom and sat her down on the seat. “You can use the cabinet to lean against if you need…never mind.” She gently pulled the woman to her feet. With one arm around her waist, she jerked the snap loose and unzipped the jeans before Finley could object. “Hold on to the cabinet, while I get them down,” she said not looking up.” A moment later the jeans were down on her feet and Fletcher had pulled the briefs down to the woman’s knees and gently sat her back on the seat.
Fletcher turned, took a couple of steps and removed the robe on the back of the bathroom door. “Try and take off your pullover and put on the robe when you’re finished. I’ll be back in a minute.” She walked back and laid the robe on the basin next to the seated woman, then turned and pulled the door shut as she left.
That was so humiliating. “Ohh,” she moaned as she pulled the crewneck over her head. Something sure doesn’t feel right. Think I did more than just scrape my skin. She clutched the cabinet to steady herself.
When they returned to the bedroom, a fresh pair of pajamas was laying across the foot of the bed. “You can put those on after the Doc looks at you, but until then just keep on the robe and lay down. I’ll cover you up…” The doorbell interrupted her and she smiled down at Finley as she tossed the afghan back over her. “That’ll be Maggie. You stay put and I’ll let her in.”
Finley could hear her greeting her sister and them coming down the long hallway to the room. Maggie’s head appeared around the door opening, “You decent and may I come in?” Although it was a courtesy question, she entered the room before Finley could answer and sat her black bag down next to the basin of water on the oversized nightstand.
“I’ve always been decent, but my morals slip one in awhile,” she said amiably.
“Hah, that’s a good sign when you keep your sense of humor,” she sat down gently on the bed beside Finley. “So, you decided to test out the compactness of our rock formations?” Reaching into her bag, Maggie removed the stethoscope.
“Here, let Fletcher and I prop you up against the headboard.” No sooner than she said the words until the tall woman was on the middle of the bed helping Finley back against the headboard. “Thanks Fletcher, you can wait in the kitchen. Might need to set out some glasses and plates, Preston is bringing the boys and pizza.” She smiled at her sister who hadn’t moved from the bed. Maggie cocked her head; “I don’t need you anymore Fletcher Lela, and put on a pot of coffee, if you don’t mind.”
The park director looked at her sister then back to her guest before she scampered off the bed. “Sure. Coffee okay with you Finley, or would you prefer a soda?” The ranger asked with a worried frown.
“A glass of water would be fine.”
The tall woman turned and started through the door. “Close it please, Fletcher.” Maggie said.
Fletcher stopped, reached over for the knob and pulled it shut without saying a word or looking back.
“Open the robe young lady, and let me examine the damage.” Maggie helped her remove the robe then pulled a pair of gloves from a box inside her bag and began putting them on as she looked at the temporary makeshift bandage her sister had placed there earlier. “It may sting when I remove this tape,” she paused, and then removed on long length of tape with a quick pull.
The smaller body flinched, as she shut her eyes, but Finley suppressed any sound of discomfort. Maggie went about her tasks quickly, but as gently as she could.
“Doesn’t feel like any ribs are broken, but there might be a couple of them with hairline fractures. I’ll need to do x-rays to make sure of that…does this hurt when I push on it,” she asked, moving her fingers in a couple of areas of the young woman’s rib cage.
“Only when you touch it.” Finley attempted humor, but failed when she let out a large “Ouch,” when Maggie pressed beside one rib.
“You possibly have some torn cartilage, some bruised ribs, perhaps more than that, but I can’t be sure without x-rays. You need to come into town and we’ll do it at my office, or I can get Fletcher to take you to the emergency room?”
“Do you think we could wait until morning and let Fletcher bring me into your office. I don’t want to spend the rest of the night in some emergency room.”
“Well, I can clean the areas with the gouges, you won’t need stitches but you are going to be one sore young lady. I’ll clean the scrapes and give you a shot to make you comfortable, but I want to see you the first thing in the morning.”
“Thanks Maggie. Do you think it would be ok for me to go on back to the billet?”
“If you’re going to do that, then you need to come on in to the office and let me x-ray you. A little moving around is ok, but it’s forty-five minutes to the office and it’s about that back to the park quarters. I’m sure Fletcher can put you up here tonight.” She said as she worked on cleaning up, and applying proper medication to the injured side and finally re-bandaged the area. “I’m going to wrap the ribs for you. May be a little painful but it’ll help you breathe better. The rest of those scratches shouldn’t bleed so there’s no need to bandage them. I’ll take care of your heel after you’ve gotten into the pajamas.” Maggie paused as she put her instruments back into the bag. “Can you manage okay?” She turned around and grabbed the pajamas and laid them on the bed beside Finley, then stood up.
“I think so,” she took a deep breath and slowly swung her legs off the bed. Her bra fastened in front and was quickly off and dropped to the floor, being replaced by an oversized pajama top. The sleeves dropped passed her hand and had to be rolled up. She breathed heavy as she stepped into the pajamas. Maggie stepped in closer and extended her arm around the shoulder of the injured woman. “Thanks, Maggie. I feel like such a baby. I’ve never gotten hurt while hiking before.”
“Think nothing of it, Finley. Happens all the time here. Now let me look at that heel….ahh someone had a wrinkle in their sock.”
“Well your sister walks ninety to nothing and I didn’t notice it until it was too late.”
Maggie laughed. “Yeah, she can keep a grueling pace sometimes.” She finished with the blister and removed her gloves. “It’ll be healed long before your ribs.” She smiled.
“Thank you Maggie.”
“My pleasure. Hey, I hear the troops, you want to join us in the kitchen for pizza?” Maggie closed her bag.
“I’m hungry, but I’m not sure I can make the….”
“You sit right there, and put on the robe, I’ll ask Preston and Fletcher to help you to the table. Some hot greasy pizza will give you strength,” she laughed.
“Huh, Maggie I need to make a phone call to cancel an engagement this evening, can you give me a few minutes before you send them in?”
“Sure, you need a phone book?”
“No, but could you please hand me my jeans there on the chair.” She pointed to the neatly folded stack of clothes.
Maggie picked up the jeans and handed them to Finley. “I’ll send them for you in a few minutes.” She said and left the room.
“Thanks.” Finley unfolded the slip of paper from her pocket and reached for the phone.
“Hello Lira,” she said as the phone was answered on the first ring.
The twins keep eyeing Finley as they all sat around the table eating and talking. Devlin couldn’t stand it any longer and blurted out, “Are you Aunt Fletcher’s new girlfriend?”
