Authors: Nadia Nichols
“No,” he said. “It involves other people's weddings. I got that part. But this place'll grow on you, I guarantee it, and the fishing lodge will generate enough income to make you happy even if you're an absentee business partner living and working in Maine.”
He towered over her, his eyes intense. “We're only two weeks away from opening. I just need to find another fishing guide or two. At least think about keeping your grandfather's half. But know this,” he added. “If you decide to sell out, I'm not going to make it easy for you. I've worked my ass off to help make this place what it is. This is my future we're talking about, not to mention your grandfather's lifelong dream.”
Before Senna could respond, he strode away, leaving her standing on the dock staring after him.
Her life, up until this very day, had been fairly steady, safe and predictable, but suddenly she found herself in the middle of a whole bunch of unknownsâand in spite of the dubious circumstances, she found herself looking forward to exploring them, even if it was just for two weeks.
I am haunted by Labrador. I first saw this wild and lonely land in 1991, behind a team of Alaskan huskies while running the Labrador 400 sled dog race. The race began in a snowstorm that ended two days later and found my team and me lost in a kind of wilderness we'd never experienced before. This is a land of caribou and wolves, of Innu and Inuit, of savage shrieking winds that both humble and exult. This is a land of brilliant displays of northern lights, a land where the silenceâwhen the storm finally passesâis so still that it's loud to the ears.
We eventually found our way out of that wild place, thanks to a bush pilot my parents hired to find us, but we never found a way to escape the pull of it. That pull brought us back to race the following season, and the memories of those two journeys tugged at me throughout the years and caused endless discussions of “going there again” with my father, who had been equally taken by the truly wild character of the land. In fact, one of the last conversations I had with my dad was about Labrador and buying a cabin there. I bought a place in Labrador last year, on the first anniversary of his death. It's a remote cabin fifty odd miles from the nearest road, on the shores of the same wild lake that scrambled me and my team so badly in that first race. Wolves and caribou travel the gravel strand in front of the cabin, the wind blows free and the waves lap up against the shore. It's a beautiful, lonely spot, a place that heals the spirit and nourishes the soul.
This story is about two people from different worlds and different backgrounds being thrown together as business partners in this remote wilderness. How they adapt to this reluctant partnership and come to terms with each other and with the land itself is a tribute to their characters, and perhaps even more than that, it is a tribute to the healing power of nature and love's eternal optimism.
1043âACROSS A THOUSAND MILES
1209âA FULL HOUSE
This one's for you, Dad.
IKE MOST WEDDINGS
held at the Inn on Christmas Cove, this one had been in the works for well over a year, but unlike most weddings, this one had been under Senna McCallum's sole charge right from the start. She was personally handling this wedding because Sheila Payson, the bride's mother, had asked her to, and nobody said no to Sheila Payson, who was heir to the Payson dynasty and used to getting her own way in all things. Senna had been working at the inn her mother's sister owned for the past five years, her first two as a sales associate, learning the ropes, and then as head of the sales department, the person who oversaw each and every function and made sure everything down to the smallest detail was perfect. At twenty-nine, Senna had already garnered enough of a reputation to have attracted the attention of Mrs. Payson, which was quite an achievement for someone with a bachelor of science in wildlife biology.
The details had been endless, and the phone calls and visits from the bride and her mother had become more and more frequent, as many as two or three a week as the date drew near. Now that the big day had finally arrived, Senna was relieved. The weather, which was iffy in late June on the Maine coast, was bright and clear.
Fogs could shroud Christmas Cove, creating a damp gray mood not at all conducive to nuptial festivities, or it could be stormy and rainy. But luck was with them, and the dark, sparkling cove with its rugged granite ledge and wind-stunted evergreens had never looked more beautiful.
The ceremony itself was held beneath the arbor in the rose garden and had gone off without any problems. The first hour of the reception before the guests moved into the ballroom for dinner was in full swing to the accompaniment of a string quartet. The wait staff were passing crab cakes with rÃ©moulade, lobster salad in endive spears and chicken satay with peanut sauce. The first and second hors d'oeuvre stations were abundantly supplied with jumbo shrimp, Jonah crab claws, mahogany clams and oysters on the half shell. The reception was progressing more smoothly than Senna had dared hope when the inn's general manager took her aside.
“Senna? You have a call from your mother,” Linda Sherwood said, handing her the portable phone.
Senna thanked Linda and moved around the corner of the building for privacy. “Hi Mom, what's up?”
“I'm afraid I have some bad news,” her mother said. She sounded upset, and Senna's grip on the phone tightened. “Your grandfather passed away on Wednesday. His lawyer called a little while ago.”
Senna closed her eyes with relief that her brothers were okay. “I'm sorry to hear that, Mom. I wish we'd been closer to him, butâ”
“Senna, I know you're busy so I won't beat around the bush,” her mother interrupted. “According to the lawyer, the admiral named you as his executor.”
