Delilah’s loneliness isn’t the only reason she puts up with Jake’s crustiness. His son brings laughter and love to her empty nest. But her love for the little boy isn’t enough to build the rest of her life on…even if Jake showed interest in her.
GENRE: Romance Page Count: 67,557
Page Springs Campground had no hot showers and no flush toilets. No nearby convenience store stocked cold beer and potato chips. Instead, the Donner und Blitzen River chuckled a lullaby, several of the sites were tucked secretly among tall junipers, and the campground was located at the southern end of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where every western birder would take up residence if he could.
Including Jake Borglund.
Twice around the loop road, and he realized he wouldn’t find a site better suited to him than the last one in the trees. It sat at the foot of a steep cliff, almost totally concealed from the road, and both neighboring sites were vacant. He pulled in.
Jake set up the canopy over the picnic table, knowing that it would be sufficient to hold the campsite while he was absent. Driving your house–an ancient but reliable VW camper–was great for convenience, but you had to leave some semi-permanent fixture at your campsite or lose it. He piled the grub box and duffels holding his gear on one bench and set his binoculars beside them. Finally, he went after firewood. Jake had a propane camp stove, but nothing beat the flickering light of an open fire. It satisfied primitive needs, as well as giving food a unique flavor.
As soon as camp was set up to his satisfaction, he reached into the icebox for a beer. “Ahhh.” The cold hit his belly with a feeling almost like pain, and he imagined the bubbles carrying the alcohol into his bloodstream.
Maybe now he would finally relax. He rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. He could feel the hard knots of tension that had resided there since he’d returned from the Arctic, eight months ago.
For at least the next two years, he would be living in Burns, Oregon, thirty miles north of Refuge headquarters, and spending much of his time in the Alvord Desert, a barren, alkaline wasteland a hundred miles from almost everywhere.
It sounded like heaven to him.
From the corner of his eye, Jake saw a dusty black motorcycle gliding along the narrow, dirt road. Its rider wore black boots, black leather jacket and pants, black fringed gloves with silver studs at the knuckles, black helmet with a mirrored faceplate. The hairs at Jake’s nape twitched, tried to stand erect.
“Damn!” But he didn’t say it loud enough for the rider to hear. Some bikers were good neighbors, and some weren’t. This guy might not be very big, but he could be mean.
With almost a whole campground to choose from, the biker pulled into the site next to Jake’s. He sat on his bike for a long moment, looking around. The featureless, reflective face aimed toward Jake for several seconds, and again he was aware of a stirring at the back of his neck.
Finally the throaty purr ceased. A hawk’s scream seemed almost loud in the sudden silence as the rider dismounted. Jake saw just how small the fellow was as he stood, slim and not too tall, beside his big motorcycle, removing his gloves.
A slender hand reached to remove the visored helmet. The ivory throat emerging from a half-zipped, turned-up collar supported no masculine head, nor was that softly rounded chin subjected to a razor’s caress each morning. The woman turned, and he saw a heart-shaped face, a sweet, pouty mouth. Before he could pretend he hadn’t been watching her, she smiled.
“Hi! Isn’t this a lovely place?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t need a chatty neighbor, no matter how she raised his temperature. Jake picked up the journal he’d been leafing through and made a great show of interest in it.
Perhaps it would have been better if he’d gone directly out to the Alvord Desert. He needed to reconnoiter the area where he would be conducting his Snowy plover study next spring, to find a place he could camp, and to mark in some preliminary transect locations on the map. Instead he had come here, to clear his mind and refresh his soul. Tomorrow he would arise with the first hint of dawn, and go deep into the Refuge to be alone with the calls of birds and the soft whisper of wind among the willows.
For a moment, sharp regret gripped him. His sons would have enjoyed camping here. He could have taken them hiking up the river, maybe taught them to fish. Early in the morning, he would have coaxed them from their sleeping bags to drive the Central Patrol Road, up the center of the Refuge, hoping to see deer in the willows, eagles soaring overhead. He’d been forced to discover the wonders of nature by himself, but he’d always planned to show them to his sons.