The tall ranger almost choked on the pizza she was chewing. Finley was more composed and finished chewing and swallowed before she answered. “No, I’m not.” Finley smiled at the starring youngster, then picked up her glass and drank heavily before returning it to the table.
“You’ll have to excuse my boys, they aren’t usually so ill-mannered. Boys, Finley is a paleontologist who is here checking out some of the parks rocks, and so forth.”
“But she’d got on Aunt Fletcher’s pajamas and robe,” Calvin pointed to the unexpected guest.
“Our visitor has only been here for three days and had an accident on one of the trails and banged up a couple of ribs. Her top was ruined, she need something to wear. Now, be nice and mind your manners.” She looked at Preston who had a grin on his face.
“What’s a pay…what’s a paleontologists Daddy?” Joanie asked her father, who immediately stuttered. “Uh, she’s…well, why don’t you ask, Dr. Jorgensen to explain it?”
All four of the youngsters turned to look at the eating visitor and waited for an answer.
Finley looked around the table and realized she was expected to respond.
She looked down at the youngest of the pharmacists girls and asked,
“Your name is?”
“I’m Joanie and that’s my sister Janie. She’s older than me, but only by a year and two months.
“I see. Well Joanie, a paleontologist is someone that excavates and studies fossils”
“Fossils are stuff in rocks, glaziers and such, of ancient plants and animals.” Calvin beamed at knowing the definition of fossils.
“That’s a good definition Calvin, but actually, a fossil is defined as any trace of a past life form. Thus, although wood, bones, and shells are the most common fossils, under certain conditions soft tissues, tracks and trails, and even coprolites or fossil feces may be preserved as fossils.
“Fossil feces?” Janie asked, puzzled by the twins scrunched up faces.
“Poop, Janie. Feces is dung, you know, manure of any kind.” Devlin offered and stuff his mouth full of pizza.
Ugh!” Both the girls said together. “You study poop?” Joanie gazed at the young woman dressed in Fletcher’s clothes.
“Sometimes, if it’s fossil dung, but I really prefer bones.” She laughed.
“You like studying bones?” One of the girl’s eyes popped open at the idea.
“I have loved studying bones since I was old enough to trace their outlines in the stone and rocks my parents uncovered.”
“Do the bones have to be old ones, Dr. Jorgensen?” Joanie asked as she placed her hand on the young woman’s arm sitting next to her. “There are some really white ones down at the lake but Aunt Fletcher told me they were deer remains.”
Finley placed her hand over the small one. “Well, yes and no. Although most of the fossils that paleontologists study are several thousands to several billions of years old, there is no absolute minimum age for a biological structure to be a fossil.”
“Golly, that’s old,” Janie shook her head in amazement.
“Actually Janie, by convention, remains must be at least 10,000 years old to be considered fossils. In North America, at least, that means there is very little overlap between the sites and materials that are studied by paleontologists and by archaeologists. A site which produces 11,000 year old mammoth bones, for instance there are several in Nebraska, and you had one here in the park a few years ago, is considered very ancient by archaeologists, but very young by paleontologists.
“Yeah, it’s really old, but why do you study bones, Dr. Jorgensen?” Devlin tore off a slice of pepperoni with his fingers and placed it in his mouth.
“Paleontologists study these fossils and attempt to use them to reconstruct the history of the Earth and the life on it. Some study the ecology of the past; others work on the evolution of fossils. You know, how things came to be as they presently are.”
“Just like people.” Calvin looked over at his Aunt who hadn’t said anything but he could tell she was listening attentively to what her young guest was saying.
“I think she means dinosaurs and such died out and other things came into being, like how the present day dog use to look differently.” Devlin added.
“Usually, paleontology does not concern itself with human remains, artifacts or cultures; these are the realms of archaeology and anthropology fellows.” Finley reached for another piece of the pizza. “To answer your question better, I study bones because they are very fascinating and can tell you about things of the past. I really like dealing with vertebrate paleontology.” She smiled at the youngsters at the table, “Vertebrate paleontology means specializes or deals with the remains of the “back-boned” animals such as mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, and, of course, dinosaurs.”
The look on the children’s face was interesting, and attentive at the guest’s remarks and explanations.
“Perhaps Dr. Jorgensen can tell you about some of the bones she worked with at the museum in New York.” Preston got up and picked up the coffee pot, brought it back to the table and filled all the cups extended to him.
“I’d be happy to at another time, but I’m really interested in this Jr. Ranger program and the Endangered Species Program you have here at the park.” She looked directly at Fletcher who was tickling Devlin under the table.
“What?” Fletcher jumped at Maggie telling her to pay attention and stop aggravating her nephew.
“What about this wolf program you have going here, Ms. Bucannan.” Finley’s eyebrow rose. “Did she tell you we saw the gray wolf earlier today?” She asked the Jr. Rangers.
“Whew, he sure is a beautiful fellow isn’t he Dr. Jorgensen?” Janie asked.
“Yes, and I noticed he had a tracking collar on. Do all the bigger animals in the park get beeping collars?”
“No ma’am, just the endangered ones in the special program,” Joanie smiled up at the young paleontologist. “Right Chief,” the child turned towards Fletcher.
“That’s right Joanie, just the ones on the program, or those that have to be kept track of for one reason or the other.”
“How does that collar thing work?” Finley picked the mushrooms from the pizza and laid them on the plate.
“Small transmitters on the collars emit signals, which are heard, through electronic receivers as beeps, on distinct frequencies. Each radio collar emits a signal on a distinct frequency, which allows biologists; such as Lira to determine which animal they are tracking. Special receivers are used which scan a range of frequencies during radio tracking flights. When a signal is heard, the scanner is stopped on that frequency and the receiver begins tracking towards the animal. As the receiver gets closer to the radio-collared animal, the signal becomes louder. Once the wolf or other animal is observed, we record information such as the number and colors of wolves present, the location, the behavior, vegetation, terrain, and any other interesting details. The wolves are not always observed. Factors such as vegetation, mottled snow cover, and wind turbulence may prevent the observer team from observing the animal or animals.” She finished the explanation and took a bite of the breadstick she was holding in her hand.
“We keep a list of all the animals we come across when we are out on one of our trips.” Devlin piped in.
“Yeah, we spotted over thirty this past weekend, and Dr. Lira was all excited because we located three that hadn’t been spotted in over a month.” Janie beamed.
“Sounds like your field trips are really exciting and beneficial.” Finley encouraged the youngsters at the table. “Those records must be priceless to the Program?”
