The sun shone brightly on that early mid-May morning. The crisp, cool air smelled of damp leaves—an appealing, earthy scent. A mist from the nearby lake blanketed the ground, swirling around her sneaker-covered feet.
Phoenix Rose stood at the high entrance to the resort and looked down at the neat, winding rows of RVs and fifth wheels in various sizes, as well as the numerous log cabins and the rustic tent grounds. All was quiet, as if no one had yet awakened.
She could have parked in the lower lot, closer to her destination, but she wanted the time to take it in.
Besides, after driving for a few hours, she’d enjoy stretching her legs.
Breathing deeply, she filled her lungs with fresh air, also filling her heart with hope.
It was such a beautiful morning that her clip-on sunglasses, worn over her regular glasses, only cut back the worst of the glare; she had to shade her eyes with a hand as she took in the many unique aspects of Cooper’s Charm RV Park and Resort.
Before submitting her résumé to the online wanted ad, she’d scoured over all the info she could find. She’d also studied the map to familiarize herself with the design.
The website hadn’t done it justice.
It was more beautiful than she’d expected.
Dense woods bordered the property on one side and at the entrance, giving it a private, isolated feel. To the other side, a line of evergreens separated the park from an old-fashioned drive-in that offered nightly movies not only to the resort guests, but also to the residents in the surrounding small town of Woodbine, Ohio.
At the very back of the resort, a large lake—created from a quarry—wound in and around the land before fading into the sun-kissed mist, making it impossible to see the full size. Currently, large inflated slides and trampolines floated in and out of the mist, randomly catching the sunshine as they bobbed in the mostly placid water. Phoenix couldn’t imagine anyone getting into the frigid water today—or even this month—but the online brochure claimed the lake was already open, as was the heated in-ground pool.
She was to meet the owner near the lake, but she’d deliberately arrived fifteen minutes early, which gave her a chance to look around.
After six months in hotel rooms, and a month familiarizing herself with the park, Cooper’s Charm already felt like home. She could be at peace here and that meant a lot, because for too long now, peace of mind had remained an elusive thing.
Knowing her sister was waiting, Phoenix pulled out her phone and took a pic of the beautiful scenery, then texted it to Ridley, typing, Arrived.
Despite the early hour, Ridley immediately texted back, Are you sure about this?
Positive, Phoenix replied. She hadn’t been this certain in ages. Hope the interview goes well.
Loyal to the end, her sister sent back, He’ll take one look at you and fall in love.
Phoenix grinned even as she rolled her eyes. Ridley had the misguided notion that everyone else shared her skewed but adoring perception. I’ll settle for a job, thank you very much.
Keep me posted. Love you.
Her heart swelled. Through thick and thin, Ridley was her backup, her support system, and the person she trusted most in the whole world. Her parents were great too, very attentive and protective, but it was her sister who best understood her. It didn’t matter that Ridley lived a very different lifestyle, or that their goals in life were so different.
Phoenix loved working with her hands, staying busy, and took satisfaction from a job well done.
Ridley enjoyed seeing the world, traveling nearly nonstop to posh destinations, had an exquisite flair for the latest fashions and detested being messy in any way.
Different, but still best friends through and through.
Phoenix signed off in her usual way. Love you, too. Byeeeee...
She knew Ridley was still worried, and that bothered her. Much as she appreciated her sister’s dedication, she wanted to portray an air of confidence and independence...just as she once had.
She didn’t like being weak, and she didn’t like allowing others to impact her life, yet both had happened. This was her chance to get back to being a strong, capable woman.
If all went well, today would be a start toward reaching that goal.
Taking her time, Phoenix strode through the grounds, familiarizing herself on her way to the lake. She really wanted to explore the woods and the small, quaint cabins where she would live.
More than that, though, she wanted to be at the lake when Cooper Cochran arrived. She wouldn’t be late, wouldn’t be nervous and wouldn’t screw up her fresh start.
Unfortunately, just as she rounded a play area filled with swings and slides, she saw the lone figure standing along the sandy shore, a fishing rod in hand.
Was that Cochran?
Good Lord, he was big, and impressively built, too, with wide, hard shoulders and muscular thighs. She hated to admit it, but that could be a problem for her.
After all, she’d learned the hard way, on a very basic level, that big men were also powerful men.
