A Taming Season by Claire Gem

A Taming Season by Claire Gem

A Taming Season

Love at Lake George, Book 1

by Claire Gem

Erato Publishing

Ebook ISBN: B01GGRKA3M
Print ISBN: 978-0997432626

[ Contemporary Romance, MF ]

Zoe Anderson heads to picturesque Lake George to heal, reboot her life. But the family cottage holding so many happy memories is now a run-down shack. Neighboring resort mogul Jason Rolland whisks in to the rescue. But a fling turns into something neither expects. Can the playboy win Zoe’s heart?

Note: Prologue omitted.

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Chapter One


“They assigned me a new doctor. A woman this time.”

Zoe took a deep breath and flicked her shoulder-length hair forward, draping the side of her face like a reddish-gold curtain. She sat across from her best friend, Medina, at a corner bistro table at Café D’Alphonse, one block off Broadway. It was oddly quiet at the posh French eatery, especially for a Friday.

“And? What words of wisdom did this new shrink have to offer?” Medina slammed one silk-sleeved elbow down on the checkered tablecloth, riveting her through narrowed eyes.

Zoe already knew how her friend felt about the help she’d been getting. In truth, she couldn’t blame her for being dubious. It had been three years, and Zoe hadn’t improved at all. She still had nightmares, even though the cops caught up with Conroe before he’d had a chance to wash the blood off his hands.

Since then some of her symptoms—the panic attacks, the fainting spells, the word scrambling episodes—had actually worsened.

Conroe was dead, but Zoe had found little comfort in the news the detective had delivered at the hospital, the morning after her life had fractured. The tragedy had seared indelible scars. On her face. On her mind. On her life.

“She says I need to reboot. Restart. You know, like you do when your computer gets fouled up with a virus. You restore . . . to an earlier time.”

Medina arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “Honey, you’re not a computer,” she snapped. “It pisses me off the bitch even talks to you that way. What kind of a quack did they hook you up with this time?”

Zoe’s eyes dropped to the napkin lying folded across her lap. “Someone I hope who can finally help me get through this.” She hugged herself and met her friend’s gaze straight on. “Dina, if I don’t get my act together, I’m going to be out of a job. Barlow as much as told me that when she handed me the medical leave papers.”

“But you’re okay financially aren’t you?” Medina asked. “David took care of you, right?”

“He did. He was very smart that way,” she replied with a smile of remembrance. “But his life insurance isn’t going to support me forever.” She swallowed hard and sucked in a painful breath, dropping her gaze to the knotted fingers in her lap. “I can’t afford to be crazy and out of work for the rest of my life.”

Medina leaned across the table, reaching for Zoe’s hand. “Look. I keep telling you, good little Catholic girl—you’re not crazy. You’ve been through hell. You need to loosen up and accept that your life didn’t turn out like a Disney movie. You’ve got three months. Go on vacation. Get a little drunk. Have a fling.”

Yeah, right.

Zoe sighed and cut her eyes to the sweating goblet of Pinot Grigio next to her plate.

At least if I’m drunk, I’ll have an excuse for babbling. For sounding like my sentences come out of a blender.

Not to mention that the thought of a man even touching her still made Zoe’s stomach lurch.

Rape. She’d read the word dozens of times on her clients’ profiles, but never truly understood the victims’ inexplicable guilt, disgust, and self-loathing. Now, she did. She would never forget those images, and the horror of watching her husband bleed to death while his murderer brutalized her.

Fling? Seriously. Give me a break.

She took Medina’s hand. Its warmth was reassuring. She’d been such a good friend through all this. There at her bedside on the night it happened, holding her hand as detectives grilled her for the disgusting details. Through every one of the three reconstructive surgeries on her face. And at the other end of a phone call whenever Zoe needed her.

Keeping her voice low, Medina said, “It was a bad scene this time, wasn’t it?”

Quick tears turned Zoe’s glass of wine into a wavering, amber blur. She nodded.

