Evangeline gazed out over the lake, wondering how to capture its beauty. Of course, she saw it every day and it wasn't breathtaking, but it was certainly pretty. With the mansion in the background, the trees lining the edge, and a quiet breeze slightly ruffling the water, one could sit there and simply watch it until the sun went down. She began blending the blue paint until she had a series of dark, water-like blues, and she began painting the lake.
Normally she never began painting in such a manner. If she weren't feeling outgoing she would have started with the mansion—the hardest part of the painting, surely—so she could throw away the paper if she messed up. But she knew she would have to capture the way the lake reflected the light now.
Suddenly, Evangeline heard the rustle of feet behind her. She felt a chill run down her spine as she turned in her fold-up chair to see who was behind her. All she saw was a glimpse of a cloak—the one she'd seen the corner of several times—and then she was alone again.
Scott Kincaid seriously considered moving out to the porch and sit on the rocking chair and twiddle his thumbs like an old man. The ranch had been closed for a few days for him to get a handle on things and hire a few new workers. His friend Levi would be taking care of the horses, Ella the cooking, and Hannah the cleaning. However, the two women wouldn't be starting for another month or two—they'd both signed contracts to other businesses. One of them, Claire, was a painter and bound to the art shop in town for a little while longer. The other, an older woman named Ruth, had agreed to help with the housekeeping for another ranch up in Estes Park. So he'd have to take care of the cooking and cleaning by himself until then, which wasn't really a problem.
And the ranch had just opened today. He knew he should be patient, but he wanted his first customer, his first guest right now. He'd already vacuumed and dusted every inch possible in the main house and inspected each of the private cabins carefully. The private cabins existed in the woods, each of them branching off from a main path that started near the main cabin. He'd even brushed off each of the stepping stones on that path with a broom, shoveled the dirt driveway until it was completely flat and as smooth as possible, and dusted the cobwebs on the outside walls of the cabins.
Levi was in town having fun with a couple of his friends, as he would be frequently since the horses didn't need constant attention. He was all alone in the house, and with no guests. When were his guests going to come?
Evangeline hopped stiffly from the bus, stretching her back as soon as she stepped onto solid ground. For years, it seemed, she'd been sitting and watching the countryside go by. It was only a few days, but to her it was an eternity.
Yes, it had been an eternity since she'd seen her beautiful mansion and picturesque lake. It seemed months since she'd been at the hotel with Braiden! She'd told the people down at the desk about her room, and they'd conducted a search but did not find out who had done it. She herself didn't know who to suspect, even though her finger wanted to point toward Braiden. He'd been the one with her key; he'd even returned her jacket with the key inside it the next morning, offering her a sincere apology for his 'unacceptable behavior' the night before.
And their journey to Denver had been just as cheery as before; they parted ways without anger between them, except of course for Evangeline's involuntary suspicion.
Evangeline sighed as she stepped out onto the ground. It felt refreshing to be on unmoving ground, even if she felt a little dizzy. It would take her awhile to get used to the high elevation, said the tourist book she'd bought from the little store on the train. And she still had yet to find Scott Kincaid's ranch. And lug all her bags there.
So this is Columbine Falls.
The first thing she noticed was the painting store directly in front of her. From the looks of it, 'downtown' was a strip of dirt they called Main Street lined with a bunch of small shops. The different stores looked like they hadn't been built at the same time at all—some of them had a cement sidewalk in front of their doors, some had wood or tile, and others even had a sort of deck, the edges of which had probably banged up many a shin.
The shops were beautiful; they had the sort of old-fashioned look she'd always loved. Not that she could have found it anywhere near where she lived, but she'd noticed a lot of the homes and business buildings looked that way on the journey to Columbine Falls.
Right next to the art shop was a small restaurant, which looked friendly enough, and her stomach was rumbling. It was definitely lunch time.
Evangeline retrieved her luggage from the bus and made her way slowly through the crowd toward the restaurant. Many of the people were heading toward shops to browse or going directly toward the hotel on the other side of the 'street'. She coughed as a car rumbled by, stirring up dust and sending a solid wave of it toward her and the other members of the crowd.
She was not at all reluctant to set down her bags on a chair and collapse into the one next to it. She ate a quick French dip with Swiss cheese and went up to the counter to pay. "Also, do you think you could tell me where Kincaid Cabins is?" she remembered to ask the cashier.
The cashier smiled. "You're in luck. Just reopened today because it got a new owner a week and a half ago. I hear it's Kincaid's brother's son, come clear from somewhere along the east coast."
"I heard so, too," Evangeline flashed him a smile.
