“This is more like it.” The tension eased. “At last I can kiss you.”

“You can only do it in the dark?” Gentle humor infused her words. “Does my face scare you?”

He framed it with his hands. His voice became husky. “Your face is exquisite. The tiny dimple that forms next to your mouth when you smile has been driving me crazy.”

“Oh,” she murmured, sounding shy. Her hands stole up to flatten on his chest. “I like your face, too.”

“Well, kissing is a good way to seal our mutual admiration. And…express it more fully.”

“Yes.” Melanie spoke gravely. “I suspect that’s true.”

His head bent; his mouth paused a hairbreadth from hers. “I’m glad we agree.”

She rose onto tiptoe and their lips touched, a soft tentative brush, then met again to linger. Exhilaration and desire crashed through him, but he resisted the powerful urge to yank her up against him. Nipping, sampling, he told himself to take it slow. She didn’t strike him as a woman who would easily indulge in an affair. A husband went with a home. Until he knew he wanted to be any such thing, he had to be careful.

But moving away was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. “That,” he said, in a voice only a little gritty, “was the perfect cap to a wonderful evening.”

“It was nice, wasn’t it?”

“Can we do it again tomorrow night?”

“I’m afraid not. I can’t leave Angie too often.” She hesitated. “But she has a soccer game tomorrow afternoon. Would you like to come?”

I have a child, she might as well have said. He recognized the gauntlet: Are you serious, or aren’t you?

Kevin took a deep breath and said, “When and where?”


THE FOOTBALL SPIRALED through the floodlit sky and dropped neatly between the goalposts. The crowd in the stands, wearing parkas and gloves against the cold night, erupted to their feet to scream their approval. On the sidelines, the elk trumpeted his triumph and dipped his antlers in challenge to the team from Medford on the other side of the field.

Melanie smiled. The antlers had been a neat trick. She was rather proud of her elaborate construction of wire and plaster-cast material wrapped in brown cotton velvet. The head, too, she thought rivaled Northwest Coast Indian masks; she’d even used some cedar in a bow to the tradition. Now, if only the high-school kids took good care of the costume…

“Nice work,” Kevin said from beside her. His gaze was following hers. “The kid playing the elk is having a helluva good time.”

“He’s Tiffany Schaefer’s boyfriend—she’s the baby-sitter I use most regularly. I understand that having a mascot for the high-school football and basketball teams was his idea. Obviously he’s a bit of a ham.”

“And that’s Tiffany?” Kevin nodded toward the pyramid of cheerleaders, topped by a petite blonde.

Angie bounced on Melanie’s other side. “She’s really pretty, isn’t she?”

Melanie didn’t envy Tiffany’s older sister, who was raising her. Tiffany was great with children, but sometimes impulsive. She was also ravishingly beautiful, a combination that would make any guardian nervous.

“Here we go,” Kevin murmured as the Elks kicked off. The seconds were ticking down; that last field goal had put the home team ahead by six. Only a touchdown could beat them now.

Melanie had never attended an Elk Springs High School football game before, but the draw of seeing Tiffany in action, as well as the debut of the mascot, had been irresistible. When she had mentioned to Kevin that she and Angie were going, he’d promptly said, “Do you want company? Did I tell you I was the quarterback in high school?”

Angie, predictably, was bored and cold. She was far more interested in the antics of the cheerleaders than the action on the field, which she didn’t understand. “How come he threw the ball away?” she would ask. “Why does the other team have it now? Why doesn’t he get up and keep running?”

Kevin tried to explain, but Angie didn’t really want to know what a “down” was. She wanted the game to be over so they could go for pizza, which Kevin had promised.

Medford made the mistake of trying to move the ball on the ground. Fourth down, three yards to go. The crowd stayed breathlessly on their feet, Melanie and Kevin among them. Linemen smashed into each other; bodies piled up. The ball came squirting out and, with a bellow, a stocky Elk Springs linebacker threw himself on it. The game was over.

Joining the mob filing out of the stadium, Melanie had to stop half a dozen times to talk to people she knew. It gave her great satisfaction every time someone called out her name. She loved that this was the kind of small town where she met friends, acquaintances and customers everywhere she went. Who would want to live constantly among strangers when you could have this sense of community?

Of course, she had to introduce Kevin over and over. He was relaxed and friendly, seeming not to mind the curiosity in people’s eyes. As they crossed the parking lot, however, and Angie ran ahead to his four-by-four, he murmured, “Don’t you date?”

“Not often,” Melanie admitted. “Why?”

“I haven’t been sized up that way since the first time I asked a girl to go steady. And that was in fifth grade.”

“Nosiness is a human condition.”

