A sudden movement made Richard quickly snap his head around to the left, but it must have just been the wind moving a branch. Then as he turned back in the direction he was walking his face turned directly into another overhanging branch which promptly shed its load of cold water down the neck of his jacket, making him cry out a mild curse. He had at last decided he was lost. For the past two hours he had been following a continually diminishing trail through the September woods. Early that morning he had left his car parked at a trailhead and started down what more than two hundred years ago had been part of the Wilderness Road, leading pioneers from the east coast into Kentucky. Now it was a hikers' path through National Forest and across the Cumberland Gap. He had planed to spend the night in a small town about a mile off a side road and return tomorrow.
Now he had to admit he was lost. Lost and the sun had set a half hour ago. He hadn't seen a sign of any civilization for the past five hours since he had crossed the last road and now even the trail looked like it hadn't been trod for years. Sometime during the afternoon it had started to rain - a cold, wet rain - and, because only cloudy weather had been predicted, Richard wore only a light nylon jacket. Now he was cold and wet and lost and it was rapidly getting dark. At least the rain had stopped an hour ago, but now a misty fog was beginning to fill every low spot and the sky was still overcast.
He carried a daypack with a lunch, now eaten, and a water bottle. For the thousandth time he berated himself for violating every rule of hiking. He knew them, but like many hikers who later regretted it, he had decided that this time he could get away with ignoring them. It probably wouldn't be fatal. He might get pretty cold tonight but the temperature shouldn't go below the low forties. Then he remembered that most cases of hypothermia were at temperatures near fifty. Still, if he could find somewhere dry he would probably survive. But he would have to find shelter. He looked around in the hopes of seeing the lights of a town off to the side even as he realized he wouldn't be able to hike cross country in the dark in the unlikely event he should spot one. Well, it didn't matter: he didn't see any lights at all. He would just try to keep following the trail as long as there was enough light to see where to place his feet and hope to find a town or even a farm house by then.
But the way things had been going lately he was more likely to fall off a cliff or into a deep creek. Richard sighed to himself and thought about how this trip wasn't having quite the effect he had hoped.
Richard was a stock broker. Not a big Wall Street broker, but a moderately successful broker working out of Norfolk. He was twenty-eight and determined to be worth a million before he was thirty. If he wasn't, it wouldn't be for lack of trying. Fourteen hour days were not unusual for him. Of course, he didn't spend all of that buying and selling. After all the market was only open limited hours. But to know what to buy and sell he had to spend many, many hours pouring over company reports and evaluations of financial positions. When he had started this six years ago, he was so full of energy and determination that he never noticed the load. Now it was habit. It was a habit that had given him a net worth of over eight hundred thousand but had cost him. It had cost him elevated blood pressure. It had cost him vacations never taken, trips never made. It had cost him a fiancee.
He had met Brenda a year ago when he ducked into an all night diner for some late supper after one of the days when he had worked until ten at night. She came through the door ten seconds after him and somehow they had started talking and ended up eating together. She was a new high school teacher - French and Spanish - and had been in town less than a week. In fact the reason she was in the diner was that she had been unpacking stuff in her apartment all day and had nothing to cook as yet. Over the next few months they had gone out more and more frequently until in May he had given her a ring. Then somewhere in the next few months - Richard couldn't even tell exactly when - things had started to go wrong. His more and more frequent last minute calls to cancel a date because he had to work late began to take their toll. He also became slightly - maybe not irritated, but at least uncomfortable - with her lack of what he thought of as ambition. Brenda had no long term goal except to continue teaching. He thought she should aim to found her own school or become an education consultant or something. Bit by bit, one small irritant at a time, their relationship wore until three weeks ago she had returned the ring and they had called everything off.
Within the same week one of the larger deals Richard had been putting together fell through and not only did he miss out on an expected large commission but also a hundred thousand profit of his own. Actually he had lost nearly fifteen thousand of his own money. His boss at the brokerage firm was not overly pleased and Richard was almost certain he would lose out on an expected promotion and bonus this year.