The man gave her directions, which turned out to be not as complicated as she thought. She had the address, but according to the man, there weren't street signs on all of the streets here in Columbine Falls.
Just as Evangeline stepped out onto the dirty street to begin walking, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Resisting the urge to gasp, she whirled around as quickly as her bags would allow.
"Excuse me, but I heard you ask about the Kincaid rental cabins," said a man with dark black hair and matching eyes. She couldn't quite read his expression, though she could have sworn she glimpsed a hint of humor in his eyes.
"Yes, I did," Evangeline answered, wondering what business the man had with her. She almost wished she had the confidence to ask him so she could be on with her long walk. The sooner she was there, the better.
"It's quite lucky for you—considering you've probably come from far—to get here the day Kincaid Cabins opened," the man pointed out.
"I was invited to come and visit," Evangeline shrugged. "I doubt it would matter when I came. However, I intend to stay as a customer, because I plan on visiting for a couple of months."
"How on earth did you come to be invited?" the man asked with a frown.
She wondered why he was asking so many questions. "I'm a friend of the owner. I knew him before he moved out here to take over the ranch after his uncle passed away." She couldn't help but be slightly testy with him. After all, it was none of his business why or how she came to be here. And it wasn't like she was eager to tell—therefore relive—the entire story.
The man was obviously curious. "You know Scott?"
"Yes," she answered patiently. "And I'm on my way to his rental cabins right now. I'd like to make it there before sunset, if you don't mind."
He laughed as she tried to turn away and caught her shoulder once more. That same hand was suddenly stuck in front of her. "Levi Jacobson. I help Scott run the rental. And you are?"
Evangeline shook Levi's hand. "I'm Evangeline."
"Pretty name," Levi smiled. "But with no last name to accompany it?"
She shook her head. "Just Evangeline."
"So you're walking all the way to Kincaid Rentals?" Levi asked with another frown. He gestured to her baggage. "And with all these?"
Evangeline nodded. "I don't see any other way to get there, do you?" Again she tried to turn away and keep walking, but for the third time he caught her shoulder.
"I could give you a lift. I'm headed that way, anyway," Levi offered.
"Sorry, but I don't normally accept 'lifts' from strangers," she tried to turn down his offer as graciously as she could.
"I'm no stranger, I remind you," Levi said. "I'm one of Scott's friends. I handle the horses. I won't kidnap you, I promise." He smiled and lifted a brow, obviously humored by her cautiousness.
It was Evangeline's turn to raise her eyebrows. "Ah, but how am I supposed to believe that you're one of Scott's friends? Any one of these people could walk up to me and say they know Scott and that they're friends with him. What you say won't make you any less a stranger until you can prove it."
"Good point," Levi nodded, his expression now thoughtful. "What would you say if I told you that I knew Levi lived in a mansion amongst a bunch of other well-to-dos? That his family has always been a big part of the social scene in that area, but his father acquired a case of depression after Scott's mother died, and slowly began to become a rich hermit?"
"Hmm," Evangeline contemplated what Levi said, then nodded. "I think I might just believe you."
"So you'll accept the ride? That's going to be quite a journey, especially with all those bags. And if you're from where Scott came from, you're likely to pass out halfway there because you're nowhere near used to the climate and elevation," Levi said. He pointed to a black car parked across the street and raised his eyebrows.
Evangeline thought about what he said. Would she truly pass out halfway to Scott's place? Or was he simply exaggerating? She weighed the situations carefully in her head. Ride in the car with Levi and risk being abducted like all those newspaper stories said, or the possibility of fainting halfway there because of elevation?
"I think I might just take you up on the offer," Evangeline said, resigned. She did not feel like fainting or passing out. Or any kind of strenuous activity whatsoever.
Scott Kincaid looked out the window to see Levi's black car pull up through the circle drive, and wind around to park on the other side of the main cabin where he usually parked. Only this time, Scott could barely see through the dark tinted windows, he had a woman with him. Typical. But why would he bring her back here? Of course, he would much rather spend time with a date in town than back here at the ranch.
Scott sat down on his chair in the living room again, picked up his book, and tried to act casual as he watched the doorknob turn out of the corner of his eye. Seconds later, Levi barged into the room with a noisy clamor. Why on earth did he have bags strung over his shoulder?
It occurred to him that they were the women's. Oh no. Was he going to have to have this talk with Levi again?
"I've got our first customer," Levi said triumphantly. "She says she's a friend of yours."
Scott watched the doorway, utterly confused. He could hear the footsteps of the woman who apparently thought she was a friend of his. A few moments later, he saw her appear in the doorway, her eyes looking down at her feet and an easel case in her hand. Yes, she did look familiar.