Where had the years gone?
“Any wood around here?”
Jake turned. It was the biker. Her smile was as broad and friendly as before. Couldn’t she take a hint? “There’s a wood bin up at the other end.” He gestured in that direction. “Two bucks a bundle. Put your money in the box.”
Jake turned back to his contemplation of a nearby juniper tree. Evading another’s eyes as a means of avoiding conversation was second nature to him.
Although he still had a house to find and arrangements to make for Matthew’s care when he was out in the field, they could wait. First he would explore the Refuge and remind himself that there was still beauty and peace in the world. The past eight months had been as close to hell as he’d ever come.
It took Delilah Grey about an hour to set up camp, but by the time she was done, she was ready to go again. Unfriendliness radiated from the next campsite like an almost physical force. If she hadn’t been specifically instructed where to camp, she would probably have moved to the farthest site from his. Instead she went up the mountain.
She had left Burns early Wednesday morning, needing time alone before meeting the motorcycle club at Page Springs. The rest of them weren’t planning to go up on the Steens, and she wanted to. In her whole life in the Burns area, she had never been to the top of the massive fault-block mountain that dominated the skyline to the south of town.
The Steens Mountain Loop road was said to be a challenging drive. Delilah was quickly convinced. After the first mile of loose gravel, ruts, dust, and washboards, only sheer stubbornness kept her fighting her way to the top where, it was said, she could see a hundred miles in any direction.
An hour later, and only a couple of miles short of the summit, she turned onto the Kiger Gorge spur, her arms shaking from the strength it took to steer, inwardly condemning her own bullheadedness.
Delilah spent the next hour sitting on the edge of nothingness, tossing pebbles down the almost sheer cliff. Her eyes registered the spectacular scenery, the scattered patches of color on slopes far below. Her mind ignored her surroundings. She had decisions to make, and she wasn’t even sure what they were.
All she knew was that she couldn’t face thirty or forty more years of empty nest. Of empty life.
She couldn’t seem to think straight any more. Ever since Liza had decided not to come home this summer, she had felt at loose ends. Adrift.
She tossed a whole handful of pebbles, listening to them clinking and pinging down the sheer black cliffs for six hundred feet and more. A fitful breeze pulled strands of baby-fine brown hair free from the long pigtail tucked into her leather jacket. Warmth soaked into her shoulders, even though the wind had a cold bite to it. She was alone in the universe, except for half a dozen swallows hunting with long carefree swoops.
Maybe that was what was really bugging her. Absently her hand scrabbled for more pebbles, but she’d picked the ground around her clean this past hour.
Alone. Her daughters had lives of their own, now. Marilyn was wrapped up with Chuck and the coming baby. Liza was so far away. This was the first summer she hadn’t come home from college, the first summer Delilah had to accept that her own baby had left the nest for good.
“I’ve already got an apartment, Mom,” Liza had announced last May. “One of the grad students will be going back east in August, and I can have his. It’s exactly what I can afford.”
“You’ll come home at Christmas, won’t you?” Delilah had tried not to let Liza see how hard it was to let go, how much she wanted to plead that her younger daughter come home and fill the empty house with her laughter.
“I won’t stay away too long. Promise. Cross my heart.”
Delilah could almost see the solemn expression on Liza’s face as she went through the motions of swearing an unbreakable oath. She smiled. A woman grown and a thousand miles away, Liza still understood her mother better than anyone.
Alone. The saying that life began when the dog died and the last child left home was a pile of B.S. That’s when loneliness began.
It wasn’t being alone that frightened her. “That’s right,” she told herself in a soft whisper that the desert breeze carried away as soon as it was born. “Admit it. You’re scared. Scared of empty years, without anyone to mother, to fuss over. Without any one to love.”