Overall, things had not been going well lately.
When he thought back to his college days he remembered that all he had really been interested in doing was writing fiction. But when he graduated he needed to make a living and, through a combination of luck and hard work, he had ended up in the brokerage field. He found he had a flare for it and soon it consumed him while his writing ambitions moved more and more into some distant future. Now he wondered why. He had decided to take this weekend off and try to relax a little, forget about work and Brenda. Instead he seemed to have screwed this up, too. Cold water ran down his back again and he could feel it start to leak through his boots also.
Twenty minutes later he could barely see the trail at all and it had started to rain again. This time it seemed even colder and he believed a cold front had moved east from the bluegrass into the mountains. Without seeing it, he walked directly into another branch and received another shower of cold liquid and realized he was already shivering hard. How could he have missed the trail? He had no idea. He hadn't seen even a side trail or any other kind of junction for hours. He was about to give up and try to find some shelter under some overhanging rocks or maybe against a tree trunk beside the trail when he rounded a corner and thought he saw a glimmer of light through the trees off to his right. He cautiously moved ahead and the light became a little brighter.
The trail had become more of a semi-overgrown rut with small saplings growing across what once must have been a road ten feet wide but was now just discernable among the larger trees on either side. As the light strengthened he saw what looked to be another overgrown path splitting off to the right and leading in the direction of the yellow illumination. Richard wasn't sure what the light was but it was almost certainly better than a cold wet night huddled against a dripping tree trunk, so he turned towards it. In another few yards the light resolved itself into a yellow spot in the window of a cabin. As he approached he saw that the cabin was a small log affair and the light was a single candle inside.
Thankfully he made his way up to the door and knocked calling out, "Hello. Anyone there?"
He heard a sudden movement inside and the candle shifted, changing shadows flowing across the walls. In a few seconds the door opened and inside Richard saw a young woman, maybe nineteen or twenty or so, holding the candle. She was about five foot two, eight inches shorter than Richard's five ten. Her hair was a dark honey blonde - or so it looked in the candle light - and, tied back with a yellow ribbon, reached well below her shoulders. She was wearing an ankle length dress, old fashioned in appearance and simple in style, a light brown color.
Richard was shivering so hard he could hardly speak and tried to explain what he was doing there. "Well, come on in out of the rain," the woman said, standing back. Her accent sounded a lot like the local Tennessee-Kentucky, but with a slight lilt which might have had some Irish influence. She didn't seem afraid or even startled to see Richard appear at her door.
Gratefully Richard shook off what water he could and came inside. Looking around he saw one room, about ten by eighteen. There was a table and four chairs at one end and another two chairs, somewhat larger and more comfortable, in the center facing a stone fireplace. Richard's attention was immediately drawn here where a healthy fire blazed. He made his way over to stand shivering in front of the blaze before even noticing any of the rest of the room. With his teeth still chattering he looked around and saw there was another small doorway which probably led to a bedroom.
The woman set the candle on a small side table which was next to one of the fireplace chairs and, looking Richard frankly up and down, said, "Looks like you got caught out in the rain. I've seen drowned rabbits that looked a mite dryer," but her smile took any malice from the comment.
Still shaking Richard tried to explain. "I guess I lost the trail. I didn't think it was going to rain and I expected to get into to town before dark. I don't even know where I am. How far is town anyway?"
The woman smiled at him. "It's a long piece off," she replied. "You won't be getting there tonight. But you're welcome to stay here. I'm Katie Branden."
"I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm Richard Boone."
"Any relation to Dan'l?" the woman asked with a smile.
Richard laughed. "If I were, would I be lost?"
