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Beauty of the Wood (Part One of Two)

One love saved, and another born.
The honking calls of geese sounded from overhead, a prelude to their splashdown on the lake some distance away. In the circular pool, large, dark shapes cruised just below the shimmering surface of the water. Here and there, a fin or tail appeared, giving further hints of the exceptional size of the fish that dwelled in the secluded pool.

The sun shown down bright and warm, slowly evaporating the dew that clung to the leaves and grass. Dara leaned back, lifting her bare breasts toward the warmth, and let out a sigh as she enjoyed the morning. The breeze, carrying the scent of damp earth, billowed through her sandy blonde hair.

After long years away at medical school, she was finally home. This spot deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area fit that description even more than her father’s small house outside Ely Minnesota. Her father had brought her and her brother here whenever possible, and they all loved the peaceful wilderness.

It was here that she’d first set foot on the path toward her career. Always empathic, she sought out shy children camping on the lake and invited them to join her and her brother in whatever activity they were engaged in. Her father was the same way, welcoming newcomers to the lake as though they were new neighbors. It had reached the point where all the local outfitters mentioned them and their regular campsite whenever sending customers to the area.

When she was twelve years old, heeding that advice had proven critical to one family. They had arrived at the camp in a panic. Their daughter – whom Dara had befriended – had a bad gash in her leg, wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. While her father treated the wound with first-aid, she’d sat holding the girl’s hand, trying to keep her calm. It was a near thing, and only her father’s skill had given the girl the time for a sat-phone call to summon a ranger in a float plane to evacuate her for treatment that saved her life. That incident had shocked Dara to the core, and put her on the path to medical school.

Now, she was prepared with the knowledge and supplies necessary to deal with emergencies in the wilderness. She would never have to feel that helpless again.

The sound of footfalls and crunching leaves caused her to open her eyes and turn toward the trail she’d followed to this spot a half hour before. The average woman sunbathing nude would have made a dash for her clothing at the first hint of someone approaching. Dara knew that only one person could possibly be walking down that trail, and she was unconcerned.

“Morning, Dad,” she said when she caught the first glimpse of him through the undergrowth.

He stepped into the clearing – a man as big as a bear and almost as hairy. “Morning, La’Dara,” he said, using her given name, known only to the family.

He too was naked, having wisely left his clothing hanging from a convenient tree farther back along the trail, just as his daughter had. His mate had a penchant for splashing that called for keeping clothing one wanted to remain dry a good distance away from her pool.

Neither father nor daughter was concerned with each other’s nudity, as they had seen each other so for Dara’s whole life. His mate’s disdain for clothing was but one of the excuses she used for her splashing.

“I haven’t seen Mom this morning,” Dara remarked as he sat down next to her. Then, she sat up and kissed his dark-bearded cheek.

“Well, you know your mother. She’ll be along soon enough, I should imagine.”

Dara sighed again. “It’s just good to be home.”

“It’s good to have you home.” He smiled. “My daughter, the doctor.”

“Finally. Perfect timing, though. Either that, or Doctor Brown was just waiting for the first possible chance to cut back and retire.”

Her father laughed. “Thinking the second.” He then nodded toward the far end of the pool, where a finger of the lake connected it to that larger body of water beyond.

Dara saw the shadow beneath the surface of the water darting toward them and smiled. As soon as the rapidly moving shape reached the center of the pool, Dara’s mother La’isa burst from the water.

The long silvery hair atop her head whipped, slinging droplets in a fan that caught the light and flashed in a rainbow. Her mermaid tail hovered at the surface for a moment before gravity and the blue-skinned naiad’s bending back pulled it along to vanish beneath the water with her once again.

In mere seconds, the nymph’s powerful tail propelled her to the bank in front of her mate and her daughter. The momentum continued to carry her up and onto the bank, tail transforming into legs faster than the eye could see. After giving a quick, but ardent kiss to her mate, she turned to her daughter and gathered her up in a tight hug.

“Mom, it’s only been a few hours while I was asleep,” Dara said as she returned the hug, surprised by the strength.

“But you were gone for too long before,” La’isa countered.

“So what were you doing this morning? I’ve been here for a half hour,” Dara teased.

The nymph released her daughter from the hug and let out a silvery laugh. “It is a secret. Come swim with me.”

“I’ll be right in. I need to check on my wine,” her father said as they stood to follow her mother into the pool.

Dara watched him walk to the spot where the plastic jugs sat, a wide smile on his face. He had always made homemade wine and brought it out into the wilderness, but a little experimentation while she was off to medical school had allowed his knowledge and the nymph’s magic to combine so he could make it here. Fruit, sugar, and yeast were a lot less cumbersome than finished jugs of wine when paddling in, and in the right seasons, fruit growing wild along the shores made for unique vintages.

No longer limited by how much he could carry in, wine flowed freely – but not too freely – every night in camp. Her mother had even developed a taste for the beverage, which is what had encouraged her to use her magic to keep a spot the perfect temperature for it to ferment.

After an hour of splashing, swimming, and seeing what treasures her mother had acquired recently – quite often fishing lures stolen directly from cast lines, with the barbs ground off – two things combined to encourage Dara to head back to camp. First, her stomach was growling like an angry black bear. Second, she knew the look in her parents’ eyes. Even a doctor who had seen her parents nude for all her life had her limits.

Swimming over to the couple, she gave them both a kiss on the cheek. “I’m starving. I’m going to head back to camp and make breakfast.”