“I was right in the middle of a session with a new client. Spousal abuse.” She sought Medina’s eyes. “I went from a social worker to a pathetic puddle in a heartbeat. I couldn’t put five words together into any kind of logical order. It was like my brain froze.” She leaned her forehead on her hand. “I’m supposed to be helping these women, Dina. Not scaring them even more.”

She quickly discovered that news of yet another of her psychotic episodes had flown straight down the hall to her boss’s office. Gladys Barlow had been nothing but supportive of her since David’s death. They both knew how hard it was to get over trauma like this.

But Zoe knew that if her condition didn’t improve, she couldn’t possibly go on serving as a counselor at Family Guardian Services. No matter how much her boss sympathized with her.

After the latest episode she’d spent three weeks—voluntarily—at Brockview Psychiatric Hospital. Group therapy, different medication, a new doctor. She’d been home less than a week, and was feeling stronger and more hopeful than she’d had since that horrific night.

“Honey, you’re still too close to this thing,” Medina said. “You’re living the same life you lived before—working at the same job, with the same people. I think a few months off will do you good. But you’ve got to get out of here. Break your routine.”

“This new psychiatrist agrees with you,” Zoe said. “She says I need to get out of town. Go back home, or somewhere . . . someplace where I have happy memories before I met David.”

Medina nodded. “Okay, so, are you going to visit your parents in Florida?”

“No way.” Zoe rolled her eyes. Suffocating under Mommy’s well-intentioned smothering was the last thing she needed. When her parents retired and moved to Florida, it had been the most liberating thing that had happened to her in recent years. “Remember I told you about the little cabin at the lake where we went every summer? When I was a kid?”

“At Lake George? I remember. Didn’t you just inherit that place?”

“I did. Aunt Delia left it to me. The paperwork was in my mailbox when I got home from the hospital last week.” She shrugged, and then forced a weak smile. “I never knew her very well. Delia was, well, a little eccentric. I quit spending summers there when I started high school, though we still talked on the phone now and again.” Zoe sighed. “I’m sorry she’s gone, but this inheritance . . . it came at a good time, I think.”

“Who’s going up there with you?” Medina asked.

“I’m going alone. I think I need some time by myself.”

Medina’s eyes flashed. “Alone? Are you kidding me? Is this another one of your shrink’s ideas?”

“No,” Zoe said. “This is my idea.” She drew in a deep breath, and then took a sip of her wine. She sat up straighter and squared her shoulders. “If I’m going to reboot my life, I need to start inside my own head.”

Zoe left the next morning, a beautiful sunny Saturday in mid-June. As she navigated up the Cross Bronx expressway, she noticed the traffic didn’t clog the roadway nearly as bad as during the week. By the time her sporty Cadillac broke free of the tangled network of city roadways, she started to feel a little different. A little freer. It had been a long time—a very long time—since the city girl traveled to the mountains.

David never wanted to go ‘up into the boonies,’ his tag for anywhere there weren’t streetlamps, five-star restaurants, and valet parking. Born and raised on Long Island, he was a city boy in the truest sense of the word. When he lost both parents in a car crash at nineteen, he’d inherited their money and invested it wisely. Vacations for David meant Paris, London, even St. Petersburg one year. But a quaint mountain village on the shores of a lake in the Adirondacks? Zoe had never been able to convince him to spend even one weekend there.

She switched to a classical station, the kind of music she seldom listened to. Once out of the exhaust-fume cloud of the city, she shut off her air conditioner and rolled down her windows. Mid-June in Manhattan could be stifling, but here, miles north of the city, the air was cooler, cleaner.

Reboot. Restore to an earlier time.

The words echoed in Zoe’s head like a soothing mantra.

As much as she’d enjoyed her husband whisking her away to exotic locations, Zoe felt a pang of nostalgia now for the simplicity of her childhood summers. Her love for David had been so true, so heart-consuming, she’d never looked back from the day he’d asked her to be his wife. They both plunged toward their future with a united dream—a home on the outskirts of the big city, where they could raise a family but still be close enough to the excitement. They’d had their eyes on one particularly prestigious community in Great Neck.