The woman joined his laughter and shook her head. "Daddy used to say that Dan'l was lost most of the time but he just said he was 'explorin'. Look you'd better get out of those clothes before you catch your death," she said. Richard started to say something, but she went on, "I think I can find something you can put on around here." She looked him up and down again. "You're a pretty big one," she added, almost to herself.
She went back into the bedroom, if that's what it was, and while she was rummaging around Richard looked around the room. Not only were there no electric lights there didn't appear to be anything even the least bit modern. Even the furniture looked homemade. He almost began to wonder if this was one of the displays in a pioneer village, but it was nearly three weeks after Labor Day and anything like that would have been closed. Besides he hadn't seen any other buildings and the trail had been nearly overgrown.
The woman returned with a pair of pants and a white shirt. The pants were wool and the shirt looked and felt like course linen. She handed him the clothes along with a course towel. "These were Daddy's," she said. He was a mite smaller than you, but I think they'll fit. I'll just go back in the other room while you get out of those wet things. Call out when you're ready."
Richard took off his jacket and shirt and used the towel to dry himself. He put on the dry shirt and then took off his sodden pants. He hesitated a second and then also removed his wet underwear, dried his legs, and put on the wool pants. He called out and was removing his wet socks when the girl came back into the room.
"Thank you. That feels a lot better already."
"You're welcome. I'll bet with that rain you haven't had anything to eat tonight, have you?" Richard admitted he hadn't. "Well, I've got some stew left on the hearth. You're welcome to it."
It wasn't until then that Richard noticed the only cooking facility in the cabin was the fireplace. Here an iron pot hung in the front, out of the fire but close enough to keep warm. "Thank you again."
The woman brought him a heavy plate and a spoon and then ladled stew onto the plate. She placed a mug of water next to it.
As he ate, Richard looked around the cabin. "Are you up here by yourself?" he asked.
She seemed to hesitate and then answered, "Now. Been here since I was seven. Daddy and Mama used to live here but they got themselves killed on a trip to Lexington a couple of years ago."
"I'm sorry," Richard answered.
"That's all right. I'm used to it now. Used to be a couple of neighbors, too, but they up and moved off last year. Where are you from?"
"I live in Norfolk, over in Virginia. I was hiking along the trail and planned to start home day after tomorrow."
"Norfolk. That's a fair piece. I haven't been there since I was a little girl. I expect it's a pretty big town by now."
"It is pretty good sized. Not as big as a lot of the cities on the coast, but certainly not small."
The woman cleared away the plate and mug and returned to sit in the chair by the fire. She had a small notebook in which she was writing using an old fashioned pen and inkwell. When Richard looked at it questioningly she said simply, "My journal." Richard nodded and let her return to her writing. After some time, Richard yawned, and the girl looked up and said, "I expect you're pretty tired. Let me get you some blankets and you can bed down out here."
She disappeared into the other room again and returned in a minute with several heavy woolen blankets. She dumped them on the floor a few feet from the fireplace and said, "It isn't a featherbed, but you should be warm and dry."
"It's more than enough," Richard said. "I can't thank you enough."
"Maybe I'll think of some way you can," she said cryptically, a strange smile on her face.
The woman picked up the candle and moved back into the second room, leaving the main room lit only by the flickering firelight. Richard realized he was nearly asleep just standing there. Somewhere back in his mind he understood this was his body's reaction to the stress of the cold and wet, but that didn't matter. He could hardly keep his eyes open.
He quickly spread a couple of the folded blankets on the floor a few feet from the fire and lay down, pulling another blanket over him. He was asleep before he took a second breath.
Richard suddenly blinked his eyes open. The room was totally dark except for some glowing coals in the fireplace. It took a few seconds for him to remember where he was - at least in general since he still didn't know exactly - but then it all came flooding back. He guessed he must have been asleep for three or four hours and looked around to see what might have awakened him.