Being able to introduce him had added a delightful fillip to the evening, she had to admit, if only to herself. She could hardly believe she’d been so lucky as to have Kevin interested in her. Of course, she’d dreamed she might meet the right man and remarry someday. But Elk Springs wasn’t loaded with possibilities. Then he’d appeared that day at the park, a newcomer in town. If they fell in love—Melanie didn’t want to admit that she might already be halfway there—if they got so far, he would surely be willing to stay in Elk Springs. Why not? His brother was here, he seemed to be enjoying teaching at the community college, and as he’d said himself, central Oregon was perfect for a lover of the outdoors.

Some mornings Melanie had to pinch herself to make sure her happiness was real. This was their fifth date. Better yet, he was willing to do real things. For example, he’d not only attended Angie’s soccer game, he’d volunteered to be the assistant coach for the rest of the year.

“I’m free afternoons,” he’d said that day when the coach asked for volunteers. “Sure, I’ve played the game.” Deftly stealing the ball from one of the girls, he’d started bumping it on his knee.

“Will you show us how to do that?” Angie had piped up.

Angie, predictably, thought the sun rose and set with Kevin. That part worried Melanie a little. She had only dated him five times. What if they didn’t fall in love? Was Angie counting too much on Kevin always being around?

At the pizza parlor—more generic than Mario’s, and also more to the taste of eight-year-old girls—most of the diners had been at the football game. The mood was jovial, the noise level high.

They grabbed a booth some teenagers had just left. Angie found friends and begged a pile of quarters off Kevin and her mom, after which she disappeared into the video-game room.

“You shouldn’t have given her so many,” Melanie said. “She won’t give up next time she wants something from you.”

“But I remember how frustrating it was when your parents only doled out two quarters. They were gone in about thirty seconds, and then all you could do was stand around and watch other kids play.”

“Sometimes parents have to say no.”

“Sure they do.” He watched her with a small frown on his face, as if he sensed she was worried about more than the indulgence of a little money.

“But was this one of them?”

“No,” she conceded. “I suppose not.”

His big hand gripped hers with the strength she loved. “She’s a great kid. I like her.”

But she loves you, Melanie thought. She couldn’t say that, either. Wasn’t even sure she wanted to. What was wrong with her? Ten minutes ago she’d been incredibly, idiotically happy. Now she was brooding about the future.

For once, why couldn’t she just enjoy herself? Fall in love. Get her heart broken. It happened. She and Angie would survive. She’d be crazy not to take the risk. Especially considering how perfect Kevin was for her.

“I know you do,” she said, giving his hand a squeeze. “She thinks you’re great, too.”

“You want to go hiking this weekend?” He grinned. “You know all the best places to go, right?”

Melanie immediately thought of a lake she’d always loved, nestled on the flanks of Juanita Butte. Five miles in, the walk was too long for Angie, so Melanie hadn’t been in a long time. But maybe Angie could spend the day with a friend.

And maybe, just maybe, this late in the season the trail and the shores of the pristine mountain lake would be nearly deserted. She and Kevin could be truly alone.

Not that alone! she chided herself instantly.

Of course, he saw her blush, she knew he did, but she only said briskly, “Deal.”

His grin was positively wicked. “Alone at last,” he murmured, and she blushed again.

He’d definitely read her mind.

“SO…LET’S TALK about logging. How do we balance the need for lumber and jobs with our responsibility for protecting the environment? Should the national forests be logged? Or is the Forest Service doing nothing but selling out the public interest? What about these timber trades? Let’s talk.”

Kevin leaned comfortably against the windowsill in his classroom. Twenty-five students in this forestry class. Five or six would be truly vocal, another few might chime in with a remark or two. The others he’d have to poke and prod.

Which he was discovering he was pretty good at. Sometimes he could even fire them up enough to fuel a good argument. They’d been studying logging practices, the new federal formulas for how much timber could be taken, the dismal financial picture for mills and logging communities. Now he wanted to know what they thought, where their convictions lay.

Tim Naber, who always had something to say, leaned forward in his chair. The kind with a small attached writing surface, it looked too small for his large frame. “The Forest Service panders to loggers. Their first obligation should be to save the public lands for future generations. Hell—I mean, heck—they’re selling timber for practically nothing, anyway! They should at least be getting a fair price. No landowner would sell trees for what our government takes.”

“You’re right.” Kevin spread his hands and looked around. “What do the rest of you think?”

“We’re a government by the people for the people.” The kid who spoke up was one who rarely participated. Now his cheeks were flushed with anger. “We restrict logging too severely and we’re hurting people. Whole communities are living on welfare. Are owls more important?”

“Yeah,” another kid agreed. “And if we sell the timber for as much as private landowners, more loggers will go out of business, and lumber will get so expensive people won’t be able to afford to build houses. Like, is that what we want?”