Link was trying to work, he really was.
There was a knock on the door, followed by a burst of frantic barking and a shriek.
“Uncle Liiiink! There's someone at the dooooor!”
Link grit his teeth and rolled his chair to the doorway and shouted down the stairwell, “Well, then answer it, Sophie!” He rolled back and picked up his headphones only to be interrupted again.
Last autumn he'd agreed to become the live-in caretaker of his paternal family's lakeside mansion and cabins. In the summer he was in charge of renting out the cabins and hosting family in the mansion, and in the winter he took care of all the property. For this, he got free housing and was paid a stipend from the family trust, which along with his freelance graphic design work, allowed him to live a pretty comfortable lifestyle.
He hadn't realized how much babysitting would be involved.
“I can't! It's stuck!”
Link raised his eyes heavenward in a plea for patience and put the headphones back on the desk before descending the stairs. His niece Sophie stood in front of the door, wearing a sparkly green bathing suit and pink Crocs. Her golden retriever bounced around and barked in excitement as whoever was on the other side of the door knocked again.
“Get him out of here, Sophie. You know how he gets when the door opens,” Link grabbed the doorknob and heaved as Sophie grabbed the dog by his collar and led him off to the kitchen. The door really and truly was stuck. Usually everyone just used the back door in the kitchen, so the front door was left to swell in the humidity.
One final pull led to success. As Link opened the door, he caught a glimpse of a tall, bearded man for just a second before the golden retriever slammed into him, barking wildly. Sophie ran in, giggling.
“Fuck!” Link swore. “Hang on a second,” he said to the man on the porch before shutting the door in his face.
Sophie looked at him with wide eyes. “I'm telling mommy you said a bad word.”
“Your mama taught me that word,” Link retorted. He grabbed the dog's collar and led him through the house before escorting both the dog and Sophie out the back door.
Link took a few deep breaths before going to open the front door. “Sorry about that,” he said to the bearded man. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah, I'm looking for Link Neal? I'm renting a cabin and I need the key,” the bearded man said. He had a mildly shell-shocked expression and was about Link's age and really handsome, in Link's opinion. “They told me to come to the big house.”
“Come on in,” Link said as he stood aside. “I'm Link.” He held out his hand.
The other man shook it. “Rhett McLaughlin.” He looked around the room and his eyes got wide. “Whoa.”
It was the same reaction that all newcomers had to the front room. Built in 1920 by Link's rich new-money railway baron great grandfather, it had a rustic exterior that belied the luxurious interior. The front room preserved the original décor: mahogany paneling, stained glass lamps, custom curtains and upholstery, and a grand piano. A wide staircase ascended in the corner.
There was also a mess of shoes, pool noodles, life jackets, toys, and towels scattered about.
Link laughed. “Welcome to Merganser Lodge. Don't worry, it's not all like this. The rest of the house is way less, um, ostentatious.”
Rhett followed him into the kitchen, which had a full butler's pantry, an enormous island, and high end appliances. It was pretty ostentatious as well, just in a different way. Link disappeared into the pantry and rummaged around in a drawer.
“Which cabin are you staying in?” he hollered out to Rhett.
“I don't know.”
Link came out of the pantry with a puzzled look on his face. “You don't know?”
Rhett shook his head. “Someone else booked it for me.”
“Oh.” A light clicked on for Link. “You're that one. Hang on, I gotta run upstairs and print some paperwork for you. There's soda and stuff in the fridge if you want a drink.” He left and ran back up to his studio.
When Link came back into the kitchen, he found Rhett drinking a Coke while staring out the back door. “This place is amazing. I had no idea it was going to be like this,” he said. Several terraced green lawns led down to the lake, where a dock with a diving board stretched out towards a floating platform. Little natural peninsulas formed multiple small coves around the house. Adirondack chairs, a hammock, a gazebo, an outdoor brick oven, and a couple fire pits were scattered around the property. Huge mature trees shaded everything and mostly hid the three cabins from each other.
The lake itself was long and thin and nestled between two low mountain ranges covered in deep green foliage. Boats ranging from single person kayaks to a full size paddle wheel steamboat cruised through the rich blue water.
Link shot him a look and dug through the junk drawer for a pen. “Okay, I am really curious here. My grandma had me block out reservations for the best cabin for six weeks—basically the entire summer, which caused some pretty unpleasant conversations with longtime renters, by the way—as 'a favor for a friend' and then you show up. I'm pretty sure you aren't friends with my grandma, so what gives?”
Rhett shrugged and took a sip of his soda. “I dunno about your grandma. My manager made my reservations. She said I needed to go somewhere where I could concentrate.”
“Your manager?” Link found a pen and shoved it across the island at Rhett. “Fill that out, please.”
“Yeah, with the record label. I'm a musician. She wants me to have an album's worth of songs ready to record by the end of the summer.” Rhett uncapped the pen and scribbled in the corner of the paper to unclog it.
“Can you do that? Just write songs on command?” Link asked, leaning against the counter behind him as he watched Rhett fill out the paperwork. Rhett had his dark blond hair pushed back into a messy pompadour and was wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and dark skinny jeans cuffed over brown boots. Link glanced down at his own outfit—a plain blue t-shirt, green cactus-printed swim trunks, and bare feet—and suddenly felt under dressed. He combed his fingers through his messy hair self consciously.
“Um, no. At least, not in LA. That's why I'm here. My manager called me yesterday and said that I missed one too many deadlines, so she was sending me to 'summer camp' and that if I wasn't ready to go to the airport at 6 this morning, there'd be hell to pay. So here I am.” Rhett slid the papers back to Link.
“Wow. That's, um, that's...you were okay with that?” Link looked through the papers. Everything was in order.
“No, actually, we had a screaming fight over the phone last night, and another one on the way to the airport this morning.” Rhett shrugged. “But none of that is your fault and I did actually miss a few deadlines, so...”
“Gotcha.” Link initialed a few places on the forms. “Let me grab your key.” He vanished back into the pantry.
The screen door banged open behind Rhett. A middle school aged boy ran in. “Hey Uncle Link, can--” he skidded to a stop at the sight of Rhett. “Do you know where my Uncle Link is?”
“Pantry.” Rhett pointed across the room.
“UNCLE LINK!” the boy hollered from his place by the door. Rhett jumped. “CAN WE GO TO RAY’S FOR LUNCH?”
“Jesus Christ, Owen,” Link scolded as he reentered the kitchen. “Don't scream like that in front of a guest. Actually, don't scream like that, period. And I'm not taking you to Ray's because one, there's leftover pizza and two, you interrupted me three times this morning after I asked you not to.” He handed a key to Rhett. The metal keychain was a silhouette of the lake with a label reading #3 on it.
“Okay, so you don't really need to lock anything up because this is private property and we're so far off the main road, but you can if you want.” Owen yanked on Link's sleeve but Link shook him off. “I cleaned the cabin but I haven't brought any sheets or towels down yet so I'll bring them in a little bit.” Owen pulled on Link's sleeve again.
“Oh my god, Owen, what?” Link spun around.
“My dad ate the rest of the pizza after you went to bed.”
“Seriously?” Link pulled open the fridge. It was nearly empty except for drinks. He sighed and looked over at Rhett. “You wanna go to Ray's with us?”