He didn't see or hear anything unusual until he looked over towards the one window. The world outside was brightly lit. The rain had stopped and evidently the overcast had also cleared for now brilliant moonlight turned the world outside a magic silver. He stood up and started towards the window. The cabin was slightly cool now that the fire had died and he wrapped one of the blankets around his shoulders as he moved over and stood staring out through the old and slightly wavy glass.
It was a fairy world. Light from the full harvest moon cast shadows everywhere. Silver glinted off of wet leaves and changed to inky blackness below or behind an interfering trunk. And a fog had started in the low places. Or maybe it had started elsewhere, but now it flowed down and filled the hollows. He could see it top low rises and slide down hills into depressions, swirl around stumps, and fill the low places in the road. A magic world of silver light, inky shadows, and silent gray mists.
A sudden low noise startled him and he spun around to peer into the cabin room. His eyes, now used to the bright moonlight, took some seconds before he could make out anything in the room. Then he saw Katie. She was standing in the doorway to the bedroom, watching him. She was dressed in an ankle length nightgown which looked white in the reflected light within the room but could have been any light color. Her hair was loose and hanging down her back and all he could see of her face was reflected points of light from her eyes and the ghost of a mouth.
Silently, on bare feet, she walked over and joined him at the window, stopping to stare through it at the haunting world outside. He turned to stand next to her, also looking out. He wanted to say something but could not think of a single word that seemed proper. For perhaps a minute they stood side by side, watching the slowly moving mists, and then Katie said in an almost ghostly voice, "Moonlight silvers the land; The trees, the streams, the lovers there."
The strange words sent shivers up Richard's spine. "What was that?" he asked.
Katie shook her head slightly. She smiled and looked at him. "It's just part of something I wrote. Something to describe nights like this."
Richard looked back at her intently. "I'd like to hear the rest of it."
Katie shook her head. "There's only two verses so far. Goes like this.
Moonlight silvers the land;
The trees, the streams, the lovers there.
Playing the trees with shadows
Turning the streams to silver
Turning the lovers to gold.
Then fog slides down the mountain
Covering the low ground, the streams, the lovers.
Filling the valleys
Filling the hollows
Filling the lovers' souls."
For a few seconds Richard held his breath. Goose bumps covered his arms and he knew it wasn't from the cold. "That's lovely. Someday I'd like to hear the rest of it."
"Someday maybe I'll know the rest of it." She turned towards him. "Hold me, Richard. I'm cold."
Surprised at this unexpected turn of circumstances, Richard was slow to react as Katie pressed herself against him and it was several seconds before his arms wrapped themselves around her shoulders, enclosing them both in the blanket. Katie put her head against the hollow of his shoulder and Richard stood still, his hands on her back. He could feel her shivering under the linen of the nightgown. He was also very aware that he could feel the firmness of her breasts against his chest and the press of the taut curves of her hips and thighs against his legs. He tried to pull back slightly before his own beginning arousal became evident to her, but she grasped him with surprising strength, holding him tightly to her.
For a couple of minutes they stood like that and he could feel her shivering begin to subside. His hands, of their own accord, began to gently stroke her shoulders and down her back. Katie sighed and lifted a hand to gently stroke down the side of his face. She turned her face up to his and caught his eyes with her own. "Kiss me, Richard."
Richard wasn't sure but that maybe he was still asleep, lost in some strange dream. That wouldn't be unusual after the stress of the past day added on top of the stress of the past months. But it wasn't a dream. It was a strange and dreamlike world, all right, but the woman in his arms was definitely real. His heart was pounding so hard he was sure she could hear it or maybe even feel it. This impression was reenforced as she began to work her hand inside his shirt and placed it over his heart, it's warmth seeming to burn a lasting imprint.
He didn't even know this girl, had met her only a few hours ago. Still, he could swear she was not the type who made a come on play for any man, known or not. His mind churned with questions even as his lips moved to grant her request. She lifted her face to him and he lowered his to meet hers until their lips brushed together. He had expected a warm, but chase, kiss, perhaps even a hard one, but no more. Instead his mind shook as their lips pressed together and she opened her mouth to him, her tongue probing hard against his own lips until he, too, opened and let his tongue begin a joint exploration.