“I’ll be along in a bit,” her father absently responded. Food was the last thing on his mind with his beautiful naiad mate tempting him.

Dara swam back to the bank and climbed out. An aroused giggle from her mother prompted her to hurry back up the leaf-strewn trail to her clothing. She slicked the water from her skin as best she could, having not brought a towel, then pulled down the shorts and t-shirt she’d left hanging from a young tree.

Trying not to think of the sad state of her own love life – or rather lack thereof – she dressed and returned to camp. The t-shirt clung to her damp skin to the point of indecency, but the rising heat would remedy that soon enough, and the camp wasn’t visible from the water if anyone happened by.

It felt good to cook over the camp stove, after so many meals prepared by a quick toss in the microwave. Her chosen course of study hadn’t left much time for luxuries such as a decent meal. It was all too ironic that she’d spent so long eating things she’d spend the rest of her life telling people to avoid. Fortunately, she’d brought along a bag of apples, which staved off the growling of her stomach while she prepared something more substantial.

She tried to ignore the silly grin on her father’s face when he walked back into camp as she was filling plates. It helped that her mother had chosen to come with him, which was a rarity. La’isa stayed upwind of the bacon and eggs, curiously going through the tents and packs to see what new things were inside since the last time she’d braved the human world.

Breakfast was relatively silent, other than the occasional explanation of some item or another that had sparked La’isa’s curiosity. Her father simply liked to listen to the sounds of the wilderness, and Dara was trying to soak in as much of it as she could before she had to return to start her practice. Though she was home, her profession would likely take up nearly as much time as the study to attain it.

Once they finished eating, Dara headed to the packs to retrieve a large pot for dishwater. Her father had cleaned up after supper, so it was her turn. A quick hike down the hill brought her to the lapping edge of the water, but before she could dip her pot, she saw a canoe moving toward her.

The young man laid his paddle across the gunwales, letting the canoe drift, and broke out into a wide smile. He was rather handsome with his light brown hair blowing in the wind, and the smile made him even more so. It was a little difficult not to notice his muscular body as well.

“Dara?” he called out.

The sound of his voice – though deeper than the last time she’d heard it – snapped the hints of familiarity she felt into focus. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she answered, “Chase?”

He nodded. “I knew that was your Dad’s canoe, but I wasn’t expecting to see you. How long has it been?”

“Eleven years.”

She flashed back as she answered, remembering him at thirteen with a huge crush on her. He and his father had paddled back to civilization a day before her family the last time they’d shared the lake. On the way out, Chase had left her a bouquet of wildflowers with her name on them. Having just gone through a bad breakup of her first real long term relationship, those flowers had been a much needed boost of self esteem.

She chuckled at the memory and said, “It may be a little late, but thank you for the flowers.”

His face turned bright red and he groaned. “Oh my god – you remembered that?”

Holding back a laugh at his embarrassment, she said, “Mmm hmm.” An idea struck her because he’d drifted up close to the shore, and she held up the pot. “Since you’re out there, dip me some dishwater?”

He clapped his hands. “Give it a toss.”

Both Dara’s throw and Chase’s catch were perfect. He filled the pot away from the detritus floating near the shore, and then gave a single tug on his paddle to bring him to where he could hand it off.

Dara sat the pot down and said, “Thanks. Out here by yourself?”

“Advance scout. I’m trying to find a good campsite for some friends coming out in a couple days.”

“We haven’t seen anyone else on the lake since we got here yesterday. The reputation of the terrible fishing is getting around. The campsite across the way is open.”

Chase looked somewhat nervous as he shrugged. “I was looking for something a little more secluded.”

“Wondered who you were talking to,” Dara’s father said as he walked down the trail. “Good to see you, Chase.”

“You too, Mr. Owen.”

“Paul,” he suggested. “There’s a new site on the far side of the island there.”

Dara’s eyes lit up. “Oh, yes. The landing is in a little cove, and the campsite is quite a bit back in the trees. We stopped to take a look at it on the way in.”

“That sounds perfect,” Chase said.

Paul picked up the pot of water, “You’ll have to pay attention to find it.”

“I’ve got that, Dad,” Dara protested.

He gave a dismissive wave. “Just carrying it up. Your turn to do the washing.”

Chase picked up his paddle, “Well, I’ll let you get to it then and see if I can find that campsite.”

“Come back by if you can’t find it and we’ll take you over there,” Dara said.

“Appreciate it.”

“And come by this evening if you’re of a mind,” Paul added.

“Still serving up homemade wine?” Chase asked.

“And you’re old enough not to have to sneak nips of it now,” Paul said, then let out a laugh.

“Might just take you up on that.” Chase pushed off the shoreline with his paddle. “Off on the hunt, then.”

Dara waved as expert strokes of his paddle turned the canoe toward the tree-covered island near the far shore, then she followed her father up the trail to attend to the dishes.

****

Hidden beneath the surface by both her magic and the blue of her skin, La’isa trailed along behind Chase’s canoe. When he turned to skirt around the island to the narrow channel of water between it and the far shore, she darted ahead.

One with her environment, she easily outpaced him and reached the cove where a trail meandered to the new campsite before he had even entered the channel. Still beneath the water, she reached out a hand and touched the rocky shore.

Then she settled in to wait.

****

Her father lay in a shady spot with his hat pulled over his eyes, dozing. Dara retrieved a book from her bag and found a spot of her own to sit and read. The novel was racier than her usual fare, and her cheeks warmed a little as she read, though she was thoroughly engrossed.