Are you sure? Why not Billy or Bryce?”
Senna caught a glimpse of movement. The banquet director hovered nearby, an apologetic look on her face, and tapped the face of her wristwatch. It was time to move the wedding party into the ballroom. Senna nodded that she understood. “Mom, I'm sorry, but I have to go. We're right in the middle of a big wedding. I have tomorrow off so I'll come over right after I get out of work tonight and we can talk in the morning. Love you, and leave the porch light on for me.”
Senna stood for a few moments, collecting her thoughts before rejoining the wedding party. It had been five years since she'd last seen her grandfather. A lean, stern man, gruff to the point of being scary and used to being obeyed after a career in the Navy, Senna had always been more than a little afraid of him. Secretly she'd pitied her father, the only child of a man who had probably never dispensed a word of praise or a heartfelt hug in his entire life. Maybe that's why he'd turned out to be so aloof himself. With the admiral as a role model and a mother who'd died when he'd been a boy, what choice did he have? But why on earth would the admiral, a chauvinist to the core, have chosen her over one of his grandsons to settle his estate?
The banquet director sneaked another questioning peek around the corner of the building and Senna drew a deep breath. “I'm coming,” she said, and stepped out into the golden sunlight. The scents of rugosa roses, freshly mown grass and the salt air mingled with the tantalizing aroma of foods. Servers in black and white circulated among the guests, carrying silver champagne and hors d'oeuvre trays, and the strains of the string quartet gave the afternoon an elegant, romantic mood.
Senna's practiced eye took in the dynamics of the re
ception and was satisfied with what she saw. Everything was going exactly according to plan. She approached the bride, who was radiant in her satin Reem Acra gown, and touched her arm gently. “Excuse me, Sophia,” she said, “but we'll be moving into the ballroom shortly. It's time for everyone to be seated.”
IVE LONG HOURS LATER
, just after eleven, she arrived at her mother's house in Castine. The lights were on in the kitchen and her mother was up, waiting for her. She opened the door in her flannel nightgown and bathrobe, her hair plaited in a long braid over one shoulder. “You must be exhausted,” she said.
“It's been a long day,” Senna admitted, relishing the feeling of coming home. She no longer lived here and hadn't since she went away to college, but the old homestead had been in her mother's family for over two hundred years. There was something about the place that always made her feel comfortable and safe. The kitchen was just the way she remembered it as a young child, when Gram and Gramp were still alive. Her mother had kept the teakettle on the back of the wood cookstove, and she poured two cups. They sat at the table together and nibbled on gingersnap cookies.
“So, tell me everything you know,” Senna said.
Her mother sighed. “That's not much, I'm afraid. Your grandfather died in Labrador. He was living near a place called North West River. Apparently he was diagnosed with cancer a year ago and the doctors didn't expect him to live this long.”
Senna took a sip of tea and sighed, easing a cramp between her shoulder blades. “Labrador. You'd think he
would have named an executor who lived in the area, and one who was a little bit closer to him.”
“The funeral was held today and the admiral is being cremated, per his wishes. The lawyer would have called you directly with all of this information but the only phone number he had was this one.”
Senna took another sip of tea. It was strong and good. She was tired to the point of feeling dizzy. “I'll call him first thing Monday morning.”
“There's property that will have to be disposed of,” her mother said.
“What kind of property?”
“The lawyer mentioned a house, a vehicle, an airplane and a fishing camp.”
Senna frowned over the curl of steam that rose from her mug. “Maybe he'd sell it all for a consignment fee. He could mail or fax me all the legal forms I need to sign, I could notarize them and send them backâ¦.”
“You'd better go and look the situation over so you know exactly what the estate consists of before making any decisions,” her mother advised.
Senna shook her head. “Mom, I don't think I can get away from work. We're just getting into the busy season.”
“You haven't taken a vacation in several years,” her mother pointed out. “Labrador sounds like a wild place, and you like wild places, Senna. I'm sure your aunt would let you have some time off.”
“Yes, she would, but that wouldn't be much of a vacation. Are you
the admiral wasn't married?”
“Positive. He called it quits after wife number three. If you took two weeks off, you'd have time to explore some of the country and time to think about some im
portant things, like your future with Tim, and your job as sales director at the inn.”
Senna lifted her chin out of her palm and blinked the sleep from her eyes. “What makes you think I need to do that?”
“I'm your mother. I know how much you miss being a wildlife biologist, and I know you aren't in love with Tim Cromwell even though he's hopelessly in love with you and has been for years.”
Senna gazed at her, amazed. “As a matter of fact, Tim and I broke up a few weeks ago. We're still friends and probably always will be, but you're right. I wasn't in love with him.”
Her mother's eyebrows raised. “How did Tim feel about that?”
“He took it pretty hard. He still thinks I'll eventually realize that he's the man for me. Tim's a good guy and he deserves to have a woman who's crazy about him. He'll be a lot better off without me. And yes, I miss being a biologist, but I like working at the inn. I've learned a lot, and the pay is a lot better than what I was making working for the state.”