Pausing to stare, she pressed a hand to her stomach to quell the nervous butterflies taking flight at the sight of him.
The sunrise gilded his messy, sandy-brown hair. As he reeled in his line, then cast it out again, muscles flexed beneath a dark pullover with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows, showing taut forearms and thick wrists dusted with hair. Worn denim hugged his long legs.
He seemed to stand nearly a half foot taller than her five feet four inches. God, how she’d prayed he’d be a smaller, less...imposing man.
Finding information on the resort had been easy. Finding information on Cooper Cochran...not so much.
She stood frozen on the spot, trying to convince her feet to move, doing her best to conquer her irrational reservations, but she was suddenly, painfully aware that they were all alone on the shore. Logically, she knew it wasn’t a problem. Plenty of people were around, though in their RVs or cabins, so there was no reason to be afraid.
Not here, not now.
Lately, though, fear had been a fickle thing, often re-emerging out of nowhere. She’d always been able to hide that fear from her parents, but Ridley was a different matter. Her sister would take one look at her and understand.
But Ridley wasn’t here now, and this job was important...
As if he’d known she was there all along, he glanced over his shoulder at her. Reflective sunglasses hid his eyes, and yet she felt his scrutiny and a touch of surprise. She knew his gaze was burning over her and it caused her to shift with nervous awareness.
She guessed him to be in his midthirties, maybe nine or ten years older than her. No one would call him a classically handsome man. His features were as bold as his body, including a strong jaw, masculine nose and harshly carved cheekbones.
Not typical good looks, but he certainly wouldn’t be ignored.
She could see that he hadn’t yet shaved this morning, and she wasn’t sure if he’d combed his hair. The breeze and fog off the lake might have played with it, leaving it a little wavier than usual.
She couldn’t look away, couldn’t even blink.
His scrutiny kept her pinned in place with a strange stirring of her senses, unpleasant only in its unfamiliarity.
Releasing her by turning back to the lake, he said, “Ms. Rose?”
The words seemed to carry on the quiet, cool air.
Phoenix swallowed. “Yes.” She watched as he cast out yet again. It almost seemed that he gave her time to get herself together. Of course, he couldn’t know why she was so reserved. Still, his patience, his apparent lack of interest, finally helped her to move forward.
She watched the way his large hands deftly, slowly, reeled in the line.
Her feet sank in the soft, damp sand. “Mr. Cochran?”
“You can call me Coop.”
He had a deep, mellow voice that should have put her at ease but instead sharpened her awareness of him as a large man.
“I like to fish in the morning before everyone crowds the lake. Are you an early bird, Ms. Rose?”
“Actually, yes.” A white gull swooped down, skimmed the water and took flight again. Ripples fanned out across the surface. By the minute, the mist evaporated, giving way to the warmth of the sun. “You know I had my own landscaping business.” She’d told him that much in their email correspondence concerning her application. “In the summer especially, it was more comfortable to start as early as possible. I’ve gotten in the habit of being up and about by six.”
“You won’t need to be that early here.”
“Okay.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. “The lake is beautiful.”
“And peaceful.” This time when he reeled in the line, he had a small bass attached. “Do you fish?”
He hadn’t faced her again and that made it easier to converse. “When I was younger, my sister and I would visit our grandparents for the weekend and we’d fish in their pond. That was years ago, though.” This was the strangest interview she’d ever had. It was also less stressful than she’d anticipated.
Had Cooper Cochran planned it that way—or did he just love to fish?
“You don’t fish with them anymore?”
“They passed away just before I turned twenty. Granddad first, and my grandma not long after.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like you made good memories with them, though.”
“Yes.” Fascinated, she watched as he worked the hook easily from the fish’s mouth, then he bent and placed the bass gently back in the water before rinsing his hands. “Too small to keep?”
“I rarely keep what I catch.” He gestured toward a picnic table. “Let’s talk.”
Until then, she hadn’t noticed the tackle box and towel on the summer-bleached wooden table.
She followed Cochran, then out of habit waited until he’d chosen a spot so she could take the side opposite him—a habit she’d gotten into with men. These days she preferred as much distance as she could manage.
He stepped over the bench, dropped the towel, pushed up his sunglasses and seated himself.