Delilah sighed and pulled herself to her feet. Shadows were lengthening in the gorge. It was time to go meet the rest of the club.
The words she hadn’t spoken lingered in her mind. Without someone to love me. To love me. Love me…
Once more Jake watched her drive into her campsite. Both she and her bike were gray with dust. Where the hell had she been?
This time he made no pretense of looking elsewhere. He watched her. When she peeled off the leather jacket to reveal a bright red, sleeveless top, he had to admire full breasts and rounded hips that made her slim waist look even smaller. She was why leather pants had been invented; sleek, supple, and molding themselves to every sweet curve.
When she crawled into her tent, giving him a delectable view as she disappeared, he gave up. Tossing the journal into the camper, he locked up and strode off, disgusted with his sophomoric reaction to a sexy butt and long legs.
Sure he’d been without a woman for a long time–a very long time. But it wasn’t as if he was a kid anymore, horny all the time. He’d learned long ago to contain his need, had never been more than momentarily tempted to betray Cathy.
The more fool he.
After her earlier attempts to be neighborly, Delilah ignored the man next door when she returned–or tried to. She took a stroll around the campground, stopping to chat with several other campers, and picked up a couple of bundles of firewood from the bin. The restlessness that had driven her to the top of the Steens was still there, but taking second place to the overcooked spaghetti sensation in her legs and forearms. For a while there, she hadn’t been sure she would get to the bottom of the hill, unless she crawled, dragging her ‘cycle behind her.
Walking eased the shakiness in her forearms and legs, but then she could feel the fatigue that tomorrow would be aches and pains. Her skin felt gritty, a damp washcloth having been totally inadequate to remove thick layers of dust.
The river was low, but there was a pool just deep enough for soaking tired feet. The water had been slightly warmed by miles of shallow, sunlit runs. It was still cold, but thankfully didn’t feel like it had just dripped off a glacier. She sat on a sun-warmed rock and dabbled her feet, occasionally reaching down to cup enough in the palm of her hand to splash on her face. Her unfriendly neighbor came down the trail after a while and she watched him out of sight.
He was worth watching. Too bad his disposition didn’t match his appearance. She didn’t think she’d ever seen hair quite like his, gold-and-silver in wide, well-defined bands. His eyes were light, but she couldn’t determine their color. And his face told of years of outdoor living in hot climates under bright sun.
It wasn’t hard to imagine him riding into town on a black horse, immediately intimidating every potential desperado into instant sainthood. He was the quintessential spaghetti-western hero, complete with deep creases bracketing the kind of sensual mouth every woman dreamed of kissing. As he walked away from her, she admired the fit of his Levi’s, the way his blue chambray shirt was strained by the breadth of his shoulders.
A hungry ache gripped her belly. It had been a long time since a man had affected her this way. Committed by choice to abstinence for most of the years while her daughters were growing up, Delilah had figured that avoiding the occasion of temptation was better than fighting it. She’d lost the habit of man-watching.
She decided, from the tumult within her, that maybe she should have kept in practice. Now she was going to have to relearn the skill. For a month or so, she would allow herself an hour a day looking at male cheesecake. The “buns” calendar her young assistant had shown her last winter, perhaps. Then next month, she could sit on Broadway during her lunch hour and watch men walk by. One day she would observe buns. The next, she would go on to better things.
By the time she was sufficiently practiced to be able to man-watch an hour without getting sweaty palms, she would be ready for the real test. She would hang out at the municipal pool every afternoon, watching the young hunks cavort in their tight swimsuits.
“Stop it, Delilah Grey! You’re too old for that kind of nonsense.”
Splashing to the shore, she grabbed her towel and slipped into her flip flops. Time to start the coffee. The club would expect it to be ready when they got here.