Her mother wisely refrained from commenting. She took a sip of tea and continued, “The lawyer told me your grandfather's been living in Labrador ever since he retired from the Navy shortly after your father died.”
“Apparently he was big into fishing, and the fishing's quite good there.”
“Fishing.” Senna dropped her chin back into her palm with a sigh. “That figures. The old sea wolf couldn't stay away from the water.”
Her mother stirred another dollop of honey into her
tea. “Senna, the admiral's last request was that you handle his estate, and I think you should honor it. You
a McCallum, after all.”
HE JOURNEY FROM
to Labrador was a circuitous one at best, and expensive to boot. From Bangor, Senna flew to Quebec City, from Quebec City to Wabush, from Wabush to Goose Bay. It didn't seem too difficult to connect the dots, but flights to Goose Bay weren't like flights to Boston. One didn't have many choices, so she had to lay over a night in Quebec before catching the flights to Wabush and Goose Bay. Arriving at 2:00 p.m., she immediately phoned the lawyer to find out where her grandfather's house was located. There was no point in racking up more expenses at a hotel if she could stay there while she got his affairs in order. Two weeks was two weeks, though with any luck she'd have everything done in half that time.
“Well, m'dear,” the lawyer, an older-sounding gentleman whose name was Lindo Granville, said upon hearing her out. “The thing is, your grandfather's house isn't exactly in Goose Bay, y'see?”
Senna tried to place the accent, which sounded very Celtic. “Well, if you could tell me how to get there, I could stop by your office for the key.”
“Key? I doubt the place is locked up, m'dear. Do you have a car? I'd be happy to drive you over if you don't.”
“I've already rented one, thank you. I'm at the airport now. I thought I'd stop by your office first, if that's all right. I'd like to start settling my grandfather's estate as soon as possible.”
Lindo Granville was as pleasant in person as he'd been on the phone. He was a ruddy-faced man in his late
sixties who looked as if he'd spent much of his life out of doors, not ensconced in an office pushing papers around his desk. He invited Senna in, poured her a cup of strong, black tea, finally found what he was looking for on his cluttered desk, and handed her the admiral's last will and testament. “It's up to date, he was in town just last week,” Granville said. “We had lunch together and he made a few amendments prior to that.”
“He must have known he was going to die soon,” Senna said, steeling herself as she looked down at the legal papers.
“Yes.” Granville nodded. “Didn't feel the least bit sorry for himself, though. He was more worried about his business partner.”
“Business partner?” Senna glanced up. This was a new twist.
“John Hanson. They were good friends. Hanson stayed with him 'til the very end, so's the admiral could die at the lake house. He didn't want to die in a hospital, y'see, and I don't blame him one bit for that, but he needed a lot of care towards the end. You'll meet John Hanson by and by, if he survived your grandfather's wake. The last time I saw him he was full of screech and dancing with my sister, Goody.”
“Screech is Labrador's own brand of hooch. Rum. Powerful stuff, and he'd drunk a powerful dose, y'see.”
Senna pictured a drunken old man clasping a drunken old woman at a classic Irish wake and inwardly winced. “What kind of business did they share?”
“A fishing lodge. Outfitting and guiding,” Granville said. “They were just getting started when the admiral
was stricken. If you read the will, you'll see that he left everything to you.”
The lawyer's words struck like a bolt of lightning.
“Yes, m'dear. Everything. A word of caution, there's very little remaining in his bank account, the lodge's construction costs took the most of it, and there are some liens that need to be paid, but the properties are worth a considerable sum.”
Senna scanned the words rapidly. Sure enough, there it was, in black and white. Admiral Stuart McCallum had left all his worldly possessions to her. Senna sat back in her chair, dumbfounded. “May I take a copy of the will with me? I can read it more closely tonight.”
“Of course, m'dear, and as soon as you're ready, I'll help you through the probate procedures. You'll need to be legally appointed as his executor and we can start that process right now if you want to sign a few papers. Because we're dealing with international paperwork, everything will take a little more time, I'm afraid. Do you have a lawyer you'd like me to work with on your end?”
Senna nodded and handed him the business card of the firm who had handled her father's affairs. “I'd like to fast-track this process and I'd appreciate your help. I'm hoping to sell his share of the business as soon as possible.”
Thirty minutes later the legal matters were in the works and Senna was ready to leave. “Now then,” Granville told her. “You'll need to drive to North West River and ask anyone there where the admiral's house is. They'll tell you.” He hesitated. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I plan to stay there, of course,” Senna said briskly.
Granville paused. “The thing is, m'dear, the admiral was a bachelor and for that matter, so is John Hanson.”
“I'm sure I'll survive whatever state of bachelorhood his house is in, Mr. Granville. I grew up with two brothers who were the biggest slobs on earth. Really, I'll be fine. Thank you again for all your help.”