Golden-brown eyes took her by surprise. They were a stark contrast to his heavy brows and the blunt angles of his face.
She realized she was staring, that he merely stared back with one brow lifted, and she quickly looked away. Thankfully, she still wore the clip-on sunglasses, giving her a hint of concealment.
She retreated behind idle chitchat. “I studied the map online and feel like I know my way around. The lake is more impressive than I’d realized. The photos don’t do it justice.”
“I’ve been meaning to update the website,” he said. “It’s been busy, though. We lost our groundskeeper and housekeeper at the same time.”
“Someone had both positions?”
He smiled with some private amusement. “No. Either position is a full-time job. But without any of us noticing, the two of them fell in love, married and then headed to Florida to retire.”
“Oh.” She expected to find many things at the resort, but love wasn’t on the list. Love wasn’t even in her universe.
“You said you checked out the map online?”
“Actually, I researched everything I could about the place, including the surrounding grounds, and I’m sure I’d be a good fit for the job.”
When he looked past her, she quickly turned her head to find a woman approaching with a metal coffeepot in one hand, the handles of two mugs hooked through the fingers of the other.
Cooper stood. “Perfect timing, Maris.”
The woman’s smile was easy and friendly. “I was watching.” Long, dark blond hair caught in a high ponytail swung behind her with every step. Soft brown eyes glanced at Phoenix. “Good morning.”
“Coffee?” She set one mug in front of Cooper and filled it.
Phoenix nodded. “Yes, please.”
Maris filled the second mug, then dug creamer cups and sugar packets from a sturdy apron pocket, along with a spoon wrapped in a napkin. “Coop drinks his black, but I wasn’t sure about you.”
Anyone who presented her with coffee on a cool morning instantly earned her admiration. “I’ll take it any way I can get it, but I prefer a little cream and sugar, so thank you.”
Cooper reseated himself. “Maris Kennedy, meet Phoenix Rose. Maris runs the camp store. Phoenix is here about the position for groundskeeper.”
Slim brows went up. “Really? I was assuming housekeeper.”
Cooper’s smile did amazing things to his rugged face, and disastrous things to her concentration.
He explained to Phoenix, “We’ve never had a woman tend the grounds.” Then to Maris, he said, “Ms. Rose used to run her own landscaping company. She’s more than qualified and we’d be lucky to get her.”
Phoenix perked up. Did that mean he’d already made up his mind to hire her?
“Especially now.” Maris leaned a hip against the end of the table. “I don’t know if Coop told you, but we’re starting this season shorthanded. We were all taking turns with the grounds and the housekeeping, so everyone will be thrilled to take one thing off their list.”
Still unsure if she had the job or not, Phoenix said, “It’d be my pleasure to make things easier. If I’m hired, I can start right away.” She glanced at Cooper and added, “Today even.”
Maris straightened. “Seriously?”
Already feeling a sense of purpose that had been missing for too long from her life, Phoenix nodded. “I’m anxious to get to work.”
Cooper put his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Then consider yourself hired.”
Behind the glasses, her eyes widened. “Just like that?”
“You expected a different outcome?”
“Well, no, but—” She could barely contain her excitement. If she didn’t have an audience, she would have danced across the sandy shoreline.
“I bet you already packed, didn’t you?”
Heat rushed into her cheeks for being so presumptuous, but she admitted the truth with a grin. “My car is full.”
“Glad to hear it.” He took a drink of his coffee, then said, “You had a great résumé, so meeting was just a formality.”
More than a little dazed, Phoenix said, “Thank you.”
“So you accept?” Maris asked.
“Fantastic. So where are we putting her?”
With his gaze on his coffee, Cooper said, “I was thinking cabin eighteen.”
Maris paused, subdued a smile and nodded. “Okay then. Give me thirty minutes and I’ll get it set up.”
“I can do it,” Phoenix quickly offered. “I don’t want to put you out.”
“It’s not a problem. I’m just glad you’re hired. Now hopefully Coop will find a housekeeper, too—hint, hint.” She looked up at the sky and pretended to pray.
Cooper shook his head. “You’re the queen of subtlety, Maris. As it happens, I’ll be interviewing a woman next week.”
In an aside to Phoenix, she said, “He interviews someone every week. Trust me, most don’t get hired so easily.” Then to Cooper, she added, “If she’s not a serial killer, hire her.”