“Yeah, I can’t find it.”

Dara gasped and slammed the book shut, turning toward Chase as he climbed the last couple of steps up the hill to the camp. Her cheeks were far more than warm as she hid the book from sight.

“Sorry, I...” His voice dropped as he noticed her father dozing. “Didn’t mean to scare you. I can’t find that camp for the life of me. Think you can show me where it is?”

“Sure,” she said, and then stood up. Keeping the book hidden by her body, she walked over to the tent and tossed the novel inside.

“Do you want to take yours, since mine’s a one-seater?”

“Or, I can just sit in the front of yours and let you do all the work.”

He chuckled. “Works for me.”

Dara gestured for him to follow her down the hill, trying not to disturb her father. “I can’t believe you missed it. We didn’t have any trouble when we went looking on the way in.”

“I’ve been paddling up and down the far side of the island since I left. I must be blind.”

“Well, you were looking for a secluded spot.”

“True,” he answered, and then chuckled.

Chase steadied the canoe while Dara made her way to the front. Without a seat, she had to sit on the bottom, but the journey wasn’t long, so it wouldn’t be too uncomfortable. Once she settled in, he boarded and pushed off toward the island.

“So, I take it you’re a doctor now?” he asked as he paddled.

“Mmm hmm. I’m going to be taking patients at Dr. Brown’s office as soon as we come in off the water. What about you? Following in your father’s footsteps?”

“Uhh – no. I’m an artist.” His voice had an edge of something that sounded almost like apology.

Surprised, she turned back to look at him. “Really? I never knew you did anything like that. So, do you paint?”

“Draw, paint, computer painting... I’m learning a little about sculpting from one of my friends. Mostly painting, though. Nature scenes, animal studies, and fantasy creatures are what I’m known for.”

“Is it hard to get by? I mean, that’s the cliche – the starving artist.”

He laughed. “I worked on an ambulance to pay the bills at first, and trained as a paramedic. That kept a roof over my head until I got lucky. We responded to a car wreck one day, and I was talking to the patient, trying to keep him calm. It turns out he was a writer. He got in touch with me afterward, and ended up using one of my paintings for a book cover, and referred me to people he knew. I make enough off commission now to concentrate on my art and donate some pieces to benefit auctions for conservation groups.”

“It’s great that you’re doing what you want to do. I’ll be old and gray before I pay off all my student loans, but it was worth it.”

“Don’t think anybody doubted where you were headed. You were bandaging up your brother since you were little.”

“All too often,” she added, and then let out a laugh of her own. “The only thing that was hard was being away from here so long.”

“I haven’t been back in years either. I’ve been in California. It was just supposed to be a trip to see Bigfoot country, but I ended up staying out west because there’s such a great art community.”

Dara realized that he hadn’t fallen quite as far from the tree as his career choice might indicate. Chase’s father was a Zoologist and a Cryptozoologist. Few others knew the latter, because he kept it quiet. Her father was an old friend of his, though – and naturally a believer. Hard not to be when your soulmate is a supposedly mythical creature.

The trip to see the reputed stomping grounds of Bigfoot combined with the preferred choice of subject matter in his art demonstrated that Chase’s choice wasn’t really a rebellion against where he’d come from, but rather a different way to appreciate it.

“So, are the friends who are coming from California?” she asked.

“Yeah. Artists, poets, and writers. They’re big nature lovers and environmentalists. I talked so much about this place that they wanted to come.”

The pair continued to chat as the canoe moved steadily toward their destination. The wind blew through Dara’s long, blonde tresses, forcing her to push her hair out of her face several times. The breeze created small waves that the canoe chased and then broke through, but speeded their progress. Once the cove was in sight, Dara pointed it out. “There it is. The trail to the camp is up in that cove.”

Chase headed that way, and then pulled in his paddle to let the canoe drift once they were at the mouth of the cove. “I don’t know how I missed that trail. Hey, do you mind if we look at it from the other side of the channel?”

“No, that’s fine.”

A few strong strokes of his paddle took Chase up the channel, where he turned to look again. “Perfect.”

The landing was all but hidden until one was right on top of it, and Chase had obviously been checking that exact thing. “Are you trying to find a place to set up a pirate camp?” she joked, wondering at the apparent desire for secrecy.

“Heh... No.” He took a deep breath and then blew it out slowly. “Guess I may as well get this over with.”

“What?”

“The reason I wanted a hidden spot is that my friends are all nudists. I wanted to find a place where they could get to the water without accidentally shocking a Scout troop or a family on vacation with kids. This is one of the few places they can celebrate Nude Day outside without a better than average chance of getting arrested.”

“I guess that explains it,” Dara said, and laughed.

“I knew I was going to have to warn you eventually, but it’s not exactly something easy to work into conversation.”

“Please. I’m a doctor.” Little did he know that her lack of concern for nudity went back much farther than that.

“So, you’re okay with that?”

“Perfectly fine. Dad will be too. We’ll even help keep an eye out so you don’t have anyone stumble across you without warning.”

His voice betraying relief, he said. “Okay, then. Let’s go check out the camp.”

“It’s really nice because it’s brand new.”

Chase paddled the canoe up to shore, slowing and turning it with a single j-stroke at just the right moment. This time it was Dara’s turn to steady the boat while he climbed out and tied it off to a hearty little shrub. He took the lead up the trail to the camp, since the path was obvious.

