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Christmas at Black Cherry Retreat by Angela Britnell (1)

Chapter One

Getting away from it all was supposed to be good for Fee’s health but at this precise moment she was more stressed than ever. She’d spent the last fifteen years working in some of the most dangerous places in the world so a slow meandering drive along the back roads of East Tennessee should be a cinch but the lack of traffic and people made her uneasy. Fee had stopped the car to study the old-fashioned paper map because her cell phone signal had given up five minutes earlier and she couldn’t convince herself she was headed in the right direction.

She trailed her finger along the winding curves on the map and guessed it’d be about another five miles. Fee rested her back against the bonnet of her rental car and forced herself to take a good look around, trying to take her London therapist’s advice to live in the moment. She sucked in deep breaths of the crisp mountain air which she figured must be better for her lungs than the searing dusty heat of Afghanistan or the recent monsoon season she’d endured in Mumbai. Even to her jaded eyes the fall colours, ranging from a soft buttery yellow to a chilli pepper red were a stunning assault on the senses and a tiny nugget of hope sneaked into her.

Panic attacks. Borderline dependency issues. Insomnia. A stiff left knee thanks to a fall in the Syrian mountains. It wasn’t a happy list. The last doctor she saw warned her she wouldn’t live to see her fortieth birthday next year if she didn’t change her ways. At the time she’d bit back the reply filling her head – that she wasn’t sure she cared much either way.

Fee gulped down the last of her Coke and promised herself as soon as she arrived at the isolated cabin she’d condemned herself to for the next month she’d brush her teeth. That way she wouldn’t need to add a root canal to her to-do list.

Twenty minutes later she was re-thinking her map reading prowess. She eased the car around yet another sharp ninety-degree turn and slammed on her brakes.

Black Cherry Retreat. A simple carved wood sign by the side of the road caught her eye and she spotted a narrow track disappearing off into the distance. My God, they really did mean remote. She could head back down the mountain and reach the Knoxville airport in about an hour. An overnight flight across the Atlantic and she’d be back in London. Maybe returning to work would be the best cure.

The lingering acid in the base of her stomach stirred up and forced her to swallow hard. Fee’s hands shook and eerily familiar waves of panic swept over her.

‘Hey, are you all right, honey?’

A man’s soft, deep voice penetrated a corner of her brain and she jerked around to stare out of the side window. Fee tried to compose herself as the stranger pushed back the brim of his well-worn, black cowboy hat and peered in at her.

She managed to nod and glanced at the battered white pick-up truck he’d been driving when she came to an abrupt stop in front of him. Thank goodness he was paying attention or he’d have smashed right into her bumper. He gestured for her to roll down the window but she shook her head.

‘You goin’ up to the cabins?’ he asked. Fee didn’t answer. For all she knew he could be the local axe-murderer. ‘I’m Tom Chambers. I own Black Cherry Retreat. Sorry if I startled you.’ He stepped away from her car and hooked his large thumbs in the belt loops of his faded jeans. Fee’s gaze ran up over his large, solid frame, noticing the sort of muscles acquired through hard outdoor work.

Most people are decent, Fee, you need to learn to give them a chance.

Doctor Michael’s words snaked into her head and with her heart speeding like a Formula One race car she pressed the button to open her window.

‘It’s not a problem.’ Fee was surprised how calm and normal she sounded. It was huge progress from the meltdown she’d have gone into a month ago. ‘I’m Fee Winter. We’ve been in touch by email. I’ve booked one of your cabins for a month.’

A slow smile crept over his face warming something deep inside her. No one would describe Tom Chambers as conventionally good-looking but his air of quiet confidence would no doubt always catch a woman’s eye. He’d obviously been around the block a few times and it was reflected in every fine line and tanned crease of his interesting face. ‘I’ve been into town picking up a few supplies. Follow me on up and I’ll get y’all settled in. You sure picked a pretty day to come, of course around here that’s mostly what we get.’

‘You wouldn’t be biased, would you?’ she jibed, surprising herself. It’d been a long time since she’d teased a strange man.

‘Nah, never. The fact I’ve lived most of my life within ten miles of the house where I was born and plan to die here, buried next to eight generations of Chambers, has nothing to do with it.’

A pang of envy swamped Fee at the man’s casual description of his life. He’d be completely bewildered by her nomadic existence and might even feel sorry for her – something she wholeheartedly detested. ‘How unadventurous,’ she commented. He didn’t reply but a muscle twitched in his clean-shaven, square jaw giving away the fact that her rudeness struck home.

For a couple of seconds they stared at each other until Fee blinked and glanced back down at the steering wheel. She considered apologising, but bit her tongue to stop herself. She had nothing to be sorry for.

‘Some might say so.’ He pushed his hat back into place and turned away to climb back into his truck, his long legs disappearing inside in one smooth move. Tom fired up his engine and manoeuvred in front of her to head up the road, leaving Fee with little choice but to follow.