Shadows were lengthening when Jake returned from his hike up the river–his not-so-strategic retreat. He rooted in his ice chest, not finding anything appetizing. Maybe he’d wait until he was hungry enough for hot dogs to sound good. He looked up from the infant blaze he was nursing in the concrete firepit when he heard a rumble from the direction of the main road. The rattle-clang of the cattle guard at the campground entrance sounded again and again.
His heart nearly stopped when he saw motorcycle after motorcycle sweep along the roads through the campground. To his appalled perception, it seemed like there were hundreds of them.
A burly man on a red bike pulled into the other empty campsite next to Jake’s. “Delilah’s already here,” he called. “That’s her tent.” Another bike, this one a metallic blue, joined his. Gradually the rest of them sorted themselves out, two or three bikes to a campsite. The deep-throated growls diminished and then died, to be replaced by yells and catcalls.
Jake hardly moved while the bikers took over the camp, surrounding him. When only human voices broke the silence, he looked back down at his fire. It had gone out, after burning all the dry tinder he’d been able to find.
“Hell and damnation!” He pounded his fist on the rough concrete structure that should have, by now, held a cheerful blaze. There was nothing cheerful about the pile of scorched kindling. Getting to his feet, he resisted the urge to kick the side of the firepit and went to the van to pull out his propane stove.
For a while after the other motorcycles swept into the campground, all was chaos. Delilah sat on her picnic table and watched as they sorted themselves out, two couples to a campsite. She was glad there were enough available sites so she didn’t have to share hers. Sometimes she felt like the proverbial fifth wheel. Usually she didn’t really mind being the only single in a couples club, but somehow when the evenings wound down and everyone wandered off to their zipped-together sleeping bags, she hated going to her one-woman tent.
The men started fires to produce coals for perfect steaks, the women set tables, and eventually everyone converged on Delilah’s site, coffee mugs in hand. She noticed her neighbor was at his table, shoulders hunched as if he were shutting out the world. If his heavy log picnic table wasn’t permanently fixed to the ground, she’d bet he’d turn it sideways so he could present his back to her.
She wasn’t sure she blamed him. He’d been alone at this end of the campground until the Harney County Riders arrived. Quiet they weren’t.
Jake did his best to shut out the voices from the other campsites. He forced himself to concentrate on the results of a new study of reproductive success among brown pelicans. It appeared that the effect of DDT on their eggs was lessening, at least in Gulf Coast populations.
He just wished they would settle down and all go back to their own sites, instead of congregating next door to him.
Delilah! What kind of name was that? Without thinking, Jake turned to see, and was captured. The woman no longer wore leathers, but running shorts and a loose T-shirt advertising John Deere tractors. Her hair was caught back into a ponytail, instead of the thick brown braid she’d worn earlier, and it hung in sleek waves halfway down her back.
An irritating whine sounded in his ear, reminding him that he was sitting at the south end of the biggest wetland in Oregon–prime mosquito habitat. He hoped she had her bug repellent on, or those ivory legs would soon be marred by a galaxy of red swellings.
Jake’s jaw tightened as he again forced his attention to the journal he held. He should move to the other side of the table, so he wouldn’t have to look at her across his firepit. But even if he did, he couldn’t be able to shut out the sounds.
“You want me to ask him to move, Rod? Why me?”
Her voice was low pitched and husky, interesting in such a feminine woman. It wasn’t shrill, like Cathy’s was. No, her voice was musical. Jake felt as if there were wind chimes singing just beyond earshot.
“Well, you’re his next-door neighbor,” the burly man said.
“And ’cause you always manage to get your way,” a dumpy little woman in faded denim put in. “Honestly, Delilah, I don’t see how you do it, but all you have to do is smile at a man, and he’s eating out of your hand.”
Jake didn’t join in. It was obvious they were siccing her on him. Just let her try. He had been here first, and here he’d stay.