“Aunt Fletcher thinks so and so does everyone involved with the endangered program.” Calvin added, then asked if he could have more juice. Janie and Joanie held up their glasses for more juice also, but Devlin shook his head when container was offered to him.
“We know all about the animals Dr. Jorgensen, but I want to hear about the museum.” Janie wiped her mouth with her napkin as she gazed at the young visitor.
“Do you know what a museum really is? Yes? ”
“Yes Ma’am, its where daddy takes us to see all the displays and watch the activities.” The little girl looked over to her father and smiled.
“Well, there is a good chance that your answer is only partially correct. Few people realize that, in addition to the exhibits and educational programs they see at the Museum of Natural History in New York, for example, there are vast research collections consisting of thousands of specimens and their documentation. These are not fossils in storage or extras. Scientists from around the world are actively studying these specimens. Such collections are the basis for everything we know about the history of life. Though less visible to the public, research collections fulfill one of the most important roles of the Museum. Properly documented fossils are never “extras”; each and every one can tell us something new.” Finley voice was warm and pleasant to listen to as she broke a bread stick into and dipped it into the spicy sauce.
“Whow, the fossils are studied like Dr. Lira studies all the information on the animals and their collars.” Devlin grabbed the last bread stick from his brother and his mother made him give it back.
“Don’t do that again, Dev or you’ll be sent from the table.”
“Oh Mom, he didn’t want it.”
“Did too,” his brother piped in.
“Okay, okay, cut it out and finish up. We have to get going, its pretty close to bedtime and you boys have to get a bath.”
“Actually, you guys stink.” Their aunt said moving her chair away from one, then moved it back to avoid the other.
“We do not Aunt Fletcher,” they said together.
“Phew, you two smell like two hogs in a wallow of mud on a hot summer day.” She stood up and removed her plate and glass.
“Well, if we smell like hogs, then what do Janie and Joanie smell like?” Calvin’s hand waved in the direction of the girls.
“Why they smell like sweet little roses that have been sprinkled with the morning dew.” Fletcher moved to the back of the girls and kissed them both on the head as she went past them to the coffee pot. “Anyone want fresh coffee?”
“None for me sis, we need to get going.”
“Me neither, Fletcher, by the time I get the girls home and they bathe, it will be past their bedtime.” He stood up and removed his plate and cup.
Fletcher turned towards Finley with a questioning look.
“Nope, none for me. I’m stuffed. Thanks for the dinner Preston. Maybe you’ll allow me to take all of you out while I’m here to thank you.” Finley said.
“You can take us out, but be warned, these kid’s will cost you a bundle.” Preston chuckled, removing both plates from his daughters and stacking them in the dishwasher beside his.
“We’ll see you in the morning Finley. Fletcher, can you have her at the office at 8:30 and I’ll see her first?”
“Sure, no problem,” the tall ranger leaned back against the counter. “Thanks for the pizza Preston.”
“My pleasure buddy.” He hugged the tall woman.
“I’ll see you all out,” she walked ahead, then turned. “I’ll be back in a minute to help you back to the bedroom, Finley.”
“No hurry,” she said sipping the last of her brew. She certainly has a nice family. Have to admit, she really loves those nephews, and seems to think the world of Preston’s little girls. Finley wiped her mouth and placed the paper napkin in her plate. Wonder if I can stand up by myself and put this dish in the machine? But no sooner had she attempted to stand then Fletcher appeared in the doorway.
“What are you trying to do? I told you I’d be right back to help you.”
“I…I was only…Oh, hell!” She swallowed her pride and continued to explain. “I was going to put my plate and fork away.”
“I’ll do it, you stay put.” She picked up the plate, fork and glass after rinsing them off, she placed them in the dishwasher.
“You don’t have to wait on me.” Finley puffed up abruptly.
“Finley, please be quiet” She didn’t raise her voice, but there was something in her tone that prevented further argument from the seated woman.
“Thank you for helping me today and getting your sister to come out here to check me over.”
“You’re most welcome. This little delay will probably be best. I’m going to call the old Medicine’s Man’s family and see if I can go up and see him. His cabin would probably make a good place to set up temporary site and living facilities for you.” The tall woman leaned back against the counter again and gazed directly at the seated woman. “Are you feeling any better?”
“Yes, I’ll be alright. Just some bruised ribs, but Maggie insisted on X-rays to make sure.” She only gave Fletcher the briefest of nods and dropped her eyes. “It will be a good hike every day, and I’d prefer to camp at the site.” She stated, never looking up.
The way that Fletcher’s eyes narrowed showed that she recognized Finley’s evasiveness. “You won’t be able for a hike like that for several days, possibly a week…you...”
“What, you conceited…”
“Forget it! You don’t have to worry. I observe all of the rules…and they don’t include seducing an unwilling guest no matter why she’s taken my bed over.”
Fletcher's quick change of subject made Finley frown in sudden confusion. I don’t think so Ms. Snug, opinioned. Seduce me…I think not. “I have you know I’m perfectly capable of...”
“Getting to bed by yourself,” she finished for her. “I wish to Sky Mother that you’d drag your mind to another subject. Frankly. I think it’s time that we stopped playing games and started leveling with each other.”
She felt a stab of apprehension that was as painful as her bruised ribs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not the least bit interest in you. And that my tall, proud one, is the truth.”
“As far as it goes.” Fletcher drug out a chair and swung her legs over the seat and rested her hands on the back of the chair. “Maybe you haven’t felt anything since we’ve been together, but I doubt it.”
Finley’s eyebrows drew together in an ominous line. “I hope you had fun with your cat and mouse tactics. Was it necessary for you to come on quite so strong?”
The ranger’s mouth tightened. “I just followed the role that you’d allotted me.” She got to her feet as she went on. She leaned over to take the empty glass from her unresisting fingers and put it on the kitchen counter. “I can assure you that playing some deity or pretending we don’t like each other, or even resisting your obvious attraction to me isn’t my idea of how to spend our time together.”
Her brusque statement was all she needed to cap the terrible afternoon. “I’m sorry that you’ve been inconvenienced,” she managed, swinging her feet to the side of the chair. “At least, we don’t have to pretend any longer.” By then, she realized that she hadn’t bothered to bring slippers along with her pajamas, nor had she thought to put on her socks. “I’m going to bed now. There’s no reason for you to stand around any longer waiting on me. If you have something else to do, don’t let me keep you from it. I’m assuming you’ll allow me to use the bedroom you put me in?” Fletcher ignored that suggestion completely, merely saying irritably, “My good woman, you can’t walk around barefooted on this cold stone floor.”