He snorted. “You’re going to make Ms. Rose think I’m a harsh boss. She’ll run off before she ever gets started.”
Maris rushed to say, “Coop is the best of bosses. Working for him is a dream.”
Phoenix laughed. “You don’t need to sell me. I’m excited for the opportunity.”
“Just because you’re a positive person, meaning you’ll be fun to have around, I’ll make sure you get some extra towels and one of our better coffeemakers.” With a wink, she headed off.
As Maris disappeared into her store, her words hung with Phoenix. If most people weren’t so easily hired, why was she? She knew she had good credentials, and she knew she could do the work. Was he so desperate to fill the position that a formal interview wasn’t necessary?
She wasn’t used to things going smoothly these days, but she wanted the job enough not to question it.
Silence dragged on. She was aware of Cooper intently watching her while he drank his coffee. It made her twitchy.
Determined, she turned to him. “I’m really looking forward to the job.” Damn it, she’d already said that—or something like it. She didn’t want to babble.
“Maris hasn’t given you second thoughts?”
Phoenix shook her head. “Actually, she seems really nice.”
“She is. I’m fortunate that everyone who works here gets along really well.”
Perfect. The last thing she wanted was drama in her life. She’d had enough of that. The plan now was to work hard enough to keep the demons at bay, and otherwise live peacefully. “They all live on-site?”
“Yep.” He stood. “Come on. I’ll show you around while Maris opens your cabin and gets fresh linen inside.” He paused. “You’re aware that the cabin is small, right?”
“Yes. It’s just me so I don’t need a lot of room.” In fact, it’d be nice to have less to take care of. Recent events had proven to her that material things were far less important than she’d thought.
“We have some premium cabins, and a few available rental campers, but I try to leave those open to guests.” He carried his tackle box, towel and rod as they walked. “Over there is the cabin you’ll be using. There aren’t any units around it, but it’s close to the lodge, so there’ll be a lot of foot traffic going by. We have quiet time from 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., so no one should disturb you during that span.”
She gazed at the small wood cabin that would be her home for the foreseeable future. Screens enclosed a front porch just big enough for a rocker. A lattice skirt circled the base of the cabin. She envisioned some colorful pots filled with flowers to brighten the all-wood exterior, maybe a wind chime or two and a floral wreath for the door.
Decorating it, making it her own, would be fun.
“You’re welcome to get your breakfast from the camp store, but you do have a full refrigerator and a small stove. Each cabin can sleep four, but since you’re alone, I assume you’ll use the loft bed without unfolding the couch. There’s only a small TV, but you have Wi-Fi.”
She already knew all that from the brochures, so she only nodded.
Cooper paused, his light brown eyes staring down at her. “I know it’s not much—”
“I love it. It’s perfect.”
His gaze lingered. “I think you mean that.”
Every word. With a confidence she didn’t always feel, she said, “I intend to be very happy here.”
“Glad to hear it.”
She cleared her throat. “There is one thing...”
“I’m not very tech-savvy.” At her age, it was a terrible thing to admit. “Is there anyone to help me set up the Wi-Fi?”
Looking somehow relieved, he smiled. “We’ll make sure you get set up. No problem.” He continued on, his pace easy. “My house is up there.”
Phoenix glanced in the direction he indicated, shading her eyes as he continued to speak.
“I have two high school boys who come on Mondays to cut the grass. If it’s raining, they bump it back to the next day. It’s your job to keep track of their hours and to supervise them when necessary. Overall they do a good job, but sometimes need to be prompted to stay off their phones and to clean up afterward.”
“I’ll take care of it.” She looked back at his house again. Situated diagonally from her cabin, it sat atop a rise and overlooked the rest of the park.
“You can see that we’ve had some recent storms. A lot of cleanup needs to be done. Also, this is the time of year we check trees for dead branches. We don’t want any falling on a camper’s awning and doing damage.”
“I’ll go through the park and assess them all.” Though she walked alongside him, her attention kept returning to his home. Like the little chapel they passed, it was made mostly of stone with arched entryways and it had a wooden addition on the left side. A path led down to the deepest section of the lake, with posted signs indicating that part was private to him.
“I cut my own grass,” he said, as if he thought she was wondering.