The cabin, the moonlight, the outside world vanished in a limbo containing only the two of them. Richard had no idea how long that kiss lasted. He only knew it was very long and very, very good.
He held her and his hands stroked up and down her back, feeling the firm flesh and hard muscle through the thin linen. Katie began to unbutton his shirt and soon her hands were exploring him. Her hands weren't soft like many women's, but not really rough either. They were hands that did a lot of work but whose owner still took care of them. She let them glide over his back and make gentle circles on his chest while her head rested against the hollow of his neck. Richard held her close, moving only his own hands, letting them seek out and admire her planes and hollows. He ran his palm down her back and softly moved it over the curve of her rounded buttocks. Katie responded by pressing herself closer to him. She looked up into his eyes and, almost too faintly to hear, said, "Make love to me, Richard."
To Richard this was all unreal. He had never been a spur of the moment type of person. He had never taken a girl to bed on a first date and, in fact, had rarely kissed on a first date. This wasn't even a date. This woman had offered him shelter and food but beyond that they knew nothing of each other. Richard pulled his head back slightly and said, "Are you sure? You don't even know me."
Katie smiled up at him. "I know you more than you know. Yes, I'm sure. Take me into the bedroom and make love to me."
Almost in a trance Richard scooped the girl up into his arms. He was in good shape and the girl was slender so he was able to carry her with little effort. She put her arms around his neck and he could feel her body pulling against him as they moved across the cabin. He carried her through the doorway and saw the second room for the first time. There was bed and a small bedside table, a single chair, and a wardrobe. All looked to be handmade as was everything else he had seen in the cabin. The bed was a double and Richard guessed this had been her parent's room before they were killed. A small window allowed the silver moonlight to softly illuminate the space.
He lowered her to her feet and she stood, her arms still around his neck. Feeling somewhat confused and a little awkward, Richard hesitated. "Yes," Katie urged him on. "I do want this." She raised her arms above her head, pulling off her nightgown. She wore nothing beneath it and Richard stared. Her skin was pale in the moonlight, but not a pasty white. Instead it looked almost a light gold color. Her breasts were not large, but were firm and her nipples erect. Her face and form were not what would be considered classic beauty. Her arms and legs were slender and tapered, and well muscled. There were slight crinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes, as though she spent a lot of time outdoors, or perhaps just that she smiled a lot. To Richard she was more lovely than anyone he had ever seen.
For several seconds she stood still as he caressed her with his eyes, neither ashamed or nor especially proud of her nudity, but merely accepting it as natural. Then she reached for the waist of Richard's pants and began to unbutton them. She let them fall to the floor and he stepped out of them as she reached to grasp his manhood, now rigid with desire. Richard forgot his confusion and pulled her to him, cupping her buttocks and kissing her deeply. A hand rose to slide over a firmly rounded breast and his fingers brushed a stiff nipple. A soft moan escaped her lips and emerged into his throat where it joined a groan of his own.
He lifted her and laid her on the bed. For several seconds he stood looking down at the play of light and shadow on her form, her golden skin seeming to glow even brighter than the moonlight itself. Then he knelt on the bed and bent to slowly kiss her lips, her eyes, her throat, her breasts. For a long time he kissed and caressed and she returned measure for measure. Then when they could wait no longer, urged on and guided by her small fingers, he began that most wonderful of motions, penetrating and bringing pleasure as unreal in its own way as the mist and moonlight visible through the window.