They had almost made it.

Now, her future lay before her like broken shards of a shattered mirror. Somehow she had to piece it back together.

Her therapist was right. Zoe’s only option was to rewind her life and start over again.

She exited the Thruway, where a clear blue, cloudless sky struck a vivid contrast to the lush green of the mountains on the horizon. As her car crested the hill, the lake opened up below her—a shiny, silvery blue ribbon at the mountain’s base.

Zoe hadn’t been back to the lake in almost twenty years. She knew she couldn’t trust her memory to navigate, so she pulled off the road and fumbled in her purse for the attorney’s letter, which had the cabin’s address, and punched it into her GPS.

Although Zoe remembered the cabin was tucked up against some fancy resort complex, she couldn’t remember its name. And how could she be sure if the place was even still there?

Ah, yes. Lakeview Lodge. It hadn’t moved, but it did look different from the way she remembered. The elegantly scrolled sign at the entrance was new, as were the dozen or so log-faced A-frames that now lined the steep driveway leading down to the lake’s edge. She spotted the wall of pines on the north end of the property and smiled. She remembered the driveway to the cabin wove down between those trees.

Something familiar, please. I need something to look the same, reassure me that not everything in my life has changed forever.

She slowed when she reached the wooded strip, but she didn’t see a mailbox. Creeping farther, the mechanical voice of her GPS startled her.

Right turn here.

Where?

As she coasted slowly past, the computer warned: recalculating route. Zoe slowed and eased her car onto the shoulder. This couldn’t be right. She knew her family’s property was just north of Lakeview Lodge, the driveway winding down the hill between the tall trees.

Yet spread before her, on the north side, was another rolling lawn surrounding more A-framed cabins. A second, matching sign—Lakeview Lodge North—confused her further.

This had been another resort, something else back then. The Catalina or something.

Doubting herself as well as her trusty GPS, Zoe turned the Caddy around. She crept slowly back down the two-lane road, grateful there was no one behind her. When she got to the wooded strip dividing Lakeview’s property, her GPS chirped again, insistently.

Left turn, here.

But there was no break in the wooden rail fence defining the entire length of the lavish resort’s frontage. It was as though the driveway to the cabin had simply disappeared.

Guess I’ll have to ask at the Lodge.

As her car wound slowly along the paved, serpentine entrance to Lakeview, Zoe tried to locate something familiar. But everything about the resort was different. She remembered a cluster of clapboard cottages at the foot of the steeply sloping lawn, lined up like little white boxes at the water’s edge. Now, elegant cedar and glass A-frames dotted the carefully landscaped grounds.

She finally spotted a smaller replica of the other buildings that wore a red neon sign—Office.

Zoe pulled into an empty spot in front, took a deep breath, and got out. A typical tinkling bell dangled from the inside knob and announced her arrival. Two wine-colored leather loveseats furnished the office. They were angled toward a massive, triangular wall of windows that overlooked the lake. Through a doorway behind the knotty pine counter, a smiling, white-haired woman appeared.

“May I help you, Miss?”

“Yes, um, I seem to be a bit turned around. I’m looking for my aunt’s old cottage.” She glanced down at her letter. “At 1334 Lakeshore Drive.”

The woman blinked, and Zoe couldn’t tell if it was surprise or curiosity that caused her straggly eyebrows to rise and inch a little closer together. “I was sorry to hear about your aunt. Quite sudden,” the woman said.

Zoe nodded. “Yes, it was. Did you know Delia?”

“We did. But it’s been several years since she stayed at the lake. Quite a few, in fact.” A head tilt turned the woman’s curious-surprised-pinched brow expression into one Zoe read as pity. “You don’t plan on staying there.” It wasn’t a question, but a rather clipped statement.