“I am not your good woman,” she informed Fletcher, wondering if she’d have to push her out of the way in order to reach the door. Her chin took on a defiant angle. “Frankly, I don’t think even you’re capable of carrying me to the room by yourself, so”-she made an airy brushing motion with her hand…"just move aside.”
There wasn’t time to evade Fletcher’s next move even if she’d known what was going to happen. One moment she was standing in front of her and the next she had simply hoisted her gently against her chest like a four-year-old. She was still rigid with surprise as Fletcher carefully swooped her up in her arms and marched off to the master bedroom.
By the time she gasped, “Stop It! Put me down this minute.” She was in the bedroom. The taller woman put her down unceremoniously on the floor by the edge of the large bed.
Fletcher’s tightened grip around her hips was hers only answer as she released the woman to stand on her own. Finley had the disturbing suspicion that if her rib cage weren’t already bruised, she’d have been tossed over the ranger’s shoulder in true cave-man style.
The tall woman must have had an inkling of Finley’s intentions then, because her hand shot out and caught her wrist on the way up. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” she drawled. “For one thing, I’m bigger and you wouldn’t stand a chance if I decided to hit back. Besides, I was just doing my third good deed for the day.”
By then, Finley was so furious that she had trouble keeping her breathing under control. Fletcher’s grip on her wrist felt like steel, and every nerve end in her body was still pulsing from the close contact on that trip down the hall. She could only hope that her pounding heartbeat wasn’t visible through the thin fabric of the pajama top and robe. “Just go away, will you? If you don’t, I swear I’ll…”
“You’ll what?? The ranger sounded genuinely interested; only the mockery in her eyes gave away her amusement “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. I’ve probably saved you from a case of pneumonia or a miserable cold, at least. Call it self-preservation if you like. After all, we’re going to share the same roof for a while.”
“Will you let go of me,” she hissed, trying to shake off her hold, her clasp loosened slightly but not enough for her to free herself.
“Dr. Eckersley never told me that you had such a nasty temper,” Fletcher went on in a thoughtful tone, as if she’d just uncovered a rare scientific find. "It’s obvious that I don’t seem to be making any headway with a logical approach, so there’s really just one other way.”
Her words were so deliberate that Finley was unprepared for what happened next. Without a waste motion, she was gently pulled against the tall form. When she started to protest her chin was tilted up and secured in a tender but firm grip. Next, Fletcher’s mouth came down softly to cover hers.
At the beginning of that kiss, Finley’s emotions exploded like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. Her last fleeting thought of resistance collapsed as the kiss, which began feather like, deepened. When Fletcher’s arms moved gently over her back, she instinctively let her mold her body against hers.
It was only the need to breathe which made her eventually push away, and she stood clinging to the front of her uniform shirt, her heartbeat sounding like a marathon competitor’s. She finally risked an upward glance when Fletcher stepped back and caringly let her go. There was a tight look on the tall woman’s face…almost as if she regretted what she’d done. Finley recalled the way she’s capitulated and suddenly wished she could disappear on the spot instead of having to think of something inconsequential to say.
As it turned out, she was spared that as Fletcher stared at her just a minute longer, then turned on her heel and started for the door. “I think you’d better get to bed,” she said over her shoulder. “It’s been a hell of a day. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She vanished through the door and down the hall almost before she finished speaking, and a moment later, Finley heard the door to one of the upstairs rooms slam with a decided finality.
For an instant, she stood where she was and let her confused emotions flood over her. Finley had not expected anything about Fletcher to be tender or gentle. She was certainly surprised at the gentleness of the kiss, which was almost as delicate as butterfly wings touching her lips. Then slowly, moving like a mesmerized robot, she got into bed and resolutely closed her eyes. A hell of a day was putting it mildly.
It was a combination of breakfast smells that awakened Finley the next morning.
She gave a pleased murmur and a small stretch, thinking that nothing could top the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee and bacon frying in the pan. Then the events of the previous night came flooding back and she sat upright to stare around her in suspicion, only to gasp and clutch her side. “Damn, that smarts.” Sun was streaming over the cheerful weaved rug on the floor. The early morning tranquility of the stone chalet was apparently undisturbed; only the smell of food below revealed that Fletcher was up and stirring.
She slid carefully over the edge of the mattress and spotted her clothes, washed and neatly folded on the foot of the bed. A new pair of white tube socks lay across the stack, along with a note. ‘Couldn’t get the blood out of yours. Use these, I have dozen’s more.’ “That was thoughtful.” She bent down slowly to look for her boots and found them on the floor next to the clothes.
“Good thing these are pull-ups.” She laughed as she pulled on the socks, which went almost to her knees, and padded over to the window to peer out and was surprised to see snow blanketing the ground. “Dog-gone-it, it wasn’t supposed to snow for two more weeks.” Her forehead pressed against the splattered window, she had to smile. “Oh well, it could be a blizzard and I do love the feel of fresh powder under my ski’s.” She turned and moaned as she clutched her side. “Although, I don’t see me skiing for a few days.”
Finley made her way to the bathroom and found a new toothbrush still in its wrappings. “Guess you think of everything, Fletcher,” the paleontologist pushed up the long pajama sleeves, opened the box and squirted a generous amount of paste on the new brush. After dressing, she walked slowly down the hallway, through the great room and into the kitchen.
“Good morning,” she said from the kitchen doorway.
“Good morning,” Fletcher said. “I hope you slept well, all things considered.”
“Fine. Thanks,” she replied, just as calmly.
“There coffee on the stove if you’d like some. You sit and I’ll pour you a cup.”
“Thank you,” Finley murmured before realizing that she sounded like an ungrateful houseguest. “What’s on the menu?” She walked slowly across and leaned against the counter as she reached for the cup Fletcher extended to her.
“Eggs, bacon, melon and toast. How does that sound?”
“Couldn’t be better,” she sat the cup down and reached to take a loaf of bread from Fletcher. “I’ll manage this while you get cracking on the first course.”
The tall woman couldn’t resist correcting her. “The cracking comes with the eggs. The melon we handle a little differently in this part of the country.”
“I’ll ignore that,” she said, opening the bread and placed four pieces in the toaster. “Any further discussion can be held after we eat.” Finley told her blithely, finding it surprisingly delightful to share the breakfast chores rather than to stare at a bowl of cold cereal the way she usually did.