“Really? It’d be a simple thing to add that area to the rest.” With a riding mower, it wouldn’t take much longer to keep the manicured lawn looking great.
“Not necessary.” He gestured ahead. “The supply building is this way, and the maintenance building is at the end of the lane.”
When Cooper took her arm, she automatically jerked back and would have fallen if he’d let go. Startled, she stared up at him and tried not to look so rattled.
Expression enigmatic, he slowly released her and indicated the limb in her path. “You would have tripped over it.”
Because she hadn’t been paying attention. Way to make a good impression. She forced a smile. “I’m sorry. I was admiring your house.”
He looked back at the house as if he’d forgotten it was there—and didn’t like remembering. When he returned his scrutiny to her, he looked different, more distant. “Did you catch anything I said?”
“I think so.” Not really, but she dutifully pointed, “Supply building, lodge, showers—”
Consideration brought his brows together. “Ms. Rose, you told me you researched the park to get familiar with it, right?”
“Yes.” Even without the tour, she probably could have told him where everything was located.
“I did the same.”
Not understanding, she asked, “You researched the park?”
“No.” He looked away as a woman opened her camper door and carried a bag of garbage to the curb for pickup. “I research all my employees prior to meeting them.”
Well, of course he had. That was the responsible thing to do. But how detailed had he gotten?
He watched her as if he could hear her breathing, which had the effect of making her hold her breath.
With too much gentleness, he explained, “Social media being what it is, it’s not difficult to do.”
“No,” she said on a sharp exhalation. “I guess it’s not.”
“With you, I also found multiple news articles after a simple search of your name.”
Horrified, she took a step back.
“I do background checks and research on everyone I hire,” he repeated.
She wanted to leave...but knew she couldn’t. Where would she go anyway?
To her sister? No, Ridley was already too concerned. When next she saw her, Phoenix hoped to be back to her usual self, a woman her sister could admire rather than one she fretted over.
Her parents? God, no. She loved them dearly, but the last thing they needed was to start worrying about her again. They’d done enough of that already.
Back to a hotel? Though necessary at the time, it had turned into a miserable existence, like a self-imposed exile. Now that she was out, she never wanted to do that again.
She preferred to feel the sun on her skin and the earth on her hands.
This was her chance to make it happen, an opportunity to start over, to reclaim her life. She wouldn’t give it up just because her privacy had been breached once more.
Far too serious, Cooper said, “I haven’t mentioned your personal history to anyone else, and I won’t. Nothing I found factored into my decision to hire you.”
Well, that was something at least. “Thank you.” She drew a deep breath and, putting it in the simplest terms, said, “I was hoping for a fresh start.”
He stared out toward the lake. “I’m sorry for what you went through.”
With more accusation than she intended, she asked, “Why do you even bring it up?” She didn’t want to think about it, much less talk about it with a stranger. She definitely didn’t want his pity.
As if he couldn’t help himself, his gaze met hers again; neither of them looked away. “I mentioned it in case you need anything.”
Phoenix couldn’t blink. The sun behind him set a glow around his brown hair, emphasizing the breadth of his shoulders, his height. It was the oddest thing, but his size didn’t really intimidate her. Not anymore.
And it had nothing to do with what he’d just said, but rather it was something about him, some vague sincerity...or sadness?
She shook her head. What exactly did he think he could give her?
And why were they both standing there staring at each other?
Shifting her stance to break the spell, she said with conviction, “I’m fine.” Then thought to add, “Thank you.”
He didn’t look convinced. “If you change your mind—”
Maris called her name, catching up to them. “I have your cabin all ready. Would you like to see it?”
Cooper stepped away. “Thanks, Maris. You’ll help her get settled?”
“Sure. Should I finish giving her the tour, too?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.” Smiling, he said, “Get her set up for our Wi-Fi, too.” He glanced at Phoenix. “You can start tomorrow, Ms. Rose. I’ll email you the names and phone numbers of your helpers, along with our usual schedule.”
Phoenix realized she must have offended him to have him walking off without finishing his instructions, but she wasn’t sure how to fix it. “I’ll be ready.”
He flashed her a subdued smile. “Welcome to Cooper’s Charm. As the sign says, it’s a good place to get away.”