Zoe sighed. She had to pee, and her back ached from the four-hour drive. And what business was it of this little old lady what she intended to do? Her patience with the Betty White clone was running out fast.

“Can you please tell me how to find it? It’s been a really long time since I’ve been there, and neither I nor my GPS seem to be able to find the driveway.”

Betty cleared her throat and glanced down at her registration book, picking up the pen and twiddling it between her fingers. Her voice grew tight, brittle. “There’s no driveway . . . anymore. The only way to access the property is through Lakeview.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your aunt sold the right-of-way to Mr. Rolland. About five years ago. The last summer she was here, I believe.”

Now it was Zoe’s turn to blink, raise her brows, and tilt her head. “And, Mr. Rolland is . . . ?”

“The owner. Mr. Rolland owns Lakeview.”

Zoe paused, trying to sort out this new information. “So you mean I’ve inherited a house that’s landlocked? No direct road access?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call that place a house, dear.” Betty’s facetious half-chuckle twisted around the words and irritated Zoe even more. Her expression must have given that away, because the woman pushed back from the counter and reached quickly for the desk phone. “Let me give Mr. Rolland a call. I think it would be best for you to discuss this directly with him.”

While Betty made the call, Zoe used the office restroom. She emerged a bit more comfortable, but no less annoyed. And now, even more confused. True, she’d not been close with Aunt Delia. Neither were her parents. But she was sure her family had no idea that any part of the property had been sold.

The leather loveseat was incredibly comfortable, and felt good on Zoe’s aching back. She tucked herself into the corner, kicked off her shoes, and folded her stiff legs up beside her.

The view of the lake from this spot was spectacular. The tiny A-frame replica sat about halfway up the steep hill that divided the winding two-lane road from Lake George. The new cabins had been placed so none, it seemed, blocked another’s view of the water.

Ingenious architectural feat. Or amazing surveying. Or something.

There were whitecaps on the lake today, and Zoe watched as ski and pontoon boats zipped by. A single sailboat bobbed peacefully in the distance, idyllic against the backdrop of the lush mountains on the other shore.

Yeah, this is exactly what I need. Certainly a change from my window view at home.

Her Manhattan apartment, no way as posh as the one she’d shared with David, was in a lovely, but more modest stretch on the Upper West Side. Situated on the thirtieth floor, her living room had a great view, but the area was noisy and busy with constant traffic and people double parking to grab takeout from the Irish Pub across the street.

Zoe was tired and getting a little hungry. Thinking of the pub, a cool glass of wine sounded nice right about now, too. Where the hell was this Rolland guy, and why couldn’t the old biddy behind the counter simply point the way to her aunt’s—scratch that, her—cottage?

She was busy thumbing through a colorful flyer advertising local attractions when the glass door squeaked open. She looked up.

And all the irritation and fatigue of the day melted away into a single, warm, wet lump in her lower belly.

He was tall—quite tall, and somewhat lanky, but broad shouldered like a male model. His jeans fit his body as if the denim was enjoying every minute. His unbuttoned white polo shamelessly hugged a lean, sculptured torso.

This guy looked like he just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Surely, this can’t be Mr. Rolland.

She’d been picturing a man close in age to the woman she’d been trying to ignore for the past twenty minutes. But as he came through the door, the man glanced quickly at Betty, who nodded in Zoe’s direction. Then he turned his eyes toward her.

Those must be colored contacts. I’ve never seen eyes the same clear, almost iridescent hue as a swimming pool. Maybe it was the contrast against the hair—jet black, stick-straight, and ornery. He’d tried to tame it with some sort of product, but with little success. One chunk hung defiantly over his dark brow.

“Hi. I’m Jason Rolland.”

Jason extended his hand, his gaze scanning every inch of the shapely redhead in the bright, flowered sundress. What the hell was it made of? The clingy fabric outlined every one of her curves. The hem had inched up, gifting him with a view of an incredible set of legs.