Fletcher pointed to the cabinet next to where Finley was standing. “You feel up to standing. It’ll only take a few minutes and…”
“I’m a bit sore, but I can handle setting the table.” She opened the cupboard and took two plates from the shelf and turned to observe Fletcher beating the eggs.
Fletcher nodded, and turned on the heat under the frying pan. Finley watched a second longer before moving away to set two places at the breakfast bar. It was evident that Fletcher had been confronted with a kitchen stove and a cookbook sometime during her formative years. Obviously Andrea had taught her daughter her way around a kitchen.
At any rate, she could find no fault with the bacon and cheese omelets, which were served a little later. They both ate in a contented silence, unbroken accept when Fletcher got up to make more toast and refill the coffee cups.
It wasn’t until they were lingering over a third cup and the empty dishes were soaking in the sink that Fletcher pushed back her chair and asked. “Will you be ready to leave for Maggie’s in half an hour?”
“I suppose so. I doubt there will be time to go by the quarters. Thank you for washing my clothes.”
“You’re welcome. Nope, we will have to go directly to town.”
“I noticed the snow, will your brakes be okay for the trip?”
“Maintenance came at five-thirty and swapped out the truck. I’ll take you back to the billet from Maggie’s.” She took another sip of coffee and then pushed the cup away. “I’ll be upstate after that. I called Weahan’s family last night, and he wants to see me prior to allowing the use of his cabin. I should be back by three.” She stood up and removed their cups, and placed them in the soapy water.
“If there is going to be a problem, that heated tent I saw at the warehouse could be placed in that one opening at the base of the overhang and I could stay there.”
“Not a good idea, but we’ll wait until I return.” Fletcher broke off as the telephone on the kitchen wall rang. She went over and lifted the receiver. “This is Bucannan. Yes, she’s here,” she told the caller. Just a minute.” She turned and held out the receiver. “For you,” she said to Finley.
The paleontologists took the extended phone. “Jorgensen here,” she said into the mouthpiece. “Oh, good morning.” Her lips twitched into a smile.
Her words made Fletcher pause in the process of wiping off the jam jar before sitting it back on the table and tossing the dishcloth into the soapy water. She could have sworn that it was Lira on the phone. Shamelessly she eavesdropped on the rest of the conversation.
“No problems, Lira,” Finley went on after a considerable pause. “Fine. Thanks, I’d enjoy that very much.” Her voice was cheerful as she spoke into the receiver, and she continued to listen attentively to the caller. “All right I’ll tell her.” She rose slowly and replaced the receiver on the wall unit.
The tall woman waited for her explanation after she hung up. When Finley simply started putting the jam and butter dish into the refrigerator, humming softly under her breathe, Fletcher couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. “Tell me what?” she asked baldly.
Finley didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Your cook showed up at five this morning. Had a run-in with several of the firefighters about the breakfast schedule. Said your Senior Ranger straightened it out.” The last sentence was tacked on significantly.
“Except there’s a catch to it. Am I right?”
“Well, it seems the cook attempted to throw one of the firefighters through the kitchen wall and ended up in the walk-in cooler on a meat hook with the door locked.”
Fletcher dropped her head to her chest, her eyes closed. “Darn. Guess I should call before we leave.” She started towards the phone.
“Not necessary. You’ve trained your staff very well, Fletcher, your Senior Assistant Kent Dryden handled it and everything is fine now. I’ll go get my jacket.” She slowly left the room chuckling.
“The X-rays show two hairline fractures young lady, and some mild rib cartilage pull. Nothing that won’t heal in a few weeks, but there won’t be any strenuous activities for you, and that includes no long hikes until I see you again.” Maggie expressed conclusively as she pushed the x-rays into the large folder and tossed it on her desk. “Routine walking is okay, but in moderation.”
“You can’t just tape it up so I can go to the site?” Finley looked earnestly at the seated physician.
“Not a chance.” Maggie moved forward and placed her hands on the desk. “Finley, you will be uncomfortable enough as it is with just moderate activities.” Maggie came straight to the point, “And that includes no sock it to me baby, wild and rough sexual escapades.”
Finley flashed a sudden surprising grin. “I’ll keep that in mind should the opportunity arise.”
The physician laughed. “See that you do,” and stood up. “I’ve written a couple of prescriptions that you need to get filled before you go back to the park.” Maggie handed them to Finley.
“Your sister isn’t going to be happy about this.” She walked slowly towards the door.
“Fletcher won’t be overjoyed, but she is a very understanding and accepting individual. She knows that accidents happen.”
“Well, this one was avoidable. I was a little upset with her and wasn’t watching what I was doing.”
“Happens all the time. She can be very irritating at times.” She opened the door for her patient and walked with her down the hall.
“You can say that again.”
Fletcher tossed the magazine back down on the table beside her and stood up when the two women appeared in the waiting room.
“Well, what’s the prognosis?”
“I’ll live.” She said and extended her hand to Maggie. “Our insurance is great and you shouldn’t have any problems with the claim. I’ll call Dr. Eckersley and he’ll notify the proper people. Please have your nurse fax them a copy for their files when she can.”
“It’ll be this afternoon before she has a break, but you go home and take it easy.” Maggie smiled and turned to her sister. “She needs to go by the pharmacy before you take her back.”
“No problem, we can do that, Sis, and thanks.” Fletcher hugged her sister.
Jagged streaks of lightning zigzagged across the darkened sky, followed by the rumble of thunder, as Fletcher drove carefully toward The Adirondacks and home. It had been a long night filled with wrenching emotions, and she was tired. Today hadn’t been much better. The feeling that swept over her was questionable. She couldn’t decide if it was of relief or regret that Finley wasn’t going to be at her home again tonight. She felt as though she’d been put through the proverbial wringer.
That young woman was undeniably sexy, but there was a lot more to her than that. She looked like a cross between a seductress and a saint. Her wide, full mouth that begged to be kissed was at variance with the sweetness of her smile, and her erotic walk belied the childlike innocence that danced in her sparkling eyes.
How was a woman to know whether Finley was angel or witch? “Probably a witch.” Something in Fletcher’s belly actually fluttered. “An undeniably desirable witch.”
The kiss meant nothing and I shouldn’t have kissed her. Not that it made any difference to her, she told herself. She had too much good sense to get involved with her on a personal level. She had a gut feeling that if she did, it could never be anything less than a lifetime commitment on her part, and for Fletcher Bucannan, a longtime relationship was unthinkable.