There was another pause. “Well, you see, m'dear, the lake-house property was part of the business, and half belongs to John Hanson.”
“Don't worry,” she reassured him, because he did seem genuinely troubled. “I'm sure I'll find the half that was my grandfather's.”
Granville's frown of concern deepened, and Senna wondered if perhaps John Hanson was so old as to be a little bit daffy. “You're welcome to stay with the wife and me, m'dear. We'd love the company.”
“That's very kind of you to offer, Mr. Granville, but I need some closure, and I'm hoping to find it at my grandfather's house. Besides, Mr. Hanson and I have some business matters to discuss, and the sooner we get that dialogue started the better.”
Twenty minutes later, Senna was driving through a land that was wilder than any she'd ever seen. She was used to the rocky coast of Maine, but Labrador was much more remote and far less populated, and once out of Goose Bay there was only one road. She caught glimpses of the water through the fringe of black spruce on her right. The highway map designated this as Lake Melville. The drive to North West River didn't take long. By 4:00 p.m. she was there, and, heeding Granville's directions, she pulled to a stop across from the first person she saw, rolled down the window, and asked,
“Excuse me, but would you happen to know where the admiral's house is?”
The towheaded blue-eyed boy was pushing a bike with a flat tire. His expression was lively and open, and he said, “Take the next left that leads up the south shore of the lake. You'll hear 'em, when you gets close. The admiral's dogs,” he explained, noting her expression. “You'll hear 'em, but you're too late. You missed the wake by a day. It was a good one, too, from all I heard.” Then off he went, pushing his bike along the gravel road.
She followed the directions he'd given, and drove cautiously up a narrower road that appeared to be bereft of human habitations. She wondered, after a few kilometers, if the boy had been pulling her leg. There were tire tracks, to be sure, and she could see the gleam of the lake through thick stands of black spruce from time to time. But no houses.
Senna stopped the car and turned off the ignition, rolling down the window again. She listened intently in the silence and heard eerie, undulating wails reverberating through the forest. Wolves, and not that far away. She felt a tingle of excitement at the thought of actually catching sight of one. There were wolves here, and one of the biggest caribou herds in the world, and the native people were called Innu and Inuit. She knew as much from reading the literature on the Air Canada flight this morning. What she didn't know, as she sat in the rental car and listened to the wild howling, was why her grandfather had chosen to live out his last years here, far removed from the Navy's elite social circles and manicured golf courses. Why had he chosen to live in such a remote land and
had he named her as his ex
ecutor? She was hoping she'd find some answers when she reached the house, but even if she didn't, seeing a pack of wolves or a herd of caribou would definitely make this journey north worthwhile. Her mother had been right.
She started the rental car and crept cautiously forward, keenly scanning both sides of the road and hoping for a glimpse of the wolves she'd heard. She caught the flash of lake water and a bright opening up ahead in the forest of spruce. Sunlight spilled into a clearing. There was a building and a truck. Make that two buildings and two trucks. She stopped again, assessing the place. This had to be her destination, since the road ended here. The big building was somewhat of an architectural oddity, grander than many she'd seen since her arrival and resembling one of Maine's old Rangely Lake houses. With its big center chimney and gabled roof, log construction and a spacious porch that faced the water, it had all the earmarks of a tranquil lakeside retreat.
A second, smaller structure nestled back into the trees, was also built of logs, but had a broad, low Alaskan-style roof with deep eaves. Perhaps that was the place where John Hanson lived, since the admiral, possessing an ego the size of the Atlantic, would surely have lived in the bigger of the two cabins.
Senna stared, trying to take it all in. The lake was vast. She couldn't see the end of it by a long shot. There was a dock that jutted into the water, and a float plane was tethered at the dock's T-junction. The wolves were howling again, but even as she sat there, engine idling, the noise faded. She drove a little closer, feeling foolishly timid. She had every right to be here, after all.
There didn't appear to be any phone or electric lines anywhere near the place, and the property looked neglected. Upon closer inspection she could see trash scattered here and there. Beer cans and bottles. She cut the ignition again and immediately the whine of hungry mosquitoes filled the silence. That, and the rhythmic wash of lake water against the dock pilings and the gravelly shore. She got out of the car, closing the door quietly and standing for a moment, swatting at the mosquitoes and wondering if it might not be a good idea to retreat to Goose Bay and come back early in the morning. She was tired and the land was unfamiliar to her. She'd like to get something to eat and read through the stack of legal papers Granville had given her.
First, though, she wanted to make some connection with her grandfather, whom she hadn't seen since her father's funeral and would never see again. Besides, in this northern latitude the sun was still high. She had plenty of time to find her way back to Goose Bay. She kicked a Labatt can out of the way as she walked up the path, climbed the weathered steps and opened the screen door, entering onto the porch and peeking through a window that could have stood a good polishing. It was dark inside, and gloomy. Senna hesitated before trying the front door, glancing around and trying to imagine her grandfather living like this. The porch was littered with pizza boxes, paper napkins, cigarette butts, more beer cans and bottles. The boy had mentioned that the wake had been a good one, but it would have been nice if they'd tidied up afterward.