After a brief look around, Chase said, “It’s perfect. Nice that the latrine is brand new. My friends are used to camping, but this is the first time they’ll truly be roughing it. They’ve never been more than an hour away from civilization. That’s why I suggested we make it just a four night stay once they get here in a couple days.”

As he turned back toward her, Dara quickly looked up into the trees overhead, fighting a rising blush. She had been unconsciously admiring the sight of his butt clad in tight shorts, and could still feel the grin that had spread across her face as she did so.

He asked, “Ready to head back?”

“Yes. I should probably get back.”

Sitting in the front of the canoe as it cruised across the lake into the wind, Dara was glad that she was facing away from Chase so she could hide her embarrassment. Her residency had consumed her time, and she’d barely dated for the last couple of years for that and other reasons. It had been a while, and being around a handsome man who she knew was attracted to her – or at least used to be – had awakened a lot of suppressed emotions.

He lived in California, though. That and the age gap helped her keep her perspective, and calm her nerves. She’d had plenty of practice staying realistic and keeping an emotional distance over the years from meeting attractive boys who were geographically undesirable on the lake.

Maybe a bit too much practice.

By the time the canoe slipped up to the shore, she wasn’t even concerned when he said, “Guess I’ll see you tonight,” indicating that he was accepting her father’s invitation.

“See you tonight,” she responded, and then gave a wave before hiking back up the trail.

****

Sweat beading on her forehead in the heat and humidity after lunch, Dara was thinking about stripping off her stifling clothes and diving into her mother’s pool when she heard it.

“Hello, the camp.”

Dara looked down toward the water, and then turned to her father to remark, “What is this? Grand Central Station all of the sudden?”

He put down the chunk of wood he was whittling and stood up, his brow furrowing. “That’s Chase’s father. Don’t mention that he’s here yet.”

“Wouldn’t he know?”

“I doubt it. When Chase left college and moved, his father all but disowned him.”

“Oh no,” she said, suddenly understanding why Chase had seemed uncomfortable talking about his career when she’d first asked.

Her father walked over toward the trail. “We’ll let Chase decide what he wants to do. Ronald isn’t... Well, he’s beyond anyone talking to him.”

“Okay.”

He nodded and then yelled down to the water, “Come on up, Ron.”

Ronald climbed up to the camp, and he was much as Dara remembered him. He was every bit as big and hairy as her father, and had been just as wild in his youth. Those days were gone, and his brown beard was now neatly trimmed in deference to his career in academia. Out on the lake, he had abandoned his working attire for a t-shirt and shorts.

“Well, as I live and breathe. Is this Dara?” He said upon spotting her sitting on a log in the camp.

Doctor Owen,” her father said, his voice a mixture of pride and banter with his old friend.

Dara couldn’t help but notice that Ronald’s questions and observations – right down to mentioning her bandaging up her brother – were almost identical to Chase’s. How two men who thought so much alike could be so much at odds was both strange and sad to her.

Noticing that he looked anxious – excited – and seeing him worrying over a folder he was holding, Dara took advantage of a lapse in the conversation to nod her head toward it. “Something tells me you didn’t come up here to talk about me.”

“Ah, you had to go and spoil it, Dara,” her father said, and then laughed. “I wanted to see how long we could keep him fidgeting before he boiled over.” After another chuckle, he said, “So what are you about to burst to show me?”

Ron scowled for a moment after finding out he was the butt of his friend’s joke, but shook it off. “I was out here last week, at the camp west of the waterfall.” He opened the folder and pulled out a printed picture, the cadence of his voice demonstrating excitement as he continued, “I didn’t have time to think about catching something to show scale, but look at this.”

Dara stepped over next to her father as he accepted the printed picture. She kept her reactions tightly under control upon seeing what was on the page – La’isa’s tail breaking the surface of the water.

Ronald’s words came out in a rush as he explained. “There’s nothing to show the scale, but those flukes were at least two and a half feet across. Look at that color. Such a stunning blue. That’s no fish known in these waters.”

“Ain’t no pike or walleye,” her father agreed. “Sure looks like something different.”

Dara was amazed at her father’s acting ability. Though he knew exactly what he was looking at, he sounded surprised, and excited.

“I went straight back and put in for some of the time I’ve accumulated. I brought camera traps, sonar, underwater cameras, and anything I can think of. If I can identify a new species – especially something so large and unusual...”

“Turn the world on its ear.”

Ron paced back and forth, absently swatting at a fly as he gestured, unable to contain his euphoria. “Even though it would already be protected here, revealing something like this would lend weight to arguments about protecting other habitats that are threatened.”

“What you’ve always been aiming for,” Paul said and grinned while clapping his friend on the shoulder.

“You’ll keep it to yourself?”

“Of course. Nobody would believe us anyway, without the evidence you’re looking for. So – get going and get it. I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re about ready to jump out of your skin.”

“I’ll be at the camp west of the waterfall,” Ronald said, already headed back toward the water.

Once he vanished over the hill, Dara turned to her father and whispered, “Dad...”

“Don’t worry. For whatever reason, your mother intended for him to see her. He could put an army out here with sonar and cameras, and never catch a glimpse of her if she doesn’t want him to.”

“But why?”

“Honey, I don’t pretend to understand regular women, let alone your mother.” He gave her a huge grin. “I just do whatever I can to make her happy, and I’ve found that works out pretty well.”

“So, you’re not worried?”