* * *
What the hell just happened? Cooper blindly headed for his house, disconcerted over the tension in his muscles, the hot rush of awareness. True, he’d been intrigued by Phoenix Rose since first reading her unusual name. Everything after that had only heightened the curiosity. Then there was the compassion, too, taking him by surprise, he felt it so strongly; he’d blamed it for his early decision to hire her.
But neither of those emotions explained his reaction when he’d felt her behind him, when he’d turned and met her eyes, widened behind her glasses.
He’d been all set to meet her, to treat her with gentle indifference. But she’d gone all still and quiet, which in turn had dredged up a heated rush of protectiveness.
And something else.
Something he hadn’t experienced in so long, it was almost unfamiliar.
Blocking that thought, refusing to examine his reaction too closely, he headed for his house. He had plenty to keep him busy today. Every day, actually. Phoenix Rose would be one more employee. Nothing more, nothing less.
Somehow before the day was over, he’d convince himself of that.
* * *
June arrived hotter than usual, which meant the park was already packed. He still hadn’t found a housekeeper, but now that Phoenix was with them and helping to split the extra work, the complaints had dwindled.
He wasn’t surprised that she’d fit right in, at least with the women. With all men, him included, she seemed far more reticent. Polite always, friendly enough, but lacking any real warmth.
He understood why, of course. He’d read the awful details of the attack, of what she’d suffered. What he didn’t understand was his continued fascination with her, a fascination that had grown each day.
Everything about her drew him. With no encouragement from her, he thought of her too often. When she was near, or hell, even just in view, he couldn’t look away.
He recognized his interest as protective, concerned—the same things any moral, normal man would feel toward a woman who’d been hurt. But it was more than that, too.
It was personal.
That shouldn’t be a surprise given her ripe curves, compelling pale blue eyes and air of quiet vulnerability tinged with pride.
The surprise was that it was more than just physical attraction. He wanted to seek her out, talk with her more, get to know her better.
With every other female employee, he’d had no problem drawing a professional line. It was only Phoenix who pushed him past a comfortably detached relationship.
However, her “do not touch” vibe, along with his respect for her privacy, kept him from showing any overt interest.
He’d lied when he told her that her background hadn’t factored into him hiring her. It absolutely had. His routine research on a potential employee had taken him well beyond the usual superficial work record and into personal, life-changing issues. Of course he’d sympathized with her.
And admired her.
The woman was a fighter.
Caught in a web of his own interest, he stood at the kitchen door overlooking the park, coffee in hand, and waited for her to emerge from her cabin. Like clockwork, she stepped out promptly at 7:00 a.m. and started on her walk. She always went around the park first thing, checking for problems and getting her equipment out so she could start her work when quiet time ended.
Wearing modest shorts and a loose T-shirt, her inky-black hair in a clubbed ponytail, she headed for the maintenance building.
He studied her, not quite smiling but definitely... Hell, he didn’t know what to call it. Enthralled?
Though she didn’t seem to realize it, Phoenix Rose was a sexy little thing, short at five-four, especially when standing next to him. Most women would consider her plump, but most men—himself included—would focus on her big soft breasts, rounded hips and beautiful legs.
Her purposeful stride made her ponytail bounce. Made her breasts bounce, too. When her sleek hair was loose, the ends teased over her chest right where her nipples would be. She had a dimple in her chin, dainty but strong hands, a surprisingly narrow waist, and eyes the color of a summer sky.
Never before had he considered glasses sexy. But now... Maybe he liked them on Phoenix because he knew she used them to hide—much like a superhero. Whenever she got nervous, she touched them as if to remind herself they were there, adjusting them needlessly.
He could have told her that the glasses didn’t conceal a thing. Neither did the loose shirt.
At his age, after what he’d had, what he’d lost, he didn’t indulge relationship games—or even relationships, really. Those had ended with the death of his wife six years ago. These days, if he found a woman attractive, he let her know it. She either reciprocated and they had sex, or she didn’t and he let it go. Neither outcome troubled him much.
Either way, he didn’t get involved.
Phoenix was different.
Her vulnerability was as obvious as her hope. She wanted to make this work and because, in some ways, her reasons for coming to Cooper’s Charm were the same as his, he’d been happy to give her the chance.
Smart move on his part.