She knocked sharply at the door and predictably received no response. The doorknob turned easily and she stepped into the entry hall. To her left was a living
room with four big double-hung nine-over-six windows looking out on the lake and a handsome stone fireplace. A staircase in front of her ascended presumably to the second-floor bedrooms, and she glimpsed a large kitchen through the doorway to the right. She closed the door on the whine of mosquitoes and almost immediately became aware of another noise, far deeper and much more ominous than the frantic hum of hungry insects. Senna stood quietly for a moment, analyzing the rumblings, which sounded very much like loud snoring being rhythmically and robustly delivered from upstairs.
She hesitated again. Could she possibly be in the wrong house? Could the smaller cabin belong to her grandfather? She glanced around furtively while upstairs the snores resonated like thunder. There was only one surefire way to find out. Senna crept into the living room, feeling a bit like a criminal, opened a corner desk, riffled through a stack of papers and spied several bills and correspondence with her grandfather's name on them. She breathed a silent sigh of relief. At least she was in the right place, but if this
her grandfather's house, then who was upstairs? Could it be that John Hanson had drunk so much hooch at the wake that he'd been unable to make it back to his own cabin?
She stood at the foot of the stairs and thought about calling out, but couldn't bring herself to deliver more than a tentative, “Hello?”
Her voice sounded woefully feeble, and she got no reply. If the snoring
being generated by the admiral's business partner, a man probably well into his seventies or better, he might be completely deaf. She crept up the stairs. At the top were two bedroom doors, one opening to the left, the other to the right. She froze with
uncertainty, heart hammering against her ribs, then peeked cautiously around the left-hand door from whence the hearty snoring noises emanated. Senna noted the small bedroom, the double bed with a brightly colored Hudson's Bay candy-stripe wool blanket laid atop, dormered window that looked out on the lake. Pine bureau, mirror, chair, braided rug. There was a simple, rustic charm to the room. On the bed, sprawled upon its side, was an enormous furry dog. Some kind of northern breed closely related to a wolf, by the looks of it, old and grizzled, paws twitching in the midst of some lively dream, and snoring with deep and absolute contentment.
She backed quietly out of the room, relieved, and drew a deep breath. The lawyer hadn't mentioned animals, but that husky certainly looked like it belonged on that bed. Senna peered warily around the other door, preparing herself for another wolf-like creature, and nearly gasped aloud when she saw what was lying on the bed in the second bedroom.
Definitely not a dog, and most definitely not her grandfather's elderly business partner. A man was sprawled crosswise on the mattress. He was face down, head and shoulders hanging over the edge, arms dangling, knuckles brushing the floor. Naked to the waist, blue jeans, bare feet.
Silent and unmoving.
She took a step forward, studying his form for any signs of life even as the newspaper headlines flashed through her imagination.
Executor Discovers Body in Bedroom of Deceased Grandfather's House.
But no. There was movement. The man was breathing. Not snoring, like the dog, but sleeping with the same deep stupor. This bedroom, however, in stark contrast to the first, was a mess. Beer cans were strewn on the floor, clothing was flung everywhere. The bureau drawers were ajar, the top cluttered with more trash and paraphernalia, and the mirror so plastered with pictures that hardly any glass remained exposed. She studied the chaos for a moment in disgust, then glanced back at the unconscious man, unable to squelch her curiosity.
She couldn't see his face, but his hair was dark, glossy and tousled. His back, shoulders and arms looked strong; smooth well-knit muscles tapered into a lean waist. In spite of the fact that the man was completely relaxed in sleep, she sensed enormous power, the same power she'd once witnessed in a mountain lion dozing in the sun on a rock outcrop in the mountains of Montana. Senna swallowed a nervous laugh. What a thing for her to be doing, standing here staring at a strange man sleeping in her grandfather's house and comparing him to a mountain lion. What on earth was the matter with her?
More to the point, what was she to do? This man could be a mass murderer, for all she knew, and this place was remote enough to make her uneasy at the thought of confronting him without some means of defending herself. She backed out of the room, returned to the kitchen, and picked up first thing she saw that would qualifyâa cast-iron frying pan on the stovetop with about an inch of bacon fat solidified in the bottom. Returning to the second floor, she cleared her throat and knocked briskly on the door frame, neither of which had any effect in rousing the man.
“Excuse me,” she said in her most professional Do-not-argue-with-me-I'm-the-sales-director voiceâwhich had an equal lack of effect.
me,” she repeated, louder this time.
One dangling arm twitched and she tensed for the ugly confrontation, but all the man did was shift slightly, groan as if the effort cost him, and then resume his sleep.