“Not in the slightest. Probably good for Ronald. He was getting a bit discouraged, and this might just be the jolt he needs.”

Dara looked over her shoulder toward the lake. “I think we should tell Chase his father is here.”

Her father grunted, the sound apparently agreement. “Why don’t you go do that, and I’ll see if I can convince your mother to tell me what game she’s playing.”

A chuckle shaking her, Dara said, “Good luck with that.”

“You have to enjoy the chase,” he said as he turned and walked toward the trail leading to La’isa’s pool.

Not wasting any time, Dara walked down the hill and pushed her father’s canoe into the water. Paddling the two-seat wooden canoe alone was a bit of a chore, despite the wind at her back. She’d had years of practice doing it and hadn’t let her daily workouts slide during her years away at school, though. The canoe glided along, propelled by her precise strokes, though she knew the going wouldn’t be nearly as easy when she was fighting the wind on the return trip.

Chase’s canoe was pulled up onto the bank and tied off when she cruised into the cove, so she knew that he had to be somewhere nearby. A few more strokes of her paddle brought her to a good landing spot, and she climbed out to tie her canoe off to a young birch next to his. Preoccupied with breaking the news to Chase gently, she didn’t think to call out to him before walking up the trail toward the camp.

It all happened within a matter of heartbeats. Dara stepped into the pine needle strewn clearing of the campsite, her eyes widening and her mouth dropping open when she realized she was looking at Chase’s bare – perfect – backside. He turned his head, noticed her, and jumped sideways behind his tent, snatching up a shirt hanging from the front pole of the tent at the same time. He cried out, disappearing behind the tent, and despite her shock at stumbling upon him nude, Dara ran toward him.

Chase was sitting behind the tent, his face a mask of pain, and his right hand gripping his ankle. Despite his discomfort, he’d found the presence of mind to drape the shirt over his loins.

“I’m so sorry,” Dara apologized as she stopped to stand above him. “I didn’t mean to... Are you okay?”

“Stepped...” He gnashed his teeth and grunted. “Stepped on something and t-turned it.”

Training taking over, she said, “Try to relax. Let me look.”

He nodded, and released his ankle to lean back on his hands. He breathed heavily, wincing from stabs of pain.

After examining him, she said, “It’s just a sprain.”

“First aid kit in the tent. Blue backpack.”

Dara nodded and slipped inside the tent. She found the backpack quite easily, and as soon as she opened it, found that his preparations went well beyond what she would have expected. He had plenty of pain medication, several instant ice packs, and a large amount of ace bandage – everything she needed. He also had an emergency defibrillator, and almost anything he might need to respond to any emergency. He was easily as prepared as she was with her own backpack full of emergency supplies.

“Glad to see you took things seriously,” she said as she slipped back out of the tent with his rolled up mattress pad and everything she needed to take care of his ankle.

“Saw too much on the ambulance, and there’s no close help out here if anything happens.”

“How’s the pain?”

“It’s actually not too bad now, but I haven’t moved it an inch.”

“Let’s get you on this. You’re going to be lying down with that elevated and iced for a while, and I doubt you want to do that while getting poked by twigs and rocks.”

“Could you... Uhm... Grab my shorts?” His face turned bright red as he pointed toward them.

Dara felt her cheeks warm a little as well. “Sure,” she said, picking them up from where they rested next to the tent. After handing them to him, she turned around and said, “Sorry about just walking up on you like that.”

He let out a little grunt of pain as he moved to put on the shorts. “My fault. I should have said that I... Well...”

“That you’re a nudist, too? No, I should have known – or at least been polite and asked for permission to come up anyway.”

“So, it really doesn’t bother you?”

“Of course not.”

“It’s just that some people think it’s perverted.”

She chuckled. After all, he could have no idea just how little she agreed with that opinion, considering her upbringing. “Well, I’m not one of those people.”

“Okay, I’ve got them on.”

Dara turned around and silently chided herself for the flicker of disappointment that shot through her upon seeing him dressed in not only the shorts, but the shirt as well. “Let’s get you up off the ground and get some ice on that.”

In short order, Chase was resting on his mattress pad with his leg propped up on his sleeping bag and ice packs on his ankle. He refused pain medication, hoping the ice would do the trick. “Well, I’ve got myself off to a fine start this trip,” he said, and then chuckled.

“I should probably call Dad on the radio and...” She trailed off, finally remembering why she’d come here in the first place. “Oh...”

“What?” he asked, seeing her expression darken.

“The reason I came over was to let you know that... Well, your father is on the lake, at the campsite west of the waterfall.”

He sighed, his expression revealing a tremendous amount of pain – emotional, not physical. “Oh. I guess you know, then?”

Dara nodded. “Dad told me a little after he left our camp.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

She could tell that he didn’t want to talk about it, and so didn’t press the issue for the moment. “I’m going to call my Dad and let him know what’s keeping me. We’ll see how you’re doing in a while.”

“You can head back. I’ll be fine.”

“Once I know you can put weight on that long enough to take care of yourself. Not a second earlier.” She broke out into a wide smile. “Consider that doctor’s orders.”

****

Fortunately, Chase was up and moving – albeit slowly and carefully – shortly after the ice packs had warmed. She told him to paddle over to their camp for supper so he wouldn’t have to worry about it and so she would feel a little better about surprising him and causing him to twist his ankle in the first place.