She looked up and grinned at him sheepishly. "Hi, Scott."
"Evangeline Winters!" Scott exclaimed, feeling his grin widening on his face. He moved forward to give her a sort of half-embrace. "So your father did decide to come and visit?" He leaned toward the doorway, trying to look out, expecting to see Eliana and her parents.
She shook her head. "It's only me. Of course Father wouldn't take the time off to come."
"What about your mother? And Eliana?"
"It's only me," she repeated. She appeared to not want to discuss it, and he let the topic drop.
"How long are you staying?" Scott felt foolish for letting his questions get ahead of him. He felt like he was interrogating, and he was sure she felt likewise.
Again that sheepish look returned. "I was hoping you wouldn't mind…" she looked down at her toes again. "I was planning on staying for a few weeks…" What he could see of her face turned bright pink. "Or maybe a few months…"
Scott couldn't stop the exclamation, and it burst from his mouth: "A few months!"
Evangeline blushed even harder. "I needed to get away for a while. You know how that can get, the pressures of our family and such." He knew she meant the social status. "Mother is going crazy with all of it, of course. It was really stressing me out."
"I understand completely," he rushed to say. "Secretly, I was glad to leave it all myself. I love the peacefulness of the mountains. And I absolutely couldn't wait to own this place." He gestured to the cabin, feeling a rush of happiness as he said the words. He felt the same way every time he thought of it. I'm the owner!
She seemed relieved to know he understood. "That's wonderful. I'm sure you're delighted, and I'm even happier you run this place. It's beautiful. Now, I heard you had some private cabins off in the woods…"
"Yep, and you're in luck. Normally those are taken, but you are our first guest. You have a choice on whether to lodge in here or out there," he stuck his thumb over his shoulder.
"I'll take a cabin," Evangeline smiled. "And I'll pay by the month, if that's okay."
"That's fine," Scott agreed. "Well, let's off to the cabins. You can pick which one you want. Would you like me to take your bags?"
Levi surrendered them with a grin, and he could feel his eyes on them as they walked out of the house and he led the way down the trail to the clearings that held the cabins.
Evangeline grinned at Levi as she followed Scott out of the cabin. By now she figured it would be a nice stay, and quite a relief from her parents and her sister. Yes, quite a relief. Even the fresh, almost-pollution-free air was beginning to work on her. Even though her stomach was still a little unstable and she felt like she had just stepped off an intense roller coaster because she wasn't used to the elevation, she also couldn't escape the feeling of refreshment.
"I hope you don't mind that I came so early. I really did get exasperated with… things," Evangeline didn't know what to say. She'd given him an explanation, but it was still a lie and hardly adequate. More questions were bound to come later. Why hadn't she thought about this before she came?
"I was wondering about that," Scott raised an eyebrow at her, a slow grin spreading at his mouth. "But no, that's fine. I'm delighted. I've been waiting all morning to have a guest and who better than an old friend from back home?"
Evangeline smiled. "Well, I didn't really want to wear out my welcome by coming so early—"
"Not at all. Don't even start thinking that," Scott tossed a serious look over his shoulder as he hopped playfully from one stepping stone to another. His grin returned as he explained, "It's always been a tradition to only step on the stones when we go through here. Back when I used to visit here with my family, all of the Kincaid kids had a rule. No stepping on anything but the stones." He shrugged, even with her bags weighting them down. She felt sort of bad for making him carry them. She knew they were heavy. "I guess I'm sort of carrying on the tradition, even though I'm nowhere near to still being a kid."
She laughed. "I'm afraid we don't have any crazy traditions like that at my house, but when my sister and I always had our little rules like that when we were little. Whenever we played in the kitchen, we always jumped from colored tile to colored tile, and we made a game out of it. We would try to push each other onto the white squares, and whenever you landed on a tile not colored, you gained a point."
"So the object of the game was to not get points," Scott finished for her. "We always had those games every time we went to the supermarket. We would hop along after whoever brought us like little frogs."
They both laughed at the memories, and before they knew it they'd reached the first cabin. "Any preferences?" Scott gestured to the other cabins within sight.
"Aren't they all the same?"
"Well, then, I guess I'll just take this one," Evangeline shrugged.
Scott pulled out a medium-sized ring of keys from the pocket of his khaki pants and began to look through them. Several minutes later—he was obviously unaccustomed to fining the different keys—he stuck one into the hole and opened the door for her. Always the gentleman, he put her bags into the cabin and gave her a key. "You've got a little kitchen over there," he gestured to the kitchenette, "but you're also welcome to eat in the main house. I won't charge you extra."
