Authors: Darlene Gardner
Tags: #Return To Indigo Springs
“But we agreed—”
“I didn’t agree to anything,” he interrupted. His gaze still held hers. “My feelings haven’t changed. I want to see where our attraction leads us.”
Denying she was attracted to him would be fruitless. Even if she hadn’t already admitted as much, he might be able to tell that little goose bumps had popped up on her skin where he’d touched her.
“We’ve already been over this,” she said, “and I’m not staying in Indigo Springs.”
Almost everyone is familiar with the fable about the boy who cried wolf. In
That Runaway Summer,
Jill Jacobi’s ten-year-old brother is a variation of that boy. Except when he comes to Jill with a fantastic tale others have discounted, she believes him. She even goes on the run to protect him.
Jill and her brother wind up in Indigo Springs, which may well be the end of the road for them. I know it is for me.
That Runaway Summer
is the final installment in my five-book series set in the scenic Pocono Mountain town that isn’t nearly as tranquil as it looks. Then again, if it were, visiting there wouldn’t be quite as interesting!
Until next time,
P.S. Visit me on the Web at www.darlenegardner.com.
1360—A TIME TO FORGIVE
1396—A TIME TO COME HOME
1431—THE OTHER WOMAN’S SON
1490—ANYTHING FOR HER CHILDREN
1544—THE HERO’S SIN
1562—THE STRANGER’S SIN
1580—THE SECRET SIN
1636—AN HONORABLE MAN
But it was the air conditioner sputtering and rattling before finally blasting her face with semicool air.
“Did you hear me?” Her mother’s familiar Southern drawl came over the phone, the connection clearer now. “He said if you called me I should tell you it’s only a matter of time before his private investigator finds you.”
Jill’s knuckles showed white on the prepaid cell phone. She loosened her grip and reminded herself she could find a kernel of good in even the worst news.
He hadn’t called in the cops.
“Don’t worry, Mama,” she said, her tone deliberately light. She parted the pretty yellow-and-white-gingham curtains she’d hung to brighten up the room and studied the Columbia, South Carolina, street below. A few cars passed by, but the businesses were closed and the sidewalks empty. No one was watching the apartment building. “A private eye can’t find me.”
“How do you know that, darlin’?” Her mother sounded worried, the way she had every time Jill checked in. Then again, her mother had been anxious about something or other since her divorce from Jill’s father. That had been a full two decades ago when Jill was eight. “Private eyes are like bird dogs. You don’t know the first thing about throwing one off a scent.”
Jill was more savvy than she’d been in the last town, when she’d taken into her confidence the friendly young mother who lived next door. She’d barely escaped Savannah in time after discovering her so-called friend had tried to exchange her whereabouts for reward money.
“I know a little something about covering my tracks, Mama,” Jill said. “I withdrew all the money from my bank account, I don’t list my address anywhere and I don’t use credit. I’m even using money orders for my car payments.”
Who was she trying to reassure? Jill wondered. Her mother or herself?
“I hate that you’re living this way,” her mother said. “You were so happy in Atlanta. You were going to buy into that bike shop and you had all those nice friends.”
“I can make friends wherever I go.” Jill refused to dwell on her lost business opportunity. “I can be happy anywhere.”
She wished that were true of her mother, a nurse who had long operated under the hope that the next hospital job or the next condo or the next man held the key to her happiness.
“How can you be content when you’re always looking over your shoulder? That’s no way to live.”
“It’s the way it has to be.”
“No!” Her mother was probably shaking her head, the curly dark hair that was so like Jill’s rustling from side to side. “No, it isn’t. You can go on back to Atlanta and get your life together.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Jill said quietly.
“Why not?” her mother demanded. “He’s not a bad man.”
Her mother had a point, but that didn’t change the situation. “You know why. We’ve been over it a dozen times.”
“And for the life of me I still don’t understand why you’re so sure this is the only way.”
the only way.” Jill cut her off before her mother launched into what had become a familiar refrain. “Thanks for telling me about the private eye.”
“I’ll be in touch when I can.” Jill couldn’t promise anything more specific than that. “Bye, Mama. I love you.”
She rang off before her mother could say anything else, then sat down on the thin mattress of the sofa bed to assess her situation.
Even with her new ironclad policy of trusting no one, she could have unwittingly left a trail.