Later they lay together spent, not speaking, hardly moving, drifting into the twilight world that was neither sleeping nor waking. They must have slept for after awhile Richard began to emerge from a world of strange dreams back to the equally strange reality of finding himself clinging together with a women he really didn't know at all. But feeling something for her he couldn't explain or even really believe. In all the time he had gone with Brenda, their many times of lovemaking, he had never had such feeling before. He stared down at her, skin a pale gold, hair a darker gold. Her breathing was slow and regular, her eyes closed in relaxed sleep. As he looked at her he felt a contentment greater than any he had ever known. The idea that he was in love with her, knowing her for only a few hours, seemed silly. More than silly. It wasn't just that they had made love. He had slept with girls a lot more skilled and more passionate, but had never felt like this. He had bought Brenda a ring and planned to spend his life with her, yet she had never cast such a spell, never evoked the emotions that now seemed to engulf him.
Just then she stirred slightly and in a couple of seconds her eyes blinked open. She was immediately awake and smiled up at him. He opened his mouth to say something and she placed a finger across his lips, shaking her head slightly from side to side. Then she pulled him down into another kiss and soon the wonder of the previous hour was repeated.
And twice more it was repeated. As they lay together following the last time, their breathing returning to normal, the room darkened as if a cloud had crossed the moon. Richard looked towards the window and could see that the sky still looked clear, stars making hard points of bright white in the blue-black. Then a tendril of mist slid across the landscape and the moonlight dimmed. More and more of the fog continued to flow until only occasionally would the moon shine into the room as he drifted back to sleep.
Morning. Gray light filtered through the window illuminating the small room. A blanket had been pulled up over him and Katie was gone. He looked around for her but she wasn't in the room and through the window he could see nothing but gray mist and the shadow of nearby trees.
Then he heard small sounds from the main room. He got up and looked for the wool pants he had been wearing the previous evening. Instead he saw his own clothes, now dry, lying on the chair. Richard quickly dressed and went out to the main room.
Katie, wearing a dress of dark blue wool, was bending over the fireplace, pulling a cast iron Dutch oven from the heat. Another iron kettle, emitting a trail of steamy vapor, hung near the flames. Richard stopped. He had been moving towards her to take her in his arms. Then suddenly he began to wonder if he had imagined the entire episode. Had she really made love to him or was it all a dream induced by his worn state and an unfulfilled desire in his life? No, he couldn't believe that. It had to have been real. If, for no other reason, than the way he now felt about her. He remembered the all consuming feeling from the night and it was still with him. Unlike anything he had ever felt for any woman. That had to be real.
As he stood there, Katie straightened and turned towards him. She set the Dutch oven down and in one fluid movement came to him and melted against him. Yes, it had been real. His arms moved to encircle her as hers wrapped around his neck and their lips found their way to each other. When the kiss ended she spoke. "Good morning, Richard."
The kiss had been warm and loving. The greeting seemed somewhat reserved, almost regretful or maybe apprehensive. "Good morning," he answered, and his own voice seemed to echo the tone of hers.
She moved from him back to the fireplace where she opened the hanging pot and ladled out two bowls of what looked like oatmeal. She set these on the table and returned to the Dutch oven which was revealed to contain cornbread. She placed several pieces of the hot bread on a plate and set it on the table along with a small crock of honey. "Breakfast," was all she said.
Richard moved to the table and held her chair as she sat and then took the other chair himself. They ate in silence, Richard wondering if something was wrong or if everything was exactly right. He felt confused, mixed up, baffled, disorientated. He had never felt like this about any woman and he thought Katie felt the same about him - but her reserved actions and silence left him wondering.
Finally he could take it no longer and said, "Katie. Last night was more wonderful than any I've ever known. And you make me feel - I don't know - I guess, more emotional about you than I ever have about anyone. I'm not saying I've fallen in love with you because I'm not sure what love is. But I think I may have. Katie, I don't want to leave you. I hope you feel something for me, too."
She smiled at him, a kind of joyous, but at the same time, sad smile. "I do know what love is and I have fallen in love with you. Richard, I wish we could be together, but I know we can't."
"Why not? Why not just leave here today and come back to Norfolk with me.? I have money enough to take care of both of us. Come with me, Katie."