She flinched, the very thought of a relationship with Finley made her perspire. Her appealing vulnerability tugged at her heart. As she’d lost the battle to hold back the tears, it had taken all the control she could muster not to take the young woman in her arms and hold her, comfort her, offer her anything if she’d just stop being so strong-willed, and let her kiss away the hurt from the injured ribs.
She groaned and muttered an oath. This nonsense had to stop. It was bad enough to be physically attracted to Finley, but that was a natural reaction and only meant she needed a woman. On the other hand, wanting to take care of her, and worse, wanting her to bold and soothe her, was veering into a much more dangerous situation. One that could tie her in knots and bring back all the demons she’d wrestled with for so long.
No way! She wasn’t going to take the chance of walking into that nightmare again.
Buzzzz. Buzzzz. Buzzzz The sound of her car phone brought her out of her thoughts of Finley. “Bucannan here,” she held the phone to her ear.
“Fletcher, are you on your way back to the park?” Her mother asked.
“Yes, Mom, I’m about half an hour out. Why, do you need something?”
“No Darling, I don’t need anything, but you need to come to the park office as soon as you can. We have a situation that needs your attention.”
Fletcher pulled over to the side of the road to continue the call. “Mother, what kind of situation? Has Finley gotten herself into trouble again?”
“No Darling, Finley is the least of your worries at this time. Seems your new cook not only is combative with the men folks, but he patted Trish’s butt earlier today and a little while ago he caught Jamison from behind and fondled her breasts--much to his discomfort. The young ranger laid him out cold. He won’t be walking around comfortably for some time and his voice may be a tat squeaky for several days.”
“What the hell was he thinking? After this morning, you would’ve thought-no I guess he wouldn’t have thought. Damn, his references were impeccable.” She ran her hand through her hair in disgust.
“Maybe we’ve found out early why his references were above reproach. One of the best ways known to get rid of a bad apple is to pawn him off on someone else with high recommendations.”
“Well, he ran amuck when he pawed Jamison. Glad we have a ninety-day probation period for new hires. Does he need to see a physician?”
“I looked him over, his pride is more hurt than anything. I had him to go to his quarters and lie down as he refused to allow Maggie come see him, or have one of the men drive him into town.”
“Okay, Mom, I’m on my way.” She looked at her watch. “Please have Fisher or Able to go over and tell him I’ll see him in my office at four sharp.”
“Able is standing right here. I’ll send him, and you drive carefully, honey it’s still snowing here.”
“I will Mom, but it’s stopped here. The thunder and lightening has picked up, and I can see the rain behind me. The snow isn’t all that bad on the highways now, but it is a little mushy still. I’ll stop by to see you when I get back to the park.” The director replaced the phone in the holder and pulled back onto the highway.
“Well this has been a really disappointing day. First Weahan’s granddaughter comes into his room and hands me a copy of a fifty year old deed to twelve acres, which encompass the overhang and half a mile of trail the park has used without permission, and that we were trespassing on the site as well, then this.” The tall woman sighed and slowed down as two deer jumped onto the highway and took off down the ravine on the other side.
CRACK! A shot rang out. The vehicle swerved back and forth on the highway. Only Fletcher’s skill brought the truck to a stop on the slippery road.
The Park Director scooted out of the vehicle on the passenger side. Standing behind the passenger side, her eyes surveyed the area where she thought the shot had come. “Hunting season isn’t for two more weeks, and definitely not in this area,” she frowned. Not spotting anything with her natural eye, she reached into the vehicle and pulled out her binoculars. At that instance, she heard the familiar sounds of a four-wheeler start up and take off. She scanned the area with the glasses, but spotted nothing. “That sounds like the same all purpose terrain vehicle that I’ve heard several times before,” she tossed the binoculars back onto the seat. “Someone is up too no good.”
Going around to the front of the SUV she exhaled slowly, for the right wheel was only inches from the gully and a shear hundred-foot drop to the bottom. “Phew!” She shook her head and squatted down to examine the mostly disintegrated tire. “That was close.” Her heart pounded as she realized how close she came to death.
After examination the wheel, she reentered the truck from the passenger side and slowly backed the SUV away from the side of the road and onto the shoulder of the road on the opposite side of the highway. Fletcher turned off the motor and sat there momentarily with her eyes closed. Thank you Sky Mother for watching over me today. The tall ranger eventually got out to change the tire, but scanned the area as she went to the back of the SUV.
Before replacing the jack in the back of the truck, she looked around the area several times as she had done while working on the wheel. “Either someone is hunting out of season, target practicing, or that shot was meant for me.” Fletcher scanned the area once more before she tossed the jack and tire tool into the back with the damaged rim and closed the back of the vehicle.
At the park, Andrea was approached about filling the temporary duties again as cook. The veterinarian made it clear she would fill in only if her fiend Ruth would come out and assist her until a replacement could be found. Fletcher consented and Ruth was called and agreed to assist Andrea. With those arrangements behind her she hugged her mother and pulled on her rain-cape and headed for her office.
She didn’t tell her mother about the blown out tire or the gunshot. No use in worrying her needlessly, especially if it was an accident. Two vehicle mishaps in two days… was it coincidence or premeditated? Fletcher scratched her head as she pondered the last thought and directed the maintenance crew not to let word of either incident get beyond their shop and her office. Her brakes on her first SUV was still being repaired, so maintenance took the swap vehicle and replaced the flat and had it back in front of her office within half the hour.
She placed several calls to employment agencies, and notified the State Park Services Main Personnel Office to re-post the position for cook for the park. Trish and Jamison both told her the same story and refused to work with the man, or be around him. Several of the men from earlier this morning were in her office waiting for Trish and Jamison to leave before they came in together to state their grievances about the new cook.
The park had always been a great place to work. The atmosphere was friendly and everyone watched out for his or her fellow workers. That’s the way Fletcher liked it and that was how it was going to remain. There was no room for a maladjusted, discontented troublemaker.
The tall cook didn’t take his dismissal well, and his voice strident in protest as he stood up and threatened Fletcher.
The tall woman eased out of her seat and stepped around the corner of the desk. “Fellow, I’ve had a lousy couple of days. I’m not in the mood for any more crap. You need to know that Jamison is a first-degree black belt, whereas, I’m a third degree black belt, as well as her teacher. So, I suggest unless you want me to kick your sorry ass all over this office, and the parking lot outside, you’ll get your things and get off park property within the hour. You’re lucky neither of the women want to bother with sexual assault charges. However, if you so much as step foot in The Adirondacks again, I’ll be the one pressing the charges.”