Delilah couldn’t look at the occupant of the campsite next to hers when Rod, Emily, Opal and Frank were trying to convince her to ask him to move to one of the sites at the periphery of the campground. She was too embarrassed, knowing he could probably hear every word, especially Opal’s. That woman never spoke under a shout. Besides, it wasn’t feminine charm that let Delilah get along with all the men; it was diplomacy and knowing when to shut up. God knows, she’d had enough practice at that when she had lived with Merle.
The comments on her ability to convince people to do what they didn’t want to had become increasingly ridiculous, until she hoped the camper next door hadn’t overheard what had been said.
Then she saw his face, half in shadow. The deep grooves bracketing his mouth held darkness, and his deep-set eyes were black holes in his face. But what struck her was the pain he wore like a mask. She hadn’t seen it in sunlight, but here, in the shadows of twilight it was all too evident. Abruptly she spun on her heel, forgiving him his earlier lack of cordiality.
“Forget it, guys,” she told Emily, whom she had almost bowled over.
“What?” Her friend’s face was the picture of surprise–round eyes, round mouth opened in a soundless oh!
“Let him stay there. He’s not hurting us.” She kept her voice deliberately low. It was bad enough that Opal’s argument carried across the campground and halfway up the mountain.
“Oh, darn it, Delilah, you know we planned to all be together,” Emily chimed in. “It won’t be nearly as much fun if we’re not.”
“We’ll manage,” Delilah said, firmly. “I’m not going over there to ask that man to move. He’s got as much right to his campsite as we have to ours.” She pulled free of Opal’s restraining hand and crawled into her tent.
Darn! Just a single glance at him had started the old hormones flowing again. What was wrong with her? Why did a heaviness grow in her abdomen and a tightness develop at the tips of her breasts when all she did was look at him?
Yet he stood tall in her mind’s eye, hands in hip pockets and legs braced apart. The faded wrinkles in his Levi’s pointed like so many “follow-me” arrows to the heavy bulge at his crotch. The pale curls in the vee of his shirt demanded that her fingers untangle them and smooth them against the sweaty planes of his pectorals. Even the harshness of his face–lips drawn into a thin line and eyes narrowed–was appealing to her.
Appealing? Bullfeathers! She wanted to sling him across the seat of her bike, carry him off to some grassy glade, and ravish his body until he begged for mercy.
Delilah stared up into firelit peak of her tent and wondered. She would be a grandmother in four short months. She was a member of the Merchants’ Club, a 4-H leader, and a pillar of the community. Where were these outrageous thoughts coming from?
The ache in her belly intensified, answering her question. It had been a very long time.
Jake couldn’t stop thinking about her. Those legs were spectacular! Long, lean, and well-toned, they lacked the clots of muscle that often marred athletic women’s legs. He wondered if it was genes or her choice of exercise that accounted for them.
Legs were his weakness. He didn’t care if a woman was stacked, or even if she was beautiful. As long as she had sleek, agile legs, the kind that looked as if they would lock around a man and keep him captive through the moments of love, she was sexy to him.
Cathy had short legs. Should that have been a sign that she was wrong for him? God knew there should have been some way to tell.
“Damnitohell!” He tossed the journal aside, not caring that it slid across the table and into the dirt.
Why did his every train of thought lead back to Cathy? After eight months, shouldn’t he be getting over the rage, the pain, the resentment? It was time he picked up the tangled strands of his life and wove them anew into something satisfying and rewarding. Something that didn’t include a half-naked broad with spectacular legs.
He didn’t have time for anything in his life but his birds and his son. Not now.
Supper was riotous. Everyone in the Harney Riders seemed to have had a busy summer, too much to do, too little time to do it in. As had Delilah. Now, the first night of a two-week road trip, they were cutting loose, getting used to freedom from daily cares and familial responsibilities. Although none of the eleven couples had children still at home, many of the women helped out with grandchildren, and one of the men worked with teenage boys who got in trouble with the law. All were busy, with lives full of careers and volunteer commitments. Delilah sympathized with their mild hysteria, having spent the first four days of her vacation in a frenzy. She had cleaned her big house from attic to cellar, sewn three maternity tops for her elder daughter, Marilyn, and deliberately not thought about work. For most of these people, this was the first day of their vacations.