Dara returned to camp to find out that her father had nothing to report about her mother allowing someone to see her. Hardly surprised, she chalked it up to yet another of her mother’s whims, which were sometimes unfathomable to anyone but the naiad.

When Chase arrived, she was already at work on the meal, and the three of them took time to catch up. She was sure that her brother’s ears were burning, considering how often he was the subject of stories that usually left him the butt of the joke.

Of course, he’d brought that upon himself with his shenanigans, and he was more than a little used to it.

Chase told a few interesting stories from his time on the ambulance, and Dara found that she fell easily into those conversations. He knew just enough to connect with her own knowledge without boring her to death with minutia, as others in her profession were wont to do. His descriptions of the California wilderness and contrasting city life were equally interesting.

With supper finished and the dishes washed, everyone settled in with cups of her father’s wine around the small campfire. Since Chase had foregone pain medication, she was only a little worried about him losing coordination from the wine and possibly aggravating his injury. He was exhibiting common sense and not going overboard, so she relaxed, beginning to feel somewhat light-headed and silly from the wine herself.

The sun started to sink toward the horizon, and Chase looked up at the darkening sky. “Guess I should start thinking about heading back.”

Enjoying herself a great deal, Dara felt a little crestfallen, but joked, “You’re probably right, considering you couldn’t find the place in broad daylight.”

“Ha, ha. Then again, it looks pretty clear. Should be enough moonlight to navigate, so I could stay for one more cup of wine.”

Paul walked over with his jug. “You can always call us on the radio for a rescue if need be,” he said before filling Chase’s cup again.

“I’ll drink to that,” the younger man responded.

After a long pull from his cup, he said, “I think I’ll head over to Blueberry Hill tomorrow, take some pictures, and do some sketching. I’ve tried to capture that view a couple of times, but my memory just isn’t doing the trick.”

The place was a rare high spot on the lake with a tremendous view. They had dubbed it Blueberry Hill because wild blueberries grew at the top. “That’s a bit of a climb on that ankle,” Dara suggested.

“I’ll be careful. All I have to do is make it up and down without killing myself. The rest of the time, I’ll be safely sitting down. I just want something to tempt everyone else to make the climb once they get here.”

“Make sure you take your radio with you. Channel two,” Dara warned.

He chuckled and took another drink of wine. “I will.”

“Seems appropriate,” Paul said as he picked up his banjo.

Dara couldn’t help but smile as her father plucked out an off-the-cuff version of Blueberry Hill.

As the song ended, Chase drained the last of his wine and let out a sigh. “Well, guess I’ll head back.” He stood up and gave his head a quick shake. “Maybe that last cup was pushing it.”

Dara felt a head-rush as she stood as well.

“Since you’re up, you can walk him down and give the jug a sink,” her father said, holding out what remained of the gallon of wine. Long ropes and weights kept the jugs in the cold, deep water of the lake between evening indulgences.

Taking the jug, Dara nodded toward the trail and led Chase down to his canoe. “Mind taking this out with you and dropping it?” she asked as she tied the rope onto the handle of the plastic container.

“Sure, no problem.”

As she handed over the wine, Chase’s face was framed by the stars in the nearly dark sky, and the equally brilliant flashes from waves out on the lake. Their eyes met for the briefest of instants, and Dara’s heart raced unexpectedly.

She vividly remembered walking down to the water all those years ago to find that carefully arranged bunch of flowers. Despite having never thought of him that way, it was still one of the most romantic gestures anyone had yet made to her in her young life, and it had made an impression.

“We’re going to have to do this again some time,” Chase said, shattering the moment as he turned to sit the jug down in the canoe.

Glad that color-washing light of the crescent moon hid the blush she felt rising in her cheeks, Dara agreed, “Mmm hmm. Be careful.”

Chase boarded his canoe and set off, dropping the wine when he reached the end of its rope. Dara turned and walked up the trail, but paused about half way when she was hidden from both the camp and the lake.

Oh, where did this come from, she lamented, her heart still pattering as chills shot through her. There was no denying the deep, intense attraction she’d felt in that moment as their eyes met.

He lives in California, she reminded herself. Besides, he’s not thirteen with a crush on you any more, and your twenties are gone.

It didn’t help.

The goose bumps and nagging desire to sneak back down the trail for one last glimpse of him remained.

****

Though the day had dawned sunny and beautiful, dark clouds and wind rolled in just before lunch time. The oncoming storm loomed closer, lit by occasional flashes of lightning as Dara stood at the bottom of the trail watching it approach. She knew that her mother’s magic would protect their camp. There was no need to worry about lightning strikes or falling trees here, so the storm was yet another example of nature’s majesty for her to enjoy.

Blinking against strands of hair constantly blowing into her eyes, she drifted back to the thoughts that had preoccupied her since the evening before. She’d gone to sleep worrying over her unexpected moment with Chase, and awakened from a dream that she could only remember snippets of.

What she could remember was that he’d figured prominently in the dream, and that she’d awakened in a mixed state of happiness and arousal.

The more she thought about it, the more it made sense. He was familiar. He was certainly attractive, and that thought caused her to shiver as she amended attractive to gorgeous. She could talk to him about her work because of his experience as an EMT. He knew the part of her life on the lake as well, and shared her joy in it.

Beneath it all, he was safe. A relationship gone bad is what had turned her away from dating as much as limited time. It had been the only real long-term relationship since high school, and having it end worse than the first had caused her to withdraw even more than usual. Standing on the shore of the lake with a thunderstorm rushing nearer by the moment, the epiphany hit her.