Tom checked in the rear-view mirror to make sure he hadn’t lost his new guest. Whatever or whoever had put the wind up her had done a top-notch job. Objectively he’d say Fee Winter was a decent-looking woman although a touch too straight up and down for his taste. His preference ran to petite women with soft curves a man could … He stopped his mental rambling right there. He wouldn’t be investigating his new guest in any way, shape or form.

Once a cop always a cop, bro. His older brother’s casual remark last time they were together popped back into his head. Tom silently used the same expletive he’d shut Sandy up with. The past was the past. Line drawn. End of story.

Tom slowed down and drove along the narrow gravel road skirting Black Cherry Lake. He stopped outside his own cabin where he’d taken one room as the resort office and jumped out. Slamming the truck door he waited for Fee to park and join him.

‘The six guest cabins are all on this side of the lake. This one is mine and the resort office is in here.’ He gestured towards the building next to them. ‘How about we go in and get the paperwork out of the way?’ Fee didn’t move. She stood by her car door, grasping the handle as if she planned to make a quick escape. ‘Is that okay?’ Finally she gave a brief nod and Tom caught her quick intake of breath. What the hell was up with her?

Tom leapt up the couple of steps to open the door and stood back to one side. After a few seconds’ hesitation she stepped inside and he followed her in. Taking care to give her plenty of space, Tom walked around her and led the way into his office and sat down at the desk.

‘If you wouldn’t mind signing these and giving me your credit card details I’ll show you to your cabin.’ She didn’t say a word but passed over her card before beginning to read the forms he put down on the desk in front of her with great care.

Tom launched into his standard spiel about how the resort came into being. Most people were interested to hear that the land had been in the Chambers family for nearly two hundred years but Fee showed no interest in asking any questions. He’d spent the last ten years restoring the cabins that had originally been built in the 1860s. Tom had saved the buildings from collapse and they’d done the same for him, but he omitted that part because no one needed his sob story.

‘Feel free to come by if you need anything or have any problems with the cabin. I’m usually around but if I’m not just leave me a note and I’ll get around to it soon as I can. Otherwise I leave guests to themselves.’ A brief flash of gratitude brightened her sharp blue eyes leaving him strangely pleased to have said something right at last.

Tom pointed across the hall. ‘I’ve recently fitted out a communal room for guests to use. There’s a TV and DVD player set up with a selection of movies, books and a few board games. If people want company they’ll sometimes come over and hang out here. I’ve even done a couple of barbecues and we’ve all eaten together. But no pressure, ever.’

Fee nodded and cleared her throat. ‘Thank you.’

Wow, she’d granted him two more words – he’d hit pay dirt. ‘There’s no internet or cell phone service here, but you knew that. You can drive back down into Pine Ridge for supplies. I’d say it’s the nearest town but that’s kind of an exaggeration.’ He smiled, but her unrevealing expression didn’t alter. ‘There’s Wi-Fi available in the Mockingbird Cafe along with the best biscuits this side of Knoxville. Of course my aunt makes them so again you’d call me biased.’ Tom didn’t miss the slight upturn in her mouth, giving the first hint of softness to her severe features. Everything about Fee Winter was pared down from her thin dark-framed glasses, short black hair, cheekbones sharp enough to hang clothes on and lean muscular legs. ‘Your phone will work there too. I’ve got a radio here to use for emergencies.’

‘Fine.’

Tom grabbed a set of keys from the board. ‘Okay, let’s get you settled. Yours is the second cabin along and is called Knox. I named them all after local counties here in East Tennessee. If you drive over and park outside I’ll walk along to meet you there.’

‘You could ride with me.’ She stumbled over the words and the small amount of colour in her skin drained away.

‘Thanks but I could do with stretching my legs.’

‘Why, aren’t they long enough?’ she quipped.

Tom chuckled. ‘Hey, you do have a sense of humour in there after all, even if it is a weird British one.’ A rush of heat flamed her cheeks and he guessed she’d take back her words if she could. ‘Sorry. That was rude. Mama would smack me if she heard me talking this way.’

She inclined her serious face in a nod and briskly walked back outside without saying another word.

Tom trailed after her and set off walking across the damp grass. It was a more direct route than the narrow road and he easily beat her to the cabin. He wasn’t a boastful man but when he looked at Knox Cabin he felt a quiet sense of achievement. If he left nothing else behind preserving this small piece of his family history wasn’t a bad legacy.

‘It’s beautiful.’

Fee’s surprisingly gentle voice next to his shoulder took him by surprise and he turned to meet her appreciative gaze head-on.

‘Yeah, it is.’ He risked carrying on, afraid to break the thin thread of communication strung between them. ‘They sure knew how to build. No modern tools. No decent plans. Hell of a leap of faith.’

‘It must’ve taken a lot of time and work on your part to get it back to this.’

‘The best things always do.’

Fee’s eyes shone, the way women’s do when they are about to cry. Too afraid to ask whether he’d said anything wrong Tom stayed silent and she glanced away. ‘Right. I’ll show you around and then leave you alone.’

‘Good idea, Mr Chambers.’

Damn right. He’d make his escape as fast as possible and stay gone. Black Cherry was his refuge too.

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