Senna lifted the frying pan and rapped it against the door. The sharp gunshot of noise was impressive.
she said. “You need to wake up, please. Tell me who you are and what you're doing in my grandfather's house.”
The man thrashed weakly, moaned and rolled over. One arm flung out, hand groping blindly for the pillow to bring it over his face to shut out the daylightâ¦but not before she caught a glimpse of a dark, unshaven jaw and a rugged profile. “Goway,” a deep voice rumbled, muffled beneath the pillow.
On his back now, baring his broad chest, flat stomach, dark line of hair disappearing into the belt line of his jeans. Arms and shoulders definitely well-defined with muscle, hands strong and calloused as if he worked hard for a living. Sexual, in a very primal wayânot that she was noticing.
“Look, mister, I'm warning you right now, you'd better vacate these premises. This is Admiral Stuart McCallum's house, I'm taking possession of it, and if you don't leave right now I'll call the police, or the Mounties, or whatever you call them up here.”
“Goway.” The man's second gruff utterance was an echo of the first.
Senna heard a noise behind her. A stealthy sound, soft
and menacing. As she turned her head she saw that the large and grizzled husky, who moments before had been snoring quite loudly on the bed in the other room, was now standing in the doorway behind her. Its eyes were yellow and its stance was rigid and threatening. Senna realized that in the great beast's eyes she was the stranger here, the trespasser, and she remained very still.
“Easy,” she said, her mouth suddenly dry and her grip tightening on the frying pan. “Good boy. Nice dog. Easyâ¦”
“Chilkat, down.” The man's voice, muffled by the pillow, was nonetheless authoritative. The husky immediately hunched to the floor, but its eyes never wavered from Senna. She swallowed and glanced toward the bed. The pillow was no longer over the man's face but his eyes were closed tight on a pained expression.
“He's lying down now,” she said, wincing at the quaver in her voice.
“Uh-huh.” Spoken as if he already knew.
“Is this your dog?”
“Uh-uh.” Uttered as if she should know that, if she had half a brain. One hand lifted, rubbed his face, then he shifted sideways and squinted up at her. “Who the hell are you, and why are you threatening me with a frying pan?” he said, speaking slowly, as if the sound of his own words caused him great suffering.
Senna's chin lifted. “My name is Senna McCallum and I'm the admiral's granddaughter. Who are you, and what are you doing in this house?”
“I'm John Hanson, I live here, and I'm trying to get some sleep.”
Senna was shocked. “But you can't be my grandfather's business partner. You're not old enough.”
He made a noise that could have passed for a groan. “If it's any consolation, I feel very old right now.” He struggled onto his elbows. “I don't suppose you could make some coffee and bring me a cup? Coffee's in the lower cupboard to the left of the stove. And you better put that damn frying pan on the floor before Chilkat grabs it out of your hand. He's the pot licker around here and you're driving him crazy.”
HE ADMIRAL HAD KNOWN
he was sick long before he was diagnosed with cancer. His energy levels had been dropping steadily, and the pain that he used to hold at bay with handfuls of aspirin began to cripple him up. He'd finally sought professional advice. Aside from announcing to Jack with blunt matter-of-fact realism, that the doctor had told him he wouldn't live out the year, McCallum never spoke of his illness. The two of them carried on as if by ignoring the bad news, eventually it would go away. This was fine with Jack. He'd come to like the admiral very much in the eight years he'd known the man, so he'd just as soon avoid any discussions of the unfair and untimely fate that awaited his friend.
Jack knew the admiral came off as a cold-hearted bastard to the multitudes who had dealt with him in the military, but he had an advantage that most people didn't. He knew the admiral was a dyed-in-the-wool fly fisherman who lived and breathed to cast his lines upon some of the greatest fishing waters in the world, so when Jack's commanding officer had asked him eight years ago for some advice about where to take his father fishing, Jack never missed a beat.
“Labrador,” he said. “That's one of few places left on this continent where fish are still the size God intended them to be, and the wilderness is still wild.”
His commanding officer wanted to know more, and Jack was happy to provide any and all information. When his CO asked if he'd like to come along as an informal guide, all expenses paid, Jack could scarcely believe his luck. “Yes, sir,” he'd said, immediately. “I'd be glad to.”
“My father's an admiral,” his CO had warned.
“I know he is, sir. I'll be on my best behavior,” Jack promised.
Jack's CO was Stuart McCallum, Jr., son of Admiral Stuart McCallum, the Sea Wolf, who had long been known as the toughest, meanest admiral in the fleet. But if he was a genuine fly fisherman, Jack was sure he'd find some common ground with the crusty old man. He'd been prepared for the worst, but on that trip with the two McCallums he'd made a good friend of the old admiral. They'd fished annually in Labrador until his CO died in a plane crash and the admiral retired that same year. Two years later Jack had taken a midnight phone call on board a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
“McCallum here,” the gruff voice said. “I'm in Labrador, looking at a piece of property, and I need your advice.”