He was off the property within ten minutes. Fletcher had called the local sheriff and a squad car followed him all the way to the county line. The park was now in search of a new cook.
“This day just keeps getting better and better,” Fletcher sighed as she left her office and climbed into the truck. “Yep, another glorious day,” she expounded and headed towards her home. Lira waved to her as she passed at the park entrance. Fletcher waved back. “Ah-hah! Finley’s date for the evening.” The woman squirmed in her seat. Damn! What the heck do I care?
This day just keeps getting better and better. She stepped on the gas and the SUV fishtailed as she entered the highway. I don’t care what she does or who she sees. Good Lord, was it possible that she was jealous because she wanted Finley for herself? “Yeah, right!” She gritted her teeth, jerked her hat off and slammed it on the seat next to her.
On the stroke of six-thirty, she heard a soft knock on the door. When Finley opened the door, she found Dr. Lira Hayes looking smashing in an emerald pantsuit. She didn’t even try to hide the wide smile of welcome that lit her face as she open wide the door for her.
“You’re right on time, Dr. Hayes. Please, come in.”
Her answering smile was as bright as her own. “Lira, please.” She said, as Finley led her into the sitting area of her quarters.”
“Lira it is,” she said happily. “Can I fix you a drink? I only have bourbon.”
Lira glanced at her watch. “I wish we had time, but I made reservations at The Troll’s Inn for seven o’clock and it’s out on the old valley road.”
“Then we’d better get started,” she said.
With true chivalrous courtesy Lira helped the injured woman into her Dodge Durango. It was too dark to tell whether it was maroon or burgundy, but the leather upholstery was cream, as was the carpet. When she got in and started the motor, they were surrounded with classical music from the CD player.
Finley leaned back in the contoured seat and sighed. “I love your taste in cars and music,” she said. “My dream was to own a candy-apple red Cherokee Jeep with a CD player and four blaring speakers.”
Hayes chuckled. “Dream on, Lady,” she said gently. “You can’t accomplish big things unless you dream big dreams. Besides, that’s a pretty, snazzy Bentley you’re driving Finley, even if it isn’t red.”
She turned her head to look at the biologist. “My grandmother’s choice of car and color. Red was never an option with her.” She smiled. “Do you dream big dreams?” Her voice was whispery.
She thought her shoulders slumped just a little. “Not anymore.” Her tone had somewhat of a hard edge. “I just concentrate on getting through one day at a time.”
She sounded so sad that before she could stop herself she put her hand on her date’s arm. “Lira? Is something wrong?”
Immediately she was contrite. She had no business prying into her personal problems, but before she could snatch her hand away, Lira reached over and put her hand on top of it, holding it against her. “I’m sorry,” she said, and glanced over at her. “I didn’t mean to sound so down. I only meant that as you grow older you learn to compromise and be more realistic in your dreams.”
She had to remind herself not to caress her arm with her fingers. Instead, she grinned. “Yes, Mama.” Her tone was deliberately sassy.
Lira grinned back. “Don’t be a smart aleck,” she teased, “even if it has been a long time since I was your age.”
Her eyes widened. “How old do you think I am Lira?”
Lira returned her hand to the steering wheel, and Finley dropped hers into her lap.
“You’re twenty-seven, you have an PhD degree from New York University and you are employed at the Museum of Natural History in the Big Apple for nearly six years.”
This time her eyes widened involuntarily.
“Andrea told me,” she told her. “You must be the youngest paleontologist in the history of the science.”
Finley felt somehow let down that Andrea would have discussed her personal information with Lira. “I guess. I was weaned on archeology and bones, but I’m degreed in Geology also.” She paused as a thought occurred to her. “Now you have me at a disadvantage because I don’t know anything about you except that you are very nice, and have a sweet personality.”
Lira turned to her again, but it was too dark to see hers expression. “Does that mean you really don’t want to tell me about your decision to become the youngest paleontologist ever?” She sounded as if it really mattered to her.
“Okay, what do you want to know?”
Some time later, the hostess wearing a below the knee green-and-gold-striped uniform seated them at the restaurant. All the attendants wore similar-style outfits, only theirs had gold bow ties instead of the green as the hostess wore.
In spite of its ghoulish name, The Inn was an upscale restaurant in a converted old plantation house. It featured authentic home cooking served at round tables set with white linen cloths and sparkling china, crystal and silverware.
Finley was impressed. There were numerous rooms on the ground floor, all furnished with period pieces in addition to the tables and chairs, and in the center of the house a sweeping staircase disappeared into the second floor.
“This has got to be the most magnificent restaurant in the whole country,” she said to Lira as she opened the huge menu. “Do they serve upstairs, too?”
It was easy to see that the biologist was familiar with the place. Lira took it all in stride.
“Yes, but those are the private banquet rooms,” she explained. “This house was one of the local showplaces from the logging and tourism era at the turn of the century that had became too expensive to keep up. The local historical society put it up for sale with the provision that the seller adhered to the society’s restrictions. It was bought by a restaurateur from Albany and restored to its original splendor. The kitchens in these old mansions are detached from the main house because of the heat they generated, and, although it was necessary to modernize the one here, they kept the original brick ovens.”
The cocktail waitress appeared and asked if they’d like to order drinks. Finley ordered white wine, and Lira asked for club soda with a twist of lime. Finley was surprised. She’d never before dated a woman who preferred nonalcoholic drinks, and she self-consciously switched her order to the same as Lira’s.
“That’s not necessary, Finley,” Lira protested. “Order anything you like. I wish I could join you, but alcohol makes me sick so I stick to soft drinks.”
“But I really prefer the club soda,” she said, and the cocktail waitress left.
Hayes started to protest again, but Finley stopped her. “Really, Lira, I don’t even care for the taste of hard liquor; but I learned to order light amounts of it, or wine because it always makes most of my dates uncomfortable if I don’t drink with them.” Finley frowned. “There’s nothing wrong with being a teetotaler. Lira, if your dates are uncomfortable, that’s their problem. Don’t let anyone shame you into drinking alcohol.”
“You’re right,” Lira agreed. “I should take a firm stand. It’s just that, well, I’ll do almost anything to avoid upsetting people or creating a scene, but I don’t drink, and that usually get me a certain look from whomever I’m with.”
The paleontologist’s gaze searched her face, and then a grin replaced her frown. “Do you expect me to believe that my apparently seeming subdued tiger of a date is really a pussycat after all?”
Lira’s grin was infectious, and she nurtured it. “Now you’ve learned my little secret. I only bite when I’m sufficiently provoked.”
