Authors: Sandra Robbins
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Inspirational Romance, #Romance
Igniting the Flame
Lainey Simpson glanced at the darkening sky and questioned her decision to go for an early morning run instead of staying in her warm bed. Moss Creek Trail wound through this North Carolina mountain valley and had been one of her favorite places to train when she was in high school. But after four years of college with only time for an occasional run, she no longer had the endurance of the young track star she’d once been.
A sudden wind whipped down from the mountain, and her nostrils flared at the sweet, pungent scent of approaching rain. Willing her tired muscles to respond, she increased her stride as her feet slapped at the familiar trail, pitting her speed against that of the threatening storm. Just a few more miles and she’d be back at the trailhead parking lot where she’d left her car.
A sharp pain stabbed at her abdomen just below her ribs, and she staggered to an abrupt halt. Bending over, she placed her hands on her knees and gulped deep breaths in an effort to relieve the pressure of the side stitch. Drinking that glass of orange juice before leaving home hadn’t been a good idea. It wasn’t even seven AM yet, and she’d already ignored two of her Rules for Running. No sugary drinks before taking to the trail and always check the Weather Channel before leaving home.
The first drop of rain hit her head, and she glanced up at the towering mountains on either side of the valley. Black storm clouds now obscured the blue haze that usually covered the towering peaks of the Smokies as the storm prepared to hit. A bolt of lightning streaked the sky, and a loud clap of thunder rumbled across the mountains.
A shiver rippled through her body at the thought that the trees on either side of the trail would be good targets for a lightning strike, putting her at risk, too. Ignoring the side stitch that
had begun to subside, she dashed forward, determined to make it to the trailside shelter that sat about a quarter of a mile away. She’d had the trail to herself since starting out this morning, so perhaps it wouldn’t be filled with other runners or hikers who’d ignored the weather reports today like she had.
Within a few minutes she rounded a curve and spotted the small wooden structure sitting off to the left side of the trail. Really it was little more than a lean-to with an overhanging roof, a wooden floor, and three walls. Even though one side was open to the elements, it served as a rustic shelter for overnight hikers or to keep others dry during rain storms. Furnished with only a long wooden bench, it was at the far end of the spectrum when compared to the comfortable condos and hotels in St. Claire a few miles away. But today it was just what she needed.
The rain now pelted down on her as she ran, and she narrowed her eyes searching for other people inside the shelter, but it appeared deserted. With a final burst of speed she bounded inside and sank down on the bench just as the heavens opened and a torrent descended on the valley. She’d seen rain drip off a house before, but she’d never seen it look like the river pouring over the side of the shelter’s roof.
With the arrival of the storm, the temperature had dropped, and she shivered. Great! Now she had to sit for who knew how long in wet clothes. She hugged her arms around her waist and squeezed in an effort to fight against the cold that seeped through her body.
Suddenly she straightened her shoulders and stared up the trail in the direction from which she’d come. Another runner, barely visible in the pouring rain, ran toward the shelter, and from the looks of the long strides, a man was headed her way.
She flinched and chewed at the inside of her cheek as he came closer, his head bent against the driving rain. Then taking a giant leap off the trail, he landed inside the shelter and shook himself like a drenched dog after having been given a bath. She closed her eyes and frowned as drops of water splattered across her face.
Her stomach dropped to the pit of her stomach at the thought that now she was about to violate rule number three. Never interact with strangers while hiking or camping. But right now she was stuck with nowhere to go, and it appeared she and this stranger were going to have to share the shelter for quite a while.
Before she could speak, he dropped a backpack to the floor, pushed off the hood of the rain jacket he wore, and shrugged out of it to reveal a tight-fitting tee shirt underneath. Lainey’s stomach clenched at the way the shirt strained across his biceps, and she swallowed to relieve the flutter of her heart. This was no stranger. He’d been the object of many of her romantic fantasies when she was a young high school girl.
Even before he spoke she knew what his voice would sound like. A gravelly tone with a hint of seduction, aimed at reducing a woman to a quivering mass of gelatin. “Well, well,” he murmured as he stepped closer, one eyebrow arched and a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. His dark eyes narrowed as his gaze traveled over her in an appraising gaze that reminded Lainey of a lion stalking its next meal. “If I’d left my campsite yesterday like I meant to, I never would have gotten to meet a beautiful hiker stranded in the rain. This must be my lucky day.”
His words, meant to impress, reminded her instead of how she must look. No makeup, clothes drenched, and a pony tail that hung down her back like a wet dish rag. She tried to think
of something to say, but nothing came to mind. Instead she collapsed against the back of the bench and surrendered to the laughter welling up inside of her.
A slow flush spread across his cheeks, and he frowned. “Did I say something funny?”
Lainey wiped at a tear that trickled from the corner of her eye and bit down on her lip to stifle the last giggle. “Oh, Ash,” she said, “don’t tell me you’re still using the same old lines you did in high school? I would have thought you’d outgrown that by now.”
His mouth opened and the muscles in his throat constricted, but no sound came out. Finally he swallowed and stepped closer to her. “High school? What are you talking about?”
She arched an eyebrow and propped her fists on her hips. “High school. St. Claire, North Carolina, Fighting Eagles, to be exact. Where you were captain of the football team, the basketball team, and the baseball team. And had an entourage of popular girls who catered to your every wish. Remember now?”