It took him a while, the Navy being the way it was about unscheduled leave and all that, but the old sea wolf, though retired, still had some pull. Two weeks later Jack was standing on the shore of Grand Lake, a major jumping-off point to all of Labrador's intriguing wilds, and the admiral was saying in his raspy voice, “I want to retire here, Hanson. I want to build a place right on this lake, and I want to build a fishing lodge in the interior that's only accessible by float plane for people
who care enough to make the effort. I'm looking for a business partner, if you're interested. How long can you stay?”
Jack stayed as long as he dared, being as he was only a captain himself and not ready or willing to be court-martialed, but when he left, the admiral was already beginning construction of his retirement home. One year later, Jack's marriage was over and he decided to end his naval career as well. True to his words, the admiral readily allowed the younger man to buy into his Labrador dream.
And what a dream it was. That the admiral could harbor ambitions that required such vision and herculean physical effort astounded Jack, who believed himself to be unique in that regard. But the admiral's tireless strength had played out rapidly near the end of the project on the Wolf River. His doctor advised him to return to the States for further tests and chemotherapy treatments, but Admiral McCallum had no use for doctors or hospitals. “I'll die in my own place, and in my own time,” he said. “I want to see our lodge on the Wolf River completed. I want to sit on the porch and sip my scotch and watch the river run past. I want to see the salmon come up it to spawn. I need to know that life goes on, no matter what.”
They'd both worked hard toward making that vision become a reality, though Jack shouldered the brunt of the work in the final year of the admiral's life. As his health steadily failed, McCallum lost energy but he never lost sight of his dream. The last time Jack had flown the old man into the interior and landed on the river just below the lodge, McCallum had known he'd never live to see it up and running.
“Put my chair on the porch,” he said that evening, laboring for each precious breath. “I'll sip my scotch and watch the sun go down.”
One week later, the admiral was dead. All of North West River gathered for the traditional Irish wake the old admiral had requested, though McCallum was only half Irish, the other half being pure bull-headed Scot. All of North West River attended the party, a grand send-off the old man would have enjoyedâ¦all except the part where the wedding planner showed up, and Jack won their last bet.
It was one of the few times he and the admiral had spoken about what would come after.
“I've named my granddaughter executor of my estate,” McCallum had said. Jack was feeding the sled dogs, and the admiral walked out to the dog yard to smoke his pipe and watch. Retired from the team, Chilkat was his constant companion, but the admiral's faded blue eyes softened as he looked upon the dogs. Clearly, he loved them all.
Jack straightened from ladling soupy dog food into a bowl. “The wedding planner?” he said. “Why not one of your grandsons?”
“They're city boys. They wouldn't want anything to do with a place like this. Senna's the only one who might feel something for it.”
Senna McCallum was the only person the admiral regularly spoke of in his family, though he also had two grandsons living somewhere on the East coast and a spinster sister out in Oregon. He'd told Jack about Senna right at the outset on that first fishing trip. “She's a good girl. Spirited, but lacks guidance. Makes all the wrong choices. She'll end up the way most girls do, paying
homage to a man that's not good enough for her, raising a bunch of spoiled brats that want and get everything for nothing. Too bad, because she's sharp. She could go places, if she'd just take some good advice, but she doesn't think much of her old grandfather. Never listened to a thing I said.”
Since then, he'd made brief but frequent references to Senna, which Jack had strung together into this general assessment: She makes her living planning other people's weddings. Got her degree in wildlife biology, wrote a brilliant paper on the Yellowstone wolf pack and landed a good job with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, but couldn't hack the politics. Couldn't compromise what she knew to be right with what would keep her employed. She's too brash, doesn't know when to pull her horns in. Was let go for stirring up all kinds of controversy and bucking the big hunting lobby over the snaring of coyotes and the baiting of bears with stale doughnuts. Spunky. She made the front page of the paper at a big legislative hearing in Augusta. Shortly after that she was conveniently laid off. Her mother's sister owns a country inn on the Maine coast, and her aunt gave her a job there, so now she's nothing but a wedding planner.
A wedding planner was someone who dealt with weepy, emotional brides, bossy overbearing mothers and grooms who didn't realize what the hell they were getting into. Queasy. Jack couldn't imagine a more insipid career, and knew from listening to the admiral talk that he wouldn't like his granddaughter at all. He hoped she never showed up in Labrador.
“She doesn't give a hoot about me,” the admiral alleged not a week before his death, puffing on his pipe
with a contemplative gaze, “and that's not her fault. I was never a very warm and friendly grandfather. I didn't know how to be. And after her father died I didn't visit them anymore. Senna's mother never liked me much, nor did the boys. It was easier to stay away. I doubt Senna will come to Labrador when I die. But I've made it all nice and legal. Did it yesterday, in Goose Bay, with Granville. Just so you know.”