The only reason she’d allowed the emotions to surge in the first place was that they couldn’t possibly go anywhere. In a few days, he’d be back in California, where she wouldn’t have to confront her feelings or act on them.

The first raindrops hit her face, cold and stinging from the force of the wind driving them. She started to turn back toward camp before the full brunt of the storm caught her, but something in her peripheral vision caused her to stop. Squinting through the approaching downpour, she saw a canoe hugging the shore and speeding toward her through the rising waves.

It was Chase.

He angled toward her, and she knew why. In less than a minute, she was soaked to the skin and struggling to see him through the sheets of wind-driven rain. He could either fight the storm for several more minutes to reach his own camp, or strike for safe haven. With bolts of lightning drawing closer, sitting on the water in an aluminum canoe made the decision easy for anyone rational.

“Dara, it’s storming in case you haven’t noticed,” her father said from behind her.

“Chase is out there,” she shouted back over the wind as she wiped rivulets of water out of her eyes.

“Where?”

Dara pointed and her father followed the gesture. He cupped his hands around his mouth and let out a booming whoop to provide some additional guidance in the limited visibility.

About twenty feet away, Chase paddled hard to reach the landing.

“Throw me the rope and hang on,” Paul yelled to the younger man.

Chase slid his paddle into the bottom of the canoe and tossed the rope. Between the wind and the craft trying to drift back out into the lake, he missed his mark. The wet rope smacked painfully against Dara’s arm, but she closed her hands around it, nearly getting pulled into the lake in the process.

Her father’s powerful hands grabbed the rope from her and steadied her at the same time. Muscles bunching, he pulled the canoe up and onto the shore a remarkable distance. When Chase scrambled to climb out, Dara held out her hand to help him. As soon as he was out, her father dragged the canoe the rest of the way up onto the bank.

“I’ll tie this off. Get up to camp,” Paul instructed.

The two hurried up the already slippery trail that was developing into a stream, somewhat protected from the elements by the foliage. Within the camp, the storm was still very much evident, but nowhere near as severe as what they’d experienced.

Dara ran to the shelter of a dining fly her father had erected upon smelling the weather coming and confirming his own well-tuned senses with his mate, who knew anything happening in the natural world with absolute accuracy. Hot on her heels, Chase slipped a little as he stopped next to her.

“Are you okay?” she asked while pulling soaked strands of hair out of her face and wiping droplets off her nose.

“A little winded, but yeah.”

“Trying to drown or electrocute yourself?” Paul scolded as he joined them to shake water out of his hair and beard.

Chase winced. “I wasn’t paying enough attention. Thought I had enough time when I finally noticed and hit the water.”

“You should know better than that. A storm out here is nothing to take lightly. But, at least you had the sense to head for cover.”

The fly was imperfect shelter at best. The ground was sodden except in the dead center, and rain still pattered against Dara’s legs. It did keep the rain off her upper body and blocked some of the wind, though.

Dara sat down on one of the logs under the fly and turned to look out into the driving rain when she took notice of the way Chase’s shirt was clinging to his muscular chest. She felt silly for sitting down where more rain could get to her, but stubbornly refused to stand back up, thus acknowledging the mistake. A moment later, she glanced down at her own clothing. Soaked through, her shorts and top were all but transparent, clearly showing the blue bikini she had on beneath.

Though relieved – and rationalizing that as a nudist, this was the least of what he regularly saw – she still felt a little twinge of irritation that he didn’t seem to have noticed.

Chase let out a little hiss, and when she glanced his way, she saw him favoring his injured ankle. “Did you stress it again?”

“Nothing bad. Just pulled a little when I slipped.”

She stood up and told him, “Sit down and let me look at it.”

Ignoring that she was squatting with one knee in the mud, she pulled off his shoe and sock. Manipulating his foot caused him to wince, but not cry out. There was no swelling or redness, and the range of motion was reasonable.

“You don’t seem that much worse for wear,” she declared as she looked up, and her gaze entwined with his.

There was a wistful look in his eyes, and a smile on his face. Even though her sodden top had drooped to reveal cleavage and her bikini top, his eyes were locked with hers, and not on that obvious distraction.

“Thanks for taking a look,” he said. “Just something I’ll have to watch until it completely heals.”

“Think this is going to blow by pretty quickly,” Paul said, breaking the tension that his daughter felt as she stood up.

“Hope it hasn’t blown my camp away with it when it does,” Chase commented as he pulled his sock back on.

Dara lifted her bent knee and held it under a stream of water running down from the corner of the rain fly, washing away the mud there. It was as much to face away from Chase as anything else, though. This was yet another moment, and each one was making it more difficult to ignore.

Her emotions had obviously made a decision without any input from her. The initial attraction was there, just waiting for her to look deeper, to see if there was more.

Even though she knew better, she wasn’t so sure that her heart was going to listen.

The rain picked up as the center of the storm rolled over them, steadily forcing all three toward the center of the fly. Even then, they were all getting soaked. Dry shelter was only a few feet away in the form of the two tents, but that would have meant having to dry out bedding and the tents later before bed.

Dara shivered as her soaked clothing and the wind chilled her. In unspoken coordination, her father and Chase both moved on either side of her, doing what little they could to block the wind and provide a little warmth.

Thunder boomed, and the wind whirled through the trees, making canvas thrum. Huddled together, Dara was very much conscious of Chase standing next to her. The limited conversation was almost entirely based upon the storm, as it was hard to think about anything else as the worst of it pounded the region.

