It felt like a conspiracy. Melanie might have been suspicious if she’d thought there was the slightest chance Kevin knew Chelsea’s mom. But, in trying to get the girls organized and out to her van, she hardly seemed to notice him.

Left with him in the gymnasium as the crowd eddied out, Melanie said, “Well.”

He waited.

“I’ve been deserted.”

His narrowed eyes focused on her mouth. “Not by me.”

“I noticed,” she admitted.

“Shall we go?”

“Oh.” Of course. They had no reason to wait. “Sure.”

Outside, under the yellow sodium lamps in the school parking lot, Melanie couldn’t think of a thing to say. She waited while Kevin unlocked the four-by-four.

“It feels like snow,” she surprised herself by announcing.

“It does,” he agreed. “Where does Chelsea live? Will Angie be able to get home tomorrow if six inches falls?”

What a nice man, she thought warmly. The last thing he must want was for her to dash across the parking lot and tell Angie, who was even now squeezing into Chelsea’s van, that she couldn’t spend the night, after all. Yet he was suggesting that very thing, if need be.

“Angie could walk if she had to,” Melanie said.

“It’s not that far, and she loves the snow.”

“Ah.” He waited while she got in, then circled to the driver’s side. “I’ve never asked whether you’re a skier,” he said as he settled behind the wheel.

Grateful to have a topic—any topic—that wasn’t emotionally loaded, Melanie chattered all the way to her house about the skiing lessons she’d had when her father was stationed in Germany, including her crush on her instructor and the resulting improvement in her grasp of German.

“I thought I’d completely forgotten how to ski when I moved back here, but do you know, it must be like riding a bicycle, because it came back easily. Although I’m no more than intermediate! The Olympic team won’t be recruiting me.”

He parked in her driveway and turned off the engine. Melanie tried to think of something else to say about her skiing ability and failed.

After a prolonged silence, Kevin said, “Shall I wish you good-night?”

Crunch time. “I…” She bit her lip. “Would you like to come in?”

So often, it seemed, important things were said when she couldn’t see his face well enough to make out his expression. “You don’t have to ask me.” He sounded grave.

“I…want to.” Suddenly she knew she meant it. She was still nervous, but she understood now that her heart didn’t lack certainty. Her problem was that she felt like a teenager on the brink of her first time. It had been so long; would she know what to do? Would Kevin think her breasts were small? Would she please or disappoint him? Would she be disappointed, and discover she’d built up a mere crush into the love of the century? “That is,” she finished, a different kind of uncertainty overtaking her, “if you want to.”

“Oh, yeah.” His voice took on a rough cast. “I want to.”

On the way up to the porch, she wondered with belated social anxiety what drinks she had available to offer him. The occasion seemed to call for wine. Hadn’t her parents left a bottle on their last visit? She had a corkscrew; she knew she did.

Her fingers were shaking as she unlocked the front door and let them in. His felt remarkably steady when he reached up to unzip her parka and slip it off her shoulders.

Now she could see his face, and the hot glow in his eyes made her tremble.

She was going to offer him…something. Herself. No. A drink.

He tossed their parkas onto the back of the couch. Eyes never leaving hers, he took a step nearer, wrapped his hand around the back of her head and bent to kiss her.

All thought vanished. She only felt. The heat of his mouth, the thrust of his tongue, the strength of his hand, the solid wall of his body. Kissing him back felt like the most natural thing she’d ever done. Groaning, he gripped her hips and pulled her tightly against him. She wound an ankle around his, tugged at his hair when he tried to lift his mouth from hers. They were both panting for breath when he nipped at her neck.

“My bedroom…”

He yanked her turtleneck over her head. Pins fell and her hair tumbled to her shoulders. He growled something prayerful and buried his fingers in it. “Beautiful.”

She was struggling to get his shirt off. She had it up to his armpits when she saw the livid scar on his flat belly. Her hands stilled, and he froze at the same moment.

“What happened?” She sounded as shocked as she felt. She touched it lightly. “You never said. This looks new!”

“Not that new. It’s been almost six months. I was shot.”

Melanie let his shirt fall. “But…what happened?” she repeated, feeling dense. He’d been shot only six months ago and never said?

He let out a sound. “I’m sorry. I should have told you. I did say something once.”

“You said something?”

“When you asked if I missed my old life. I said I’d tell you sometime about my last day as a park ranger.”

She remembered the casual way he’d said it, as if something absurd, not dead serious, had happened that last day.

Kevin reached for her. “I don’t like to think about it.”

Melanie backed up a step, feeling the need for distance. “You must have realized I’d see the scar.”