She hadn’t seen a way around using her own Social Security number. When she’d filled out the employment papers for her waitress job, it had been with the assumption that no one but the cops could get access to her records.
Had that been naive? Private eyes on TV were always calling in favors with their law enforcement contacts. Did it work that way in real life, too?
Her eyelids finally grew heavy and she clicked off the living-room lamp with the sunflower shade she’d picked out herself. She usually had no trouble falling asleep, but tonight she felt the mattress coils poking at her ribs. Her eyes popped open at every noise.
She must have finally slept, because the weak light of dawn filtering through the shades woke her. Her mind felt clear, the indecision that had plagued her the night before gone. She didn’t linger in the sofa bed, for she had much to do.
When she was almost ready, she opened the creaky door to the second room in the apartment and approached the sleeping form in the bed. Very gently she shook the thin shoulder not covered by the white sheet.
The soft, regular breathing sounds of sleep stopped, replaced by a drowsy sigh. A head covered by floppy brown hair turned, and huge, dark, confused eyes set in a too-lean face fastened on hers. A tide of love swept over her, nearly causing her to take a step backward.
“Hey, Chris,” she said, sweeping the hair back from her brother’s face. “Sorry to wake you, but we’ve got to get you packed.”
He nodded once, then sat up, the covers falling away to reveal the white T-shirt he wore over his scrawny chest.
“Okay,” he said.
Last night, when she’d taken him to the carnival, he’d balked at the roller coaster but had eaten cotton candy and gone on the merry-go-round like any other ten-year-old.
Now his eyes were solemn and he didn’t even ask why she was going to upend their lives once again.
Jill wasn’t the only one who knew the most effective way to elude a bird dog was to fly off before the hunting party arrived.
No wonder she’d let down her guard.
“It was real sweet of you to invite me over.” Jill spoke to Penelope Pollock in a whisper on a Friday night in July. “Even though I haven’t known you long, I already love you to death. I might change my mind, though, if you’re aiming to fix me up with the vet.”
Penelope transferred four bottles of beer from the refrigerator to the sleek granite countertop of the island in her kitchen, then rummaged in a drawer until she pulled out a bottle opener.
“Of course I’m fixing you up.” Penelope spoke without a trace of shame. “It’s what I do.”
Jill would never tell Penelope the truth of how she and Chris had ended up in Indigo Springs. So why hadn’t she been more cautious when she’d gotten a dinner invitation from the woman who fancied herself a matchmaker?
The answer was simple, yet complicated.
Jill, who could afford to trust no one, was too darn trusting.
“You should be thanking me.” Penelope popped the top on one of the beer bottles. “Dan’s a great guy. On the quiet side, but animals and kids love him. When are they ever wrong about a person?”
On the wooden deck visible through the sliding glass doors, Penelope’s husband, Johnny, tended the grill as Dan Maguire bent to pet a huge dog. The beast’s thick tail wagged vigorously as the dog tried to lick his face. Dan straightened, teeth a dentist would admire flashing as he laughed, his hand still buried in the dog’s white-and-mahogany coat.
“I’m sure he’s a nice guy,” Jill began.
“Nice doesn’t begin to cover it,” Penelope retorted. “After he started working for Stanley Kownacki, all I heard about him were good things. Now that we have a puppy, I wouldn’t dream of using any other vet.”
That monstrosity of a dog was a
“Not many nice guys are as good-looking as he is,” Penelope continued without taking a breath. “Just try to tell me he’s not hot.”
A breeze rustled Dan’s black hair, which fell almost to his collar. Jill knew from the few times she’d happened to see him around town that his eyes were a startling blue, but they weren’t his best feature. Neither were his long interesting nose, lean high cheekbones or wide full mouth.
Her eyes dipped to his legs, left bare beneath his khaki shorts. Lean and lightly sprinkled with brown hair, they had excellent calf definition.
Yeah, she was a leg girl, all right.
“Oh, he’s hot,” Jill said, “but I seem to remember you saying no when I asked if anyone besides you and Johnny would be here.”
Wielding the bottle opener in her right hand, Penelope methodically popped the rest of the beer-bottle tops.
“So I lied,” Penelope said. “Would you have come if you knew I thought you should get busy with the hot vet?”
“No,” Jill replied. “I don’t want to get busy with anyone.”
“Why is that exactly?” Penelope tossed back her long light brown hair and gazed at Jill out of big dark eyes. “You don’t even date.”