So this is the woman I’m going to have to spar with over old Delia’s property. I was hoping this would be a simple, long-distance real estate transaction handled by my attorney. This is going to be a little more complicated than I was anticipating.

Shit.

He cleared his throat as he watched Zoe untangle her legs and struggle to her feet.

Her naked feet. They were perfect too—two tiny, smooth-looking little bugs with pale pink toenails. Innocent little feet, shamelessly exposed. Her toes pressed desperately on the surface of the pristine white tile.

“Hi. I’m Zoe Anderson.”

Breathless. Why did she sound breathless? Jason knew she’d been waiting for him, settled comfortably in the loveseat in the office, right? For at least the past twenty minutes while he’d dug through his file cabinet to review the paperwork he knew she would be here to discuss. So why should she sound breathless?

She must be nervous.

Jason watched as she tugged at the skirt of her dress, and then adjusted the neckline. She drew in a deep breath and hesitated for a very long moment before speaking.

“I’m Delia O’Reilly’s niece, and I inherited her place.” She straightened, apparently trying to stand taller. It didn’t help much. Jason towered over her by at least a half-foot. She tipped her chin up to meet his gaze, and her silky, shoulder length, red-gold hair fell back, revealing all of her face. That’s when Jason caught sight of the jagged pink line etched on her cheek.

Ouch. Where the hell did that come from?

Jason hesitated before answering. “Ooh, I’m sorry about that.” He cleared his throat, and quickly slid his gaze away.

Damn my errant tongue.

“The cabin, I mean. I’m sorry, but I think you might be in for a bit of a disappointment. Do you know anything about the place?” He tried very hard not to sound condescending. But when it came to discussing the shack that Delia O’Reilly had held onto like a life raft, it was a challenge.

“Why?”

The single word sliced through Jason like a knife. Apparently, she was clueless. Had the situation been different, had the heir to Delia’s property not been standing right here in front of him, looking like this, he might have been able to maintain his cool, business armor.

But one glimpse of the brutally scarred face of this softly rounded, vulnerable-looking creature caused Jason’s macho shroud to dissolve.

Without a word, he reached out and took Zoe’s hand.

Her eyes rounded like an owl’s before slowly trailing from his face to their joined hands and back.

Had he offended her? No, she wasn’t pulling away.

Jason squeezed her fingers in reassurance.

“Let me take you down to your aunt’s cottage,” he rumbled. Then he turned to the elderly desk clerk. “The Aspen is open, isn’t it, Agnes? Late cancellation, from what Jade told me. Book Ms. Anderson in that chalet, would you please?” He turned back to Zoe. “You’re a very lucky girl. The Aspen is one of our premier units. It’s usually booked through the entire season.”

Her clear, green eyes bore into his, as though she was trying to say something without opening her mouth. But she didn’t utter a word.

“Come on. I’ll take you down there,” he urged.

“Don’t forget your shoes, Ms. Anderson. The path to Delia’s house has grown over quite a bit,” the desk clerk called after them, sounding more like a scolding parent than hired help.

Thank you, Agnes. Shut up, Agnes. Jason bristled but kept the words inside his head.

He led Zoe down the hill toward the water, following along the edge of the pine wall. The grounds of Lakeview were meticulously mowed right up to the trees. But the soft green carpet ended in a tangle of vines that knitted the tall trunks together into an almost solid mat. The hill was steep and she stumbled once, the toe of her flip-flop catching in the grass. Jason reached out and reclaimed her hand.

“I wouldn’t venture too far into the kudzu,” he warned. “The gardeners told me they’ve seen a snake or two sunning themselves along the edge.”

Their hands still joined, he felt the shudder that ran through her. “Nothing poisonous,” he added. “A garter, maybe a black snake. We don’t bother them. We figure they keep the mice and moles under control.”

The glance she slanted his way still looked wary.