“Think I see some light,” Paul remarked as the rain slacked off. “Sun comes back out like it was, and the air will be so thick you can cut it with a knife.”

Her father’s prediction proved all too true. As the rain fizzled, the wind died down, and the sun reappeared from behind the clouds, the temperature rapidly spiked. Dara went from shivering to sweating in a matter of minutes.

Chase fanned his face and said, “I’d better go check my stuff. It’s in a water-proof bag, but that’s not going to help if it blew out of the canoe and is floating across the lake.”

“Even less if both canoes are floating with it. Better head on down there,” Paul agreed.

Negotiating the slippery path strewn with freshly fallen leaves and branches, Dara followed her father down to the shore. Fortunately, both canoes and their contents had ridden out the storm.

“Holy moley,” Chase remarked as he stood up from checking the contents of his pack. He was in the full light of the sun, and absolutely dripping with sweat that had nowhere to go but down in the saturated air. He grinned and said, “Not like I can get any wetter.”

With that, he spread his arms wide, gave a little hop, and splashed down hard into the water.

Dara cried out and jumped back, barely avoiding the splash. “Watch it,” she mock-scolded him when he bobbed back to the surface.

“Oh, okay. I’ll watch,” he said as he cupped both hands in front of him and targeted her.

Dripping from his splash, Dara exclaimed, “Ooo! You...” Then she lashed out with a kick at the water, though he easily dodged the splash.

“Going to have to try harder than that,” Chase taunted and then laughed.

Try again she did – and a little too hard. Though her kick-splash connected this time, she lost her balance. A quick grab caught the end of a limb hanging down over the water. It supported her for a few tantalizing moments, then with a tiny crack, deposited her – screaming – into the water.

Caught up in the feeling, all too similar to the play around her mother’s pool, Dara lashed out with a double-handed splash of her own as soon as she surfaced. After so long pent up, displaying a professional front and studying, the release felt wonderful. The war went on for several seconds while her father chuckled, rolled his eyes, and escaped up to the safety of the camp.

Finally, they both connected with splashes that hit each other full in the face, and peace reigned while they sputtered amidst infectious laughter. As Dara cleared her eyes, she saw a canoe moving toward the camp.

Chase turned around, following her line of sight just as she realized who it was. Chase’s father narrowed his eyes, then turned his head to look away while slamming his paddle into a j-stroke that turned the canoe back the way it came.

“Dad,” Chase called out. When his father ignored him and dipped his paddle to continue the retreat, the younger man’s shoulders slumped.

“Chase... I...” Not knowing what to say, she laid a hand on his arm.

He flinched away.

“Chase?”

“I... I need to go,” he said without turning around to face her.

Dara swam up to the bank behind him, but he still avoided eye contact as he climbed out and straight into his canoe.

“We’re here if you need us,” Dara tried one last time as he untied the rope and pushed the craft out into the water.

“Thanks,” he answered, barely audible.

Tears welling up in her eyes, she watched him paddle slowly toward the far shore.

****

The mood in camp for the rest of the day was subdued. It was one thing to know of the difficulties between Chase and his father, but actually seeing the disdain on Ronald’s face drove the point home with painful strength. Even the usually carefree La’isa was quiet.

When she told her father that she was going to see Chase, he convinced her that he needed some time and space. She heeded the advice, though she found herself standing on the edge of the lake staring toward the island in the distance several times – including just before she turned in for a night of fitful sleep.

The next morning, before her father awakened, she pulled out the radio and stepped away from camp a short distance. “Chase, are you there?”

When she didn’t get an answer the first time, she tried again. This time, he answered, his voice monotone. “Yeah, I’m here.”

“I... I just wanted to see how you’re doing. Are you okay?”

“Ankle’s fine,” he answered, avoiding what he surely knew was the real question. “Have to go meet my friends and lead them out here, so I’ve got to go.”

“Okay. Be safe.”

It hurt more than she wanted it to for him to dismiss her, and she knew that didn’t bode well for her. It could serve as a perfect excuse to close her heart off and overwhelm the attraction she felt. She’d done it before. This time was different, though. Her natural inclination to help and heal wouldn’t let her avoid him, knowing the pain Chase was going through.

There was one place she knew for sure that she could cast her cares aside – at least for a little while.

Oddly enough, when she stepped up to the edge of the pool, her mother was nowhere to be found. Pursing her lips and letting out a sigh, she slipped into the water. She was hurting, and she knew deep down that her mother wouldn’t let her endure that alone for long.

****

La’isa felt the tug of her daughter’s heart, and quite nearly abandoned her quest to return to the pool. Aching even as her daughter did, she remained deep beneath the water, waiting for the right moment – the right person.

At last, toes dipped into the water, and she felt it. Smiling, she let her magic flow through the water, then up through those slender digits.

Feeling what she hoped, she twisted in the water and called upon her magic once more. Darting forward, she vanished, leaving behind only a cloud of bubbles as her magic carried her to the mouth of her pool, where her daughter awaited.

****

Author's Note: This story was submitted in two parts due to length. It is part of a series called "Magic of the Wood" and the first story in the series, "Steward of the Wood" is linked below. In chronological order, it is followed by Daughter, Forever, Secret, Kindred, Heart, and then this story, with more to come.

No naughty bits in this first part of the story, but they're coming in part two.
This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than Lushstories.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.


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