"I can't," she replied in anguished tones. "I know you won't understand, Richard, but I can't leave here, no matter how much I want." Then her face changed slightly, losing a little of its unhappy look, becoming slightly hopeful. "Could you stay here? Here with me?"
"You mean right here? In this cabin?" She nodded. "What would we live on? My job is in Norfolk, Katie. Come with me instead."
She shook her head back and forth in anguish. "I can't! You don't understand, but I just can't. But I do love you, Richard."
Richard was now both confused and a little hurt. "You can't come with me but you want me to just stay here? Why can't you come?"
Katie was shaking her head back and forth and he could see tears escaping from her eyes. "You won't understand. I just can't go."
Richard swallowed his resentment. He couldn't understand why she wouldn't tell him what the problem was, but he could see it was hurting her also. Slowly he got control of his own mixed up emotions and suddenly it came to him what he really wanted to do about everything. His own shock at the realization was tremendous. But he knew it was - finally - what he really wanted. "All right. But tell me one thing, Katie. Do you really love me and want me here?"
She visibly regained her composure. The tears stopped and she dabbed at her eyes to dry them. A slight smile appeared. "Yes, Richard, I love you. I want you here with me."
Richard made a decision. It was probably the biggest decision of his life and he - a man who never did anything on impulse, but carefully planned each move - decided to change his future because of a woman he had known less than twelve hours. He suddenly felt as though a heavy weight had slipped from his shoulders and felt his muscles really relax for the first time in months. Shaking his head slightly at the new emotions overwhelming him, he said, "All right. I don't know what I'll do. I don't understand what's happened to me, but I know this is what I want, too. I'll come here to you." Her face had brightened into a smile that seemed to light the gray morning. She started to come to him as he continued, "I'll have to go back to Norfolk to quit my job and clear everything up. But I'll be back here in less than a month. To stay."
At his last words Katie had frozen. The smile slipped and her face became tight as though she was forcing herself to hide some great sadness. Dully, she said, "If you go, you'll never come back here. Stay now. Please, Richard."
Richard couldn't understand this sudden change. "Of course I'll come back. I can't just disappear out of my old life. I have a job and I have to take care of financial things. Sell my house and so on. But I'll be back."
Katie was shaking her head slowly back and forth. "No, if you leave I'll never see you again. Please stay."
Richard was ready to completely change his life for her, but she didn't want to concede anything. He felt he was being pushed too far and said, "I can't do that. But I promise I'll come back. I'll be here in a month. By the next full moon, I promise. Will you be here when I come?"
A sad and resigned look flowed over Katie's face. "I promise I'll wait. You won't come back, Richard. But I'll wait."
Both now fell into silence and soon Richard decided it was best if he started back. He collected his jacket and daypack. When he was ready Katie went with him to the door. He held her in his arms and hugged her to him. "I love you, Katie, and I'll be back," he murmured. "By the next full moon."
Katie clung to him, her face buried against his throat. "I love you. But you won't come back. It will be too late and our chance will be gone."
"I promise I'll be back. Wait for me."
"I'll wait. But I'll never see you again. Kiss me, Richard. Kiss me, and then go. I love you."
They kissed deeply, holding the tight embrace for many minutes. When they pulled apart Richard started to say something, but Katie placed her fingers across his lips. "Go," she whispered.
Richard looked longingly into her eyes and then nodded slightly before turning and starting down the path he had come up only last night. By the time he had gone fifty yards the gray mists had cloaked the cabin and all he could see was the trail close to him, the gray fog, and the shadows of nearby trees. The cabin had disappeared from his view.
Richard walked at a quick pace. He felt a great emptiness at leaving Katie but also felt happy with his decision to change his life and come back to her. There was no doubt of that. Come October he would return here, free of obligations, ready to spend his life with Katie Branden.