"No, that's fine, I'll pay," Evangeline grinned. "I went to the bank before I came and found out I'm not exactly poor. I'll pay for the meals by the month, too, if that's okay. I'm actually pretty sick of cooking my own food." Too late, she realized she shouldn't have said that. Oh man.
Scott frowned. "Why did you have to cook your own meals?"
Here goes. "Well, it got to be kind of a pain to go clear to the main house to get food three times a day. Most of the time I just got food from the store and made my own lunches and breakfasts. I normally ate dinner at the big house." Liar. She couldn't help but feel guilty. Her lie was just becoming bigger and bigger, like all of those stories at church said fibs would. But she didn't want to have to explain to him about her job at the Italian restaurant… she worked there on evenings a lot, and that's where she normally ate dinner.
"Eliana did the same thing?" he asked, pulling her out of her thoughts.
She shook her head. "Nope. Sometimes she would just stay up at the main house for a few days, mostly on weekends when there are a lot of things going on. Otherwise she goes out to lunch with friends. Sometimes she comes over to see what I'm making for meals." That was the truth. It's exactly what Eliana did—eat all her food and take advantage of whatever she could when it came to her sister. Or anyone.
"So you guys still have a pretty good relationship?" Scott asked. He seemed genuinely interested, despite the awkward setting. They were both standing stiffly in her cabin, just talking. Nothing to do with their hands, nothing to do with their feet, and nothing really to look at. Extremely uncomfortable.
Evangeline did not want to answer that question, so she shrugged and said, "We're twins." She left the rest to his imagination. Of course he probably assumed that they had a wonderful relationship.
But the truth was far from what people would assume, even her. Normally twins had an extraordinary bond that was unbreakable. Not so in their case. Somehow, throughout all the years since they'd been born, even while they used to have fun together when they were little, Eliana had grown extremely hateful. And even though Evangeline had long since trained herself not to be bothered by all of those things, she couldn't help the pain it brought to her heart every time.
Brian Winters was sitting at his desk when his wife walked into the room. She promptly planted herself on one of his chairs, the ones his clients normally used. Today, she was all about business. Her expression told him so. Even though she was strict and stern every day, he knew when she was serious.
"Our daughter has left," she said, no emotion displayed on her face. Any normal parent would have been worried sick, but then again Mrs. Winters was not normal.
"Which daughter!" Brian began to stand, his heart beginning to thump hard.
His heart stilled. Even though it was still quite a shock, he knew that it was better if Evangeline left. He'd always been more partial to Eliana, but Evangeline was his daughter nonetheless. "Why did she leave?"
"She thought she saw something between Daron and Eliana that obviously wasn't there," Mrs. Winters explained. "But something tells met that I haven't heard the entire story. Those two are scheming. Of course, Eliana has nothing to do with it. She wouldn't do that to her sister."
"Or would she?" Brian asked. "You know, they haven't exactly been bosom buddies these past few years."
Mrs. Winters stiffened and glared at him. "How dare you suggest that Eliana would do such a thing? She has never been that hateful!"
Brian put up his hands as a sign of surrender, thinking that whatever he did about the disappearance of his daughter, he wouldn't tell his wife about it. Obviously, she didn't want Evangeline back. But he also knew that if he didn't come up with a story—or an excuse—their reputation would most likely be ruined forever.
I knew it was a mistake. The second she steps into his cabin rental, they hit it off. It's just like that night at dinner before he left, they smile and talk and get along wonderfully. It makes me wonder—will I ever get along that great with her? Are we really cut out for each other how I thought we were?
Just like old times, she walks into a room and a smile suddenly crosses his face. Her grin brightens, and for the first time you can see in her eyes that she's happy. But they're just friends, aren't they? It's only because they've known each other for years. Right? And I'm the one that's going to end up with her.
After all, I'm the one that's been faithful. I know everything about her, every secret she holds, and the way her parents and sister treat her. And yet I haven't stopped loving her, haven't stopped coming faithfully to her restaurant. In fact, look what I did for her and the train! I paid for her tickets! I got her a bus to Columbine Falls! I gave her the address to Scott's place! And on the way up, she was even lucky to snag a stay at the Marriott. Too bad that didn't turn out as wonderfully as she—or I—thought it would. Luckily she got an even better room because her other one got trashed.
But no matter how much I try and justify to myself how much I've done for her, I realize that she doesn't even know me as myself. Her memory of me, faded as it is, won't stop her from becoming even better friends with him. Not to mention the fact that they're already good friends.