After the supper mess was cleaned up, the men migrated to Barret’s site to discuss, for the hundredth time, the routes they’d follow to Florence, on the Oregon Coast, then to Reno. The women stayed in the open, treeless site where everyone had eaten, sitting in the dark, their voices a high murmur in the late summer night. Emily was, as usual, trying to mother Delilah.
“Well, I don’t understand why you won’t come with us, Delilah. I just don’t like the idea of you wandering around out here in the desert all by yourself,” Emily complained. “And you’d like Reno. I remember you said once you’d like to go there someday.”
“I’ll be fine,” Delilah said, patting Emily’s hand. Dear old lady, she thought. Worrying about me as if I were still a kid. And me a grandmother soon.
“Of course you will. I’m not fussing about your physical well-being, dear,” Emily said with some asperity. “It’s your state of mind that has me concerned.”
“Now that I’m on vacation, my mind is in a fine state.”
“Nonsense! And even if it were, too much solitude is not good for you. Not at this stage of your life.”
“Emily, Emily, what am I going to do with you? I am forty-two years old, I’ve raised two daughters into women I’m proud of, and Jim says he can’t run the shop without me–and puts his money where his mouth is. I’m better off now than I’ve ever been before.”
Would Emily understand, Delilah wondered, if she told her friend that the solitude was why she was out here, where there were no demands on her every waking moment? She needed to get her life in order, to deal with the feelings of undefined need that had been growing on her for the past few months. That was why, when the road trip had been in the planning stage, she had made up her mind not to go, no matter how she longed to see the ocean. Delilah didn’t need a vacation so much as she needed time to examine her life and clarify her vision of the future.
She might be spending the rest of her life alone, but she was determined it would not be empty. There were plenty of causes around Burns that could benefit from her organizational abilities. Perhaps she would help Marilyn at the Center. Or there were always the classes offered by Treasure Valley Community College; maybe she’d take something besides accounting courses. She really didn’t want to spend the next thirty years as the office manager of a John Deere dealership, did she?
Perhaps she’d decide to sell the house, pare her belongings down to what she could carry on the Norton, and become a gypsy.
Or maybe I should have an affair.
Immediately following that outrageous thought, a vision of her unsociable neighbor flashed across her mental vision. And was just as quickly banished.
Delilah turned to Emily, feigning interest in the conversation. She hoped she hadn’t missed anything.
“I just wish you had taken your vacation at some resort. Sailed off to Hawaii, or something,” Emily was complaining.
Delilah laughed. “I can just see me on a cruise ship, Em. Old enough to be half the crew’s mother. Besides, I’m still not exactly prosperous–I had to finance part of Liza’s college costs, remember?”
Again she patted the older woman’s hand. “Believe me, I’m doing this by choice. Do you realize that I have never, in my whole life, been alone and on my own?”
She saw the curiosity on Emily’s face, in the dim light from a propane lantern at another campsite.
“I was barely seventeen when Merle and I got married. I went from being a dutiful daughter to being a dutiful wife, without ever having tried my wings. Then, after the divorce, I had the girls to look after and didn’t have time to be anything but a dutiful mother.”
“What is this, true confession time?” Rod slipped a thick arm around Emily’s waist as he sat beside her. “You about ready for bed, Em? Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day.”
“I was just reassuring ‘Mother’ Emily that I’ll be all right on my own while you all are down in Reno, gambling away your retirement funds,” Delilah said, lightly. “I think you two need my advice worse than I need yours this time.”
Delilah wished the older couple good night and crawled into her tent, but not before she looked long and hard at the silent VW van in the next campsite. What magnetism flowed from its aloof occupant to pull her constantly in his direction?
Aside from the fact that he was the sexiest man she’d ever seen.