They both laughed and enjoyed their meal and time together. Lira was extremely cleaver in keeping the conversation one sided. As they dinned, she carefully swayed the questions back to Finley and her life. When the server cleared away their plates and asked if they wish to see the desert tray, Lira ask her to give them a few minutes.
“If you care to forgo their fine desert list here, I have homemade cake at the house. It’s relatively closer to the park.” She offered hopefully.
“I’m for anything homemade, Lira. I’m not much of a cook, and eating something specially made from scratch, instead of a restaurant is a great treat for me.” Finley sighed contentedly and motioned for the check.
“That’s mine, young lady. I did ask you out.” Lira stuffed several bills onto the tray and stood up. “Need to go to the ladies room, I’ll be right back.”
Finley sat there watching the attractive woman as she disappeared behind the foyer doors. Hmm, I’m a little confused regarding my date. Although I find her very interesting and attractive to say the least, I haven’t learned much about her personally. She’s been very cleaver about it also. Almost as sneaky as I can be sometime, only she actually seems to be avoiding talking about herself.
“Your enthusiasm for life is marvelous, Finley, and I don’t want to see it dimmed by mistakes.” That left the younger woman even more puzzled about her companion then she was before and she still hadn’t learned much about her.
Dimmed by mistakes? Was Lira trying to tell her she was making a mistake in going out with her? What mistakes?
Back at the Lira’s home, she unlocked the door. “I made yellow cake with chocolate frosting last night,” she told Finley as they walked into the living room. “Join me in the kitchen for a slice?”
“I never turn down chocolate anything,” she informed her. “It’s my favorite food.”
“Great. Do you want coffee, iced tea or milk with it?”
“Milk, if it’s good and cold.”
The biologist led Finley into the kitchen with its tile floor and light green ruffled curtains.
“Oh, it is.” She opened the refrigerator and shook the gallon of milk that had shivers of ice in it and placed it on the counter. “There, does that look cold enough?”
“It looks just right. I love good cold milk. Can I help you?”
“Sure, if you want to.”
“You have a very pretty home,” Finley said as she glanced around the room. “Do you rent or own?”
She laughed. “You could say I own it, although it’ll be ten more years before I can burn the mortgage and call it all mine.”
She reached into the cupboard, brought out two glasses and handed them to Finley. “You pour the milk and I’ll cut the cake.”
They carried flick snack into the living worn and sat side by side on the couch. Finley took a bite of the cake and chewed slowly. “Any chance I can take you up on that offer of cooking dinner for me sometime?” she asked after she’d swallowed, and speared another bite with her fork. “If this cake is any indication, you are a fabulous cook.”
“It’s my grandmother’s favorite recipe, and the offer stands. How about tomorrow evening?”
Finley swallowed her second bite. “Not tomorrow night, I have paperwork that I must finish and get off to my supervisor. Friday would be good?”
“Friday it is then. I’ll pick you up at six, or you can ride home with me from work and I’ll take you back.” Lira responded in a steady voice.
“Why don’t we decide on details later in the week?” She asked and placed another bite in her mouth. “Yummy, this is good.”
“Thank you, I love to cook.”
“Tell me about your grandmother. Is she still alive?”
Lira blinked. “My grandmother?”
Finley nodded. “Yes, your grandmother. You said it was her recipe. I want to learn more about you and your family. Do you mind?”
Her confession turned the older woman’s insides to mush. Did that mean she was more than casually interested in her? “I have two grandmothers. The one who supplied the recipe is in her late seventies and suffers from arthritis. The other one, my mom’s mother is sixty-six, looks ten years younger and even I have difficulty keeping up with her. She’s a widow who lives in Florida, still teaches school, is president of the teachers’ union, plays golf at least once a week and has a gentleman friend who would like to marry her if he could convince her that she wouldn’t have to give up her cherished independence.”
Finley laughed. “Obviously she’s the one you take after. Is she as lovely as you are?”
“Hey, that’s a loaded question,” Lira protested. “I can’t answer it without being immodest, but the pictures I’ve seen of her at my age look remarkably like me.”
Finley sobered. “Good genes. It obviously runs in the family.” She sat the empty plate down on the coffee table. “Lira, what are you not telling me?”
"You don’t have to walk me to the door, Preston,” she said when be took her arm. “The porch light’s on, and I left a lamp lit in the living room. I’ll be okay.”
He kept on walking beside her with his hand at her elbow. “I’ll make sure that you am,” he said as he reached for her key. “I always see my date to the door.”
She handed him the key. “You’re very much the gentleman, Preston. One of the many things I like about you.” Her voice quavered, and she swallowed.
Preston opened the door and escorted her inside, then pushed it so that it closed but didn’t latch. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to look at him. “I thought you felt more than like for me, Maggie?”
She couldn’t trust herself to talk--she just nodded. Gently he skimmed his palms up the sides of her neck to rest on either side of her face. His dark face looked bruised in the dimness of the entryway. “Maggie, my sweet tormentor, what am I going to do about you?” It was a moan.
She ran the tip of her tongue around her dry lips. “What do you want to do?” She knew she was his for the taking. All he had to do was say he wanted her.
“Don’t ask.” His fingers played into her hair. “Don’t even think of asking or I may tell you.”
“Would that be so bad?”
He put his forehead against hers and kissed the tip of her nose. “It could be salvation for me, love, but for you, yes, it would be bad.” He kissed the tip of her nose again. “I wouldn’t want to leave and you want us to go slowly. I want more, Maggie.”
“Then why can’t we have more, Preston?”
He’d been in no mood for the holding back, but he knew he must politely but firmly turn down her invitation to spend the rest of the night. It wasn’t the first time he’d done that. She offered more often than he asked, and she’d never seemed upset the times he’d declined. But tonight, Preston was at his limits. She had said they could have more, but he wasn’t sure she understood what he meant by more. He wanted her physically true. He ached for her. He longed to take her in his arms and never let her go. He respected Maggie and he wanted her for his wife, but there were the boys and his girls to consider. Sure his girls loved Maggie and the boys seemed to enjoy having him around. He wanted marriage, and he wanted it with Maggie. She had indicated she was receptive, but they needed to proceed slowly on that issue because of the children. So, he kissed her goodnight again and left. It would be another tossing night for both of them.
“What in the world am I going to do with you Preston?” Maggie almost went after him, but thought better of it as soon as her hand touched the night-chain. “No, he has to want to stay and to hell with the talk. ”
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