Jason led her down close to the shoreline, to a corner defined by a tall privacy fence. The gate was almost invisible, blending into the solid, white wall. A small padlock hung from the latch. Jason fished a ring of keys out of his pocket and unlocked the gate. He pulled it open, revealing a weedy, overgrown path. He pointed to a small structure in the distance, obscured by the dense greenery surrounding it.

“That’s your aunt’s place. She hadn’t been back here in years.”

“You’ve got to be kidding, right?”

Jason cringed at the horror he heard so clearly in Zoe’s tone.

“I’m afraid so,” he answered flatly. “Delia wasn’t very ambitious about keeping the place up. And she was too damned proud to let my crew even mow her yard for her.”

Jason clearly remembered what the cottage had looked like twenty years ago. White clapboard siding, window boxes overflowing with bright pink flowers. He vaguely recalled peering through the trees now and then, hoping to catch a glimpse of the little girl with the carrot-red, pixie-short hair. The one always curled up on the front porch swing, staring intently into the pages of some book.

Jason cleared his throat, dragging himself back into the present. “Delia’s place, sorry to say, had deteriorated into an eyesore. Detracting from the image I wanted for Lakeview.”

Zoe stared at the abandoned shack in silence for what seemed like forever. Then she turned to glare at him. Before she had a chance to say another word, Jason held both hands up in surrender.

“Hey, look. I tried to buy the place from her. Offered her the best money on the market. She wouldn’t budge.”

Jason watched as Zoe turned back toward what was left of her family’s cottage. This had to be a cruel assault on her childhood memories. He couldn’t help but feel a stab of pity for her.

He didn’t follow as she picked her way through the brush toward the cabin, but stayed behind, leaning against the frame of the gate with his arms folded. He felt like he should say something—anything—to ease the shock for this fragile-looking woman.

The cottage was barely still standing. Most of the white paint lay in tattered shards on top of the mat of kudzu vine that now enveloped the entire foundation. On one end, the supports for the front porch had broken free. The planked surface now tilted at an alarming angle, making it seem as though the building might topple into the lake at any moment.

“Delia was getting on in years,” he called. “She knew she couldn’t keep the place up, but she was bound and determined not to sell it. I tried. I truly did. I was lucky she finally at least sold me the driveway—what was left of it, anyway.”

Jason watched Zoe struggle with each step, her flip-flops catching in the vines. He winced as she swatted repeatedly—convulsively—at her bare legs and arms where deerflies or mosquitoes were no doubt feasting. She took only a few more steps before she gave up.

She turned and faced him, planting her hands on her hips. “How is that even possible? How could she sell you the right of way, but not the property?”

Jason bristled and straightened. “It’s possible, Ms. Anderson. It relieved Delia the responsibility of maintaining that dirt path she called a driveway. I provided paved parking for her here.” Jason pointed to the small rectangle of blacktop behind him. “And for the record, I did Delia a favor. It was the only way she could hold onto this place. The county was about ready to condemn it.”

Even from twenty feet away, Jason caught the flare of anger in her eyes. “So you took her right of way and forced her out. Leaving her—and now me—with a worthless piece of land.”

He tipped back his head and squinted, studying her.

Not such a soft, vulnerable little thing after all. This one has a streak of wildcat, though quite ingeniously disguised.

“It’s not exactly worthless.” He spat the four words out, one at a time. “And I didn’t take Delia’s right of way, Ms. Anderson. I purchased it, fair and legal.”

Zoe stalked back, stopping inches away and glaring up at him. She folded her arms across her chest. The action pushed her freckled cleavage into view.

He couldn’t help it. He was a man, after all. His eyes sometimes had a mind all their own. They strayed down toward those luscious looking, speckled mounds. He also couldn’t help the corner of his mouth twitching, just once.

Yup. Spotted mountain wildcat.

She caught him. When he lifted his gaze, her gold-flecked, green eyes had darkened to flint. She made a dangerous, guttural sound as her fisted hands dropped to her sides.

“My attorney,” she said, stomping past him, “will be the one to determine exactly how fair and legal.”

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