The response that sprang to mind was that a life on the run with a ten-year-old left no room for romance. Jill swallowed the words for a version of the truth. “Between work and Chris, I don’t have time.”
“Nonsense,” Penelope refuted. “Your landlady treats you and Chris like her grandchildren. You said she doesn’t even consider it babysitting to stay home with Chris.”
“Then maybe I’m not in the market for a man.”
“What kind of talk is that?” Penelope’s hand flew to her throat. “The only acceptable reason not to be looking for a man is if you’re gay. And in that case, I know a woman I can set you up with.”
Jill laughed despite not even being close to getting her point across. There was something endearing about a recent bride wanting everyone else to be as happily in love as she was.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” Jill said, borrowing a line from one of her favorite sitcoms, “but I’m not gay.”
“Then give the vet a whirl, see where things lead. As far as I can tell, Dan doesn’t date either, but how can he resist you?” Penelope nodded toward the deck. “See. He’s checking you out.”
Jill’s eyes locked with Dan’s through the glass door. She recognized a familiar trapped look and broke the gaze.
“You didn’t tell him I’d be here, did you?” Jill accused.
“What difference does that make?” Penelope avoided looking at her. “You have no idea how hard it is to get that man to accept a dinner invitation.”
“He probably smelled a setup.”
“If you’re so against being set up,” Penelope said, handing two of the beers to Jill, “why did you just suck in your stomach and stick out your boobs?”
“I did no such thing!” Jill denied before her inherent honesty got the best of her. “Okay, maybe I did suck in my stomach, but I sure didn’t do anything with my boobs.”
Penelope giggled. “I knew you liked him!”
Jill couldn’t help but laugh. “I like everybody,” she said. “Even you.”
She followed her friend over the kitchen tile, pausing when Dan slid the door open, so she could check where the dog was. The “baby monster,” thankfully, was amusing itself in the yard.
The outdoors smelled like freshly mowed grass and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, yet as Jill handed Dan one of the beers she caught the scent of soap and clean warm skin.
“We come bearing great gifts,” Penelope announced, walking straight into her husband’s arms. Johnny’s grin lit up his entire face, transforming his average looks. He kissed her soundly while the smoke from the grill swirled around them.
“I was referring to the beers,” Penelope said when they broke apart, handing her husband one of the cold brews, “but save that thought for later.”
Johnny chuckled and went back to tending the food on the grill. “So Penelope tells me you two are dating,” he remarked casually as he flipped a burger.
“What?” Jill asked, a question echoed by Dan.
“We don’t even know each other.” Jill looked fully at Dan. He shuffled his feet, as though he was considering making a run for the hills. “Although I have seen you once or twice at the Blue Haven.”
“Of course. You bartend there.” It couldn’t be more obvious that he’d just put it together why she looked familiar.
“Jill also works at Indigo River Rafters as a guide.” Penelope’s smile was almost blinding. “I can’t wait for you two to get acquainted.”
“Penelope.” Johnny gestured to his wife with the stainless steel flipper. “You need to stay out of—”
Penelope was close enough to Johnny to plant another kiss on his lips before he could finish the sentence.
Jill edged closer to Dan, shielded her mouth with her hand and whispered, “I truly am sorry. Believe me, I had nothing to do with this.”
“I figured that.” His answering whisper came through clenched teeth. In ventriloquist fashion, he barely moved his lips. “It doesn’t look like Johnny did, either.”
Jill kept her hand in place. “Any ideas on how we can thwart her plans?”
A corner of his mouth quirked. This close to him she could make out the beginnings of his five-o’clock shadow and the thickness of his black eyelashes over those blue, blue eyes. The man really did have dramatic coloring. “We shouldn’t make eyes at each other at dinner.”
She laughed aloud.
“What’s funny?” Penelope asked. She and Johnny were no longer locked at the lips, although Jill wasn’t exactly sure when that had happened.
Dan hesitated. “It’s a private joke.”
Jill widened her eyes and gave him what she hoped was an imperceptible shake of her head. She could tell by his blank look he couldn’t decipher her silent message.
“Oooh,” Penelope said. “That sounds intimate.”
Dan winced. Now he understood.
They ate outside on the deck at a picnic table that overlooked a small backyard bracketed by trees and infused with the lush green that characterized the mountain town in the summer months.