She did a great job with the grounds, keeping everything tidy, well-trimmed, and adding a professional flair that really classed it up. Flowers bloomed in every bed, the walkways were cleanly edged, and even the trees looked healthier after she’d removed several branches.
Did she throw herself into her work to help her forget, as he’d once done? At twenty-four, she’d run a successful landscaping business. That is, until the incident six months ago. So maybe she was just a workhorse by nature.
Admirable for someone so young.
When Phoenix disappeared from his sight, he turned back into the kitchen and went to the computer station at the end of the counter. The laptop was already open and on, an image frozen on the screen.
Phoenix stared straight ahead, battered, her glasses missing, her eyes wide and vacant with shock as paramedics tended her. A moment that personal and devastating should have never been posted, but in the social media world of today, a lot of things were online that shouldn’t be.
Coop didn’t sit and he didn’t need to read the accompanying story. He’d looked at the story so many times, he already knew it by heart. It still drew him far too often as he struggled to understand her better.
Six months ago, when Phoenix was alone at the business during a frigid day in November, two men had broken in armed with a handgun and an AR-15 style rifle. It had been such a successfully busy day selling Christmas trees and wreaths, the till was likely full.
The men had taken all her money along with some personal items—and then they’d assaulted her.
His muscles tensed as his hands fisted.
Not rape, thank God, though apparently one of them had tried as the other kept watch. Overall, they’d badly manhandled her, thrown her around, hurt and robbed her. It wasn’t until a prospective customer stopped in to see if the shop was still open that she’d finally escaped.
The men had run away and to this day, they hadn’t been caught.
Her security cameras showed the attack, but revealed only two very large men wearing ski masks.
Coop closed his eyes. For too long he’d existed in a state of numbness, functioning but unable to feel anything real.
Now he felt Phoenix’s pain and fear, and so much more. It brought back his own pain—and the rage.
But at the same time, it gave him a purpose.
He couldn’t help his wife, but he could help Phoenix.
Not easy to do when she rarely got comfortable with men.
From what he could glean off social media, she’d gone to a hotel after the attack and stayed there, surrounded by people—protected—until she’d moved to Cooper’s Charm. Her Facebook page, once filled with fun memes, silly videos, and comments from family and friends, had gone silent except for things others had posted—encouragement, words of strength and the occasional note about missing her.
Eventually, despite her brief, undoubtedly obligatory replies, the posts from others had waned, too.
At first he’d wondered about the timeline being public instead of private. But she’d admitted to being tech-challenged, and he imagined she’d had other things on her mind than social media.
As if she’d forgotten all about it, it had taken months before she’d posted on her wall again, and then she’d shared a photo of herself, making a goofy face while holding a cup of steaming coffee. The text had read: Everyone relax, I’m still here.
Hundreds of replies poured in. Phoenix Rose had many people who cared about her, yet she’d moved two hours away to the park.
It didn’t take a genius to realize she wanted to reclaim her life, and moving to his resort was the first big step. He hoped she found what she needed, but as he’d discovered, you couldn’t be alone at a crowded resort, yet you could still be lonely.
The knock at the door drew him out of his thoughts. He closed the laptop and crossed the kitchen to the door, seeing through the glass pane that Phoenix stood there.
A new sensation broke through the gloom. Damned if it didn’t feel like anticipation.
Shirtless and barefoot, dressed in only his jeans, Coop opened the door with a barely banked smile of welcome. “Good morning, Ms. Rose.”
Her startled gaze went over his body first, then locked desperately to his face. She hastily straightened her already-straight glasses. “Mr. Cochran. I’m sorry to bother you, but I have a problem.”
Maybe he should have pulled on a shirt...the hell he would. He was in his own home and if she planned to stick around, she’d have to get comfortable with him. Throughout the summer, most people dressed down, with women in halters and shorts or bikinis, and men more shirtless than not. People were in and out of the water all day, from sunup to sundown.
Maybe if he hadn’t just been thinking about her and all she’d been through, he would have handled things differently. Instead, he corrected her for the tenth time, saying, “You know, everyone else calls me Coop.” He couldn’t very well call her by her first name if she insisted on boss/employee formality. Not that there was much about the resort that anyone could label as “formal.” It was all about fun, relaxation and getting away.
She stared up at him.
“Try it,” he urged. “I promise it won’t hurt.”