He walked on, following the trail, and in a half hour the fog began to rise and the sun shone out of a clear blue sky. Sometime - he didn't notice exactly when - he started seeing trail markers again and by mid afternoon reached his car at the trailhead lot.
Richard astounded his boss when he handed in his letter of resignation. Not so much that he was resigning, but that he wasn't going into business for himself. Even more so that he said he was leaving the brokerage field altogether. He placed his house for sale and told the real estate agent to "get what you can for it as soon as I leave." Richard had no family to tell of his sudden changes and the few friends he began to confide in seemed to think he had lost his mind. It didn't matter. He thought of Katie constantly. How could she have ever thought he wouldn't be back? Instead of his longing waning with time, he was consumed with her. He even sold his Lexus and replaced it with a four wheel drive more suited to the Cumberlands.
By the third week of October he was ready to leave Norfolk without a backwards glance. He drove straight through to Middlesboro and found a motel. Richard had considered the problem of reaching Katie once he was there. He had no idea where a road might access her cabin or even exactly where the cabin was. The only way he knew was to hike down the same trail. He was certain he would have no problem doing this as he had memorized every part of it on the way back out.
Early the next morning he packed a daypak with some lunch and this time a warm, waterproof jacket. He also packed an engagement ring. He planned to surprise Katie and later, when he knew the roads nearby, bring his car up. This time he drove to a closer trailhead and picked up the trail at what he guessed would be about a three hour hike to her cabin.
It was a clear, cool day and Richard started down the trail feeling better than he had in years. The leaves were turning to unbelievable colors which shone against the cobalt sky as though alight themselves. After three hours he was so high he scarcely felt the trail beneath his feet. By four he was beginning to worry a little, but the trail had looked just as he remembered it. By six hours he was terribly distressed. Everything had looked right, but he had not found her cabin. In fact he had found nothing: not even a side trail. He turned around and began walking back to his car, searching every foot of the trail.
He couldn't see how he could have missed it. The next day he tried all over again and with the same results. Bewildered and confused, Richard returned to the motel for a third night and decided that tomorrow he would try a different tactic. Instead of just walking out and looking for it, he would stop somewhere and try to find where she lived, maybe get a map showing the road to her place. He fell asleep, worried but confident that the next day he would find her.
The next morning after breakfast he began at the Middlesboro post office. They had no address for a Katie Branden. When he couldn't tell them exactly how close to Middlesboro she lived, he was told that maybe she was in a different district.
He tried the local police station but they told him they didn't keep records of addresses unless someone was arrested. Perhaps he should try the phone company. He knew she didn't have a phone, but thanked them and went out.
Over the next several hours he tried every avenue he could think of with no result. At four o'clock he found himself in the local library inquiring at the reference desk. They had no local list except the phone book. Then one of the librarians said, "You might try asking Katherine Franklin. She works over at the local newspaper and they might have something there. Also, she's big in the historical society. Mostly they'd know about old families but they might know something."
He thanked them and hurried over to the paper, making it just before closing time. He gave his name and asked at the desk for Katherine Franklin and was told to wait just a minute and they'd get her.
Richard looked around the office for a minute or two, finding nothing of interest, and by now not expecting anything much. A door to the back opened and a woman about Richard's age, perhaps a couple of years younger, came through. She held out her hand and said, "I'm Katherine Franklin. You must be Richard Boone. How can I help you."
Richard found himself staring at her. She was about five foot five, had honey blonde hair cut at her shoulders, and eyes of a deep emerald green. Beyond this she bore only a superficial resemblance to Katie, but it was still close enough to surprise him. And there was something about her nose and the shape of her face.
He shook himself and belatedly offered his hand. "I'm trying to find someone. I've been all over town and at the library they suggested I see you."
"Well, I'll certainly try to help. Who is it you're looking for?"
"Her name is Katie Branden. She's about twenty years old and lives in a cabin somewhere near here. I met her last month while I was hiking."