The meal started favorably enough, with Johnny telling an amusing story about a do-it-yourselfer who called his construction company to the rescue after remodeling his own kitchen. The space he’d left for a refrigerator was six feet high—and eighteen inches wide.
“You want construction humor, I’ve got a true story for you.” Dan had a deep, velvety voice that would have been perfect for the radio, making him a pleasure to listen to. “A couple back in Ohio live in a one-room log cabin with a quarter horse. They even set a place for him at the table.”
“That sure doesn’t sound sanitary.” Jill made a face. “I mean, what happens when nature calls?”
“They claim the horse is housebroken. Even lets himself out when he gets the urge.”
Everybody laughed, then tried to top each other with increasingly outrageous stories. Before long, Jill let down her guard and started to enjoy herself.
“So, Dan,” Penelope said during a rare lull in conversation when they were nearly through with dinner, “I’m sure Jill would love to hear how you became a vet.”
Johnny sent his wife a pointed look. “We
“Sure you don’t want to hear more about the housebroken horse?” Dan took a handful of purple grapes from the bowl on the table and popped a few into his mouth. “He’s really quite amazing. When it gets hot, he turns on the ceiling fan.”
“You’re just as interesting,” Penelope said.
“Not by a long shot.” Dan rubbed the back of his neck. “Let’s see. I grew up in Ohio in a family of Irishmen. Make that Irish
My dad was a salesman who wasn’t around much and I’ve got three older sisters. Even our dog was female.”
“And?” Penelope prompted when he stopped talking.
“And we lived near a farm that had a couple boys my age,” he continued. “I loved it there. At first just hanging around the boys, then for the animals, and my interest grew.”
“Stanley and Dan don’t only treat house pets,” Penelope announced.
“We’re equal opportunity.” Dan smiled. It was a nice smile, warm and inviting. “Horses, cattle, sheep. We’ve got them covered.”
“Why did you leave Ohio?” Jill asked.
He hesitated. “It was a good career opportunity.”
He took another bite of his burger. He wasn’t comfortable talking about himself—that much was clear. He especially didn’t want to discuss why he’d moved to Indigo Springs. Jill could relate.
“Does your family still live in Ohio?” Penelope had either failed to pick up on his evasiveness or was having none of it, probably the latter.
“Yes,” he said after a pause. “My parents live in the same house where I grew up. My sisters and their families aren’t far away.”
“You’re the only one who isn’t married?” Penelope asked.
Dan shifted on the picnic-table bench. Jill fought not to squirm, too. Who knew what Penelope would ask next? The other woman leaned forward, as though about to pounce with a particularly juicy question.
“Dan’s true mission on earth leaves him no time for a relationship,” Jill announced.
“Excuse me?” Penelope spoke up, but three pairs of eyes regarded Jill curiously.
“Dan seems like an average guy, a simple vet going about his business.” Jill lowered her voice. “Except that’s only a cover.”
“Oh, really?” The corners of Dan’s mouth quirked.
“Really.” Jill looked over her shoulder, then let her gaze roam over the yard. She returned her attention to her audience, quieting her voice even more. “Did you ever wonder why we don’t see much of him in town?”
“I work a lot,” Dan said.
“And not just at being a vet. It all stems, of course, from those five world-changing words spoken to you in high school by that stuffy British librarian.” She paused for effect, then called upon her most dramatic delivery. “‘You are the chosen one.’”
Dan’s dark eyebrows lifted.
“This is getting good.” Johnny put both elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Chosen for what?”
“To stand alone against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness,” Jill finished, and drained the rest of her beer, setting the bottle down with a plop.
“Hey, that sounds familiar,” Penelope said slowly, then brightened. “I know where I’ve heard it before. On TV at the beginning of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
reruns. Buffy’s the one girl in all the world who can do that stuff.”
“What’s to say Buffy doesn’t have a male coworker?” Jill asked flippantly. “You’ve got to admit it explains that tall, dark and enigmatic thing Dan has going on.”
“Enigmatic?” A dimple appeared in Dan’s left cheek. “No one’s ever called me that before.”
“That’s what you get for not chatting up the bartender at the Blue Haven.” She put up a hand so he wouldn’t get the wrong idea. “Not that I’m complaining. Most people talk my ear off.”
“That’s how Jill and I became friends,” Penelope said. “A girlfriend stood me up when Johnny was out of town. I sat at the bar all night talking to Jill. She’s an excellent conversationalist. You should ask her to tell you about herself, Dan.”