“Wish you'd quit calling me that, son,” the admiral said in a quiet voice, gazing out at the dogs.
“She won't come.”
Jack stood, holding the five-gallon pail and the dog-food scoop. “She'll come.”
The old man shook his head. “Not in a million years.”
“Bet you a thousand bucks she shows up.”
McCallum's eyes flickered momentarily with that old fighting man's gleam. “You're on, but you'll lose,” he said, extending his hand to seal the pact. “Give my winnings to Goody Stewart. She needs the money more than you do, and she's a damn fine woman.”
“You should've married her,” Jack said.
The admiral turned away with a shake of his head, shoulders bowed beneath the weight of the years and the pain that had beaten him in the end. “I've never been able to make any woman happy. Goody deserves to be happy.”
But Goody wasn't going to get the admiral's money, not that there was any to give, because Jack was at this very moment looking into a pair of angry eyesâgray, pale blue?âthat belonged to the admiral's granddaughter.
He struggled up onto his elbows, trying to focus his eyes. Not easy, after the past few days. Damn hard, in fact. Better just to go back to sleep. Sleep it off. Sleep off everything, but she was right in his face, pointing her finger, waving a frying pan, and threatening to bring in the Mounties. Sergeant Preston and all that. He squinted and blinked. She was wearing a dark conservative skirt suit that showed off a pair of the shapeliest legs he'd seen in a dog's age.
He rubbed a hand over his face and wished she'd shut up before his head exploded. There was nothing like a good old-fashioned Irish wake to bring out the best and the worst in a bottle of booze.
She should be planning her own wedding. That's what the admiral had told him about his granddaughter. “She deserves to be barefoot and in the kitchen if planning weddings is all she aspires to.” The admiral had set very high standards, and woe to the granddaughter who lowered the bar, intentionally or not.
“Or not,” Jack muttered, interrupting Senna McCallum's diatribe about how she was here to settle the admiral's estate and had no intentions of playing cook and housekeeper to a hungover heathen who couldn't even sit up in bed. He was pleased that his words had startled her into momentary silence, giving him another chance to eye those slender, feminine legs.
“Or not what?” she said, spine stiffening, frying pan lowering a bit. Her hair was gorgeous, the rich gloss of mahogany framing an equally beautiful and expressive face that just now was scowling on the stern side, but he bet that when she smiled her radiance would shame the sun. And damn, those legs of hers would rival any high-paid model'sâ¦
“You didn't deliberately get yourself discharged from your wildlife job just to spite the admiral. It was purely accidental,” Jack said. “I'm sure of it.”
“What are you talking about?” She recoiled as if he were rabid.
“Your grandfather told me all about you, but he never mentioned how good you looked in a skirt.”
If anything, her demeanor became more hostile and her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Then you really are John Hanson.”
“I prefer Jack,” he said. He extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
She declined to shake his hand, taking yet another step back instead. “We need to talk,” she said.
Jack needed aspirin, strong coffee and a lot more sleep, but since obviously none of these mercies were forthcoming, he sat up, very slowly, and attempted once again to focus his eyes on the young woman standing in his bedroom. “We threw a wake for your grandfather yesterdayâ¦or was it the day before? I've lost track. Damned sorry you had to see the place in such a mess, but it was a good old-fashioned Irish wake, just like the admiral wanted, and I'm not sorry about that. He deserved a good send-off.”
In spite of the effort this explanation had cost him, there wasn't an ounce of sympathy or understanding in her expression. “That explains all the trash. I'm here to settle his estate and I had hoped to be able to discuss this with you as soon as possible, but I can see that's not going to be any time soon.” She paused to glance down at the dog. “Is your dog about to attack me?”
Jack glanced at Chilkat, who was still eyeing her intently. “Like I told you before, he just wants to clean the
grease out of the frying pan you're holding. That's his job and he takes it very seriously. And for your information, that dog belongs to you now, Ms. McCallum. His name is Chilkat, and he was your grandfather's lap dog. A real cuddler. I'll introduce you to the rest of the pack when you're ready, but there are some things you need to understand. The admiral and I were full business partners, the lake house was part of the business, and you're standing in my bedroom.”
The admiral's granddaughter looked confused. “Do you mean to say that the two of you shared this house? You lived here together?”
“Thenâ¦who lives in that other cabin?”
Hopeless. He'd known it would be. Who could understand the bond between himself and that irascible stiff-backed admiral who had scoffed at Jack's plan to build a separate cabin for his own use, and then, when the cabin was complete, had suggested using it for a workshop. Who would understand that gruff old admiral was a lonely soul who
sharing the lake house? Certainly not this young woman with the mahogany hair and the beautiful face which unfortunately seemed to be marred by a permanent and disapproving scowl.
“Nobody,” Jack said. “We use it for a workshop.”
She digested this as cheerfully as she had everything else. “And just how am I supposed to sell my grandfather's half of this property while you're living here and the place looks like a pigsty?”