He frowned and tilted his head. “Of course I know where I graduated from high school, but how do you know?”
She exhaled in annoyance. “Because I was there, too. I guess you don’t remember me because I never was one of your little groupies.”
A stunned look covered his now-pale face. “I-I’m sorry. I’m afraid you’re right. I don’t remember you.”
Lainey laughed again. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. Why would you remember me? You were two years ahead of me. I was one of those kids who was invisible to you and your popular friends. And definitely not like the girls that hung out with you.”
He rubbed the back of his neck and smiled the first real smile she’d seen since he stepped into the shelter. The dimple in his right cheek winked at her. “Um, you make me sound like a mighty shallow guy. I’m sorry I was such a jerk. Maybe I can convince you I’ve grown up a lot since then.” He held out his hand. “I’m Ash DeHan, former inconsiderate and thoughtless high school boy, who’s just come home to St. Claire after six years in the army. And you are?”
She smiled and stood up as she extended her hand. “I’m Lainey Simpson, home after graduating from college last month. It’s nice to meet you, Ash.”
His eyes twinkled, and he held her hand a bit longer than needed. “It’s my pleasure, Lainey.” When he released her, he studied her a moment longer then shook his head. “I can’t believe I don’t remember you.”
She laughed again. “No problem. I’ve changed since then, too. All through school I kept my nose buried in a book. Didn’t go to any school activities and tried to go unnoticed.”
His gaze raked her. “Well, you’d certainly be noticed now.”
She glanced down and gave a little gasp at her wet tee shirt. The cardigan she’d had on earlier now hung around her hips where she’d tied it when she got hot, but her wet shirt lay plastered against her skin like it had been glued on.
Fumbling at the knot she’d tied in the sweater, she backed away a few steps. Her cheeks burned as if they were on fire as she tried to untie the sweater so she could wrap it around her shoulders, but it was so wet she couldn’t loosen the knot.
Ash turned away and unzipped his backpack. He rummaged around inside for a moment before he pulled out a blue cotton shirt with a button-down collar and handed it to her. “You need to get out of that wet shirt. Put this on.”
She shrank from him and tightened her arms across her chest. “I can’t change in front of you.”
He huffed out a short breath and shook his head. “I’m not that teenage boy anymore, and I promise I won’t look.” He nodded toward the far corner of the shelter. “I’ll turn my back, and you can go over there to change.”
When she didn’t move, he held the shirt closer. Another shiver shook her body, and she reached for the shirt. “Thank you.”
Then true to his word, he turned toward the open side of the shelter and walked to the edge of the floor. He spread his legs in a military stance and slipped his hands in his pockets as he stared outside. Satisfied that he would do as he said, she slipped into the dark corner of the shelter and changed into his shirt.
“Okay. You can turn around now,” she said when she slipped the last button through its hole.
He slowly faced her as she eased from the corner. He took a step toward her, and they came face-to-face with only a few feet between them in front of the bench. He smiled. “That shirt looks better on you than it ever did on me.”
She laughed at the compliment as she hung her shirt over the back of the bench. “Thank you. This feels much better. I’ll launder it and get it back to you.”
“No hurry,” he said, his gaze locked with hers. After a moment he inhaled, glanced outside at the rain that was still pouring, and motioned toward the bench. “It looks like we’re going to be here for a while. Why don’t we sit down, and you can tell me all about Lainey Simpson and how I was such a cocky kid that I missed the opportunity to get to know her in high school.”
Ash watched Lainey sit down on the bench and then dropped down beside her. She pulled some strands of wet hair from her eyes before settling back. He scooted a little closer, cautious about getting too close. He didn’t know how he could keep his distance, though. Ever since he’d stepped into this shelter and seen her, his heart had been pumping like a bass drum, and it had nothing to do with his dash through the rain.
The minute he’d taken off his jacket and looked at her, he’d felt like he’d been kicked in the stomach. Drenched, she’d sat on that bench, her chin lifted high, and studied him with a wary expression. Her blond ponytail reminded him of a drowned rat as it hung limp and dripping against her back, but her blue eyes were a different matter. They reminded him of a stormy surf washing up onshore. Her teeth chewing on her lower lip only emphasized their fullness. The sight made his pulse race.
When he’d first stumbled into the shelter, he’d tried not to look at how her wet shirt had clung to her body in all the right places. It was as if there’d been a silent connection between the two of them for one short moment. And then he broke the spell when he opened his mouth and uttered that stupid line, the same thing he always said when he met a beautiful woman.
To say he was shocked when she practically rolled on the floor with laughter was the understatement of the year. His skin burned with embarrassment, and he would have turned and run from the shelter if it hadn’t been raining so hard. Instead he had to stand and find out what he’d said that made her practically hysterical.
But she hadn’t been making fun of him. She’d only been reacting to that stupid facade he put up when he was around women. He must have sounded like a complete idiot coming onto her
that way. It only took a few minutes of her describing their high school days for him to see that she was different from any woman he’d ever known before.
She was the dangerous kind. The kind who had opinions and weren’t afraid to voice them. The kind that could tell a man he was a total jerk and smile while she said it. The kind that radiated innocence like a great virtue while her eyes offered a silent invitation to explore what lay beneath her cool exterior. The kind who made you think of things like marriage, and a steady job, and babies. The kind that he stayed away from at all costs.