“It’s nothing I’m hiding.” He frowned, but more as if irritated at himself than at her. “It’s why I left the Park Service. No, not why. Just the last straw. I’m a naturalist, not a cop, but the public is destroying the parks. I came across a bunch of drunks partying somewhere they shouldn’t have been, and when I asked them to pack it up, one of them pulled a gun and shot me. He’s in prison now. I spent weeks in the hospital being fed by a tube, and I made the decision to get the hell out.”

“Because you were shot.” She felt numb.

“Yeah…” He caught something in her tone. “No! Not because I was shot. Because my role was changing. Because it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore.”

“You suddenly decided you wanted to be a college professor.”

He eyed her warily. “The opportunity came along and I grabbed it. Dammit, Melanie, what’s wrong? Why is the fact that I was shot such a big deal here?”

“Because you never told me!” she flared. “Because you don’t want to talk about it. Because life decisions made in the hospital after something like that happens may not be lasting ones.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“It means—” she hugged herself, conscious of her near-nakedness “—that you might end up missing what you had.” It means that you might end up leaving Elk Springs. And me. “Mostly, it bothers me that while I was telling you everything I consider important about myself, you didn’t mention that a bullet prompted your arrival in town.”

Kevin swore. “Melanie, I love you.”

She should have been thrilled, not wondering whether that was one of those things men said at such a moment. “Then—” she nodded at his stomach, covered by his shirt “—why didn’t you say anything?”

“Male pride?” He let out a long breath and rubbed the back of his neck. “That, and—” he grimaced “—I guess I didn’t want you to think just what you’re thinking now. That this was impulsive. That I’ll recover and realize I’ve made a mistake.”

“You know, it never would have occurred to me…then.” She imbued the one word with significance. “Now, I have to wonder if you aren’t the one who’s starting to think you were impulsive.”

Kevin took a quick step toward her. “Melanie, this isn’t what matters. It’s how you feel about me, and how I feel about you.”

“I guess—” she hugged herself harder “—that’s what scares me.”

Somehow his arms were around her again, his warmth enveloping her. “It scares you that I love you?”

“It scares me that you’re who you are and not…”

His muscles tightened. “A local yokel who owns his own construction business?”

She went stiff in his embrace. “That’s right. A man with roots.”

“Which part matters to you?” He was suddenly angry, and could she blame him? “My roots? Or who I am?”

“You,” she whispered, “of course. But…”

His jaw flexed. “But?”

“This.” Her hands fluttered. She was trying very hard to cover her cleavage, exposed by her laciest bra. “I’m sorry. I thought I was ready, but I’m not. This is my fault for…for…”

“Leading me on?” His laugh was harsh. “Don’t be ridiculous. We both wanted to be here. But I suspect you’re right. You’re not the only one who needs to do some thinking.”

Why did that hurt? She didn’t let herself figure that out.

“It’s just as well that…something stopped us.”

“Yeah.” He tossed her turtleneck to her. She clutched it to her bosom like a maidenly spinster. Kevin’s voice softened marginally. “Good night, Melanie.” He stepped forward, kissed her lightly on the mouth and left.

She wondered if she would hear from him again.


THE KNOCK on his office door brought Kevin’s head up. He wrote “A—excellent” in red pen, his handwriting slashing across the top of the paper he’d just read. Others were spread across his desk.

“Come in,” he called.

His visitor was unexpected. The president of the college, a vigorous sandy-haired man, opened the door. “Kevin. I’m glad to catch you. I have someone here I’d like you to meet.”

At only forty, John Hunnisett was young to have the position. Formerly the director of admissions at a private university, he’d been brought in just this past year, word had it, to make major changes. Since the ski area had opened at Juanita Butte, Elk Springs had grown at a tumultuous rate, the college alongside the town. Hunnisett had recruited not just Kevin but other new faculty members aggressively, while some tenured professors were being eased out.

Kevin rose to his feet behind his desk. “John, good to see you.”

A gray-haired, stocky man with shrewd eyes followed John Hunnisett into Kevin’s spare office.

“Roger Sterling,” he said, shaking Kevin’s hand. “I’m at the University of Oregon. I’ve heard good things about your teaching.”

“Thank you,” Kevin said warily. “Have a seat. What brings you here?”

Sterling sat, crossed his legs and said straight out, “We’re discussing ways to offer four-year degrees from the university here in Elk Springs. For the moment, just in a few departments. As you know, we’ve already begun in Education. Another area that interests us is yours. Tell me how feasible you think it would be to expand the Forestry and Park Management programs into a four-year major.”